Celebrating BYU’s Dr. Ray Smith

When I was 2 or 3 years old, my grandparents gave me some money for my birthday. My parents took me to a toy store and, they tell me, I disappeared. Ten minutes later I was back with a plastic toy saxophone.

My mom started giving me piano lessons when I was 5 and, eventually, I transitioned to a professional teacher. Then, in fifth grade, I picked up the saxophone. My dad had played briefly when he was a kid and I started on his alto.

I absolutely fell in love with the saxophone. (I still love it, to be honest.) In middle school, I joined the 0 period jazz band, directed by Glenn Miller superfan (and eventual convert to the church) Karl Fitch. (Thanks, Mr. Fitch!) At a jazz band concert I heard a classmate a year ahead of me play a solo on tenor and I became a tenor sax player.

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Molech, Transgender Children, and the Idol of Politics

The Hebrew Bible does not mince words about the worship of Molech. Per Leviticus, anybody in the land of Israel who gave their children to Molech was to be put to death; not only that, God would “set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people.” In fact, two chapters earlier we read that one reason God expelled the Cananites from their land was because the Cananites let their children “pass through the fire to Molech.” Leviticus 18 makes clear that the expulsion is not just in the past tense; if the Israelites offer their children to Molech, they too will be spewed out of the land and cut off from God.

So who was Molech? According to the notes in my Jewish Study Bible, Molech was the Hebrew name for a Near Eastern god associated with the netherworld. Biblical tradition is uniform that worshiping Molech involved the sacrifice of children. Milton paints a devastating picture of Molech, an abomination and “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,/Though for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud/Thir childrens cries unheard, that past through fire/To his grim Idol.”

Today, of course, we don’t literally kill our children to worship various deities. But also, we don’t limit our reading of scripture to the narrowest, most literal interpretation possible. Famously, Pres. Kimball virtually canonized[fn1] the idea that the biblical injunction against idolatry isn’t merely an injunction against worshiping gods other than God. Rather, “[w]hatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.” He expressly points to the wealth we have accumulated as our new false god.

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Book Review: The 1920 Edition of the Book of Mormon

Richard L. Saunders
The 1920 Edition of the Book of Mormon: A Centennial Adventure in Latter-day Saint Book History
The W. W. Phelps Society and Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2021
Hardcover: $79.95
ISBN 978-1-58958-775-5

I’ll just get this out of the way up front: Richard L. Saunders has produced an admirable and fascinating work of book history. It’s detail, accuracy, and breadth match the highest standards. Moreover, in spite of its swim in technicalities, it is a fun read.

Book history is a powerful tool in the study of religion and in the case of Mormonism, it is especially useful, given Mormonism’s reliance on recent texts. And Richard Saunders has experience to recommend his work. Author of Printing in Deseret: Mormons, Economy, Politics, and Utah Incunabula 1849-1851 (Univ. of Utah Press, 2000), he brings expertise to the project. Learning how the Saints have read and produced their books in the past provides a great advantage to historians and scholars of religion. In particular, The 1920 Edition shows how the Utah Church and its imprint efforts displayed a multi-jection of personalities, culture, technology, principle, politics, and text.


Books are not just content. They are material artifacts. They demonstrate the intellectual landscape of the past in unique, often neglected ways. Book history provides a window into the past that shows the many bargains made between some ideal text and its material image.

Saunders’s work on The 1920 Edition is remarkable on several grounds, but one I want to single out is the deep dive into the ways the LDS Church tried to print its works. For example, while early twentieth-century church imprints, including works like James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith or Jesus the Christ bear marks that link them to local presses such as, “Deseret News Press,” they were frequently produced by commercial presses in the eastern half of the United States. The print technology used to produce such books is a study in itself. Ferreting out that information is a hallmark of fine book history. Saunders pulls it off. There is really nothing like it in the Latter-day Saint book genre.

One may guess that so well known a text as the Book of Mormon would make a discussion of a ninety year anniversary edition a trivial matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Go forth and find out why. It’s a solid journey. Greg Kofford Books and the W. W. Phelps Society deserve to be lauded for this work. I highly recommend this book. Go ahead and get that Christmas gift early. Libraries, take note.

