A note on presiding

I was recently reading one locality’s Stake Relief Society minutes of a bygone era, and noticed that, as we do in our weekly ward bulletins today, the various secretaries often noted who presided and who conducted the various meetings. Entirely unsurprisingly, these individuals were women, even if priesthood officers were present. I’ve read a lot of Relief Society minutes, but don’t know that I had ever previously asked myself about this practice. In fact, not having attended Stake Relief Society Conference (except as an occasional workshop presenter), I didn’t know whether this was still the case. A quick check with my wife suggests that it is no longer.
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NT Translation and Mormon-bait

I’ve been reading Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament this year, and have found it really quite illuminating. He concludes his volume with a “Scientific Postscript on Translation” that explains some of his more non-traditional renderings. Frankly, it seems like it is Mormon-bait, though it clearly isn’t. Hart generally renders things literally, and happily sloughs off post-Augustinian (and really, post-Reformation) theological tropes. The scholarly shade he casts is fun to read, even if it is tempered by his affiliation (he is Eastern Orthodox). I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the intersection of his translation and our tradition, with the caveat that I have no particular expertise in ancient languages or biblical criticism.
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Notes on the history of missionary correspondence

I decided to look through some of the old missionary handbooks in my library to see if there were any antecedents to the no-phone-home policy that I experienced as a missionary. Beyond a few interesting bits that I had overlooked in the past (missionaries in the 1920s were required to have eight hours of missionary work a day, starting at 9:00 am), there was some material that is relevant, albeit far from comprehensive.
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Research is not the answer?

In the past couple of weeks the Church News reported on two different and prominent instances of church leaders teaching that researching church history is not the solution to questions about church history. My first thought after seeing the second was “retrenchment,” to invoke sociologist Armand Mauss’s piercing analysis. And as a researcher in church history, I must say I felt a twinge of disappointment. It may be that my impulse is correct, but after some reflection, it seems to me that there is more going on.
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Book of Mormon Geography

Recently the good folks at lds.org have been updating the “Gospel Topics” section, as well as rolling out a slew of “Church History Topics” in conjunction with Saints. The latter has some really remarkable content (see, for example, the entry on “Masonry“). Today, however, I wanted to share some historical bits relating to the new gospel topics entry on “Book of Mormon Geography” that people have been chatting about on the internets.
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Do ordinances change? Part 2

On June 11, 1843 Joseph Smith preached a sermon at the Temple stand in Nauvoo. From the History of the Church version of his words, we have the pithy phrase that “Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.” [n1] This was included in the Teachings of the President manual a couple years back, and I’ve seen a few folks wave this about lately to show how the church is bull crap, neener, neener, neener. [Deep breath]
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Do ordinances change?

Yes, the short answer is yes. But there is a lot to say beyond that. In the last week I have seen a few people point to statements by various church leaders that ordinances [n1] are unchanged from the foundation of the world (insinuating that older ways of doing things are perhaps superior–fundilicious). The thing is, these are the same church leaders that presided over some of the largest changes in our ordinances. Anyway, here is a brief summary of some of the major shifts in just the first five ordinances revealed in the Restoration. Other liturgies experienced perhaps larger changes, but that isn’t the point. All but the last ritual below find anchoring in Moroni’s ecclesiastical and liturgical missives. They are introduced to the church with Joseph Smith’s Articles and Covenants (D&C 20) by way of Oliver Cowdery’s Articles of the Church of Christ.
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Age Changes for Youth Progression and Ordination

This morning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a digital letter to church members and leaders announcing changes in the advancement of youth through the ecclesiastical and ministry structures of the church. Before this announcement, children and youth graduated from Primary (the children’s ministry program) and their respective classes (young women) and ecclesiastical quorums (young men) on their twelfth, fourteenth, and sixteenth birthdays. Today’s announcement indicates that beginning in January 2019, youth will now graduate and advance through their organizations as cohorts at the new year, similar to a school class (you don’t go from sophomore to junior on your birthday). Moreover eleven-year-olds will begin to receive temple recommends for proxy baptisms in January as part of their advancements.
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“Matron” and other ecclesiastical offices held by women

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with a question from an individual living in Italy. She had observed that “temple matron” had been rendered quite differently between languages, and she wondered what the history of that term was. She was quite correct, and the history is interesting.
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2018 Christmas Gift Book Guide

2019 may be the start of a golden age of home learning for Latter-day Saints. Or in a couple of decades we will look back on three hour church with reverent fondness for all that structured pedagogy. Regardless of whether you will read them or simply adorn your shelves with them, here are this year’s recommendations for Christmas gift books.
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Review: McDannell’s Sister Saints

Colleen McDannell, has been the Sterling McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah for several decades now. Mormonism has popped up in chapters in her widely circulated Heaven: A History, Material Christianity, and in a few articles. For the most part she has concentrated on other topics. This month, however, Oxford University Press is publishing McDannell’s overview of Mormon women’s history since the winding down of Polygamy. Do not make the mistake of thinking this isn’t the central history of the church.

