Cultivated Forests

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Charles C. Mann wrote an article called 1491 for The Atlantic in 2002. He followed that article with a book, titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A summary of the book is as follows: “Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized breeding process that it has been called man’s first feat of genetic engineering. Indeed, Indians were not living lightly on the land but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Challenging and surprising, this a transformative new look at a rich and fascinating world we only thought we knew.”

The book is a terrific read that I highly recommend. If you want a taste of it, first read the linked article in The Atlantic.

Now what does this have to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Not much directly. First, evidence continues to build of a highly populated North and South America with many sophisticated societies. The peoples actively managed the environment – regularly burning large areas of land, planting trees, and improving the soil. The view of Native American peoples living in small groups ‘harmonious’ with nature around them is outdated.

“In a widely cited article from 1989, William Balée, the Tulane anthropologist, cautiously estimated that about 12 percent of the nonflooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin—directly or indirectly created by human beings. In some circles this is now seen as a conservative position. ‘I basically think it’s all human-created,’ Clement told me in Brazil. He argues that Indians changed the assortment and density of species throughout the region. So does Clark Erickson, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, who told me in Bolivia that the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet. ‘Some of my colleagues would say that’s pretty radical,’ he said, smiling mischievously. According to Peter Stahl, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, ‘lots’ of botanists believe that ‘what the eco-imagery would like to picture as a pristine, untouched Urwelt [primeval world] in fact has been managed by people for millennia.’ The phrase ‘built environment,’ Erickson says, ‘applies to most, if not all, Neotropical landscapes.'” (Mann, 1491, The Atlantic).

How does this fit with the Book of Mormon?

5 Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land.

6 And now no part of the land was desolate, save it were for timber; but because of the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land it was called desolate.

7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.

8 And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east [possibly within a small region of modern day southern Mexico/northern Guatemala].

9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.

10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.

11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement. (Helaman 3:5-11)

So we have American inhabitants destroying large swaths of forest, cultivating new forests, building cities, and so forth. Now back to the article by Charles Mann:

Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. (Mann, 1491; emphasis added).

None of this proves the ancient historicity of the Book of Mormon, nor should belief in the Book of Mormon be tied to science. The truth of the Book of Mormon is independent from outside scientific evidence; truth is established by God and manifest by the Holy Ghost. That being said, articles and books like these written by Charles Mann are interesting.

Must-read: Joseph the Seer

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just published an article (will appear in the October 2015 Ensign) on Joseph Smith, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the role of seers and seer stones: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer?lang=eng

I believe that this article is a must-read for members of the church or for those interested in Mormon history. I’m grateful for the continued work the church does into releasing copies of primary historical sources, doing so according to high historical standards for preservation and research. While none of the information in the above article is new, having current scholarship presented in a straightforward and concise manner is helpful.

Also of note in the article is a photograph of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones (not the ones included with the gold plates), which the church has in its possession. It’s a rock and has no power beyond the power and inspiration given to the seer using it.

Master Mahan

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“Wherefore Lamech, being angry, slew [Irad], not like unto Cain, his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain, but he slew him for the oath’s sake. For, from the days of Cain, there was a secret combination, and their works were in the dark, and they knew every man his brother.” (Moses 5:50-51).

This murder is best understood in the context of Cain. Cain was one of the sons of Adam and Eve. He was the older brother of Abel. By the time Cain and Abel were born there were many people on the earth – many children and descendants of Adam and Eve – but by this point many were wicked. It does not take people long to fall away from the truth and to become wicked, even degenerate. Here is the story as found in the book of Moses:

“And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters. And Satan came among them, saying: I am also a son of God; and he commanded them, saying: Believe it not; and they believed it not, and they loved Satan more than God. And men began from that time forth to be carnal, sensual, and devilish. And the Lord God called upon men by the Holy Ghost everywhere and commanded them that they should repent; And as many as believed in the Son, and repented of their sins, should be saved; and as many as believed not and repented not, should be damned; and the words went forth out of the mouth of God in a firm decree; wherefore they must be fulfilled. And Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to call upon God. And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bare Cain, and said: I have gotten a man from the Lord; wherefore he may not reject his words. But behold, Cain hearkened not, saying: Who is the Lord that I should know him? And she again conceived and bare his brother Abel. And Abel hearkened unto the voice of the Lord. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” (Moses 5:12-17).

It is clear that many of Adam and Eve’s children followed Satan. They had more children, hoping that they would follow their counsels and teachings. Many did not. Cain was not the first of the wicked children but he became one of the most wicked. Cain was a farmer, his brother Abel was a shepherd. Abel followed after the statutes and commandments of God. He was a righteous man who performed his sacrifices with exactness and honor.

Continuing with the story:

“18 And Cain loved Satan more than God. And Satan commanded him, saying: Make an offering unto the Lord.
19 And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.
20 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering;
21 But unto Cain, and to his offering, he had not respect. Now Satan knew this, and it pleased him. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
22 And the Lord said unto Cain: Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen?
23 If thou doest well, thou shalt be accepted. And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan desireth to have thee; and except thou shalt hearken unto my commandments, I will deliver thee up, and it shall be unto thee according to his desire. And thou shalt rule over him;
24 For from this time forth thou shalt be the father of his lies; thou shalt be called Perdition; for thou wast also before the world.
25 And it shall be said in time to come—That these abominations were had from Cain; for he rejected the greater counsel which was had from God; and this is a cursing which I will put upon thee, except thou repent.
26 And Cain was wroth, and listened not any more to the voice of the Lord, neither to Abel, his brother, who walked in holiness before the Lord.
27 And Adam and his wife mourned before the Lord, because of Cain and his brethren.” (Moses 5:18-27).

The commandment and covenant Adam and Eve and their children had received was to offer up animal sacrifices in the similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of God. It was a blood sacrifice in expectation of the Atonement of the Son of God. Abel offered up a blood sacrifice, Cain did not. Cain listened to Satan and tried to offer up the fruit of the ground – whatever he farmed – instead of offering up an animal sacrifice. He offered a sacrifice but not the sacrifice the Lord required; Cain offered up the sacrifice Satan wanted him to. Satan knew the sacrifice would be rejected. Satan knew how Cain would react – he knew he would be upset and curse God. He was and he did.

Then Cain started off the deep end – he made a pact with Satan; it was a pact of secrets and murder for gain. “And it came to pass that Cain took one of his brothers’ daughters to wife, and they loved Satan more than God. And Satan said unto Cain: Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die; and swear thy brethren by their heads, and by the living God, that they tell it not; for if they tell it, they shall surely die; and this that thy father may not know it; and this day I will deliver thy brother Abel into thine hands. And Satan sware unto Cain that he would do according to his commands. And all these things were done in secret. And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness.” (Moses 5:28-31).

