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Fake News, Leaked Documents, and the Book of Mormon: Part I (1829)

By February 6, 2017


Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 8.15.27 PMFake news has been in the — well — news. Over the course of the runup to the 2016 presidential election, everything from conspiracy theories to wholly fabricated stories about the two major parties’ candidates spread like wildfire, dominating the stories liked and shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And it hasn’t let up since Donald Trump was elected, with his administration labeling mainstream news outlets like CNN and the New York Times “fake news,” all while Trump and his spokespeople routinely lie, contradict themselves, and fabricate wholesale massacres to advance their agenda. 

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Mormon and Muslim Immigration-A Shared History

By February 1, 2017


Over the past week, scholars and news outlets have linked the Mormon past to the present Muslim-targeted immigration ban. They point to the 1879 Evarts Circular, in which Secretary of State William Evarts urged foreign governments to help restrict Mormon emigration from their countries. The above writers ask Mormons to remember their immigrant-persecuted-past and show compassion to those in the present.LA times

These calls are noble. Yet, there is more to the Mormon-Muslim immigrant past than these articles articulate. The Evarts Circular was not the only federal action against Mormon immigration. Two legislative currents, federal legislative battles over the existence of polygamy in the 1880s and the federalization of immigration legislation, followed Evarts’ Circular. These forces coincided in the 1891 federal immigration law when legislators banned “polygamists” from crossing into America’s borders while increased funding established federal border regulation. At the same time, the 1891 law gave refugee status to immigrants fleeing from religious persecution. You’ll have to wait for a forthcoming post about the legal developments between the Evarts Circular and the 1891 law. You’ll also have to trust me when I say that the 1891 polygamy-immigration ban targeted Mormons (although this Los Angeles Times article might serve as some consolation in the meantime).[1]

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Signs of the Times

By January 30, 2017


I had a different post planned for this week, but I’ll save it for a time that feels less urgent.

Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 8.31.46 AM

I’m going to speak candidly and personally, as a historian, a unionized public-sector educator, a woman, a Mormon, a white Eastern liberal elite, and a born-American citizen. (Just so you know where my intersectionalities lie). It’s abundantly clear that the election results and Trump’s inauguration have abruptly ushered us all into a new political and cultural landscape.

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Mormons and Refugees: A Reading List from the Juvenile Instructor and Friends

By January 29, 2017


lds armenian refugees 1921_zpsdtce7hd8

Image courtesy of Ardis Parshall, keepapitchinin.org.

Some recommended reading from Juvenile Instructor bloggers and friends on the history of Mormonism and/as refugees:


What is “Early” Mormon History?

By January 13, 2017


9780307594907On Wednesday evening, I attended a public lecture by noted historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in which she talked about her recently-released book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. We have a review of the book forthcoming here at JI (spoiler alert: it’s good and you all should read it), as well as a Q&A with Dr. Ulrich, but for now I wanted to reflect on the final four words of the book’s title: “Early Mormonism, 1835-1870.”

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The Visitors: Jack Chick and the Intellectual History of Modern Anti-Mormonism

By October 25, 2016


0061_05In the summer of 2002, while knocking on doors in the sweltering August heat of suburban Phoenix, my missionary companion and I were handed a small booklet by a less-than-friendly individual. Entitled The Visitors, the short illustrated tract told the story of two Mormon missionaries who arrive to teach a woman considering converting to Mormonism. Arriving at Fran’ doorstep with the hope of committing her to baptism that evening, the Elders are greeted not only by their anxious investigator, but also her niece, Janice, also a missionary preparing to do humanitarian work as a nurse in Africa.

A few minutes into their lesson, the missionaries are confronted by Fran’s surprisingly knowledgeable niece about various points of Mormon doctrine, doctrine the missionaries had failed to previously reveal to Fran. Horrified to learn that the Mormons believe, among other things, that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers, that God is a man (and not a spirit) with multiple wives in his heavenly abode, and Joseph Smith was fluent in the occult culture of early 19th century America, Fran asks the missionaries to leave and not come back. But Janice not only saved her beloved aunt that evening. She also, as we discover in the strip’s final frames, sparked the seeds of doubt in one of the missionary’s own minds.

