Letter to a Man in the Fire* is a brief meditation on the question of God’s existence and God’s goodness in the face of inexplicable suffering in the world. (Really brief. I read it in about two hours.) Reynolds Price’s letter, written in response to a young man dying of cancer, is suffused with an unusual mix of uncertainty and devotion. Price spends a lot of time agonizing over whether it’s appropriate to even write a letter recommending the existence and—in some sense—the goodness of a Creator to someone whose present suffering directly calls those views into question. Price’s reluctance is appropriate especially because so many people who write answers to theodicy questions forge ahead with affirmations of God’s goodness without dwelling long with the sufferer in their very real pain. He wants neither to “diminish for an instant my sense of the grinding wheel you’re presently under” by offering weak platitudes, nor “burden you further with darker thoughts than you’re otherwise bearing”—a frighteningly acute description of the strange negotiations comforters must make as they go along trying to “mourn with those that mourn” as well as “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (80; Mosiah 18:9). [Read more...]
[Another part of my ongoing "Tips for Teachers" series. See the associated links here.]
My friend’s ward has an interesting Elder’s Quorum lesson schedule and I’m not sure how wide-spread it is in other wards. It goes like this:
1st Sunday: EQ Presidency Message
2 & 3rd: PH/RS manual
4th: “Teachings for our Times” (usually a conference address)
5th: Bishopric message
My wife, Kristine K. (disambiguation: not the same as Kristine) gave this sermon today in the Slate Canyon 13th Ward in Provo.
“[When] in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth . . . the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep . . . the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light” (Gen 1:1-3).  In this opening scene of creation, I picture “the Spirit of the Gods . . . brooding upon the face of the waters” (Abr. 4:2), in a way, as a feeling out or trying to get a sense of what is out there. Then realizing that they need a clearer view of the materials they have to work with, the Gods utter, “Let there be light.” What is revealed in that primordial light is primordial chaos—a watery wasteland. I’m sure the Gods realized—maybe in that moment, maybe before—that their work would be difficult, that it would be a long and arduous process. In his book Reflections of a Scientist, Henry Eyring informs us that it takes an average of 250 years to deposit one foot of sediment, or roughly 112 million years to deposit all known sediments.  In fact, the Book of Abraham says that after the Gods “prepar[ed] the earth to bring forth grass” (4:11) or “prepared[ed] the waters to bring forth . . . the moving creatures (4:20),” they “watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed” (4:18).  [Read more...]
My wife, Kristine K. (disambiguation: not the same as Kristine), and I both delivered sermons today in the Slate Canyon 13th Ward in Provo. I spoke first, on the War in Heaven, and then she spoke on the Creation. I’m posting my sermon now, with Kristine’s to follow shortly, as I believe that it will also resonate with readers of BCC.
For the vital part that the war in heaven plays in LDS theology, much about it remains unclear. The phrase itself derives from Revelation chapter 12, which depicts “a great red dragon” whose “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth” (vv. 3-4, NRSV). Then, we read, “war broke out in heaven.” This seems to have been instigated by Michael and his angels, as the text mentions their aggression first, going on to say that “the dragon and his angels fought back, but were defeated” (vv. 7-8, NRSV). The effect of this defeat is that Satan “was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (v. 9, NRSV).
Many people find problematic the extent to which the Book of Mormon quotes the King James Version of the Bible, because this practice can make the Book of Mormon look more like a cobbled-together 19th-century text than a translation of an ancient artifact (bearing in mind Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic usage of “translation”). Without claiming to offer a solution to this conundrum, I’d like to put forward an 1820s analogue, in which the translator of a recently recovered text relied uncritically on the King James Version, in the process masking some interesting details of the scriptural text presented.
“I have tried continually to get this people to pursue a course that will make them self-sustaining, taking care of their poor—the lame, the halt and the blind, lifting the ignorant from where they have no opportunity of observing the ways of the world, and of understanding the common knowledge possessed among the children of men, bringing them together from the four quarters of the world, and making of them an intelligent, thrifty and self-sustaining people.” (Brigham Young 6 Apr 1868 JD 12:195)
At the close of overland emigration, Brigham Young reminded the survivors comfortably gathered in the new Tabernacle it was time to graduate from a scrappy interdependence to a covenant community. In self-reliance they had packed individual wagons; in self-preservation companies banded and braced against the journey; the prologue was over. To circumscribe the breadth of a Zion worthy of exaltation, the saintly challenge is what Young called becoming “self-sustaining”, or creating a lasting and corporate abundance in the soul, heart and hand. [Read more...]
No, not a Mother’s Day post. Just some thinking out loud here. Ignore without peril.
Preaching in America during the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more especially the antebellum period, makes a fascinating study (says I). Gauging the impact of those sermons among listeners and downstream is especially interesting. However, doing that can be challenging and requires considerable detective work especially in considering immediate impact. Ideally, there would be surveys to consult, reported interviews with listeners and so on. But those instruments were not really known in the sense that we use them today. There are a few items that can give us a peek at what people thought about their preachers. However, with one or two exceptions, these are not massive contemporary collections of data. Instead, we have personal accounts in diaries, memoirs, and the like. Pursuing such things for the occasional brief comment on one or another preacher can consume years and those discoveries rarely cluster around one particular minister. Given all the surviving texts of early American sermons it is rather startling how little we know about how they were received.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP). Yes, it is a wonderful thing. It will change the way the Church references and divides Early Mormon History. Indeed, it will change the very way we understand and deal with our most fundamental stories and texts. Eventually, the JSPP will impress its work onto the very face of Mormonism, and that is as it should be. We are a history-driven religion — in the sense that our stories define much of what we believe and where we place our faith. JSPP is not about synthesis so much as it is about revelation (there is a pun here — a spectacular one). Revelation in terms of what our earliest records actually say and to some degree the context in which they say it.
