On relics

Matt Bowman continues as a guest blogger at BCC.

Two stories:

First -
I moved to the DC area about two years ago. Early on, I attended services with an uncle and aunt in their Northern Virginia ward. When I walked down the hallway, I did a double take. There’s a piece of wood from the Joseph Smith Palmyra cabin hanging from the wall. It’s framed. I noticed a group of Primary kids filing down the wall. As they passed, each reached up and touched it.

Second -
Last week I wandered across the LDS about.com page and took the quiz to determine how well I knew the Book of Mormon. Fascinatingly, the last question has naught to do with the Book of Mormon itself, but rather, references Brigham Young’s repetiton of Oliver Cowdery’s vision of the sword of Laban. Or rather, the Sword of Laban. Or, as the Journal of Discourses presents it, the SWORD OF LABAN. It has earned the capitals, I suppose, because it’s been invested with theological and eschatological significance — according to Oliver, the Sword will not be moved until the Second Coming. (This contains the seeds of a good Mormon Indiana Jones movie, I think.)

It’s become commonplace to stress the Puritanism residue in Mormonism’s liturgy — our stripped down chapels, our Protestant emphasis on preaching over ritual. But I wonder if this underestimates the tangible nature of Mormonism’s sacred imagination, something certainly present in our theology, but also in our culture and history. These territories are replete with seerstones, the Urim and Thummim, sunstones, temple garments, and a host of sacred sites (some of which we steal presumably significant rocks from). Scripture for us is not only the Word of God, but also a set of tangible golden plates taken up to heaven. I’m not sure Mormonism has completely shaken the talismanic sense that it had its youth — and nor should it. The golden plates, the sacred space of temples, that piece of wood from Palmyra, anchor us in the esoteric Mormon version of Christianity, and this is a large reason why we’re not Protestant.

Of course, most of us no longer have a seerstone visionary (hat tip, John Mansfield) in our wards, and even though things like garments and consecrated oil are still deeply rooted in our daily lives, it feels to me as though the Mormonism which produced Gilgal Gardens has moved on. Our sense of our own peculiarity is diminishing, I think. But it seems to me that we still want to reach up and touch that piece of wall. We buy golden plate tie tacks to remind us of Joseph and Moroni; we hang pictures of temples in our homes, we (some of us) hold our copies of Rough Stone Rolling up with sunstone bookends. I remember getting my own set of golden plates made out of yellow construction paper in Primary. This, I suppose, is my defense of Mormon kitsch — the market merely reflects our cultural heritage, our desire to see our unique faith reflected and affirmed in tangible reminders of sacred relics.

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This was Matt’s last guest post at BCC. Thanks, Matt!!

Comments

  1. When I was growing up, I used to be an iconoclast extraordinaire. I couldn’t stand any sort of Mormon relics and kitsch was an affront to everything I held dear.

    I have obviously mellowed. In fact, I find that I have my own peculiar relic hunting streak. My relics: books. The journals, handbooks, or pamphlets that come from our people are very special to me. It ties me to them.

    While the kitsch still drives my mad, perhaps in a hundred years, our kitsch will be the relics of our grandchildren.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the piece of wood from the JS Palmyra cabin story. That relic probably has as much chance of being authentic as the medieval relics of pieces from the cross used to crucify Jesus.

    Anyway, I think you are right that we Mormons have a more profound material culture than we often realize until we stop to think about it.

  3. Which chapel in NoVa is the piece of wood from the cabin at?

  4. TrailerTrash says:

    I think that this trend is increasing in Mormonism. The building of temples in Palmyra, Winter Quarters, and Nauvoo are examples of the increased emphasis on sacred sites has also officially endorsed pilgrimage to these spots as a holy activity.

    Of course, there has been a long tradition in Mormonism of collecting artifacts which belonged to early church leaders, at least in Mormon artistocracy circles. There is even a degree of piety and sacrality attributed to this practice and these objects.

    The question is whether this trend is new, or simply the popularization and democritization of a spiritual practice with a long history in the church.

  5. I hate to be a party pooper, but I used to live in the Palmyra stake, and as I recall they reconstructed the Smith cabin as best they could atop what they determined had been the original foundation only through extensive archeological work. So, what exactly is this piece of wood on the wall in the Virginia church? Something ripped from the side of the decade-old replica of the Smith cabin? A piece of log gathered from the general vicinity of the cabin? Something from the frame home down the road? A twig from the grove? I know that’s sort of not the point of the post, but still…

    Also, does anyone recall that fictional short story in Dialogue a few years ago in which a person enters a “mormon reliquary” in Downtown SLC?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Jeremy, that piece rings a bell with me, although I don’t recall the details.

  7. It appeared in the Spring 2000 issue.

  8. Oh, I’m pretty sure the wood isn’t genuine – I imagine that the collection process was something similar to the stones in the “altar” at Adam-ondi-Ahman. What struck me was the fact that somebody at some point decided it was appropriate to frame and hang on a chapel wall. It seemed very Catholic to me, and hence was another reminder at how non-Protestant Mormonism really is.

    If anybody wants to go on a pilgrimage, the chapel is in Arlington on Inglewood Street..

  9. a random John says:

    I remember my institute teacher talking about little old ladies that wanted a blessing from the prophet so they’d sent in a handkerchief to Joseph F. Smith and he say a prayer over and then they’d cherish it forever. I thought the whole idea was very Catholic and not Mormon at all. I guess the little old ladies aren’t the only ones thinking that way…

  10. Matt Thurston says:

    That “seerstone visionary” link is a doozy! Talk about your magic world view. Thanks for pointing it out.

  11. Our stake hosted GBH about 10 years ago and I was helping prepare a luncheon served to the Prophet and his entourage. One of the women snatched away his water glass as soon as he got up from the table to ‘keep forever, unwashed in my china cabinet. I can tell my grandchildren, the Prophet drank from this glass!” I found it way over the top. But I do remember the basket we used to serve bread, and I have mentioned to my kids that we served the Prophet bread from it.

  12. I wrote a paper years ago called “A Book, a Compass, A Sword — and Sight: Reflections on the Nephite Relics” (i.e, the brass plates and plates of Nephi that became the Book of Mormon, the Liahona, the sword of Laban, and the Urim and Thummim given to the Brother of Jared). All of these were handed down from prophet to prophet and preserve until they were given to the Prophet Joseph Smith. The point of my paper was that they were literal objects that also had deep symbolic meaning. So there is a Nephite heritage extending to our day of prophets preserving sacred objects and of their universal symbolic meaning in our lives.

  13. Typo in the website accompanying my post — my blog is at oddbits3.blogspot.com.

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