Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence. This is Part 2 in a six-part series on the domestic violence implications of D&C 121 and 132. Part 1 can be found here

Welcome back! Last week we focused on spelling out the problem of abuse described in D&C 121:1-6 and experienced in modern LDS congregations. This week we skip ahead to D&C 121:36-39. These verses describe a slippery slope into using the priesthood as a tool of power and control to commit abuse, along with consequences for priesthood holders who do so. This is one of the clearest, most poignant, and most powerful condemnations of abuse in all of scripture.

It’s also not straightforward to put into practice. 

Let’s dive in.

D&C 121:36-39

[T]he rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and […] the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…. 

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

There we have it. Anyone who self-aggrandizes or abuses another person automatically loses the Spirit as well as their priesthood power and authority. This bright line protects both the integrity of the priesthood and the safety of non-priesthood-holders. 

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For We Shall See Him as He Is

This is a picture of me with my firstborn son. It was on the desk of a woman who loved us, who died this week. She was not a relative, or a confidante. We did not speak the same language–her English was better than my (non-existent) Spanish, but I doubt either of us ever understood much more than a paragraph or two that the other spoke. I know nothing of her inner life, or even of most of the external circumstances of her life, either before or after the years that we saw each other weekly. She didn’t know my politics or my favorite color, and all I knew about her at first was that she was a kindly lady in Relief Society and wanted to earn some money cleaning houses.

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Science, Preaching, Religion, Freedom, etc.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been slowly working through a book on Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Sermon [Discourse].” The book, among other things, tracks the influence of the sermon’s ideas within church culture over time (and the reverse). While working on this project, one of the things that became important to the discussion was the interface between science and the church. That is a very long story that I couldn’t hope to dent much in the book itself but it brought a lot of questions to my mind, especially about modernism and church teachings (I will avoid the loaded term “doctrine” here). These are just some side thoughts I’ve had about the fringes of the book as it has more or less closed out its writing.

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“Faith Alone” in Romans 3:28 JST

For about a year when I was an undergrad at BYU in the early 80s my plan was to go on for a PhD and become an academic. My dad was a professor so it sort of seemed like the family business to me. Two circumstances changed my mind and like so many others sent me off to law school: first, we got pregnant, and second, it was a horrible recession, so I had to get a little more practical about that decision. I have no regrets, it was the right call.

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O God, where art thou?: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her recent research examines an emergency room intervention meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

We’re fast approaching D&C 121 and D&C 132 in the Come Follow Me manual. In honor of domestic violence awareness month in October, let’s spend a few weeks exploring the story these two sections tell about domestic violence and abuse in the church, both then and now. [1] 

Note: this first post describes abuse and may be triggering for those who have experienced it. Future posts in this series will primarily focus on church policy and may be less triggering. 

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Revise and resubmit

I’ve been thinking about the way that many religious words accumulate baggage. Over time they automatically evoke certain moods. They become weighed down by definitions and experiences and feelings to the point that they basically lose their power.

Take the word “repentance” for example. When you read or hear that word, stop and pay close attention to how your body reacts. What thoughts come to mind? Is it a positive feeling? People who’ve been wounded by religion might feel really tense. Their fight or flight response is triggered. It begins to open drawers full of painful memories. It might smell stuffy and stale. It might even seem merely quaint.

For other people, the word is so familiar that it’s lost its ability to provoke or challenge. It might slip right past the consciousness of religious people who think of themselves as devout, like they already know everything it means. They’ve mastered it. They know how to describe its process using a few simple “r” letter words.

In either case, I think the word “repentance” becomes worse than useless. It evokes pain or contempt on the one hand and self-satisfied hypocrisy on the other. I think it can be helpful to rethink old ideas using new terms.

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Book Review: James Goldberg’s A Book of Lamentations

James Goldberg, A Book of Lamentations (American Fork, UT: Beant Kaur Books, 2020).

