More on Mormonism and Postmodernism

December 29, 2010

A while back I wrote a six-part series on postmodernism and Mormonism:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

One of the few people to really engage me in discussion of this topic was Ben McGuire, whom I have known for several years. As I mentioned in my postmodernism series, most Mormons I know who adopt a postmodern stance do so based on a simplistic view of postmodernism because they believe it provides an unassailable defense of their faith; as I believe I have shown in my posts, this adoption of postmodernism is misguided and ultimately fruitless. Ben, however, understands postmodernism and has consistently given as reasonable and reasoned an argument for its compatibility with Mormonism as anyone I know. Plus, Ben is a genuinely nice guy, is extremely intelligent, and has demonstrated to me a great deal of integrity in his discussions of his beliefs.

So, I was pleased to see that he’s written a piece outlining where he finds Mormonism compatible with postmodernism. I should say that Ben’s post hasn’t met with universal approval, with one person linking to his article under the heading “Internet Mormon sneers at Chapel Mormons for not being able to invent their own flavors of Mormonism to suit their individual tastes (Patheos will apparently publish just about anything).” I’ve never known Ben to sneer at anyone, and I’d rather engage his arguments than slam him ahead of time. So, here goes.

Ben wisely sets aside a formal definition of postmodernism: “Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define. So, I am not going to try.” It took me six long posts to define postmodernism, and I’m not sure I succeeded. Instead, Ben describes three postmodern themes and “how they relate to Mormon theology. These postmodern themes often reveal a hidden tension within the Mormon faith, caused by seemingly paradoxical claims and suggestions. These themes are continuing revelation, the theological hierarchy of the church, and its approach to pluralism.”

The first, continuing revelation, Ben sees as a source of constant change: “Revelation can overturn that which we held sacred. It can reverse our views of past discourse from God. It can modify our interpretation of scripture. … With ongoing revelation, the only certainty is that change is inevitable, and that we never know quite as much as we think we do.” Here I agree with Ben. Mormonism views truth as a constant and evolving process, not necessarily a fixed set of doctrines. Christian fundamentalists would be aghast at the idea of modifying or updating “God-breathed” scripture, but Joseph Smith had no qualms about updating and rewriting revealed scripture. For example, he revised the Book of Mormon in 1837 and 1840, often clarifying doctrinal positions and emending scriptures with more information or exposition. Similarly, revelations included in the 1833 Book of Commandments were heavily revised and rewritten for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Clearly, the Mormon view of text is more fluid and open-ended than most religious traditions. I particularly liked this statement in Ben’s piece:

Joseph Natoli describes it: “In the life of a postmodernist, the problem is not that we might wander and that we therefore would be faced with contesting views none of which can validate itself as The Truth. The problem is that we might elevate some narrative to Truth status and stop wandering. We might invest some observation . . . with full determinate status.” Just as personal revelation can alter our individual perceptions of our faith and the world around us, so too revelation alters the perception of the LDS Church as a whole. The risk isn’t that the Church or its members continue searching and asking for more truth, it is that at some point the Church stops searching, believing that it has found all there is to find, and concludes that God has said all that He is going to say.

The notion that there is always more to learn is, in my view, one of the great strengths of Mormonism. In the last forty years, however, the push for Correlation and a fixed definition of orthodoxy has undermined this traditional strength. Thus, on a philosophical level, I agree with Ben, as I find LDS notions of truth to be uplifting and exhilarating; on a practical level, I’m not sure this approach holds. One might, for example, find new truths through personal revelation, but one would get in trouble for sharing such things publicly.

The second theme he discusses is that of authority in the church, which is directly manifested through the hierarchy of church leadership. He says:

The LDS faith has what has been called a “rigid hierarchy”—a top-down authoritative structure, and yet, paradoxically, from a theological perspective, the authority lies with its members at the bottom instead of with the leaders at the top. In 1884, James Barclay (the British member of Parliament) wrote: “At the same time, every individual has full freedom of action. There is no compulsion on any Mormon beyond the public opinion of his fellows, and none is possible. All are equal. There is no special or privileged class or caste. The people in the fullest sense govern themselves.”

