D&C Gospel Doctrine Lesson 42: Some important background and resources on OD2

Rubens, Cain Slaying Abel (Public domain)

Rubens, Cain Slaying Abel (Public domain)

This, I think, is important enough for a post. Lesson 42 on Continuing Revelation highlights Official Declaration #2, the written aftermath of the 1978 revelation. So whether you’re teaching or commenting, you should get informed, because there’s a lot of misinformation and tradition out there.

First, get familiar with the Gospel Topics Essay called Race and the Priesthood. If you’re a teacher, Elder Ballard thinks you ought to know this material “like the back of your hand” and “If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them.” Well, below are two. Continue reading “D&C Gospel Doctrine Lesson 42: Some important background and resources on OD2”

Announcement: MI Seminar Conference on Thursday

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 11.23.59 PMThe Maxwell Institute Seminar draws to an end with a public conference this Thursday. I’ll be speaking at 9:40 on Mormonism as Rough Stone Rolling: Towards a Theology of Encountering the World.

The full schedule is below.


Mormonism Engages the World”

Thursday, August 3
9:30 AM to 4:30 PM MST

Brigham Young University
Joseph F. Smith Building
Education in Zion Theater

Co-sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship


9:30 AM
Welcome and Invocation

9:40 AM
Ben Spackman
“Mormonism as a Rough Stone Rolling: Towards a Theology of Encountering the World”

10:10 AM
Amber Taylor
“A Patriotism of Peace: Suffrage, Americanization, and the Peace Movement among Early Twentieth-Century Mormon Women”

10:40 AM
Jessica Nelson
“World War II and Making Modern Mormonism”

11:10 AM
Richelle Wilson
“The Disenchantment of Callings: From Consecration to Delegation”

11:40 AM
Aubrie Mema
“The Suffering Christ: Finding the Tragic in Mormon Art”



1:30 PM
Randy Powell
“Savin’ for a Rainy Day: Mormon Food Storage and the Survivalist Movement”

2:00 PM
Adam Brasich
“‘An Everlasting Order’: Fundamentalist Mormonism’s Response to the Great Depression”

2:30 PM
Gavin Feller
“Modest with a Little Mystery: Television, Swimsuits, and Mormonism in 1950s America”

3:00 PM
Liz Brocious
“Invitation to a ‘Mix and Mingle’: Bringing a Mormon Theology of Agency in Conversation with a Secular Theory of Self”

3:30 PM
Ty Mansfield
“‘Eternal Companions’: Orders of Priesthood, Victorian Romanticism, and Shifting Narratives in Mormon Discourse on Marriage and Family”

4:00 PM
Norma Calabrese
“Mormonism: (The Challenge to Become) a Glocal Church in a Globalized World”

“Glocal” btw, is a combination of global and local.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Transitional Mormonism, Part 2: An Earlier Transition

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 11.37.26 AMWhat do I mean by “transitional Mormonism”? (Part 1 is here if you missed it.) I take the idea from the title of Thomas Alexander’s award-winning book Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, now in a 3rd edition. Alexander was a BYU professor, and wrote this as part of a commissioned 16-volume history of the Church that did not come to fruition. This time period was a particularly tumultuous one both for the LDS Church and America, with major intellectual, social, scientific, and technological changes. Among other things, the “modernism crisis” with Darwinism/evolution, “higher criticism,” and the rediscovery of the ancient near east  led to the creation of fundamentalism (an intellectual response to the crisis) as well as Pentecostalism (a spiritual response.)

The LDS Church existed in the same environment, and many major changes to policy, doctrinal understanding, and LDS culture happened during this period Alexander chronicles. These changes discomfitted many LDS, who reacted in a variety of ways including both intellectual and actual schisms. For those not well acquainted with LDS history, I would characterize this period as the bridge between “Joseph Smith’s church” and the “modern church.”