What a wild year it’s been. Never has Mormonism been so culturally relevant, and never has the undulating curve of popular opinion shifted so wildly, so quickly. As the year draws to a close, I think we’re safe in naming 2011 “The Year of the Mormon.” The BCC permas have picked out a few reasons why:
The history of ostracism can be traced to Athenian democracy. The word ostracism comes from the Greek ostraka (from ὄστρακον), or potsherds. Pieces of broken pottery served as scraps (like paper) on which to vote. Every year Athenians had the chance to cast someone out of society for up to ten years. But instead of finding fault with someone and thus casting the penalty on them, citizens were first asked; Do you wish to find someone guilty? [Read more...]
If you haven’t seen any of the Joseph Smith Papers Project volumes, then I want to draw your attention to the excellent materials available in the volumes in addition to the actual source documents themselves. I’ll take one example from Revelations and Translations vol. 2, which contains instances of the Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants in facsimile (I mean scans of a sort). The volume editors (Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Riley Lorimer) offer the following thoughts on page xxv:
Tomorrow is stake conference, and then a week from tomorrow I’ll be teaching GD lesson 21, which is JS-M. I haven’t actually prepared the lesson yet, but in pulling some stuff together I noticed something that was new to me and which I thought was interesting. [Read more...]
In the early 1840s Joseph Smith proposed to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. Elizabeth recorded “Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in hell should never get me from him.” Joseph further told her, “I was created for him
before the foundation of the Earth was laid.” (Todd Compton. In Sacred Loneliness pg 212 italics added) This may have been the
early beginnings of a pre-existence forming in Joseph Smith cosmology. His words were similar to some of his other wives. For instance in 1841 Joseph made it known to Zina Diantha Jacobs (Huntington Young) that the Lord, “had made it known to him that Zina was to be his wife.” (Ibid. pg 80 italics added)
Perhaps these and other 19th century marriages helped plant the idea in the Mormon psyche that people met and fell
in love in heaven, promising to marry once on earth, foreordained if you will.
Joseph Smith’s 19th century Utah editors held him in high regard, not necessarily for his personal perfection, but for his standing as opener of ancient mysteries, restorer of forgotten salvific lore and authoritative purveyor of power to defeat death, hell and the Devil.
In college post-mish as I was studying biblical languages I gained an interest in the subject of textual criticism. I never had a class in it, but I remember spending a lot of time in the library reading about it, which I’ve followed up with additional readings since, such as Metzger, Aland, Ehrman, Wurthwein and Tov. Even then, as a young student, the thought occurred to me that someone needed to do this kind of work for our modern LDS scriptures. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to have thoughts along these lines, as in recent years a great deal of text critical work has been done for our LDS scriptures. The gold standard is what Royal Skousen has done over the last two decades with the BoM. The JST now exists in a very large critical edition. The D&C isn’t there yet, but with the ongoing work of the JSPP it will get there. [Read more...]
Brigham Young offered this instruction in the spring of 1844:
If a man preaches anything in error, pray to God that no man may remember it any more. No Elder will correct another in public before unbelievers unless he has the sinking principle. I call all the Elders together to witness that I always use charity, for it covers a multitude of sins. Let us obey the proclamation of Joseph Smith concerning the Elders going forth into the vineyard- to build up the Temple- get their endowments
The “sinking principle” was explained by Brigham as follows:
the speech and conduct of Elders, one towards another — one Elder will speak evil of another and when you undertake to trample on another you will sink yourself. [such] a man has [the] sinking principle 
Justify your claims with YouTube clips, quotes, and scandalous photographs! [Read more...]
William the Unloved was the last surviving brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, hanging on nearly five decades more than the rest. I always feel a little sorry for William, since nobody liked him and nobody remembers him at all fondly.
We went to visit William’s grave a couple months ago and he will mark the first entry in a feature I’m calling “Cemetourism.” I inherited the cemetery gene from my mother and her mother. My uncles say of my grandmother (with a groan!) that she can never pass by a cemetery without wanting to stop and hunt for ancestors. I share those inklings. As we travel around the country, we like to stop and look for graves, either of ancestors, Mormon history figures, or U.S. presidents and vice presidents, along with their defeated rival candidates for both offices. (Yes, I’ve been to the graves of Alben Barkley, Hannibal Hamlin, and Wendell Willkie!) [Read more...]
For part 1, see here.
The late summer and early fall of 1843 was not a healthy time in Nauvoo. Philadelphia had yellow fever in the summer (and it emptied the town) and Nauvoo had malaria. If you could survive a year, the general weakness would usually subside and you had a good chance of staying alive. But the elderly and the very young had a more guarded prognosis. Often, malaria teamed up with pneumonia or cholera or some other bug to take out even the robust. In James Adams’ case, cholera got the blame for his August 11 demise:
This may be boring, but it has mass.
Joseph Smith was an intensely loyal family man and that attachment was mirrored in Church structure. Family members played important roles in the LDS hierarchy. His father was a member of the Church presidency for a period and also served as the first “patriarch.” His brothers held prominent Church offices. He continued to mourn the loss of older brother Alvin, 20 years later. His wife led the women of the Church in the formal women’s organization, the Nauvoo Female Relief Society.
Heathen. A rich and meaningful title I occasionally received between the ages of 12 and 19. Early on, heathens were those who were outside the pale of Christianity or Judaism. Probably invented by the Goths, the term was then even more exclusive, referring to rural bumpkins (dwellers on the heath) as opposed to the townsfolk where Christianity was much more common.