Easter is not the answer

Wading thigh-deep through the world’s sadness one archetypal spring, I wanted Easter to come. I was winding once again through the cycles of winter and summer and the spaces in between. In retrospect, that season portended this terrible pandemic in its sadness and in its timing. I remember craving the glory of the empty tomb, the wet eyes eternally dried, the Jesus of Nazareth now undeniably the Christ. I needed Easter to be the answer to my woes.

But Easter is not the answer. It’s something else entirely. [Read more…]

One Latter-day Saint View of the Novel Coronavirus of 2019–2020

Sam Brown is an ICU physician, and teaches pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

[Note: I do not speak for my employer or anyone else. If you are worried about the novel coronavirus, check the WHO and CDC or local State Health Department websites. As per their instructions, If you think you’re infected, self-quarantine and reach out by phone or video chat with your healthcare system to learn where and when testing might be available. If you are seriously ill, then cover your mouth and head to an Emergency Department or Urgent Care Clinic for evaluation and possible hospitalization.]

We appear to be in the early phases of a true pandemic, in which an infection circulates in many countries at a level where you can just catch it at the shopping mall or a rock concert or maybe just touching a doorknob at work and then touching your face. Whether we’re there yet or not depends in part on your baseline level of anxiety and/or pessimism; whether we will truly be there soon depends in large part on how aggressively we act now. There are many credible sources (again, WHO and CDC are most important) for the relevant medical information, which I won’t rehearse here. Instead, I want to think as a US Latter-day Saint about the human problems that loom large in this outbreak.
[Read more…]

Review of Swindler Sachem

Pulsipher jkt 214932 mech 2.indd

Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Swindler Sachem: The American Indian Who Sold His Birthright, Dropped Out of Harvard, and Conned the King of England (Yale University Press, 2018).

Dr. Pulsipher is one of the most serious and interesting of the historians of the early American colonial period and of Native histories. In this accomplished study, she tells the story of a notorious but little understood seventeenth-century Nipmuc man named John Wompas (sometimes called “White” in the sources, with all the complexity and confusion about ethnic and tribal identities that such surnames imply). Historians have known Wompas (often as Wampus) for many years based on his presence in Boston and his brief tenure at Harvard College. Until Pulsipher’s detective work in the archives and this resulting biography, though, little was known about the details of his life and of his wife. [Read more…]

Crowdsourcing a teachers’ retreat for an Elders Quorum

I’ve recently been tasked with coordinating and overseeing teaching for our local elders quorum. We have a great group of smart and committed teachers, and I would like to support them in their teaching. I would also like to be open to insights into pedagogy and adult learning as well as some pastoral insights that might be relevant to creating an elders quorum environment that strengthens community, stirs faith, and stretches us all a little in mind and heart.
[Read more…]

Love, Hope, Misery, Confusion: The Easter Miracle

I am aware that Easter has passed some time ago now, but this year I have felt its draw still these weeks later. I want to hold this Easter a little longer in my memory, to reflect on its meaning even after it has come and gone.

Easter means many things to many people.

[Read more…]

Religion, science, and the problem of petitionary prayer

I’m writing a review essay on religion in medicine and make a nod toward a distinctive literature that exemplifies key aspects of the interrelationships of religion and science. The issues are ably represented in a “systematic” review by the Cochrane Collaboration inspecting the utility of “intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health.” After merging several pre-existing studies with the techniques of systematic review (also called “meta-analysis”), the authors conclude that “We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.” While I think this systematic review is irredeemably obtuse, I agree with their conclusion. Of course the fun, and the distinction, is in arriving at the conclusion. [Read more…]

A Smattering of Brieviews, part 3: Fluhman

Spencer Fluhman has just published his big monograph, a careful and illuminating reworking of his excellent PhD dissertation. His brief and powerful book argues, I think successfully, that American Protestants used Mormons to try to decide what religion might mean in the aftermath of disestablishment. Whatever else it meant, Protestants decided, religion did not mean Mormonism, no matter how biblical and/or Christian Mormonism might seem. I think Spencer does an excellent job of showing how simplistic and misleading prior arguments about whether persecution of Mormons was religious or non-religious ultimately are. [Read more…]

A Smattering of Brieviews, part 2: Turner

John G. Turner has just published (the Belknap imprint of HUP, no less!) a biography of my third-great-grandfather (by Zina DHJSY, the spirited exemplum of the complexities of plurality), Brigham Young. This fascinating, readable book, which I have watched grow from early drafts into an excellent monograph, has already sparked some discussion and controversy among practicing LDS. (It has already been extremely well received among readers outside the LDS community.)
The book is a balanced, contextualized portrait of a controversial, strong-willed, rough-hewn, intermittently quite bellicose figure. I will defer the BCC review of the book to the excellent Brad Kramer and want here to only wonder whether we as LDS have finally reached our “naughty popes” phase. [Read more…]

A Smattering of Brieviews, part 1: Smith Dayley

In the midst of a busy spell, I have had the great pleasure of realizing that three friends have had books released within a month of each other. In three successive posts, I want to briefly review (=brieview) these books. These should not be seen as replacing formal reviews of these books, which I hope will run at BCC. Think of these as prelude music.

