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Intellectual History

Eugenics and the Intellectual Underpinnings of Mormons in the Alt-Right

By March 27, 2017


Over the past few weeks, a white woman that goes by the name “A Purposeful Wife” (Ayla) has garnered a lot of attention on Twitter and was featured in an article on Buzzfeed for dual loyalties to Mormonism and the Alt-Right Movement (a  political movement whose explicit purpose is to create a white, Christian nation). She spends her days spewing Alt-Right messages to her 20,000 followers and thousands more that respond to her. Her alt-right beliefs inform her “white nationalism.” Although she rejects the label of “Nazi,” she subscribes to Nazi race theory. She has issued a “white baby challenge,” encouraging people now considered to be white to bear more children than people of color in order to maintain white supremacy. This cannot be called anything other than a call to eugenics–commonplace rhetoric in the Alt-Right.  Ayla has a Mormon.org profile, seemingly written before her adoption of Alt-Right politics [it has been taken down as of 11:40 AM MST, but you can see the profile courtesy of the Wayback Machine].

Despite the unsavory, dangerous, and abhorrent rhetoric, it’s important to know Mormonism’s long history of supporting eugenics—even when they were not considered white or Christian. As Ardis at Keepapitchinin has rightly written, this flies in the face of current Mormon teachings. I applaud the LDS Church’s statement condemning all forms of racism past and present, and join in that call. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the LDS Church condemns its past subscription to eugenics, not only the priesthood and temple restriction or other better-known racist or racial beliefs and practices.

While this post is a very short introduction, I will provide a brief overview of the Mormon embrace of eugenics, explicitly, and implicitly, in terms of race and gender. Mormon eugenics and political history will come in a second installment.[i]

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Fake News, Leaked Documents, and the Book of Mormon: Part II (1829-1830)

By March 22, 2017


Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 6.39.27 PMIn Part I, I introduced the relevance of “fake news” to the beginnings of Mormonism by looking at the “Golden Bible Chronicles,” a serially published satire of the Book of Mormon published in Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin in the summer of 1829 – several months before the Book of Mormon itself was published. Noting that the “Chronicles” fit within a much broader culture of scriptural parodies in early America, but that it differed in one important respect: Unlike Benjamin Franklin’s biblical parodies of the eighteenth century, Paul Pry’s work satirized an unpublished book. It did so, I surmised, as part of an effort to emphasize (and mock) the absurdity of a boy from Palmyra translating ancient records.[1]

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Tuesdays With Orsi: Epilogue

By March 14, 2017


Welcome to the last installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series, in which we collectively read Robert Orsi’s HISTORY AND PRESENCE (Harvard, 2016)! This post examines the epilogue and offers thoughts on the book as a whole. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and chapter 7.

“It is a dreadful thing to be in relationship with the gods really present,” Orsi says at the beginning of this book. (5) Certainly, a reading of its seven chapters is enough to convince us of that. They show that the gods can be capricious and deceptive as often as they are redemptive and healing. His believers cling to bags of sacred soil, icons, and relics. They experience the presence of the divine in their lives. And yet Orsi is hardly telling Sunday school stories. The presence of the gods fails people, hurts them, and tears them up, emotionally and physically. And yet those people keep coming, pressing their foreheads against the tombs of the saints, because the gods save them, too.

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History and Presence, Chapter 7: The Abundance of Evil

By March 7, 2017


Welcome to the eighth installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series! We’re taking a look at the seventh chapter of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, and as Hannah introduced last week, today’s discussion will be on the meaning of abundant evil. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.

