Posts Tagged ‘American Religion’
About a thousand other people and I enjoyed an evening with Richard Bushman last night. He spoke about Joseph and Emma for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions from the audience for another 40 minutes. While his insights on Joseph and Emma were interesting, I found the questions more fascinating, because they reflected a lot of the issues I blog about.
For those who don’t know, Richard Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the 2005 biography of Joseph Smith that has become the definitive account of the prophet’s life as told from the viewpoint of a faithful historian. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him autograph my copy and was not the only one in the audience who waited in line to do so.
Open and honest discussion
It was wonderful to see so many people interested in learning more about this great man and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. Every time he finished answering a question a dozen more hands shot up. We could have been there for several more hours. I think that goes to show you how much we as a people appreciate someone who has studied the prophet’s life in such detail.
There were many questions that focused on the process of translating, the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone in the hat, polygamy, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, the martyrdom, succession, Book of Abraham translation, Mountain Meadows massacre and folk magic. He welcomed every question and encouraged us to ask even the most difficult ones.
A well-qualified historian
One of the most refreshing comments I heard was his expression of appreciation to the church, specifically to the church historian’s office, Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley for the recent publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He then said that he hoped that the church would do the same with the issue of polygamy, treating it openly and with historical accuracy.
Burt what impressed me most about the evening was the obvious fact that Richard Bushman is a highly respected historian who probably understands the beginnings of Mormonism as well as or better than anyone else. Besides being the co-general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, he chairs the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation. He knows early church history.
Serving faithfully in the church
And yet, Richard Bushman has served as a bishop, a stake president, a patriarch and is currently a sealer in the Los Angeles temple. I would say that he is a faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, in spite of everything he knows about early church history. I bring this up specifically to make a point about a common response to my essays and how I can still believe when I know this stuff.
I recently had someone ask me how I was able to do what I do – serve faithfully in the church – in spite of all that I know about, as he called it, “the more disturbing facts of the origins of Mormonism.” I think maybe he might want to redirect that question to someone like Richard Bushman who knows so much more than I do and yet has been a faithful believer all his life.
Believing in spite of knowing
This individual asked, “How do you reconcile your belief and what the church teaches, with the history of things like the origins of the temple ceremony, polygamy, first vision contradictions, development of the story of the restoration of the priesthood, and other issues?” I answered him privately in an email but have been pondering this whole idea of believing in spite of knowing.
Frankly, it perplexes me. I think I have expressed this same sentiment several times in previous essays every time it comes up. What is so hard about studying and understanding our very early church history, warts and all, and then continuing to believe that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the hands of God to bring about the restoration of the gospel and his church in the latter days?
Shocked by our history
Are we supposed to be shocked, dismayed and overwhelmed with doubt every time we discover some new fact about the early days of the church? For example, last night we were reminded that beer and wine were used by the early saints, and sometimes even whiskey. Today, we would be shocked if we learned that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drank a glass of wine.
Yet in volume IV, page 120 of the History of the Church on the date of April 17 1840 we read, “This day the Twelve blessed and drank a bottle of wine at Penworthan, made by Mother Moon forty years before.” Things were different back then, weren’t they? The Word of Wisdom had been received in 1833 but was not binding upon the saints as a commandment like it is today.
History not being hidden
When Fanny Alger was brought up by Brother Bushman last night as an example of an early failed attempt by Joseph to obey the law of plural marriage, I’ll bet there were a few people in the audience who did not know that Joseph had married this sixteen year old girl in 1833. The revelation on celestial marriage had been received in 1831 but Joseph was hesitant to obey.
For some reason, the idea that Joseph participated in plural marriage is supposed to be shocking to us. This continues to be one of the most common tactics of our critics – to try to shock us with facts that are supposedly being hidden from us by our modern church leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are always being encouraged to study our history and learn the facts.
Selling the Book of Mormon Copyright
Another example that our critics like to throw at us is the failed attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. Until recently, the only source for this event was the memory of David Whitmer who was not present when Joseph sent the brethren on their mission. Joseph never said that it must have been a false revelation as Whitmer claimed he said upon their return.
We’re then supposed to conclude that if we can’t trust a revelation from Joseph then how are we supposed to know what is revelation from God. I’m not an apologist but I’m grateful that there are people who dig into these things to get the facts and present them for our review. Of course, the same facts can be presented in favorable or unfavorable light, depending on where you go.