BCC Press Introduces Spin, by John Bennion

BCC Press loves John Bennion. He is one of the lions of Mormon literature. His 1991 collection Breeding Leah & Other Stories was one of the first collections of Mormon-is stories to be real literature–you know, the stuff that you can teach to college students and write about for academic journals and be proud that your little subculture of a subculture produces. And his 2000 novel, Falling Toward Heaven joined the ranks of truly top-flight Mormon novels. His more recent books—mystery novels set on the Utah frontier during the waning days of polygamy—are smart, engrossing, and fun (see review here and here).

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Sunday Sermon: Singing about War while Praying for Peace

A good friend told me today that they sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in his ward. It seemed odd, he said, to be singing about war at a time when our leaders have instructed us to pray for peace. “We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly,” said the First Presidency message released last month after Russia attacked Ukraine, “and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts.

This seemed like a reasonable point, and it propelled me to take a few minutes looking through our hymnal to see how many of our hymns are essentially martial ballads or songs about war. The number I got was 11—not overwhelming, but also not trivial.

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Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 2

Participants in various geographies valued their church membership for helping them differentiate themselves from the ‘outside’ culture. Fijian participants valued the church’s progressiveness (see Part 1); US and NZ participants valued the church’s respect for motherhood. Furthermore, responses to the 2019 temple updates reveal a gap in priorities between Fijian, US, and NZ participants.

An ethnographic introduction to issues of gender and religion in the Global South.

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Poetry and the Feminine Divine: A BCC Press Spring Sale

It’s spring, and, as we all know, this is the time that Persephone is released from the underworld and returns to Demeter, who, in joy and gratitude, makes the flowers bloom and the weather fair. And nothing says Spring like poetry, and, at BCC Press, we are all about poetry. From now until Mother’s Day, you can get an amazing deal on some amazing poetry by and about women—strong women, lawless women, mothers, daughters, maidens and crones. So celebrate with Demeter and check out our amazing deals on poetry that matters.

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“Is Divine Love “unconditional”?: Grappling with a 20-year-old LDS doctrinal conundrum”

Ever since LDS Apostle (not-yet-President) Russell M. Nelson’s “Divine Love” talk appeared in the Ensign magazine way back in 2003, the question of whether God “unconditionally loves” his children has been a “hot topic” in LDS doctrinal conversation. This is deeply unfortunate, for the subject shouldn’t be controversial. Alas, the way the topic of “divine love” is portrayed in that talk has caused immense confusion, primarily among two groups of people — those who feel deeply perplexed, even damaged by it, and those who engage in (usually) knee-jerk defenses of it. I recognize the desire of many LDS to locate the source of the confusion outside the talk, rather than within it. Unfortunately, this desire, while well-meaning, is misplaced. The fault lies primarily in the talk itself, I will argue, not in the interpreters who are misinterpreting it (though I grant that many are indeed misinterpreting its intended meaning).

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What Part of Gender Is Eternal? A Meditation on Culture, Cognition, and Parts

Having an eternal gender does not mean an unchanged or static gender. If having a static gender were the intended meaning of “gender is eternal,” the authors of the text could have written “gender is static,” “gender never changes,” “don’t be trans,” or “God doesn’t want your gender to change,” but that is not what the text says. The text says gender is an essential characteristic of an eternal existence and purpose. This allows a lot of room for interpretation and dynamic change.—Blaire Ostler, Queer Mormon Theology, p. 56

There can be no doubt that, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gender is eternal. It says so right in the Proclamation on the Family “Gender,” it says, “is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” There, that settles it.

Except it doesn’t. It doesn’t say what happens when premortal, mortal, and eternal definitions of gender don’t align, and we know they don’t always align. Not does it say that the eternalness of gender must always fall into one of two binary choices. And it doesn’t specify what kind of “gender” we mean when we talk about an eternal and everlasting characteristic of human beings.

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General Boards: Relief Society Minutes

Recently, the Church History Library released digital versions of the Relief Society General Board minutes. This is a wonderful resource and it contains excellent clues about social issues facing Latter-day Saints and one of more important ways in which the church began a broad interface with organizations of descendants of the Benevolent Empire as well as secular institutions devoted to and run by women. It also affords excellent leads for those (like me) who want to see how women in the church interacted with the teachings, policies, practices, and economies of the church especially in the Intermountain West of first half of the twentieth century. Dive in!

The White Protestant Assumptions In The Word “Cult”

Here’s what you’re actually saying when you call something a cult.