Quite a few latter-day saints have drawn parallels between the events of 2020 and The Book of Mormon. James Goldberg, however, does it better than most. In A Book of Lamentations (2020), Goldberg and the other poets he features meditate on the parallels between The Book of Mormon and the divisions of our own time. “When Latter-day Saints say we know The Book of Mormon is true,” he writes, “we are saying something about human nature. We are affirming that we understand a civilization that chooses hatred and division is fully capable of destroying itself.”

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Doctrine and Covenants is the worst

So it’s coming up on Saturday evening and once again I am at a loss as to what to teach my Valiant 10 class in Primary tomorrow. This is my third time teaching Doctrine and Covenants in Primary. It’s my third year teaching from the Come Follow Me curriculum. And I have to tell you that the Doctrine and Covenants Come Follow Me manual is the absolute worst manual I have ever used. And I taught Young Women in the 1990s.

Most of the manuals the church produces are not great, Bob. In fact, when I am not teaching Doctrine and Covenants, I rarely use the manual. I just take whatever scriptures the manual is meant to cover that week and I figure something out. It’s not that difficult when you have decent material. I mean, I only have twenty minutes to kill. The problem with the Doctrine and Covenants is that it’s not decent material. I tried to read the Quran once. There was some stuff about a cow and I didn’t understand it, and I’m afraid I lost interest. The Doctrine and Covenants doesn’t even have cows. It’s just God telling Edward Partridge to go to the Ohio or whatever, over and over again. Everything that is worthwhile in the Doctrine and Covenants is covered more eloquently in other books of scripture. But wait, Rebecca, what about the Word of Wisdom? What about all the stuff about church organization and priesthood keys and the three degrees of glory? I SAID WHAT I SAID. Quick, think of your favorite scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants. Now think of your favorite scripture from literally any other standard work, including the Pearl of Great Price. For that matter, think of your favorite episode of Touched by an Angel. Is there really any comparison? I rest my case.

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Steppin’ Out

I was talking the other day with a couple of friends, exchanging crazy mission stories. A recurring theme is the “comp slipped out at night to go visit his secret local girlfriend”. I’m obsessed with these, primarily from a logistical point of view. HOW?? How is the missionary slipping out in the night, undetected? I want to hear from people who either slipped out at night or got slipped out on. Please explain how this was done. It is like some David Blaine-level escape magic.

When you want your integrity and faith at the same time

Back in 2013 I created the Maxwell Institute Podcast with an eye toward constructive or “positive” apologetics. Instead of listing concerns and then giving responses or rebuttals, the show exhibited characteristics like intellectual charity, curiosity, and a faithful seeking style of confidence as opposed to dogmatic certainty.

The show’s style ran against the grain of much that had come before it at the Maxwell Institute and in church productions more broadly, and against the grain of what some church members and some leaders would be comfortable with, although it always stayed within the bounds of appropriate orthodoxy. It was, at the end of the day, a church production. But I believed it could appeal to a wide variety of church members across the culture war divide of conservative/liberal. I know for certain the audience had some very progressive and some very conservative appreciative listeners.

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Call for Papers: D. Michael Quinn: The Life and Times of a Mormon Historian

Few figures in the development of Mormon studies during the late-twentieth century are more significant than D. Michael Quinn. Educated at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Yale University, Quinn was among scholars who revisited and revised the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He worked as a researcher under Church Historian Leonard Arrington and produced a series of significant works emblematic of the New Mormon History. At times Quinn’s work sparked backlash, and his identity as queer, Chicano, and independent put him at odds with his surrounding culture. His controversial scholarship and activities led, first, to his forced resignation as a full professor at BYU and then, later, to his excommunication from the church. 

Quinn’s legacy has only grown with time. His many articles and books continue to inform and influence scholarship today. The Mormon studies community mourned when he passed on April 21, 2021, at the age of seventy-seven.