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It takes a village — or a ward: A Brief Rundown of Mormon References in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Deseret News Op-ed

By August 10, 2016


IMG_7274This morning, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton took the significant (unprecedented?) step of penning an op-ed in the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. Clinton has been polling competitively in Utah (though the most recent polls show Donald Trump with a widening lead), and the Clinton camp clearly thinks they have a real shot in the Beehive State.

The Democratic nominee’s competitiveness in Utah is due almost entirely to Trump’s well-chronicled problems with Mormon voters (and the candidacy of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who also recently wrote a Deseret News op-ed attempting to clarify (read: fix the fallout from) his unbelievably stupid comments suggesting that religious freedom might allow Mormons “to shoot somebody else” because “God has spoken to them,” to say nothing of the recent announcement of Washington D.C.-based Mormon and former CIA agent Evan McMullin’s independent candidacy for President). But in her op-ed today, Clinton (clearly aided by a staffer very much in-the-know about Mormonism) attempted to make the case for why Utah voters (read: Mormons) should vote for her (and not just why they shouldn’t vote for Trump).

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A Brief History of Mormon Prayers at the Republican National Convention

By July 26, 2016


Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 12.20.41 PMLast week, Nathan Johnson, an African-American convert to Mormonism who currently serves as second counselor in the Kirtland Ohio Stake Presidency, offered the invocation on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson’s prayer attracted a fair amount of attention, both because of Mormons’ widespread distaste for Donald Trump and his campaign and because of the prayer’s content. But Johnson was not the first Latter-day Saint to pray at the Republican National Convention. In fact, four out of the last five have featured invocations by Mormons: Steve Young (2000), Sheri Dew (2004), Ken Hutchins (2012), and Nathan Johnson (2016). Only the 2008 convention lacked a Latter-day Saint prayer.[1] 

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare their respective prayers, to note any commonalities between them (beyond use of thee, thou, and thine), and to consider the contexts in which they were given. What follows below is a transcription of each invocation, followed by my preliminary attempt to briefly historicize each.

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New Course at the University of Utah (with Guest Lectures open to the Public): The Intellectual Life of Mormonism

By May 2, 2016


Brian Birch, Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University, will be teaching a course on the intellectual life of Mormonism this coming fall at the University of Utah. He has kindly made his syllabus and course readings available online, which many readers will want to read at their leisure.

Course Poster

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Research Query: Mormonism in Palestine and Israel: Globalization, Peoplehood, and Zion

By April 13, 2016


We’re pleased to host this research query from Amber Taylor, a PhD student at Brandeis University. Please feel free to suggest readings in the comments below. Amber can also be reached at ambercecile3 AT gmail DOT com.

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I am working on the history of the LDS Church in Palestine and Israel. One of the larger historical arcs that I am working with is the Church and globalization – how that has affected the Church’s position regarding the people and politics of Israel-Palestine. As of yet, I have found very little material on the Church and globalization itself – I recognize that this is a rather recent topic, and Mormon studies as such is a rather emerging field. I have read various articles by Arnold Green that address various aspects of Mormon views on Jews/Judaism and Muslims/Islam. I am also familiar with works by Steven Epperson and Grant Underwood on similar topics. Likewise, I have the book Out of Obscurity: The LDS Church in the Twentieth Century from the Sperry Symposium, and have been perusing Reid Neilson’s work, as well as Marie Cornwall’s and Tim Heaton’s Contemporary Mormonism. I am wondering if anyone can point me to other scholars – including articles and books – that have looked at the way that the 20th century globalization of the Church has affected the way that leaders have talked of peoplehood and chosenness, and other such good things related to that.