An old friend, representing many old friends, has just published a fascinating book. For All the Saints synthesizes a large volume of oral history interviews commissioned by Clayton Christensen, a towering figure in contemporary Mormonism. Christensen and others saw in the lives and faith of the LDS of New England, radiating outward from a center in the Boston area, important insights for Saints throughout the Church. I think practicing LDS who have lived in the Boston area will find great pleasure in this book, which moves well beyond the tired “mission field” depiction of life outside the Mormon Culture Region. Many of the people whose stories are told will be familiar; many will be new. I hope that there are many more treatments of life among “the ungathered” (Christopher Jones’s term, as I recall), both devotional, as in this case, and academic. Kudos to Cedar Fort for publishing this book in attractive hardcover.

Midterm Providence: the Story of Leroy

During my first year of college, I spent my Sunday evenings volunteering in a homeless shelter around the block from our LDS meetinghouse. Once, the night before a midterm in organic chemistry, Leroy[1] arrived at the shelter drunk. He was drunk, he explained, because he had been assaulted and couldn’t bear the emotional stress of his vulnerability. Drinking had become a long-term, if utterly counterproductive, solution to stresses like the assault, a fact he admitted with some embarrassment. Leroy was anorexic-thin with wild white hair, like Einstein after a protracted hunger fast. His sinews bulged in the skin around every joint. There was a certain laxity in his bones it seemed; when he stood up, his profile looked like a crescent moon. Drunk, he didn’t make much sense, but I had known Leroy for several months, and in general he was a quiet, sweet man. Hesitant and deferential, he was always gentle. Leroy was from Michigan, as I recall, but had lived in Boston for several years. I assume the brutal Midwestern winters had prepared him for the unforgiving Northeastern winters, though life was quite hard even with that preparation. [Read more…]

The Bench and the Bedside

During thoughtful commentary at the Calgary MHA meeting, historian and JSP editorial guru Robin Jensen argued forcefully that as Mormon historians spend more and more of their time in interpretive, synthetic pursuits, they ought not forget the careful, even fastidious work of those who practice traditional Mormon history. He confessed, with the kind of nerdly glee that only such historians can muster, that he has spent many hours debating the finer points of punctuation marks in holograph manuscripts. He is absolutely correct. As I wondered how best to engage this concern (I am by nature a synthetic historian), an image from my main, biomedical, area of research came readily to hand. [Read more…]

Guest post: Daniel Theobald with Good News and Bad News

A talk given by Daniel Theobald at a mission farewell. Daniel is a roboticist and entrepreneur in the Northeast.

Jason, I have some bad news and I have some good news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

From Moses 1:

And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.

[Read more…]

Martha Hughes Cannon documentary

Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932) is a really cool Mormon. KUED made a documentary about her.
It is showing in various venues:
July 11, 7:00pm: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art,
July 22, 8:00pm: the (increasingly imperiled) privacy of your own home. Tune your “tele-vision” apparatus to KUED to receive the broadcast.
Flier below the fold [Read more…]

Talking past (part 3)

Part 3/3 (part 1; part 2)

In the last decade or so practitioners of Mormon history have spent increasing time and energy thinking through historiographical transitions and broader historical contexts. Mormon history is now more than ever bringing itself into conversation with broader trends in theory, history and theology. Our generation of scholars and students is witness to masterful treatments of issues that concern many peoples while allowing historical Mormons to join broader conversations—David Holland’s excellent Sacred Borders is emblematic of this evolving approach to Mormon history.
[Read more…]

Talking about (part 2)

Part 2/3 (part 1)

The special case of the relationship between an investigator and an object of investigation is closely related to the problems of audience. To talk about a group or its history in an academic way generally requires a certain separation from that group. The act of establishing such an external perspective, so important to improving academic clarity, can be rather uncomfortable or confusing for insiders. These types of relationships and the tensions associated with them led to a sort of identity crisis for anthropology in the early twentieth century, and they have motivated substantial worry and theorizing among humanists in many disciplines.
[Read more…]

Talking to, Talking about, Talking past

In my book on early Mormonism (as viewed through its relationship to death, dying, and the dead), I spent a portion of chapter seven thinking through the various meanings of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo temple liturgy. In that chapter, I tried to evoke, in broad brush strokes, some of the ways that Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his inner circle may have seen, used, adapted—“translated”—elements of the American Freemasonry of their day.

