Hieing to Kolob’s beginnings

I’m writing about Phelps’s much-discussed hymn because a) I love that hymn, and b) I need some help. For my book on the death culture of early Mormonism, I would really like to be able to cite the original version of the hymn. Unfortunately, although everyone gestures toward a Deseret News publication in 1856, neither I nor several partners in crime has been able to find the actual original publication, not in the Phelps papers at BYU, not in the electronic archive of the DesNews, not scrounging around all the usual places. So, who’s up to the challenge? Where and in what form was “If You Could Hie to Kolob” first published?
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Longfellow Park and Memory

The Sunstone session memorializing the Cambridge, MA LDS Chapel featured Claudia Bushman, Phil Barlow, Mary Webster, me, and audience participants (including Morris and Dawn Thurston, Charlotte England, Richard Bushman, and a variety of others). The session was a wonderful time of remembering, with important contributions from all participants. Because I have severe limits on my time right now, I’m unable to summarize much the fascinating content of the panel, but I will post the text of my talk here. (Claudia’s lively reminisces are slated for print publications, and Phil’s and Mary’s thoughtful and engaging talks were not written.)
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For J, on the day he departed

A few years after the Civil War, enacting a tragedy that had occurred hundreds of mournful times throughout the nineteenth century, a steamboat on Lake Erie sank on its approach to the Port of Cleveland. Though the main lighthouse was operating normally, for uncertain reasons the lower lights—flames kept by houses along the banks to illuminate the location of channels and treacherous parts of the shoreline—were not visible to the ship’s crew. Unable to see the dark shore, the steamboat struck ground and sank, with significant loss of life.

In the aftermath of the Cleveland steamboat tragedy, the mega-evangelist Dwight Moody reflected to his bard Philip Bliss that these lower lights were the lights individual Christians were to keep. These would be small, weak, pale compared to the Light of the Savior, but without them our sisters and brothers might perish even as they approached the brighter light of the lighthouse.

Much to the delight of Moody and generations of worshipers since, Philip Bliss promptly turned these reflections into the hopeful and inspiring hymn “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” In his hymn Bliss calls to us to keep aflame our “feeble lamp[s]” in the hopes that some “poor fainting, struggling seaman” we “may rescue,” we “may save.”

Shortly before 2am today a lower light whose pale fire rescued and saved me almost twenty years ago sputtered and then died.
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A Moderate Proposal

I had the great good fortune of accompanying my wife to a session at MHA on race in the church. Alongside two other great presentations (one on a complex “branch” in Appalachia, the other on BYU student views of Civil Rights), was Stirling’s thoughtful consideration of race in Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. In the discussion that followed after the presentations, several voices discussed why we continue to have Mormon Doctrine circulating among church members. A variety of reasons for the persistence of that text were proposed, not least the fact that the author is now dead and unable to edit out the offensive material for a revised edition and that the book is one of the best sellers for Deseret Book. As I reflected on the conversation, I wonder about the following proposal:
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In Memoriam: The Cambridge (Mass) Chapel

The LDS Chapel on Longfellow Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts started on fire this morning. Various eyewitnesses have emailed alumni/ae of the wards that meet and have met in the building over the years. As of 12:34 EST, none of us knows anything about cause. While I’m sure that the details will soon be sorted out, I wanted to open this post as a space to remember that chapel. While I know this sounds melodramatic, I’m feeling really quite sad about this and suspect there are others mourning today. Go ahead and share your memories.

Updates: FPR had initial Blogdom coverage, the roof has collapsed but the brick walls still stand, many though not all of the library books are being preserved, area churches have graciously offered their support, and the current best guess is an electrical fire that started in the attic. One memorable moment was the retrieval, intact, of a painting of Jesus counseling with the rich man, by firefighters.

The Soul’s Burden of Proof

Recently, I have taken to listening to podcasts of college courses during my downtime–commuting, perambulating, staring into space–and I have had great fun making my way through Open Yale Courses and similar. I am now about halfway through Shelly Kagan’s Philosophy[2] course on “Death” (the course actually focuses on the existence of souls, the nature of persistence of identity and meaning of immortality, and the ethics of suicide). Kagan spends the first about 10 sessions presenting an apologia (sort of) for the physicalist[5] view that the soul is “[something the body can do]”[1] rather than an immaterial entity intimately associated with the body (what is called the dualist view). I say sort of, because Kagan argues strongly that he has no more responsibility to disprove souls than he does to disprove fire-breathing[3] dragons. And in that lack of responsibility stands a matter of huge logical, philosophical, religious, and social significance. (PS, a simple summary of what follows is available just before the footnotes) [Read more…]

Working Papers in Mormon Studies first meeting

We are pleased to announce the first meeting of the Working Papers in Mormon Studies.
Wednesday, April 29, 8pm, at the University of Utah. We’ll be discussing a fascinating treatment of textual and oral culture in the earliest revelations to Joseph Smith. Location is below the fold.
[Read more…]