We will hold a one-day conference examining the life and legacy of D. Michael Quinn on March 25, 2022, at the University of Utah. Sessions will explore both his experiences as a historical figure as well as his impact on historiography. 

While most panels will be composed of invited speakers, one session will be reserved for junior scholars as a tribute to Quinn’s dedication to mentoring younger generations. We therefore seek paper proposals from those currently in school or less than three years removed from receiving their degree who are working in fields related to those on which Quinn published. These fields include, but are not limited to, Mormon power structures, gender and sexuality, religion and folk culture, post-manifesto polygamy, dissent, and religion and capitalism. Please submit a 250-word abstract and brief CV to by December 1, 2021. Decisions will be made by January 15.

Limited funding will be available to assist with travel costs for those whose papers are accepted but lack institutional support. A final program will be announced in January 2022.

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Book Review: Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars

Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021)

I was startled to realize recently that I had never read a mainstream novel by and about an LDS woman, despite holding a PhD in English. Although many contemporary LDS writers have achieved national recognition in science fiction and young adult literature, it remains rare for a national press to publish a book by an LDS author in which their religion features prominently–a fact that many have attributed to the lack of national interest in Mormonism, the suspicion with which members often receive unofficial books that deal with the Church, and the lack of robust institutional structures for supporting LDS literature. Those that are published (many of which are excellent) often derive their marketability by playing into sensationalized tropes about Mormonism held by outsiders, particularly those that depict LDS women as in need of rescue from their culture. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021) is a significant achievement, because Eves has written a young adult historical novel published by a national press that both satisfies the hunger of LDS young women to recognize themselves in literature while focusing on themes and events that have universal appeal.

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On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

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How can we measure our lives?: The crisis edition*

Photo by Pixabay on

As I received with hard-won indifference a job rejection this week, I contemplated how the do-it-all feminism of the nineties on which I had been raised had rested on two assumptions: (1) that there were plentiful sufficiently-paying and meaningful jobs; and (2) the existence of cheap childcare. The latter, I now understand with a clarity that eluded me in my twenties, was synonymous with the maintenance of a set of class, racial and gender hierarchies in which less-educated and often Black women provided care to professional, often white families. 

At middle age, I am now old enough to have had both of these assumptions thoroughly dispelled. There are some people whose interests and training have been lucky enough to correspond with market demands and structural expectations, but I trained first to be an academic and then (primarily because of the failing academic job market) to be a lawyer. I have stayed home for the last few years due to a combination of desire, complications with remote working and never finding the right job in the same city as my spouse. I cannot presently work firm hours with two children and a limited support network. Although outsiders often suggest that I find a public sector position or hang up my own shingle, I know that such jobs are extremely difficult to get (I’ve been rejected from every one to which I’ve applied) and that starting a business is no easy lift (and one for which I have no passion). Although I wouldn’t consider the dismantling of my career(s) a privilege, I enjoy being with my children far more than I expected. I know that if I went back that I would give up some things I value.

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3 quotes I like better than the musket stuff

When I worked at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute I was aware of Elder Maxwell’s musket analogy that Elder Holland recently borrowed. The Institute had been tasked with fortifying the faith of Latter-day Saints, which includes apologetics, or defending the faith, so we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I helped cultivate a style of apologetics that exhibited charity, curiosity, flexibility, and strength.

Not everyone was satisfied. Elder Maxwell was often cited as calling for more aggression with his metaphors about muskets and slam dunks. But in all my time at the Institute those analogies didn’t resonate with me. I was more drawn to this counsel from then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, who called the one of the Institute’s predecessors (FARMS) to a undertake a ceasefire back in 1994:

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Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

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On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

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Conspiracy Theory and the Idea of Freedom: The Lessons of Bo Gritz

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my third post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here and the second here

In 1985, James “Bo” Gritz received a patriarchal blessing. According to him, a few years later, it promised “the gift of discernment,” and “the ability to explain in words people will understand. You will have multitudes that will follow you. They will have no allegiance to you. They will only have allegiance to what it is you stand for.”

