Jesus Christ in Joseph Smith’s Teachings

There is an apocryphal story about John Taylor that was shared by Leonard Arrington: Shortly after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in June 1844, a prominent eastern visitor to Nauvoo[, Illinois] was being ‘shown around’ by Apostle Taylor.  He remarked to Brother Taylor that he sincerely regretted the murder of the head of the Mormon Church.  Brother Taylor got a twinkle in his eye at this reference to the ‘head of the Church’ and replied, ‘Yes, and isn’t it wonderful that on the on the third day he arose from the tomb and came back to administer to the Saints’ (Leonard Arrington Journal, 14 May 1973). It’s a fun play on expectations, but also goes to the point that Jesus Christ, rather than Joseph Smith, is at the heart of the Latter-day Saints’ religion. In a recent interview with historian Keith Erekson at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, he pointed out ways in which Joseph Smith taught about Jesus Christ and about God. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

About That Washington Post Article

The recent Washington Post article talking about the decline of the Church has been making the rounds. I don’t have a ton of time to go into everything, but I just wanted to make a few points.  I wrote an earlier post using the same CES data where I wrote that “if what we see here is even somewhat reflective of reality…this reiterates the point I’ve made previously that we’re running on the fumes of yesterday’s baby booms, and that when that demographic momentum runs out the Church in the United States could enter a period of decline by any measure.” However, that post used data that followed the same group of people over a relatively small span of time. The comprehensive version of the data used by the WaPo writer had a lot more years and a much larger sample size. The larger sample size is very necessary for smaller religious groups. Often these kinds of analyses (including my own) use the General Social Survey, which has a much smaller sample size. I tried using the same cumulative 2006-2022 CES data that the writer used out of curiosity months ago, but the files weren’t loading with the standard packages and after a few minutes I decided I didn’t have the time to figure it out. (Just in way of a lame excuse why I was scooped on that graph showing the decline in percent LDS).  After the article came…

How Many Black People and Asians Were in Pioneer Utah?

In partnership with the Church, IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) has recently made the entire 1850-1890 set of census data available in tabular (spreadsheet) form for analysis. While individual records have been available for some time, as has a 1% sample of the quantitative data, this new development allows us to download all of the census responses for the 19th century at once. As you can imagine, this is a fairly large file (I have a lot of juice in my laptop and I stopped trying to crunch all of the 19th-century US data after waiting for 20 minutes), but if you subset Utah it is much more manageable. The wonderful IPUMS folks have harmonized the different questions asked across time so that you can make comparisons across decennial censuses. Running a simple frequency cross-tab with race shows how many people of each race were identified in the respective census in Utah. Year White Black Native American Chinese Japanese Other Asian 1850 11304 20 31 0 0 0 1860 40371 45 121 0 0 0 1870 85597 196 138 406 0 0 1880 142021 208 49 537 0 0 1900 273800 452 2409 570 493 0 1910 368821 1641 2982 359 2074 10 1920 442102 1523 2561 359 2927 32 1930 500325 1074 2845 342 3286 252 1940 544328 1251 3613 214 2137 66 A few points: Unless you think there were only 31 Native Americans in 1850 It’s clear that the Native…

Translation or Revelation?

I posted about Book of Abraham translation a couple weeks ago as part of a co-post on an interview with Stephen O. Smoot. This time, we’re looking at a different interview with Michael Hubbard MacKay, who had a different perspective about Joseph Smith’s translation projects. The interview on Book of Mormon translation is over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, so what follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

Leaving the Church to Sin

A common accusation against people who leave the Church is that they’re just doing it because they want to sin, and in response the leavers often construct some highly noble narrative exclusively revolving around intellectual honesty and/or personal integrity around social issues.  I kind of roll my eyes in the latter case. Not that I don’t think that it’s sometimes or even often true, but rather because it denies the obvious role that the former can have. Given the natural springs pushing many people away from the religious lifestyle, I would be highly surprised if it wasn’t a major factor in general, even if not in every individual case.  However, I don’t begrudge this being a factor when people leave. If there is a belief, religious or otherwise, that does not have a significant effect on somebody’s life, they are probably more likely to hold a certain “don’t know, don’t care” agnosticism towards it, or at least not push very hard on the possibility that it isn’t true. Conversely, if the logical implications of such a belief is denial of some fairly strong biological impulses (and no, it’s not just sexual minorities that deal with this), and restructuring of somebody’s life, it logically makes sense to look very hard at every possible angle as a sort of due diligence for foundational religious beliefs, and the justificatory bar for that system of belief is quite a bit higher. This is why…

