The Incidental Prophet – Chapter 2

April 7, 2016

The mountain was all I had expected it to be: the wind was blowing in intermittent but powerful gusts as I stood on the bare rock–at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, Nebo rises up far above the timberline. Buttoning my coat against the cold, I looked out on Utah Valley to the north, the smoking stacks of the massive new steel mill reflected in the green-tinged lake to the west.

Every time we had driven past Geneva Steel, my dad had grinned proudly and said, “That’s what progress looks like, son.” I thought it just smelled bad and covered the valley with a rust-colored blanket of smoke. Built during the war to be close to Utah’s coal mines but out of range of Japanese or German bombers, Geneva had brought industry to what had previously been a sleepy Utah valley that had been home to a small college and not much else.

To the south lay Juab Valley, at its center Nephi, a small town named after a Book of Mormon prophet known for cutting off a drunken man’s head and stealing the brass plates on which the books of the Old Testament were written. Quiet and only sparsely populated, Nephi was probably what Provo had been before the steel mill arrived, though I wasn’t sure because I was too young to notice then. But it did seem like the perfect place to hide for someone who had just chopped off a fellow’s head and stolen his scriptures.

I kept looking back and forth at the two valleys, and I thought, Here at the summit I am master of both worlds: the rural, slow-paced past, and the exciting, albeit murky and smoke-filled, future.

“Wake up!” Mom opened the door.

“Aw, Mom, it’s not time for church yet,” I muttered, wiping the crumbs from the corners of my eyes (Dad always called it “eyebread,” for some reason, and it made him laugh).

“The bishop just called.” I hadn’t heard the phone ring. “He wants you to come in early and talk about your baptism.”

I would be turning 8 in 2 weeks, and as every Mormon knows, turning 8 is a big deal. According to the scriptures revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, at 8 you become “accountable” for your sins, and thus you need baptism to wash away your transgressions. From that point onward, you had to watch yourself, and repent whenever you fell short. Otherwise, you’d have to answer for those sins at the judgment day.

I never told anyone, but the thought of having even one unrepented sin scared me to death. We would sing in sacrament meetings on Sunday about Jesus, “for me, a sinner, He suffered, He bled and died.” Even though we didn’t have crosses in our churches and homes, I could picture in my mind Jesus in agony on the cross, gazing down on me as if disappointed that I hadn’t taken advantage of his sacrifice for my sins.

Mom seemed to take extra care that morning scrubbing my face, and even behind my ears, straightening my clip-on bowtie, and combing my hair into a brylcreemed slick.

The church was a new red-brick building just around the corner from our house, but I always took the shortcut past the chicken coop in our backyard and around the crab-apple tree by the fence.

I walked into the quiet church–priesthood meeting had ended, and the men had gone home to fetch their families for Sunday School–and sat down on a padded bench in the hallway outside the bishop’s office. A little lightbulb labeled “Bishop in counsel” glowed orange, so I knew not to knock on the door.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and Sister Henry came out, wiping tears from her eyes, as the bishop patted her shoulder and said, “We’ll talk again.”

Was I going to come out in tears? I hadn’t given it much thought, but suddenly I was terrified at the prospect of having to confess all my sins to this man who I knew had been called as a Judge in Israel. Could I even remember them all? If I missed even one, the bishop would know. That was his job.

I could see Jesus in my mind, shaking his head sadly at me.

“Come in, young man!” the bishop said, beaming. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

“You’ve got an important date coming up, haven’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir,” I said trying not to look as frightened as I was.

“I’m sure you know all about baptism and what happens, right?”

“Yes, sir, you get dressed in white, and you go into a big bathtub, and a priesthood holder says a prayer and then dunks you in the water. After that, you don’t have any more sins.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” he said, stifling a laugh. “It’s a big step, and we are here to make sure you’re ready for it.”

“Oh, I know I’m ready, sir. I want to be washed of my sins.” I didn’t mention how scared I was of having to repent perpetually ever after.

“That’s good!” he said. “And do you know what happens after you get baptized?”

“Uh, you get confirmed, right?” I didn’t quite understand that word, but I knew it meant you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“Well, yes, they do call it a confirmation, but the important part is that the Holy Spirit will begin working in you, and that’s very important.”

“Um, yes, I know,” I spluttered.

“The reason why it’s so important is that it’s the Holy Ghost who tries to keep you out of trouble and helps you repent when you sin. You see, once you have the Holy Ghost with you, you’re never alone, unless you drive him away. Strive to keep him in your heart and your mind, and he’ll help you come safely home to your Heavenly Father.”

It actually made me feel better knowing this. If I just did what I was supposed to do, the Holy Ghost would guide me through life, and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of messing up. I felt forgiven already, and I hadn’t even been baptized yet.

After that, the bishop filled out a form with my name, birth date, parents’ names, and other important stuff, which he said would be sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake and kept forever to show that I had joined the kingdom of God on earth.

That would have scared me to death before, but suddenly I was excited and happy to be taking on this responsibility, and I walked home without even noticing my surroundings.

