Podcast #12: Women of Faith–An Interview with Church Historian Brittany Chapman

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.

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Podcast #11: Joseph Smith and Polygamy: An Interview with Brian Hales

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!

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Guest Post: A Review of Alex Beam’s Treatment of Polygamy by Brian Hales

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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

Podcast #10: An Interview with Alex Beam, Author of American Crucifixion

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!

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Podcast #9: Ordain Women in Mormon History-An Interview with Chelsea Shields Strayer

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!

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Podcast #8: An Interview with Robert Millet

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.

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One Being or Two: A Guest Post by Dr. Steven Harper, LDS Church History Department

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?

Dr. Steven C. Harper

Dr. Steven C. Harper

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.

The Lord opened

For original image, click here

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.

 

 

When Mormon History Fails You

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

Podcast #7: The First Vision

It is the foundational event of Mormonism–or at least that is what it became. Beginning in 1832, Joseph Smith began to publicly talk about a visionary experience he had in a grove of trees nearby his home in upstate New York. However, what he told audiences differed from year-to-year in what feels to be substantial detail. Is this evidence of rank fraud? Or, as his supporters say, does it indicate the natural human tendency to emphasize/omit details of a story based on one’s audience or perhaps his own changing understanding of the importance of certain theological principles. Brittany Nielson and I speak with LDS Church Historian Dr. Stephen Harper about his book, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts Harper currently works on the Joseph Smith Papers Project production team for the LDS Church.

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Podcast #6: Mormonism and the Single Saint

In this podcast–recorded live at the Salt Lake City Public Library–Russell Stevenson hosts a panel discussion in which he along with three single Latter-day Saints (Ryan Fleming, Kylee Shields, and Lisa Benson) discuss not only the history of Mormon single identity but also struggles and benefits of being a single Latter-day Saint today. Given the marriage-centered Mormon narrative–both historically and theologically–single Saints invite Mormons to revise that narrative.  We field questions from a live audience and address how single LDS can best relate to their married Mormon family members and acquaintances. Listen in for more!

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