Here I have to disagree with Ben. Authority most certainly does not lie with members “at the bottom.” I doubt very much that such was the case in 1884, but it definitely is not true today. He’s right that members are supposed to have their own persona revelation, and that is indeed the most important religious experience one is supposed to have, but always such notions run up against the reality of a rigid hierarchy and an ever-shrinking notion of orthodoxy. Here’s Ben again:

The corollary in postmodernism is the notion of removing privilege. What constitutes authority in postmodernism is always deconstructed. What makes Mormonism a strong movement is not its adherence to a fixed set of beliefs, to creeds and statements of faith, but to a vibrant diversity in perspectives, beliefs, and interpretation coming together in a common faith.

I just don’t see this diversity as much as I used to. Once upon a time, the church accommodated alternative voices among its members, and it was acceptable to participate in intellectual discussions of ideas. But since 1993, the church has made it clear that diversity of perspectives and beliefs is not welcome, and intellectuals are considered a danger to the church to be held up to ridicule. It is impossible to remove privilege when everyone is supposed to “face the right way”; the “channels of revelation” go in one direction in the LDS church, and it’s not from the bottom.

Ben’s third theme is this: “The third trait of Mormonism is that idea that there is no universal standard by which everyone is judged, nor is the LDS Church the only repository of truth.” He continues:

Mormon theology suggests that all are judged by their individual circumstances. There is no list of specific requirements for salvation that holds true in every case (or even in a majority of cases). Everyone is given an equal opportunity for salvation, even if we don’t always understand how that opportunity presents itself. This functions both within the faith, and external to it. Even within the membership of the church, uniformity of belief and understanding is not a requirement for salvation.

But Mormonism isn’t just about belief and understanding. It is about doing; more than any other religion I know, Mormonism puts specific requirements on its members for salvation, regardless of individual circumstances. Ben mentions baptism as a universal requirement for salvation, but it goes way beyond that. To be exalted in the LDS sense is to enter into temple covenants (and live up to them). You might believe (privately, of course) in unorthodox doctrines, but there is no getting around the covenants you must make to be exalted. Ben goes on:

The corollary in postmodernism is the rejection of a meta-narrative, and the introduction of pluralism. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t one of the privileged few who happen to born in the right place at the right time to be baptized into the Mormon church. There is no need to redefine history to conform to a specific understanding of Truth. Mormonism may promote its understanding as a better way, but without suggesting that it is the only way to salvation.

I guess I don’t see it. If anything, the advent of Correlation has led to less pluralism in the church and a greater emphasis on adhering to an orthodox meta-narrative. As I have shown previously, the church constantly redefines its history to conform to its understanding of Truth. And of course the ultimate irony is that to suggest that Mormonism does not present itself as “the only way to salvation” borders on heresy.

Ultimately, what I think Ben is doing is distinguishing between the “gospel” and the “church.” The gospel, meaning the accumulated teachings of the LDS church, does on some levels appear to support a diverse, postmodern approach to truth. The church, on the other hand, does not lean that way at all. Where the gospel demands that we develop a mature faith, the church demands conformity and obedience.

But the church and the gospel are one and the same, except on some purely private level. It is true that a church member can believe or think whatever he or she wishes, but the moment such beliefs become public, diversity of thought and opinion cannot be tolerated. The promise of a rather radical theology always butts up against the hard reality of the institution. And that institution is hardly postmodern.

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Secret Wives

December 24, 2010

A reader commented, “The accusation that Joseph Smith tried to hide his other marriages from [his wife Emma] is not true (at least I have seen no evidence for it).”

Unfortunately for the commenter, it’s not an accusation; it’s simply a fact. Take, for example, Emily and Eliza Partridge, whose experience is instructive. When their father, Edward Partridge, died, they were invited to move into Joseph Smith’s home, where they would work as housekeepers, with Emily also serving as a “nurse girl.”