A few days before the baptism, a bright green convertible, with its top closed, unexpectedly pulled up to our house. It was my uncle Bob all the way from Montana, where he managed the family’s large cattle ranch since my grandfather had died. Bob was wearing an odd, cream-colored suit and matching fedora. His wife, Gloria, climbed out of the passenger’s seat dressed in a red-and-white sundress with matching hat and sunglasses. Her skin looked almost orange and slightly leathery, her hair much blonder than I had remembered. I figured it must have been the weather up there.

“Howdy, young man!” Bob shook my hand vigorously. “Where’s your dad?”

“He’s out plowing the 51 acres,” I said.

“Well, we’ll catch up with him later,” Bob said, already striding towards the front door.

“Will? Is that you?” called a voice from the back seat of the car.

“Grandma!” I yelled, clambering over the seat and throwing my arms around her neck.

“Oh, my wee one, I’m so glad to see ye!” she said amidst hugs and kisses. She’d never completely lost that lilting rural Scottish accent.

Grandma was the best. She made it clear that when she was around, we were her sole focus in life. “Why do you think Heavenly Father gave me such a big lap if not for grandchildren to sit on?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Looking back, she was the one person in my life who never needed me to live up to her expectations. Dad wanted me to be a hard worker, and Mom wanted me to strive for greatness, but Grandma loved me no matter what, and I knew it.

By the time Dad got home, Uncle Bob was reading the Deseret News, his feet on the ottoman, while Aunt Gloria did a crossword puzzle in the corner of the sitting room. Ellen was helping Mom peel potatoes, and I was at the other end of our sitting room, at the table with Grandma, shelling the latest batch of peas from the garden. Grandma pretended not to notice that almost as many peas went into my mouth as into the bowl.

“Whew, you smell almost as bad as you look,” Bob laughed, pointing at my dad.

“That’s what hard work smells like,” my dad said, not really looking up as he walked toward the kitchen.

“I know,” Bob said, pretending to be offended, “but at least you shouldn’t bring it in the house with you.”

Dad wiped his face with his handkerchief and leaned to kiss and hug Grandma.

“I’ve missed you so much, son,” she said, a little teary-eyed. “I wish you weren’t so far away.”

“I know, Mother,” he said, holding her tightly. “Maybe someday we’ll all be close together again. I just don’t think circumstances are right.”

After dinner, Dad and Uncle Bob sat at the table, talking about the ranch.

“Well, I don’t get out there all that often,” Bob said, “but my foreman keeps me abreast of what’s going on.”

“You’ve got to be more involved, or we might lose it,” Dad said, looking a little, well, fierce might be the right word.

The ranch in Montana was always a sort of mystery to me. Dad’s maternal grandfather, Daniel McCurdie, had been a miner in Scotland, when he and his wife had met Mormon missionaries sometime around 1870. At that time, those who joined the Mormon church–officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–were expected to gather to Utah to prepare for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Great-grandfather McCurdie, being a poor man with seven daughters, could not afford to relocate his entire family, so he and his wife, Mary, decided that he would leave for Utah and then send for the rest of the family when he had saved some money. In the meantime, Mary and her daughters moved to Glasgow, where they worked in a lace factory.

Daniel McCurdie was a hard worker, but he was an even harder drinker. Arriving in Utah, he secured work in the Park City Silver mine, and ended up with quite a few shares of what would become a very lucrative enterprise–only to lose them in a drunken poker game. Scraping up whatever money he didn’t drink, Daniel finally began sending money back to Scotland. By this time, the oldest daughter had married outside the Mormon faith and had chosen to stay in Scotland.

It took about 10 years before Mary was finally able to leave with her two youngest daughters–Grandma Grace McCurdie and her younger sister Annie–to cross the ocean to America. Grandma always said she was glad they had to wait, as her sisters had to walk across the plains, whereas she traveled in style in a railroad train.

Once Mary had arrived in Utah, she laid down the law with Daniel: no more drinking (well, not as much, anyway), and they were going to be proper farmers. They spent a couple of years saving up to buy the properties in Spring Lake, a tiny settlement built around a pond that somehow was called a lake, and then they loaded all their possessions in a single wagon and walked the 60 or so miles to their new home.

Despite their properties not all adjoining each other, Daniel and Mary managed to provide for their large family, and eventually they built the small, two-bedroom clapboard home where we now lived.

Grandma was the last of the daughters to marry, her sister Annie having died of something referred to as “summer complaint.” She met Grandpa Murdock when she was working at the small community store just west of the lake, and he was passing through on his way from St. George heading north to homestead in Montana.

He was quite taken with her, and he immediately made up a story about needing to rest his horses for a couple of days. They were inseparable while he was in town, and when he left, he kissed her on her cheek and said, “I’ll be back for you in the spring.” She blushed deep red, but she hoped he had meant it. True to his word, he had returned in April and asked for her hand. They married in the Salt Lake temple and honeymooned during the trip to Montana.

Grandma said that growing up on a small farm had not quite prepared her for living on a large cattle ranch, and she did not enjoy the harsh Montana winters at all. But Grandpa Murdock was not only a skilled rancher but an astute businessman, and soon he was the owner of the largest ranch in western Montana.

