For generations, Mormons have navigated the tumultuous waters of public opinion. Whether defending themselves against charges of racism or making charming advertisements about the importance of family, Mormons have sought to be conscious about how the outside world sees them. Russell Stevenson sits down with Dr. J.B. Haws, an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University, to discuss his award-winning book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: 50 Years of Public Opinion. They discuss the civil rights movement in Utah, the blowback from Mormon opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and Mormon efforts to dodge attacks even as they hoped to disseminate a message of Jesus Christ for all who would listen. Haws’ story gives us the Mormon need for flexibility, negotiation, and principle in an age when the public eye is always watching. Stay tuned!
Meet the Mormons, a documentary/informercial produced by the LDS Church about six remarkable Mormons across the globe, shows Mormonism at its coolest. Would I see it over Guardians of the Galaxy? Tough sell, that. But I attended, if only out of filial loyalty.
The profiles range from a humanitarian in Nepal to a kickboxer in Costa Rica. Occasionally funny and genuinely touching, I found myself moved and inspired to see my faith community in new, more vibrant ways. But if you’re expecting an intellectually stimulating and innovative discussion of Mormon theology from Mormonism’s leading thinkers, then you’ve really picked the wrong Mormon documentary. Theological/historical types are sure to grumble a bit after watching it. There’s not talk about deification, the afterlife, the premortal life, Kolob, the Nephites, polygamy, Bruce R. McConkie, ecclesiastical structures, prophetic (in)fallibility, the pioneers, Joseph Smith, seerstones, translation, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, blood atonement, Freemasonry, etc.
But is that what they’re going for? When you “meet a Mormon,” is that the topic of conversation you will have? (If you’re talking to me, it probably will be, as my dissertation is on Mormonism in Nigeria, making the priesthood restriction almost part of my casual dinner conversation. It’s great party fodder). Perhaps it is. But as numerous public relations studies have shown, people still don’t know what Mormonism is about. They don’t know what Mormons do, why they do it, or what they care about. And if nothing else, a great documentary is crafted to make you want to care about what makes a person wake up in the morning. Unless you’re an avid student or a history freak (I strive to the be former and certainly am the latter), theology doesn’t exactly set will with your dinner conversation. They want to know what your values are, what matters to you, and why it should matter to them. A colleague of mine, also a Latter-day Saint, was considering a graduate program in European history, and when the director of graduate studies learned that she had served a Mormon mission, he asked her not about Kolob but about how she could teach people to have a relationship with God. Basic stuff.
As an academic resource, it enjoys limited utility. In my own work, I might use a clip or two as an intro-warm up to give a presentation on the history of Mormon public relations or perhaps to frontline a presentation on the history of Mormon racial identity–but never more than a few minutes of it. It offers no discussion of change over time, origins, or Mormonism’s Big Ideas. The only historian used in the film was Andrei Cherry, the author of a popular history of the Candy Bombers during the Berlin airlift. I would never use it as a teaching tool in any academic classroom. But when I was chatting with the director, Blair Treu (as savvy as they come, by the way) about the making of this film, it was clear to me that he was not making a film to appease the Mo-intelligentsia. The vast majority of the population don’t have Kolob on their minds. When people still think of Mormons as just screwballs in the Intermountain West (a charge to which I would have pled guilty last year), then the solution isn’t to inundate them with historical scholarship. And Treu knows that as well as anybody. Those who cry foul at the film’s lack of theology are like people at a fine restaurant complaining about why the cheeseball and crackers aren’t more filling.
The Hollywood Reporter declares that the film’s message is that “Mormons are people, too, and really nice ones at that.” But a caricature such as this in fact ignores such a wealth of backstory of race, class, and gender in the Mormon community. Every story is intended to tackle stereotypes of various kind. A kickboxing mother? Not exactly what comes to mind when you say “Mormon wife.” An African-American bishop? While it doesn’t give anything on the history of that (inexplicably, I would add), to go ignore the significance of this story is to be willfully ignorant. Likewise, while Gail Halverson, the famous “candy bomber” of the Berlin airlift, carves out a fabulous narrative, his Mormonism doesn’t really appear in the story.