Cain dealt with Satan in secrecy. Cain became Perdition – a destroyer (Latin: perdere – to destroyof truth; one who gave away his covenants for new ones with the devil. Cain was promised that he would rule over Satan – Cain had at least kept his first estate whereas Lucifer did not. From God Cain received the title Perdition, from himself (and possibly from Satan) he received the title of Mahan, which is of unclear meaning but based on context probably means something close to “master [owner, holder, keeper] of [a] secret.” (This interpretation agrees with what Hugh Nibley believed the title meant. See Hugh Nibley, Ancient Documents and the Pearl of Great Price, p.12. In this document Dr. Nibley suggests that the word Master is not the English word master, but derives from Arabic word Mustirr (“keeper of secret”) and Mahan is related to the Sanskrit word maha (“great”); source). Cain’s covenant with Satan included a penalty of death for those who revealed it (this was a covenant that Cain’s friends, some of his brothers and sisters and their families, made too). Satan promised to deliver Abel into the hands of Cain. Cain would also reap the riches of his brother – his flocks.

“32 And Cain went into the field, and Cain talked with Abel, his brother. And it came to pass that while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him.
33 And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.
34 And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother? And he said: I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?
35 And the Lord said: What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground.
36 And now thou shalt be cursed from the earth which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.
37 When thou tillest the ground it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength. A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
38 And Cain said unto the Lord: Satan tempted me because of my brother’s flocks. And I was wroth also; for his offering thou didst accept and not mine; my punishment is greater than I can bear.” (Moses 5:32-38).

This was not a crime of passion, it was calculated murder. Cain’s purpose in seeking out his brother Abel was to kill him, to deprive Able of his life. In his post-murder phase Cain gloried in his power. He had power over life – like God. He could take Abel’s flocks and be rich. Then the Lord came to Cain asking him where his brother was. Cain’s reply? “I don’t know. Am I supposed to baby sit him? Am I his shepherd? Am I his keeper? I am a keeper of secrets, not my brother.” Then when the Lord exposes Cain for what he is, a murderer, Cain starts blaming Satan, the temptation of riches, and anger. “Satan made me do it. I was blinded by the rich, white coats of my brother’s sheep. I wasn’t myself, I was in a fit of rage.” These are all common excuses people still give when they get in trouble. It’s always someone (or something) else’s fault. Cain did murder for money but for a number of years before this he had loved Satan more than God. He did not just see Abel’s flocks one day and decide to kill him, Cain was wicked already, had covenants with Satan, and already had a plan to kill Abel.

What I want to focus on though is Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain was not simply answering in annoyance – “I don’t know where my brother is!” – he was revealing his callousness towards his family and other people. Cain revealed his self-centeredness and his selfishness. He was Satan’s protege and as the protege he adopted some of Satan’s characteristics, most predominantly, pride. Cain thought he could hide his sin from the Lord – that was a manifestation of his pride. He thought that he was not responsible for his brother, especially because Abel’s sacrifices were accepted but Cain’s were not; Cain felt offended by the Lord and by Abel. Cain took every opportunity of aggrandizement. He sought power and glory and riches (sound familiar? Satan sought the same things in heaven) at the expense of all else. No one would stand in Cain’s way, especially not his brother, who was the favored son.

In some ways this sounds much like the story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by his brothers. His brothers were jealous of Joseph’s favored status (which was based in part on his righteousness); they wanted to kill Joseph but were convinced not to by Reuben, the oldest son. Maybe the brothers hoped to gain Jacob’s favored status; maybe they just wanted to kill Joseph because they were evil people and not necessarily just to get gain. In any case, there are repetitions of themes throughout the scriptures – wickedness and righteousness are found in cycles in the Book of Mormon and Bible. Cain was only the first of many murderers. But because he was the first he became Perdition and (future) lord over Satan.

Note: Image by Tintoretto circ. 1552. In public domain: http://www.wikiart.org/en/tintoretto/the-murder-of-abel-1552

Watching the Dogs of King Lamoni

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A couple years ago the ever insightful Jeff Lindsay wondered whether or not Ammon offered to watch over the flocks of King Lamoni’s turkeys. Many church members read the story and assume sheep or goats but there really isn’t evidence of domesticated sheep and goats in the Americas during Book of Mormon times (about 600 BC to 400 AD not counting the Jaredites). Granted, the Book of Mormon is about relatively small groups of individuals in a limited geographic location, so it is possible that groups of Book of Mormon peoples used animals that were domesticated or semi-domesticated but that were not widely used elsewhere.

[Side note: The first people arrived in Mesoamerica at least as early as 8000 B.C. (Warinner, Garcia, & Tuross, (2013)) with domestication of plants and animals occurring shortly after. Thus, the Book of Mormon people came into a land with a settled, albeit sparse, population. There were maybe 10 million people in all of the Americas at that time so population density wasn’t high. The Book of Mormon civilizations would have had some interactions with other peoples but such interactions would have been limited until the Nephite and Mulekite populations grew substantially. Therefore, domestication of crops and animals could have occurred somewhat independently from other groups.]

Now to Ammon and the flocks of the king: “And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water—Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.” (Alma 17:26-27).

We read “flock” and assume sheep or something similar but that’s most likely a faulty assumption. If you accept Jeff Lindsay’s hypothesis about turkeys the word “flock” works as reference for a group of turkeys. However, are there other possibilities? Before I address that, we need to briefly cover language in the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon was written in “reformed Egyptian” (meaning that Mormon and Moroni wrote it in some derivative of an Egyptian language that had likely changed considerably over the 1000 year history of the Book of Mormon) but possibly using phrasing and grammar derived from Hebrew/Aramaic. Mormon’s source material for the Book of Mormon was possibly written in multiple languages; thus, when Mormon compiled and edited all the records (scriptures and histories) into one volume he was possibly doing some translating as well. Then Joseph Smith translated it (“translated” meaning direct revelation from God of the translation of the written words rather than translation like we typically think of) to simple 19th century English using early 17th century formal English (King James era) stylings and phrasing. What this means is that there are instances of imprecise words and awkward grammar. It also means that words used in English (and subsequent translations into other languages) are sometimes approximations for what was really meant.

To quote at length from Jeff Lindsay’s writings on this topic:

We must not be rash in assuming that all translated names of plants and animals or other physical objects describe the same things we think of today in 20th century America. Names in many languages are ambiguous and difficult to translate with certainty. For example, the Hebrew word for horse, “sus,” has a root meaning of “to leap” and can refer to other animals as well – including the swallow. Hebrew “teo” typically means “wild ox” but has also been applied to a type of gazelle. The general Hebrew word for ox is “aluph,” which has a root meaning of “tame” or “gentle” that could be applied to describe a human friend as well (J. L. Sorenson, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p. 345) – could it also describe a tapir? One Hebrew word for sheep, “zemer,” has been translated as “mountain sheep” and “rock-goat” in different Bible versions, while Sorenson notes that one Jewish scholar says it means antelope.