In the last few months, that section of the book has seen criticism from some practicing Masons. Severe constraints on my time have forced me to postpone a response to that criticism to my normal rotation of Fast Sunday devotional posts for BCC. I wanted to be sure that I could strike the right tone and exemplify the kind of dialogue about important issues that I think is conducive to clarity and understanding. Such an effort takes time. My reflections on this topic are perhaps best expressed in terms of three prepositions modifying “talking”: “to,” “about,” and “past.” I have scheduled these three sections to post on successive days as a series. [Read more…]

What Doctors Cannot Tell You, Q&A with Kevin Jones

Q&A with Kevin B. Jones, author of
What Doctors Cannot Tell You: Clarity, Confidence and Uncertainty in Medicine (Book website)

[I have known Kevin since college and have always admired his kindness, wisdom, poetry, and intelligence. He has written a thoughtful book about uncertainty and confidence in medicine, and I’m honored to have him participate in a Q&A for BCC.]

Q: Why did you write What Doctors Cannot Tell You?
[Read more…]

The hepatization of the body of Christ

Recently, I discussed the image of the body of Christ as a compelling metaphor for the church community and its integrated diversity. In this followup post, I want to consider the risks of the body becoming only one organ, one “member” in the phrase of Saint Paul. Paul at the time was advising the Christian church at Corinth, Greece to learn how to deal with diversity within their ranks, to be whole in Christ despite a variable distribution of certain types of spiritual gifts. He may also have had in mind some of the controversies that seemed to roil early Christianity with reasonable frequency.
[Read more…]

Mark yer Calendars: Women and the LDS Church Aug 24-25

Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman have organized what looks to be a fantastic conference on women and the LDS Church for this August. The keynote will be the inimitable Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

The Tanner Humanities Center website has the details.

Conference is open to the public, no pre-registration required. You might want to get there early, as I suspect it will be packed.

Fireside this Sunday, Berkeley, CA

This Sunday at 7pm, I’ll be doing a fireside at the LDS Church on 1501 Walnut Street in Berkeley, CA.
I’ll be speaking on “Seals and Communal Salvation in Early Mormonism,” a variant of the talk I gave at Columbia last month. Open to the public. This one will be devotional in intent with some academic infrastructure.

Re-reading Nibley

I remember distinctly my first encounter with Hugh Winder Nibley. I was a missionary in the Provo Missionary Training Center experiencing a faith crisis. I had been converted from agnosticism just about a year before entering the MTC, and over a hectic first year of college I had matured in my commitment to God and Theism generally, but I had not entirely worked out what it meant that my conversion to God had occurred within the context of the LDS Church. Still, I felt that God wanted me to serve a mission for the Church, even if I could not immediately reconcile all of Mormonism’s complexity with my basic faith experience. I had some minor intellectual doubts about the details of Mormon history and scripture, I suppose, but what brought the crisis to a boiling point was the culture of the MTC. Regimentation, dogmatism, boys in their late teens, the disappointment I had in not being called to Russia, all played together to leave me on the verge of abandoning my mission. My branch president recognized that the patron saint of bookish Mormon teens might still save me, and he provided me a copy of Since Cumorah. [Read more…]

Boston-area Fireside this Saturday

For those in the Boston area needing a spiritual boost before the traditional Saturday evening water inspection this weekend, I will be delivering a devotional fireside at the Cambridge Stake building at 6pm, called “The Faith of a Reader.”[1]

View the flier
[Read more…]

What the Cool Kids Are All Doing

Historian/Writer, Church History Department

Job Description
The Church History Department seeks a full-time historian/writer with the appropriate academic training, research and writing skills to contribute to major writing projects on the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [smb: female applicants encouraged]
[Read more…]

An Event in the Family

This isn’t even a review, just praise in a few lines for some beautiful images as they entangle themselves in language.

I swung by Benchmark Books on my way home from work yesterday and grabbed a couple of books, including Adam Miller’s brief collection of whimsical (hence deeply serious) theology, Rube Goldberg Machines (Kofford Books, just now).

People who know me well know that my view of French philosophy goes something like

French philosophy = hashish + echo chamber – good sense

The young professor Miller (and other wonderful people whom I admire who think highly of Continental philosophy and make beautiful things from it) may one day persuade me to reconsider this visceral antipathy of mine. [Read more…]

Upcoming Events on the East Coast

For those interested, I will be giving several lectures the first week of April on the East Coast. All are welcome to attend.