What are these discomfitting changes? To pick a few major ones Alexander covers well and hold my interest

  1. The ending of (mainstream) lived polygamy
  2. The beginning of geneaological research and the associated centrality of the temple. That is, until this time, it seems the importance of learning about your ancestors and doing their temple work and sealing was not understood; consequently, most Mormons (including Apostles) were endowed, married, and then didn’t have any theological motivation to return. Once Wilford Woodruff put an end to the idea of “adoption” and emphasized geneaology, the need to attend to proxy ordinances greatly increased.
  3. The codification/standardizing of the Word of Wisdom and its elevation to a temple recommend question. Among others, see Mike Ash “Up in Smoke” and Edward L. Kimball, “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards”
  4. Doctrinal regulation/centralization 

I suspect Mormonism has now entered a similar transitionary period as the one Alexander describes from 100 years ago. Certainly, Mormonism is always changing in some way or another so in a later post I’ll explain why I think we’re into another major transitionary period and why. I’ll also describe a parallel transition that I suspect is informing LDS leadership. In the meantime, check out Alexander’s book.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

The Complexities of History in The Ensign

Doctor Who Intro Screenshot

Doctor Who Intro Screenshot

I still haven’t had time for the second post in my Transitional Mormonism series, but I promise to make time soonish.

I want to highlight an important Ensign article in the February 2017 issue, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith.” Written by the Church History Library Director Keith Erikson, it makes some important points that are not always obvious or instinctive to non-historians. Erikson echoes several points made in another important Ensign article about history 40 years ago, by Elder G. Homer Durham. I draw on both below.

  1. The past is accessible only indirectly and partially.

    pieces of the past remain—letters, diaries, records of organizations, material objects. Today, we can learn about the past only indirectly through the pieces that remain. Information is always lost between the past and the present. We must study the records that do survive while remembering that they do not represent the entirety of the past.Consider one example: When Joseph Smith preached a sermon to the Saints, he typically had no prepared text, and no audio or video recording was made. Though a few in attendance may have written notes or reflections, even fewer of those notes survive. Thus, we cannot claim to know everything Joseph Smith ever said, though we can, for instance, quote Wilford Woodruff’s notes about Joseph’s sermon.- Erikson

  2. There is a difference between the events of the past and the records of those events, between what happened and the evidence that remains to reconstruct it.

    Many years ago one of America’s distinguished historians, Professor James T. Shotwell of Columbia University, reminded us that history is at least two things: (1) a record of events and (2) the events themselves.- Durham

  3. The evidence or records that survive are often extremely fragmentary, and even the best and most accurate records are incomplete, sometimes in important ways.

    even if the official records are accurate, they are always incomplete. A marriage certificate records the names of the parties, the officiator, the witnesses, the place, and the date of the marriage. But it doesn’t tell how the bride, groom, family, and friends felt, or what they experienced. And everyone participating will naturally have had a different experience.- Durham

    As Elder Eyring said, “no event in history can be fully known.”

  4. Historians must interpret that fragmentary evidence in telling the historical story. Every telling, every retelling, has some purpose, some goal, some bias, and is based on partial and incomplete access.

    The “events themselves,” which took place in the past, whether yesterday or 5,000 years ago, are beyond exact recall with our present facilities. We cannot re-experience an event. Thus, we are left with records of events, all of which are interpretations of events. (Even television involves a human judgment on where to point the camera.) Furthermore, despite the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and the natural and social sciences, most history is a form of literature. Naturally, the most reliable records come from qualified participants in the events or from analysts with access to all the records, but their re-creation of the event for us will always be shaped by their own perspective.- Durham

    Because the surviving pieces of the past are incomplete, people attempt to put the pieces together in order to tell a story. The earliest stories were told by participants and typically describe what they experienced and why it was important to them. Some participants told their stories on multiple occasions to different audiences. Some events prompted many participants to relate their experiences. Other events were forgotten until a later experience called them to mind.

    Stories are collected and retold by others for many reasons—to entertain an audience, sell a product, shape public opinion, or lobby for change. Each story becomes an interpretation of the past, built on factual pieces and influenced by the teller’s memory, interests, and goals. As a result, stories about the past are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. We must always consider who is telling the stories, how they are telling them, and why they are telling them.- Eriksen

  5. The past is different than the present. Duh, you may say. While obvious once stated, the implications of this difference are extremely important. We distort the past when we interpret it as if it were the present, and we do this all the time. This is called “presentism” and it’s a common and massive problem.