Colleen McDannell, Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Polygamy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 291 pp., $29.95.

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The children of apostates and the church: An addendum

In my fairly recently published Power of Godliness, I have a chapter on the blessing of babies (and children) in the church. This was a surprising chapter for me to research and write, and it turned into a very useful lens to analyze many important aspects of church belief, practice, and teaching. Near the end of this chapter, I also have a brief section on the 2015 exclusion of children of LGBTQ parents from the liturgies of the church. I mention in passing the similarity in restriction to the children of polygamist schismatics, but didn’t take the time or space to elucidate that history. Here I’d like to flesh out that earlier restriction a bit.
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A prayer for the dead and the living

Nine years ago as we prepared for the baptism of my oldest child, we found my father unresponsive and spent the next two months watching over his chemically induced coma, amnesticly-embraced awakening, and tempered recovery. A decade earlier and he would have likely died, but ICU physicians have skillfully battled sepsis and respiratory failure to a dwindling fraction of mortality. It was so uncertain at the time, though, even with the regular calls from a dear friend and expert clinician. And because I can work remotely I spent those weeks watching at his side, waiting.
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2018 Preach My Gospel edition

This week the church released a new edition of Preach My Gospel. I have a fondness for this document as when it was first released, a young missionary serving in my ward stood up and testified of his gratitude that missionaries were now going to be able to follow the spirit. My wife and I looked at each other and almost in unison said, “That was what was wrong with our missions!”

I haven’t read through the entire new document, but my quick look showed new changes galore. Unsurprisingly, it has been updated with more recent GA quotes. President Oaks’ 2014 sermon on women and the priesthood shows how female priesthood authority is becoming catechismal:
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Defending the Temple and Priesthood Restriction as God’s Will

The idea that church leaders—Church Presidents, who we sustain as Prophets—could be spectacularly wrong and deny millions of people access to the covenant path of the gospel because they were black is terrifying to many of us. We have invested so totally in the bureaucracy of church leadership as to have completely conflated the calling of Church President and role of “prophet,” obliterating any linguistic distinction: “Follow the Prophet, he knows the way!” Confronted with the possibility that such leaders were so catastrophically wrong, we have been willing to invent ideas to save the framework even if it means repeating the errors of our past.
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“No known records exist”: The fallacy of racial restriction origins

In a well-meaning Ensign article commemorating the end of the Mormon Temple and Priesthood restriction against Black people, an unattributed author makes a pernicious claim about the origin of the restriction. I do not think the author was lying. The author was repeating a fallacy that has been growing in circulation for years, but is nevertheless wrong. And if the author was even remotely aware of recent years’ scholarship, then the author is engaging in prevarication.

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Blessings

This past general conference was…fun. Change is generally exciting. Even though our stake still hasn’t reorganized the various Elders’ quorums yet, “Ministering” is on the move. Ecclesiology is fun for me, so as an observer as well as practitioner, I’m having a good time of this. However, perhaps the most interesting bit of conference to me was President Nelson’s concluding remarks at the Priesthood Session on liturgy:
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Review: Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington

Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless doves. Matthew 10:16

I didn’t know Leonard Arrington. I never met him. I have met several of the people who worked with him in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And among them is one who I consider the dearest of friends. We have had Leonard’s Adventures of a Church Historian, a chatty memoir, and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s biography of the historian years (1972-1982), Doves and Serpents. The latter, Lavina explains in the front-matter, was derived largely from Arrington’s copious journal. [Read more…]

You say you want a revolution (ecclesiology edition)

Both the quorum structures that we have had for many decades and “Priesthood Home Teaching” as we have experienced them were implemented as part of the Priesthood Correlation movement during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the progressive reform movement championed by Harold B. Lee and both the quorum/group structure of the Melchizedek Priesthood and Home Teaching were central pillars to this new church structure. But all living things change.
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Relief Society Birthday

We celebrated Relief Society’s Birthday in our ward yesterday. It isn’t exactly obvious to a lot of people why we would do that. Same with the Restoration of the Aaronic priesthood commemoration, I guess. In an effort to help new members and others contextualize exactly why we were celebrating, I offer the short description below:
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When the General Relief Society President blessed a lonely pregnant woman

I have recently spoken at several events related to the release of my book, The Power of Godliness. I have opened with several different anecdotes that highlight tensions that I hope I resolve in my work. One of my favorite stories is that of a pregnant woman who received a blessing from a prominent Relief Society leader; a story that also opens my chapter on healing and authority (ch 4). I’d like to describe the processes of reconstructing that story.