Dad was the firstborn, and Bob came a couple of years later. A younger sister, Ellen, lived only a few months, which broke Grandma’s heart. Dad said his father pushed him hard, telling him that he needed to be strong and driven to someday take over the ranch. Bob, on the other hand, never showed much interest in the ranch, but always had some pipe dream about exploring the world or becoming a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

Dad worked hard on the ranch, but then Great-grandpa McCurdie died unexpectedly back in Utah. For some reason, when Grandma Murdock returned from the funeral, she encouraged Dad to leave Montana and take over the small farm and pastures in Spring Lake. I think he might have been disappointed, as if he was being put out to pasture literally, but he loved his mother, and once he got the old truck out of the barn and had it running, he packed a few bags and drove down to Utah to take care of his grandmother’s farm.

He may have thought it was just a temporary move, but the first time he walked into the tiny adobe church the settlers had built, he saw Moira, the daughter of Irish immigrants who lived a half-mile or so north of the lake. Theirs was a brief courtship, and soon they were married, and she moved into his grandmother’s house to set up household.

Even then, he always told Moira he was going to take her to Montana someday to live on the ranch, where they would have a better, more prosperous life. Somehow, even after Great-grandmother McCurdie died, they stayed put. Then I was born, and two years later, Ellen came along, named, of course, after Dad’s sister.

Then one day Dad received a phone call from Grandma Murdock, saying that there had been an accident, and Grandpa had been killed while driving in fence posts. After that, I don’t know much about what happened, as no one ever talked about it. All I knew is that, despite everything, Dad stayed on the farm in Utah, and Bob began running the ranch. It didn’t much matter to me, as I didn’t think I’d like living up there in the cold. We had spent a Christmas up there once, and we couldn’t even go outside the whole time because the winds just howled, and the snow blew horizontally like someone shooting cornflakes at your face. I hated it there, but being with Grandma made it bearable.

And now we were all together for my baptism. I tried to explain to Grandma how excited I was, and I told her all about the Holy Ghost and how it would keep me from doing bad things.

“Oh, hold on there,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ll make mistakes like everyone else does. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be just fine.”

Somehow that sounded less comforting than the bishop’s explanation.

“Who’s going to baptize the boy?” Uncle Bob asked casually. Why did they always refer to me as “the boy”?

“What do you mean?” Dad said suspiciously.

“Well, it’s not like you’re all that strong in the gospel,” Bob said, clearing his throat. I wondered what he was talking about.

“He’s my boy, and I’m going to baptize him,” Dad said, his jaw tight. “I hold the priesthood, and it’s my right.”

“Of course it is!” Bob said, a strange smile on his face. “No one is saying otherwise. I’m just wondering if he might do better with a more prominent priesthood line.”

“Just because you got ordained a high priest by an apostle, it doesn’t mean you’re better than me, not by a damn site!” Dad said hotly. “I was ordained to the priesthood by our father, and he was as good as any one of those old men in Salt Lake.”

“Quentin, I’ll not have you disparaging the Brethren,” Mom said in a voice I’d never heard before. “The boy will be baptized by his father, and that’s the end of it.”

“Why don’t we ask the boy?” Gloria said, looking up from her crossword.

“My father is baptizing me,” I said firmly, glaring at her and then at Uncle Bob.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Bob said, turning back to the paper. “Hmmm. They say the church might hit a million members this year. That’s something, huh?”

That Saturday afternoon, Dad and I left off our chores early. Dad took a second bath that day, and he came out of his bedroom shaved and neatly groomed and dressed.

“It’s your turn, Will,” Mom said, pulling me by the arm into the bathroom. I don’t think I was ever scrubbed that hard before or since, but eventually, I emerged pink and a little raw, dressed in a starched white shirt, creased dark slacks, and a real tie that Dad taught me how to tie.

As we walked past the crab-apple tree toward the church, I thought this was the last time I’d see that tree the same way. When I came back, I would be accountable, and I would do my best to stay away from sin.


The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

April 6, 2016

I’ve had some ideas in my head about writing a novel, and I thought I’d put it out here, first. So, I hope you enjoy what is essentially a running rough draft.

The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

I speak with God. As His servant and mouthpiece, I reveal His will to the world. Millions of people around the globe look to me as a prophet, seer, and revelator. But mostly I’m just full of crap. Twenty years ago I was called as an apostle, a “special witness of Jesus Christ,” and I still don’t know what that means, exactly. I haven’t had any special witness of anything, unless you count my glaring awareness of my weaknesses. It really tears me apart sometimes.

Every time I speak, millions hang on my every word, and they expect me to tell them what God has in store for them. I do my best, but I rarely feel inspired, and the words are always mine, not those of an unseen deity. But it doesn’t seem to matter much. No matter what I say, within hours someone has posted it on Twitter or Facebook, often superimposed on a beautiful picture with a flowing script. I cringe every time I see that, especially at my name so carefully placed at the end of the quote. It doesn’t help that every April and October, I’m on television around the world for what we Mormons call “general conference.” I have to be extremely careful, as everything I say ends up recorded and printed. Once I ad-libbed at the beginning of a general conference talk, and soon I was quoted everywhere: “Life is good.” – President William C. Murdock. How profound! How embarrassing!