Where chapter six took on the idea of heaven, this chapter deals more with hell. What happens, Orsi asks, when the abundant event believers encounter is an evil one? He uses the stories of men and women who were sexually abused as children to tease out the question of presence and abundance in light of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

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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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Tuesdays with Orsi! History and Presence: Introduction

By January 17, 2017


Come one, come all. Welcome to a new series that we’re hosting—Tuesdays with Orsi! The series will feature posts that highlight each chapter of Robert Orsi’s new and provocative History and Presence, and I have the honor of kicking it off.

history and presenceRobert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. He is a prominent scholar of American religion and one of the foremost theorists/methodological innovators of the field. His scholarship has provoked us here at JI to think about what a Robert Orsi might look like for Mormon Studies, how “abundant events” might be used for Mormonism, and a highlight of a chat with Richard Bushman about abundant events. It’s no surprise that his newest work prompts us, yet again, to engage, digest, and grapple with truly provocative narrative and theory. The implications of the book are monumental. But enough gilding the lily. Let’s get to the introduction.

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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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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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Review: Philip Lockley, ed., Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1650-1850

By July 14, 2016


Protestant CommunalismPhilip Lockley, ed., Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1650-1850 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). 

A little more than five years ago, I posted some thoughts on Scott Rohrer’s chapter on Mormonism in his Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). I was particularly intrigued by his inclusion of Mormonism in a volume on Protestant migrations, and a lively conversation and debate over whether Mormonism is, was, or ever has been Protestant ensued in the comments.

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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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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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New Journal of Mormon History Issue, Featuring a Roundtable on John Brooke’s REFINER’S FIRE

By October 30, 2015


JMH CoverThe latest issue of Journal of Mormon History is hot off the press this week and is now available to download for those of you who are members of the Mormon History Association. (And if you’re not a member, you can fix that right now.) Below are the articles in the issue:

  • RoseAnn Benson, “Alexander Campbell: Another Restorationist”
  • Nancy S. Kader, “The Young Democrats and Hugh Nibley at BYU”
  • Gregory A. Prince, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Historical Context: How a Historical Narrative Became Theological”
  • Gary James Bergera, “Memory as Evidence: Dating Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages to Louisa Beaman, Zina Jacobs, and Presendia Buell”
  • Elise Boxer, “The Lamanites Shall Blossom as the Rose: The Indian Student Placement Program, Mormon Whiteness, and Indigenous Identity”

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Twelve Thoughts on Raising the Dead

By September 28, 2015


 

1. Thomas Aquinas
“Those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature.” Summa Contra Gentiles, III

2. Peter Cartwright
This was the most troublesome delusion of all; it made such an appeal to the ignorance superstition and credulity of the people, even saint as well as sinner . . . They would even set the very day that God was to burn the world like the self deceived modem Millerites. They would prophesy that if any one did oppose them God would send fire down from heaven and consume him like the blasphemous Shakers. They would proclaim that they could heal all manner of diseases and raise the dead just like the diabolical Mormons.
The Backwoods Preacher (London: Heylin, 1858), 22.

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New Volume of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity

By December 11, 2014


StudiesCover_FINALLast week, Ben highlighted the latest issue of the Mormon Studies Review. This week the Maxwell Institute gave Mormon Studies geeks even more goodness with the release of the first issue of the newly-revamped Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. You can read Carl Griffin’s overview of the entire issue here, but I wanted to take the time to highlight two of the articles included in particular. While much of what Studies in the Bible and Antiquity falls outside of the more narrow interests of JI bloggers, this issue includes a roundtable review of the BYU New Testament Commentary (BYUNTC) that features two prominent historians of Mormonism: Philip Barlow, Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, and Grant Underwood, Professor of History at Brigham Young University and coeditor of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Barlow opens the roundtable with some reflections on the aims of the BYUNTC, highlighting five particular questions that the undertaking raised for him, as a believing Mormon and a scholar of Mormonism and the Bible:

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Review: Terryl Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought

By October 22, 2014


Terryl L. Givens. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmology, God, Humanity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xv, 405 ppg. Notes, index. Cloth: $34.95. ISBN 978-1-9979492-8.

wrestlingFew books encompass as audacious a scope as Wrestling the Angel. In this work, the first of projected two volumes, prolific Mormon scholar Terryl Givens presents a rigorous and exhaustive overview of Mormonism’s theological foundations. This is not necessarily a historical work that systematically traces theological developments and places them in cultural context as it is an attempt to faithfully reproduce the intellectual tradition founded by Joseph Smith, refined by Parley and Orson Pratt, and tinkered with by a handful of twentieth century thinkers like B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, John Widtsoe, and, sometimes, more contemporary LDS leaders. The finished product is an overwhelming account that makes a compelling case for Mormonism’s inclusion within the Christian theological canon.