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Liturgy, authority, and gender: Wasatch events the week of Feb 19

Next week I’ll be in Utah and in conjunction with the release of The Power of Godliness, with Oxford University Press, I’ll be participating in three public events hosted along the Wasatch Front. Come join us. Each event will cover different material in a different format, and each of the events is being sponsored by excellent groups that support Mormon scholarship.

First the publisher’s blurb:

The Power of Godliness is a key work to understand Mormon conceptions of priesthood, authority, and gender. With in-depth research and never previously used documents, Jonathan Stapley explores the rituals of ordination, temple “sealings,” baby blessings, healing, and cunning-folk traditions. In doing so, he demonstrates that Mormon liturgy includes a much larger and more complex set of ritualized acts of worship than the specific rites of initiation, instruction, and sealing that take place within the temple walls.

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Saints

An accessible history, written for a general audience yet informed by the best critical scholarship. Stories of the Saints simultaneously translated into dozens of languages, and incorporating the voices of women and men. Not shying away from difficult issues, “root beer” notwithstanding, Saints will be published serially in the Ensign/Liahona and in four contiguous volumes.
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Q&A with Foundational Texts of Mormonism editors

In the next couple of months Oxford University Press is publishing Foundational Texts of Mormonism. An important edited volume for any scholarship on Mormon history, the volume has chapters from folks like Richard Bushman, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and BCC regular Bill Smith. The editors have kindly answered a few questions about the project for us. Also, OUP’s annual holiday sale extends into mid-January. They are offering 50% off many books, including Foundational Texts of Mormonism. Enter the code HOLIDAY17 to preorder this book for half price ($74.00 >> $37.00). This offer ends January 12, so if you want this book in your library now is the time to order.

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Who’ll Be a Witness for My Lord?

This week the Church announced changes to the proxy-baptism liturgy, one of which I’d like to focus on: witnesses. Before last week, the baptismal liturgy included two Melchizedek priesthood officers standing by, observing, and certifying that the ritual was performed in accordance to the prescribed form. The introduction of formal witnesses to the liturgy is unclear, but my sense is that is related to Joseph Smith’s letters (now canonized in D&C 127 and 128): [Read more…]

2017 Christmas Gift Book Guide

Well, despite Relief Society and Priesthood moving to GenCon talks for three out of four weeks, we can collectively appreciate that they have resisted the impulse towards entirely topic-based lessons for Sunday School. 2018 is time for the Hebrew Bible, or at least topical lessons at least tangentially related to the Hebrew Bible. Fortunately, there is a lot more to read than the Sunday School lesson manual. [Read more…]

The William Clayton Diaries?

Yesterday, the good folks at the LDS Church History Library announced that the Church Historian’s Press would be publishing the William Clayton diaries. Mormon History Nerds united in celebratory meme-making. I imagine that most Mormons when faced with this news would likely shrug. The news of new Missionary interview questions and smartphone proselytizing has way more traction. I dusted off the appendix I included in my review of Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 2 (and yes having a review appendix is absurd, but I still think it was a solid review), and have updated it with info from the intervening half decade.
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JSPP, Documents, Volume 6: Initial Thoughts

I got a copy of D6 this weekend, and burned through it. Basically a solid reading of all the intros, careful readings of all the minutes, and documents not in the JS Letterbooks, and skimming everything else.  Special emphasis on the sermons.  And honestly superlatives fail.
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Nauvoo era(ish) succession

A friend asked me about succession after the Gospel Doctrine lesson and wondered if I could help find more detail about what was going on. So just thinking about the immediate years after JS’s death I responded as follows:

When JS died it was not obvious who would run the church. It was not something that was provided for in the Doctrine and Covenants, for example. It was pretty clear that JS wanted Hyrum, and then Samuel Smith to lead the church after him, but Hyrum died with JS, and Samuel died soon after.

The main “factions” were:
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Plans of Salvation

It seems like everyone is familiar with those diagrams with various circles that explain Mormon cosmology, and which outline the progression of the human soul through eternity (do an image search for “plan of salvation” for some beauties). I thought it would be fun to sketch out the Plans of Salvation for various sources.
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