Category Archives: History

African American Spirituals and the Mormon Pioneers

In honor of the 161st anniversary of the Saints entering the Salt Lake Valley, I would like to explore the relationship between two of the most profound spiritual movements of the 19th century: ante-bellum African American spirituals and the rise of Mormonism. While the vast majority of work with regard to African Americans and early Mormonism has focused on the explicit role that African Americans played in Mormonism, and LDS attitudes to African Americans, I would like to examine some shared themes, narratives, and assumptions, especially in the period between Mormon migration and the beginning of the Civil War. At the outset, I acknowledge that such a comparison does not in any way entail an equality of suffering between Mormons and slaves, only some shared circumstances and themes expressed lyrically.
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Filed under LDS Church History, Mormon Culture, Theology

BYU Religion Dean on Premortal Life, Part I: Race and Nobility

Last week Terry Ball, Dean of the College of Religious Education, gave BYU’s weekly devotional address (mp3 file available here, Daily Universe report here). His talk raises many issues relevant to recent discussions here and elsewhere. My reaction to his talk will be divided into two posts: first, a discussion of some of the problematic themes that Ball raises, and second, an analysis of the way this Professor of Ancient Scripture handles scripture. Continue reading

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Filed under Bible, BYU, LDS Church History, Leadership, Speculation

Armaund Mauss Interview

No, not here. Over here.  Good stuff, go read it. (T&S had a similar interview in 2004, part one, part two.)

“For Mormons, living in a certain way is more important than believing in a certain way. We can infer much more about what or who a person is from what he does than from what he believes (or claims to believe) “

“Speaking differently to different audiences does not necessarily imply contradiction. We do it all the time. When we talk among our friends about what goes on in our families, we are not likely to provide the same details or explanations as if we were talking within the intimacy of the family circle.”

“It seems that for mainline Catholics and Protestants, all extra-biblical ideas are forgivable as long as they embrace a Trinitarian deity, but Mormons can’t be permitted their extra-biblical ideas and still be part of the Christian ‘family.’”

“Sociologists who have studied NRMs and their critics have long since realized that apostates are among the least reliable sources of information and understanding about a religion, since they always write in an exposé mode to vindicate their own change of feelings.”

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Filed under Doctrine, LDS Church History, Mormon Studies

Announcement: All-Blog Symposium on “Mormonism and Modernity”

As you may know, I am an advanced student at a local VCR repair school in South Dakota. Recently, I have been listening to a number of people, and a reading a number of books, on the issue of the VCR in modern life. Representatives from a number of VCR manufacturers are examining this technology in light of the contemporary technological, informational, political, and diverse age in which we live. These questions have got me thinking in a similar way about the conditions of modernity (and post-modernity if you wish) that relate to the way that religion is conceived, including Mormonism. Therefore, I hereby convoke an all-blog symposium to address the following topics over the course of the next 45 days. Prizes will be given to the best blog posts. To enter, simply give the link to your post in the comments on this thread. If you do not have your own blog, but would like to participate, you may submit your entry in the comments on this thread. The following topics are proposed:
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Filed under Doctrine, LDS Church History, Mormon Studies, Political Philosophy, Speculation

Curses!

A discussion I had recently with a friend of mine reminded me of one of my other favorite soap boxes that I haven’t stood on in this forum before. No, it has nothing to do with swearing (in a traditional sense at least). Today I’m more interested in the sort of curses that God lays on peoples. Like on the Lamanites and stuff. And yeah I know that there is nothing new in the ‘Nacle so I’ll just say outright that I haven’t even looked elsewhere to see who has already broached the subject and what they said. Feel free to restate and/or link. Continue reading

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Filed under Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine, LDS Church History, Marginalia, Personal Issues, Speculation

A Review of Terryl Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Terryl Givens’ new book is an important and welcome addition to Mormon studies and will be required reading for understanding the evolution of Mormonism as a distinct culture, especially where Givens moves out of the much-explored territory of the nineteenth century and ventures into the less-explored twentieth century.
However, the book is not without flaws.
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Filed under Guests, LDS Church History

Learning to Love Apostate Christianity

One sign of our institutional and historiographical maturity is the increasing attention that the “Great Apostasy” has been receiving (see for example Noel Reynolds, ed., Early Christians in Disarray, 2005). Since the oppositional pairing of apostasy and restoration is so fundamental to our view of ourselves and proximate others, understanding its potential and realized meanings and implications will remain, I think, one of the more significant tasks of those who think and write on our tradition. This task is all the more urgent, and complicated, because it is heavily tied to the contingencies
of historical scholarship and the particular politics of location in which they are grounded.
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Filed under Doctrine, Guests, LDS Church History

Race and Why Christopher Hitchens is an Embarrassment to Good Atheists Everywhere

I don’t know if many of you have been following the Romney-Sharpton debacle. The strange part about this is that the comment Sharpton made about Mormons was in the context of a debate with Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book God isn’t Great. Sharpton’s comment was a rebuttal to Hitchens’ scathing remarks about Mormons and their racist past. To a certain extent, I can see where Sharpton’s explanation about his unfortunate remark is coming from, though it is obviously highly problematic. However, I want to focus on the other person in this controversy, namely Hitchens.

