Section

Theology

“I believe in women, especially thinking women.”

By March 15, 2013


– Emmeline B. Wells, Exponent,  Vol. 3 (Sept. 1874), No. 9

 

In his book Enlightenment Contested, Jonathan Israel argues that the first “revolutions”  were not, in fact, political rebellions; “revolution” referred to new epistemic frameworks caused by the likes of Galilean, Copernican, Newtonian, and Cartesian paradigm shifts. These new conceptual models laid the groundwork for later political reforms; in Condorcet’s concise maxim: “only philosophy can cause a true revolution.”  One of the reasons I have focused my research on 18th century European intersections of gender and religion is because of this very notion: that beliefs matter. And when people challenge or reinterpret the status quo, interesting things happen.

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Enoch and Zion

By September 18, 2012


MARK ASHURST-MCGEE is a historian and documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, where he specializes in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. He holds a PhD in history from Arizona State University and has trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. He is a coeditor of the first volume in the Journals series and of the first volume of the Histories series of the Joseph Smith Papers. He is an author of peer-reviewed articles on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history. The following selection is taken from his 2008 dissertation: “Zion Rising: Joseph Smith’s Early Social and Political Thought.” Other works growing out of his dissertation are published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History (“Zion in America: The Origins of Mormon Constitutionalism” [vol. 38, no. 3 – Summer 2012]: 90-101) and in the just recently released anthology War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Kofford Books, 2012). Selections from his dissertation have also appeared here at the Juvenile Instructor, here and here. Ashurst-McGee is currently working on articles on political restorationism and Zion nationalism along the path of turning the dissertation into a monograph.

 Joseph Smith’s Enoch expansion built on that for Enoch’s grandfather Enos, the grandson of Adam. Due to the “secret works of darkness” that had pervaded the land, Enos led “the residue of the people of God . . . out from the land which was called Shulon and dwelt in a land of promise, which he called after his own son whom he had named Cainan.”[1]

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Guest post: Edward Blum, “On Mormon Racism: A Response to John Turner”

By August 22, 2012


Edward Blum is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and most recently, co-author (with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), which will be available next month. He is the co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), (with Jason R. Young) The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections (2009), and (with W. Scott Poole) Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (2005). Ed also blogs at Religion in American History and Teaching United States History.

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Mormonism and Suffering

By August 17, 2012


By Pete Wosnik

Last fall I took a class from Dr. Philip Barlow at USU called Religion, Evil, and Human Suffering. This was really big class, not in terms of the amount of students who took it, but rather in its subject matter as well as its breadth. Mormonism was only allotted a few precious class hours, but the class gave me an added appreciation for Mormon theological contributions to the larger world. Something I quickly learned in the course was that all religious traditions have grappled with the problems of pain, suffering, and evil; indeed, most religions are born in such conditions.

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Climbing Up the Child’s Ladder: Catechism for Little Saints

By August 4, 2012


I stumbled on this little gem while looking for something else in the Internet Archive’s collection of Mormon publications [1] and was both charmed and intrigued by it. The pamphlet is a 16-page tract, titled “The Latter-day Saints’ Catechism: Or, Child’s Ladder,” by Elder David Moffat. Subtitle: “Being a Series of Questions Adapted for the Use of the Children of Latter-day Saints.”

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Mormonism in Cultural Context: A Special Journal of Mormon History Issue in Honor of Richard Bushman

By July 16, 2012


The last few years have been a coronation of sorts for Richard Bushman–and rightfully so. After a prolific and prestigious career, the American Historical Association devoted a session to his work, the Mormon History Association distinguished him with their Leonard Arrington Award, and a group of former students held a conference in his honor. (I wrote my reflections of the conference here.) The most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History includes many of the papers presented at that last conference, including several JIers. I just finished the entire issue last weekend, and concluded it was probably the strongest JMH issue in years, as nearly every article was at an exceptionally high level of academic standards.

(It should be noted, however, that the issue as a whole was strong in a few very, very narrow fields: Joseph Smith’s thought, Mormonism and political thought, and historical thought in general. See a pattern? Now this is primarily the result of the participants’ building off of Richard Bushman’s own work–a commemorative issue in honor of Jill Derr would probably look much different, for instance–so the lack of engagement with the 20th century, material culture, lived religion, or, gasp, women’s history can, at least partially, be overlooked. But since these themes tend to dominate Mormon history in general, I maintain the “partially” qualifier.)

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Article Spotlight: Benjamin Park, “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought”

By May 29, 2012


Mormonism has a complicated relationship with Protestantism. It also has a complicated relationship with the United States of America. If Mitt Romney’s impending nomination as the Republican candidate for President has done nothing else, it has reinforced in my mind that complexity. It was with sincere appreciation, then, that I read Ben Park’s timely article in the latest issue of Dialogue. No, Ben’s essay does not address Mitt Romney. But it does examine Mormonism’s historical relationship with both the American nation and its Protestant establishment.