Also, I have been considering the notion of “Zion” as a major aspect of my research. I am attempting to set my dissertation in a comparative framework, looking at the Church in its American setting, and examining the ways that American views of the Holy Land, Jews, and Muslims related to the Mormon views – and how both the broader American cultural setting and Mormon particularity affected one another. Specific to the concept of Zion, American culture (especially Protestant culture) has, from its very origins, been prone to talk of America and American Christianity in terms of “Zion,” or had themes of Zion weaved throughout it in myriad ways. Likewise, the concept of American exceptionalism is, of course, bound up with this. But the Mormons went a step further – they established an actual Zion, a physical space with teleological meaning. Their peoplehood as Israelites, and their actual American Zion, makes the question of the Mormon presence in Jerusalem and Palestine-Israel rather intriguing. America has always had a fascination with the Holy Land and its import in latter-day fulfillment of prophecy, yet the Mormon ethos is unique. What were/are the Mormons actually doing in the Old Zion, if they had their Zion, the New Jerusalem, on the American continent? What purpose does the BYU Jerusalem Center actually serve in all of this? Can anyone recommend any literature on this, specifically relating to the two Zions and what LDS leaders have said about them, what they mean in terms of physicality, sacred territory, and gathering?

Thank you for your help.


Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part III

By February 25, 2016


This is the third and final post in a series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. Part one and part two can be read here and here.

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Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Another purpose of the Friends meetings is to provide instruction. Most black members in the Durham Stake tend to be converts to the Church, many of them having converted fairly recently. Every month a theme is chosen and one person appointed to direct the conversation or to provide a lesson. Themes include “outreach,” “fellowship,” “true v. false doctrine,” or “being a black Mormon today.”[1] In September 2011 Brother Isaiah Cummings taught a lesson titled “Blacks in the Bible.” Brother Cummings has apparently written a book on this subject but has been unable to find a publisher. I was not present at this meeting but Christina shared with me a copy of his lesson outline and it is also posted at the group’s Facebook page. In that lesson he taught that “When you begin to look at ‘Biblical History,’ it is important to realize that the world had two (2) beginnings… The World “before” the Flood and the World ‘after’ the Flood. Hence, the Black Race had two sets of Parents: 1) Cain and his wife and 2) Ham and his wife Egyptus.” The lineage Brother Cummings constructs to illustrate the history of Blacks in the Bible is supported by scriptural references to the Bible and the Book of Abraham in the Mormon book of scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part II

By February 24, 2016


This is part two of a three-part series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. For part one, see here. Part three will be posted tomorrow morning. 

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Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on "Blacks in the Bible," Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on “Blacks in the Bible,” Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

The Friends Group arose out of the African American cultural celebration as the brainchild of Brother Lee Cook, a white member of the Durham 1st Ward. Lee grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as a Southern Baptist. He described his younger self as a hippie and college dropout who joined the Air Force, which is where he met missionaries and joined the LDS Church. After moving around with the Air Force and then living for a while in New York, he returned to the South. It was exciting to see all of the changes that had occurred since the Civil Rights movement occurred, he explained. Yet, he noticed that, in many places, there was still that separation—a “wall of partition,” he called it. So he started visiting black churches as part of his own quest to overcome that partition and he became very spiritually impressed (a common Mormon term for inspiration from the Holy Spirit) “that the Lord has a great work for us to do together.” Then he met Christina and after one of the African American cultural celebrations she confided in Lee that, as he remembered her statement (which he shared with her permission), “this is the only day I feel good as a black Latter-day Saint.” So, to remedy that sense of loneliness that she and presumably other black Latter-day Saints in the stake feel throughout the rest of the year, he proposed the organization of a support group—“so instead of once a year—once a month.”[1]

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina: A History of the African American Night of Celebration and the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent Support Group, Part I

By February 23, 2016


We’re pleased to present the following series of posts from Stan Thayne, PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founding editor of the Juvenile Instructor. The posts, which trace the little-known history and significance of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is longer than our usual offerings, but is well worth the time. It will be published serially over the next three days. –admin

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Meeting of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, June 2011.

Meeting of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, June 2011.

