Come Follow Me, A Thank You

I miss three-hour church. I really do. I would switch back in a heartbeat. But I am absolutely grateful for the new Sunday School curriculum. The manuals themselves are essentially forgettable. It is instead the framework of study that has been the blessing. As I see it, there are two overwhelming goods in the curriculum. First is that the lessons are based on large chunks of scriptural text, and not random verses from all over the place. This allows for careful reading (as a side note, read Ben’s recent post on the previous generation of curriculum development). The second is that church leaders encouraged supplemental study groups. Consequently, this is a love letter to my ward.
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The Witness of Women: Historical Context

Today, church leaders announced [PDF] that women can now serve as official witnesses for baptisms (both in and out of the temple), and for sealings. In last few hours I have spoken to several friends and family members who were weeping at the news. This feels just and true, and I imagine that it would, regardless of the any historical antecedent. In this case, however, we know that women have been official witnesses in the past.
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CORRECTION: Turning our hearts

[Note: This post was written in collaboration with, and is posted by permission of Amy Tanner Thiriot.]

Earlier this month I wrote a post reflecting on Century of Black Mormons and introduced it with a short vignette about Caroline Skeen and John Butler. According to family histories, when they got married in 1831 the Skeens gave the couple two enslaved people as a wedding present. In these histories, the Butlers then freed these two individuals and converted to Mormonism. I used this rupture between generations to highlight how we choose to remember and forget. I was also wrong.
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Turning our hearts: Century of Black Mormons

Some of the first of my relatives to join the church were a couple who lived on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When they got married in 1831, relatives gave them two enslaved people as a present. Almost immediately and well before they had listened to the missionaries’ message, they released these people. I have taken pride in that. I could imagine that these were the type of people that found resonance with the gospel and moved to Missouri to help establish an egalitarian society, only to be crushed by the political and social reality of the time. I generally have ignored their parents, the enslavers; I’ve excluded them from my story.
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Words of Wisdom, or is it Word of Wisdoms?

There is that perennial argument about the Book of Mormon, which is usually settled by someone eventually stating emphatically that it is “copies of the Book of Mormon.” But the Word of Wisdom is somewhat different, because it is more like variant editions. I think much of the anxious hand-wringing over our dietary constraints would be sidestepped if we acknowledge that there are many Words of Wisdom.
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Addendum: Defining your terms-cosmology and materiality

In a recent conversation where I wondered if something I wrote was grammatically correct (and comprehensible), the discussion turned to how sometimes defining your terms and usages goes a long way. Subsequently a friend suggested that I take a few moments to define my use of “cosmology/cosmological” and “material” in Power of Godliness, something I realize I should have done better in the book. As it happens I touched on the ideas a little bit at MHA where LaJean and I spoke about what most people call Adam-God [n1]. Anyway, it was a party. You should have been there. I opened up with a little discussion of cosmology:
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Notes on the history of the one-year wait

Today the First Presidency announced that “[w]here a licensed marriage is not permitted in the temple, or when a temple marriage would cause parents or immediate family members to feel excluded, a civil ceremony followed by a temple sealing is authorized.” [editorial note: see Jared Cooks comment (#2) below] I thought I would share a few notes about the history of the policy that this announcement changed.
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The danger is gone

I’ve written a lot about “female ritual healing” in the last decade–frequently with Kris. I think a lot more people are aware today, than ten years ago, that women in the church regularly anointed the sick and blessed. The Joseph Smith Papers Project has published the once guarded minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, which included examples of women blessing and Joseph’s revelatory approval of the practice. Deseret Book remarkably published that minute even before the JSPP released the document. The Church Historian’s Press has published transcripts of the minutes with notes, along with many other relevant documents from the subsequent decades (The First Fifty Years, even available in the Gospel Library App). The Church History Department has published several essays that deal with the practice, including a Gospel Topics Essay and a Church History Essay. I sense no danger in discussing it. It is a different world than when Kris and I first walked into the old Archives.
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The Mormon Creed

We are all familiar with the religious biographies of Joseph Smith, and in particular the narrations of the First Vision. It is from the latter of these that we find God’s condemnation of Christian creeds, a formal category or documents that established beliefs for the last two thousand years. Many folks have written about the anti-creedal denominations of the Antebellum period, and how the restoration fit in with that. My experience has been that Mormons have consequently taken a pejorative view of these documents, even if we haven’t really been sure what exactly they are [waves hands and mutters something about the incoherency of the trinity].
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Thursday

If you look at our archives, today is a day when I revisit the liturgies associated with it. This is a post from some years ago, that reads different to me with the death of my father earlier this year.

There are old Eastern folk traditions that anyone who dies during Easter week is immediately ushered to paradise. The formal Orthodox funeral liturgy is in fact dramatically altered for those who die on Easter and before Thomas Sunday. “[L]ittle of the chanting which is ordinarily part of the office is retained. This is out of respect for the greatness and dignity of the resplendent feast of the Resurrection, which is a feast of joy and not lamentation. As we shall all rise in Christ, in the hope of the resurrection and eternal life, through this same resurrection of Christ the dead pass from the afflictions of this world to joy and happiness, and the church proclaims this in the hymns of the resurrection.”[n1]
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Sanka and change

Look. I have no insight into what will be discussed in General Conference next week. Licking my finger and testing the wind, I’d say gender topics are likely on the docket. We’ll find out soon enough, regardless. But people are talking about the Word of Wisdom, which I do find interesting. I’ve met more than one church member who feels like the world of their strict upbringing, which proscribed all caffeinated beverages, is now in some way being betrayed by our casual libations. The thing is, though, these childhoods were just as much moments of transition as anything we see today.

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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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