What happens when you get a steady diet of milk

May 30, 2008

Most Mormons are familiar with the idea of teaching “milk before meat,” meaning that the basics of the gospel must be preached and understood before you can move on to the deeper doctrines (“meat”) of the gospel.

Many people in and out of the church have noted that for many years, church manuals and leaders’ addresses have focused exclusively on the milk. Our lesson manuals, for one, avoid the thornier issues; see, for example, the injunction in the Gospel Doctrine manual to avoid discussing polygamy when studying Doctrine and Covenants 132, which is largely about polygamy. Similarly, late church president Gordon B. Hinckley caused a bit of a stir when on national television he downplayed a core doctrine (the potential of humans to become like God), stating merely, “I don’t know that we teach it.”

I understand why they do this. Since 1970, the church has sought to control the content of its publications through a process called “correlation,” whereby all materials must be reviewed by a committee to ensure they are in line with established church doctrine. This process has indeed put a stop to the publishing of embarrassing statements through official channels, but it has had an unintended consequence.

People in the church know that the prophets used to be quite bold in declaring meat from the pulpit, and they wonder why such is not happening today. Into the vacuum of deep, dark mysteries step the conspiracy theorists, the religious fanatics, and the self-proclaimed prophets. I ran across one such group today, who call themselves “A Voice of Warning.”

These folks believe that “in the very near future (within a few years perhaps) there will probably come a call from the Prophet of the Church (the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve), through the proper priesthood channels, to the members of the Church to voluntarily gather to tent cities that will be primarily located in and around the Rocky Mountains.”

Why, you might ask, do they believe this in the absence of any suggestion whatsoever from church leaders that such a day is coming? The answer lies in the idea of milk before meat.

Why aren’t the brethren teaching about tent cities[?] I cannot speak for them, but may I suggest the point that the key to favorably responding to a call to a tent city, perhaps when there is no other reason than faith and obedience, will not happen unless the Church members are obeying the basics, referred to as the milk of the gospel.

You have to admire someone’s having a strong enough conviction to suggest that the reason that their own personal hobbyhorses aren’t being taught by prophets and apostles is that the rest of the church isn’t ready for such “meat.”

It’s ironic that the church’s efforts to rein in such speculation has in some ways encouraged it, although the church has been successful in pushing such stuff to the fringes.

I’m not too worried either way. I have a nice twelve-person tent in my garage.

More on the Murders of Elders Ball and Wilson

May 30, 2008

A friend pointed out to me this web site that contains some really good information about the murders:

Martyrs in the Cause of the Lord

An interesting excerpt shows that the mission president knew, or should have known, that these two missionaries in particular were in danger but “did not feel inspired” to move them:

When Elders Ball and Wilson arrived in Bolivia in 1988, they entered an environment of severe political unrest and anti-Mormon antagonism in the nation and in Latin America generally. The first violent attacks against The Church of Jesus Christ occurred in Colombia where two meetinghouses were bombed eight times. (19) Between 1984 and 1989, targets of The Church of Jesus Christ in Latin America were hit by terrorists sixty-two times. The majority of these attacks (46) occurred in Chile, though five attacks took place in Bolivia. The Church of Jesus Christ in Latin America was attacked in this period more frequently than any other American-based bank, business, Church, or other institution. (20)

One group that specifically targeted The Church of Jesus Christ in Bolivia was known as Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Zarate Willka (hereafter referred to as FAL Zarate Willka), named for a nineteenth century Indian hero. (21) FAL Zarate Willka was apparently formed around 1985, but was relatively unknown. It first surfaced in August 1988 in connection with a failed attack on former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was in La Paz for talks with government officials. A bomb exploded near his motorcade, but no one was hurt. The group later claimed responsibility for an attack on the Bolivian Parliament and caused a blackout in La Paz with another bombing. Later that year on December 20, 1989, protesting American intervention in Panama, they attacked the U.S. Embassy in a failed attempt to assassinate U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard. (22)

This group had previously assaulted the Church on several occasions. At one point, not long before the assassinations, it bombed the Villa Victoria chapel in Elder Ball and Wilson’s area, which sustained severe damage to the entrance and exterior facade. (23) A former sister missionary, Lynn (Skie) Florman, who had been working in a nearby area at the time, and who saw the chapel the next day, describes:

At one point, the chapel in Villa Victoria (a few blocks from where the Elders were killed, and in their area) had its doors blown off in an explosion just after several members had left a choir practice one evening. We saw it the next day, and were shown how the intruders had sawed one part of the back fence enough to be able to swing it up and crawl under it to get into the church grounds. Witnesses that night said that they had seen a cardboard box under the pew inside the front door, which is where the explosion occurred. All of us were concerned, especially because the graffiti written on the side of the chapel said “Americans go home.” (24)

