Thursday, December 19, 2013

Year End Odds & Ends

Previously: The Book of Mormon Bait & Switch

With December winding down, instead of posting one of my usual themed articles, I thought I'd just make a couple of general announcements, cover some updates and other scraps of information, and generally weigh in on the pressing matters of the day.

Announcements, Announcements, Annow-wounce-ments!
Many, MANY THANKS to those who offered up prayers and thoughts of spiritual energy for my lovely bride Connie as she underwent hip replacement surgery last month. As I've written previously, Connie has been defined as something of a medical anomaly, and in the past, surgeries were always followed by high fever and infections resulting in hospital stays of up to two months. (Her other hip had been replaced when she was 33 years old, and the experience was so horrific she postponed this other leg until X-rays taken a few weeks ago showed things were critical).

This time there were no such complications, and I was able to bring her home after four days. We credit your prayers for this smoother recovery. The hospital still sends nurses and a physical therapist to our home to monitor and work with her, and movement is difficult and painful; but she's making better progress than usual.

Here's an interesting story: Two weeks after surgery, Connie began to experience excruciating nerve pain all along that leg. The home nurse reported it to the doctor, and the doctor requested I bring her in immediately.  The doctor took some X-rays and felt around, and sent her home for the time being. Connie was in such pain as we left the doctor's office that she really didn't know how she was going to make it home.

Next thing we know, a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties approached out of nowhere, told Connie he noticed her there in the wheelchair and asked if he could pray over her. We said of course.

So right there outside in the hallway he took Connie's hand and said a simple, straightforward prayer for her bone to completely heal and she be relieved of her pain. After the prayer, we chatted for a minute and the guy told us had witnessed occasions where God had caused metal to grow back into bone. I wondered where he saw that happen?  "That's small potatoes for Jesus," he confidently asserted. After I thanked him and gave him a hug, he turned and walked away. I bent down for a moment to adjust Connie's legs in the wheelchair footholds, and she asked me "Where did he go?"

I looked up and turned around. "Gee, I don't know." It didn't seem to me like he had time to get very far away, but the guy had disappeared down that hall like some kind of ninja.

Now, I don't know if this guy was an angel from heaven or just one of those ordinary earthly angels we encounter now and then who always seem to show up at the right time. But I'll tell you this: that prayer worked its magic. As I was assisting Connie with getting out of her wheelchair and back into the car, she said, "look how easy it is for me to get in the car! I really can't feel much pain right now at all." She described it as a surge of pleasing energy.

Getting her from our door at home and out to the car previously had been a major undertaking, and now she said she could hardly feel any pain. I repeated what our new friend had just said to us. "That's small potatoes for Jesus."

The relief didn't last forever, but the temporary reprieve gave her much needed encouragement. The experience renewed her hope.

This guy had seemed curiously confident for his age. I was sorry to see him go, but whoever he was we credit all your prayers for his appearance. I recall Betty Eadie, in describing her visit to the afterlife, seeing shafts of light shoot up into heaven, and angels scrambling around responding to them.

Betty was informed that those shafts of light represented prayers from people down on earth, and the thicker ones were multiple prayers said by groups of people on behalf of someone in special need. That image has always stayed with me. I visualize all of your prayers for Connie as individual strands of cable meeting in the sky and being woven together to become one mighty column of light. I like that picture: the more prayers, the more power; mighty columns of light so big that heaven can't miss 'em.

The Aussies Have Landed
Andrew and Eva Gore, our friends from Australia discussed in this segment in August, arrived with their children in Utah the day before Thanksgiving, and many of their expenses were covered by readers of this blog. I can't tell you how much that pleases me.

Eva had been disfellowshiped from her ward in Australia after she bore testimony of having given a blessing to her sick baby one night at home. Of course, in Nauvoo, the Mormon women gave each other blessings of healing all the time, so there is certainly nothing wrong with Eva blessing her own child to get better. But in some parts of the world this is a different church than it was in the Nauvoo days, and when Eva's husband sided with his wife over this, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from him as well. Then Andrew lost his job. A short time later, God made it known to these two that he wanted them in Utah for some reason, so the readers of this and a couple of other blogs decided to make it happen.

I have become online friends with several people who have gotten to know this couple, and they tell me the witness of the spirit about them both is phenomenal.  I have had phone and Skype communications with the Gores, and I can confirm there is certainly something special about these two.

So they are here. Many of you donated clothes, blankets, household goods, money, airfare, and even use of a car. A family in Roy, Utah has provided a basement apartment for the family to stay in until they get themselves situated. It was simply amazing how quickly all this fell into place. I, for one, am very interested in seeing what the Lord has in store for them.

The Recent Announcement On Race
The official Church website has posted what amounts to a repudiation of past teachings regarding racial inferiority, and several people have asked for my take on this news.

Well, of course I'm pleased to see it. Although these doctrines have not been taught from the pulpit for decades, the absence of any kind of renunciation has left many members believing the assumptions underlying those teachings remain doctrinal, even if not openly taught. Included among these teachings was that the black African race is descended from Cain, that they were cursed by God, and that they had somehow been less valiant than the rest of us in the pre-existence.

The big question, of course, is what took LDS, Inc so long to issue this clarification? Well, the answer should be obvious. For decades those in authority have assured the members that the Church is true. That assertion painted them into a corner. How can any organization that positions itself as "true" ever admit to being wrong?

The commonly held assumption that those in administrative office within the church actually constitute "The Church" itself, has also resulted in an unfortunate dynamic. It forces those holding high office at Church headquarters to feel a responsibility to protect the testimonies of the members below them, for if a Church leader were found to have erred in doctrine, it could hurt people's testimonies and suggest to some that the Church is less than true.

This problem only exists because for decades the Brethren have stressed two false teachings as essential to our salvation:

1. We must cultivate a testimony of the Church
2. We must follow and obey our priesthood leaders.

Neither of these heavily emphasized dogmas was ever revealed to us by God. In fact, God's word contradicts them. They are the teachings of men, and by constantly repeating them, the Brethren have painted themselves into the embarrassing corner they are now awkwardly trying to extricate themselves from.

The statement itself is problematic for Church leadership. It is a tacit admission that prophets can indeed lead the church astray, because this is an admission at long last that Brigham Young and his long line of successors did indeed commit that very sin. They led the Church astray, preaching and expounding on racial inferiority on countless occasions, and they adamantly affirmed it was all officially doctrinal in two fairly recent Statements of the First Presidency issued in 1949 and 1969.

As Daymon Smith points out over at Mormonism Uncorrelated, this is what comes of allowing others to spoon feed us their own opinions when we should be relying instead on the word of God:
"The statement could’ve pointed out the obvious: that using racial features to discriminate who can and cannot be “given” the priesthood is an absurd, totally unscriptural practice.  But I suppose that would mean pointing out that for 126 years very few leaders apparently taught their scriptures to others content on having someone tell them what their scriptures mean."
In his post, Daymon suggests that maybe when some of the scriptures speak of "white" and "black" or "darkness," we have been all wrong in assuming that had anything to do with skin tone. Maybe it meant something else entirely.

As refreshing as it is to find this statement on the Church's official website, it still falls short. For one thing, as Corbin Volluz reminds us in his excellent analysis over at Rational Faiths, the statement does not include an apology. There is a lot of equivocating as to who might be to blame for these demonstrably harmful practices, but the piece carefully avoids indicting any actual Church authorities. I guess that is to be expected.

But it also fails because it is not an official reversal. We can assume that it was cleared for publication at the very highest levels, since it is on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, it is an unsigned editorial that appears to have been written by a committee of Church scholars, not general authorities.