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Responses: Joseph Smith’s Holy Ghost and the Messiness of Historical Theology

By May 7, 2012


[The most recent installment of our “Responses” series, in which someone responds to a recent article of interest in Mormon studies.]

As someone interested in the historical development of LDS thought, especially during the first few decades, I was excited to see Lynne Hilton Wilson’s fascinating “A New Pneumatology: Comparing Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of the Spirit with His Contemporaries and the Bible” (BYU Studies Quarterly 51, no. 1 [2012]: 119-152). Historical theology and intellectual history can be a tricky field, particularly when contextualizing someone’s ideas with the surrounding culture, though it can be highly rewarding when done right. However, while there was much to enjoy in the article, there were some aspects that made me pause. Besides disagreements with how Wilson presents Joseph Smith’s Protestant culture in general, often in attempt to make Mormon ideas more distinct from antebellum America, as well as disagreements with how she interprets Smith’s theology in particular, often in attempt to make his 1830 beliefs more consistant with those in 1844, there were a few methodological points that I think deserve examination.

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Revisiting the Impossible Question – Part II

By April 6, 2012


And…the objections :

Firstly, her claim that gender is nothing but a construct based on a discourse of power, and sex is but a mysterious part of our eternal identity, leaves nothing clearly meaningful in the concepts of maleness and femaleness. This approach seems to elide differences, as others from the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, to Mary Wollstonecraft, have attempted to do. To me, it is clear that Mormon doctrine is fully committed to the concept of differentiation, and the idea that being male or female is an eternal part of our identity (or in other words, that sex and gender are inextricably linked, if not the same thing). Our doctrine of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, the temple narrative that is so grounded in the crowning union of male and female and the creation-wide participation in procreation and regeneration*, the creation narrative steeped in organizing matter and creating order by separation, differentiation, opposition, and the underlying narrative of the plan of salvation that begins and ends with a family of male and female parents—not to mention the explicit Proclamation on the Family—confirm this binary. But if, as Flake and others say, gender is constructed, and sexual differentiation is evolutionary, what is the binary on which creation, exaltation, and eternal marriage are constructed, and which persists through the eternities as an element in our identity? With such a paradigm, are we left with anything at all?

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Revisiting the Impossible Question- Part I

By April 6, 2012


Last post, I offered some musings about the supposedly “impossible question” I posed to Kathleen Flake at the Methodist-Mormon conference back in February, regarding the definition of femininity and masculinity. At the time, neither the question nor the answer seemed to satisfy either of us, so Dr. Flake kindly offered to follow up with me later to continue the conversation. It was a thought-provoking conversation, and after giving it more thought, I’ve come back to the drawing board with more questions and ideas.

By way of quick summary, I had asked Kathleen Flake to define masculinity and femininity in a way that

a) did not reduce them to mere sexual characteristics or biological difference (which, on its own, seems void of real significance, and furthermore, seems difficult to untangle from temporal causes like evolutionary strategies, which don’t seem to be necessary in a pre or post mortal existence)

b) did not reduce them to character attributes (which seem to boil down to characteristics that should ultimately be universally shunned [coarseness, aggression, emotional neediness, etc.], or universally cultivated [compassion, gentleness, creativity, reason])

c) explains the necessary synthesis of a male and female counterpart for the state of exaltation (as prescribed by doctrines regarding the necessity of temple marriage sealings as we now understand them: monogamous, male-female spousal units)

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Review: Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

By March 29, 2012


Givens, Terryl L. and Matthew J. Grow. Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

In 1854, Parley P. Pratt, Mormon apostle, theologian, polygamist, and apologist, set out to write his autobiography. In a letter to church historian George Smith, he explained that it was intended to be “a Lean, megre sketch of Church History. As my hurried life, and hurried manner of writing, prevents my branching out on many interesting items” (as quoted on p. 348). As anyone who has read Pratt’s autobiography—published posthumously by his son in 1874—can testify, it goes far beyond the “Lean, megre sketch” he apparently set out to write, and has served as both a ready resource for historians of 19th century Mormonism and a beloved book to thousands and thousands of lay Latter-day Saints to the present day. But Pratt was certainly right in noting that the Autobiography left out “many interesting items.” In Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, accomplished scholars Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow set out to investigate those “many interesting items”—including many episodes that Pratt would likely never have discussed in detail even if he had the time and space to do so.

What struck me most forcefully while reading Givens and Grow’s book was Parley Pratt’s personality. Described by the authors as having a “tempestuous character,” Pratt comes across

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Thoughts on Gender in Mormon Theology – stemming from Mormon and Protestant Encounters

By February 27, 2012


Rachael has a BA in history from Brigham Young University, is currently slaving away working in a law office in Washington DC, and is waiting to hear back about graduate schools this Fall. This post ushers in her guest-posting stint with JI.

