The Fog of Marriage

October 27, 2014

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” –Donald Rumsfeld.

As many readers will know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has of late released several essays about difficult or controversial doctrines or events in its history. I’ve generally avoided commenting on these essays, as others have done a much better job than I could in discussing their contents. I should mention that I believe it’s a step in the right direction for the church to address these issues, particularly because so many faithful members have been troubled when they learn of the issues, with more than a few leaving the church as a result. That said, each essay seems to be intended to lessen the impact of the troubling issues, often blurring the reality and in some cases directly contradicting the evidence. I don’t blame them for trying to put these issues in the most positive light possible, but then again I wish they would trust their readers with the truth.

This shading of the truth continues in the church’s latest essays, which cover Mormon polygamy in the early days of Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, and the later practice of polygamy in Utah. Here I’ll discuss the first essay and a few things that stand out for me; I’ll leave it to others to more thoroughly cover the subject; for example, see the “Infants on Thrones” discussion with Community of Christ historian John Hamer. (Full disclosure: I do not know John Hamer personally, but his sister is a very good friend of mine.)

The important thing to understand about the essay, “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” is that its purpose is not so much to illuminate but rather to emphasize how little we know about early Mormon polygamy:

Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are unknown. Plural marriage was introduced among the early Saints incrementally, and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-day Saints had moved to Utah and Church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice. The historical record of early plural marriage is therefore thin: few records of the time provide details, and later reminiscences are not always reliable. Some ambiguity will always accompany our knowledge about this issue. Like the participants, we “see through a glass, darkly” and are asked to walk by faith.

All of this is true, of course. There is very little contemporary evidence from the participants in plural marriage, and that is a result of the secrecy of the practice. Joseph Smith, for example, kept his plural marriages hidden from the public, from most of his followers (including some who were otherwise in his inner circle), and even from his wife, Emma. Most, but not all, of the evidence that Joseph Smith introduced and practiced plural marriage comes from recollections of participants often made long after Smith’s death. The scarcity of contemporary, firsthand accounts led the anti-polygamy Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ) to insist for over 100 years that plural marriage was a heresy introduced by Brigham Young. (For a good example of polygamy denial, see “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy,” though be forewarned that, if you know anything about the subject, you’ll be rolling your eyes a lot.) But the sheer volume of testimony and corroboration of many witnesses has led historians and even the Community of Christ to acknowledge that “research findings point to Joseph Smith Jr. as a significant source for plural marriage teaching and practice at Nauvoo.”

One would expect a historical essay to discuss what we know, but in this case the emphasis is squarely on what we don’t know, or at least what the LDS church says we don’t know. In discussing Fanny Alger, recognized by some as Smith’s first plural wife, the essay states, “Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents. Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger.” The second sentence leaves open the possibility that Joseph obtained Emma’s consent before marrying Fanny and ignores testimony from others who say Emma was outraged when she discovered the relationship. Most of the essay follows this pattern of carefully worded statements that are superficially true but give a misleading impression.

At other points, the essay overstates tenuous evidence. For example, we read that “several women said [the marriages/sealings] were for eternity alone.” However, Brian Hales, whose research forms the basis of most of the essay, provides only one anonymous statement from many years later that one wife, Ruth Vose Sayers, was sealed for “eternity alone”:

While there the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers. The latter not attaching much importance to \the/ theory of a future life insisted that his wife \Ruth/ should be sealed to the Prophet for eternity, as he himself should only claim [page2—the first 3 lines of which are written over illegible erasures] her in this life. She \was/ accordingly the sealed to the Prophet in Emma Smith’s presence and thus were became numbered among the Prophets plural wives. She however \though she/ \continued to live with Mr. Sayers / remained with her husband \until his death.

Even if we grant that this unattributed statement definitely claims that “eternity-only” sealings were practiced (I am not sure it necessarily means that at all), it doesn’t mean that “several women” said that such were their marriages. You may notice that most of the footnotes regarding this subject are to Hales’s book, not to firsthand testimony.

This insistence that “several” marriages were of the eternity-only variety is central to the essay’s central theme that we know some marriages weren’t sexual, and we don’t know enough about the other ones:

During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone.

Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary. Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.

Here again the emphasis is on eternity-only sealings, with “time and eternity” sealings only “generally including the possibility of sexual relations.” So, even the “time and eternity” sealings may not have involved sexuality. This is an important assertion, as it is used to support the idea that Joseph’s relationships with married women were not sexual.

Following his marriage to Louisa Beaman and before he married other single women, Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone.