When Christina Stitt moved into the Chapel Hill 1st Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2005, she and her grand-daughter Dushana doubled the number of African Americans in the congregation. There were only two other black members at the time, as Christina remembers it: Brother and Sister John and Mary Moore. They didn’t get to know each other right off, Christina and the Moores. Perhaps both overly conscious of the blackness that should supposedly connect them in this sea of whiteness, they were both a little stand-offish toward each other at first, as Stitt recalls. But after Christina sang a gospel piece during sacrament services, Sister Mary Moore approached her and expressed her desire for a program in the church celebrating African American culture. “She planted a seed in me,” Christina told me during one of my interviews with her. “But me, when you say something that really hits my heart, I try to get it done. And that’s what I did. I went to the bishop and I asked him, and he thought it was a good idea too. So that’s where it started.” In February 2006 the Durham Stake hosted the first African American Night of Celebration at the LDS stake center on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Chapel Hill. It has since become an annual event held every February during black history month.

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In Memoriam: Milton Backman, Jr., 1927-2016

By February 11, 2016


mou0046346-1_20160210I do not remember the first article I read authored by Milton Backman, Jr. It was almost certainly something he published in the Ensign during the 1970s or 1980s. As a 19-year-old missionary with a previously-untapped love for reading, learning, and history, those old Ensigns that occupied so much of the shelf space of ward libraries were treasure troves of information to me. Much to the annoyance of at least a few of my companions, I would eagerly request that we stay a bit longer at the church building after playing basketball on P-day so that I could flip through a dozen or so issues and photocopy each article dealing with church history, doctrine, or scripture. I don’t know if it was the first, but I do remember reading Backman’s 1989 essay, “Preparing the Way: The Rise of Religious Freedom in New England.” In addition to shattering some myths I had imbibed at some earlier point in my life (i.e. “Although many who sought religious liberty had immigrated to those colonies, the Pilgrims and Puritans did not, generally speaking, believe in extending religious freedom to others.”), Backman’s essay tied Mormonism into a larger narrative of American religious history in a way that I had not previously encountered. I was hooked.

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Understanding “Interest” in Joseph Smith’s Original Tithing Revelation

By February 2, 2016


We’re pleased to present this guest post from Sam Brunson, Associate Professor of Law at Loyola University Chicago, regular blogger at By Common Consent, and tax and business law geek extraordinaire. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.31.42 PMBoth in and out of the church, people are fascinated by tithing. On the one hand, according to Pres. Kimball, “it’s not difficult to be perfect in tithe paying, for if one pays one-tenth of his income annually, he is perfect in that respect.” On the other hand, while one-tenth is precise and easy to calculate, the church never defines what “income” means, leading to internal debates over, among other things whether we should pay on our gross or net income and whether we tithe on barter or gifts we receive.

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Mormon Studies in Unexpected Places: Volume III – The Refiner’s Fire Edition

By January 20, 2016


Bone HunterThis is the third installment in an ongoing but terribly irregular series dedicated to the appearance of Mormon Studies in popular media, including musical lyrics, popular television shows, movies, and so forth. Previous installments can be read here and here.

A friend recently tipped me off to a series of books by Sarah Andrews, in which Wyoming-born geologist Emily “Em” Hansen uses her geological skills to help solve murders in various locales throughout the western United States.[1] The third installment in the series, Bone Hunter, takes place in Salt Lake City and Snowbird, Utah, where the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology is being held.[2] Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s summary of the plot:

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BYU and Martin Luther King, Jr.