Other chapels were robbed, and another nearby chapel was nearly bombed. A young man took the bomb home to his family, where somehow, it never detonated. This same sister, Lynn Florman, visited that family the next day, who lived in her area. She reports:

It seems a couple weeks later, we were talking with a family in the Barrio Alto San Pedro about an incident that had happened after Mutual the night before. This family lived across the street from the chapel. That night their young son had seen a cardboard box under the pew by the front door and had brought it home thinking that it belonged to one of the members. The next morning he showed it to his mother, who opened the box. Inside was a bomb that had not detonated. The family left their home and called police, who came to investigate the bomb. According to this family, the bomb had two wires, one which acted as a backup. The police told them that, although the first wire was disconnected, the second was still intact, and they had no explanation why the bomb had not gone off. The mother was convinced that it was a miracle. Again the graffiti on the chapel said “Americans go home.” (25)

As a result of these experiences, she reported the incidents to the Mission President, Steven R. Wright, who did not feel inspired to remove missionaries from the area, but counseled them to live close to the spirit and follow that inspiration. Not long after, tragedy transpired.

A Familiar Spirit

May 30, 2008

My parents are visiting from California this week (my daughter graduated from high school yesterday), and they brought a cassette I had made dated May, 1984, when I had been in Bolivia for just a couple of months. I can’t believe I filled two sides of a 90-minute cassette, but there it is.

My wife and children all said, “Wow, you sound just like Uncle David,” my brother who still lives in California. It’s not so much the accent but the slower cadence, the more relaxed tone, that marks a Southern Californian. I think 14 years in Utah and 8 in Texas have pretty much wiped out whatever was left of that in my speech.

Of course, what’s interesting to me is what I chose to say in 90 minutes. I talked about living conditions, my health (I lied and said I was fine), and economic and political upheaval. I spoke very little about missionary work, other than to talk about people we were teaching. Mostly I talked about the people I had met.

At one point, I had several children gathered around, and they were all giggling at the gringo mumbling gibberish into a tape recorder. They asked if they could say something on the tape, so I have what to me is a priceless record of these beautiful Bolivian children talking briefly about themselves. And a couple of them sang cute little songs like “el dedo pulgar.” I asked them if they would sing a song together, and they chose the Bolivian national anthem. Very sweet.

It’s a little sobering to think that these kids are in their thirties today. I’m sure they’ve changed tremendously, just as I have changed. But it’s nice to have a reminder of who I was and what I was thinking those many years ago.

Serving the Lord

May 29, 2008

I remember very well what I was doing when I heard of the murders of Todd Wilson and Jeff Ball, two missionaries who were working in La Paz, Bolivia, in May of 1989. My wife and I were sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Spanish Fork, Utah, and the announcement came over the radio. I couldn’t breathe when I heard the news. It was as if someone had punched me in the stomach and driven all the air from my lungs. My wife and I sat there, staring at each other and unable to speak.

Over the next couple of weeks some old, suppressed feelings came back to me. I remembered the hateful insults, the threats, the things thrown at us–all because we were different from most people in Bolivia. We were strangers from the United States, and we were mostly greeted with a mixture of distrust and fear. Many people believed we were agents of the US government, and many more saw us as agents of a cultural and economic imperialism that threatened Bolivia on many fronts.

At the time I didn’t understand the animus. After all, these people were strangers who had never met me. How could people hate me if they didn’t know me? How could people throw rocks at my wife merely because of the color of her hair and skin? Now that I’m older and know a little bit more of the history, I understand better why so many Bolivians feel the way the do about my country. Let’s just say that the US has a rather spotty record of doing the right thing when it comes to Latin America.

But at 19 years old, we didn’t know that, and our church certainly didn’t explain that to us when we being trained as missionaries, though they did tell us that people would approach us on the street and ask for baptism. The best they could say was that we should avoid all discussions of politics and the differences between our country and Bolivia, as if simply avoiding taboo subjects could overcome ingrained attitudes developed over centuries.

Of course it doesn’t help that the LDS church’s reaction to the murders was to reassure its members that missionaries are the safest people in the world. And the one church member who made specific recommendations to the church to improve missionary safety, David Knowlton, was accused of putting the missionaries at risk and was fired from BYU.

Not surprisingly, more murders followed in neighboring Peru. And despite what you might imagine, there was little sympathy for the murdered Americans in Bolivia; from everyone I’ve talked to, the general consensus was that the murders confirmed the suspicions about what the Americans were doing in Bolivia. After all, if the missionaries were totally innocent, the reasoning went, they wouldn’t have been killed.