In the spring of 1842, Joseph brought up the subject of plural marriage with Emily, who refused to discuss the matter. Soon after, the sisters were approached by Elizabeth Durfee, whom Joseph frequently employed to convey his proposals to prospective wives:

“Mrs. Durf – came to me one day and said Joseph would like an opportunity to talk with me. I asked her if she knew what he wanted. She said she thought he wanted me for a wife. I was thirely [thoroughly] prepared for almost anything. I was to meet him in the evening at Mr. Kimball’s. (Women’s Exponent, v. 14, August 1, 1885, p. 38)

According to Emily, the Partridge sisters were married to Joseph Smith in March, 1843, and her sister married him a few days later. Eliza wrote,

“I cannot tell all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded [Joseph] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had got badly frightened he knew I would yet have him…. Well I was married there and then. Joseph went home his way and I going my way alone. A strange way of getting married wasen’t it?” (Eliza Lyman autobiography, p. 219).

Emily writes in the Historical Record (again, it’s in Google Books, so look it up):

My sister Eliza and I, having arrived at an age at which we might earn our own living and perhaps contribute something to help our mother and the smaller children, were considering what we had better do, when the Prophet Joseph and his wife Emma offered us a home in their family, and they treated us with great kindness. We had been there about a year when the principle of plural marriage was made known to us, and I was married to Joseph Smith on the 4th of March, 1843, Elder Heber C. Kimball performing the ceremony. My sister Eliza was also married to Joseph Smith a few days later. This was done without the knowledge of Emma Smith. Two months afterward she consented to give her husband two wives, provided he would give her the privilege of choosing them. She accordingly chose my sister Eliza and myself, and to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. Accordingly on the 11th of May, 1843, we were sealed to Joseph Smith a second time, in Emma’s presence, she giving her free and full consent thereto. (Historical Record, p. 240).

Emily affirmed in her Temple Lot case affidavit that she had roomed with Joseph and had carnal intercourse with him the night of their marriage.

According to George D. Smith, “when asked by Temple Lot attorneys in 1892 if her marriage went beyond an ‘eternal sealing’ and involved sexual relations, Emily affirmed that she had ‘slept’ with Joseph after their first marriage on March 4 and ‘roomed’ with him the day of their second marriage, May 11. She was not able to ‘live with him’ after that because of Emma’s close surveillance” (Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 181, citing Reorganized Church v. Church of Christ, questions 310-11, 480-84, 747-62).

Todd Compton (In Sacred Loneliness, 732) cites Emily’s testimony as follows:

Q: Did you ever have carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith?
A: Yes sir…

Q: Do you make the declaration that you never slept with him but one night?
A: Yes sir.

Q: And that was the only time and place that you were ever in bed with him?
A: No sir.

This is corroborated by the statement of Benjamin Johnson, who wrote that in April, 1843,

“The Prophet again Came and at my house occupied the Same Room & Bed with my Sister [Almera Johnson] that the month previous he had occupied with the Daughter of the Late Bishop Partridge.” (Zimmerman, I Knew the Prophets, 44. See also “The Origin of Plural Marriage,” Joseph F. Smith, Jr., Deseret News Press, page 70-71.)

The case of 17-year-old Lucy Walker is similar. When Lucy’s mother died, Joseph Smith sent her father, John Walker, on a mission to the eastern states, and Lucy moved into the prophet’s home. Joseph approached Lucy privately, and she consented to marry him:

The Lawrence girls were married to the prophet, too. … Weddings were not performed publicly in those days. … The Partridge girls were married to him also. …

It was the 1st day of May, 1843, when I married him [Joseph Smith]. … Elder William Clayton performed the ceremony. Emma Smith was not present, and she did not consent to the marriage; she did not know anything about it at all.

No, sir, she did not know anything about my marriage to her husband. I shall not answer your question as to what room I occupied on the 1st day of May, 1843, after my marriage. I decline to answer whether I occupied the same room with Joseph Smith on the night of the 1st day of May, 1843. I decline to answer whether I ever occupied the same room with Joseph Smith on the night of May 1, or any other night, and there is no law that will compel me to do so, or upholds you in intruding into my affairs. I decline to answer your questions because I consider them insulting; yes, sir, I do. (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Complainant, vs. The Church of Christ at Independence Missouri et al., 373-374.)