When I enter a room, everyone stands and remains standing until I take my seat, and sometimes they keep standing until I tell them to sit. More often than not, they’re liable to break into a chorus of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still makes me more than a little uncomfortable, though I’ve trained myself to stop blushing when it happens.

It wasn’t always like this. My dad, who valued hard work and perseverance more than anything, never thought much of me, or so it seemed. Growing up on a farm in Spring Lake, Utah, where Dad grew hard red winter wheat and raised cattle on several acres of pasture, I thought I would end up farming all my life, but my mother had other ideas. Maybe it was sort of a good-cop-bad-cop thing, but as critical as my dad was of everything I did, my mom regularly reminded me that, at least according to her, I was destined for something important.

“Right now, he’s destined to bring the eggs in from the henhouse,” my dad chuckled. “I don’t know why the hell you have to fill his head with nonsense, Moira. He don’t have much of a head for anything, far as I can tell, so why set him up for a big fall?”

“Oh, hush, Quentin, and mind your language,” Mom said, folding me into her arms. “Will, you go on out and get the eggs, and then you get back to your homework.”

Even at age 7, I thought getting the eggs was a little beneath me. My sister Ellen, who was 5, was certainly capable of gathering a few eggs, but Mom was teaching her things girls needed to know, like sewing on a button or making Dad’s breakfast (it was always the same: Cream of Wheat, in a glass, with milk and pepper). And at that point, I didn’t understand why I still had homework in July, long after school had adjourned for the summer.

It was 1947, and for most people, things were finally starting to return to normal after the rationing and deprivations of wartime. We really hadn’t noticed the war much because, like a lot of our neighbors, we lived mostly off what the farm produced–eggs, milk, bread, beef, pork, and lamb. Mom had a huge vegetable garden out in front of the house. When it was our water turn, Dad would put the dam in the ditch that went along the side of the gravel road and open the gate to flood our front yard. We usually made boats out of newspaper and floated them around the yard.

“Won’t the garden drown?” asked Ellen, her freckled face looking genuinely concerned.

“No, dummy,” I said disgustedly. “The plants like the water. They need it.” Don’t girls know anything?

I liked watering days because they usually meant we didn’t have to weed for a couple of days until the mud dried enough. This day, however, it was time to harvest the peas, so Mom helped us put on our galoshes, and Ellen and I waded into the mud, each carrying a large wicker basket.

It was harder work than it seemed, as you had to pick the pods that were ready but take care not to disturb the smaller ones that we would come back for in a week or so. And of course, you had to avoid the geese, who were clearly not afraid of a little mud. Ellen was terrified of them, as we never knew when they would suddenly charge at us, wings flapping, neck stretching out straight, and squawking loudly with their beaks wide open. Mom always said it was worth putting up with their unpleasant temperament to have something nice to eat for the holidays. Whenever the geese came close to Ellen, I brushed them away with my basket.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” I said, though truthfully I was almost as afraid of them as she was.

We picked for a good hour until our baskets were full and our fingers were stained with green. “Let’s go, it’s almost dinnertime,” I said, and headed for the front door. On our farm, dinner was the big meal we ate at noon, while supper was the evening meal. At school they called it “lunch,” though I never understood why.

Then I heard Ellen sobbing behind me. I turned and saw that her rain boots were stuck fast in the mud. Her face was red–her blonde hair made it stand out all the more–and she was trying her hardest to hold back the tears, though they streamed out anyway.

I set my basket down on the lawn and went back to get her. “Now, you wait here while I get your basket over to the lawn.”

“Don’t leave me here!” she blubbered.

“It’s only for a second,” I said, laughing. “It’s not like I can set it down in the mud, silly.”

After depositing her basket on the lawn, I trudged back through the mud, turned around in front of her, and said, “Come on, I’ll carry you.”

I squatted down, and she climbed on my back, putting her arms around my neck.

“Not so tight! You’re choking me!” I sputtered, but she had me in a death-grip.

I pulled hard, and her feet popped out of the boots, one after the other.

“There! You’re out!” I said, as she gripped my neck even harder and then let out a sigh of relief as I carried her across the lawn.

We retrieved our baskets, and as we came to the porch, I could see Mom’s round face and pinned-back brown hair through the screen door. She opened the door and looked down at Ellen’s grass-stained socks. “Ellen! What have you done with your boots?”

Ellen started crying again, so I said, “It’s OK, Mom. They got stuck in the mud. I’ll go get them.”

Mom muttered something about teaching Ellen to wash socks, and I went back to the garden for the boots. The sun was shining warm on my face, and there was just enough breeze to deliver the delicate fragrance of alfalfa, which grew in the pasture across the street. I looked up at Mount Nebo, which rose up directly behind the neighbor’s horses, who were lazily nibbling on the purple and green alfalfa.

As long as I could remember, the mountain had seemed to call to me. I often pestered my dad to take me on a hike to the top, but he always begged off, “Not ’til you’re older, son.”