Polyandry is very troubling to a lot of people (and for good reason), but if the church’s essay is correct, most of these women left no record, and those who did said the relationships were “for eternity alone.” This essay thus goes a long way in comforting the troubled, who can rest assured that Joseph Smith most likely did not have sex with married women. But is the essay correct in this assertion?

Thus far, the essay has given only nebulous references to “several” and “others” with the footnotes sending us to Hales. But there is one direct statement from one of the wives that is cited as evidence of “eternity alone” sealings:

Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.

This is important, as Helen was 14 years old at the time of her marriage to Joseph Smith. A lot of people are appalled when they hear about this, as they assume that, given the marriage, Joseph and Helen must have had a sexual relationship. Some have gone so far as to insist that this marriage means Joseph was a “pedophile.”

If the essay is correct, that Helen clearly stated that her relationship was “for eternity alone,” the church can confidently leave open the possibility that many of Joseph Smith’s marriages, including Helen’s and the polyandrous marriages, were not sexual in nature. When I read the essay, my first thought was that, although I had read Helen’s writings many times, I had never seen a direct statement that her marriage was for “eternity alone.” I wondered how I had missed it. The footnote was, unsurprisingly, a reference to Hales, so I was going to have to find the reference myself. With a little work, I did. It comes in the second line of a poem Helen wrote about her marriage to Joseph Smith (the entire poem is reprinted here).

I thought through this life my time will be my own
The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone,
No one need be the wiser, through time I shall be free,
And as the past hath been the future still will be.
To my guileless heart all free from worldly care
And full of blissful hopes and youthful visions rare
The world seamed bright the thret’ning clouds were kept
From sight and all looked fair but pitying angels wept.
They saw my youthful friends grow shy and cold.
And poisonous darts from sland’rous tongues were hurled,
Untutor’d heart in thy gen’rous sacrafise,
Thou dids’t not weigh the cost nor know the bitter price;
Thy happy dreams all o’er thou’st doom’d also to be
Bar’d out from social scenes by this thy destiny,
And o’er thy sad’nd mem’ries of sweet departed joys
Thy sicken’d heart will brood and imagine future woes,
And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart,
Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmor at thy lot;

In context, then, Helen writes that, as a young girl, she had “thought” that the marriage was “for eternity alone” but had been mistaken. Before anyone attacks me for suggesting that Joseph had sex with a 14-year-old, I am not saying that at all. For the record, I agree with Todd Compton that the evidence in Helen’s case is “ambiguous,” and there is no evidence of a sexual relationship.

The problem here is that, contrary to the essay, Helen Mar Kimball did not speak “of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone.'” Her statement, then, cannot be used to suggest “that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.” As I said, there is no evidence one way or the other regarding sexuality in that marriage. Helen’s complaints about her social life tell us that she was not free to be courted by other male suitors, and that suggests that, whatever else was happening, the marriage was in effect for time, as well as for eternity. I tend to agree with Todd Compton that the marriage may have been more “dynastic” than the romantic relationships Joseph had with his other wives, but in all honesty, there’s really no solid evidence for that, either. But Helen’s experience can’t be applied to Joseph’s other marriages, many of which definitely involved a sexual relationship. A single anonymous citation does not suggest that none of the polyandrous marriages were sexual; indeed, there is strong evidence to the contrary, but you wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.

And that’s really the problem. Where there is solid evidence, the church downplays its significance, and where the evidence is inconclusive, the church applies it broadly. And in the case of Helen Kimball, the church simply quotes her out of context to give an incorrect impression.


Top Ten Hints for Polygamy Apologists

June 18, 2014

1. A person’s consent does not make any action toward that person right.

2. A person in a position of authority has an unequal relationship with his or her subordinates. The consent of a subordinate to something they otherwise would not do does not indicate that the authority figure has not abused his or her authority.

3. It is not OK to conceal extramarital sex from one’s spouse to spare the spouse’s feelings.

4. Telling someone after the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them does not change the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them without their prior knowledge or consent.

5. A person’s acceptance after the fact of an action done without their knowledge or consent does not make the action right.

6. Threatening to destroy someone’s reputation if they reveal that you’ve made sexual advances on them is not acceptable.

7. Publicly trashing someone’s reputation after they have revealed your sexual advances is unacceptable.

8. It is impossible for a child to give free and informed consent to an adult authority figure when she is told that her consent will guarantee exaltation for her family.

9. Concealing something from one’s spouse and others is a good sign that you are afraid of the consequences of getting caught. People tend not to be afraid of the consequences of getting caught performing “dynastic” rituals that have nothing to do with sex.