It’s clear what happened according to the direct testimony of the women involved (and these are just three of Joseph’s 33 or so wives). In neither case was Emma aware of her husband’s actions, clearly indicating that Joseph “tried to hide his other marriages from her.”


Joseph Smith, Superstar

December 22, 2010

When I was growing up, I was taught to revere Joseph Smith, who was so good, so nearly perfect, that he had reached mythic proportions. We sang “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah,” and we meant it. He wasn’t just a man; he was a demigod (who even “mingl[ed] with Gods”) with no apparent human failings or flaws. People who never knew the man wept openly when speaking of his prophetic calling, his sacrifices, and especially his martyrdom in a lowly jail cell, his blood “shed by assassins.” In my youthful innocence, he had lost all trace of the human and had assumed the form of some half-Superman, half-Jesus personage. He was humble, pious, courageous, a hard worker, and the strongest athlete in town (we all heard stories of his skills at “stick pulling” and wrestling). He was no mere mortal.

No, that’s not right. I knew he was just a man, with ordinary human failings and weaknesses. I just never knew what those failings were. He himself said, “I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.” Teenaged boys get into all kinds of trouble, and many have speculated about Joseph’s youthful indiscretions, but Joseph tells us, “In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company.” So, I was left to suppose that he was free of any real flaws other than a youthful tendency to be too jovial (I thought that I could die happy if my only flaw were joviality).

Of course, discovering the reality of Joseph Smith the man was more than a little jarring, given his legendary status in my mind. There was a huge disconnect between Olympian Joseph and the man who lived and breathed in the nineteenth century, and mortal Joseph was, in all honesty, both a disappointment and a relief. I wanted him to be that demigod of my childhood, but then I was glad to see that God might work through a flawed individual who in many ways wasn’t all that different from me. Wilford Woodruff once said that he was glad he had seen Joseph’s flaws and failings because if God could use a flawed man to do such a great work, there was hope for Wilford Woodruff. Maybe there was hope for me, too.

Where did my unrealistic view of Joseph Smith come from? I’m assured by apologists that the church does not glorify Joseph in any way or downplay any of his flaws. I was just being “selective” in what I read and understood about the prophet. Naturally, they tell me, anyone with such a ridiculous and irrational view of the prophet is destined to be disappointed and will probably fall away from the church. I’m Exhibit A in that regard.

Looking back, though, I wonder how unrealistic my view was. The Joseph Smith of the church manuals, conference talks, and seminary classes was this demigod Joseph, the good and humble, wise and athletic. Nonsense, the apologists say. That version of Joseph was a figment of your imagination.

But was it?

Reading some church materials, I realize that the impression I had of Joseph Smith was intentional. Church materials do not attempt to define the man Joseph Smith, but they build up a legend; history becomes hagiography. Let’s look at a couple of examples: the chapter on Joseph Smith from the Presidents of the Church manual and the church’s official web site about Joseph Smith, josephsmith.net.

Headings in the manual describe Joseph as a “boy of courage and resolve,” “humble,” “prophet, seer, revelator, restorer, witness, and martyr,” and “the great prophet of this dispensation.” Besides his great visions, Joseph’s life was filled with honorable vocations and activities, though he was so much more than other men: “No man or combination of men possessed greater intelligence than he, nor could the combined wisdom and cunning of the age produce an equivalent for what he did.” Throughout the manual, Joseph’s accomplishments are played up, and much is omitted that would give the reader a more balanced and accurate account of his life. An instructive episode in the manual is Joseph’s marriage to Emma Hale, which is described thus:

While Joseph Smith awaited the appointed time to remove the plates and begin translation of the Book of Mormon, he worked for a man named Josiah Stowell. During this employment, Joseph boarded in the home of Mr. Isaac Hale in Harmony, Pennsylvania. “Isaac Hale had a daughter, Emma, a good girl of high mind and devout feelings. This worthy young woman and Joseph formed a mutual attachment, and her father was requested to give his permission to their marriage. Mr. Hale opposed their desire for a time, as he was prosperous while Joseph’s people had lost their property; and it was on the 18th day of January, 1827, the last year of waiting for the plates, before Joseph and Emma could accomplish their desired union. On that day they were married by one Squire [Tarbell], at the residence of that gentleman, in South Bainbridge, in Chenango County, New York. Immediately after the marriage, Joseph left the employ of Mr. [Stowell] and journeyed with his wife to his parental home at Manchester, where during the succeeding summer, he worked to obtain means for his family and his mission. The time was near at hand for the great promise to be fulfilled and for his patience and faithfulness to be rewarded” (George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Classics in Mormon Literature series [1986], 43).