    The past is different from the present (and that’s OK)

    As we seek to make sense of the pieces of the past and the stories told about it, we discover people, places, experiences, and traditions different from our own. Changes in science, technology, and culture produce different experiences with birth, eating, travel, holidays, hygiene, dating, medicine, and death. Different political and economic systems create different experiences with education, choice, freedom, and opportunity. Past views differ from our views on work, family, public service, and the role and status of women and minorities. Every temporal aspect of human experience changes over time in ways both small and great.

    For example, from our perspective in the present, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon appears very different. [See my post on teaching the seer stone at BYU in 2004 here, and my post about Oliver Cowdery’s rod and Joseph in Egypt’s divining cup here.] In his time, however, many people believed that physical objects could be used to receive divine messages. These beliefs were based, in part, on biblical stories in which objects were used for divine purposes (see Numbers 17:1–10; 2 Kings 5; John 9:6). A revelation Joseph received for the organization of the Church explained that God “gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 20:8). Though the “means” included a seer stone as well as the Urim and Thummim, we can still discern the doctrinal message “that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age … ; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:11–12).

    Present assumptions distort the past

    Because the past was different from our day, we must take special care not to make assumptions about the past based on our present ideas and values. We cannot assume that people in the past were just like us or that they would appreciate our culture or beliefs. We cannot assume that we now know everything, that we have read every source, or that our current understanding of the past will never change. Frequently, so-called problems with the past are actually just bad assumptions made in the present.

    For example, Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect.” If we were to assume that prophets never made mistakes, then we might be startled to discover times when Joseph did. To “fix” this problem, we should neither stubbornly hold that Joseph was perfect nor charge the Church with deception. Rather, we can acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and see him in the context of other scriptural stories about prophets. As a result, we can adjust our assumptions to recognize that all prophets are mortal and therefore have imperfections. We can feel grateful that God patiently works with each of us. Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding history.- Erikson (my italics, bold in original)

As mentioned above, history-writing is a form of literature. Indeed, Robert Alter, a professor of literature and Hebrew, bluntly stated that “history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.” Latin fictio means “something made or fashioned.” In that limited etymological sense, all history is “fiction” because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to select certain historical data points and make or fashion a coherent story with them. A different person at a different time with a different focus or different sources might tell a different story about the same events.

This is not to undermine “history” as a profession. Indeed not, it is professional historians who are most trustworthy to handle historical materials and narratives. They are the ones trained on its pitfalls and accordingly the most careful about making authoritative historical claims.

This discussion about the nature of history and history-writing applies very much to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other scripture, as well as how we interpret and understand it. In writing and editing the Book of Mormon, Mormon functions as an ancient historian. What does he select? What does he leave out? How does he arrange his sources to make certain points? What does he know? (See Grant Hardy, Mormon as Editor, and his Understanding the Book of Mormon for much greater depth.) Recalling from above that the past differs from the present, we must also ask if history-writing in the past differed from history-writing in the present.  Peter Enns writes

What were the ancient conventions for writing history? What did it mean to record history? What can be called good or accurate history writing by standards that were in existence when the Bible was written?

Do we unconsciously assume every part of ancient scripture is “history” and then read it according to modern historical standards? (This is a genre question. See my posts here and here.) How might this distort the original inspired purpose?

Although the editorial processes involved with the Bible are far more opaque than in the Book of Mormon, the same issues are present there.  Enns continues.

All historiography [or history writing] is a literary product, which means it is about people writing down (or transmitting orally) their version of that history. In other words, historiography is by definition an interpretive exercise. There might not be much that is interpretive about saying “David lived,” but when you give an account of David’s life—what he did, when, with whom, why, what the implications were—you are most certainly engaged in interpreting these events. How  so? Anyone who communicates historical events must be very selective about what is communicated. You simply can’t say everything, nor would you want to. You say only those things that are important to the point you want to get across. Also, you will say those things in such a way that will drive your point home. In other words, this presentation, this literary product, looks the way it does because the author has a purpose in mind for why those events should be reported. The presentation is not divorced from the events, but it is a purposeful representation of those events.
These three elements are always interconnected. All written accounts of history are literary products that are based on historical events that are shaped to conform to the purpose the historian wants to get across.- Enns, I&I, link below.

Why is understanding all this important?