Long Live Ukraine, Long Live Russia

All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword Given that this is a Latter-day Saint blog, I feel an obligation to make some sort of commentary on how recent events are connected to Church-related issues, but I really have no idea. Recent events might be a step forward or back for the Church and religious freedom in general, but it’s much bigger than all of that right now. Two things can be true at once: I am glad that Russia’s coup attempt/civil war could stop the fighting in Ukraine. If the Russians are fighting each other they can’t kill Ukrainians. There is a good chance the Ukrainian war will be over soon. I am worried about what this means for the Russian people. My parents were mission presidents in Moscow. Their leaders and geopolitical misconceptions notwithstanding, the members and Russians in general are good people. I would like to think that removing Putin would lead to more liberalization but it might not; it could be a step forward or backward. Government instability is scary, even if the Russians are a tough, hardened people, and it could be for the best in the end. Now is a time to keep both Ukrainians and Russians in our prayers.

When Will We Be “Done” With Temple Work?

There must be this chain in the holy Priesthood; it must be welded together from the latest generation that lives on the earth back to Father Adam, to bring back all that can be saved and placed where they can receive salvation and a glory in some kingdom. This Priesthood has to do it; this Priesthood is for this purpose. -Brigham Young According to casual Latter-day Saint folk theology the millennium will be a time of massive temple work. Less casually, a lot of relatively authoritative general authority midrash has suggested that the hypothetical end point for temple work is the complete sealing and temple work for all humans who have ever lived. So of course I’ve been curious about how much temple work that is. The specific numbers aren’t as important here as much as the general sense of scale and scope.  According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, some estimates suggest that about 100 billion humans have ever lived. Of course, for our purposes how big this number is depends on when we crossed the developmental threshold as a species to become “as the Gods, knowing good and evil” and became subject to the demands of accountability and its attendant ordinances.  Still, for our purposes let’s assume the nice round 100 billion number. The temple department has reported that as of 1988 about 100 million endowments have been performed, which probably means that about 1-3 out of…

The Jewish Revolt and the Abomination of Desolation

One of the more pivotal events in the development of both Christianity and modern Judaism was the First Jewish Revolt, which started in 66 CE and culminated in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Jared W. Ludlow discussed this event in connection with his chapter in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). To start, Ludlow discussed what the First Jewish Revolt was: The First Jewish Revolt beginning in AD 66 was an attempt by the Jews in the Roman province of Judea to gain independence from Rome. Rome had dominated the region since 63 BC, mostly under vassal kings like Herod, but also directly with procurators and prefects. The revolt culminated in a siege on Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. Some of the rebels held out, particularly at Masada until AD 73. . . . There were various factors that caused the Jewish Revolt. There was long-simmering animosity among the populace against the local vassal kings and elites who worked closely with Rome. This animosity fed the rise of Zealots who wanted to purge the land from foreign, corrupt influence and return greater control of religious traditions to their understanding of…

Book of Abraham Translation

When Joseph Smith used the word “translate”, it meant something different than what we usually think of as translating. The Book of Abraham is a very intriguing example of the process that, while it still has a lot of unknowns, does provide some insight into the process. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Stephen O. Smoot discussed the Book of Abraham translation. What follows here is a co-post (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).

Mormonism in Mexico, Part 5: Thanks to Plotino

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints post-WWII, the statement that a socialist and anarchist was largely responsible for initiating missionary work in the country that is home to the second-largest community of Latter-day Saints is unexpected. Yet, that is exactly what happened in Mexico thanks to Plotino Constantino Rhodakanaty and his associates.

From These Stones God is Able to Raise Up Pioneer Stock Members

There are two rhetorical practices used by ex-members and reform-minded cultural Mormons that I’ve noticed being used more recently.  Latter-day Saint culture places a high premium on deference to authority. If you want to shut down a discussion with the orthodox who “pay the tithing and do the believing;” who are the primary fuel line for the Church, just communicate that the brethren are fundamentally wrongheaded. Some people do this, of course, but I get the sense they’re generally speaking among themselves. (You can tell when a movement to change the Church is more concerned with martyrdom than actually trying to change things based on their approach in this regard).  The more sophisticated and strategic will try to play within the ideological space that is more palatable to the rank and file for the Church. They will, for example, quote Church leaders as authorities when it’s highly doubtful that they personally hold the same deference to the very authority that they are hinging their argument on, or they will try to heavily prooftext the Proclamation as if it is anything besides a heavily heteronormative document that espouses traditional gender roles. As a matter of strategy I get it, but the disingenuousness of it all makes me roll my eyes, and while some of this is more transparent than others (I once saw an openly pro-pornography apologist invoking General Conference talks to make his point). I think most people can see…