I have been watching Hitchens appear to promote his book on a few different programs. Every time I see him I just have to cringe. His argument against religion is about the equivalent of an 8th grader’s. I have yet to see him give a single factual statement about any of the religions that he speaks about. For instance, in a vulgar discussion of sex on one talk show he claimed that every single major God had been born from a virgin and how this is misogynistic. Uh, not only is it not true about every single god (not many, actually), but also it makes no sense how this is in any way against women. I had to chuckle when John Stewart actually called him an a**hole during their interview. There are plenty of good atheists out there who have well-thought out, sophisticated comments about religion. Hitchens is more like a joke whose arguments are so easy to knock down that as a sympathetic non-atheist, I can’t help but be embarrassed for him.

Fast forward to the most recent controversy with Mormons, specifically his Lou Dobbs interview. Hitchens claims that it is Mormons who are bigoted because they believed up until 1965 (sic) that black people were inferior to others. Sharpton has also accused Mormons of “segregation” prior to 1978. These comments have got me thinking about the nature of pre-1978 racialized policies. There is no denying that there is a generally “racist” element to the policy of “one drop” and the priesthood ban. However, it strikes me that this policy does not always easily fit into the larger discourse of racism.

First, the LDS policy was never directed against any other races except those of African descent. There was no sense of white superiority either by nature or by divine grace. In fact, Mormons were strong advocates of missionizing to all peoples, with very early missions to India, China, Polynesia, etc.

Second, Mormons never practiced segregation. To the extent that there were black members of the church, they always worshiped alongside other members. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that today Mormon congregations are less segregated than many denominations (prorated to numbers of members of different races).

Third, while there are certainly instances of comments that were based in scientific racism (the belief that some races are innately superior and others are innately inferior on an evolutionary continuum) by church leaders, this is really not the basis of either the Hamitic doctrine or the other popular explanations of the priesthood restriction. Even still, the Hamitic doctrine in Mormonism was used substantially differently than it was used by other 19th and 20th c. Christians. There cannot be a simple understanding of the Mormon case by just looking at how other Christians invoked this doctrine. Mormons really were different in tone, if not in tune. This might be disputed, but it seems to me that the most vocal voices in this issue seemed to emphasize God’s love for all of his people and argue for an eventual lifting of the “curse.” This is much less like a belief in superiority/inferiority, but I am not entirely sure how to characterize the difference.

I think that Romney’s engagement with charges of “bigotry” have unfortunately opened up this debate in a way. No doubt many will continue hurling charges of past (and present) racism at Mormons. The question is whether any of these charges will be made carefully and responsibly, since the nature of the Mormon past with racial difference does not fit into the normal American discourse of racism. Further, I hope that the claim of persistent Mormon racism will be exposed as nothing more than senseless slander.

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Filed under LDS Church History, Speculation

Believing Blood: Mormonism as a New Race


Mormons adopted the language of race and ethnicity to describe themselves from the very early days of the church. This post examines the rhetoric of race in Mormonism and compares it with that of early Christianity. It is inspired by Denise Buell’s amazing book, Why This New Race?, which looks at “ethnic reasoning” in early Christianity. In Mormonism, I see a similar dynamic, though different in some key respects, in the process of describing and creating a new people.

Up to this day, many people still see Christianity as a universalistic religion and Judaism as a particularistic religion. Christianity’s success is credited with its ability to apply to all peoples. Judaism “failed” because it was ethnically exclusivistic. What Buell did was to look at the rhetoric of race and ethnicity in early Christianity. The early Christians saw themselves as a new “race,” in the same category as Romans, Greeks, and Jews, only their citizenship was in heaven. As a claim to a “universal” race, it engaged in the same sorts of “particularistic” exclusionary practices as any other ethnicity. Her critique is that this new universal is simply another particular and that the claims to universalism always involve exclusion.

While this critique is certainly important for the study of early Christianity, in many ways it applies to Latter-day Saints( though we are more comfortable with being labeled “exclusionary”). However, Buell’s argument also tells us a lot more about Mormonism. Mormons claim lineage (literal, adoptive, symbolic, blah, blah, blah) with Israel which establishes them as a distinctive people. In some versions of this, the blood of the baptized member is said to change. In other cases, the blood of the investigator is activated and the ancient kinship bonds are rekindled when the spirit is felt, so that only those literal descendants are gathered again to the family. This diffuse blood was always seen as multi-racial biologically, but all members of the church belonged to the true family of Israel.

The rhetoric of racial unity in Mormonism has died down in recent decades, perhaps as the result of the power scientific discourses of race which may problematize Mormon theories of kinship (there is a lively critique of the biological view of race as well). The result, however, is that biological views of race become the discourse of race in the church, which means that the exclusionary language of that discourse can divide the membership. Yet, our own past exclusionary practice of denying those of African descent membership in the people of Israel reminds us that our rhetoric of universalism rings hollow. Nevertheless, as we have moved away from being a race, to being simply a religion like most others should cause us to reflect on this event. Is one model more effective than another? Should we continue to be a race of Mormons, or should we be just a religion?

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Filed under LDS Church History, Marginalia, Speculation, Uncategorized

Mormonism’s Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn’t influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to “fortune cookies,” as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn’t participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um…Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo’s constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul’s discussion of “shadow boxing” and “crowns” in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?

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Filed under Doctrine, LDS Church History, Metaphysics