Thank God for Mormon Primordialism

I’ve been reflecting this past week on how grateful I am to be a Latter-day Saint. I will confess that some of these reflections are driven by my work on the cultural history of early Mormonism, but–against my better academic judgment–I have been experimenting with the lived aspects of the religion I have been studying, specifically our Eden-emphatic agrarian quest for the primordial state of purity. [Read more…]

Marvelous literalism and early Mormon exegesis

I am increasingly attending to how the early Latter-day Saints understood and used the Bible as part of a project on what I call the assault on Common Sense.[1] The best treatment of this topic remains Phil Barlow’s thoughtful and thought-provoking Mormons and the Bible. Phil draws attention to the extent of earliest Mormon Biblical literalism, emphasizing the ways that Smith and others created meaning in their exegesis, providing a space for the Restoration truths to fit within Christianity, broadly conceived.[2] I have been long striving for a phrase to use to describe this idiosyncratic, potent, and often supernaturalizing literalism in Biblical exegesis. This week I think I settled on a name for it. [Read more…]

Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah

The Mormon Theology Seminar continues its work of very careful interactive reading of LDS sacred texts with a treatment of 2 Nephi 26-27. The culminating seminar will occur on Wednesday April 15 at the BYU Library, from 9am to 5pm. All are welcome. The formal flier can be found here.

Mormon Scholars in Humanities

For those interested in what has historically been a wonderful conference, I forward the following announcement.
It’s my pleasure to let you know a few of the details of the 2009 conference of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. We cordially invite you to join us. [Read more…]

Ritual adoption

As some of you know, the BCC research group is working on a new history of ritual adoption in Mormonism, what is often called the Law of Adoption. I’ll save the details for actual publication, but we’re interested in ensuring that the paper both actually engages the ideaworlds and lives of the original participants and is of some use to modern readers. To that end, I’m interested in understanding what people would like to learn about the Law of Adoption. [Read more…]

To Boss or Be Bossed, and To Buy Things

Wendell Berry just read a draft of an essay on the economy at the Masonic Temple in scenic Salt Lake City. He’s a wonderful warm homespun intellect, and one of the many topics he covered was the shape of education. He quoted a friend as recommending that we have two majors in college instead of the one we have now (upward mobility). [Read more…]

Dispatch from the Daddynaccle

Child 1: Daddy, you forgot to be the tooth fairy last night. I was very upset this morning.
Father [instantly filled with self-loathing]: I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I was so tired I just fell asleep and forgot about it. [Read more…]

Testimony: Process, Path, Belonging?

I have been asked to teach EQ in my ward tomorrow as a pinch hitter. I’ve been asked to teach from Elder Godoy’s talk on the Process of Testimony. The talk primarily argues that testimonies can be valid even if they are not associated with a single, marvelous spiritual experience.
I am interested in what topics interest people in this broad set of themes. [Read more…]

Nothing to fear (but a glass of water)

As someone who routinely pours 200-400ml of sterile salt water into people’s lungs without any significant side effects, I am often struck by how strange it is to be assured, with the insuperable certainty of folk wisdom, that I could drown on (or is it in?) a cup of water. [Read more…]

Update on Working Papers in Mormon Studies

With some additional planning, we have got things moving forward for the Working Papers in Mormon Studies meetings. So far, the schedule includes a paper on earliest Mormon record keeping, portions of biographies of Brigham Young and Parley Pratt, possibly a treatment of modern Asian-American Mormon women, and a variety of other topics. We’re putting the e-mailing list into order and starting to think more seriously about scheduling details. [Read more…]

Announcement: Mormon Studies Dissertation Fellowship

We are delighted to announce another important step forward in the development of Mormon Studies.

The Tanner Humanities Center is pleased to announce it has been awarded a grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation for $36,000 to establish the Eccles Fellowship in Mormon Studies. [Read more…]

Lost source on naming “Indians”

I have two confessions to make: 1) I am so distracted that I sometimes can’t find sources that I remember pretty well in general terms, and 2) I have become increasingly interested in and moved by the way earliest Latter-day Saints thought through their shared lives with the Native peoples they lived beside. Today, I can’t remember where in the early church organs William Phelps wrote a self-congratulatory semi-etymological essay about how the LDS knew the names of Indians and no one else did. Does anybody remember that piece?

