Continued from Part 1.
Spencer Fluhman: (BYU Religion): “A Subject Than Can Bear Investigation”: Anguish, Faith, and Nauvoo Plural Marriage
Probably the highlight of the conference, Fluhman gave a gripping paper on how to deal with Joseph Smith’s plural marriages to young brides–specifically focusing on Helen Mar Whitney. He felt that this was the most controversial marriage to deal with for two reasons: her young age (14), and her seemingly being “forced” into the marriage. Luckily, besides being the most controversial plural wife, Whitney is also the best documented because she wrote many reminiscences, speeches, and later journal entries exploring her complex feelings regarding the matter. First attacking the age issue, Fluhman explored the average ages for girls getting married during that time period. Noting that 17 or 18 usually marked the lower end of the marriage spectrum, he stated that 14, while uncommon, was not unheard of. Regarding relations between Joseph and Helen, she often focused on the spiritual and eternal side of the issue. She viewed it as a sacrifice she had to make in order to further eternal glories for both her and her father. Paraphrased, one of my favorite quotes of hers that Fluhman shared was, “It was to be a life sacrifice for the glory of everlasting salvation.” Fluhman argued that to them, earthly relations were almost beside the point.
The second issue, her being pressured into marriage (by her father, nonetheless), was more perplexing to Fluhman. While he expected to just have to deal with Joseph Smith, Fluhman explained that he kept running into the wall of Heber C. Kimball. Why would he be so determined to give away his fourteen year old daughter to a thirty-seven year old man? The answer to this question was an attempt to present a complex theological structure that was crucial to Joseph’s Nauvoo thought. Fluhman proposed that “binding links” was the most important concept in Joseph’s later thought: baptisms, endowments, and celestial marriages. Since they didn’t understand the idea of temple work for the dead beyond baptisms, and they yearned to connect families together somehow, Joseph developed a “dynastic” view of sealing: Mormons were to seal their families to other living families in order to create this firm binding link. In plural marriage, they were gathering up kin just as much as they were gathering up wives. This dynastic idea fits with Joseph’s theology because his language took quite a “royal” turn in Nauvoo, always speaking of a “kingdom” theology.” This also relates heavily to the idea of “adoption” that would become big shortly afterwards. Fluhman then noted that when the manifesto was given in 1890 ending plural marriage, and therefore ending this “dynastic” and “horizontal” sealing emphasis, the law of adoption fell away shortly afterwards, and the Genealogical Society was formed within three years.
Fluhman acknowledges that this idea does not cover all of Joseph’s plural marriages, but it does give an important insight on some. Also, he did not touch polyandry at all because John Peterson’s paper was supposed to do that. Since this summary doesn’t come near to doing justice to the paper, I recommend picking it up when it is published.
Stephen Fleming (grad student): “Have Miracles Ceased?” Joseph Smith and the Power of God (it’s on magic)
Fleming’s main point was that the best way to approach the magic culture of Joseph’s day was to see them as individuals yearning to find the hand of God in their lives. We should focus on their intentions: they were seeking for miracles and Christ’s influence, so it is problematic to define “magic” and “Christianity” as two different things. Fleming recounted the history of “magic” culture in Christian thought, showing that Medieval Christians believed firmly in miracles and placed a high emphasis on magic in their lives. However, as the Protestants came along, specifically Martin Luther, they argued that what was in the Bible was enough so people didn’t need to seek after miracles. This, along with enlightenment thought, led to the downfall of seeking supernatural experiences, and set the groundwork for the skepticism toward the magic culture in American religious thought. I thought this presentation was important for CES teachers (again, the intended audience), because it gave them a good framework in which they could explain “magic” in understandable terms to their students.
Kerry Muhlstein (BYU Religion): “Seeking Divine Interaction”: Joseph Smith and the Quest for the Supernatural (it’s also on magic)
Basically a companion piece to Fleming, Muhlstein explored specifically Joseph’s involvement with magic. He talked about the problems with the Hurlbutt Affidavids, statements concerning Hyrum’s Dagger, legends of Joseph originally understanding the angel Moroni as the treasure guardian “Captain Kid,” and the 1826 trial to show that these issues are difficult since all of them contain a complex combination of true and false statements. However, he argued, we have enough information concerning Joseph’s magic contemporaries coming from sympathetic sources that we should be able to have an idea of what it was like. Muhlstein argued that there are two things we need to remember when looking at Joseph’s activities: his family was poor, so Joseph was probably constantly thinking about ways of supporting them, and the idea that supernatural experiences were a common part of his culture, so magic was just one way to harness it. Muhlstein’s main focus was that the magic culture was a training ground for Joseph to learn how to harness his special gift from God (seership). The central lesson he had to learn was to use this power principally to build God’s kingdom rather than using it to bring in income for his family. Again, while this information is not really new to many of us, the way he presented it should be very helpful for LDS instructors to share with those seeking information on this “controversial” topic.
Robert J. Woodford (Church Curriculum): “Joseph Smith’s Revelations: Reception, Recording, and Publication.”
Probably one of the most respected historians when it comes to the development of the Doctrine and Covenants, Woodford gave a brief rundown of the major issues concerning the receiving, recording, and specifically, editing of the early revelations. He explained how the editing process of the revelations can cause problems for those who view the revelatory process as a word-for-word experience. Instead, he proposed that we should teach it with the principle that “the scriptures did not so much come from Joseph Smith as they did through him,” emphasizing that the real revelation is the principle behind it rather than the words and phrases that try to express it. An important point he made was that the traditional narration of how Joseph received revelations, given by Parley P. Pratt, only gives insights on the initial reception and leaves out the next step of editing. Woodford then explained the various kinds of editing that took place, focusing on spelling/grammar, updating, and hiding certain portions. The only problem I had with his presentation was that when he spoke of “hiding” or “updating” revelations, he didn’t address any of the ones I feel most significant (adding Peter, James, and John to D&C 27, taking out Oliver Cowdery’s rod, etc.). While the principle behind Woodford’s presentation was appreciated, I wish he would have tackled more complicated examples. A good opportunity to attack important issues may have been missed here.
I think the main idea I needed to get through my head in order to enjoy these presentations was that people like me were not the target audience for them. After I realized that, I appreciated them a lot more from the point of “these are good ways in which to help those who are struggling with problems as a result of being exposed to controversial issues.” The solutions are not designed for academic of scholarly minds who know a lot about Church history already–they are designed for the average Mormon who, though not well acquainted with many of these issues, is really seeking the truth. They are true to history while still trying to be sympathetic to the doubter in an attempt to build faith (a tough combination). Yes, it was disappointing to me that I was not intellectually engaged like I was hoping to be, but I was satisfied that these presentations could be a good step for their intended cause: to provide LDS instructors and those who are losing faith a better way to deal with these tough issues. I salute those who were involved for this worthy endeavor.