10. Absence of offspring is not solid evidence that someone has not had sex.


Everything Has Chains

June 13, 2014

Given the subjects of a lot of my posts, some people are surprised to find that I am not technically a former Mormon. Yep, I’m still on the records of the LDS church, I’m still a high priest, and, at least according to the church, the terms of my covenants remain in effect.

I have noticed in the last two days a number of people are saying that the situation with John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Rock Waterman has them upset enough to formally resign from the LDS church. Here’s a sample of what’s been said:

A mother: “I’m thinking it’s about time I resign this narrow-minded church that has taken so much from me.”

A returned missionary: “I’ve just been too lazy to do it, but this has motivated me. I have also had contact with a couple families that were on the fence (friends/roommates from BYU) but have decided it may be best to just resign and get their families out. This might be an interesting catalyst.”

A high priest: “If I am going to resign, and I am definitely considering it seriously, I would like it to be something where it is directly linked with this latest action taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of North Korea.”

A non-Mormon married to a Mormon: “I may have my children’s names removed from the records of the church over this. They were unlikely to ever choose to be baptized LDS as it is, but if the church wants to treat feminists this way, then it can stop counting my children as part of that membership tally that it’s so fond of.”

As I’ve said before, I understand how these people feel. A lot of people I know held out hope that the church was becoming more inclusive and tolerant, and more open about its past, but really, nothing has changed. The church is the same today as it was last week before any of us knew about the pending disciplinary action. As Kate Kelly was reminded, disagreement with official policies and teachings is tolerated only if it is never expressed publicly. I remember being told multiple times that I was free to believe whatever I wanted to believe, as long as I kept it to myself. Even when I had checked out of the LDS church almost entirely, I was told I shouldn’t tell anyone about my beliefs or about the things I had learned about the church. I was even told that I should not share my thoughts and beliefs about the church with my own children, as if leaving the church had nullified my rights and responsibilities as a parent.

Make no mistake about it: the LDS church is an authoritarian institution that tolerates no dissent. I have long believed that the institutional culture–the personality of the church, if you will–is a direct reflection of Joseph Smith’s personality. If you have read anything about Joseph Smith (well, outside official publications), you know he could not accept challenges to his authority, direct or indirect. He was at the top of the structure, and he expected those subordinate to him to do what they were told. When anyone stood up to him, Joseph Smith became angry and sometimes violent. There are numerous accounts of him physically attacking people who stood up to him. Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable. Contradictions would arouse in him the lion at once. By no one of his fellows would he be superceded. In the early days at Kirtland, and elsewhere, one or another of his associates were more than once, for their impudence, helped from the congregation by his foot.

And there’s an account from my own family history describing his completely losing his temper and shouting at my ancestor, who physically ejected Smith from his home when Smith became violent.

It’s hard to think of any incident in the life of Joseph Smith in which he accepted correction from a subordinate or ever acknowledged being in the wrong, let alone needing forgiveness. I’m reminded of the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation, but what you see there is that he acknowledges wrongdoing only in the sense that he gave in to the cajoling of a subordinate, in this case Martin Harris. Even when caught quite literally with his pants down in a barn with Fanny Alger,  Joseph said he would not confess to adultery or anything else. When men became upset at his advances on their wives and daughters, he denied everything and publicly denounced the women as liars and whores. In his speeches and writings, including scripture, Joseph reserved the harshest denunciations for dissenters and apostates, and those attitudes have persisted to this day, as members are still taught that “dissenters [are] base traitors and sycophants.”

I’m convinced that this inability to take correction or instruction from anyone beneath Joseph Smith is what shaped the office of President of the Church after his death. Brigham Young, aptly called “Old Boss” by his subordinates, assumed nearly absolute authority over the church and Utah Territory, even to the point that, when he ordered that someone be “used up,” that person was sure not to be alive for very long. I’m pretty sure that Brigham’s forceful personality explains a lot of this, and the autocratic rule seems to have diminished after his death. But what remains is still a belief that dissent from the ranks is not to be tolerated at all.

Most Mormons are familiar with recent teachings about dissent. Dallin Oaks, for example, has taught that “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” Russell Ballard has said:

In the Lord’s Church there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition.” One is either for the kingdom of God and stands in defense of God’s prophets and apostles, or one stands opposed.

None of this is new. The church has never tolerated dissent, even polite and respectful dissent, so no one should be surprised by the events of the last week.

What I think is happening is that people who supported John and the Ordain Women movement allowed themselves to believe that things were different, that things had changed. If nothing else, we’ve been given a reminder that institutions do not change in an instant, or even in the 21 years since the last coordinated purging of dissent.