1. The world ‘cult’ derives from the Latin ‘cultus,’ which simply means worship.

2. In the late nineteenth century some of the earliest scholars of religion began using it to describe the worship practices of so-called ‘primitive’ societies.  These people  believed that cultures evolved like species did, and that religious systems that emphasized ritual were inherently primitive, as opposed to religious systems that emphasized theology and ethical behavior, which were advanced. They believed this because they were Protestant and placed their own way of being religious on the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Of course, this had racial implications. “Cults” were religious systems that non-Protestants (and particularly non-white) people participated in; religion was what white people did.

3. Following this, in the early twentieth century, conservative Protestant evangelicals began to use the word “cult.” They, like the academics, used the word to refer to forms of Christianity that were, to them, fake Christianity: that is to say, non-Protestant. So, Roman Catholics and Mormons were cults because they mixed “real” Christianity with things that conservative Protestants thought weren’t really religious – like, for instance, ritual, or a charismatic leader. Again, though, “cult” meant to them “non-Protestant.”

4. In the 1960s and 1970s, these Protestant assumptions had sunk deeply enough into American culture that psychologists and sociologists started using the term to refer to religious systems that they found troubling. It was no mistake that most of these were Asian. Transcendental Meditation, formulated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in the 1950s. The Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon in Korea in the same time period. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishnas) founded in the 1960s by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. 

These religious movements did not seem religious at all because they weren’t Protestant. They demanded special dress from their believers (something virtually all religious traditions other than Protestantism require). They (like Roman Catholicism) had a charismatic leader. They pressed their followers to behave economically in distinctive ways. They emphasized ritual. And of course, they were led by people who were not white.

5. What people think they’re saying when they say “cult” is a religious movement that is abusive or dangerous in some way. If that is what you mean, simply say that. Use the phrase “abusive” or “dangerous” religion.  When you use the “cult” in a derogatory way, what you are doing is

a) implicitly asserting that only Protestantism is genuine religion, because the various meanings of “cult” we use today all stem from the idea that Protestantism should be normative: cults are religions that have charismatic leaders (Protestantism doesn’t); cults are religions that separate themselves from society (which Protestantism does in some countries, but not in the US, because Protestantism is dominant in society here); cults are religions that are “high-demand” (which Protestantism is not in the US, because it, again, frames what society is already like so it doesn’t have to be high-demand) and so on;

b) putting yourself in alliance with conservative evangelicals from the 1940s by assuming that these things are normal, and

b) drawing on a rhetorical legacy deeming the religious practices of non-white people as primitive.

So: don’t call religions “cults.”

Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 1

Women dancing, Fiji, photo by author

I didn’t suspect that inviting the missionaries for dinner would launch a research project.  

While we were eating, the Fijian missionary mentioned that showing good table manners in her home meant that her dad (the LDS bishop) and brothers ate first. After the men and boys had eaten, her mom and sisters ate the leftovers. 

Because I was interested, I wrote down her exact quote: “I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.” With good humor, she made this comment with a laugh and her head held high. 

“I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.”

Talking with this missionary about the gender-based rules and traditions in her culture made me wonder how the gendered practices of the church are interpreted in places like her Latter-Day Saint home and her Latter-Day Saint ward.

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How Much Federal Money Do the BYUs Receive?

The Short Answer: About $275,000,000 a year.

The Long Answer: Read on

BYU is a private institution and can do whatever it wants to do. If you don’t believe me, read any comment section on any recent article about BYU’s accreditation status, labor practices, or student policies. Enforced wokeness is for public schools only, or private schools that just don’t know any better. By refusing to sup at the government’s table, the BYUs free themselves from the tyranny of the government’s yoke. Or so the story goes.

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Religious Education at BYU: An Open Letter to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Michael Ing is a BYU alumnus and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. This letter was sent to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, BYU’s regional accreditor, during the public comment period of BYU’s reaccreditation visit. The Commission will accept written comments from any member of the public through March 6. Comments should be addressed to: NWCCU at: Attn: Third Party Comment, 8060 165th Ave NE, Ste 100, Redmond, WA 98052.


To Whom It May Concern:

I write in accordance with Brigham Young University’s cycle of reaccreditation with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. I write as a graduate of BYU (BA, 2002), an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University, and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am writing with regard to credit granted for Religious Education courses.