“Gender is a modern invention,” Kathleen Flake declared yesterday at the Crossroads conference. Any logical discussion of the question of gender in Mormon theology was therefore declared “impossible.” At least that’s how I and dozens of others understood her response that wasn’t a response to my query on the subject.

Today at Stake Conference, Elder Scott spoke of the sanctity of womanhood, and the need for men to appreciate and affirm women who “magnify” the divine endowment of feminine traits they have been given.

Clearly, the theological place and meaning of gender is a massively tangled bramble bush of an issue, and this post is in no way meant to resolve the question I posed to Kathleen Flake yesterday as to what exactly constitutes “femininity” and “masculinity” in our eternal identity, and what implications these notions can have beyond the mortal realm and particularly in exaltation. This matter, of course, also has direct bearing on the controversy surrounding traditional and same-sex marriage, and I firmly believe that the Church needs a clear explanation of what gender is and why the particular synthesis of one man and one woman is the divinely ordained model, in order to offer more compelling defenses (theologically, at least) for traditional marriage. (I won’t countenance polygamy in this discussion as a potential arrangement in the afterlife. We can argue about that premise in another post).

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Review: Charles R. Harrell, “This is my Doctrine”: the development of Mormon theology (Kofford, 2011)

By November 7, 2011


Before I dive into the substance of this review, it’s worth pointing out, I think, a few of the things which are going on beneath its surface. The first is me once again trying to work out the relationship between trained academic scholars and autodidact scholars, and to assess their ongoing discussion about the proper form and the structure of scholarship. This is a popular topic at the JI, which reflects more generally the state of Mormon studies. Many of the points I make below have to do with my judgment of the ways this book holds up as an academic work. A book of this scope and ambition would normally, in an academic setting be a synthesis, weaving together a vast array of work into a single whole by a scholar familiar with the field. But its author is neither a trained theologian nor a trained historian – and, of course, that wide array of secondary literature on the history of Mormon theology simply does not exist. This my mean that we should take its ambitions somewhat differently than we might otherwise. Furthermore – and second – while the work itself certainly has academic aspirations, it also reads in many places as prescriptive as well as descriptive – that is, this is a work of Mormon theology as much as it is a history of Mormon thought. Harrell thinks certain ways of believing are more useful than others, and he seeks to convince us of the fact. This is not bad; indeed, I think Mormonism needs more theology, not less, and I am delighted with Harrell’s contribution to that discussion. But again, it complicates how one might engage with the book as a work of scholarship: how should it be read? Those caveats noted, the review.

Additionally, this essay will appear in a slightly altered form in an upcoming issue of Dialogue. Subscribe!

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Plato on Deification and Eternal Marriage

By August 21, 2011


Clement of Alexandria asserted that Plato was an important precursor to the coming of Christ. [1] The quotes I post from Plato here suggest that Mormons could sympathize with Clement’s point of view. The first is Plato’s statement on deification from the Theaetetus.

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Of Stars, Symbolic Language, Cultural Context, and Intellectual Influence

By April 11, 2011


Every once and a while I’ll read a book or article that in no way deals with Mormon history but still either sheds light on Mormonism’s cultural surroundings or demonstrates a methodological approach that may be useful for Mormon studies. (For instance, an example of the former is here, and an example of the latter is here.) In Eran Shaley’s “‘A Republic Amidst the Stars’: Political Astronomy and the Intellectual Origins of the Stars and Stripes,” published in the most recent issue of Journal of the Early Republic, I found an example of both.[1]

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How Thomas Aquinas’s Theory Of Scripture Explains Why Jimmer Fredette Is The Hinge On Which Modern Mormonism Pivots

By February 9, 2011


(Part whatever of my ongoing investigation into the cultural intersections of religion and basketball; part I, on the intertwining cultural meanings of Mormonism and the Utah Jazz, can be found here; part II, a review of the religious pilgrimage of Cleveland Cavaliers bit player Lance Allred, here; part III, on the Puritan antecedents of LeBron James nemesis Dan Gilbert, here.)

The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal.   That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it.    Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says [Coel. Hier. i] “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.

– Thomas Aquinas,Summa Theologica 1.1.10.

Like Walt Whitman, and Holy Scripture properly understood, Jimmer Fredette contains multitudes. 

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Being Biblical

By January 20, 2011


I took a directed readings course for one of my last classes at BYU, and one of the books was about colonial New Englanders’ notions of America as a promised land. While that may seem rather innocuous, I was struck by the similarities to Mormon notions and the fact that JS would have been immersed in that culture (no getting around the fact that he would have been influenced by such ideas). When I met with the professor to discuss the book I mentioned my concern and I think he sort of made a joke. But then seeing that I still looked concerned he simply said, “it’s in the Bible.” That made me feel better.