In terms of making the post useful for everybody, there’s really been an outpouring of good work on Native pasts recently, some of it by practicing Mormons who are not pursuing apologetic or polemical aims. What are some of the books on Native history and culture that people are enjoying the most right now? I’m making my way through Pointer’s somewhat disappointing volume from U of Indiana, and I’ve been impressed by Jenny Pulsipher and am eager for Brett Rushforth’s book to come out in the next couple years. What are other people reading? [Read more…]

Move slowly on the tricky stuff

In my treatment of the early Mormon death conquest, I have been working on early rituals, including the antecedents to the temple liturgy we call the “endowment.” As many people know, the role of Masonic induction rituals has generated great controversy over decades. Unfortunately, there is not yet a reliable scholarly treatment of Masonry and Mormonism during Joseph Smith’s life (two separate histories are being written, but they are not yet available[1]), so I have been forced to spend about ten pages treating Masonry and Mormonism. This is tricky territory, in large part because Masonry and Mormonism were both remarkably fluid in the period in consideration and because they both drew from an immense, highly Biblical literature and tapped into considerable creativity among non-theologians. To give a sense for how easy and dangerous it is to leap to conclusions, I offer the following example: [Read more…]

Thanks Be to Santa Lucia

My wife has a particular affection for the Swedish version of the Italian Saint who carried Dante through Purgatorio. Lucia, wonderfully potent and tragic as so many of the canonized women are, is commemorated in our favorite European country in a variety of ways, including meatballs and lindenberry preserves, a crown studded with candles (now gratefully with bulbs instead of flames), and the eldest daughter serves her parents breakfast in bed. [Read more…]

Home Teaching Wisdom

I recently decided to participate again in the home teaching program of the church. After about a decade of not wanting to be nominally involved in a program I had no time to participate in, I guess I felt that I would like to experience this aspect of Mormonism again. I have been asking people for advice as I approach a new list of five recipients, and I have noticed that when I ask “what do you think works for home teaching,” they almost invariably begin to tell me how “bad” they are at it (which means they do it infrequently), echoing innumerable Elders’ Quorum lessons. I’m not actually interested in browbeating or watching brows be beaten. I’m more interested in practical advice. [Read more…]

Toward a Working Model of Mormon Polytheism

My oldest child has, for the last year, closed the majority of her spoken prayers with “and I love you all three.” [Read more…]

Review: Holland, Broken Things to Mend

Jeffrey R. Holland, Broken Things to Mend (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008, viii, 221, index).

This attractive volume is a compilation of public addresses, largely from LDS General Conference with an occasional Regional Conference or similar speech. [Read more…]

SLC Event: Ann Braude dinner and lecture 19 Nov 2008

My wife engineered this coup for the Salt Lake area. Dr. Braude is a wonderful speaker with a sharp mind, and her lecture should be great. [Read more…]

The View from Primary

For the primary program today, a wonderfully devoted primary worker collected pictures from the participants, along with their proposed captions. They ranged from a baptismal font that looks like a plumbing job from Sim City to a temple that looks like a huge factory with a smoke stack, to various delightful activities with siblings and parents. My oldest had something else on her mind. [Read more…]

Anti-Nephi-Lehi: Tradition, Sin, Guilt, and Reconciliation

After reading the Book of Mormon again for the first time in a while, I decided to work occasionally on projects of scriptural interpretation that might be useful to Latter-day Saints uninterested in my particular brand of cultural history. This is the first product of my rereading adventure. I’m interested in feedback and conversation on this point.

Several theories have been proposed to explain an oddly named group of pacifist converts whose transformation in response to Ammon, the evangelist son of King Mosiah, is detailed in Alma 23-27. These people, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, [Read more…]

Call for Papers: MSH 2009

I had a wonderful time at this conference last year and am glad to post the call for papers.

Religions and Critical Practices
Prospects for Scholarship in the Humanities
May 8-9, 2009
BYU Provo and Aspen Grove, UT

A conference sponsored by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities [Read more…]

Remembering Elderberries

Today is our first elderberry harvest. These tart, tiny berries flourish in our area, feeding mostly birds and the occasional human with the inclination to make juice or jelly from them. The bushes are wild and twisted, more like a colony of sinewy trees than a bush of berries. After bunches of berries are plucked, the process of separating them from their stalks begins. As I rubbed the berries, which range from a blue-nearly-black to a white like a luminescent blueberry, from their stalks (they are too small to grasp individually), I experienced a moment. Self-help books encourage us to “live in the moment,” a phrase that to me conjures more Amway, nutraceuticals, Bahamian beaches, and first-class air travel than Henry David Thoreau mooching off his mother in the woods beside Walden Pond. Today the moment came, as they so often do for me, in a nostalgic web of moments. [Read more…]

When those who struggle pass on

The Gospel can provide succor in the face of tragic bereavement, both in the doctrinal truths it presents to us and in the communities that it creates and sustains—the living to “mourn with those who mourn,” and the dead to be bound to us in a perfect chain of priesthood. There are times, though, when these supports tend to fail. Not just the normal imperfections that prevent any belief system or community from entirely eliminating the sting of death and loss, but substantial failures that threaten our ability to cope with the death of a loved one at all. [Read more…]