Most disconcertingly, the statement is not signed by the First Presidency. As we have been reminded through official channels, only statements issued by the First Presidency are to be considered doctrinal and therefore binding on the whole Church. It's a wonderful thing that this editorial can be found on the official Church website, but that's just the internet. Until a statement is issued by the First Presidency repudiating those doctrines, officially the statements issued in 1949 and 1969 still stand.

Also a bit problematic is the fact that this statement was not disseminated through the proper channels, which is why you may have not heard this wonderful news actually discussed where you would expect it to be: in church. There was not the usual letter sent to bishops and stake presidents with instructions that it be read from the pulpit, so as far as Mike and Molly Mormon are aware, this didn't happen.  Church headquarters didn't even issue a press release. This unprecedented announcement was not even on the front page at LDS.org. That prime spot was taken up by a feature about the lights on Temple Square and instructions on how to download Christmas wallpaper for your screensaver.

It was not announced from the pulpit as you would expect of an official change in policy of this magnitude. Rank and file members who don't follow this stuff on the internet are not likely to have heard anything about it.

I think our Dear Leaders put this thing off for as long as they could, and this statement was a timid attempt at saving face.

Hopefully though, this editorial will have the effect of awakening more of our brothers and sisters in the faith whose allegiance has been to the Church and its leaders more than to Christ and His gospel. But I'm not holding my breath. Most members are unable to grasp the difference between the Church and the gospel, and the Magisterium has been caught quashing attempts by those who dared suggest the Church leadership may not be that necessary to our salvation. As Denver Snuffer recently opined, we can expect the doublespeak to continue:
"The LDS position is that the church leaders can never lead its members astray, except in the past - and then it can correct it - in the here and now. When corrected, the LDS church can then consign its past leaders to condemnation for their sins. Sort of ex post facto 'we’re still not going to lead you astray' as long as you are living when we fix it... or something like that. It’s really hard to keep up with the 'we’re not going to lead you astray' component of modern Mormonism with all the dramatic changes and strong denouncements of past errors and sins and mistakes by racist, sexist, polygamous church presidents. But, trust them, they’re somehow not going to lead you astray."
Tithing Unsettlement
If you google the words "Mormon" and "tithing," the third result that comes up is the piece I wrote last year on the law of tithing. That would explain why suddenly this month that post is getting a lot of traffic -upwards of 500-600 hits every day since the first of the month.

That amount of traffic, along with an increasing number of private communications I've been receiving, suggests that there is a desire among many in the church to understand their actual obligation.  I'm also hearing rumblings (I guess I should say "grumblings") of dissatisfaction over the newly aggressive methods some stakes have resorted to in getting members to show up for tithing settlement.

Until quite recently, the way tithing settlement usually worked was like this: around the first of December the bishop would make an announcement in sacrament meeting that there would be a sheet of paper on his door so that all those who desired to meet with him for tithing settlement could make an appointment to do so.  That was it.

This tradition of tithing settlement, as I wrote in my piece, is an anachronism today. Since not many members pay their tithing using crops and farm animals anymore, the procedure for meeting with the bishop to settle up by paying their tithing "in kind" is not really necessary.

So somehow tithing settlement has morphed into a sort of "meet the Principal and go over your report card together" kind of meeting. Which is fine for those who enjoy that sort of grilling.

But the thing that is rubbing some people the wrong way is this recent trend to push everyone into this year-end financial confab, because some folks would rather not. Bishops have been assigning their counselors to corner members in the foyer or call them at home to commit to an appointment. In some cases I'm hearing about, if a family can't be nailed down to a committed time, the bishop has come to their home uninvited and conducted tithing settlement at the kitchen table.

All this is done under the guise that one's devotion to the gospel is measurable only by how diligently one pays his dues to the organization.  In ancient Jerusalem the high priests colluded with the money changers to guilt people into buying their way in to Lord's House. Today your local bishop serves that function.

In the meantime, there is no requirement regarding the paying of fast offerings or directly assisting the needy on your own. Whether you were diligent in giving your alms to the poor is not a question on the quiz.

If you want the honest truth, this is the most recent book I've read.
Christmas Gift Books!
I've received a handful of requests from readers wanting to know what books I read. Okay, it wasn't quite a handful. It was really only three. Three people want to know what books I read.

Quite often when I post a piece here,  I'll include links to whatever books I'm citing from, but I'm learning some folks don't
bother clicking on those links. One of these days I'll compile a list of what I think are some essential sources for getting a more accurate picture of LDS history and theology than most of us were raised on. But for now I want to mention some books I came across this year that I think most folks probably haven't heard about, but which I think readers of this blog might like. So in the spirit of the major publications, I hereby present my Year End Roundup of Christmas Gift Books (and yes, I realize this is posting just days before Christmas. So buy them for yourself.)

First let's talk about the best dang book bargain of the year:  The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations -Facsimile Edition.  I guess the folks at Deseret Book figured out that most Mormons can't afford to pay a hundred dollars for a book. So they finally got wise and are now issuing this masterpiece for $80 off the original price! Pardon me if I am unable to contain my excitement, but I really wanted this book and for what they were originally asking for it, I knew I'd never own one. Now I do.

This beauty is a must-have, and for the price you really should get one before they're all gone. If you don't live close to a Deseret Book store, you can buy it online, but this volume is so big and heavy they charge an additional $7 on top of the basic $4 fee for shipping. But it's still a bargain at that price. This is an essential reference, as it contains photo reproductions of Joseph Smith's original manuscripts, with commentary and color coding so you can tell if a revelation was written in the hand of the prophet or someone else. Buy it for someone you love, and they'll think you just spent a hundred bucks on them.

Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo by Michael G. Reed(John Whitmer Books).
Two classes of people are known for having an adverse reaction to the cross of Jesus Christ: vampires
and Mormons. But for Mormons, it wasn't always so. Author Michael Reed gives a fascinating account of how ubiquitous the cross once was within Mormon culture, and the reason its use eventually became anathema to Saints in the 20th century.

Other Christian denominations have been known to berate us for our reluctance to display the universal symbol of Christianity, but the reality is that Mormons adopted the cross at a time when protestants rejected the symbol as a papist representation of Satanism. (Reed relates a fascinating incident at Nauvoo where a mob of non-Mormon “Christians” rioted and threatened to burn down a building simply because a young Mormon boy had hung a banner from a window with a cross drawn on it.)

In 19th century Utah, the cross could be found virtually everywhere. A large wooden cross was the original marker at the “This Is The Place” monument. Brigham Young admonished missionaries to keep their hearts “riveted to the cross of Christ,” the kind of counsel you will rarely hear from the pulpit today. This is one of those books that took me completely by surprise. I had no idea that our people once prominently and proudly displayed the cross on their persons and in their chapels. It's chock full of photographs of crosses on LDS chapels and in stained glass windows, prominent Mormons wearing crosses as jewelry, crosses displayed on the walls of Mormon homes, sewn into fabrics, and etched onto gravestones. This book is an eye-opener and a reminder that once upon a time we were Christians.

There Are Save Two Churches Only, by D. Christian Markham (TwoChurchesOnly.com).
This is a very well laid out history and analysis of secret societies aimed at the latter-day Saint reader. Tracing the roots of secret societies beginning with Cain, the author takes us through Mystery Babylon and ancient Egypt up to the present time. There is substantial discussion of Freemasonry and Joseph Smith's involvement in it, along with an analysis of Mystic Christianity and much more.

Because it was once commonly believed by members of the LDS church that the great and abominable church of the devil referred to in the first book of Nephi was in fact the Roman Catholic Church, a significant amount of space is devoted to that controversy. Included is an interview I had not been aware of, featuring Bruce McConkie's son describing in great detail his father's Mormon Doctrine entry and the flap that resulted from it.