Regardless of how accurately Gritz reported on the blessing, this was certainly how he liked to perceive himself. He possessed special insight as a result of spiritual gifts; he stood for a Cause, not personal aggrandizement; nonetheless, he was part of a movement.

When Gritz received the blessing he was well past forty, but this was because he was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His conversion was similarly dramatic—the product, in part, of the same impulses that drove his interpretation of his blessing.

Gritz was a career soldier, a Vietnam veteran, and by all accounts a sterling officer, the recipient of multiple honors and praised all the way up the military chain of command. He retired after thirteen years of service at age forty in 1979. He remained restless, though, and drank deep of the anti-government cynicism that pervaded the 1970s: the product of American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the growing mobilization of conservative thinktanks, funded by major corporations, that steadily blasted regulation as the death of freedom.


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Elder Holland’s university address reflects a failure of moral judgment that is endemic to the Church

A few months ago, there was a twitter thread about what it means to be an LGBT ally if you are a member of the church. Is it even possible? It gave me pause. I’ve never considered myself much of an ally because, believe it or not, I usually keep my mouth shut and roll my eyes. And it reflects in my friends. I have a few gay friends, but none who are particularly close. I’m sure I have some homophobic tendencies. I am who I am and I’m okay with that. But it made me wonder about why I’m in the church.

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What if I Don’t Recognize Jesus in my Final Interview (or The Tricky Jesus Test)

I heard the story of the Jesus Interview at church again last Sunday. Once again, as I listened to the story* of the people who didn’t recognize Jesus, I imagined myself flubbing up an interview in a similar way. For one thing, I haven’t spent a lot of time visualizing Jesus sitting behind a desk.

I created a 9-question ‘Tricky Jesus Test’ to help me think about the notion of an elusive God, the kind of Jesus that would dismiss me from the room if I didn’t recognize him in time.

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The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

This is not a post about the recent disclosures regarding the LDS Church’s investment in the City Creek Mall, but it is inspired by some of the discussions I have had about those disclosures. More than anything else, it is about the difference between managing (including investing) money and spending money, which, I think, is at the heart of the disagreement. If the Church has been spending tithing dollars on city malls, that is a big problem. If they have been investing savings — wherever the origin —in a in a city mall, then, it seems to me, that is no different than investing in oil companies, or tech stocks, or bitcoin. The management of resources, I think, follows a different set of moral rules than their expenditure.

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It’s not about masks, it’s not about vaccines

It’s now been about a week since the First Presidency sent a message to each member’s inbox directly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID if possible, and to wear masks in any indoor setting where you’re not socially distanced, until the pandemic is over.

Sam’s post today does a great of of explaining why a regulation requiring masks for indoor meetings, religious or not, would not violate anyone’s first amendment rights. But as I read Sam’s post it occurred to me that for many members, the real takeaway from the First Presidency’s instruction last week is not the narrow issue of masks or vaccines at all, or of their the legal issues surrounding governments requiring such precautions. The takeaway is really about epistemology.

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Masks and the First Amendment

Photo by Kyle Austin on Unsplash

Effective today, the city of Chicago has reinstituted an indoor mask mandate. And we’re not alone: Washington state and Washington, D.C. have them. Dallas appears to have one. Benton County in Oregon has one. And I’m sure there are others and, in light of the Delta variant and the U.S.’s not-so-impressive vaccinate rate, there will be others.

A week ago, the First Presidency sent a letter to all members of the church encouraging us to get vaccinated and wear masks at indoor meetings where we couldn’t social distance.

What does this mean for our church meetings? Well, in light of the First Presidency’s guidance, I would have thought it would be uncontroversial: we’ll return to requiring masks in our meetings, at least in places that have implemented mask mandates.