Someday I would be old enough, and the mountain would be mine.

 


More on the Suspension of Relief Society

February 25, 2016

A reader suggested yesterday that in my previous post, Remarkable Transparency, I was overly reliant on a single source for my assertion that the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, some 3 months before Joseph Smith was killed. I responded in the comments, but I figured I had enough to post it on its own. So, here goes. I’ll put the reader’s comments in italics.

I think you are overstating the issue of the closing of the RS slightly with your dependence on Mormon Enigma above other sources. Newell and Avery’s biography and history is still unequalled, to be sure, but on this issue they provide as many sources as they can but have to fill in the rest of the story through context.

I used Newell and Avery because it’s well-known and easily accessible, but I could have cited other historians who have reached the same conclusions they did.

For example, here’s Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s take on it:

The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.” Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].” (The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society, in New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn, p. 160.)

And this is from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I worked on at the Church Office Building, so I know it was vetted and approved by the church: “Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844.”

The reader is correct that there’s not a lot to go on, but suffice it to say that I’m not alone in my reading of the events. No one disputes that the meetings in March 1844 involved Emma’s scathing denunciation of polygamy or that the meetings abruptly ceased after that.

There are no original sources contemporary to March-June detailing anything of why another meeting never occurred. We have statements made long after the fact by leaders in Salt Lake City, but as far as I know nothing contemporary. To me, it seems that who you think made the final decision to not have another meeting shows more about how you view the politics of 1844 Nauvoo than it does about how the actual decision went down.

Indeed, there are no contemporary sources explaining why the meetings stopped.

At that time, the Relief Society usually met during warmer weather months, so the first “season” was from March to September 1842. The 1843 season didn’t begin until June 1843, and most sources suggest the delay was caused by Emma’s health problems through the winter and spring of that year. That the 1844 season began with 4 meetings on the 9th and 16th of March suggests that Emma was planning a full season of Relief Society. But the meetings stopped abruptly after that first week, after Emma had denounced polygamy and announced plans to investigate and root out all such immoral practices in Nauvoo. Coincidence? It’s certainly possible, but Eliza Snow’s statement suggests that Emma “gave it up” over a disagreement in church teachings, and John Taylor’s statement tells us the disagreement was over polygamy. In the absence of contemporary statements, we are free to believe that there was no connection between Emma’s attacks on polygamy and the cessation of the society, but I think that stretches credulity.

There’s three options:

1) Joseph shut it down as a result of Emma’s use of the organization to fight against the growing practice of polygamy. Occurring before the assassination in June, this narrative plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo. Also, it doesn’t require, as the other two routes do, for no further meetings to occur merely because of lack of access to space for such meetings.

For the other two, these options usually assume that, following Emma’s statement that the RS would meet again when a large enough venue was found, the reason for no meetings between March and June is because of the logistics of finding a meeting place for the growing organization. Perhaps this difficulty was made worse through non-overt influence of male Church authorities.

Here is Emma’s statement about finding a larger venue, as my reader mentions:

Prest. E. S. closed her  remarks by say[i]ng she should like to have all  the Society present to geather— she said it was her  intention to present the Officers of the Society for  fellowship— when a place can be obtaind that all  can be present— [blank] Meeting ajou [adjourned] until a suitable place can be obtaind—

My reading of this is that Emma wanted to have all members present so the officers of the Relief Society could be presented (I assume for some kind of sustaining vote). It’s entirely possible that lack of meeting space contributed to the cessation of meetings, but this statement clearly indicates that Emma intended to continue holding Relief Society meetings.

Previously,  the problem of lack of space had been more or less resolved. From the minutes of the Relief Society for 7 July 1843:

“In consequence of having no room sufficiently commodious for the whole Society, it was recommended by the President that the Society be divided for the purpose of meeting, according to the 4 City Wards, and meet by rotation, one Ward at a time, that all might have equal privileges: Accordingly notice was given at the Grove on sunday the 2d of July that the members residing in the first City Ward, would convene at the room occupied as a Masonic Hall, on the friday following, at 2. o,clock.”

My guess is that Emma felt that holding multiple meetings was unworkable going forward, but there is no record of her attempting to find a new venue or hold more meetings after March 16, 1844. This suggests to me that she wasn’t looking to resume the meetings after that.

But I would like to address the idea that, somehow, I’m advocating a narrative that “plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo.” I really don’t know what I am meant to understand from this, as I haven’t said anything about use and abuse of power; rather, I think the reason the church has adopted the “part of the move West” narrative is that the disagreement (to put it mildly) between Joseph and Emma over polygamy doesn’t fit in well with current church representations of their marriage as one of love and single purpose. To quote the church’s own web site, “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.”

2) Brigham shut it down during his power plays after the assassination. Just as Brigham took over access to and assumed spiritual authority for the unfinished Temple and its rituals, so too did Brigham attempt to put down anything threatening to his authority. Knowing of Joseph’s frustrations with the Relief Society he forbade those who followed him from meeting again. We know that he _did_ forbid the Society from arising again for decades through explicit orders to not let the women assemble together until he reformed it in a fashion firmly under his control.