Some readers may take issue with one or two of the author's conclusions, but the book is an undeniably rich resource of materials and a deep well of source documents. Every time I pick this book up just to skim through its pages, I am impressed by its reach.

The Source (Part One: The Seed) by Norlan Jacobs (Amazon, Barnes &Noble)
Joseph Smith's friend and confidante, Benjamin F. Johnson wrote in his autobiography of the time he asked the prophet if he knew the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel. According to Johnson, the prophet told him they were living inside the north pole, in a concave similar to the big potash kettle Johnson used to boil maple sap. He further told Johnson that John the Revelator was with them at that time preparing them for their return.

Unfortunately, no one else was around at the time to corroborate Johnson's story, so we have only Johnson's word that Joseph Smith actually said it. But if Joseph Smith was the first to advance what later came to be known as the Hollow Earth theory, he surely wasn't the last. There have been enough scientific anomalies in the waters close to the magnetic pole to raise substantial questions about that area in the minds of many. And though no one other than Norwegian sailor Olaf Jansen claims to have been there and back, several novelists, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, have written adventure tales of expeditions to the hollow earth and the civilizations within.

Comes now LDS novelist Norlan Jacobs with his ripping thriller about an expedition to the real Middle Earth. Though not a book directed specifically at a Mormon audience, Latter-day Saints will recognize the theocratic civilization his adventurers encounter. The book is filled with other subtle references Mormon audiences will likely get. A compelling plot propelled by convincing science makes this hefty novel a satisfying read.

Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the LDS Church, by Michael K. Winder (Covenant Communications).
This coffee table book contains a description of every single interaction any president of the Church or other prominent Mormon has ever had with any president of the United States. And I mean ever. Each U.S. president gets his own chapter, beginning with George Washington, and since there were U.S. Presidents long before there were Mormons, in those instances the author provides us with statements famous Mormons have made about those presidents who came before them.

Of course, our nefarious run-ins with Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan are well documented here, but so is every possible bit of trivia you can imagine about every other president vis-a-vis Mormons and Mormonism. I don't know how the author managed to collect all this minutiae, but he didn't miss a thing as far as I can tell.

Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln attended Joseph Smith's extradition hearing in 1843? Or that Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president mention in a temple dedicatory prayer?

Want to know the Mormon reaction to the Kennedy assassination? Or read about LBJ's blatant kissing up to David O. McKay? All here, and much, much more.

The only thing missing from these accounts of a latter-day prophet coming into contact with the political class is that none of them (with the exception of Joseph Smith) ever took the opportunity to act like a true prophet and speak truth to power. Why don't modern prophets do what the ancient ones did: rebuke civil rulers and call them to repentance?

It sure would have been something if, that time Gordon Hinckley shared the stage at BYU with Dick Cheney, instead of shaking hands and chatting amiably with the Vice President afterward, Hinckley had walked up to Cheney and gone all Abinadi on his ass. A definite missed opportunity, if you ask me.

When Hollywood Came To Town: A History of Moviemaking In Utah, by James V. D'arc (Gibbs Smith)
This is a perfect gift book. A person can spend hours pouring over just the photographs alone.
Organized by the various counties where film companies set up on location, this book documents every single film ever made in Utah from the silent days until now. Every movie ever made in the Beehive State is included here, from silent era westerns to the more recent Back to the Future III and Galaxy Quest. The 1940 feature film "Brigham Young" was a very big deal, and seemingly all of Salt Lake City filled the streets for the premiere complete with red carpet for the stars. A short chapter is dedicated to sorting out the conflicting tales of how John Ford discovered Monument Valley, the Utah location so iconic that moviegoers the world over still hold the image of that landscape as embodying the old west.

James D'arc is the curator of the BYU film archives and was instrumental in acquiring the entire collections of some of the greatest directors of the golden age of Hollywood, so the book contains many candid stills from those collections that have not previously been published elsewhere. All the greats are here: John Ford, Cecil B. Demille, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda; as well as Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.

What gives this book a unique flavor is the fascinating insights from locals who were alive in those days. D'arc tracked down and interviewed many of the people who lived in the mostly rural areas of Utah where many of these movies were shot. Some locals were hired on as extras or helped with catering, while others relate the excitement of meeting big stars stopping into their tiny stores to pick up a few groceries. These interviews provide a quaint and charming era of how exciting it was to live in Utah during the golden age of movies when Hollywood came to town.

Other Super-Essential Reading
Elsewhere on these pages I have strongly recommended the recent works of Daymon Smith and
Denver Snuffer on history and theology; and Anthony Larson's explication of prophecy. So I won't repeat myself here other than to issue a reminder that volumes II and III of Smith's A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon are now available.

Well, that was fun. I think I'll do more book reviews in future posts, because there's a lot of great stuff out there and some of the most interesting and important books don't always get shelf space at Deseret Book. Maybe I should make book reviews a regular feature of this blog. Anybody interested?

The Last Announcement Of The Year
I'm scheduled to be a guest on the Paul Duane radio show on Monday December 30th from 1-3 pm. That's on Salt Lake City's K-TKK 630 a.m. K-Talk, to you natives.

The show is also streamed live and available as a podcast, so for those not living on the Wasatch Front, take heart. I am always as close as your earbuds.You should be able access the show hereabouts, or on Paul Duane's Facebook page.

Okay, THIS Is The Last Announcement Of The Year
Connie and I would both like to thank you all for the incredible kindness many of you have shown us this past year. We have made some lasting friendships with amazing people, most of whom we have never met in person. Your love has buoyed us up and given us hope when the seas got a little rough.

Also, for those of you who have shared this blog with friends, a very special thank you. I receive private communications almost daily from people whose spirits have been lifted and outlooks changed after discovering some of the things that have been written here. But invariably it has not been my words that affected them the most. They tell me it was discovering the things written by the rest of you in the various comment sections that have convinced them they are not alone in their struggle to sort truth from error.

I'm happy to have had a part in facilitating the discussions in this community, but it has been largely your conversations that have helped others to understand that our happiness lies not in having a testimony of "The Church," but in learning to believe -really believe- in Christ and His saving gospel. Sometimes all it takes to break through the confusion is to realize that the two are not necessarily connected.

Merry Christmas To All!
See you in January.

Year End Odds & Ends

Previously: The Book of Mormon Bait & Switch

With December winding down, instead of posting one of my usual themed articles, I thought I'd just make a couple of general announcements, cover some updates and other scraps of information, and generally weigh in on the pressing matters of the day.

Announcements, Announcements, Annow-wounce-ments!
Many, MANY THANKS to those who offered up prayers and thoughts of spiritual energy for my lovely bride Connie as she underwent hip replacement surgery last month. As I've written previously, Connie has been defined as something of a medical anomaly, and in the past, surgeries were always followed by high fever and infections resulting in hospital stays of up to two months. (Her other hip had been replaced when she was 33 years old, and the experience was so horrific she postponed this other leg until X-rays taken a few weeks ago showed things were critical).

This time there were no such complications, and I was able to bring her home after four days. We credit your prayers for this smoother recovery. The hospital still sends nurses and a physical therapist to our home to monitor and work with her, and movement is difficult and painful; but she's making better progress than usual.

Here's an interesting story: Two weeks after surgery, Connie began to experience excruciating nerve pain all along that leg. The home nurse reported it to the doctor, and the doctor requested I bring her in immediately.  The doctor took some X-rays and felt around, and sent her home for the time being. Connie was in such pain as we left the doctor's office that she really didn't know how she was going to make it home.

Next thing we know, a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties approached out of nowhere, told Connie he noticed her there in the wheelchair and asked if he could pray over her. We said of course.