April 1: Greg Prince’s study group in Potomac, Maryland at 7pm. Talk will be on early Mormon Masonry.[1]

April 2: Columbia University, Earl Hall, 7.30pm. Talk will be on “sealing” and communal salvation in early Mormonism.

April 4: Belmont, Mass, 7.30pm. Talk will be on the Chain of Being. This is a smaller venue so RSVP required if attendance desired.

April 5: Southern Virginia University, 7pm. Talk will be working through and contextualizing baptism for the dead.[2]

Back in Utah, I’ll be doing a totally non-Mormon talk on “The Lost Deathbed” at Intermountain Medical Center on April 10 at 11am.

Feel free to put any questions or RSVPs in the comments to the post. If you need anonymity, ok to email smb AT samuelbrown DOT net.


[1] I will try to be more politic than I have apparently previously been in my framing of Masonic traditions for any Masons that might attend. Attendees at the study group are encouraged to bring refreshments.

[2] Tentative topic which may change.

Why I don’t Believe in Big Tent Mormonism

In recent years ongoing negotiations over the constraints on membership and participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have often invoked the language of political parties in favor of inclusiveness. These authors use the term “big tent Mormonism” to describe an LDS Church that could tolerate a wider range of opinions and philosophies than it has in the latter twentieth century. This terminology draws not on the metaphor of the Hebrew tabernacle that stands behind the nomenclature of “stakes” of Zion, but on twentieth-century political partisanship. A “big tent” philosophy suggests that a party will be more powerful if it manages to unite disparate factions for the greater purpose of social dominance and success vis-a-vis opponents. I am sympathetic to, and generally agree with, calls for more inclusive Mormonism, but I think the metaphor of the big tent is fundamentally wrongheaded. We must be able to accommodate a wide array of different people with different needs and outlooks and concerns, but we ought not to use the techniques of political parties to achieve that end. [Read more…]

Woman Up!

I supervise trainees as part of my life as a medical professor. Some are quite timid. While I am always eager to be present to provide close supervision, it is important to me as a teacher that they have the courage to take a stand in public on what they think matters and what ought to happen. Until they risk embarrassment they will never learn how to watch people closely enough to make diagnoses. I do try to use levity to make this transition into something like adulthood a bit easier for them, and for a while I would tell them to “Man Up” and take a public stand on what they think the diagnosis is or the treatment should be. One morning, all the trainees were being timid again, and I was about to encourage them to Man Up when I realized that they were all women, and I remembered the famous truism that “the opposite of man is boy, not woman.” [Read more…]

Fear, Freedom, Atonement

In this sacrament talk from the late 1990s (when I was a medical student in Boston), I argued that Atonement is a perfect proximity, something like a mid-point between the traditional poles of the inscrutable (and to some, capricious) grace of Calvinism (though in its current version within evangelical Protestantism it comes off surprisingly Arminian at times) and the divine rubber stamp on Pelagian perfectionism (the disputed but still arguably “traditional” Mormon view).

I have since read and struggled with Gene England’s “Weeping God of Mormonism,” something like a celebration of a finite God and human perfectionism. I was a little surprised to see how Protestant I sounded in this original talk, despite the less-than-Calvinist views I have expressed in various settings. I have never thought of myself as neo-orthodox, either, though an emphasis on something more like grace would place me at least near that camp. In any case, I believe that there is still much to learn about Atonement. How important are weakly theological approaches to Atonement? What do people think about this notion of proximity? [Read more…]

SLC Book Events for In Heaven as It Is on Earth

When I first began blogging back in 2006, I was mostly done with a manuscript of a mediocre book on theologies of death and afterlife in early Mormonism that was then called Forever Family: Early Mormon Theologies of the Kindred Dead. Shortly thereafter, a dear friend who is an excellent colonial historian (buy his seminal work on French Indian slavery when it’s published in a few months) told me that my book had some good ideas but was of generally low quality. His kind and wise advice caused a crisis of confidence, a reading spree in the secondary academic literature, several total rewrites of that book, and a change in the title, which became an intentional inversion of the language of the Lord’s Prayer. Throughout this process, the participants in the evanescent communities of online interaction many denominate the Bloggernacle have offered crucial encouragement, insight, criticism, and friendship, for which I am ever grateful. [Read more…]

On baptism

Talk delivered in my ward recently.

In considering the meanings of baptism, I want to reflect on several interrelated elements, including baptism as washing clean, baptism as death and resurrection, and baptism as adoption.

First, though, some history. [Read more…]