I have no doubt that Brigham opposed the resumption of the Relief Society, but again, my issue is that it had already ceased operating before Brigham was in a position to “shut it down.”

3) Emma shut it down. To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.

Again, the organization had already stopped functioning before her husband’s death.

All three options are unfounded and made without any direct evidence. If you ask me, I’d actually choose the third option, if only because we don’t see Relief Societies in the Reorganized traditions. Brigham’s animosity towards Emma and her use of the RS explains how the RS disappeared among the Brighamites until it was radically reinvented by him decades later. The lack of the RS among the Reorganized tradition seems to me to be very much the decision of an Emma Smith Bidamon who wanted to put all of Nauvoo behind her. It seems like she made a choice herself not to re-institute it or call for it to be reinstated, and to me that decision could easily be pushed back to 1844 after she lost her husband.

Or it could be pushed back to March 1844 when her husband shut it down. I don’t see any reason to reject the consensus of most historians, but I can respect your interpretation.

I don’t see anything wrong with how the new book approaches the timeline, apart from their attempts to paint the loss of the Relief Society under Young’s direction as somehow relating to preparations for “crossing the plains”. That is bullshit, pure and simple. Young was afraid of the power Emma had held, hated Emma herself and anything associated with her, and would never be placed in the same position as Joseph of allowing dissent.

Well, yes, that was my point.

In the end, however, my disagreement with the timeline given in the Deseret News is that it doesn’t line up with the cessation of the meetings. Even Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the authors of the new book, accepts elsewhere that the Relief Society ceased as an organization in March 1844: “The Nauvoo society held its last recorded meeting on March 16, 1844, apparently unable to maintain unity of purpose during the factious events preceding the June 1844 martyrdom of Joseph Smith” (Derr, Jill Mulvay and Janath R. Cannon, “Relief Society,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992).

My reader states, “To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.” Again, that just doesn’t line up with the actual dates. Derr has it “preceding” Joseph’s death, but my reader has it “after.” I guess it’s my choice to accept the scholarly consensus here; apparently most historians agree with my view of Nauvoo politics in 1844.

In short, I used Mormon Enigma, but I could have chosen any number of sources that agree with with Newell and Avery, which I have noted here.


Remarkable Transparency

February 24, 2016

Today I woke up thinking how good I feel after having lost some weight and working out regularly, so Mormonism wasn’t on my mind at all. On the way to work, I heard a report from NPR about the prosecution of members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous clan for food stamp fraud. What I found interesting was that the news announcer specifically read out the Jeffs group’s name, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then went on to explain that this group was not related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (she read out the full name here, as well), which she said was more commonly known as “the Mormon church.” I was briefly amused at the effort NPR was making to ensure listeners would not conflate the LDS church with its crazy stepchild, the FLDS church.

Then I got on with my day, until a friend pointed me to an article in the Deseret News (for those who may not know, the Deseret News is owned and operated by the LDS church and is usually a reliable indicator of the church’s public positions). The article in question, LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society,’ announces the publication of a new book about the origins of the church’s Relief Society, which is its organization for adult women (that’s giving it short shrift, but I would imagine most of my readers know what Relief Society is).

According to the article, the new book’s openness with complicated history is

refreshing to Melissa Inouye, a Latter-day Saint who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

“In the first place, it shows that the LDS Church is willing to own its women’s history,” Inouye said. “This history as presented by the documents in the book is rich, complicated, inspirational and often troubling. To bring these documents out via the most mainstream channel of church historical discourse demonstrates Mormonism’s growing maturity as a religious movement. Every religion has a human history. We are becoming more comfortable with ours.”

It’s important to portray that history of humanity because of what it teaches us, said Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the book’s co-authors and a retired senior historian in the Church History Department.

“In this book we’re able to discuss the way that plural marriage was confidential at that moment [in] time and some of the confusion caused by that confidentiality. … The issues are very complex, and I think in this volume we’re able to address them, maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but at least in ways that are transparent and that show you the humanity of these people and the way they understood things differently.”

That has changed the way Derr, also a Mormon, sees her own faith.

“We just see the rich nuances here of human beings interacting, and I think for me that’s been the most instructive things in terms of my expectation for what my church experience will be. I see it will be full of human relationships and ups and downs and people who occasionally offend and ways to reconcile and to move on. That is our history.”

Before I read the article, I was curious as to how the book would treat the suspension of Relief Society in 1844, a subject I have written about before. Fortunately, the article answered my question:

One of the lesser known stories, published before but in stark contrast in the new book, is the schism that developed between Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow, and Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the church’s leader after Smith was shot to death in June 1844.

Emma was known as an “Elect Lady” and the first president of the Relief Society. As she sought to look after her family’s welfare and supported others who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve and wanted to assume church leadership, President Young worked to stabilize the church.

The book’s four co-editors wrote that, “President Young believed that Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage” — including the use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections — “contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.”

“What are relief societies for?” President Young said in March 1845, nine months after Joseph and Hyrum were killed. “To relieve us of our best men. They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum.”