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How [Not] to Motivate: “Opting In” and Lessons from Authoritarianism

by Abigail J., CES Employee

“Are you opting in or out?” Employees at all CES institutions have been discussing this question in careful conversations recently, since the Powers that Be announced a new policy not only requiring all new CES employees—including faculty and staff at the BYUs—to “hold and be worthy to hold” a current temple recommend as a condition of employment, but also asking current employees to “adopt this standard voluntarily.” Conversations have increased in urgency and angst as employees have received additional announcements, emails, and verbal reminders to declare their decision to opt in or not. [fn1] [fn2] [fn3]

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Reflections on a Mission to Ukraine

Note: On 24 January 2022 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it was “temporarily reassigning full-time missionaries assigned to both the Ukraine Dnipro and Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova missions to locations outside of Ukraine … and a few missionaries who are approaching their planned release date will complete their missionary service and return home.” In light of recent events, I asked Thomas Christensen, who belonged to the latter group, to reflect on his mission experience.

Looking out over the frozen Dnieper River on the day we were evacuated from Ukraine

I returned from my mission in Ukraine at the end of January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was only able to serve in the Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova Mission from May 2021 to January 2022; the first 15 months of my mission were spent in Utah. 

I loved serving in Ukraine and Moldova. The people there are so resilient and amazing. It was hard to deal with the pandemic and all the restrictions, but the members would testify so often of how the Lord blessed them and their families as they tried to remain faithful.

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New BCC Press Book: Warner Woodworth’s Radiant Mormonism

Warner Woodworth’s new book Radiant Mormonism is an actual event, and an important one at that. If you don’t believe us, listen to Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Mohammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and a worldwide leader in micro-finance. Yunus pioneered the practice of giving small, simple-interest loans that impoverished people can use to start their own businesses and raise themselves from poverty. This is what Dr. Yunus has to say:

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Tomorrow Is Ash Wednesday

Pączki from Familiar Bakery in Chicago

Which means that today is Fat Tuesday.

I’ve written before about how, since moving to Chicago, my family has wholeheartedly embraced the Chicago-by-way-of-Poland Fat Tuesday tradition of Pączki Day. And, in fact, I’m sitting at home[fn1] with six pączki in a box on my counter, with however many more my wife is bringing home after work (she was going to hit at least two Polish bakeries on the way to and from work).

But I’m not posting this to boast about how many pączki I’m going to eat today (or, at least, I’m not posting this solely to boast about how many I’m going to eat); rather, I spent this morning thinking about the tension in Christianity between asceticism and consumption.

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Esau’s Embrace: Thoughts on Genesis 33

Bleker, Gerrit Claesz.; The Meeting of Jacob and Esau; Shipley Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-meeting-of-jacob-and-esau-35430

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that it never quite does what it is supposed to do. Like many of its main characters, the text itself is a trickster. It serves its own ends and refuses to cooperate with our flannel-board versions of the story (Kids, think of a really big iPad where you have to stick the pictures to the screen yourself). Every time we think we know what the text is saying, it shifts the narrative and says something different.

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A surprising thing the ‘Book of Red’ says about blue hats

Sodom and Gomorrah took center stage last week in the churchwide seminary curriculum. The teacher’s manual specifically identifies the “very grievous sin” which caused God to destroy the city as “homosexual behavior,” saying it was “widely accepted and practiced among the inhabitants.” The lesson briefly lists “other sins” identified by a later prophet—Ezekiel—including pride, idleness, and oppression of the poor and needy. But the rest of the lesson is spent on sections including “The Law of Chastity,” “Doctrinal Truths That Help Us Understand Why Homosexual Behavior Is a Serious Sin,” and “Sexual Purity.”

It’s a good idea to talk to your kids about this if they’re in seminary. It offers a great opportunity to think about the importance of reading scripture in context.

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BCC Press Announces Scott Abbott’s Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger

It is not by design—but it is certainly a happy accident—that BCC Press is releasing Scott Abbott’s Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger at a time when Brigham Young University is in the news for a number of controversial things. It has always been challenging for the Church’s flagship institution of higher education to balance the competing demands of its mission to provide its students with both an excellent university education and a distinctive religious experience. There are a lot of places where these two things come into conflict, and in its history, BYU has managed to find most of them.

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Apologies vs. Changed Behavior

When I was in High School, I was sometimes a bit of a mean girl. Shocking, I know. I wasn’t always a good friend. I sometimes picked on the weak members of the herd. I laughed at comments that belittled those on the fringes.