An AI-generated Mormon Short Story: The Silent Prayer

In my last post I discussed the potential role of using AIs to generate ideas for Mormon fiction, concluding that the results were mixed but there were some gems in there. In this post I will take it one step further and use AI to generate an actual short story from one of the prompts that was generated in the last post. Because the size of the output is limited at this point this will be an example of “microfiction” which is rather short, but given its brevity the results aren’t bad. (There are experimental large language models that in theory should be able to produce a novel. I’m on the waiting list for one, and in the next year or so these will become more publicly available and we’ll see.) The first version of the story sounded like a 1990s Ensign article, so I had it rewrite it to “make it more subtle and less didactic. Convey the messages through actions without necessarily saying it out loud.” Besides these and a few other instructions, and choosing the prompt, this story is entirely the creation of AI.  “Write a short story based on the following prompt: The Silent Prayer: A deaf girl prays silently for a friend and is answered when a new family with a deaf daughter moves into her Mormon ward.” Title: “The Silent Prayer” In the bustling hub of Salt Lake City, nestled amidst tall skyscrapers and vibrant parks,…

Temples, Communication, and Covenants

Temple rituals form an important part of Latter-day Saints’ covenant relationship with God. A recently-released book by Jennifer C. Lane entitled Let’s Talk About Temples and Ritual delves into the importance of temple rituals. Lane has shared some of the insights she gained that are captured in that book in an interview with the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (with some related information from a second interview included as well).

“As far as we have any right to give.” A Note about Abraham Facsimile 2

The re-use of characters from JSP IX on Facsimile 2 doesn’t mean that the marginal characters in Abraham manuscripts A-C weren’t used in the translation. I think it actually makes it more likely that they were. Before I unpack what this means, you might want to read the published version of Tim Barker’s 2020 FAIR presentation or Jeff Lindsay’s summary.

Wilford Woodruff and Adoption Sealings

Wilford Woodruff was hugely important in the development of temple work as we understand it today. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Jennifer Mackley (the executive director and CEO of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation) discussed some of the influence that Presisent Woodruff had on temple work. The interview covers a lot of ground, so this co-post is going to zoom in on one specific aspect–Priesthood Adoption Sealings.

Cowboy songs about Mormons?

Many people have said there’s a gigantic hole in Western US studies/histories. Outside of the realm of “Mormon Studies” very few scholars or historians want to touch Latter-day Saints (except for polemical reasons – Jon Krakauer and Sally Denton have tackled “Mormons”, but for polemical and intellectually suspect reasons). I’ve noticed this as well.  In a book I reviewed for the AML many years ago Class and Race in the Frontier Army, the only real mention of Utah was the Salt Lake Tribune objecting to a Black army officer on fairly racist grounds.  “Mormons” as such are barely acknowledged. Similarly, there are few Cowboy or Western songs about Mormons; “The Mormon Cowboy” is one happy exception.  However, I have recently discovered an artist that does fill this gap: Stan Bronson (a chance find – I bought a copy of his CD “Songs of Old San Juan” at Deseret Industries). 

What Would a Mormon Tarantino Be Like? AI and Mormon Fiction and Cinema

Library in the Eternities Note: I fully support President Nelson’s shift towards using the formal, Christ-centered name of the Church when discussing members of the Church and the institution. However, for specific references to artistic, culture-specific things I think “Mormon” is appropriate and is keeping in the spirit of the new direction. I hope nobody faults me for not using the name of the Savior when talking about horror cinema or seedy urban legends.    Sorry for another AI post, but I feel like aliens landed in the Rose Garden and only half the country is talking about it, so readers will have to bear with my preoccupation for a bit longer. One of the use cases of AI I’ve seen bantered about is as an idea generator, and I wanted to see how well it did in regards to Mormon fiction and cinema. Of course, ideas are cheap, and any author or moviemaker worth their salt has hundreds of ideas in their head, it’s getting the ideas to sing that is the hard part. Still, I wanted to see if GPT-4 just spat out cliched plot lines or was really capable of creativity. It looks like it’s mostly the former. Specifically, it looks like a pastiche of common tropes mashed together with Mormon themes. Still, the bar for novelty these days is quite low, and there are some gems that are intriguing, so in theory this could be useful for idea…

An MTC Experience

This excerpt comes from Under the Long White Cloud: A Missionary Memoir of New Zealand by Miles Farnsworth. It tells the story of a two-year Latter-day Saint mission, starting with President Thomas S. Monson’s historic policy announcement lowering the age of service for young men and women. The book is more a travelogue and coming-of-age story than doctrinal exegesis and explores the highs, lows, and emotional labor of serving a mission, as well as the culture of New Zealand. Note: Guest posts can be submitted by e-mailing us at [email protected].