“Brigham feels under siege,” Grow said. “He’s grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

Let me see if I can unpack this a little. According to the authors, the timeline goes something like this:

  1. Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
  2. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
  3. Brigham believes that Emma’s public opposition to plural marriage–and “use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections ‘contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.'”
  4. The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
  5. By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
  6. “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
  7. “As part of [preparations for the move West] they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

To summarize, the article–and apparently, the book’s authors–want us to believe that the suspension took place after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in a time of upheaval when a lot of the church’s activities, including missionary work, were temporarily suspended. Unfortunately, this is not what actually happened. The crucial fact that is omitted is that it wasn’t Brigham Young who suspended the Relief Society. As the article notes, Emma was vehemently opposed to the practice of plural marriage, and she began to use the Relief Society organization to publicly denounce the practice.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll just repost here what I wrote before:

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.

I wrote that post almost 7 years ago. To recap, the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, 3 months before Joseph Smith’s death. At that point, there was no discussion of moving west and no obvious schism between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The Relief Society was suspended because Joseph Smith was unhappy that Emma was using the meetings to “thwart the practice of plural marriage.” My guess is that Joseph understood that too much investigation would reveal the extent of his practice of polygamy, including the awkward fact that both of Emma’s counselors in the Relief Society presidency were intimately involved in polygamy, with Sarah Cleveland having married Joseph Smith and Elizabeth Whitney having given her daughter Sarah to Joseph as a wife.

Yet here it is 2016, and the church is still insisting that the suspension was Brigham Young’s doing and was a by-product of the move to the West.

So much for “remarkable transparency.”

Correction: The original version of this post listed Elizabeth Whitney as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which is incorrect.


Repost: On the Pasos Kanki Bridge

February 9, 2016

I was thinking about this post this morning for some reason. It’s the post that spurred me to write all my mission memories. I had told this story to a friend, and he said it would make a great blog post, and I should write it down. So, I did. Writing this post dredged up a lot of suppressed memories from my two years in Bolivia, and once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. After writing about 3 hours every evening for 5 weeks, I had the raw materials that would eventually make up my book, Heaven Up Here. So, I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a little nostalgia for the experience of writing my book.

**************

We walked home from downtown La Paz along the uneven sidewalk past the zoo and the botanical gardens, the large “super” slide quiet in the dark, the amber streetlights reflecting from the sagging wrought-iron fence. We hadn’t said much that day, as usual. Davidson, the missionary companion I had been assigned, wasn’t exactly a talker. I pointed out that this was the place where a couple of sister missionaries had been flashed the week before, an unknown pervert having stuck his genitals between the iron bars as the sisters walked to an appointment. At lunch they had told us all about it, Hermana Stevenson relishing every minute while her companion squirmed uncomfortably.

“What was weird was that he was circumcised,” Hermana Stevenson had said, clearly unfazed.

“How could you tell?” her companion had asked.

“Don’t worry, I’ll draw you a picture.” We had laughed as her companion’s face turned a bright red.

Davidson said nothing but jammed his hands farther down into his dusty overcoat. Tall with rugged features, he might have been handsome had parasites not spent five months attacking his digestive system. Now, his tall frame was hunched under a billowing overcoat, his cheek bones protruding at sharp angles, setting off the saddest eyes I have ever seen. I think they were brown, but you couldn’t tell because there wasn’t much light left in them. Five months in Bolivia, and not a single letter from home. Three months with a sadistic “trainer” who thought a naïve Texan was nothing more than a practical joke waiting to happen. And two months with me, both of us trading bouts with salmonella and strep throat. But we were both finally well and ready to get some missionary work done.

We crossed the gray, cut-stone pavement in the plaza bordering the football stadium, the transplanted Incan statues casting long shadows on the gravel of the garden at the center of the plaza. The wind picked up again with its familiar cold, dry, dusty sting, like nothing I had experienced anywhere else. The cold went through you as if you weren’t there, and I could almost see the salesman back in Utah snickering to himself as I paid for the worthless Czechoslovakian overcoat at the “missionary” store. Another half-mile, and we would be home. It wouldn’t be much warmer inside, but at least we had some wool blankets to huddle under.

We came up over the last rise before the river. Even though I’d been in La Paz for three months, the altitude still made me breathless climbing even the gentlest slopes. As we descended toward the bridge, we joined a long line of tired workers quietly making their way home. No one talked, and all you could hear was the dragging of worn sandals on the cold stone sidewalk. It was always like that.

The Pasos Kanki bridge wasn’t particularly impressive. Perhaps thirty meters across, it straddled what the locals charitably called Río Orko Jahuira, a muddy wash full of trash and excrement with a gray-beige stream passing through it. By day people washed their clothes in the river, except on the days when the textile mill upstream emptied its dyes from a pipe into the ravine. On those days the river would run in brilliant purple or green or blood red, and the disappointed cholitas would turn sadly and take their unwashed laundry home.

The still-quiet stream of paceños continued perhaps three abreast as we neared the bridge, and I found myself unconsciously staring at the ground as I walked, shutting out the cold and the crowd around me. I nearly ran into the elderly man in front of me when the crowd stopped suddenly. I could hear some muttering up ahead as the line of people made a wide turn out into the middle of the bridge to avoid whatever was obstructing the sidewalk.