The difficulties of assigning and translating animal names are illustrated by the example of the Spaniards in dealing with American animals. Bishop Landa called a Yucatan deer a “kind of little wild goat” (Sorenson, Ensign, Oct. 1984, p. 19). Likewise, bisons were called “cows,” turkeys were called “peacocks,” antelope were described in terms of sheep, and the tapir was described in one source as “a species of buffalo of the size and somewhat looking like an ass” (Sorenson, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p. 346; also see the extensive documentation in Chapter 7 of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon). The Spaniards called the prickly pear a “fig” and used “plum” (ciruelo) to name a native non-plum species, while some Spaniards used “wheat” (trigo) to name American maize (ibid., p. 338-339). The Nephites and Jaredites might have made similar name assignments to species they encountered in the New World. We should not expect the religious record they kept to be a manual on natural science, and we should not insist that their terminology reflect our modern views – especially if the Europeans could do no better. If Nephites called a tapir an ox, we should not abandon the Book of Mormon when Joseph Smith follows their convention in his translation. And if they called it by a completely new name, how should it be translated?

Please recall that the translation process behind the Book of Mormon was not pure magic in which the thoughts of the original writer were expressed in sublime, flawless English with no effort on the part of the translator. Had that been the case, we could have bypassed all the hassle with preparing, preserving, and translating the engraved golden plates. But God requires humans to do all within their power for His work, and only then makes up the difference when necessary, typically applying miraculous aid rather conservatively. Indeed, considerable effort was required of Joseph Smith and the translation was a genuine translation of what had been written rather than what someone had thought. Joseph had been given a divine tool and gift to allow him to translate, but the human factor was not eliminated. If Mormon wrote a word for “swine” to describe something that we might call a peccary or tapir today, then I believe the translation would give us the word “swine”, especially if Joseph had no word in his vocabulary for peccary or tapir. The results were expressed in the language and vernacular of the translator, based on whatever the original author had written – blemishes and all. Now if it were essential for our salvation that we read about peccaries rather than swine, I suppose that God would have instructed Joseph in the matter and corrected the translation appropriately. But we are dealing with a translation, not direct English quotes from God.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, please visit the aforementioned essay about plants and animals in the Book of Mormon by Jeff Lindsay.

Now back to the flocks of Lamoni. It is likely that early people who migrated from Asia to the Americas brought dogs with them (van Asch et al., 2013). While I admit turkeys or some other animal are possibilities, given the evidence of dogs raised for meat consumption in Mesoamerica (assuming that’s roughly the area in which the Book of Mormon took place) in the period spanning from at least 1000 BC to at least 250 AD (Clutton-Brock, & Hammond (1994); White et al. (2001); van Asch et al. (2013)) it is also a possibility that dogs were the “flocks” that Ammon protected. We can’t get hung up on “flocks” being used to describe the group of animals (rather than “packs”) given what I wrote previously about translation and word choices. “Pack” is never used in the scriptures. “Flock” or “flocks” are used many times. The Book of Mormon wasn’t really the place (assuming Mormon would have used different words for different groups of animals) to differentiate between flocks, gaggles, packs, prides, murders, herds, and so forth.

In Enos we read: “And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses.” (Enos 1:21). “Flocks” in this instance referred broadly to different groups of animals raised primarily for food or food-related activities. “Cattle” (refer to Jeff Lindsay’s essay) is a broad term just like flock. “Goats” is more specific but still could refer to a number of animals and is probably not what we think of as a goat. “Wild goats” clearly are something other than “goats” but were also kept for some purpose; they also are probably not what we think of when we read “wild goats“. “Horses” has been thoroughly addressed by Jeff Lindsay.

What about other possibilities? It is a possibility but a remote one that Lehi and his family brought sheep and goats with them when they crossed the ocean and then continued to raise them for a period of time. If they did this it’s certainly possible that the flocks did not survive for the entire span of the Book of Mormon. Any animals brought over could have had difficulty adjusting to the climate. They also could have had too much genetic homogeneity and then died out or been wiped out by disease. This is a lot of suppositions but there’s just so much that we don’t know. Just because there is no evidence of domesticated goats (again, is a Book of Mormon goat really a goat?) in Mesoamerica doesn’t mean that animals that were at one point domesticated or at least tamed enough to use for periods of time were domesticated widely. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated in the Andes but didn’t make it to Mesoamerica. A group like the Nephites could have had domesticated animals that other groups didn’t use or end up using for extended periods of time. Remember, this is a group of individuals who migrated directly from the middle east to the Americas (well, via a long journey across the Arabian peninsula). They would have brought skills with them that those in the Americas might not have had. This includes domestication of certain animals. They might have tried to domesticate local animals with success or marginal success (e.g., Egyptian pharaohs trying to domesticate cheetahs; they weren’t domesticated but many were tamed) but then had those advances die out over time due to disease, loss of competence, or difficulty in maintaining the domestication over time. There are instances when groups of people reverted to not using certain domesticated plants or animals (refer to Diamond, J. M. (1998)). It’s thus certainly possible that these flocks were groups of tamed animals. This means Lamoni’s flocks could have been a range of animals. It also means that the flocks weren’t necessarily just one type of animal. Maybe dogs and turkeys, although that’s a bit like the old river crossing puzzle.

I like the idea of Ammon watching over flocks of dogs (dogs tend to be social creatures and would “flock”) in part because it is known that Mesoamericans successfully raised dogs for consumption (although it’s not specified that these flocks were for consumption). Dogs and turkeys are both possibilities for the flocks of Lamoni.

In closing, we know dogs were referenced in the Book of Mormon and not just completely in the abstract (e.g., 3 Ne. 7:8). One scripture might just represent a bit of poetic justice: “And behold, instead of gathering you, except ye will repent, behold, he shall scatter you forth that ye shall become meat for dogs and wild beasts” (Helaman 7:19). The wicked who might have consumed dogs for meat would in turn be consumed as meat by dogs.

References

Clutton-Brock, J., & Hammond, N. (1994). Hot dogs: comestible canids in Preclassic Maya culture at Cuello, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science21(6), 819-826.

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House.

van Asch, B., Zhang, A. B., Oskarsson, M. C., Klütsch, C. F., Amorim, A., & Savolainen, P. (2013). Pre-Columbian origins of Native American dog breeds, with only limited replacement by European dogs, confirmed by mtDNA analysis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences280(1766), 20131142.

Warinner, C., Garcia, N. R., & Tuross, N. (2013). Maize, beans and the floral isotopic diversity of highland Oaxaca, Mexico. Journal of Archaeological Science40(2), 868-873.

White, C. D., Pohl, M. E., Schwarcz, H. P., & Longstaffe, F. J. (2001). Isotopic evidence for Maya patterns of deer and dog use at Preclassic Colha. Journal of Archaeological Science28(1), 89-107.

Image of a Carolina dog by Calabash13 and used under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. The Carolina dog has genetic ancestry from Asia and might have been similar to dogs raised in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago.

News Coverage of the Plural Marriages of Joseph Smith

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The New York Times released an article about the recent article The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted to provide an authoritative but brief history of plural marriage (usually referred to as polygamy) in Kirtland, Ohio and Nauvoo, Illinois. The NY Times article, while largely correct, misrepresents some of the issues (in contrast, CNN has a more balanced article). First, while it has not been taught openly during church (church services and teachings are largely focused and supposed to be focused on the core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ), many church members were already familiar with Joseph Smith’s plural marriages (I first learned about them while a young teenager). The information was available for those who took the effort to look or study church history. The information was not hidden or suppressed. Oh, it has been ignored by people (including church leaders) who found the topic uncomfortable, but ignoring is not suppression. The posting by the Church of the article of plural marriage is, however, a welcome and concise source of information regarding historical matters that many view as controversial.