I think that when we have a better handle on the nature of history and history-writing, we are better equipped to interpret and understand scripture, and make sense of the oft-puzzling past. Particularly when the past seems to pose a serious challenge to us in some way, the more tools we have to “handle” it, the better off we are. I’m terribly pleased to see The Ensign trying to put those tools into the hands of everyday readers.

Beyond the two Ensign articles, here is some further suggested reading, some quoted above.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Transitional Mormonism and Tradition: Part 1

George Cattermole, "The Scribe" public domain.

George Cattermole, “The Scribe.” Public domain.

I wrote the last post while traveling and have just started a new and busy semester, and so didn’t respond at all to the thirty-odd comments there. I’ll address them and some related issues, instead, in a multi-part series. I’ll get into what I mean by “transitional Mormonism” in the next post, but it’s nothing to do with “faith journeys,” “stages of faith” or anything like that. 
Peter Enns is both an Evangelical who holds the Bible in very high regard and a Harvard PhD in Hebrew Bible. He has been featured in the Maxwell Institute podcast and spoken at BYU along with James Kugel and Candida Moss (now in print here). I frequently steer Latter-day Saints to his books. Back in November, I linked to a forthcoming book cowritten by a Bible scholar and a geneticist, Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science. Enns has now offered a brief review over at Biologos, an excellent site for science/religion issues. Although it doesn’t all apply to the Mormon worldview (e.g. the issue of every human sinning “in Adam,” or “original sin”), the whole thing is worth reading. I want to highlight one of his comments.

Any discussion of the “historical Adam” cannot proceed one step forward without taking into account the story of Adam in its ancient context. I don’t mean to suggest this is easy as pie. There is a lot to work through, and room for some variation in points of view. But the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years about antiquity and the function that origins stories played in ancient societies. Placing Adam in his ancient context immediately and significantly affects how Genesis is brought into the discussion over evolution. (My italics)

I completely agree, but want to take this in a different direction. Mormons place very high authority on tradition, and rightly so given the LDS principles of priesthood authority, revelation, etc. But we are a young Church with underdeveloped mechanisms for weighing, balancing, and adjudicating statements within that tradition. While not perfectly analogous, there is no LDS equivalent of, say, the Islamic science of weighing and judging traditions about Mohammed (hadith) or the Catholic degrees of authoritative statements. Instead we play General Authority poker.

There is a common assumption that statements made by Church leaders represent both a revelatory position (vertical, with the divine) and representative position (horizontal, that all General Authorities hold the same view). At times, something calls this into question: conflict of various kinds, both perceived and real, which exists much more than most people realize. Whether conflict between contemporaneous General Authorities (like Brigham Young vs. Orson Pratt), historical (like Bruce R. McConkie vs. Brigham Young), conflict or differing views between scripture and General Authorities, or within scripture itself (see here), or conflict between (particular readings of) scripture and well-established human knowledge (e.g. Young earth creationists vs. lots of geology, biology, etc.) Such conflicts suddenly call into question common absolutist assumptions about the nature of Church leadership (eternally unified, monolithic, consistent, and purely divine, for all practical purposes) and can undermine faith, if unexpected.

There are plenty of General Authority statements indicating that these common assumptions are wrong. To take two examples, B.H. Roberts bluntly said that

Constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs even of the Church; not even good men, no, not though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:525

That notorious liberal softy Elder Bruce R. McConkie similarly said that

With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances. Mormon Doctrine, 547.

If, as I said above, LDS Church leaders are not merely offering human views, neither (according to McConkie, Roberts, and many others) are they somehow divinely cleaved and cleansed from their own minds, culture, knowledge, “their own opinions and prejudices” in McConkie’s terms. My suspicion is that this is not an on/off switch, not a clear “acting as prophet/not acting as prophet” binary as it is sometimes characterized, but a constant divine/human mixture that fluctuates for a variety of reasons. I believe that all revelation is inflected with humanity to some degree; it must be so, or God could not communicate with us, e.g. D&C 1:24. (But that’s another post, one I’ve probably already written.)

Here’s an example I think most will find non-threatening, regarding changes in garments in the early 1900s.