This sad incident led to a bizarre series of events wherein the mission president was removed and excommunicated for having sex with some of his male missionaries, and the church removed all Americans from Bolivia and Peru for a few years until things blew over a little.

Writing this reminds me that even after nearly twenty years, the feelings are still there. I drove past the cemetery in Wellington, Utah, a few weeks ago, where Todd Wilson is buried, and the same grief and pain resurfaced. I ended up doing some reading about the murders a few days later, and I discovered something: a name. Ronald Jamon Eastland.

I had never heard of this missionary before, but he had died in Bolivia on July 23, 1989, not quite two months after the murders. I searched for information about him, but I could find nothing. Whereas Elders Ball and Wilson were rightly mourned by the highest levels of church leadership, there was a curious silence about Elder Eastland. The only indication that he had died as a missionary was this description on the church’s FamilySearch web site of the place where he died: “LaPaz, Bolivia, South America serving the Lord.”

Fortunately, I found a Bolivian who was in the mission at that time who knew what had happened. Elder Eastland had died in a car accident on his way to a zone conference in Oruro. I don’t know the details, but it’s somehow comforting to know at least the gist of what happened.

So, twenty years late, let me apologize to Ronald Eastland for not marking his passing. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed it. No, his death wasn’t a high-profile political assassination, just an ordinary traffic accident. But his family grieved just the same, and I’m guessing that they took some comfort in believing he had died in God’s service. And no matter how you feel about Mormonism, that’s what he was doing: serving God the best way he knew how.

I wish I knew something about him, what kind of person he was, what he looked like, what his hopes and dreams were. But I don’t suppose I’ll ever know any of that. All I know is that he died in a place far from home among people who most likely did not welcome him. I am sure someone there in Bolivia remembers him and mourns him. And so will I.


May 28, 2008


If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

— Thomas Hardy, 1866

What I learned last night

May 28, 2008

Four hours isn’t enough sleep.
In a battle between Pepsi Max and seroquel, the winner is seroquel by a knockout.
Left to their own devices, most teenagers will not make much progress on their chores.
A dryer sheet really does make a difference.
Dried cereal doesn’t come off stoneware easily.
My blog is nothing more than recycled anecdotal anti-Mormon claptrap.
An oatmeal bath doesn’t really help a sunburn.
Quote of the day from Ricky Gervais: “Kate Winslet, talking dirty to Anne Frank and Joseph Goebbels, just another normal day.”

Can you tell I’m tired?

A More Magic-Minded Time

May 28, 2008

Yesterday I made a comment on a Mormon-themed message board that Joseph Smith belonged to a more “magic-minded” time and took advantage of it. My post attracted the attention of one of Mormonism’s leading apologists, Daniel C. Peterson, who wrote, “I think the notion that vague appeals to vague notions like ‘a more magic-minded time somehow constitute actual evidence is completely fatuous.”

Mind you, I did not suggest in any way that my opinion about the nature of 19th-century frontier New York constituted “evidence,” but then I suppose Dr. Peterson knows that. So, the fatuous notion is one of his creation entirely. Moving on, Professor Peterson writes, “A couple of paragraphs that I published a while back strike me as relevant to this airy idea:

It is also necessary, of course, to interpret away the testimony of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates. On the whole, traditional frontal attacks on the sanity and character of those witnesses have gone out of favor; the evidence simply does not sustain such charges. Much more common now is the claim that the witnesses were somehow, owing to their religious credulity, at least intermittently disconnected from workaday reality. Time does not permit an exhaustive analysis of this currently fashionable approach, which is sometimes, apparently just to be on the safe side, linked with vague suggestions that Joseph Smith might have helped his gullible friends along with actual forged plates, as well as a forged sword of Laban, a bogus Liahona, a fake breastplate, and stage-prop seer stones (Urim and Thummim). I will simply say that I remain deeply unimpressed by such suggestions, which strike me as ideologically driven, embarrassingly tendentious, and desperately ad hoc.
Moreover, it strikes me as amusing that the witnesses, a group of early nineteenth-century farmers who spent their lives rising at sunrise, pulling up stumps, clearing rocks, plowing fields, sowing seeds, carefully nurturing crops, raising livestock, milking cows, digging wells, building cabins, raising barns, harvesting their own food, bartering (in an often cashless economy) for what they could not produce themselves, wearing clothes made from plant fibers and skins, anxiously watching the seasons, and walking or riding animals out under the weather until they retired to their beds shortly after sunset in “a world lit only by fire,” are being portrayed as estranged from everyday empirical reality by people whose lives, like mine, consist to a large extent of staring at computer and television screens in artificially air-conditioned and artificially lit homes and offices, clothed in synthetic fibers, commuting between the two in enclosed and air-conditioned mechanical vehicles while they listen to the radio, chat on their cell phones, and fiddle with their iPods—all of whose inner workings are largely mysterious to them—who buy their prepackaged food (with little or no regard for the time or the season) by means of plastic cards and electronic financial transfers from artificially illuminated and air-conditioned supermarkets enmeshed in international distribution networks of which they know virtually nothing, the rhythms of whose daily lives are largely unaffected by the rising and setting of the sun.
“Editor’s Introduction—Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” FARMS Review 17/2:

Frankly, this response leaves me a little baffled. The gist of his argument seems to be as follows:

  1. These men claimed to have seen physical evidence for the Book of Mormon, including plates, the sword of Laban, a breastplate, and seer stones.
  2. Because these men were farmers and plain-spoken folk, they were more grounded in reality than we who in modern times are disconnected from reality by technology.
  3. Ergo, these men and their testimonies are credible and compelling.

There is so much to respond to, let’s begin with my explanation of what I meant by “magic-minded.” I’m talking about a time when people tended to see the supernatural in everything around them. These people believed not only in miracles and visions, but also in magic and witchcraft. Martin Harris is a good example.

A farmer of some means, Harris was nevertheless uneducated and superstitious. For example, “”Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam” (Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 [Winter 1986]: 34-35). He also recounted having conversed with Jesus, who appeared to him in the shape of a deer and spoke of strange signs and wonders accompanying Joseph Smith’s treasure-hunting endeavors:

Mr. Stowel was at this time at old Mr. Smith’s, digging for money. It was reported by these money-diggers, that they had found boxes, but before they could secure them, they would sink into the earth. A candid old Presbyterian told me, that on the Susquehannah flats he dug down to an iron chest, that he scraped the dirt off with his shovel, but had nothing with him to open the chest; that he went away to get help, and when they came to it, it moved away two or three rods into the earth, and they could not get it. There were a great many strange sights. One time the old log school-house south of Palmyra, was suddenly lighted up, and frightened them away. Samuel Lawrence told me that while they were digging, a large man who appeared to be eight or nine feet high, came and sat on the ridge of the barn, and motioned to them that they must leave. They motioned back that they would not; but that they afterwards became frightened and did leave. At another time while they were digging, a company of horsemen came and frightened them away.

This statement from Lorenzo Saunders sums up Harris quite nicely: “Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks” (in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:149).

Presumably, Harris is one of the people to whom Peterson is referring when he describes the paucity of evidence “that the witnesses were somehow, owing to their religious credulity, at least intermittently disconnected from workaday reality.” I would submit that Harris’s own statements and actions are clear evidence that he was at least intermittently, if not regularly, disconnected from reality, workaday or otherwise.

Dan’s evidence to the contrary consists of reminding us that these were farmers who, by nature of their occupation, could not have been “estranged from empirical reality.” He contrasts these simple realists with our disconnected day of iPods and polyester, as if our lives make us more likely than the Martin Harrises of the world to believe in spooks and magical animals.

Magic and superstition were part of the “workaday” world Peterson describes, and one simply cannot wish away the facts. These were credulous and superstitious people, and they not surprisingly latched on to Mormonism.

The Seer Stone

May 27, 2008

Most members of the LDS church accept that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by using his “seer stone,” a rock which he placed inside a hat. Apparently, using this stone, he could see the English translation of the words on the golden plates (which were not physically present during the translation, it seems). Elder Russell Nelson tells us:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

‘Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12.) – Elder Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament, Ensign, July 1993, 61

But what fascinates me is Joseph’s earlier, pre-prophetic career with the same stone. At the encouragement of his father, Joseph used the stone, which had been discovered while digging a well on a neighbor’s property, to seek buried treasure.

It was in this capacity of “glass-looker” that he was employed by Josiah Stowell to help locate rumored Spanish gold on Stowell’s property. While engaged in this endeavor, he stayed with the Isaac Hale family. Mr. Hale, considering a peepstoner to be a less-than-honest character, refused to allow his daughter, Emma, to marry Joseph Smith, so the couple eloped.

According to Isaac Hale, when they returned a married couple, Joseph swore off “glass-looking.” Peter Ingersoll recounts that Joseph “acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.” Isaac Hale says that “Joseph Smith stated to me, that he had given up what he called ‘glass-looking,’ and that he expected to work hard for a living, and was willing to do so.”