So right there outside in the hallway he took Connie's hand and said a simple, straightforward prayer for her bone to completely heal and she be relieved of her pain. After the prayer, we chatted for a minute and the guy told us had witnessed occasions where God had caused metal to grow back into bone. I wondered where he saw that happen?  "That's small potatoes for Jesus," he confidently asserted. After I thanked him and gave him a hug, he turned and walked away. I bent down for a moment to adjust Connie's legs in the wheelchair footholds, and she asked me "Where did he go?"

I looked up and turned around. "Gee, I don't know." It didn't seem to me like he had time to get very far away, but the guy had disappeared down that hall like some kind of ninja.

Now, I don't know if this guy was an angel from heaven or just one of those ordinary earthly angels we encounter now and then who always seem to show up at the right time. But I'll tell you this: that prayer worked its magic. As I was assisting Connie with getting out of her wheelchair and back into the car, she said, "look how easy it is for me to get in the car! I really can't feel much pain right now at all." She described it as a surge of pleasing energy.

Getting her from our door at home and out to the car previously had been a major undertaking, and now she said she could hardly feel any pain. I repeated what our new friend had just said to us. "That's small potatoes for Jesus."

The relief didn't last forever, but the temporary reprieve gave her much needed encouragement. The experience renewed her hope.

This guy had seemed curiously confident for his age. I was sorry to see him go, but whoever he was we credit all your prayers for his appearance. I recall Betty Eadie, in describing her visit to the afterlife, seeing shafts of light shoot up into heaven, and angels scrambling around responding to them.

Betty was informed that those shafts of light represented prayers from people down on earth, and the thicker ones were multiple prayers said by groups of people on behalf of someone in special need. That image has always stayed with me. I visualize all of your prayers for Connie as individual strands of cable meeting in the sky and being woven together to become one mighty column of light. I like that picture: the more prayers, the more power; mighty columns of light so big that heaven can't miss 'em.

The Aussies Have Landed
Andrew and Eva Gore, our friends from Australia discussed in this segment in August, arrived with their children in Utah the day before Thanksgiving, and many of their expenses were covered by readers of this blog. I can't tell you how much that pleases me.

Eva had been disfellowshiped from her ward in Australia after she bore testimony of having given a blessing to her sick baby one night at home. Of course, in Nauvoo, the Mormon women gave each other blessings of healing all the time, so there is certainly nothing wrong with Eva blessing her own child to get better. But in some parts of the world this is a different church than it was in the Nauvoo days, and when Eva's husband sided with his wife over this, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from him as well. Then Andrew lost his job. A short time later, God made it known to these two that he wanted them in Utah for some reason, so the readers of this and a couple of other blogs decided to make it happen.

I have become online friends with several people who have gotten to know this couple, and they tell me the witness of the spirit about them both is phenomenal.  I have had phone and Skype communications with the Gores, and I can confirm there is certainly something special about these two.

So they are here. Many of you donated clothes, blankets, household goods, money, airfare, and even use of a car. A family in Roy, Utah has provided a basement apartment for the family to stay in until they get themselves situated. It was simply amazing how quickly all this fell into place. I, for one, am very interested in seeing what the Lord has in store for them.

The Recent Announcement On Race
The official Church website has posted what amounts to a repudiation of past teachings regarding racial inferiority, and several people have asked for my take on this news.

Well, of course I'm pleased to see it. Although these doctrines have not been taught from the pulpit for decades, the absence of any kind of renunciation has left many members believing the assumptions underlying those teachings remain doctrinal, even if not openly taught. Included among these teachings was that the black African race is descended from Cain, that they were cursed by God, and that they had somehow been less valiant than the rest of us in the pre-existence.

The big question, of course, is what took LDS, Inc so long to issue this clarification? Well, the answer should be obvious. For decades those in authority have assured the members that the Church is true. That assertion painted them into a corner. How can any organization that positions itself as "true" ever admit to being wrong?

The commonly held assumption that those in administrative office within the church actually constitute "The Church" itself, has also resulted in an unfortunate dynamic. It forces those holding high office at Church headquarters to feel a responsibility to protect the testimonies of the members below them, for if a Church leader were found to have erred in doctrine, it could hurt people's testimonies and suggest to some that the Church is less than true.

This problem only exists because for decades the Brethren have stressed two false teachings as essential to our salvation:

1. We must cultivate a testimony of the Church
2. We must follow and obey our priesthood leaders.

Neither of these heavily emphasized dogmas was ever revealed to us by God. In fact, God's word contradicts them. They are the teachings of men, and by constantly repeating them, the Brethren have painted themselves into the embarrassing corner they are now awkwardly trying to extricate themselves from.

The statement itself is problematic for Church leadership. It is a tacit admission that prophets can indeed lead the church astray, because this is an admission at long last that Brigham Young and his long line of successors did indeed commit that very sin. They led the Church astray, preaching and expounding on racial inferiority on countless occasions, and they adamantly affirmed it was all officially doctrinal in two fairly recent Statements of the First Presidency issued in 1949 and 1969.

As Daymon Smith points out over at Mormonism Uncorrelated, this is what comes of allowing others to spoon feed us their own opinions when we should be relying instead on the word of God:
"The statement could’ve pointed out the obvious: that using racial features to discriminate who can and cannot be “given” the priesthood is an absurd, totally unscriptural practice.  But I suppose that would mean pointing out that for 126 years very few leaders apparently taught their scriptures to others content on having someone tell them what their scriptures mean."
In his post, Daymon suggests that maybe when some of the scriptures speak of "white" and "black" or "darkness," we have been all wrong in assuming that had anything to do with skin tone. Maybe it meant something else entirely.

As refreshing as it is to find this statement on the Church's official website, it still falls short. For one thing, as Corbin Volluz reminds us in his excellent analysis over at Rational Faiths, the statement does not include an apology. There is a lot of equivocating as to who might be to blame for these demonstrably harmful practices, but the piece carefully avoids indicting any actual Church authorities. I guess that is to be expected.

But it also fails because it is not an official reversal. We can assume that it was cleared for publication at the very highest levels, since it is on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nevertheless, it is an unsigned editorial that appears to have been written by a committee of Church scholars, not general authorities.

Most disconcertingly, the statement is not signed by the First Presidency. As we have been reminded through official channels, only statements issued by the First Presidency are to be considered doctrinal and therefore binding on the whole Church. It's a wonderful thing that this editorial can be found on the official Church website, but that's just the internet. Until a statement is issued by the First Presidency repudiating those doctrines, officially the statements issued in 1949 and 1969 still stand.

Also a bit problematic is the fact that this statement was not disseminated through the proper channels, which is why you may have not heard this wonderful news actually discussed where you would expect it to be: in church. There was not the usual letter sent to bishops and stake presidents with instructions that it be read from the pulpit, so as far as Mike and Molly Mormon are aware, this didn't happen.  Church headquarters didn't even issue a press release. This unprecedented announcement was not even on the front page at LDS.org. That prime spot was taken up by a feature about the lights on Temple Square and instructions on how to download Christmas wallpaper for your screensaver.

It was not announced from the pulpit as you would expect of an official change in policy of this magnitude. Rank and file members who don't follow this stuff on the internet are not likely to have heard anything about it.

I think our Dear Leaders put this thing off for as long as they could, and this statement was a timid attempt at saving face.