So much is left out here that is important to understanding the events that happened. Let me just answer a few questions:

1. What was Joseph doing when he worked for Josiah Stowell? You wouldn’t know from the manual account that Joseph had convinced Mr. Stowell that he could find buried treasure by looking into a stone. Joseph was later arrested and charged in this matter, and the following comes from the court record of his trial:

Prisoner [Joseph Smith] brought before Court March 20, 1826. Prisoner examined: says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school. That he had a certain stone which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times and had informed him where he could find these treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them. That at Palmyra he pretended to tell by looking at this stone where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of its injuring his health, especially his eyes, making them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business.

Josiah Stowel sworn: says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months; had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt spring; and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and did possess the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone. (See “The Facts about the 1826 Trial” for a decent summary from an apologetic source.)

It’s not surprising, then, that the manual makes no mention of Joseph’s employment other than that he was employed.

2. Why was Emma’s father so opposed to their getting married? According to the manual, the reason was the Smith family’s poverty relative to the Hales’. But here’s what Isaac Hale had to say about it:

I first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Jr. in November, 1825. He was at that time in the employ of a set of men who were called “money-diggers;” and his occupation was that of seeing, or pretending to see by means of a stone placed in his hat, and his hat closed over his face. In this way he pretended to discover minerals and hidden treasure. His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man – not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father.

Smith, and his father, with several other ‘money-diggers’ boarded at my house while they were employed in digging for a mine that they supposed had been opened and worked by the Spaniards, many years since. Young Smith gave the ‘money-diggers’ great encouragement, at first, but when they had arrived in digging, to near the place where he had stated an immense treasure would be found – he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see. They then became discourged, and soon after dispersed. This took place about the 17th of November, 1825; and one of the company gave me his note for $12[.]68 for his board, which is still unpaid.

After these occurrences, young Smith made several visits at my house, and at length asked my consent to his marrying my daughter Emma. This I refused, and gave him my reasons for so doing; some of which were, that he was a stranger, and followed a business that I could not approve; he then left the place.(Affidavit of Isaac Hale, 20 March 1834, Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9

Mr. Hale was not so much concerned about Joseph’s poverty but that he was a stranger engaged in a shady business. Most parents would be reluctant to allow their daughter to marry someone engaged in endeavors involving enchantments and magic stones.

3. Why were they married in South Bainbridge, New York, rather than in Emma’s hometown of Harmony, Pennsylvania? The manual doesn’t say. Instead we read that that Isaac Hale opposed the marriage only “for a time,” but eventually they were able to “accomplish their desired union,” implying that he had in the meantime had a change of heart. Again, here’s Mr. Hale on the subject:

Not long after [Joseph’s request to marry Emma had been refused], he returned, and while I was absent from home, carried off my daughter, into the state of New York, where they were married without my approbation or consent. (Hale Affidavit)

In other words, they eloped without Mr. Hale’s consent. No change of heart had happened–quite the contrary. When Joseph returned for Emma’s belongings, Peter Ingersoll, an eyewitness, records what happened:

When we arrived at Mr. Hale’s, in Harmony, Pa. from which place he had taken his wife, a scene presented itself, truly affecting. His father-in-law (Mr. Hale) addressed Joseph, in a flood of tears: ‘You have stolen my daughter and married her. I had much rather have followed her to her grave. You spend your time in digging for money, pretend to see in a stone, and thus try to deceive people.’

Joseph wept, and 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.(Peter Ingersoll Affidavit, 2 December 1833, in Rodger Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990.)

I’m not writing this as an assault on Joseph’s character but rather as an example of the unrealistic and overglorified version of Joseph Smith we get through church publications.