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Turning Grief into Charity and Welcome

The majority of my career has been spent designing, administering, or managing foreign assistance programs for Afghanistan.  I spent 10 years in the State Department, including two living at the Embassy in Kabul.  Seeing the flag lowered at the Embassy compound was a moment of real grief for me.  It was my workplace and home.  After my time at the State Department, I spent a few more years helping to administer a grant-funded scholarship program at a university to educate Afghan legal scholars on the rule of law.

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Keep Waiting for the Miracle

This post is adapted from a sacrament meeting talk I gave yesterday.

The first two books of the Book of Mormon give us a tale of two Nephis: First Nephi gives us a young man full of zeal. He’s going undercover, sneaking into Jerusalem under cover of darkness, fighting, hunting, adventuring, sailing, having visions, rebuking his brothers. He’s full of confidence in his own spiritual power and righteousness. He’s working to achieve his father’s dream of a land of promise where his descendants could live together in righteousness.

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The Mormon Quadrilateral: Or, the Problem With “Speaking as a Man”

In the comment section of various Utah news websites, on the Church’s social media feeds across the Internet, a phenomenon is manifest. Usually confined to agonized supporters of lefty social politics, it is now the vax-suspicious and anti-maskers who are crying out that Russell M. Nelson, sustained as a prophet by Church members, is “speaking as a man.”

That slightly awkward phrase has a long history. Ezra Taft Benson actually used it in “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” his defiantly anti-modern sermon that asserted that prophecy is the ultimate trump card over all other forms of knowledge. J. Reuben Clark explored the idea in his own 1954 BYU address. Its usage probably goes back to a line in the 1838-1856 “History of the Church.” Written by scribes in the voice of Joseph Smith, the 8 February 1843 entry reads; “This morning I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan who thought that “a Prophet is always a Prophet”, but I told them that a Prophet was a Prophet only, when he was acting as such.”

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Look. At. The. Damn. Snake.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.

—The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 12, 2021

God must have known that the Latter-day Saints would be a stiff-necked people, as he gave the second half of the story only to us. In the Old Testament, we can read about Moses and the Brazen Serpent: the Children of Israel were tired of wandering, so they did what they do best: they complained about it. And they complained so much that God decided to send them fiery serpents. Poison Fiery serpents that could fly, even, as if regular old fiery serpents weren’t scary enough.

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The Lord’s Supper – Prayer Memorization and Open Communion

Memory is tricky thing. I’m a Gen Xer, and in my memory the chapels in which I grew up attending had pull out microphone trays with the prayers typed out on cards that were taped onto it. As I turned sixteen, like the other priests, I knelt, pulled out the tray, and read the words carefully, hoping not to be asked by the Bishop to repeat it because I screwed up. It hasn’t always been that way, however. There was a period when church leaders actively encouraged priests to memorize and not read the prayers. Documenting practice is always challenging, however. I have one friend whose parents grew up during the memorization-only period, whose dad always read the prayer from a card, and whose mom was instructed to memorize it.

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Is Polygamy Funny?

The Pros and Cons of Laughing about Polygamy

Look at Great-Great-Grandpa in his jailbird stripes!” The large photo was taken down from the mantelpiece and passed around to the cousins with a chuckle. 

Did you kids know that your grandfather was in the state penitentiary (haha)?” Everybody seemed to get a kick out of the photo of grandpa in jail.

Many generational Latter-day Saints from Canada, the US, and Mexico have polygamists in their family tree. If this describes you, what is your family’s attitude about your ancestors? What are the pros and cons of how your family tells their story? Perhaps my list of pros and cons will clarify or challenge the narrative you received. 

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Grading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how the church has responded to it. And [deeply fatherly voice]: I’m so disappointed.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The church started out great, cancelling all church meetings at the front end of when we (in the U.S., anyway) realized this was a serious problem. But since then, it hasn’t done a lot to deal with this unprecedented (in recent memory, anyway) worldwide issue.

There are two main areas that really stoke my fatherly disappointment: vaccines and the return to the status quo.

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