Hopefully though, this editorial will have the effect of awakening more of our brothers and sisters in the faith whose allegiance has been to the Church and its leaders more than to Christ and His gospel. But I'm not holding my breath. Most members are unable to grasp the difference between the Church and the gospel, and the Magisterium has been caught quashing attempts by those who dared suggest the Church leadership may not be that necessary to our salvation. As Denver Snuffer recently opined, we can expect the doublespeak to continue:
"The LDS position is that the church leaders can never lead its members astray, except in the past - and then it can correct it - in the here and now. When corrected, the LDS church can then consign its past leaders to condemnation for their sins. Sort of ex post facto 'we’re still not going to lead you astray' as long as you are living when we fix it... or something like that. It’s really hard to keep up with the 'we’re not going to lead you astray' component of modern Mormonism with all the dramatic changes and strong denouncements of past errors and sins and mistakes by racist, sexist, polygamous church presidents. But, trust them, they’re somehow not going to lead you astray."
Tithing Unsettlement
If you google the words "Mormon" and "tithing," the third result that comes up is the piece I wrote last year on the law of tithing. That would explain why suddenly this month that post is getting a lot of traffic -upwards of 500-600 hits every day since the first of the month.

That amount of traffic, along with an increasing number of private communications I've been receiving, suggests that there is a desire among many in the church to understand their actual obligation.  I'm also hearing rumblings (I guess I should say "grumblings") of dissatisfaction over the newly aggressive methods some stakes have resorted to in getting members to show up for tithing settlement.

Until quite recently, the way tithing settlement usually worked was like this: around the first of December the bishop would make an announcement in sacrament meeting that there would be a sheet of paper on his door so that all those who desired to meet with him for tithing settlement could make an appointment to do so.  That was it.

This tradition of tithing settlement, as I wrote in my piece, is an anachronism today. Since not many members pay their tithing using crops and farm animals anymore, the procedure for meeting with the bishop to settle up by paying their tithing "in kind" is not really necessary.

So somehow tithing settlement has morphed into a sort of "meet the Principal and go over your report card together" kind of meeting. Which is fine for those who enjoy that sort of grilling.

But the thing that is rubbing some people the wrong way is this recent trend to push everyone into this year-end financial confab, because some folks would rather not. Bishops have been assigning their counselors to corner members in the foyer or call them at home to commit to an appointment. In some cases I'm hearing about, if a family can't be nailed down to a committed time, the bishop has come to their home uninvited and conducted tithing settlement at the kitchen table.

All this is done under the guise that one's devotion to the gospel is measurable only by how diligently one pays his dues to the organization.  In ancient Jerusalem the high priests colluded with the money changers to guilt people into buying their way in to Lord's House. Today your local bishop serves that function.

In the meantime, there is no requirement regarding the paying of fast offerings or directly assisting the needy on your own. Whether you were diligent in giving your alms to the poor is not a question on the quiz.

If you want the honest truth, this is the most recent book I've read.
Christmas Gift Books!
I've received a handful of requests from readers wanting to know what books I read. Okay, it wasn't quite a handful. It was really only three. Three people want to know what books I read.

Quite often when I post a piece here,  I'll include links to whatever books I'm citing from, but I'm learning some folks don't
bother clicking on those links. One of these days I'll compile a list of what I think are some essential sources for getting a more accurate picture of LDS history and theology than most of us were raised on. But for now I want to mention some books I came across this year that I think most folks probably haven't heard about, but which I think readers of this blog might like. So in the spirit of the major publications, I hereby present my Year End Roundup of Christmas Gift Books (and yes, I realize this is posting just days before Christmas. So buy them for yourself.)

First let's talk about the best dang book bargain of the year:  The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations -Facsimile Edition.  I guess the folks at Deseret Book figured out that most Mormons can't afford to pay a hundred dollars for a book. So they finally got wise and are now issuing this masterpiece for $80 off the original price! Pardon me if I am unable to contain my excitement, but I really wanted this book and for what they were originally asking for it, I knew I'd never own one. Now I do.

This beauty is a must-have, and for the price you really should get one before they're all gone. If you don't live close to a Deseret Book store, you can buy it online, but this volume is so big and heavy they charge an additional $7 on top of the basic $4 fee for shipping. But it's still a bargain at that price. This is an essential reference, as it contains photo reproductions of Joseph Smith's original manuscripts, with commentary and color coding so you can tell if a revelation was written in the hand of the prophet or someone else. Buy it for someone you love, and they'll think you just spent a hundred bucks on them.

Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo by Michael G. Reed (John Whitmer Books).
Two classes of people are known for having an adverse reaction to the cross of Jesus Christ: vampires
and Mormons. But for Mormons, it wasn't always so. Author Michael Reed gives a fascinating account of how ubiquitous the cross once was within Mormon culture, and the reason its use eventually became anathema to Saints in the 20th century.

Other Christian denominations have been known to berate us for our reluctance to display the universal symbol of Christianity, but the reality is that Mormons adopted the cross at a time when protestants rejected the symbol as a papist representation of Satanism. (Reed relates a fascinating incident at Nauvoo where a mob of non-Mormon “Christians” rioted and threatened to burn down a building simply because a young Mormon boy had hung a banner from a window with a cross drawn on it.)

In 19th century Utah, the cross could be found virtually everywhere. A large wooden cross was the original marker at the “This Is The Place” monument. Brigham Young admonished missionaries to keep their hearts “riveted to the cross of Christ,” the kind of counsel you will rarely hear from the pulpit today. This is one of those books that took me completely by surprise. I had no idea that our people once prominently and proudly displayed the cross on their persons and in their chapels. It's chock full of photographs of crosses on LDS chapels and in stained glass windows, prominent Mormons wearing crosses as jewelry, crosses displayed on the walls of Mormon homes, sewn into fabrics, and etched onto gravestones. This book is an eye-opener and a reminder that once upon a time we were Christians.

There Are Save Two Churches Only, by D. Christian Markham (TwoChurchesOnly.com).
This is a very well laid out history and analysis of secret societies aimed at the latter-day Saint reader. Tracing the roots of secret societies beginning with Cain, the author takes us through Mystery Babylon and ancient Egypt up to the present time. There is substantial discussion of Freemasonry and Joseph Smith's involvement in it, along with an analysis of Mystic Christianity and much more.

Because it was once commonly believed by members of the LDS church that the great and abominable church of the devil referred to in the first book of Nephi was in fact the Roman Catholic Church, a significant amount of space is devoted to that controversy. Included is an interview I had not been aware of, featuring Bruce McConkie's son describing in great detail his father's Mormon Doctrine entry and the flap that resulted from it.

Some readers may take issue with one or two of the author's conclusions, but the book is an undeniably rich resource of materials and a deep well of source documents. Every time I pick this book up just to skim through its pages, I am impressed by its reach.

The Source (Part One: The Seed) by Norlan Jacobs (Amazon, Barnes &Noble)
Joseph Smith's friend and confidante, Benjamin F. Johnson wrote in his autobiography of the time he asked the prophet if he knew the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel. According to Johnson, the prophet told him they were living inside the north pole, in a concave similar to the big potash kettle Johnson used to boil maple sap. He further told Johnson that John the Revelator was with them at that time preparing them for their return.

Unfortunately, no one else was around at the time to corroborate Johnson's story, so we have only Johnson's word that Joseph Smith actually said it. But if Joseph Smith was the first to advance what later came to be known as the Hollow Earth theory, he surely wasn't the last. There have been enough scientific anomalies in the waters close to the magnetic pole to raise substantial questions about that area in the minds of many. And though no one other than Norwegian sailor Olaf Jansen claims to have been there and back, several novelists, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, have written adventure tales of expeditions to the hollow earth and the civilizations within.

Comes now LDS novelist Norlan Jacobs with his ripping thriller about an expedition to the real Middle Earth. Though not a book directed specifically at a Mormon audience, Latter-day Saints will recognize the theocratic civilization his adventurers encounter. The book is filled with other subtle references Mormon audiences will likely get. A compelling plot propelled by convincing science makes this hefty novel a satisfying read.

Presidents and Prophets: The Story of America's Presidents and the LDS Church, by Michael K. Winder (Covenant Communications).
This coffee table book contains a description of every single interaction any president of the Church or other prominent Mormon has ever had with any president of the United States. And I mean ever. Each U.S. president gets his own chapter, beginning with George Washington, and since there were U.S. Presidents long before there were Mormons, in those instances the author provides us with statements famous Mormons have made about those presidents who came before them.