The manual I’ve been discussing is notable mostly for its omissions, but the church’s web site, josephsmith.net, goes well beyond that and ventures into the territory of encomium. Headings on the site include “Teacher of God’s Truth,” “Leading with Love,” “Prisoner for Jesus Christ,” “Friend of Man,” and “Martyr for God.” Dig a little deeper, and we find “Honored and Blest Be His Ever Great Name” and a description of his character as “Gentleness and Meekness and Love Unfeigned.”

In one section titled “A Servant of All,” we learn that “the Prophet refused to place himself above others. Rather, as he humbly said, ‘I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.’ Bereft of pride, Joseph personified the Lord’s counsel: ‘Whosoever will be great among you, . . . shall be servant of all.'”

This doesn’t sound like the Joseph Smith who said, “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. … Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him, but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet…. God made Aaron to be the mouth piece for the children of Israel, and He will make me be god to you in His stead, and the Elders to be mouth for me; and if you don’t like it, you must lump it” (Address of the Prophet, 26 May 1844). Nor does it sound like the Joseph Smith who “soundly thrashed” his brother for “insolence” (Bates and Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, Champaign: Illinois UP, 2003), or the Joseph Smith who warned prospective wives not to expose his practice of polygamy or “I will ruin you” (Bennett, History of the Saints, 226).

Similarly, Joseph’s marriage to Emma is described, sans anything but the bare minimum of details, in idealized romantic terms, finishing with this gem: “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.” When I first read that, I wondered if we should all follow Joseph’s example in marrying (and bedding) young girls without Emma’s knowledge or consent.

That Joseph kept his marriages hidden from Emma suggests that he was afraid of her reaction; indeed, in “Mormon Enigma,” we read that Joseph was under great “strain in his private life,” which calmed only temporarily: “Although Emma’s attempt to accept plural marriage brought temporary peace to the Smith household, neither Emma’s resolve nor the peace lasted long. Emily Partridge commented that Joseph ‘would walk the floor back and forth, with his hands clasped behind him (a way he had of placing his hands when his mind was deeply troubled), his countenance showing that he was weighed down with some terrible burden.'” Emma publicly and privately opposed Joseph’s practice of plural marriage, and for a time there was so much hostility in the house that Joseph accused Emma of poisoning him:

On Sunday, November 5, Joseph became suddenly sick and vomited so hard that he dislocated his jaw and ‘raised fresh blood.’

His self-diagnosis was that he had every symptom of poisoning. But he was well enough in the evening to attend an Endowment Council meeting in the room over the red brick store.

According to current medical literature, no poison available in 1844 was caustic enough to pool blood in the stomach so rapidly after ingestion as Joseph’s symptoms indicate and still be so ineffective as to allow the victim to pursue normal activities within a few hours . . . .

Twenty-two years later Brigham Young described a ‘secret council,’ . . . at which he said Joseph accused Emma of the poisoning and ‘called upon her to deny it if she could . . . . He told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told her where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he, ‘You got that poison so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.’ When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. He spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him.’ [Young] did not elaborate on the alleged second occurrence, but in 1866 Brigham’s rhetoric could well have been stronger that Joseph’s actual words, for it came at a time when Brigham was particularly hostile toward Emma.

Evidence suggests that Joseph indeed accused Emma of poisoning his coffee. His diary records that he and Emma did not participate in the Prayer Circle at that meeting . . . . This is particularly significant because members were asked not to join the Prayer Circle if they had feelings of antagonism toward anyone else in the group. Only unusual circumstances would have restrained them. Apparently Joseph believed at the time that Emma poisoned him. (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, Champaign: Illinois UP, 1994, pp. 163-64.)

Again, I’m pointing these things out not to attack either Joseph or Emma but to show the disconnect between the reality and the mythology build up around the prophet. You cannot read josephsmith.net without believing that Joseph Smith was near perfect, that he lived a blameless, Christ-centered life “bereft of pride” or any other human failing. But no one has ever lived such a faultless life, unless you count Jesus.

