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

brian-hales

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

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

Let Not God Speak with Us: The Tragedy of Mormon Racism

The story of white Mormon racism gives me heartburn.  It makes me sad, tragically so. And tragedies are only possible when there’s something–something big–to lose. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, though “few are guilty…all are responsible.” Deflection and projection will not do.  To paraphrase the haunting language of poet Jeremy Loveday, “the culture of violence [though I would say, “racism”] touches us all. And by dismissing perpetrators as monsters, it allows us not to analyze our own actions.”  It is the simple and sincere question asked of Jesus: “What lack [we] yet?”  Jesus did not coddle the inquirer but directed him to give up the things he valued the most in order to follow him.  The young man walked away glumly; he never had considered the kind of sacrifice that Jesus’ kingdom required. Continue reading

2013?! Wow. Ok.

In a recent conversation with Doug Fabrizio, I made the comment that the priesthood ban was a collaborative endeavor, with plenty of culpability to spread around throughout the various strata of the Mormon community.  I said that it has taken this long for the Mormon community to reckon with their racial past.  He responded with a shocked: “2013?! Wow. Ok.”

Over the course of the past year, I’ve said the same thing myself as I have spoken on this topic over the course of the past year.  Continue reading

Review of Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder

Published in the summer edition of The Journal of Mormon History, this review offers my analysis of W. Kesler Jackson’s Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder.  Parenthetical references deal with material from inside Jackson’s book.  Bracketed references point to sources outside Jackson’s work.

Full Disclosure: For a copy of my book, Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ablesclick here. 
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The White Element: Heber Meeks and the First Mormon Mission to Cuba

Rural Cuba, 1941

Rural Cuba, 1941

In summer 1947, Southern States Mission President Heber Meeks traveled to Cuba in order to determine whether Mormon missionary work should commence in the nation of Cuba.  Meeks had an impressive track record both as a church official and a public servant. He had directed the 1940 census in Utah and had once run as a Democrat for the state senate.  When called to be mission president of the Southern States in 1942, Meeks knew something about Utah Mormon society.

Upon Meeks’ return, he sent a letter to Dr. Lowry Nelson, a professor of rural sociology at Utah State Agricultural College, to inquire about his perspective on the race issue in Cuba. Nelson was shocked–he had never heard of such a doctrine in his faith community. For the next several eyars, Nelson engaged in correspondence with the First Presidency about their rationale for excluding blacks from the priesthood–perhaps some of the most revealing documentation about Mormon racial attitudes in mid-twentieth-century. It reveals that even in 1947, the priesthood ban was not common knowledge. Nelson was one of the leading public intellectual in the state of Utah.  He had been a BYU administrator, a member of the Roosevelt administration’s rural resettlement division, and the head of the experiment station at Utah State Agricultural College (now known as USU).  Nelson knew something about Mormon society, and yet even he had missed the race-exclusion memo.   Shocked, Nelson urged Meeks not to recommend proselytizing efforts. Continue reading

Plague: The Mormon Opposition to Pornography, 1850s-1966

Mormons have called it a plague, a cursing, a disease, and the surest sign that the modern world loves to gaze at Gomorrah.  For several years, hardly a General conference, stake conference, or even Elder’s quorum meeting went by without at least a passing reference to pornography’s evils.  But pornography hasn’t always been around, and the Latter-day Saints have not always been fixated in destroying it.  At what point did Mormonism begin to conceptualize pornography as one of the greatest evils of our time?    Continue reading