Of course, our nefarious run-ins with Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan are well documented here, but so is every possible bit of trivia you can imagine about every other president vis-a-vis Mormons and Mormonism. I don't know how the author managed to collect all this minutiae, but he didn't miss a thing as far as I can tell.

Did you know Mary Todd Lincoln attended Joseph Smith's extradition hearing in 1843? Or that Woodrow Wilson was the only U.S. president mention in a temple dedicatory prayer?

Want to know the Mormon reaction to the Kennedy assassination? Or read about LBJ's blatant kissing up to David O. McKay? All here, and much, much more.

The only thing missing from these accounts of a latter-day prophet coming into contact with the political class is that none of them (with the exception of Joseph Smith) ever took the opportunity to act like a true prophet and speak truth to power. Why don't modern prophets do what the ancient ones did: rebuke civil rulers and call them to repentance?

It sure would have been something if, that time Gordon Hinckley shared the stage at BYU with Dick Cheney, instead of shaking hands and chatting amiably with the Vice President afterward, Hinckley had walked up to Cheney and gone all Abinadi on his ass. A definite missed opportunity, if you ask me.

When Hollywood Came To Town: A History of Moviemaking In Utah, by James V. D'arc (Gibbs Smith)
This is a perfect gift book. A person can spend hours pouring over just the photographs alone.
Organized by the various counties where film companies set up on location, this book documents every single film ever made in Utah from the silent days until now. Every movie ever made in the Beehive State is included here, from silent era westerns to the more recent Back to the Future III and Galaxy Quest. The 1940 feature film "Brigham Young" was a very big deal, and seemingly all of Salt Lake City filled the streets for the premiere complete with red carpet for the stars. A short chapter is dedicated to sorting out the conflicting tales of how John Ford discovered Monument Valley, the Utah location so iconic that moviegoers the world over still hold the image of that landscape as embodying the old west.

James D'arc is the curator of the BYU film archives and was instrumental in acquiring the entire collections of some of the greatest directors of the golden age of Hollywood, so the book contains many candid stills from those collections that have not previously been published elsewhere. All the greats are here: John Ford, Cecil B. Demille, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda; as well as Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.

What gives this book a unique flavor is the fascinating insights from locals who were alive in those days. D'arc tracked down and interviewed many of the people who lived in the mostly rural areas of Utah where many of these movies were shot. Some locals were hired on as extras or helped with catering, while others relate the excitement of meeting big stars stopping into their tiny stores to pick up a few groceries. These interviews provide a quaint and charming era of how exciting it was to live in Utah during the golden age of movies when Hollywood came to town.

Other Super-Essential Reading
Elsewhere on these pages I have strongly recommended the recent works of Daymon Smith and
Denver Snuffer on history and theology; and Anthony Larson's explication of prophecy. So I won't repeat myself here other than to issue a reminder that volumes II and III of Smith's A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon are now available.

Well, that was fun. I think I'll do more book reviews in future posts, because there's a lot of great stuff out there and some of the most interesting and important books don't always get shelf space at Deseret Book. Maybe I should make book reviews a regular feature of this blog. Anybody interested?

The Last Announcement Of The Year
I'm scheduled to be a guest on the Paul Duane radio show on Monday December 30th from 1-3 pm. That's on Salt Lake City's K-TKK 630 a.m. K-Talk, to you natives.

The show is also streamed live and available as a podcast, so for those not living on the Wasatch Front, take heart. I am always as close as your earbuds.You should be able access the show hereabouts, or on Paul Duane's Facebook page.

Okay, THIS Is The Last Announcement Of The Year
Connie and I would both like to thank you all for the incredible kindness many of you have shown us this past year. We have made some lasting friendships with amazing people, most of whom we have never met in person. Your love has buoyed us up and given us hope when the seas got a little rough.

Also, for those of you who have shared this blog with friends, a very special thank you. I receive private communications almost daily from people whose spirits have been lifted and outlooks changed after discovering some of the things that have been written here. But invariably it has not been my words that affected them the most. They tell me it was discovering the things written by the rest of you in the various comment sections that have convinced them they are not alone in their struggle to sort truth from error.

I'm happy to have had a part in facilitating the discussions in this community, but it has been largely your conversations that have helped others to understand that our happiness lies not in having a testimony of "The Church," but in learning to believe -really believe- in Christ and His saving gospel. Sometimes all it takes to break through the confusion is to realize that the two are not necessarily connected.

Merry Christmas To All!
See you in January.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Book Of Mormon Bait & Switch

Previously: The Denver Snuffer Debacle

We Latter-day Saints love to revere the Book of Mormon, then tend to ignore its teachings in favor of doctrines found nowhere in its pages. As LDS cultural anthropologist Daymon Smith demonstrates in his remarkable book, A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon, this is nothing new. As it happens, few early converts to Mormonism bothered to read the Book of Mormon and had little idea of its contents. Most hadn't been converted through a reading of the book itself, but rather by what they thought the book represented. They saw the coming forth of ancient scripture on gold plates as evidence of God working miracles among men at the dawn of the millennial age. No need to actually read the book; the miracle was the message. Meanwhile, those converts who did read the Book of Mormon tended to scrounge around in it looking for parts that confirmed beliefs they already held.

If we are serious about the Book of Mormon being the cornerstone of our faith, then that book should be the litmus test as to what is and is not organically "Mormon." True, not every teaching has to have come from the Book of Mormon in order to be doctrinal. God did, after all, reveal additional truths through Joseph Smith both before and after that book came forth.

But a surprising amount of what we think is quintessentially "Mormon," actually turns out to be more Protestant than LDS. And many of those notions remain entrenched in the Church today. Daymon Smith takes a good hard look at where we got some of our more cherished beliefs and finds that more than a few teachings we assume are fundamentally "Mormon" are not to be found in the Book of Mormon, nor were they revealed by God through revelation. Instead, they have their roots in the Reformed Baptist movement from which many of our first converts were gleaned. These new converts, fresh from the tradition led by Alexander Campbell, remained firmly attached to their former beliefs. Rather than let those tenets go, they folded them into this new religion they were now a part of. Those who came after simply accepted these tenets as part and parcel of Mormonism. No one seems to have noticed a skunk had gotten into the woodpile. 

The Most Correct Book Ever Ignored
Soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon, many of those who embraced it immediately took to giving it second class status. They hailed it as miraculous and important alright, but they promoted it mostly as a companion to the bible; a marvelous work and a wonder that served to prop up the bible's authority. Never mind that the Book of Mormon prophets explicitly declared the bible to have been full of errors and omissions, and a stumbling block to mankind's spiritual progress for centuries. When new converts proclaimed this wonderful new scripture, it was mostly to support the veracity of the bible. It was rarely cited as its own authority. The Book of Mormon was touted as a helpmeet to the bible, "a second witness."

Among the teachings the Campbellites brought with them into the fledgling church was "The Plan of Salvation" outlined first by Campbell and Stone, and eventually codified in 1890 almost word-for-word in section four of our own Articles of Faith. Then there is that little matter of the "true church" being modeled after the primitive Christian church, replete with a priesthood of Apostles, Elders, Priests, Teachers, and Deacons. Though it has been firmly entrenched in our culture for nearly two centuries, that organizational structure may turn out to be the most "un-Mormon" Mormon teaching of all. A religious organization structured after the primitive Christian Church is not recommended in the Book of Mormon, nor directed by God in any of his bona fide revelations. Yet we still cling to that format today, ignoring the fact that the first century church built on that paradigm failed precisely because it was so easy to infiltrate and neutralize.

