Posts Tagged ‘Mormon History’
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.
I’ve been reading the arguments on MormonThink.com off and on for several years now. I have a lot of respect for the individuals behind the site, even though most of them choose to be anonymous. I am confident that I have been visited by several of the contributors there or at least by those who read their site and others like it such as Ex Mormon and Post Mormon.
I am by no means a scholar or intellectual. I think I’m pretty smart and that I’m pretty good with logic. After all, I have made a living for thirty years demystifying computers for others. But I know there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am and who have the academic credentials to prove it. I like to think that I’m just a regular, average, typical Latter-day Saint.
I like smart, thinking people and especially people who present logical conclusions well, either in writing or verbally. Critical thinking is a skill that I am constantly striving to improve. I confess that I am impressed when someone can speak or write with confidence, especially when it comes to doctrines and practices of the church. That’s why I continue to take college classes each year.
Choosing to believe
But I’d like to take exception with one of the common threads I find in the essays on sites like MormonThink.com. It has to do with choosing to believe. The concept of voluntary or involuntary belief has been discussed by philosophers for millennia. But it’s such a basic part of how I deal with the sort of intellectual issues on Mormon Think that I want to share it with you.
I disagree with those who contend that beliefs are not voluntary acts of will. There is no doubt in my mind that I am a voluntarist when it comes to my beliefs about the church and our history. This is especially true in light of, or in spite of all the fascinating historical facts that I have read over the years that are just not taught to or even known by the majority of the Latter-day Saints.
Invariably I have found that those who label themselves atheists also claim to be involuntarists. I am coming to the conclusion that those who embrace the title of Ex Mormon, Post Mormon or Former Mormon also see their position as involuntary. “It was inevitable,” they say, “based on what I have learned, I had no other choice but to now disbelieve what I had formally believed.”
Well, that’s where we differ. I have spent many years studying the same material that has been so troubling and bothersome to so many of my fellow seekers of knowledge. I can honestly say that my faith has been strengthened and my belief deepened that Joseph was who he claimed to be – a prophet of God – and that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be – Holy Scripture.
I have no doubt that there are many in the church, who, if they studied the same material we have written about on our blogs and websites, would be absolutely freaked out and would soon leave the church. They are either social Mormons only or are not strong in their desire to know more about the history of our church. I don’t think these kinds of people are your typical Mormons.
What’s missing from sites like MormonThink.com, and what you’ll find in abundance on the official church web sites, is the role of faith, and especially encouraging faith. There is way too much emphasis on the intellect and not enough focus on feelings. The section on Testimony and Spiritual Witness relegates the role of feelings of faith as something to be dissected and derided.
Announcing new website
That’s reason why I decided to start my own website, LatterdayCommentary.com. This blog is hosted on that domain, which I registered years ago. It’s not much to look at today. In fact, I almost consider it a prototype. I’ve put together some commentary and links to my essays on some of the same subjects that you will find on MormonThink.com. It will grow with time.
I know that I’m just one of thousands of LDS members who have a website where they share their beliefs and testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I like to think that I’m not much different from your average Mormon. I grew up as a member of the church but I come from a convert family. And my viewpoint is definitely that of a laid-back California boy.
I’ve been happy as a member of the LDS Church all my life. I loved my mission and I love going to the temple. I love General Conference and I love serving in a local Bishopric. I hope you’ll take a look at my website and then come back here and make some suggestions as to how I can make it better and more useful in promoting the doctrines of our LDS faith to the world.
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 just spent a very enjoyable afternoon listening to the podcasts of John Dehlin from a couple of years ago when he interviewed Grant Palmer, the author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins and The Incomparable Jesus. For those who don’t know, John Dehlin was the Executive Director of Sunstone Magazine.
His brother is Joel Dehlin, the CIO of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. John spent several years interviewing Mormon scholars and publishing their interviews on the now defunct Mormon Stories. I think we are all very much indebted to John for the monumental work he completed over the years.
Grant Palmer spent 34 years as an employee of the Church Educational System, or CES, before resigning shortly before the publication of his controversial book. Grant was a True Believing Mormon until the time of the Mark Hoffman forgeries and murders in 1985. With an MA in History, Grant began an intensive study of early Mormon History for his PhD program.