Consider carefully the source
For example, you can read the story of the copyright mission to Canada on MormonThink as supposed evidence that even Joseph Smith didn’t know when revelations were from God and when they were from the devil. Yet you can read the same account in greater clarity and detail from a more trustworthy and reliable source like FAIR and come away strengthened in faith.
We could go on and on with hundreds of things that are supposed to be shocking to us modern believers of the faith because they seem so out of character with what we’ve been taught about Joseph or other leaders of the early LDS church. If we are bothered by something, then we need to do our homework and get all the facts as part of the process of confirming truth for ourselves.
Get the facts straight
If I were concerned upon reading that Joseph Smith was supposed to have said that even he didn’t know when a prophecy came from the Lord or that he is supposed to have said that a revelation he received must have come from the devil, as David Whitmer said he did, then I would want to read more about this and would be very careful about the source that I study.
Because if I believed that Joseph really said this, then that might lead me to conclude that if even prophets have a hard time understanding revelation, how can I really be expected to understand or know the truth of revelations that come to me, especially revelation that I think is telling me that the church itself is true? Do you see how important it is to get the facts of certain matters?
The Joseph Smith Papers
Of course Joseph never said that he must have received a false revelation. In fact, according to more recent information discovered, the brethren who went on the mission to Canada in an attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon felt that they were successful on their mission and that the Lord was pleased with their efforts. The promised sale was conditional.
I’m grateful for brethren like Richard Bushman, who are helping to bring us the Joseph Smith papers. In volume 1 of the Manuscript Revelation Books, we have the full copy of the mission to Canada revelation. It can be read there. The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.
We can believe the prophet
As I wrote in a previous essay, I believe it is our lifelong pursuit to understand revelation and to come to know how the Lord communicates with each of us. We can rely on the promises of the Lord to lead us, guide us and walk beside us because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. I hope we cherish this gift and live worthy of the constant companionship of this promised revelator.
Joseph Smith knew when the Lord was inspiring him and so did most of the brethren who were with him at the time when he received revelation. We can trust that the Lord will help us to have the assurances we need to believe in the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith. Someday, we will meet Brother Joseph and if we still have questions about his life we can ask them to him directly.
Benjamin Franklin is widely recognized as a great American patriot and founding father of this nation. He wielded a powerful influence in the shaping of this country because of his intelligent, reasonable, pragmatic and practical approach to life. But the real power and vigor of his persuasive abilities came from the ideological principles that he embraced. Because of his tremendous reach and authoritative influence upon our nation, much has been written about the religious views of Benjamin Franklin. It is clear that he embraced different beliefs from colonial religiosity that preceded him. By his own account he was a product of the age of enlightenment and considered himself a Deist. He believed this world was organized by a divine creator.
Some have said that he was not a Christian and others have claimed that he was an atheist, occultist or mystic. However, a careful reading of Franklin’s writings leads us to conclude that he simply did not believe that the organized religions of his time fully represented the omnipotent power, majesty or wisdom of the great Creator. There is no doubt that Franklin was a religious man. His religion just didn’t conform to the orthodox views of his day. He did not participate in public worship services but endorsed and promoted the churches around him with his influence. In many ways, his religion was unique to him, formulated early in his life and refined with age and experience. His emphasis on seeking moral perfection, developing virtues and in doing good to all men constitute the heart and soul of his very practical religion. Clearly, based on the results of his life, he had a great understanding of how religion should work for a man.
One of the best sources to help us understand the religious views of Benjamin Franklin is his own autobiography, mostly written when he was 65 and added to some 13 years later. He wrote that he “never was without some religious principles; I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity, that he made the world, and governed it by his providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter” (McQuade et al 215). That’s quite the creed. Just one month before his death in 1790, he wrote to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, and offered a similar creed. “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this” (Franklin Papers v46 p400).
It is obvious that Benjamin Franklin had a strong faith in God as the source of morality and goodness of man. He constantly acknowledged the hand of God in the affairs of men and gave God credit for his happiness and success in life (McQuade et al 185). He was a strong advocate of prayer to God, invoking the blessings of heaven upon his efforts to seek moral perfection. “And conceiving God to be the Fountain of Wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his Assistance for obtaining it; to this End I form’d the following little Prayer … for daily Use (McQuade et al 219). He then recited the prayer for us. In addition, it is well known that Franklin requested that prayer be a part of the proceedings during a critical impasse of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” (Franklin Papers v45 p77) However, his motion for prayer did not carry.