In the process of getting comfortable with finding Mormon-looking ideas in JS’s environment, I’ve wondered why I felt this way. I think the impulse derives from the feeling that the Bible is a legitimate source, whereas other sources may not be. This is a very Protestant approach.

JS seemed to have a different approach though.

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Joseph Smith and Matthew Philip Gill: the dynamics of Mormon schism

By January 18, 2011


Jacob Baker and I discovered the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ while Bushman summer fellows in 2007.    We spent a lot of time kicking back and forth analysis of this most interesting schism group, and organized an MHA panel around them in 2008.    And, today, the turgid pace of academic publishing has finally reached consummation, and the paper I wrote that summer has been published in the current issue of Nova Religio 14:3 (February 2011) 42-63.

The Latter Day Church is fascinating in part because of how skillfully Matthew Philip Gill engages in prophetic mimesis, replicating the experiences and language of Joseph Smith to create himself as Smith’s heir, calling to repentance the failed church of Salt Lake City and promising a re-invigorated version of Mormon spirituality – one which both invokes Joseph Smith’s charisma anew, but which also rewrites the sacred history of Mormonism in ways that follow the cultural accommodations the LDS church has made.   Gill’s movement is neither sectarian – which seeks to heighten tension with Western culture – nor a church movement – one which seeks to lessen that tension.  Rather, scholars like Armand Mauss and Thomas O’Dea have observed that the LDS Church itself seems to combine both of these impulses, oscillating back and forth along a spectrum of resistance, tension, and accommodation.  Just so, the Latter Day Church of Christ itself seeks to heighten both resistance and accommodation – rejecting, for instance, evidence that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy and embracing whole-heartedly the LDS church’s sentimental emphasis upon the family, but also heightening the sort of radical spiritual claims which have become routinized in American Mormonism.   Gill, after all, has had visionary experiences of all the figures Joseph Smith claimed to have encountered, adding a resurrected Joseph himself into the bargain.   As his father (and first counselor) asks derisively of the LDS Church, “We have again an era of prophets.  Proper prophets.  Not people who are just put into position and over time get to be a prophet . . . Where’s the revelation in that?”    And such is a new church born.

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Some Thoughts on the Mormon Kingdom of God, circa 1840s

By January 4, 2011


[As a heads-up, this post does not attempt to make any claims or arguments. It’s just a few half-baked thoughts concerning early Mormon notions of the Kingdom of God and how it related to Americanism, specifically during the 1840s. I hope it generates some discussion–or, at least–encourages some thought on what I think may be an under-utilized approach to early Mormon history.]

It’s almost considered a common trope nowadays to describe Mormonism as “the quintessential American religion”–or something in those regards. Harold Bloom may be most famous for recently making such a claim, but the sentiment has been around a long time. An American-born prophet, an American-located Garden of Eden, a canonized revelation extolling the American Constitution, an American-centered headquarters–you get the idea. The question of how Mormons in the nineteenth century understood their relationship with the United States has received a lot of attention in recent decades, with good reason. It is a fascinating story of how Mormons both rejected America—by becoming fed up with persecution and mobocracy and moving West—while still holding the pure “ideal” of America and merely equating their contemporary nation as experiencing an apostasy akin to modern-day Christianity. Mormon scriptures both placed America the location at the center of future divine events while also prophesying the downfall of America the government as a necessary apocalyptic sign paving the way for the millennium. The paradoxical positioning of both rejecting and embracing the American image was at the center of the Mormon sense of self during the late-Nauvoo and early-Utah periods.

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Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Interpreting Early Mormon Thought

By August 23, 2010


[What follows is the gist of the introduction from my paper “Celestial Family Organization: The Developing Nature of Mormon Conceptions of Heaven, circa 1840s,” presented at the 2010 MHA Conference.]

This post begins with a seemingly unrelated starting point: the debate over the legacy of Kantian philosophy in 1790s Germany. Philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in defense of his interpretation of Kantian idealism, argued for a distinction between “the inventor” of an ideological system, and “his commentators and disciples.” Fichte explained,

The inventor of a system is one thing, and his commentators and disciples are another…The reason is this: The followers do not yet have the idea of the whole; for if they had it, they would not require to study the new system; they are obliged first to piece together this idea out of the parts that the inventor provides for them; [but] all these parts are in fact not wholly determined, rounded and polished in their minds…

Fichte continued by explaining “the inventor proceeds from the idea of the whole, in which all the parts are united, and sets for these parts individually…The business of the followers,” on the other hand, “is to synthesize what they still by no means possess, but are only to obtain by the synthesis.”[1]

The specifics of Kantian philosophy that Fichte was debating hold little importance to us, but the tension he outlines between an “inventor” and “disciple” plays an important correlating role in the development of early Mormon thought, just as it does with any movement that boasts an innovative founder.

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