Here’s the start of the NY Times article: “Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.”

As I discuss later, this is not the first time church leaders have acknowledged the fact that Joseph Smith had multiple wives. Also, the author implies that Joseph was not loyal to “his loving spouse Emma” – he was, fiercely so. She was also fiercely loyal to him. So right away the NY Times article is 0 for 2. I’ll address the rest of the paragraph later.

One of the biggest misrepresentations is that the author of the NY Times article never mentioned how much Joseph Smith resisted the command from God to receive plural wives. From the article: “Smith probably did not have sexual relations with all of his wives, because some were ‘sealed’ to him only for the next life, according to the essays posted by the church. But for his first wife, Emma, polygamy was ‘an excruciating ordeal.'” Yes, it was excruciating for Emma but what the NY Times article doesn’t mention is that it was also a significant challenge for Joseph Smith, going against much of what he believed: “When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.” Joseph Smith had halfheartedly followed the command by marrying Fanny Alger (she, her parents, and presumably Emma had given consent, although Emma might not have know about some of the later sealings to Joseph) but was later rebuked and threatened by that angel because of his reluctance. Most church members had a hard time accepting plural marriages. It was hard for some of the parties involved, particularly some of the women (this isn’t the time or place to cover that topic; The whole topic of polygamy/plural marriage is difficult with our cultural biases. Many people throughout history and currently in the world would see little controversy regarding polygamy. There is a good post on Keepapitchinin.org about why it might be difficult to post and write about polygamy/plural marriage).

Like many news articles, the author of the NY Times article made a big point of one of Joseph’s wives being 14 (she was nearly 15, not that that is much of a difference) but failed to mention that “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.” Actually, depending on what part of the United States someone lived in, marriages at age 14 or 15 occurred with some regularity (refer to Fischer, D. H. (1989). Albion’s seed: Four British folkways in America. Oxford University Press; visit this website for short selections from the book – look under Backcountry Marriage Ways {there is no quotation about youngest age of marriages but with females getting married on average at 19, marriages at younger ages are in the distribution of ages}). Further, this marriage was a sealing “for eternity alone” meaning that they did not “[engage in] sexual relations.” Yes, that sealing occurred but Joseph and the girl (Helen Mar Kimball) were not married as most in the world would understand – it was a relationship in name (ordinance) only.

This issue of “marriage” versus “sealing” can be confusing to those who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and even to church members). All sealings are marriages but not all marriages are sealings. A sealing is performed by priesthood authority (in today’s church these take place in LDS temples). Sealings performed in LDS temples will last – through faithfulness – beyond this life (wife and husband are married for “time and eternity”). A number of the marriages of Joseph Smith were simply sealings “for eternity”, which means that there was not a married life or marriage relationship “in time” (during this life), in effect making a number of the marriages procedural. I am not downplaying the significance of the sealing ordinance – it is a vital ordinance for eternity: “And in order to obtain the highest [heaven – the Celestial kingdom], a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.” (Doctrine & Covenants 131:2-3); however, ordinances can be performed without much ceremony (and usually are not), making them utilitarian but sacred events.

I’m going to quote at length from the Doctrine and Covenants so I’ll provide a summary (tl;dr) of the verses below: Marriage (sealing) performed through authorized priesthood authority (in the temple) will remain in effect (no “until death do you part”) after this life should both husband and wife remain faithful in the gospel of Christ.

“Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world. Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife, and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant is not by me or by my word, which is my law, and is not sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power, then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world, because they are not joined by me, saith the Lord, neither by my word; when they are out of the world it cannot be received there, because the angels and the gods are appointed there, by whom they cannot pass; they cannot, therefore, inherit my glory; for my house is a house of order, saith the Lord God. And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (Doctrine & Covenants 132:15-19).

These types of marriages hold in the next life because of the sealing power and authority restored to Joseph Smith (and passed to each subsequent church president): “And verily, verily, I say unto you, that whatsoever you [Joseph] seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever you bind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens.” (Doctrine & Covenants 132:46).

That is some of the context that the NY Times article did not and could not provide in a limited article space. Now for some context regarding the statement in the NY Times article stating that “some [of Joseph Smith’s plural wives] were already married.” We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that in order for woman and man to return to live with God again and be exalted with Him, they must be sealed to one another through God’s priesthood by someone authorized to do so. This is why Mormons don’t just “baptize dead people”; in addition to performing vicarious baptism ordinances for deceased individuals, we also perform other necessary ordinances including sealing of husband and wife together (if they were married when alive). There have been instances, particularly in the early days of the restored church, when a woman who was either unmarried in life or even married to a man who was not a member of the LDS Church (or who became disaffected with the Church) was sealed (while living, in the case of a few of the “wives” of Joseph Smith, or vicariously after the death of the man or woman) to someone other than her spouse. That was quite rare and is not a sanctioned practice today. The belief (in my opinion) behind such actions was that the ordinance (the sealing) was of maybe greater importance than the relationship between a particular man and woman. In fact, sealings are performed vicariously without regard to the relationship between husband and wife during life; we believe that only God should judge so the ordinance is performed so the individuals might have the opportunity to accept it, should they choose.

Further, “Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come.” (Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo).

In other words, there is a lot we do not yet understand. That’s the nature of faith. That’s the nature of science (as I scientist something I get to say a lot is, “I don’t know.” Sometimes that’s followed by “That’s what we’re trying to figure out” or “That’s a great question, I’d love to study it more.”). Not understanding a lot is part of life. I’ll not pretend that this isn’t a difficult topic. It can be challenging to understand why the Lord required plural marriages. We can come up with hypotheses that sound reasonable, we can study it for years but I don’t think we’ll really understand it until the next life. That’s one of the great things – we get to live forever (our spirits don’t die and someday all will be bodily resurrected) so we have a lot of time to learn things.

The Mormon Newsroom (offers press releases for the LDS Church) posted a brief article covering these recent news responses to the plural marriage article (and others). In this article is the following helpful clarification: “Much of what you’ll find in the essays on polygamy has been published in diverse sources and known among long-term and well-read members, historians and Church leaders for many years. The Church has now gathered this information into a single location as a convenient means of placing these resources in the hands of all members. The fact that Joseph Smith had plural marriage relationships is not new, of course. Indeed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly asserted Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy—over a century and a half ago, especially in debate with other faith groups who traced their origin to Joseph Smith and who asserted that he did not practice plural marriage. But although polygamy was practiced among early Church leaders and members, its practice was officially discontinued more than 100 years ago.” (emphasis added)

This is why the headline of the NY Times article: “It’s Official…” is also misleading (but headlines are often written to be catchy or inflammatory, if not always correct). That Joseph Smith had plural wives has been “official” for more than 150 years. It was never a secret. Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Moses (likely, although there is a lot that is unknown about Moses’s married life), and other Old Testament patriarchs/prophets had multiple wives. A number of my ancestors even participated in plural marriages because they were commanded to by prophets of God. My point is that if we accept them as God’s chosen prophets, we accept their plural marriages as God’s will. The same is true for Joseph Smith.