Daymon Smith methodically reconstructs where and how these false teachings originated, and it appears the prime suspects are Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt. Both were greatly influenced by the teachings of Alexander Campbell, and both were instrumental in bringing many others into the church, including most of Reverend Rigdon's entire congregation.

The Face of Frontier Protestantism
If you have never heard of Alexander Campbell, he was the Billy Graham of his day. And for those of you reading this who may be too young to remember Billy Graham, in my day Billy Graham was huge. Graham was considered America's Preacher. He transcended denominations. His books sold millions. His speaking engagements filled stadiums. Politicians of both parties scrambled to be photographed with him if they had any hope of getting elected. In America, Billy Graham was bigger than the Pope.

That's how it was with Alexander Campbell, a famously popular evangelist in frontier America. He published as many as a hundred books and tracts, as well as a monthly periodical called The Christian Baptist. Every bible-believing American was familiar with Campbell and his teachings. When Campbell made personal appearances he was often accompanied by the Reverend Sidney Rigdon, known as "The Walking Bible" for his encyclopedic knowledge of scripture. Rigdon and his flock eventually broke from Campbell, but Rigdon retained his Cambellite beliefs, among them the idea that the true Church of Christ must be modeled after the New Testament church of the early apostles; that model would be evidence of the true church.

Both Rigdon and Pratt embraced the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as evidence that God was again working miracles, and they interpreted the book's miraculous coming forth as a sign that the true Church of Christ was at hand. And incredibly, the Book of Mormon spoke repeatedly of a "restoration." Say, that sounded familiar! Rigdon, Pratt, and the other disciples of Christ had been looking forward to a "Restoration of Ancient Things" as taught by Alexander Campbell.  This mention of restoration in the Book of Mormon was taken by them as a sign that the restoration was at hand and that they were to be part of it. To them, the word restoration meant something very specific: a restoring of the New testament church as it had been at the time of the apostles. Never mind that was not at all what the word "restoration" meant as contained in the Book of Mormon. These newbies only saw what they wanted to see. They saw the word, and they jumped to their own conclusions regarding that word's meaning.

Here is the way a friend of mine concisely described the meaning of "restoration" as used in the Book of Mormon:
"When the Book of Mormon spoke of "Restoration" it was referring to Israel being restored to the knowledge of their fathers; it meant our bodies being restored to their proper frame; Justice and mercy being restored to us individually. One way of looking at restoration is as a kind of Karma. What you put out into the universe is eventually restored to you. If I am in a place of judgment and accusation, then I become hindered with guilt and fear. However, if I’m willing to let go of the anger, then peace will be restored again to me."
I think the Book of Mormon prophets would be aghast at how we have warped their meaning. It is quite clear that the structure of the early "church" as presented in our perverted Bible is the last place they would want us to look to for direction. That icon failed a century after it was birthed, and the Book of Mormon was explicit in warning about it.

At the time of the Rigdonite influx of converts to Mormonism, there was no organized LDS church. Neither had Alexander Campbell's Disciples of Christ come into being as a formal denomination. That wasn't formed until 1832. The collection of Christians throughout America who loosely followed the teachings of Alexander Campbell called themselves disciples of Christ (small 'd' disciples) the same as many others called themselves "followers" of Christ. They were not members of any denomination led by Alexander Campbell; they merely subscribed to his interpretation of the bible. Most of these disciples of Christ became known as "Restorationists," and those who were gathered in Ohio with an interest in this new record translated from gold plates were labeled "Mormonite" Restorationists.

These new Mormonites might have declared a belief in the Book of Mormon, but that wasn't what pushed their buttons. What they really saw themselves a part of was restoring the ancient Christian church to the earth in these latter days.  Finding the word "restoration" in the Book of Mormon seemed to validate their belief that they were to be part of restoring the church the way it had been before the Holy Roman Empire mucked it all up.

They hadn't really found references to a restored church in the Book of Mormon, because churches in the Book of Mormon weren't organized from the top down. But they fooled themselves into thinking they had found it, just the same.

The tiny group around Joseph Smith had consisted of little more than Oliver Cowdery and a handful of witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  This new wave of Rigdonite converts swelled the ranks of the as-yet unorganized "church" considerably. Daymon Smith shows how their influence effectively diverted the nascent community away from a focus on the Book of Mormon and toward something else entirely. As Smith puts it, "Restorationists did not 'join' any church so much as graft the Book of Mormon onto their own metatext, and were [now being] called Mormonites..." (pg 155).

Even then, they didn't think of themselves in terms of the Book of Mormon. They were Restorationists first. Smith fully documents how this Restorationist philosophy elbowed its way in and overshadowed the message of the Book of Mormon. Instead of using the Book of Mormon to bring individuals to Christ, the focus shifted to bringing converts into this newly formed Church. And that remains our primary focus today: not so much bringing people to Christ as bringing new converts into the "true" Church.

Digging Through The Wreckage
I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I say A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon is the most important book I have read in a very long time. It's a game changer. It has forced me to completely rethink many of the things I have long believed were fundamental to my religion, and seek again for truths I had been ignoring. Frequently while reading the book, I would have to put it down for a moment to allow my head a chance to stop swimming.

Smith fully documents the Protestant Restoration tradition going back 400 years through Alexander Campbell and his influential father, Thomas Campbell, and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was no new movement revealed by God in 1830. It's old news; and not all good news.  Smith painstakingly shows how our incipient religion was tainted very early by the false assumption that restoring the ancient church was our primary purpose for being.

As a cultural anthropologist, Daymon Smith has done a more thorough job of digging deep into the roots of Mormonism than many of those officially charged with the task.  It's little wonder LDS court historians sometimes have trouble fitting the pieces together. They are often forced to begin with what our conditioning teaches us must have been the endgame, then reasoning backward to try and make it all fit.

As Denver Snuffer put it, "reasoning backward requires you to begin with the result...To reach this outcome, you proceed with whatever assumptions are required to justify the conclusion" (Passing the Heavenly Gift, pg 321). But the problem with Mormon history is that much of it was tweaked and doctored years and even decades after the events described, then re-written again to more closely fit the chosen narrative. Many of these inconsistencies have been seized on by anti-Mormon writers as evidence of fraud, when what was happening was our pioneer forefathers were busy overlaying contrary dogmas ex post facto. They had a view of the manner in which they felt something should have taken place, and sometimes injected descriptions of those events retroactively in written accounts that contradicted other versions.

Happily for those inclined to know the real story, many source documents still exist, but few of us were made aware how much the original documents contradict things we were taught growing up. How many of us knew, for instance, that Brigham Young directed Willard Richards and others to doctor the official History of the Church, putting words into Joseph Smith's mouth he never spoke while omitting many of the prophet's actual declarations? Or that at least one scribe quit the church rather than obey those orders to fabricate history?  It takes a monumental effort to sort fact from fiction, but an anthropologist would have the appropriate training for the job. Where previous LDS researchers invented theories to make their findings fit the conventional narrative, Daymon Smith is not afraid to expose the blemishes for what they are: unattractive warts appearing on an otherwise healthy body. Regarding the revisionist history we have been raised with, Smith writes,
"What we read is mostly retrospection, recollection, revision, tradition, outright fabrication, guesswork. Gaps there for the filling in. Texts have been retroactively dated after being altered and the originals misplaced. We have little to compare post-Rigdon documents against. 'Significant changes have been made in the published texts of LDS scriptures and in church documents published in official histories, [historian Michael] Quinn complains, 'These changes retroactively introduced concepts, people, names, and structures which did not exist in the original revelations and historical documents.'
 "Changes are difficult to discern, and often cannot be checked against earlier text. It is a mess. The more difficult changes to track, however, come not from an inserted phrase or title or office. When the words seem the same -disciple, apostle, authority, dispensation, restoration- but the meaning has changed: that is when we risk retroactively reading inherited traditions covertly back onto the past.  More dangerous than formal changes, these changes in meaning have regrounded post-Rigdon Restorationism into the imagination of Mormons, and seemingly into the Book of Mormon itself." (Pg 200)
Here's why I think A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon is so important: within the first year of publication of the Book of Mormon, we had already begun to veer oh-so-slightly off course. Smith takes us back to the very beginning to show how things started going awry almost from the start. Those prideful members who are convinced Satan could never get a toehold in this work have little inkling of the subtle, nearly imperceptible ways of the Adversary.

