Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 1

By July 3, 2014

This post belongs to our occasional “Scholarly Inquiry” series which facilitates conversations with important scholars in Mormon history and studies. Today we reprise our focus on religious practice and ritual from a few months ago and hear from Dan Belnap, professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Belnap, who has a particular interest in ritual in both ancient and contemporary contexts, is the editor of a book entitled By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice, and published by the Religious Studies Center at BYU and Deseret Book last year. (And it features, one must add, a stellar chapter from our very own J. Stapley on the development of Mormon ritual!) We appreciate Professor Belnap’s responses and invite your thoughtful engagement. Also, stay tuned for Part 2.

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Building a Bibliography: The History of Mormon Practice

By March 7, 2014

Today’s the day here at JI when, in keeping with our theme this month, we compile a listing of scholarship on the history of Mormon practice. This is intended to be a collaboration, so we hope you’ll jump in and contribute. The list below ought to get us going, but many studies have surely been overlooked, and the categories are arbitrary, so additions and reconfigurations are more than welcome. What works and categories are we missing? What glaring lacunae do you see in the field? What piques your interest? What trends can you identify? How much praise can we heap upon the superstars here? Share your thoughts and insights as we build a comprehensive bibliography.

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“Undone:” The Contours of a Folk Tale

By March 4, 2014

There?s a new Mormon urban legend making the rounds.

You may have heard it before ? even from me.

The story goes like this: an infant has been brought to be blessed and given a name in a Mormon sacrament meeting, a public rite of passage initiating the newborn into the community of the congregation, and by extension, into the Church as a whole. The father for whatever reason is unavailable to perform the ceremony, so an elderly relative, generally a grandfather, steps in. The child is brought before the congregation, the old man lays his hands upon it, and promptly ordains the child to priestly office. The blessing ritual has been bungled.

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Arapeen, the Ute Prophet

By November 26, 2013

Filed away in the Brigham Young Papers at the Church History Library, there is a document that records the vision of a nineteenth-century prophet. That visionary, however, was not Brigham Young. Rather, it was Arapeen, a leading Ute chief during the Mormons? first two decades in the Great Basin. That the Saints believed that Arapeen had received a legitimate revelation is revealed in the language they used to categorize the document. John Lowry, Jr., the Manti resident who interpreted for Arapeen, and George Peacock, who acted as scribe, entitled the document ?Vision of Arapine on the night of the 4th of Feb 1855.? Later, after it had been sent to Young?s office in Salt Lake City, an unidentified clerk scrawled ?The Lord to Arrowpin? in the margins.[1] Arapeen?s vision provides a fascinating window into the Utes? hybrid religious culture that was in the process of formation in the years following the Mormons? arrival in 1847.

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Guest Post: Justin Bray on Mormon Sacrament and Material Culture

By September 12, 2013

Justin Bray is an oral historian at the Church History Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is also an MA student at the University of Utah, where he studies American religious history. He has presented and published several papers on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among the Latter-day Saints.

I’ve always found objects meaningful tools to reconstruct the past.

When my great-grandfather passed away many years ago, my dad inherited an old baseball bat–probably because my brothers and I couldn’t stop watching The Sandlot, and throughout our childhood we collected an unhealthy number of baseball cards. I really didn’t know anything about my great-grandfather (at the time), let alone that he was a baseball player. But the more attention I paid to the bat, the more the bat became a kind of lens into my great-grandfather’s world.

Of course every baseball player has a bat, and at first glance baseball bats all look quite similar, but every nook and cranny spoke more about this specific player. For example, the most worn part of the bat’s handle was about an inch and a half above the knob, meaning he “choked up” on it considerably. From my background in baseball, I knew that players who choked up on the bat were generally shorter, faster, and “scrappier” players looking to just get on base, so that more powerful hitters could drive them home.

The kind wood the bat was made of, the fact that no pine tar was on it, and its length and weight continued to help piece together not only the kind of baseball player my great-grandfather may have been but also how far he played professionally and in what time period his career took place. A text, such as his obituary, may have said “he played baseball,” but studying a surviving object from is athletic career added elements to his narrative that evaded the written word.

This same approach can help historians study religion in America. Men, women, and children often use objects to express their faith, like a cross, phylactery, or CTR ring.

For some time now, I’ve looked at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a way in which to study the devotional lives of the Latter-day Saints. When researching this sacred ritual, texts can only say so much: “The sacrament was administered today.” But when researching objects that were used to administer the sacrament, such as bread, water, wine, linens, cloths, plates, cups, trays, flagons, hats, gloves, and tables, the narrative expands.