But this is the wrong approach. Joseph Smith was not Jesus, and when people find out about his failings, they are genuinely shocked because we were taught that “a more virtuous man never existed on the footstool of the Great Jehovah.

My father taught me to expect human failings in others, especially if they claimed some sort of spiritual authority. “That way, when they screw up, you won’t be disappointed.” I probably applied that teaching to every other human except Joseph Smith, and I was disappointed when I learned who he was, but as I said, I was relieved that he, too, was a human like me. In all honesty, I like the human Joseph Smith much more than I liked the demigod. It’s hard to feel a connection to someone so obviously beyond my human experience, but I can relate to someone who made mistakes, even major ones. Joseph himself once said, “I told them [the Saints] I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities … I would likewise bear with their infirmities.”

Seems about right to me.


My Friend Jean

December 19, 2010

I just came across this video from my friend Jean Bodie, whom I have known for a few years now. I’m posting this because she says more eloquently and sincerely than I could how anguishing and heartbreaking it is to be true to yourself, even when you’re all alone.

Thank you, Jean. You are amazing.


Christmas Repost: Evidence Trending in Frosty’s Direction, FARMS Says

December 19, 2010

Researchers for the Foundation for Arctic, Reindeer, and Magical Snowmen say that, despite the claims of skeptics, more and more evidence supports the belief that Frosty the Snowman really did come to life that day. Food Sciences professor and FARMS president J. Wallace Gitt summarized discoveries in 2008 as “very promising and encouraging, indeed. For more than half a century,” Gitt said, “scoffers have ridiculed the idea of a living, breathing snowman, but these days, there’s just too much evidence for anyone, except the hardcore anti-Snowmen and ex-snows, to ignore.”

Gitt explained that the best evidence for the reality of Frosty is the warm feeling children everywhere get when they sing “bumpety-bump-bump” and think of the “jolly, happy soul” frolicking in the winter snow. But no longer must believers rely solely on their own personal knowledge of the Snowman.

“First of all, the production of the text is miraculous in and of itself. After the success of 1949′s ‘Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer,’ writers Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins had only months to write, produce, and record the song for the upcoming 1950 Christmas season. There’s no way two ordinary mortals could have accomplished that without some kind of divine intervention.”

“But perhaps the strongest evidence of divinity is the text itself,” said Russell Thwetwipes, professor of Greek History. “Our first clue is the use of very specific items in the construction of the snowman itself.”

Several things stand out initially as anachronistic to 1950. Corncob pipes, silk hats, and coal had all been supplanted by cigarettes, fedoras (which were on their way out), and central heating. The use of these items suggests a deeper rooting in the past, which would be unusual for popular writers of the 1950s. But the images seem to have been chosen with care. A corncob situates the story in the Americas, which squares nicely with the use of the word “cop” to refer to a policeman (how could Nelson and Rollins have scored such a bullseye?). The coal for the eyes suggests the Biblical idea of coal as burning fire and life being breathed into mortals (see Ezek. 1:13). And of course, the old silk hat has reference to the ancient practice of using seerstones to connect with the divine. Indeed, the text specifically places the “magic” (which here may refer more to spiritual power) in the hat itself.

The text also anticipates skepticism. “Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say” speaks to the song’s prophetic nature. The writers (Thwetwipes prefers “transcribers”) expected that their claims would be ridiculed, and indeed they have. “Once you have heard ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ you are no longer on neutral ground,” said Gitt.

Expecting a poor reception in an increasingly godless world, the transcribers made sure that there were witnesses to the miraculous event. We are told that the children “know” that he really did live and breathe. Their testimony is clear and specific: “Frosty the snowman was alive as he could be, and the children say he could laugh and play just the same as you and me.” There is no equivocation, no hesitation in the testimony. “We aren’t sure how many children there were, but the use of the plural indicates more than one,” said Thwetwipes. “And none of them ever denied their testimony. They had plenty of opportunity to deny what they had seen and expose the fraud, if there had been one. But they remained faithful to the end of their lives.”