The article posted by the Church is excellent. Take time to read the footnotes – there is good information in them. If you are interested in learning more about plural marriages in early LDS Church history, the Church has two other posts regarding its practice in Utah and its later ban. There are also a number of other books and articles on the topic (check the footnotes to the posted article).

Broken Cisterns That Can Hold No Water

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Israel during the Iron Age (started before 1000 B.C. and ended around 700 A.D.¹) is believed to have had a climate similar to today’s. It can be very hot and dry, particularly during the summer months. Jerusalem typically receives less than 22 inches (554 mm), which is significant rain for a semi-arid region, but Jerusalem receives no to trace amounts of rain on average during the months of May through September. This makes the storage of potable water vital for sustaining life. In ancient times (and modern) cisterns were cut into rock and, if necessary, lined with waterproof plaster. Cisterns could be small or large, even large enough to be classified as reservoirs. Cisterns could collect rain water directly or receive run-off water that was filtered through layers of sand, silt, and rocks. Methods of construction varied by location throughout Israel and as technology advanced. One example of a cistern found in Israel is depicted below (Figure 1). Other cisterns were open and many were small. Open cisterns, such as those that were common throughout ancient Israel, were constructed in the following manner: “Only the conduits and the upper opening of the cistern can be seen on the surface. The opening is marked by a large stone in which a hole was cut, to which a wooden or an iron door was often attached. Below the opening a bottleneck was cut, lined with well-cut and dressed stones. This neck went down to the bedrock, usually the soft chalk. Below the bottleneck the cistern widened, typically in a rounded shape achieved by cutting into bedrock.” (Rubin, 1988). Many homes had cisterns built into the foundation in order to collect rain and drainage from the roof (Figure 2).

cistern

Figure 1. From Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. "Water conservation methods in Israel's Negev desert in late antiquity." Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Water was and is important. Cisterns had to be constructed correctly otherwise they could leak water or the water could become contaminated. Cisterns had to be lined precisely and often needed plastering for waterproofing. If this was not done or was done incorrectly, the cistern was broken and could not hold water.

The prophet Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth, which was 3 miles (4.83 km) north of Jerusalem. He lived around 600 B.C. The Lord called Jeremiah as a prophet and Jeremiah began his ministry around 626 B.C. and continued at least until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

Jeremiah showed great courage in the face of many trials. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and called the people to repentance. The prophet Lehi, who plays a prominent role early in the Book of Mormon, was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Whereas Jeremiah’s mission was to remain as a warning voice to Israel, Lehi was commanded to flee Jerusalem, running over the wall, and head to a new, promised land. How lush and bountiful the Americas were compared to the land of Israel!

Jeremiah has been referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because of his lamentations over the destruction of Israel and the wickedness of the people: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1-2). The great artist Rembrandt painted lamenting Jeremiah (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the book of Jeremiah we read of the two great evils of the people of Israel: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13). The people of Israel turned away from God. They rejected the Living Fountain. The people of Israel had forgotten the miracle of Moses – the great salvation provided by God – when their mothers and fathers wandered in the wilderness: “And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:3-6).

The Israelites forsook the Lord. They also “hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Broken cisterns were life-threatening, particularly during the summer months. Wells and other sources of water were available but cisterns could be built close to homes and could be more easily defended. The Lord, through Jeremiah, lamented over the poor eternal craftsmanship of the Israelites. They were more focused on the things of the world than they were on the things of God. Many Israelites made choices to worship the golden calves created by their hands rather than turn to the Lord in remembrance of His great power and salvation. The people of Israel longed for the things of Babylon while not believing that destructive Babylon was on their doorstep, about to demolish their homes and lead them away into captivity. Rather than partaking of the living waters of the Lord and remaining free, their cisterns were broken and many perished. It’s no wonder that Jeremiah lamented!

                                                                                                                                     

¹Side note on the subject of iron and carbonized iron (steel). Steel was likely first produced before 3000 B.C. There is evidence of manufactured steel dating to about 1800 B.C. found in an archaeological site in Turkey (Akanuma, H. (2005). “The significance of the composition of excavated iron fragments taken from Stratum III at the site of Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey”. Anatolian Archaeological Studies 14: 147–158.). Steel dating from 667 B.C. has also been found in archaeological excavations in Thebes  (Williams, Alan R., and K. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. “Ancient steel from Egypt.”Journal of Archaeological Science 3, no. 4 (1976): 283-305.). This steel was thought to be brought by an invading Assyrian army. While bronze, copper, and iron were used broadly, steel was manufactured for tools and weapons all around the Mediterranean region, particularly the near/middle east. Steel was thus produced and used during the time of Jeremiah (which was also the time of Lehi, Nephi, and Laban [who, according to the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, owned a steel sword]).

Religious Liberty, Personal Liberty

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A group of individuals from England believed that the Church of England and the Catholic Church had strayed from the truth delivered by Christ. Facing intolerance and persecution from government and church leaders in England because of their beliefs, many fled to Holland where they experienced greater religious freedom. After struggling to earn livings in Holland they sought a new place where they could worship according to the dictates of their conscience. What looked most promising was America, as yet a largely unknown land with only a few permanent settlements. After delays, they started a journey filled with peril and a trans-Atlantic voyage on the ship Mayflower lasting 66 days. The Pilgrims celebrated their arrival with prayer and thanksgiving to God. On the crowded ship off the coast of what is now Massachusetts, the Pilgrims wrote and signed an important document. That document was the Mayflower Compact.

Part of that document stated: “Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid.”

The Mayflower Compact was signed by the adult males on the ship as a testament that they established a new colony for the glory of God and to spread Christianity. Through the Compact, the Pilgrims recognized the great blessings that God gives to His children. Two of my ancestors, Francis Cooke and Richard Warren, signed the Compact. The weary travelers had a harsh winter full of sickness and starvation ahead. Many died but many survived, spreading out and serving as a lasting foundation for what would eventually become a new nation founded upon God-given rights and freedoms; a nation where the Restoration of the gospel could occur.

When the Puritans came to America they brought with them and further developed their ideas of liberty. They typically viewed liberty in four different ways. The main form of liberty of which they spoke and wrote was a collective or “publick liberty” (p.200; Fischer, D. H. (1989). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford University Press, Oxford.). This was a liberty of the community and colony and not necessarily individual liberty. It “was thought to be consistent with close restraints upon individuals” (Fischer, p.200). It was through individual restraints that the entire community had liberty. This may seem counter-intuitive but it is not possible to have liberty for the collective without restraining the individual, which is one reason why anarchy does not work. Without restraint, entropy takes over, leaving only chaos.