Is it possible for the church to change? Perhaps, but it’s a big ship, and it takes time and effort to turn a ship, especially one essentially chained to its past by an inability to question its own authority. As Eddie Vedder put it, “Everything has chains” holding it back from growth, and too often you find that  “absolutely nothing’s changed.”

In the meantime, the big danger to the church is that they are likely to alienate a lot of people who love the gospel but recognize that the church is an extremely conservative institution run by fallible men. As long as people like Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were in the church, those who didn’t necessarily accept the “official” version of the church’s history, origins, and practices could believe they weren’t alone. The three of them seemed to show kindred spirits that it was OK to be different and still participate in the church. Many times I’ve had conversations with Mormons in which they sort of nervously give the party line, but once they know it’s “safe” to speak openly with me, they relax and talk about what they really think and believe. Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were symbols that there were such people still in the church, that it was safe to talk about your beliefs and hopes and dreams, even if they didn’t exactly coincide with the church’s program for your life. With the recent moves, the church has made it abundantly clear that it’s not OK to think differently, unless you keep your thoughts to yourself, and there are likely to be far fewer people with whom it is safe to share your thoughts.

And that is the problem. Any institution that requires you to swallow who you are and what you think on penalty of expulsion is not a healthy organization. What I hear from people considering leaving is that they don’t believe the church is capable of becoming healthy again, and they wonder if staying in an unhealthy organization is healthy for them as individuals. I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself. And beats the hell out of me what I’m going to do.


Grant Palmer: A Personal Review of “A Personal Review”

March 31, 2014

This morning I was drawn to Jonathan Cannon’s review of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins:

An Insider’s View — A Personal Review

I should mention that I didn’t read Palmer’s book until well after I had left the church, so it was not instrumental at all in my exit, though it obviously has affected quite a lot of people. I should also mention that I don’t know Jonathan Cannon and had never heard of him before, so I have no prejudice for or against him.

Let me start with a quote from the review:

Academic authors are generally allowed to make their own interpretations, and it isn’t considered unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to not cite relevant sources, or provide people with resources to find out more about contested topics. As far as I can tell, Palmer cites many useful secondary sources, and can be used effectively as a starting point for a new student of Mormon history.

First of all, I am probably looking at this differently than Cannon is, but I don’t consider Palmer’s book to be an academic or even remotely “objective” review of the issues. Palmer’s intent, clearly stated several times, is to present the problematic issues clearly and succinctly so that a general audience can understand them. As Cannon writes:

First, I hope to alert the reader of An Insider’s View to a fact that Palmer doesn’t hide, but that is easily overlooked because of rhetorical choices made by the author; namely, that the history presented is a popular summary and consciously removes many real ambiguities in the historical record.

It seems a little odd to criticize Palmer for providing a “popular summary” when that’s exactly what Palmer says he is providing. Apparently, however, Palmer’s “rhetorical choices” lead the reader to forget the purpose of the book. I think most readers are smarter than that, but let’s take a look at what Cannon means. We get a glimpse of the problem here, when Cannon is discussing his reaction to some podcasts Palmer recorded:

 And then he presented conclusions with great confidence, as if the evidence compelled him to arrive there.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I think this is what Cannon is talking about when he refers to “rhetorical choices.” Cannon believes–and I agree with him–that the “evidence” (church history and origins in their non-Correlated form) doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief. If it did, there would be no apologists and no “faithful historians.” Palmer, like a lot of former Mormons, likely does feel that “the evidence compelled him to arrive” at unbelief, and I think he’s been pretty clear about this in everything I have read from him. For Cannon, that Palmer is at peace with his conclusions represents an “exaggerated confidence” that affects the contents of the book so much so that it invalidates Palmer’s conclusions. Palmer, he argues, “removes ambiguities” that would undercut his conclusions.

I agree that “ambiguities” and alternative narratives are not presented, but then I wouldn’t expect a non-scholarly summary to provide that at all (it is a short read, after all). What would be “unprofessional” in a peer-reviewed book or article is not so in a book written as a summary for a general audience. Cannon seems to find fault with Palmer for writing a book for a stated purpose while at the same time calling him “unprofessional” for not following the rules that would govern a book written for a different purpose. Cannon finds this quote to be a rhetorical device to shape the reader’s bias:

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school.

It’s difficult for me to find fault with this statement: there is “near-consensus on many of the details,” and the picture these details paint is indeed quite different from what we get in Correlated lesson manuals.