The history of this church is a tragedy, really, when you think of how things could have turned out. The message of the Book of Mormon could have been universally embraced. It should have flooded the earth and brought multitudes of people to Christ. It's message was intended for literally everyone. Instead, it is identified in the public mind as a book proprietary to one specific religious denomination. And that denomination is not universally admired by most of the world's people. They don't really like us; why should they read our book?

What's worse, and clearly contrary to the will of God, a person who is converted to Christ through the Book of Mormon today can't simply give himself over to Christ and be baptized. Mormon Baptism means you are joining our congregation, and you'd darn well better be worthy of us. First you have to be vetted with an interview to make certain you are already following our rules. We can't have someone calling himself a Mormon seen holding a cup of coffee, now can we? In a Church that has become more of a brand than a religious society, the primary concern becomes protecting the image of the brand. Before you can become a member of the church that introduced you to the Book of Mormon, you are expected to comply with a list of rules and preconditions that are nowhere to be found within the pages of that book.

A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon is essential reading for all latter-day Saints. And this is only volume I of a projected five book series. It touches on only the first two years following publication of the Book of Mormon. Subsequent volumes will take us through to the present time. Volume II is already available (and has itself been split into two volumes). Volume III is almost ready. This series promises to be groundbreaking. Future volumes will show how the Book of Mormon fell so out of favor with the Utah pioneers that it was rarely read in private or spoken of from the pulpit. It was as though the Saints didn't see a need for it anymore now that they had their Church. At least one member found a use for it. A visitor to Utah at the turn of the century reported seeing a copy of the Book of Mormon in a Mormon outhouse. The pages weren't for reading, but for wiping.

Is it any wonder the Lord told Joseph Smith that the whole Church was under condemnation for treating lightly the things contained in that book? Mormons in Utah didn't start giving much thought to the Book of Mormon again until the late 1880s, and then only in stories published for children. Later Sunday School manuals would repeat the errors found in the children's stories, and if you follow the correlated manuals in church today you're still getting a half-cooked version of what the Lord intended you to have. As Denver Snuffer reminded readers on his website recently:
"Our thinking is tied to a model given to us by the Mormon traditions. The scriptures are not necessarily in harmony with those traditions. Therefore, it is necessary to look carefully at the scriptures, discard untruths, discover the revelations that are there and then believe what God has revealed. For many people that is too much to ask."
It's Not All Bad News
The ray of hope in all this is that everything is going according to plan. God had foreknowledge of all this. A very important part of Daymon's dissertation is Joseph's recitation of Ezekiel 14, which in essence tells us that God can only speak to us through our "multitude of idols."

As much as I frequently appear to rag on Sidney Rigdon, I actually have great compassion and admiration for the guy. It was largely due to his and Parley Pratt's tremendous zeal that word even got out about the Book of Mormon. In section 35 of the Doctrine and Covenants Sidney is told that the Lord has prepared him for "a greater work." Then in verse 7 we read the key statement: "And it shall come to pass that there shall be a great work in the land, even among the Gentiles [that's us], for their folly and their abominations shall be made manifest in the eyes of all people." Rigdon's "great work" was to do exactly what he did, so that we, in our day, could manifest the "folly" and "abomination" of it all. This is further supported by Moroni in Ether 12:

"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.
"Wherefore, I know by this thing which thou hast said, that if the Gentiles have not charity, because of our weakness, that thou wilt prove them, and take away their talent, yea, even that which they have received, and give unto them who shall have more abundantly."
In other words, the only way that we could come out of captivity of the “Great and Abominable Church” was to see our weakness, and then reject it. We should be ever-grateful to Sidney, Parley, Brigham, and yes…. even Boyd! They have put our weakness on display and now “it is given” to us “to know the good from the evil.” The talent once briefly possessed by the early Saints was taken away as we truly learned the meaning of restoration.

Sidney Rigdon foolishly threatened the Missourians with “extermination” in his famous July 4th oration and that threat was subsequently turned against the Mormons when Missouri's Governor Boggs issued his infamous extermination order. That's Karma.

Our people failed to complete the Nauvoo temple in time so “instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practice before me, saith the Lord.” (D&C 124) Good or bad, we tend to get what we have coming to us.

We can lift the condemnation. We can be restored. That will happen as we repent. But I believe repentance must take place at the institutional level as well as individually. That would mean letting go of the philosophies of men mingled with scripture that we have allowed to endure for so long, and walking away from the false traditions of our fathers. The authoritarian structure of the LDS Church today can be directly traced to the Mormon/Campbellite mashup begun 184 years ago. Now that structure is beginning to crumble as members are awakening to the reality that something isn't working.

I agree with the remedy proposed by Daymon Smith. He advocates a fresh reading of the Book of Mormon, setting aside what we imagine is contained within its pages and seeing only what is actually there. If we are sincere in our belief that the Book of Mormon is the foundation of our faith, we may have to start untangling ourselves from doctrines that are foreign to it.
    
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Update October 24: My friend Benjamin Reed, who is an LDS scholar specializing in New Testament studies, feels it's important to point out that although Alexander Campbell called himself a "Reformed Baptist," the Reformed Baptist movement of today is an entirely different animal. I concur with Reed. Today's Reformed Baptists have nothing to do with the Campbellite tradition or Restorationism. I wanted to make that clear before a mob of angry baptists shows up at my door demanding a retraction.
                                                                    
Announcements!
Denver Snuffer Updates:As I was writing this piece I learned that Denver Snuffer has posted on his own website a review of the first three available volumes of A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. (where did he find time to read them so fast?) They contain excellent insight, and are available by clicking here.

Also, those who read my previous piece about Brother Snuffer may be interested in the transcripts of the talks he is giving and will continue to give over the next few months. Look to the right side of his homepage in the box labeled "DS Talks." As you'd expect, they are outstanding and insightful. He posts the transcripts as he has time to edit them, so if you can't wait that long and wish to hear the live audio, you can obtain CDs almost immediately from PublishingHope.com.

Because many ignorant people on the internet have accused Denver Snuffer of profiting from these presentations, I feel it's important to note that Snuffer spends his own money on renting the venues and charges no admission fee. The CDs are made available at a nominal cost by the person providing the sound equipment to record the talks. Denver Snuffer receives no part of the proceeds from those recordings.

The Australians: Our friends who were introduced in my piece "Circling the Wagons" have posted about their progress thus far here. Additional donations to the Circling the Wagons cause can be submitted by contacting the proprietor of Perfect Day.

Speaking of Which: New readers discovering my posts here about tithing, and especially the one about charity, frequently write to me asking for advice on which worthy causes they might send their money to. I'm tempted to tell them to send it all to me, but I'd probably just blow it on toys and candy as always. So it's best you consider my other favorites causes both of which serve deserving fellow Latter-day Saints:

Circling the Wagons, at the Perfect Day link above.Your money is placed in a dedicated account at Zion's bank, and you direct its use.

The Liahona Children's Foundation now has a Facebook Page, and here's a video:


And remember: don't EVER pass up the chance to give directly to someone in need you see on the street, "for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:2)