The second idea of liberty that the Puritans talked of was liberty for individuals, although they usually referred to these as liberties (i.e., a plurality of liberty). In this case, “these plural liberties were understood as specific exemptions from a condition of prior restraint” (Fischer, p.201), which liberties they found in a new land.

The third Puritan view of liberty was the sense of “soul” or “Christian” liberty – the “freedom to serve God in the world. It was freedom to order one’s own acts in a godly way – but not in any other. It made Christian freedom into a form of obligation” (Fischer, p.202). This type of liberty was also referred to as liberty of conscience. While this idea of liberty was restrictive in practice because they only accepted belief in their Puritan faith, the idea that people should be free to serve God was an important founding philosophy for the future United States.

The fourth view of liberty for the Puritans was an individual liberty, a liberty or freedom from tyranny. This freedom included “freedom from want in the most fundamental sense” and “freedom from fear” (Fischer, p.205). This was similar to how many Americans view liberty today. This Puritan belief was another important belief that would influence many of the future Founding Fathers.

The Puritans believed in the freedom in order and not the freedom from order (i.e., collective liberty was more important than personal liberty). They believed that individual restraints were vital to the welfare of society – an idea that sometimes seems largely lost in our world today. This does not mean that more laws or more restrictions increase freedom but it also does not mean that fewer laws and fewer restrictions necessarily increase liberty.

Liberty and freedom are God’s desires for us. He endowed us with “certain unalienable Rights,” which rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is a gift from God! We should always remember and serve Him, who gives us our freedom. May we be like the great Book of Mormon military leader Moroni who “did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery” (Alma 48:11). Satan seeks “to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries” (Ether 8:25), whereas God desires freedom and joy for us.

God told His people: “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil” (D&C 98:8-10). As we remember and return to that God who gives us life and liberty, we will be blessed individually, as a nation, and as a world.

The early years of America were a struggle for individual and religious liberties. There were extremes in beliefs and actions; there were allowances for diversity of religious beliefs and there were severe constraints on free expression of belief. It took years for a national identity to form. In the end, the identity that formed allowed for the separation of church from state and state from church. Our identity recognized the great value of religion – the necessity of it for a civil society – but also recognized that belief and faith should not be coerced. People should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.

Near the end of 1776, the American colonies were entrenched in a war against Great Britain. This was part of the war for independence. The war at that time was not going well for the Americans who were seeking freedom. They had lost a number of battles, forts, and cities, including Fort Washington and New York City. While he watched the battle of Fort Washington, General George Washington was dismayed at the loss of life. At the end of the battle he wept openly. It was a hard loss. The entire Revolutionary war was a series of defeats for the Americans. That year of so much adversity might have seemed bleak and hopeless. Indeed it was for a number of people but many Americans found new resolve in their adversity. They strengthened their desires for freedom from what they saw as an oppressive government. In the midst of this adversity Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to posses most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” (Source: David Hackett Fischer. Washington’s crossing. (2006). Oxford University Press, USA). “It was a time when many Americans resolved to act in a way that made a difference in the world.” (ibid.). The revival in the resolve and hearts of those fighting the war of independence came from their defeats, not their victories. It was in the Americans’ responses to calamity and tragedy that their greatness grew. We don’t show our strength and character in times of ease, we demonstrate it by how we respond when all the world seems to be falling down around us. This struggle for liberty was not easy. In our lives today it might appear that we are losing battles, we might lose battles, but if we remain faithful, God will turn all things to our benefit.

How do you cope with severe opposition? Do you give in to despair? Do you end up shattered upon the jagged rocks of adversity? Or do you fight? Do you face the adversity and move forward? Fighting is not always the solution – there are some fights that are beyond us – but when faced with adversity we should strive to address it as best as we can. Sometimes that might be by running away, like Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife. For Joseph, his running from adversity led him into greater adversity – being cast into prison. How did he deal with this potential tragedy? He remained true to who he was and became the most powerful and respected prisoner. Through his righteousness and faith he faced adversity and overcame it, eventually rising to the second most powerful man in Egypt. We can say that Joseph was successful because of his adversity, not in spite of it. His liberty only came through his adversity.

I’ll share an example from the Revolutionary War that is representative of the challenges faced by the Americans who struggled through severe adversity to establish a new nation of freedom.

On a bitter cold Christmas night the Continental Army, led by George Washington, made a bold maneuver against the superior forces of the British army. General Washington led his troops over the Delaware in what would prove to be a defining moment of the Revolutionary War and American history. The crossing of the Delaware took all night; it was a significant adversity. Severe winter weather blew and froze the troops all during the crossing and the following day. Even so, the poor weather was a mixed blessing – it made the crossing treacherous but it also masked the movements of the Americans. Even after crossing the icy river, surviving the danger of that maneuver, it was so frigid that there are reports of at least two soldiers freezing to death that night. John Greenwood was a member of the army; he served as a fifer but because of the circumstances, John the fifer became John the soldier when he was called to carry a musket during the upcoming assault. As the army marched on its way after crossing the Delaware, John Greenwood was exhausted like many others. During one break he sat down with the intention of going to sleep. The voice of the bitter cold enticed John, lulling him into a false sense of security. He was so fatigued that he didn’t care if he never awoke from his slumber. As he drifted off to sleep, a passing sergeant noticed John, roused him, and got him up and moving. (Fischer, David H. 2004. Washington’s crossing. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, p. 228). This act saved his life. John Greenwood later became a dentist, serving as Pres. Washington’s dentist and significantly contributing to advances in dental treatment.

The American colonists struggled and eventually overcame, giving birth to a new nation founded on principles of individual liberty. The general sentiments of early citizens of the United States regarding the government and the interplay of religion and religious beliefs are echoed in Doctrine and Covenants 134.

“We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society. We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life. We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign. We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” (D&C 134:1-4)

“Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet…faith is a matter of choice, not coercion” (Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, location 73 of 6656 Kindle eBook). This was a novel, revolutionary principle upon which to establish a nation. Tying church and state together as had been done for much of history allowed for the distortion of doctrine and gross abuses of ecclesiastical and political power. Roger Williams, an early advocate of religious liberty, observed that “the gardens of Christ’s churches turned into the wilderness of national religion, and the world (under Constantine’s dominion) to the most un-Christian Christendom.” (Meacham, location 677 of 6656 Kindle eBook). The Great Apostasy held sway over the hearts, religions, and governments of humankind. The Founding Fathers in their wisdom, shattered the bonds between religion and government so that true liberty might exist and true religion flourish as they unknowingly laid the foundation for the restoration of Christ’s church.

Removing the bonds between organized churches and government does not mean religion and politics should remain separate. Pres. Washington stated in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (Washington, Farewell Address: http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/milestones/farewell_address_read3.html)

In the early days of the Revolutionary War one of the American generals, Nathanael Greene, wrote of the necessity of religious belief for the nation. He said: “America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…. Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.” (as cited by D. McCullough in 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005; emphasis added).