That said, in my view, the evidence is more ambiguous than what Palmer presents but less ambiguous than Cannon suggests. Let’s take one example. Multiple accounts from people who were involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon or in the house at the time indicate a process that was essentially a word-for-word dictation. Of course, no one could possibly know the process except for Joseph Smith. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

I happen to have read a little about this issue, and find Palmer’s removal of ambiguities problematic. This statement appears to imply that all of these individuals each reported all of these facts: that Joseph looked in his hat with a seer stone in it, and that he saw the words to speak word for word in the stones. The quotes that follow do support the stone and face in hat picture. We can be quite confident of this fact. What Joseph saw in the stones turns out to be highly ambiguous, historically. I think ambiguities, like this one at the very beginning, ultimately make Palmer’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith as a translator/revelator much weaker than Palmer’s confident narrative would lead a reader to believe. Instead of glossing over the ambiguities, this brief article examines some ambiguities of translation and the quality of the historical evidence in greater detail, and arrives at a different picture than Palmer. Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

Cannon seems to be arguing that the evidence in support of a word-for-word “dictation” process is ambiguous, but the article he links to doesn’t help him here. Three quotes (two from people involved or in close proximity to the translation process, one secondhand and 70 years removed) are given in the FARMS/MI article, all three of which support Palmer’s “near-consensus” that the process involved the words appearing in the seer stone. The author of the article, Stephen Ricks, tells us why he thinks that method is “problematical from a linguistic point of view,” but he gives no counterevidence except to quote a non-Mormon minister, who was not involved in any aspect of the translation process. And even then, the minister’s statement isn’t at all inconsistent with the “word by word” process, saying only that “the Holy Ghost would reveal to [Joseph] the translation in the English language.” Based on this rather poorly done apologetic article, Cannon damns Palmer as not allowing for a different process, even though there is nothing beyond Stephen Ricks’ linguistic objections to suggest such a different process.

Ultimately, no one knows what Joseph Smith saw or didn’t see, but the issue here is that most members of the church are completely unaware of Joseph’s “seer stone,” its provenance, or its role in the translation process. In short, whether anything came word for word is irrelevant to most people I know. Inventing some sort of ambiguity that you can see only when Stephen Ricks squints at it is hardly damaging to Palmer’s claims. But Cannon seems to think readers have been misled because Palmer promised “near-consensus” (he didn’t) and hid the ambiguous:

Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

I might agree had Cannon presented something here that led to a “variety of interpretations,” but he hasn’t.

Cannon mentions alternative theories for the production of the Book of Mormon. I have to admit I’m always puzzled about the apparent belief that critics must provide a comprehensive theory for the production of the book. Why is this necessary? It’s the text of the Book of Mormon that provides clues to its origins, no matter how it was produced, and as Cannon notes, the text makes perfect sense in a 19th-century context. Insisting that Palmer and other critics provide a production process makes about as much sense as insisting that, unless I know how it happened, I must accept that Gob Bluth really did make a yacht disappear.

I appreciate the compassion with which Cannon approaches people who feel “betrayed.” I don’t believe I fit in with that category, as I was well aware of the issues in church history for some 10 years before my exit, but I completely understand why people feel betrayed by a church that presented only a sanitized, Disney-like version of its history. The contrast with the known history can be quite jarring, to say the least. That Cannon acknowledges that the church has done things that would lead people to feel betrayed is commendable. He goes on:

To those of you who feel betrayed and would like a resolution that leads you back to trust in the LDS church, I would suggest a few kinds of questions I’ve picked up from literary theory, postmodern thought, and economics. A warning, I’m not an expert in any of these and so likely to be misapplying them.

As someone who studied literary theory, including postmodernism in grad school, I always cringe when people bring this into a discussion of Mormonism, so forgive me if I don’t take that seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people misuse postmodernism, from Blake Ostler to Juliann Reynolds and a lot of others, as if it provides a more mature, nuanced approach to Mormonism. It really doesn’t. Postmodernism asserts that “truth” is irrelevant, and even if there were some truth or reality, it would be inaccessible to humans precisely because being human distorts our perception of everything. Because postmodernism is skeptical of science’s ability to approach truth, Mormon apologists have seized on that skepticism to argue that a subjective, spiritual approach to truth is superior. What they aren’t telling us is that postmodernists would say that the spiritual approach is just as worthless as science and reason for arriving at truth. So, I am not sure what to make of his brief allusion to postmodern literary theory.

These questions don’t seem particularly rooted in postmodernism or literary theory, though the notion that there’s always an agenda behind every statement sort of touches on it. (By the way, an excellent discussion of the rhetorical purpose of historical writing is found in Hayden White’s Metahistory.)