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The Wordles of Zion

Like about 20% of the English-speaking world—and a much higher portion of my personal friends and acquaintances—I play Wordle every day. I start at exactly midnight, play the day’s Wordle, and then post my result to Facebook, where dozens of friends post their scores, commiserate with me when my score sucks, and celebrate with me when it doesn’t. It has become an important ritual in my life.

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Priesthood and Temple Ban Winners and Losers Edition

Last Night I was watching the Jeopardy college tournament, and I was inspired to bring a game show approach to the topic of the moment by sorting out the winners and losers:

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God Under the Bus

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” —C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

In his classic essay, “God in the Dock,” C.S. Lewis spoke to the difficulties he encountered when he tried to talk about religion with modern secular audiences. The core of the problem, as he outlines it, is that people expect God to conform to their secular moral perspectives. God, he lamented, is constantly on trial in the modern world because people are not willing to let go of their own assumptions about right and wrong. [Read more…]

88 Keys and the Limits of “Chopsticks”

I thought I’d do one last post on Brad Wilcox’s now-infamous youth fireside. Tuesday I wrote about his offensive take on race and the priesthood (for which he has since apologized, though on the question of its sincerity ymmv). Yesterday I posted about the problems with his expressed views on gender. And today I’m going to look at what he said about other religions.

But today’s post is going to be a little different. Because at one point, he invoked a metaphor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, is like a piano keyboard.

Some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano. So when we are saying, “We’re the only true church,” we’re just inviting people to come and see what we can add to the truths that already fill their lives.

A few seconds later, he adds that he doesn’t “want to lose a whole piano. You walk away from the church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing ‘Chopsticks‘ the rest of your life.”

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Brad Wilcox and Institutional Problems, Part 2

Monday night, I saw a clip on Twitter of Young Men general presidency member Brad Wilcox making a tremendously racist statement in a youth fireside. I posted about it yesterday and, in the comments, people told me it wasn’t just racism. There was misogyny and religious bigotry mixed in too.

So last night I looked at a little more of his address and, well, it too is not good. So today I’m going to add a little. I’ll note that I still haven’t watched the whole thing and today’s post will be a lot shorter, in large part because I have to do actual work that I get paid for; thus, I’m going to pull out one or two parts.

Today’s post won’t be overshadowed by questions of the sincerity of the apology though because, unlike his statements on race and the priesthood, there has been no apology.

And with that, here we go:

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“Lead Out in Abandoning Attitudes and Actions of Prejudice”

Note: between when I drafted this post and when I scheduled it to go live, Bro. Wilcox apologized for his statement. And it’s a real-deal kind of apology, not a squishy avoiding-blame one; in fact, it’s a model for one step of precisely what I hoped for. I’m still going to posting for two reasons. First, while apology is a critical part of repenting, it is not the only step. And second, I don’t think this was primarily an individual problem–there is an underlying institutional problem that his comments highlighted and his apology didn’t and couldn’t change. But I’m making some changes to what I previously wrote in light of his apology.

Last weekend, Bradley Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men’s general presidency and associate teaching professor of ancient scripture at BYU-Provo, gave a youth fireside in Alpine, UT. Somewhere in the fireside he asked, rhetorically, why Black church members didn’t get the priesthood until 1978. (To be clear, his framing of the question is wrong: in the first decades of the church, a number of Black men received the priesthood; it wasn’t until 1852 that Brigham Young imposed the priesthood-and-temple ban on Black members.)

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Please Help Save Utah Lake

“Look to the winged ones who soar on the wind. If we endanger these ecosystems, how will we consider the winged ones?” Matt 6:26). As the First Nation translation of the New Testament invokes, our economic interests are transcended by what nature can teach us.

Lake Restoration Solutions has filed a defamation suit against Brigham Young University scientist Ben Abbott for his scientific perspective on their project to create islands in Utah Lake so that an ill-advised real estate development can proceed. Ben is one of the finest scientists I know. As a fellow ecologist, I can state unequivocally that his science is solid.

Consider another angle on this attempt to co-opt a resource that all citizens of Utah may currently enjoy: the beauty and wonder that Utah Lake offers.

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I Dissent: Questions Regarding the Efficacy and Repercussions of a Dissenting Vote

by John S.

Recently the Church Educational System (CES) announced that “all new employees who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be required to hold and be worthy to hold a current temple recommend. Church members already working at CES institutions will be invited to adopt this standard voluntarily.”

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