Love the production or hate it, everything done reveals how Church wants itself presented to the world. Their triumphs are many and varied: whether they’re showing us how they overcame personal obstacles in their youth or building infrastructure in rural Nepal, these individuals have the street cred to force us to revisit some of the holdover insularity we’ve inherited from nineteenth-century Mormonism. I know countless, remarkable LDS humanitarians, athletes, and mothers whose stories are as compelling as anyone’s on the film. But what if they’re not representative? Neither were Peter nor Paul, and we have large texts detailing their travels.
Would I attend it if I weren’t part of tribe Mormon? Certainly not. I wouldn’t lay down ten dollars for documentaries of any kind when I can find them in plentitude on Netflix or elsewhere. Did I come away proud of what Mormons could be? Certainly. Richard Bushman has told the Saints that warming people up to Mormonism is a “matter of familiarity.” Will this do the trick? I don’t know that it will, but it will have accomplished its purpose if only by giving some alone time with our collective self to have a heart-to-heart about what it means to be a Mormon in a 21st-century global community.
In this timely interview, Russell Stevenson discusses the newest volume of the Deseret Book-published series, Women of Faith. As an edited volume of short biographies about LDS women from the nineteenth-century, this book provides readers a fast-paced tour what Mormon women experienced, whether in territorial Utah or New Zealand. Brittany Chapman discusses how Mormon women viewed love, priesthood, and faith in a time when they could not be taken for granted.
In this important episode, Russell Stevenson sits down with historian Brian Hales, author of the three-volume series, Joseph Smith and Polygamy. We talk about the concept of “dynastic marriage,” sexuality in Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, and the Women Who Told Joseph Smith “No.” Hales offers his own feelings and concerns about polygamy and helps Saints navigate their way through the confusing–and ambiguous–documentary trail. Listen in!
For my interview with Alex Beam, click here.
On June 5, 2014, I downloaded the Kindle version of Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion and reviewed Chapter 5, “Polygamy and Its Discontents.” I immediately identified a few weaknesses of the chapter including the predominant use of secondary sources, quoting of problematic evidences apparently without checking their reliability, ignoring of historical data that contradicts his position, promotion of narrow and often extreme interpretations of available documents, and going beyond the evidence in constructing conclusions. Continue reading
In this special Mormon History Guy/Rational Faiths joint podcast, Russell Stevenson interviews Alex Beam, the non-Latter-day Saint author of American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. We discuss polygamy, Joseph Smith’s strength of character, and distinctions between traditional Mormon narratives about Joseph Smith and Alex Beam’s interpretation. Come listen in!
In this exciting episode, Russell Stevenson interviews Chelsea Shields Strayer, a member of Ordain Women’s Executive Board. We discuss the history of the Ordain Women movement in the broader context of Mormon history and explore the contours of the relationship between Ordain Women and the institutional Church. The discussion that arises is rich, provocative, and illuminative–a journey into the heart of what makes Ordain Women such an important movement for 21st-century Mormons, men and women alike. Stay tuned!
Dr. Robert Millet, a longstanding and widely-respected scholar of the Latter-day Saint tradition, joins us this podcast to discuss his new book, Restored and Restoring: The Unfolding Drama of the Restoration. We discuss efforts to build bridges between the evangelical and Mormon communities, the idea of a “big Church,” and the role of historically verifiable truth in defining one’s relationship to the Church. As a leading voice in promoting dialogue with other religious traditions, Millet’s voice and perspective has few equals. Join us now.
The following post is a follow-up to the podcast conducted with Dr. Steven C. Harper on the First Vision. It addresses one of the most common–and central–concerns about the differences among the various First Vision accounts: did Joseph Smith see one being or two?