Those who attack religion attack the foundation of morality and the foundation of liberty. Leaders who seek to oppress and gain tyrannical power seek to constrain religious liberty. Liberty triumphed because the Founding Fathers believed that God granted unto His children inherent rights that governments should have no power to limit. One of these rights was that of freedom of religious worship. By infusing our nation with the idea of God-given rights rather than government-given rights, America became a place of inclusion rather than exclusion; America became a place of freedom and liberties rather than oppression, although oppression and bondage remained for many. Early leaders of the United States and of the restored church rejoiced in this liberty.

Brigham Young stated: “How can a republican [freely elected] government stand? There is only one way for it to stand. It can endure; but how? It can endure, as the government of heaven endures, upon the eternal rock of truth and virtue; and that is the only basis upon which any government can endure” (https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-36?lang=eng).

Our government was founded under the inspiration of God. It will only endure, as Brigham Young said, when those who govern and those who are governed enact and support truthful and virtuous laws with truthfulness and virtue in their personal lives. The Book of Mormon prophet and king Mosiah taught that nations only prosper and endure when righteousness prevails:

“Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord. Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people. And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land” (Mosiah 29:25-27).

Pres. Young said: “If a nation transgresses wholesome laws and oppresses any of its citizens or another nation, until the cup of iniquity is full, through acts that are perfectly under its own control, God will hurl those who are in authority from their power, and they will be forgotten; and he will take another people, though poor and despised, a hiss and a by-word among the popular nations, and instill into them power and wisdom; and they will increase and prosper, until they in turn become a great nation on the earth.” Brigham Young also said, “No matter how good a government is, unless it is administered by righteous men, an evil government will be made of it.” He taught that the influence of righteous citizens can save a nation: “Government in the hands of a wicked people must terminate in woe to that people, but in the hands of the righteous it is everlasting, while its power reaches to heaven.” Lastly, Brigham Young taught about the type of leaders we should seek: “We want men to rule the nation who care more for and love better the nation’s welfare than gold and silver, fame, or popularity” (https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-36?lang=eng).

I am grateful for the great nation The United States of America and for the freedoms we enjoy. I am grateful to live in a land where we can choose to live in righteousness. We must strive to elect good men and women. It is never too late to choose righteousness and to encourage righteousness in others!

This foundation of righteousness was built by the first leaders of the nation who acted in accord with the will of God.

Pres. Wilford Woodruff stated in general conference: “I am going to bear my testimony to this assembly, if I never do it again in my life, that those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord.” (April 1898, Conference Report). He further said that they “laid the foundation of the government [we] now enjoy, and…never apostatized from it, but…remained true to it and were faithful to God.” (Read for more: http://www.josephsmithacademy.org/wiki/eminent-spirits-appear-to-wilford-woodruff/)

The Founding Fathers were true to their cause and by and large expressed great faith in God. An example of this faith comes from Thomas Jefferson.

As Thomas Jefferson was dying he began “moving in his mind between past and present, [and] gave his grandson instructions about his funeral arrangements. Struggling to be reassuring, a member of the family said that everyone hoped it would be a long time before those orders would have to be executed. With a smile, Jefferson replied, ‘Do you imagine I fear to die?’ He had long contemplated what he was to face on the other side of the grave, and he found the prospect bright. Once we left ‘our sorrows and suffering bodies,’ Jefferson had once told John Adams, then they would ‘ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.'” (Meacham, American Gospel, location 134 of 6656 Kindle eBook).

It was such faith that sustained Jefferson and others through their struggles. It was such faith that they hoped without coercion that all Americans would have. It was for freedom of expression, for freedom of faith and religion, and for individual liberty that the Founding Fathers sacrificed.

George Washington stated in a famous letter to a Jewish congregation: “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” (From George Washington to the Members of the New Jerusalem Church of Baltimore, 27 January 1793: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0027).

That reminds of the language found in Doctrine and Covenants 134 that I mentioned previously and the 11th Article of Faith. The 11th Article of Faith reads: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Thus, one of the core tenets of our religion matches closely to the ideas that inspired the founding of our great nation [the United States]. It was through their faithfulness to the idea of liberty that America became a land where the root of religious liberty could take hold and spread, resulting in the great flowering tree of life of the restored gospel and Church of Jesus Christ. Without the blessing of religious liberty, the Restoration would not have taken place. Even so, the Church barely survived its first 80 years, its members having to flee the United States and go to Mexico in order to survive persecution; but survive and thrive it did and does.

In the 11th Article of Faith we express our conviction that we should be allowed to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience and will allow all people to worship “how, where, or what they may.” The Articles of Faith do not only prescribe belief and doctrine, they also encourage behavior and action. They are more than professions of belief – they describe how we interact individually, with others, and in society. This is clear in the 12th Article of Faith, which goes hand in hand with the 11th: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” By obedience to laws are we free; true liberty comes from obedience to God’s laws and to the just laws of men.

Pres. Joseph F. Smith stated: “There is no liberty like the liberty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For I can tell you no man is free when he is under bondage of sin and of transgression, neither is any man free when he is under the bondage of ignorance in relation to the plan of life and salvation.” (Chapter 32: Liberty through Obedience: http://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-f-smith/chapter-32?lang=eng)

Liberty is inextricably tied with agency. We are well aware of the importance of agency in our lives. Our Father declared it so important that a war was fought in heaven when individuals wanted to limit agency and coerce righteousness. Forcing righteousness, however, cannot result in exaltation. In order for us to become more like our Father we must have agency. This liberty of choice, if you will, is constrained only by unrighteousness. Sinful behavior – acting in opposition to God’s laws – brings constraints on agency. We give up liberty when we sin; we shackle ourselves in chains that can only be broken through the Atonement of Christ. Jesus sets the captives free, He releases us from the bondage of our sins and assuages our pain. We must be mindful of sins and temptations that would bind us, limiting our liberty and happiness.

As we should seek liberty in our personal lives by striving to remain free from sin, we should uphold liberty in our country and encourage liberty in others. God loves us. He wants us to be free and happy, both in this life and in the life to come.

Language of the Brass and Gold Plates

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“And he [Benjamin] also taught them concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, saying: My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God. For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time. I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.” (Mosiah 1:3-5).

From the above verses it is clear that the the brass plates were written in “the language of the Egyptians” (the “language of the Egyptians”, however, is a broad and ambiguous statement, which I will not address here). This is why the gold plates were also in Egyptian – their model was the brass plates, which were in that language (some form of Egyptian language). Why were sacred texts of the Jews in this language? It comes down to the fact that it was more efficient than Hebrew was for writing with limited space. Making golden plates appropriate for archival writing was also a difficult process. In essence, the script that they wrote in was a type of shorthand and one patterned off the language on the plates of brass (but likely changed over time). It’s also likely that the writing was an Egyptian script transliteration of Hebrew (or some variant of Hebrew over time).

“And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.” (Mormon 9:32-34).

Egyptian was an international language of the time. Israel was part of a large eastern Mediterranean trading circuit at the time with a lot of trading and travel in particular between Jerusalem and Egypt. Lehi knew Egyptian and so knowledge of the language was passed down through the generations, although the script and language were modified over the 1000 year span of the main story of the Book of Mormon. This means that the writing on the small plates of Nephi that Mormon included with his abridgment of the larger plates of Nephi, while readable to Mormon, was not necessarily the same script as he used for the rest of the plates (just as Old English is readable to those knowledgeable but qualitatively different from modern English).