Studying Mormon history
Now here’s where the story gets interesting. We are always encouraged by the Brethren to study the gospel. For various reasons, most members of the Church do not. Most are just too busy living their lives. Those who do have a serious study program eventually encounter what is now being called the new Mormon history. Don’t get confused. It really is the same history.
The problem is that it is new to those who are discovering it for the first time. As I have written previously, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write how shocked they were when they discover some items in Mormon history that they did not know before. This is happening to new members and long time members of the church like Grant Palmer.
As Grant studied Mormon History he discovered what he called, the rest of the story. Even though he had been teaching orthodox church history all his life, he simply had not been exposed to some of the things that are not taught in the seminary and institute program. It’s not that they are hidden. It’s just that they are not talked about openly in the church, even today.
A faithful history
What is the difference between a faithful history and a faith-promoting history? There shouldn’t be any difference. A faithful history should report the events as they transpired, warts and all. This approach is respectful of the intelligence of the student of history, trusting them to be able to come to their own conclusions. A faith-promoting history may leave a few things out.
I think the church is getting better about acknowledging some aspects of our history that have previously been a bit obscure. I will always maintain that there has been no cover-up, but I know that the church has been very careful to ensure that what is presented by the missionaries and in our classrooms is faith-promoting. This may mean leaving some stuff untaught.
The problem of course is when the investigator, new member or even the missionary is handed a copy of Grant Palmer’s book or when they do their due diligence in researching the church on the Internet. The odds of finding faithful interpretations of history online are getting slimmer every day. That’s one reason why I have changed my blog to focus on these controversial issues.
Why this is difficult for some
Everyone who studies Mormon history has to come to some sort of conclusion how they are going to deal with this issue of discovering previously unknown and surprising things. I will always be eternally grateful for a mother who exposed me to these things at an early age. I read extensively from her library which included Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows my History.
When I first started reading blog entries and forum posts about peep stones and Joseph’s multiple wives I would scratch my head and wonder why it was such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody already know this stuff? Apparently not. When non-orthodox ideas about the origin of the Book or Mormon are discussed, it sometimes amuses me how worked up people can get.
I try to be understanding, really I do. I try to put myself in the place of the new investigator or new member who is reading this stuff for the first time. Sure, some of it seems really far-fetched and other parts are easy to misunderstand, especially where we don’t have the full story. I have come to the conclusion that some history students are missing something very important.
The missing ingredient
I’ve thought long and hard about why this stuff doesn’t bother me. What do I have that others don’t that allows me to deal with this stuff without it affecting my testimony or my faith? I don’t think I’m any different from any other life-long member of the Church. I don’t have any special claim to protection from the very convincing arguments of the intellectuals and scholars.
And why doesn’t this stuff bother the majority of the members of the church? Ignorance? I suppose that may be part of it. But when they are exposed to it, nothing detrimental happens. My wife is a perfect example. Just when I think I have found something in our history that nobody could interpret as being faith-promoting, she listens and quietly responds, “so what?”
What Carol and I have, and what most members of the church have that protects us from the doubts that can be caused by exposure to the non-Orthodox new Mormon history is revelation. Our testimonies are not based on an intellectual understanding of things and they never were. There are things that our heart just knows even if they do not make sense to our minds.
Summary and conclusion
Now, I’m not saying that those who doubt their testimonies when they learn about these things haven’t experienced personal revelation. Wait, I guess I am. Am I saying that Grant Palmer has not experienced personal revelation about the way the church is presenting our history? I can’t speak for Grant. I enjoyed listening to his story first-hand. He sounds like a very nice person.
But I can say that I have specifically prayed about this issue and have received a comforting witness to my soul that the way the Brethren are handling our history is fine with me. I do not claim to know the mind or will of the Lord about how things may change in the future in this area. I trust the Brethren. I sustain them and believe they are doing the will of the Lord.
I have concluded that this is just one of those tests through which some people have to pass. The revelation of which I speak is not about the history. It is about trusting the Lord. It is about knowing that the prophet and apostles really do act on behalf of the Lord in directing the church. My testimony is not based on intellect alone. It may not be logical to some but it is real to me.