That said,  I’ll take a stab at Cannon’s questions:

“What is the purpose of the history being taught (there may be many)?”

The history taught in the church accomplishes two purposes: 1) it presents a cohesive, positive narrative of the foundational claims of the church that makes sense and inspires church members. 2) It almost always presents history to inspire moral choices, which of course are easier to present if there is little or no ambiguity. I suspect the conscious subordination of history to its rhetorical purposes explains why church history reads like something from Walt Disney.

“What are the alternatives to how it is being taught (take the time to think of more than a couple)?”

For me the best alternative wouldn’t require a huge adjustment in the content of what is taught but in how it is presented. Because the history is presented as a sort of inspirational example, it is approached with a sort of reverence and awe that is incompatible with viewing historical figures, such as Joseph Smith, as real human beings. I’m not really sure what it would look like, but I would suggest toning down the hero-worship and showing the history in more human terms. People are forgiving of prophets as humans, but not so much of prophets portrayed as saintly superheroes.

“How would each of these alternatives contribute to or detract from the purposes?”

Showing the human side of the history would be more effective in accomplishing the two goals I mentioned above. If we want to motivate flawed humans to accomplish great things, show them flawed humans who did accomplish great things (assuming of course that Mormonism is a great accomplishment).

“Is it necessary that all of the changes come at the institutional level?”

Yes, I think it is necessary because the institution has created an unrealistic view of its leaders and its history. Individuals can change that attitude, but as long as the church promotes such a hagiographical approach to its leaders and history, those who reject that simplistic approach will be outliers who will probably be criticized by their fellow members.

“How long am I willing to wait for the institution to change?”

I couldn’t care less how long it takes. It’s their church, and they’ll adapt as they have to.

“What signs can I find that the institution is changing?”

I think the recent essays are signs they are changing. At least I hope they are.

“Does my view of Prophets match the present and historical reality?”

I view prophets as human beings with human failings, so yes, my view does reflect the reality.

“Are my unrealistic expectations one piece of my feelings of betrayal?”

This is the reason for such feelings for many people, but remember that it is the church that taught people to have those “unrealistic expectations.” Frankly, the question here seems to do what I’ve seen the church do a lot: passive-aggressively shift the focus to what the member is doing “wrong” instead of acknowledging the church’s actions and intent.

‘Is Mormonism mine, or does it belong to the General Authorities?”

It’s a nice thought to believe that a Mormon can have a Mormonism that is “yours,” but we all understand that “your” Mormonism is still constrained by the acceptable boundaries set by the church and its leaders.

Finally, I’ll comment on one quote that hits the mark:

“I find Palmer’s evidence too incomplete to compel me to more than a guarded agnosticism regarding the foundational claims.”

What Palmer’s book ought to accomplish is to motivate people to learn more about the issues. His book is not the definitive work on early Mormonism any more than a political party’s “voter’s guide” is a complete and exhaustive summary of that party’s agenda. Where I think Cannon has gone wrong is to apply academic standards to a book that is decidedly not academic.

Palmer’s book is invaluable in introducing people to issues they probably have never heard of, but readers should take it as the starting point in their journey of discovery, not the end. Its value lies in summarizing the issues. Having a better and more accurate view of LDS history does not require someone to lose faith or leave the church; it may, however, require an adjustment of attitude and an acknowledgment that life doesn’t fit in a tidy little box, no matter how much we would like it to.


Hebrew Lessons from Joseph Smith

January 20, 2014

Most people at all familiar with Mormon history know that Joseph Smith, a young farm boy, claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon into English from the original “reformed Egyptian” written on gold plates. The book tells the story of ancient Hebrews who crossed the ocean around 600 BC and settled the American content.

Outside members of the LDS (Mormon) church, few people know that Joseph Smith also claimed to have translated real Egyptian, not the just the reformed kind. Specifically, in July 1835, Joseph Smith bought two Egyptian mummies and some papyrus scrolls accompanying them for $2,400 (some $53,000 in 2012 dollars). From the scrolls, he produced “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into [his] hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The English translation was apparently begun in or after July 1835, though the timeline is in dispute. After making a few revisions in March 1842, Smith published the Book of Abraham serially in the church’s Times and Seasons newspaper in 1842.