What’s also clear from this passage about the language of the Book of Mormon is that “none other people knoweth our language”, meaning just what that sounds like – the particular language that the Nephites developed over time was unknown to anyone else in the world (and still is – well, except for the 3 Nephites). Further, the language used to keep records of the people and prophecies was not the main language that most of the Nephites spoke, at least over time as the civilization expanded. The language of the records (and possibly just those kept on metal plates) was a special language taught to those who would have responsibility for keeping the records. For example, “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites” (Mosiah 9:1; emphasis added). We have to remember that the Nephites were a small group of people who lived in a fairly discrete area of the Americas. There were always more Lamanites than Nephites (both terms are political and do not necessarily denote ancestry, race, or ethnicity), likely in part because there were other peoples in the Americas with whom the Lamanites mixed (the original Nephites originally might not because that would mean marrying non-covenant people but the term Nephite became more inclusive over time to include many who were not church members). In general though, both groups were small relative to the overall population of the Americas. This is evident in the fact that the Mulekites were living nearby for hundreds of years but were not seen (or at least commented on by the records we have from Mormon) until the time of Mosiah. Also, the Jaredites were nearby (in the last years of their civilization) but did not have much interaction with the other Book of Mormon groups. The Nephites might have had contact with other peoples but such records were not included in the Book of Mormon because they are not relevant in a book of scripture.

After that aside, I’ll return to languages. Languages change quickly, particularly when not written down and maintained. For example, another group of people came out of Jerusalem shortly after Lehi left, arriving at a different part of the Americas: “Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah discovered that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon. And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth. And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them. But it came to pass that Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language. And it came to pass that after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory; and they are written, but not in these plates [small plates of Nephi].” (Omni 1:15-18; emphasis added).

Much of the teaching of language by Lehi, Nephi, and on through the generations was to not only maintain the language but also to maintain culture. However, most importantly, it was to maintain the ability to read the scriptures and thus encourage faith in God.

So, in closing and to summarize, the gold plates of Mormon that Joseph Smith translated were written in their “reformed Egyptian” script because that’s what the brass plates were written in (or at least the brass plates were a previous iteration of the particular script used on the gold plates). We don’t really know why the brass plates were in that language (Egyptian – some form of it but not the “reformed Egyptian” of the Book of Mormon). We’ll have to leave that answer until the future.

Long-winded Paul

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There is a story in the New Testament that is morbidly funny. I don’t want to make light of a tragic event but everything worked out in the end so maybe there is justification in seeing the humor of the situation.

The Apostle Paul was a tireless champion of the cross. He preached Christ in whatever situation he was in and selflessly spread Christ’s gospel. He fulfilled his calling as an apostle – a special witness of Christ. Paul was a powerful preacher. As an aside, I’ve always been interested in physical descriptions of historical figures, particularly from scriptural history. Joseph Smith described Paul’s physical appearance like this: “He is about five feet high; very dark hair; dark complexion; dark skin; large Roman nose; sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated, and then it almost resembled the roaring of a lion” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 180; see also Paul: Untiring Witness of Christ). This compact man was a lion of the Lord. He was also long-winded.

“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.” (Acts 20:7-12).

Sometime on Sunday the disciples of Christ held a sacrament (communion) meeting. Needing to get an early start on a journey the next day their church meeting was kept short. Actually, no it wasn’t. Paul preached “and continued his speech until midnight.” Lamps were lit as Paul continued to talk. One of those at the long meeting was a young man named Eutychus. He, understandably, dozed off while Paul taught long into the night. Unfortunately, Eutychus was sitting on a window ledge on one of the upper floors. The loss of muscle tone with sleep and the combined effects of height and gravity resulted in the premature demise of poor Eutychus. It might even be said that Paul bored this man to death. So Paul rushed down and raised Eutychus from the dead. Many might have taken this as a sign to cease preaching but Paul went back up, broke bread (sacrament) and “talked a long while, even till break of day.” Paul wasn’t one to let a little thing like death and bringing someone back to life get in the way of a good sermon.

There are many reasons why Paul preached for so long. One of the most important is that Paul was a visiting church authority who had a lot of instructing to do. He had just a short time in Alexandria Troas (where this story takes place) before he had to continue on his journey. Paul had one short week and likely only one sacrament meeting to teach and organize the church in that city. So he taught, day and night, without ceasing and without tiring. Paul was an unflinching and unfailing witness of Christ. There is a reason Christ appeared to the man who was then called Saul on the way to Damascus. Just as Saul was zealous in his defense of the Law of Moses and in attacking Christianity, he became zealous in defending Christ once converted. Yes, Paul was long-winded but he was a powerful witness of Christ and one of the most important and influential leaders of the early Church of Jesus Christ.

When Was Jesus Born?

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We celebrate the Savior’s birth on December 25th but there is considerable debate regarding when Christ was born (not that Wikipedia is authoritative but see for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Jesus#Day_of_birth). From the Book of Mormon we gain clarity.

“And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man [Nephi] in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away; And the people began to look with great earnestness for the sign which had been given by the prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, yea, for the time that there should be darkness for the space of three days over the face of the land… And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land [heralding the Savior’s death].” (3 Nephi 8:2,3,5).

When the sign was given of Christ’s birth, the Nephites set that date as the beginning of their new calendar. So given that the calendar was accurate (it’s possible that it was off by a few days or even more over the course of 33 years), Christ died on the 4th day of the 1st month of the 34th year. Depending on how that statement is interpreted, it means the Savior died right around (or on, if there are some inaccuracies with that Nephite calendar, which there likely were) His 33rd birthday (although it could be understood to be that He had just turned 34 if the 34th year = 34 Nephite AD rather than being the start of Savior’s 34th year – counting from 0 – which would be 33 Nephite AD). Having just turned 33 (rather than 34) gives the Savior about a 3 year ministry (ages 30, 31, and 32 – see Luke 3:23), which is generally accepted as the length of His ministry, although there is some debate regarding the length of Christ’s ministry (but I will not cover that here).

But from the Book of Mormon, we at least have the answer to when Christ was born – at the same time of year at which He died, which was at the time of Passover (roughly corresponding with our late March to early April, typically when we celebrate Easter). The symbolism of all of this is rich – the First Born Pascal Lamb, whose atoning blood allowed for the passing over (forgiving) of sins, entered the world in blood and spirit and shed His blood and suffered in and gave up His spirit at the time that Jews celebrated the salvation of their first born sons and their salvation from captivity in Egypt. Christ is the One who died to free the captives, releasing them from prison like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea out of captive Egypt. I think it would be even more symbolic (but ultimately unnecessary) if the Savior was resurrected on His birthday.

None of this really matters in the end but if the Nephite calendaring system is accurate (it probably was quite good), the Savior’s birth occurred at the same time of year as His death, right around the beginning of April.