By January 18, 2016


Last weekend, while visiting Atlanta for the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, fellow JIer Ben P and I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Site. That we approached the historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church just a few minutes before 11 am on a Sunday morning I can attribute to nothing other than perfect synchronicity.[1] It was my first time visiting the site, and I was moved by what I witnessed. I was unable to attend sacrament meeting that day, but the pilgrimage to the King site was worship enough. I resolved to post something here at JI in commemoration of King, but could think of nothing that would do justice to either King or my visit last weekend.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to highlight two posts from the Juvenile Instructor’s early years. Both were penned by former JI blogger, Ardis Smith, whose excellent original research on student responses to the Civil Rights Movement at BYU in the 1950s and 1960s deserves a much wider audience.[2] As part of her research, Ardis surveyed student responses to the April 1968 murder of the famed civil rights leader who we remember and whose legacy we celebrate today, in the student newspaper, the Daily Universe. Ardis examined the DU‘s coverage in the immediate aftermath of the murder, and the DU‘s discussion on the one year anniversary of King’s death. Much of the response from students is what you might expect (subtly and not-so-subtly racist condemnations of King’s civil disobedience, his Marxist views, and his rumored ties to Communist leaders, justified with citations to LDS teachings and scriptures), but Ardis also discovered and recovered the voices of those students who dared to speak up in support of King and the movement he led.

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“For ye were strangers”: Four Short Vignettes on Mormon(s) (and) Refugees

By November 18, 2015


“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” -Leviticus 19:33-34

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Quincy, Illinois. February 27, 1839[1]

Four months after Missouri Executive Order 44 was signed into law by governor Lilburn Boggs, the Democratic Association of Quincy, Illinois meets to consider the plight of the Mormons, now classified as “enemies” in neighboring Missouri. After deliberation, Quincy residents adopt the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the strangers recently arrived here from the state of Missouri, known by the name of the ‘Latter-day Saints,’ are entitled to our sympathy and kindest regard, and that we recommend to the citizens of Quincy to extend all the kindness in their power to bestow on the person who are in affliction.

Resolved, That a numerous committee be raised, composed of some individuals in every quarter of the town and its vicinity, whose duty it shall be to explain to our misguided fellow citizens, if any such there be, who are disposed to excite prejudices and circulate unfounded rumors; and particularly to explain to them that these people have no design to lower the wages of the laboring class, but to procure something to save them from starving.

Resolved, That a standing committee be raised and be composed of individuals who shall immediately inform Mr. Rigdon and others, as many as they may think proper, of their appointment, and who shall be authorized to obtain information from time to time; and should they [the committee] be of opinion that any individuals, either from destitution or sickness, or if they find them houseless, that they appeal directly and promptly to the citizens of Quincy to furnish them with the means to relieve all such cases.

Resolved, That the committee last aforesaid be instructed to use their utmost endeavors to obtain employment for all these people, who are able and willing to labor; and also to afford them all needful, suitable and proper encouragement.

Resolved, That we recommend to all the citizens of Quincy, that in all their intercourse with the strangers, they use and observe a becoming decorum and delicacy, and be particularly careful not to indulge in any conversation or expressions calculated to wound their feelings, or in any way to reflect upon those, who by every law of humanity, are entitled to our sympathy and commiseration.

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Book Review: We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics

By November 4, 2015


Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

This book might be described as an intellectual genealogy (in the Foucauldian sense) of the conservative religious coalition that has exerted so much gravitational pull in the last forty years of American history. Young argues, in a nutshell, that the electoral coalition often described as the Religious Right was no monolith: rather, it was the result of a thousand small give and takes among the three primary camps he explores: Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. Indeed, Young’s careful delineation of distinctions and disjunctures almost persuades me that there is no “Religious Right” at all, merely a series of shifting alliances pivoting, shifting, forming and reforming on issue after issue after issue.

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Guest Post: Jeff Turner, “Spring Musicals: Weirdness, Accuracy, and Introductions”

By September 2, 2015


[We are thrilled to have yet another guest post from Jeff Turner, a PhD student at the University of Utah. See his previous offerings here, here, and here.]

Musical“I actually learned something about Mormonism,” said my seat-neighbor at the Book of Mormon musical this past spring. Terrified, curious, and excited, I found myself wondering what he could have learned from the musical that he hadn’t known beforehand. So I asked. Surprisingly, his new piece of information had to do with the relationship between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that they knew each other in person, which made Young’s succession as the next church president more approachable to my seatmate (even though the succession was oversimplified in the musical). Well that’s not so bad, I thought, and I can see how he picked that up from the musical. We had a short chat about it afterward, and that was the end of it.

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