But he hadn’t really given it up. So, the question I have is this: could he really see buried treasure? There is no record anywhere of Joseph having found anything with his seer stone. Yet we are told that this same method is a valid way to translate scripture.

It seems to me that, to sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet, you would need to acknowledge his skill as a glass-looking treasure hunter. Otherwise, you are faced with the unpleasant possibility that his use of the stone was fraudulent in one or the other endeavor.

The right way

May 25, 2008

Given the discussion my readers have been having about how it’s wrong for exmormons to be angry or feel hurt or whatever and that they should just walk away and shut up, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what the right way to behave is for someone who leaves the Mormon church.

Is it wrong to be angry or hurt? Absolutely not. Many of us gave everything to the LDS church, our deepest commitment, our faith, our lives. It would be absurd not to feel some hurt or anger when you find out the reality behind the church you gave so much to. It’s OK and probably quite healthy to go through a period of being angry. I know I did, and most exmormons I know went through that stage. On a very simple level, you can see losing your faith as a major loss worthy of grief, and most people understand that anger is part of the grieving process. But as I said, the sense of loss is compounded by the sense of betrayal. It’s as if you found out that your father, whom you love deeply, had been stealing from you all your life.

But the anger plays right into Mormon stereotypes about “bitter apostates.” If we show even the slightest resentment toward the church, we can be dismissed as having been duped by Satan into joining the Ed Deckers of the world with their wild-eyed rants against Mormonism. I’m not ashamed that I was angry. I had a right to be angry because the belief system I based my life around was based on a lie.

So what distinguishes the “good” exmormons from the “bad”? I’d say it’s honesty and respect. I do know of some exmormons so consumed by bitterness that they exaggerate, lie, and distort the teachings of the church to score points. Fortunately, I don’t know any of these people personally, and they seem to be in the distinct minority (Ed Decker is a good example). Almost all the exmormons I know have a very strong sense of honesty and integrity, and it was that commitment to truth that made it impossible for them to stay in the church. They simply could not uphold a lie. Granted, some of the exmormons I know are still angry at a manipulative and abusive institution, but their anger is very rarely focused on people in the Mormon church.

Mormonism deserves to be discussed on its own merits. In my judgment, it fails at every turn in its claims, from the utterly indefensible Book of Abraham, to Joseph Smith’s miraculous transformation from glass-looking grifter to glass-looking scripture translator, to the church’s institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. Does that blunt assessment sound angry? Maybe to a believing Mormon it might, but I’m not angry. And I certainly don’t need to lie to discuss why Mormonism is not what it claims to be.

I expect honesty and integrity in discussing Mormonism, both from Mormons, exmormons, and nonmormons. Other than that, I don’t care how angry someone is. I don’t go out of my way to attack the LDS church, and most of my exmormon friends don’t either. But we’re not going to shut up about the central facts of our lives because someone thinks it’s unseemly to talk about the church.

Memorial Day

May 23, 2008

Out in the lonely ghost town of Mercur, Utah, in a canyon on the western slope of the Oquirrh Mountains is a small graveyard. Most of the graves are marked with large slabs of stone from the area, by now the names worn off so that you don’t really know who is buried where.

One exception is the grave of Annie Calderwood Murchie Jones, the older sister of my grandmother. Annie was born July 25, 1897, and died only six months later on January 10, 1898. Her mother, my great-grandmother Mary Murchie Jones, reported that Annie had spoken to her before her death, telling her that she would not be on this earth very long, and indeed she wasn’t.

For many years my grandmother’s two sisters traveled to Mercur every Memorial Day to care for the grave. It has a little fence around it, and it is clearly marked. After these two great-aunts became too old to maintain the grave, my cousin began taking her children there each Memorial Day for the same reason.

A few years back, this same cousin, in her late forties, gave birth to a baby girl named Abigail, who had a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. Abby lived just a few days, and at her funeral, I thought again of Annie. Annie’s family had her for a little while longer than my cousin had Abby, but the grief was the same, I would imagine. For several months during my cousin’s pregnancy, my sister and I took meals to their family on Sundays, and we became connected more deeply to the upcoming birth and the subsequent loss. Abby’s brief time here had changed us and turned us from the routine, and we were better for it.

Monday all over the United States, people will be placing flowers on the graves of their dead. We will remember the veterans who died of old age just as we remember the young men killed as they fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ll be reminded of the costs of war as well as the fragility of our existence.

I expect to take my children to Mercur on Monday. We’ll pull weeds and maybe paint the fence around the grave. And we’ll remember Annie. And we’ll remember Abby.