Forthcoming research will explore the relationship between the broom Frosty carried (perhaps symbolic of a sceptre?) and the ritual dance he performed. “This dovetails rather nicely with what we know about Egyptian kingship rites,” Gitt asserted. “And we are aggressively researching the etymology of those two strange phrases, ‘thumpety, thump-thump’ and ‘bumpety, bump-bump.’ We expect to release our findings in a forthcoming edition of the “Journal of Elf, Easter bunny, Reindeer, and Snowmen.”

Asked of skeptics’ claims of a lost Gene Autry manuscript, Gitt was dismissive. “That’s been floating around for years, and so far we have nothing but a few unfounded word-print studies. I’m confident that Rollins and Nelson will be vindicated in the end.”


What I Learned from Boyd K. Packer

December 17, 2010

I’m not exactly a fan of Boyd K. Packer. I was at the All-Church Coordinating Council meeting when he said that gays, feminists, and intellectuals were the three great threats to the church. I wasn’t impressed that he read excerpts from private letters and then held them up to ridicule and raucous laughter in that meeting. Still bothers me.

But I learned one of the great lessons of my life from Boyd K. Packer at Temple Square. My roommate and I were waiting in line for the priesthood session of conference, and we were standing just on the inside of the south gate of Temple Square.

Just on the other side of the gate was a rather rabid anti-Mormon guy handing out pamphlets and insulting the church. You know, the usual. Just then, Elder Packer came walking down the sidewalk and through the same gate.

He stopped, shook the man’s hand, and called him by name.

“How’s business?” he asked, smiling.

“Not too good. No one’s taking my pamphlet,” the man replied.

“Can’t say I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, chuckling, and then wished the man a good evening.

The anti-Mormon guy smiled and returned the good wishes. Then he went back to the ranting.

But that’s stuck with me because it wasn’t how I expected someone like Elder Packer to act. I’ve tried to behave the same way since then, though from a lot of people it’s just earned me condemnation as a phony.

I guess I still have a long way to go before I can meet hatred with humor and kindness. But it’s worth trying.


More Tales from the COB: The Branch Guidebook

December 16, 2010

One day my boss came into my office and slammed a manila folder on my desk.

“I can’t deal with this anymore. I need you to finish this up.”

“It” was the Branch Guidebook, a small manual intended to provide basic instructions on church programs for isolated branches that were usually so small they would be held in someone’s house. My boss had gotten input from all of the relevant organizations (priesthood and auxiliaries), and each had a brief section outlining what their programs were, when and how to run meetings, and which manuals to use. With photographs, the manual was 28 pages long.

Or at least it was, until one of the Seventy got a hold of it. My boss showed me where this GA had scrawled in red ink across the cover NO!!!!! (underlined three times for emphasis) and written a scathing review of the document. The guidebook, he said, was “a mile wide of the mark” and should, if anything, be reduced and simplified. Otherwise, it was just trying to “export Wasatch Front culture” to other countries’ cultures. At most, he said, it should be 12 pages.

“I can’t do it,” my boss repeated. “Everyone is happy with this, except Elder [I’m not going to say it]. It simply can’t be cut to 12 pages and still be of any use.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Find out what he wants, and give him his 12 pages.”

I called the GA’s secretary and was told that he wanted 12 pages, including the photos, and that all of the organizations should have merely a one- or two-sentence blurb with no information about how to run the organizations.

Thus mandated, I started hacking until it was 12 pages. Mind you, it said next to nothing about anything, but it was 12 pages, so help me. The GA was thrilled and said, “This is exactly what I was looking for.” The guidebook was published and distributed, although every organization affected complained.

And then a strange thing happened. These little branches who had received the guidebook started flooding the church offices with letters asking for more information about how to run their branches and organizations. So, my boss and I ended up taking what he had originally written for the guidebook for each organization and putting each on a separate page. So, when someone wrote in about, say, Relief Society, they were sent back a single page with the original information about Relief Society. The same was true for every other question about organizations and auxiliaries.

It seemed as if the branches actually wanted us to be “a mile wide of the mark,” and in the end, we duplicated effort, first by gutting the original, and then by rewriting and reprinting it separately.

I notice that the current Branch Guidebook is 27 pages, one less than my boss’s original. I would bet money that most of its contents come from that original draft.