While it is certain that Franklin was no dogmatist, it is just as clear that a driving force in his life was the pursuit of virtue. He wrote extensively about it in his autobiography. In a sense, this search for moral perfection was his religion, and one that he readily admitted was elusive. He considered it a “bold and arduous Project” to develop these virtues which he first enumerated when he was still young. He obviously still felt that it was a worthy enterprise as it wrote about it glowingly in part two of his autobiography, written at age 78. At one time he had hoped to expand his extensive comments about the “Means and Manner of obtaining virtue” into a book. He proposed to call it the Art of Virtue, but his intentions were never fulfilled. However, he left enough thoughts on the subject in his autobiography that many others have used his ideas to better their own lives and some have even written their own books and formulated improvement programs based on his writing. Almost all of Part Two of his autobiography was dedicated to the explanation of how he pursued virtue, the difficulties he encountered in attempting to dedicate these virtues to habit and his satisfaction of seeing his faults diminish.
As he wrote, “But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it, yet I was by the Endevour a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it …” (McQuade et al 220). He shared his list of virtues with his son and encouraged him to also follow their pursuit. The story he relates of how he added the thirteenth virtue of humility to his list has been endearing to readers through the years. “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it …” (McQuade et al 222). Although it has been over 200 years since he wrote these words, we get a sense that Franklin was much more humble than he led us to believe. It was this character trait that allowed him to be so persuasive in uniting others around him to his causes. He was not a threat to men and wanted only to unite them in the cause of doing good.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention, after the reading of his impassioned speech in which he used his persuasive powers to urge the delegates to sign the document, he watched in disappointment as some delegates still refused to sign. While the majority was signing it, he watched and commented that it was always difficult for painters to show the difference between the rising sun and the setting sun. He said that during the convention he had often looked at the painted sun on the back of the President’s chair and wondered “…whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun” (Madison 763). A lady, identified as a Mrs. Powel, asked Dr. Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” — ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it’” (McHenry 618). Franklin emphasized that the new republic could survive only if the people were virtuous. He is also reported to have said on that occasion that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
The word virtue to Franklin signified so much more than we may ascribe to it today. He worked his whole life to acquire virtue, as he defined it for us in his autobiography (McQuade et al 216). He described his list of virtues in terms that could be applicable to an individual of any religion or no religious beliefs at all. He did, however, in adding the thirteenth virtue, suggest the path to obtain humility was to imitate Jesus and Socrates. Much is made in modern times of Franklin’s stated opinion of Jesus. From this quote most people draw the conclusion that he was not a Christian: “I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity” (Franklin Papers v46 p400). As he wrote this one month before he died, he said that he would soon find out for himself as to the validity of the claims of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
As noted, Franklin considered himself a Deist, although not in the same vein as Thomas Paine who openly mocked Christianity. Franklin made it clear that he did not believe the true Church of Jesus Christ was to be found on the earth at that time. He noted the hypocrisy that he found among some who claimed to be religionists as a major reason for his decision to not attend public worship services. He clearly taught us that true religion means doing good to all men. Indeed, he retired from his business pursuits at age 42 and devoted the second half of his life to that very purpose. While he rejected much of the Puritan dogma of salvation and hell, he very much demonstrated the Puritan faith in God as the wellspring of morality and goodness in men. He believed that part of his purpose in life was to improve himself by hard work, diligence and his own efforts. In other words, he believed that it was up to him to make something of his own life. By almost all accounts, he did so admirably. Benjamin Franklin was by far one of the most admired men at the time of his death as evidenced by the 20,000 people who attended his funeral and all the ministers of the city of Philadelphia who walked arm in arm to his graveside.
By no means should we assume that Franklin perfected his moral character in his mortal life. It is clear that he was unable to adhere to the list of virtues he espoused by his own efforts. At one time he advised us to wary of wine, women, food and the cloth (fine clothes), and yet he was known to indulge in all of them. He drank too much, ate too much (and had gout), flirted and dressed well. Yet, he gave so much to the founding of this nation and was a statesman extraordinaire. Without his efforts, this nation might have been a very different place. He became the powerful and so very influential man that he was not so much by the practice of religious behaviors or religiosity but by the practical application of the virtues that he defined early in his life. His religion served him well and made him the man that he was. He was a reasonable man. He thought things out and let his reasoning powers guide his actions, unhampered by the prevailing religious dogma.