It’s important to remember that, for most of the world in 1835, Egyptian was a “dead” language in that no one spoke it, and no one knew how to read or write the different forms of written Egyptian. The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 began the process of understanding ancient Egyptian language. This stone provided Greek text along with its equivalent in Egyptian hieroglyphics and demotic text, and phonetic characters that spelled foreign and Egyptian words. Scholars–specifically Jean-Francois Champollion–took some 23 years to transliterate the Egyptian and become confident in their ability to decipher ancient Egyptian. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Champollion’s achievements had been reported in the press in North America, but the specifics were unknown in frontier Ohio, being limited to a few scholarly works published in Europe–and most of those were in French. As a non-Mormon press noted in 1844, there was “no Champollion, or Denon among the Mormons of Nauvoo” to validate Joseph Smith’s translation.

I’ve discussed the content and themes of the Book of Abraham elsewhere, but here I want to look at the two types of transliterations of Egyptian words that Joseph provides in the Book of Abraham:

1. “Egyptian” words, such as “Oliblish” and “Enish-go-on-dosh.”
2. Hebrew words, such as “Shaumahyeem” and “Kokaubeam.”

The former, of course, are not actually Egyptian words but appear to have been invented by Joseph Smith. The latter are best understood when you know that during the translation of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith began studying Hebrew, first with a few books, and then with a teacher, Joshua Seixas. It’s not surprising that the transliterations above and others come from the first few chapters of the Bible and follow Seixas’ transliterations exactly (see Louis Zucker’s essay on Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew for more information).

The difference, then is obvious: where Joseph Smith had some familiarity with the language (Hebrew), the words are more or less correct; where he didn’t know the language, the words are, well, nonsensical. Of course, some Mormon apologists respond that we don’t necessarily know what the real Egyptian words were and what they meant. For example, Kerry Muhlestein has argued that the validity of Joseph Smith’s translation and transliteration of Egyptian depends on whose translation skills you believe: Joseph’s, or Egyptologists’. Not surprisingly, most scholars side with the Egyptologists.

But what if we had an example of a known language that Joseph Smith didn’t know but that he attempted to translate? Suppose, for example, that Joseph Smith had told us that “sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” is French for “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed.” Imagine, further, that Joseph Smith then translated the English into another language he also didn’t know, so using our example, he might tell us that the Spanish translation of the above reads, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Amazingly, that’s essentially what Joseph Smith did. In December 1835, just when he was beginning to read about Hebrew, but before Joshua Seixas arrived, Joseph attempted a “translation” of the Reformed Egyptian characters from the gold plates first into English and then into Hebrew (the text is clearly from Jacob’s allegory of the olive tree). See Ed Ashment’s essay for more information. Here are some of the results, with Ed Ashment’s modern transliteration of the Hebrew following in brackets:

English: For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree & the fruit thereof
Hebrew: ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris
[Modern transliteration: ki car li ki yo'bad li ha'ec hazzeh upiryo]

English: Brethren I bid you adieu
Hebrew: i f s E Zamtri
[Modern transliteration: 'aHay 'omar lakem shalom]

Needless to say, the “Hebrew” appearing here exists only in the mind of Joseph Smith. As Ashment notes, “Fresh out of Palestine, the Hebrew known to Jacob should have been biblical Hebrew. But as Figure 1 illustrates, it bears no resemblance to Hebrew at all.”

I’m surprised this episode doesn’t generate much interest among critics of the LDS church. I understand why apologists wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s pretty clear confirmation that Joseph Smith had no ability as a translator but rather had a pretty vivid imagination.


Whom he listeth to obey: spiritual confirmation and authority

December 4, 2013

A friend sent me a link to a fascinating (and depressing) exchange of letters in 1947 between Lowry Nelson (an LDS student doing research in Cuba) and the president of the Southern States LDS mission, and then later the First Presidency of the LDS church (at that time George Albert Smith; J. Reuben Clark, Jr,; and David O. McKay). In the exchange, Nelson states that he was, until that time, unaware of any “irrevocable church doctrine” regarding the denial of the priesthood to those of sub-Saharan African descent. The First Presidency firmly disabuses him of this notion, explaining that the restriction of priesthood blessings is a direct result of choices made in the premortal life. Further, they suggest specifically that the restriction came from the position of the spirits during the War in Heaven, during which one-third of the hosts of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against God; thus, they subtly support the common teaching that black Africans had been “fence sitters” in the War in Heaven, not actively fighting for God but passively watching the battle unfold.

What struck me most about the letters, however, is the First Presidency’s clear belief that Nelson had gone off the rails somehow:

Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now.