The book is separated into five sections. The first, “Frameworks,” outlines Mormonism’s relationship with theology and posits a new prism through which to understand Joseph Smith’s conception of “restoration”; the second is a very brief overview of Mormonism’s theological narrative, which is meant to ground the remainder of the discussion. The final three chapters are the “meat” of the project by taking, in turn, the three broad topics under consideration: “Cosmology,” “The Divine,” and “The Human.” Each chapter within these sections engages particular topics—embodiment, salvation, theosis, etc.—and places them within Christian theological context.

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Jared Hickman on “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse”

By September 25, 2014


Several years ago–perhaps 2009 or 2010–I first heard about a paper slated to be published in a major literary journal that radically reinterpreted the Book of Mormon as an Amerindian apocalypse. Whispers of both its imminent publication and its brilliance continued, and at some point, I was forwarded a prepublication draft of the paper. This isn’t altogether unusual in Mormon Studies–unpublished papers and theses, typescripts of difficult-to-access manuscript sources, and PDFs of out-of-print books passed from person to person have a long, storied, and sometime litigious history in the often insular world of Mormon scholarship. But unlike other instances I’m aware of, the importance of this paper was not in its access to otherwise unavailable primary source material or its controversial content, but rather in its interpretive significance.

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Exponent II Turns Forty

By September 22, 2014


Exponent II's board in 1974 and 2014 (credit: Heather Sundahl)

Exponent II’s board in 1974 and 2014 (credit: Heather Sundahl)


Exponent II began in 1974 in the Cambridge neighborhood of Harvard Square. On its fortieth anniversary, its founders – silver, sassy, and more than a little surprised that what they had wrought was still going strong – returned to one of the neighborhood’s church halls packed with guests to celebrate the organization and its achievements. I was so, so happy to be there, too.

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Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Bushman, and Psychoanalysis

By June 9, 2014


No, the title of this post is not the opening for one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes, although it does provide good potential.[1]

NOTE: This post doesn’t aim to make a particular argument, or perhaps to say much new, but merely to express some issues that have been circling my mind for a while, and conclude one of those historical nerd tangential interests that we all know so well.

Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.

Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.

A few months ago, in a conversation on the H-SHEAR list (an email group focused on the history of the early American republic), someone made a reference to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Then, as an aside, the writer added, “Incidentally, Fawn Brodie is in my view the Rosalind Franklin of American history. There are many Watsons and Cricks in the historical profession who owe her a posthumous apology.” Franklin, for those of you (like me) who aren’t encyclopedias of this type of knowledge, was a biophysicist who studied DNA in the early 1950s. Watson and Crick, who were dismissive and rude toward Franklin in public and private throughout her life, accessed her data without her knowledge, much less permission, and used that data to make the critical leap in insight that elucidated the structure of DNA. They published with no mention of Franklin’s contribution and went on to great fame and a Nobel Prize a decade later.[2]

While Brodie is mostly known in Mormon circles for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, she is more widely known in the American historical community for her innovative use of psychohistory, especially in her biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, less successfully, Richard Nixon. Indeed, No Man Knows My History was merely her entrance into the historical profession, where afterward she became one of the foremost practitioners of psychohistory American political biography, and was even one of the first tenured female professors at UCLA. Most especially, her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life (W. W. Norton, 1974) was a national bestseller and instigator of much debate in the academic community. In the book, Brodie focused on Jefferson’s private life, and was one of the first to strongly argue that there was a relationship between the president and his slave, Sally Hemings. The book was a commercial success, but was panned by many historians, especially Jeffersonian scholars, who rejected the thesis that Jefferson would procreate with a slave. Many historians rejected Browdie’s interpretation of Jefferson, just as Mormon historians rejected her interpretation of Joseph Smith.[3]

Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated.

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