Take the sacramental bread, for example. In nineteenth-century Utah, you didn’t just pick up a loaf of Wonder Bread on Saturday night, nor did you begin baking bread on Sunday morning. Preparing the sacramental emblems was a process that required at least daylong time and attention. It was often baked by sisters of the Relief Society and became a meaningful part of their devotional life.

Objects can open new channels of inquiry that words alone cannot. They can generate new questions to familiar narratives. But material culture also has its limits. Objects must be studied against texts to get good glimpse into religious worlds.

For those living in or near Salt Lake City, I’d like to give a plug for Kris Wright’s lecture tonight at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. She’ll tell you better than I can how useful material culture is in studying the Latter-day Saints.

Touchdown Jesus, Catholic Blessings, and Supporting Mormon Religion

By January 9, 2013

Not even a Catholic blessing could save Manti Te’o and the dying pop-culture Mormon moment he represents. (source: Wall Street Journal)

[cross-posted at Religion in American History]

On Monday afternoon, just hours before the Alabama Crimson Tide blew out the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the BCS National Championship football game, Peggy Fletcher Stack posted a short note at the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Following Faith blog on the Catholic pregame rituals of ND.

Specifically, Stack drew readers’ attention to the Mormon story embedded within a fuller exploration of that subject at the Wall Street Journal: Star linebacker, Heisman Trophy runner-up, and devout Mormon Manti Te’o joins his teammates in “attend[ing] a Catholic Mass, receiv[ing] ‘a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint,’ and ‘kiss[ing] a shrine containing two slivers Notre Dame believes came from Jesus? cross.'” He was even photographed receiving a blessing from Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh (a blessing Te’o reportedly sought out). Football team chaplain Father Paul Doyle explained that Te’o has privately told him that “he feels supported here [at Notre Dame] in his Mormon religion.”

All of this immediately brought to mind some of my previous thoughts on Mormon supplemental worship, in which Latter-day Saints supplement their Mormon activity by attending other Christian church’s services (a habit that dates back to at least the late nineteenth century). While the example provided by Te’o is clearly part of that larger historical tradition, it also strikes me as unique for a couple of reasons:

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Lecture Report: Janet Bennion and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on “The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism”

By November 3, 2012

On Thursday, October 25, Janet Bennion, Professor of Anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, delivered a lecture, ?The Faces of Eve: Varieties of Mormon Feminism,? at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University. Professor Bennion is an expert on the contemporary practice of polygamy among Mormon fundamentalists, and the author of several books on the subject. Bennion?s lecture focused on her most recent book, Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism, which she presented as a synthesis of her more than twenty years of research among polygamous groups in North America. Her goal, she said, was to produce a readable work that would educate the general public about these groups, as well as better preparing law enforcement officials to deal with them?and thus to avoid another event like the ill-managed 2008 raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.

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Responding to Christopher Smith on adoption

By April 24, 2012

[The following is Jonathan Stapley’s response to Christopher Smith’s post.]

First, I want to thank Christopher Smith for his critical reading of both my ritual adoption article and my article on last rites. His call for increased clarity and finer argumentation in my work is welcome and surely needed. As an example, the bulk of Smith’s comments relate to what I observed to be a declension in Brigham Young’s rhetoric surrounding adoption ritual performance in Utah, and the possible relationship between this declension and the transformative vision of Joseph Smith that Brigham Young received relating to adoption early in 1847. I’m grateful to respond to these comments as well as some particular questions which Smith raised.

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Responses: Christopher Smith and Jonathan Stapley on Brigham Young’s Vision of Adoption

By April 24, 2012

[This continues our new series “Responses,” which offers a venue to respond to and discuss recent Mormon scholarship, especially journal articles. We are pleased to have Christopher Smith here respond to two articles authored by Jonathan Stapley last year (found here and here), along with Stapley’s own response (posted tomorrow). Christopher Smith is a PhD candidate in Religions in North America at Claremont Graduate University. He is currently living in Provo while he works on his dissertation on Mormon and American Indian relations during the life of Joseph Smith. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on…]

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Brigham Young, Natural Seers, and Seer Stones

By March 3, 2011

J. Stapley needs no introduction. He’s been kind enough to join in on the seer stone/”magic” fe[a]st we’ve had here at JI this week.

Stan’s recent post on the use of seer stones by young women, reminded me of some sources relating to Brigham Young. Young is on record as saying that he was not a “natural seer” (see discussion in this post). I’m currently of the position that Brigham Young believed that he did not have the ability to use seer stones. As illustrated in comments while discussing some of his more controversial beliefs with the Salt Lake School of the Prophets, Young “said there were many revelations given to him that he did not receive from the Prophet Joseph. He did not receive them through the Urim and Thummim as Joseph did but when he did received them he knew of their truth as much as it was possible for them him to do of any truth.” [1]

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