What Nelson had done was to show, correctly, that notions of race common in the United States were quite foreign to people in places such as Cuba, where interracial marriage was definitely not “repugnant” to “normal-minded people.” This was apparently alarming enough for them to enjoin him to let go of the philosophies of men and embrace truth:

We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.

As nauseating as that exchange is, it prompted me to think about LDS church members’ responsibility to sustain or follow their leaders. In this case, the leadership was quite simply wrong. Even the church now rejects what in 1947 was “doctrine,” meaning ironically that it supports Nelson, not the earlier prophets. The church’s current position is that no one knows why the restriction was implemented. In 2012, a BYU professor was roundly criticized for outlining the reasons for the restriction given by earlier church leaders, prompting an official response from the LDS church, which stated in part:

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

I’m glad the church has rejected its racist past, but I do have a hard time with dismissing what prophets and apostles taught as revealed doctrine as mere speculation and opinion.

Since I read the letters, I’ve been thinking about this exchange as it illustrates perfectly what I see as a fundamental tension in Mormonism between following your own conscience and convictions, and obeying and sustaining church leaders.

All my life I have been taught that I have the right–maybe even the responsibility–to pray about counsel and instruction I receive from the leaders of the church. Such counsel is binding when the spirit confirms that it is true. A logical conclusion would be that, in the absence of such confirmation, the counsel would not be binding.

But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default. The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. Presumably we would go to the Lord for spiritual confirmation only when we had a personal disagreement with priesthood counsel.

I’m not talking about the discredited notion that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” but rather more subtle (and not so subtle) injunctions to obey without question. President Packer, for example, has taught that we must all face the same way, following our leaders; Elder Bednar has said that we must have “the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times”; and Elder Robert Oaks has taught, “For us, to ‘believe all things’ means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations.”

So, in my view, the default position is that the prophet and the leaders are always right, but even if we do feel the need to get spiritual confirmation, it’s not exactly a fool-proof process. First of all, the leaders giving the counsel or teaching believe they are in line with the spirit. In the First Presidency’s 1949 statements about the “Negro,” they clearly stated that they were proclaiming doctrine that had been revealed to prophets and written in scripture. Similarly, Brigham Young stated that it was “revealed” doctrine that Adam is God. Nowadays both of these ideas have been discredited, with the LDS church now saying no one knows the reason for the priesthood restrictions, and Bruce R. McConkie famously saying that anyone who “believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” Do my spiritual confirmations or lack thereof trump those of my priesthood leaders? What if I don’t get a spiritual confirmation and others do? Who is right?

On one Mormon-themed message board, I tried to have a conversation about this fundamental tension between doing what you believe to be right and following your leaders, but it didn’t get very far. As far as I could tell, the consensus was that, if you have a moral or spiritual objection to priesthood counsel, you must already be out of tune with the spirit. That’s not a satisfactory answer, as it suggests that leaders are either always right or that we’ll be blessed for doing the wrong thing for the sake of obedience.

I’m not even sure I have a point here, but these thoughts have been going through my mind today.


Now You See Adam, Now You Don’t

November 19, 2013

A friend sent me a link to the transcription of a revelation Joseph Smith is said to have received 21 January 1836. In this vision he was shown the glory of the celestial kingdom, which he had learned some four years earlier was the highest level of heaven (see Doctrine and Covenants 76:50-70). He also tells us that he saw some of the residents of this kingdom:

The heavens were opened  upon us and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether  in the body or out I cannot tell,— I saw  the transcendant beauty of the gate that  enters, through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling  flames of fire, also the blasing throne of  God, whereon was seated the Father and  the Son,— I saw the beautiful streets of  that kingdom, which had the appearance  of being paved with gold— I saw father  Adam, and Abraham and Michael and my father and mother, my brother Alvin [Smith]  that has long since slept, and marvled  how it was that he had obtained this  an inheritance <in> this <that> kingdom, seeing that  he had departed this life, before the  Lord <had> set his hand to gather Israel <the  second time> and had not been baptized for the  remission of sins— [p. 136]

Careful readers will note something curious about this revelation: Adam and Michael are described as separate people whom Joseph Smith saw in the vision. Current church doctrine makes this an impossibility, as Michael is simply “the name by which Adam was known in the premortal life (Guide to the Scriptures, “Michael“). Indeed, in other revelations, Joseph Smith tells us that Michael is Adam (D&C 27:11D&C 107:53–57; D&C 128:21), so perhaps he was confused in this instance.

It’s a good thing that this revelation was not canonized until 1976, when the Correlation committee could revise it to be doctrinally correct, as follows:

 1 The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.

2 I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;

3 Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.

4 I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.

5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;

6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.


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