Although there was opposition to such changes among some Latter-day Saints, Elder Richards [an Apostle and Salt Lake City  Temple President] had learned some months earlier that such changes were both appropriate and normal. Some older members of the Church informed him that Emma Smith and Eliza R. Snow made the original temple clothing for the Prophet Joseph Smith. The reason they used strings on the garment was simply because they were too poor to buy [page] buttons. It was not necessarily God’s will that strings be used instead of buttons. The old-style collar was included because the seamstresses did not know how to finish the top of the garment and decided to do it with a collar. Dale C. Mouritsen, A Symbol of New Directions: George Franklin Richards and the Mormon Church, 1861-1950 (BYU Dissertation, 1982), 211-212. My italics.

In other words, people assumed that the received tradition (about the temple!) was fully prophetic and divinely ordained. The reality is that this aspect of the received tradition was dictated by human choice and historical circumstances. Addressing BYU professors, Elder McConkie once said that “Certain things which are commonly said and commonly taught in the Church [that is, “tradition”] either are not true, or, are in the realm of pure speculation.” Yes, he had a particular topic in mind, but that’s irrelevant to my purposes here. Suffice to say, he recognized that Church tradition includes aspects that, while popular, do not have much real grounding.

Returning to Genesis, evolution, and Enns, “the conversation cannot go on as if we’ve learned nothing in the last 150 years. When Mormons discuss various social, economic, religious, or scriptural issues, we tend to cite General Authority views, often from the relatively distant past. Can we legitimately cite those traditions as if they were pure expressions of divine knowledge intended for all time? (I think I’ve demonstrated above that it’s dangerous to assume that uncritically.) Or should we understand them as being influenced to some degree by the context and situations of the speaker as well as “their opinions and prejudices”?

Let me get very specific. Our knowledge of biology, biochemistry, genetics, evolution, and human origins, the topic of the book Enns is reviewing, have exploded in ways unimaginable in the early 1900s and even mid-1900s. (The timeline of this knowledge-production is quite interesting to study but secondary to my purpose here. Perhaps I’ll post a book list later.) The Church’s statement from over one hundred years ago was “that which is demonstrated, we accept with joy.”  Can we simply cite these and other such statements opposed to evolution as if they were purely divine and context-free declarations, and put the issue to bed? Or rather, are we obliged both to acknowledge them and their concordant authority and wrestle with what has been demonstrated and well-established in the last decades? Has the state of “demonstration” changed in the last hundred-plus years?

As a believing and orthodox Latter-day Saint, I take seriously the injunctions to study my scriptures and the words of the prophets, both living and dead. Indeed, it is precisely because I take it seriously that I study closely our religious tradition and have become aware of (as I mention above) the variety of views and opinions, sometimes even on central doctrinal issues, within scripture and LDS history. One of my old BYU professors quipped that “when it comes to church history and doctrine, you can have it all, or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.”

True indeed.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Mormon Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It?

My image.

My image.

Occasionally, one hears Mormons (usually laypeople) critiquing Protestants for slavish and uncritical interpretation of the Bible, for “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of bibliolatry. Certainly, some Protestants merit this critique. The intellectual crisis and problems among Protestants, and their effects on American culture and politics have been written about extensively by Mark Noll (e.g. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), Randall Balmer, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Kenton Sparks, and others. These scholars are themselves largely Evangelical, so it’s an internal critique.

No, my problem when this critique is made by Mormons is that oft-times Mormons are making it hypocritically. Continue reading “Mormon Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It?”

A Vague Post on Joseph Fielding Smith, Evolution, and Other Sides of His Story

Screen Shot 2016-11-02 at 9.07.09 AMPeople are multi-faceted and complex. It’s very easy to develop an attitude of putting either a halo or a black hat on someone from one incident, one aspect of them, particularly when it’s a historical figure. It can be hard to get a full picture of someone. Elder Maxwell once said that the tragedy of Elder McConkie was that he had the most fantastic sense of humor, and no one in the Church knew it. (See my old post here.)

It’s well known that Joseph Fielding Smith was strongly opposed to evolution, embraced a young earth creationist view, and consequently had arguments with other General Authorities for much of his life. Continue reading “A Vague Post on Joseph Fielding Smith, Evolution, and Other Sides of His Story”