Franklin rejected dogma and much of the religious doctrine of his day. His was a God of ethics, morality and civic virtue. Because of his persuasive skills in helping to craft compromise, he was on occasion known as the prophet of tolerance. His political influence was an extension of his religion, with the intention to do good works and help others to do so. Later in his life he returned to a belief that organized religion could help to meet those aims of doing good. His pragmatic view was that without such organized communities, men will not be motivated to do good things on their own (Isaacson 46). His pragmatic ways also exhibited themselves when he said that he would soon know for himself concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ as he very much believed in an afterlife. In other words, he expected to be able to ask him directly. For a man who was not hobbled by the hand-clasping and soul-searching anxiety of some within the Puritan community, it did not seem to me that he rejected Jesus Christ as some have claimed. He was just waiting for someone to introduce him properly.
It is my view that Franklin’s life was well spent in the service of his fellow man, something that was appreciated during his lifetime and that ensured him a great legacy that lives on today. He did not worry himself about religious arguments that led to fruitless bickering among those who simply did not know how to live their lives in a manner that Jesus taught – to go about doing good things for others. I think Franklin was a wise man in his religious views. He did not offend and encouraged all with his generous contributions to the building of their churches and helping to publish their sermons. I suspect that Franklin was amply rewarded when he entered the afterlife. He was certain that God wanted him to be moral and virtuous. He pursued that life and exhibited it by his actions. It’s too bad that some today are insistent on proclaiming that our founding fathers were not religious men. It is obvious to anyone who studies his life that Franklin was very religious, and in a very real way. We would do well to follow his example and live our religions that way he lived his in service.
McQuade, Donald, et al, eds. The Harper Single Volume American Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 1999
Franklin Papers. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, digital edition, Yale University.
14 April 2010 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp
Madison, James. Journal of the Federal Convention, ed. E. H. Scott, p. 763, 1893. Notes at the closing of the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 1787.
McHenry, Dr. James. The American Historical Review, vol. 11. New York: 1906.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin – An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Last November, LDS Harvard undergrad Rachel Esplin made viral video news with her incredibly articulate and intelligent responses to some very difficult questions about the Mormon faith. She was asked whether she wears sacred undergarments, if Mormonism is a cult, how she views the role of women in her church, and what her relationship is with Jesus. For not having served a mission, this young 20-year old is an amazing missionary for the LDS faith.
The interview is twenty minutes long and something you may enjoy viewing as part of a Family Home Evening or perhaps even burning it to a DVD and sharing it in a Sunday School lesson about how to share the gospel in today’s media savvy world. Rachel was on the debate team in her high school and her mother teaches at BYU Idaho. But still, this young woman did a better job than I ever could at responding to difficult questions with poise and confidence.
You may also be interested in viewing some of the hundreds of comments that accompanied just one typical news piece covering the popularity of the video as it appeared in the Boston Globe. I think the very first comment is excellent as it helps us to see how the world perceives us as being closed and secretive. Especially note the tenor of the comments that focus on the claims of exclusivity. This continues to be a difficult point for many to deal with both within and without the church.
I recently read an article in Newsweek about how others view LDS funerals. I was a little surprised at their surprise of how things usually go in our funerals. Are our funerals so very different? And from an essay found in the LDS Newsroom commenting about funerals after the funeral of President Hinckley, “What is This Thing That Men Call Death?“:
“Mormon funerals are typically marked by an atmosphere of hopefulness and peace. They generally are not burdened by the inconsolable grief and despair so often seen in other funerals. Latter-day Saints who mourn the death of loved ones are lightened by the assurance and understanding that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers.
“In addition, some might be surprised by the lack of formal ritual in these funerals. The commemoration service is conducted by a lay minister and features heartfelt tributes and comforting music. Moreover, the basic format, tone and length of President Hinckley’s funeral are typical of what might be seen in the funerals of regular Church members.
“What is the essence of religion? … Religion rises inevitably from our apprehension of our own death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of all religion.
“… Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Joseph Smith.”
I like that. It cuts right to the chase, doesn’t it? We are all brought to equal ground when confronted with the question of how we will face death. When all is said and done, how will we feel when we are called to pass through the veil and enter the world of the spirits there?
I concur with the writer’s assessment of Mormon funerals. I prefer them to other types of funerals I have attended. It is true that there are usually no displays of inconsolable grief and despair, or at least among the faithful who understand the doctrine of eternity.
Update: The words to the hymn can be found on the Deseret News website.
A PDF of the sheet music to the hymn is also being shared by the Deseret News.
What do you think? Are LDS funerals really that different from those of other faiths?