Did Joseph Smith see one divine being or two in his first vision? The question may seem absurd to Latter-day Saints who can quote the memorable line from the canonized account: “I saw two personages (whose brightness and glory defy all description) standing above me in the air. One of <them> spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) ‘This is my beloved Son, Hear him’”
But seven years before those words were written by his scribe, Joseph penned in his own hand, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” In this earliest known account of the vision, critics are quick to point out, Joseph describes the appearance of only 1 divine being. Or does he? Having studied all the available evidence carefully, I have concluded that what Joseph Smith struggled to communicate has not been understood by most critics or believers—and it won’t be until we learn to listen to him more carefully.
Joseph’s accounts of his vision are descriptions of a revelatory event and also, as religion scholar David Carpenter described revelation, of “a process mediated through language.” The very language whose communicative inadequacies Joseph lamented, in other words, is necessarily the means by which we must receive the signals he sent about the nature of his partly indescribable experience. Knowing that he had an important story to tell, Joseph was concerned by the limits on his ability to communicate clearly. His earliest known account begins with a disclaimer in which he explains why he felt that his ability to communicate in writing was inadequate. His parents’ large family, he said, “required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid in reading and writing and the ground <rules> of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.” In this passage we hear Joseph preparing us for the rough composition of his subsequent narrative. We hear the tension between his knowing that it was vital for him to communicate his singular experience and his sense of inadequacy to communicate it clearly. With that recognition we are prepared to hear Joseph’s marvelous story in crooked, broken, scattered, imperfect language. It is a bit like listening to someone speak in a language they have learned but not yet mastered.
When we listen to Joseph carefully we hear him explain that he saw at least two divine beings in the woods but not necessarily simultaneously. In 1832 he wrote, “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1839 account says clearly, “I saw two personages” and the 1842 account adds, “two glorious personages.” The distinction between the 1832 account’s apparent reference to only one being—the Lord—and the 1839’s unequivocal assertion of two beings has led some to wonder and others to criticize Joseph for changing his story. But it may be that we just need to listen more carefully to Joseph tell the story. It may be that we have assumed that we understood his meaning before we did.
Joseph’s 1835 account provides the clearest chronology. He said, “a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down up me head, and filled me with Joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.” Two secondary accounts also say that Joseph first saw one divine personage who then revealed the other. In the 1835 account Joseph also added as an afterthought, “and I saw many angels in this vision.”
There is nothing in the accounts that requires us to read these variations as exclusive of each other. In other words, there is no reason to suppose that when Joseph says, “I saw two personages,” he means that he saw them at exactly the same time for precisely the same length of time, or that he did not also see others besides the two. Moreover, because the 1835 account and two of the secondary statements assert that Joseph saw one being who then revealed the other, we can interpret the 1832 account to mean that Joseph saw one being who then revealed another, referring to both beings as “the Lord”: “the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
We cannot be sure but it seems plausible that Joseph struggled in 1832 to know just what to call the divine personages. Notice that the first instance of the word Lord was inserted into the sentence after the original flow of words, as if Joseph did not know quite how to identify the Being.
In 1842 Joseph said that he “saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness.” It seems most likely to me that Joseph meant all along to communicate that he envisioned a divine being who revealed another one, but that he struggled to characterize them precisely from what he called his narrow prison of paper, pen, and ink.
It’s time to ask the tough question: is Mormon history even helpful to the Ordain Women movement?
Like Joanna Brooks has said, this cause isn’t one that burns deeply within my soul. If President Monson told us tomorrow that women could be ordained to be “Elders” or “High Priestesses,” I would cheer along with everyone else. If it means that women would get their share of anti-porno talks and dating chastisements, I’m all about lovingly retiring the pedestal–and then burning it in the quiet of the night. I can think of “binders full of women” right now who would run my Elders’ Quorum meeting more competently than I ever could. In that sense, I can confidently say that I’m in support of the Ordain Women movement. Continue reading