The bridge was well-lighted, and I could see what looked like a pile of rags shoved up against the small concrete railing. As we approached, I could see it wasn’t rags at all. It was a person, though I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Whoever it was had clearly died on the bridge. Unthinking, we both turned and followed the traffic into the street, around the body, and back onto the sidewalk. Still no one said a word.

We walked up the unpaved street on the other side of the river toward our apartment, the smell of pig entrails frying in lard over a kerosene burner joining the dust in our noses as we passed the Cruce de Copacabana, the main bus stop in Villa Copacabana. We climbed the steep hill to our apartment building, opened the red metal gate, and crossed the courtyard into our tiny room. Neither one of us spoke as we changed into our night-time clothes: long johns and sweats to keep out the Andean cold.

Davidson sat on his bed, staring at his feet.

“Maybe we should go back and do something,” I said, helpfully. “We shouldn’t have left him like that.”

“Look, you’re the one who kept on walking, so don’t blame me,” he said, his eyes showing anger I hadn’t seen before.

“All right, let’s go,” I said, pulling on my overcoat. He dressed quickly, and we headed back down the hill.

Nothing had changed since we left. The line of pedestrians continued steadily maneuvering around the body.

“What are we supposed to do?” Davidson asked, knowing neither of us had a clue.

“I don’t know, but we can do something.” I wasn’t sure we could.

As we approached the body, I’m not sure what I expected. I’d never felt such sadness and yet such terror at the same time. But I made myself squat down beside what was now obviously a woman. She was dressed in traditional cholita clothes: wide pollera skirt, stiff woolen shawl, and battered bowler-type hat. She was absolutely still, almost in a fetal position, leaning against the railing, as if she had just decided to stop walking once and for all.

I touched her shoulder, and she stirred slightly. Not dead. Thank you, Heavenly Father. I asked if she needed help, and she turned a grimy face flecked with bits of coca leaf to me. “What the hell do you want, gringo?” she slurred at me angrily, clearly drunk.

“We just want to help,” I said softly.

“Go to hell!” she shrieked.

A man behind me said, “Stupid gringos, just let the bitch die. She’s not worth the time.” I turned and saw that the crowd had stopped, and they were watching to see what these two American boys were going to do. “En serio, just leave her alone. Let her die,” he repeated. They were right: I knew she would freeze to death if she stayed on the bridge.

“Please, señora, you need to go home,” I tried again. This time she spat at me.

I turned to ask if anyone could help me get her home. At that moment, I saw an ancient green taxi heading toward the bridge, the driver’s eyes staring at the crowd gathered around us. Another car approached from the other side, its driver also trying to figure out what was going on. The cars collided perhaps fifteen feet from where we were.

Half the crowd, including Davidson, rushed to the crumpled cars to see if they could help. I stayed with the woman, trying hopelessly to get her to go home. Presently the police arrived in a rickety Land Cruiser. One of the officers rushed to where I was still squatting and asked, “Which car was she in?”

“Neither.”

As the police worked on the accident, I noticed a small girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, standing a few feet off. “Do you know this woman? Do you know where she lives?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s my mother,” the little girl said. She looked as if she had been crying, but now her face looked stiff and cold.

“Let’s take her home,” I said, trying to smile. I reached my arms under the mother’s shoulders and lifted her to her feet, as a stream of profanity flowed from her mouth. Her daughter smiled at me and said, “We live only a couple of blocks away. I’ll get her home.” I watched them stagger slowly up the hill toward the stadium, the mother now screaming what were likely obscenities in Aymará.

I turned and saw Davidson holding the hand of a woman who sat on the opposite sidewalk, her head against the railing, blood trickling from her temple. We stayed a few more minutes until a policeman told us to go home. Davidson told the woman one last time that it was going to be OK, and then we started up the hill towards home.

As we passed the bus stop, a woman was packing up her kerosene burner and pot for the night, and a few men stood warming their hands near a fire burning in the gutter.

At the gate, I fumbled for my key.

“So what did we end up doing?” Davidson asked, his eyes again dark and empty.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”

If you like this, there’s more: Heaven Up Here


Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”

cptmoroni

As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.


The Spectacles and the Stone

August 21, 2015

Great piece from my good friend Christopher Smith.

How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

Growing up in the LDS church, I was taught that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, as described his 1838 history:

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

As Chris notes, however, the official illustrations of the translation process almost never showed Joseph using the Urim and Thummim. For example, this compilation shows the Urim and Thummim in only one of the illustrations, and it’s one I did not see until I was well into adulthood.

Now, before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history. This version of the translation process is just what I was presented with growing up.

As the church has recently acknowledged, the other instrument used to translate was a seer stone that Joseph Smith had borrowed from Willard Chase. I was completely unaware of the seer stone until my mission president mentioned it in a devotional meeting in our office.

As Chris says, the church’s increased openness in discussing the translation process is a very positive sign that the church has decided to “peel back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.”


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