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.

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.

Closeness to God

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“The question [that Joseph Smith addressed] was not escape from hell but closeness to God.” (Bushman, R. L. (2007). Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Random House LLC., p. 199).

In other words, the question is not how do we escape from hell, the question is how close do we draw near to God? Permanent hell is reserved for relatively few individuals.

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).

A Charge for Memorial Day

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As we are celebrating Memorial Day here in the United States, a day that we honor those who gave their lives in defense of our country and freedom, a quote from Joseph Smith resonated with me. During the “Last Charge” meeting, Joseph Smith told those present the following, which was meant to be encouraging:

“Brethren, you have many storms to pass through and many sore trials await you; you will know what it is to be bound with chains and with fetters for this cause’s sake. God knows I pity you and feel for you. But if you are called to lay down your lives, die like men of God and pass immediately beyond the reach of your enemies. After they have killed you they can harm you no more. Should you have to walk right into danger and the jaws of death, fear no evil – Jesus Christ has died before you.” (As cited by Truman Madsen).

We all die. Whether we die old or young, in sickness or in battle, we still die. What is important is the manner in which we have lived our lives and the manner in which we face our deaths. I hope that we can all, when the time comes, die like men and women of God – faithful. If so, when we are dead we are beyond the reach of all our enemies. Jesus Christ died that we might live. All will live again; I hope that all who will might live again as Christ lives – in celestial glory.

Joseph Smith’s Accounts of the First Vision

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As a missionary one criticism I heard from some individuals who were not friendly towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was that there were four accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Because the versions all differ to some degree, these individuals believed that this proved that Joseph Smith made up his experience.

I always thought this was a strange argument to make, particularly because the Gospels cover the Savior’s ministry but do not tell all the same stories and in the same way. There are repeats (with significant differences) of stories in the Old Testament. What individual recounts a story in exactly the same way on subsequent retellings?

I know why certain individuals brought up the existence of multiple versions of the First Vision – they were trying to use it as justification for their own disbelief or they were trying to instill doubt in the minds of us missionaries. There is nothing inherently wrong with doubts but sometimes people let doubts become stumbling blocks to their faith. The best way to overcome doubts is to seek the Lord earnestly in prayer. We can also study what others have written about matters or discuss the issues with others, preferably people we trust, but the Lord is the source of truth and seeking His inspiration should not be neglected.

I view the multiple accounts of Joseph’s vision as great resources to better understand Joseph’s experience. He spent more than a year contemplating the nature of Christ’s gospel, his need for repentance, the nature of God and the universe, and many other things. He did not simply decide to pray one day, he worked toward that time for more than a year. We are richly blessed by the different accounts of his vision.

If you want to know more about the First Vision and the various accounts, Jeff Lindsay’s post is a great place to start.

Church Organization in The Book of Mormon

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In Mosiah 18 and Mosiah 25 we learn much about the proper organization and role of Christ’s church. Let’s set the context. An off-shoot of the Nephites were under the reign of a wicked man named Noah. The king ordained priests who shared his love of wickedness. A righteous man, a prophet, Abinadi came among the people and testified of their wickedness. He fled for his life and then later came back in disguise to preach more. Abinadi was taken before King Noah and his priests. He testified against their wickedness boldly. He also taught the gospel of Christ in power and purity. Abinadi was killed for his beliefs but one of the wicked priests believed his teachings. This priest – Alma – fled for his life but began to teach the people in secret after he repented of his sins. So the setting for Mosiah 18 is a wooded area where there is a fountain of pure water (how very appropriate for a setting for Alma’s teachings about the Source of Living Water, even Jesus Christ).

What did Alma teach and what do we learn about the organization of Christ’s church? Alma started teaching “repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord” (Mosiah 18:7). Those are the foundational principles of the gospel – faith in Christ and repentance (which is made efficacious through the reception of the Savior). In verses 8-10 we read about baptism and the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”

What’s important is in these verse we learn the covenant that those who are baptized make. Those who are baptized and confirmed members of Christ’s church are “called his people” – they take upon themselves the name of Christ (or at least are willing to and Christ puts His name upon them in their worthiness). Then we read of the responsibilities of the baptized members of Christ’s church:

  1. Bear one another’s burdens
  2. Mourn with those who mourn
  3. Comfort those who need comfort
  4. Testify of God in all things and times (particularly through the example of their lives)

Those in the church have a primary responsibility to take care of each other. Our devotion to God and our discipleship of Christ is evident in what we do and how we serve others. This sentiment echoes what the Savior taught His disciples on the eve of His death – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35).

As we continue through Mosiah 18 we understand more about the true nature of Christ’s church. Before Alma performed an ordinance (baptism), he prayed for the Lord’s Spirit to be with him (verse 12). Then Alma baptized a man – Helam – “having authority from the Almighty God.” (verse 13). He did not receive authority of himself, it was given to him by God (either his ordination to the priesthood under the direction of Noah was valid or he was ordained and given authority by a heavenly messenger after that time {I believe that the former is true though, which could lead to an interesting discussion about the priesthood}). The priesthood authority is something you cannot receive but from God (“And no man taketh this honor [ordination to the priesthood] unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” Hebrews 5:4).

Then Alma baptized Helam who was then filled with the Spirit (Alma also baptized himself, which is done only in this special circumstance; normally, it is not possible to baptize oneself; UPDATE: a statement by Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith was brought to my attention; Pres. Smith stated that the self-baptism was merely symbolic {http://seminary.lds.org/manuals/book-of-mormon-seminary-student-study-guide/bm-ssg-05-mos-8-12.asp}. This brings up a whole point I did not initially bring up about where Alma’s priethood authority came from. Was his ordination as one of Noah’s priests valid (my guess is yes, it was)? Was he ordained secretly under the hands of Abinadi before Abinadi’s death? Did he already have the priesthood before being raised to the level of one of King Noah’s priests? Was he ordained by an angel? These are all unanswered questions and not entirely pertinent to this post, which is why I did not bring them up initially. However, if Alma’s baptism was symbolic, it means he was previously baptized by the proper authority). As Alma baptized more people, he did not go under the water again – one baptism is enough. These verses show that entrance to Christ’s church is dependent upon baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit: “And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward. And it came to pass that whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God was added to his church.” (Mosiah 18:17).

Next, to get the church set up further, Alma ordained priests over the people (initially about 4 – one for every 50 church members; there were 204 individuals baptized at that time). What did these priests do? Teach the people “nothing save it were the things which he had taught, and which had been spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets. Yea, even he commanded them that they should preach nothing save it were repentance and faith on the Lord, who had redeemed his people.” (Mosiah 18:19-20). They were commanded to teach only the basics of the gospel as taught by the prophets.

The people of the Lord were then commanded to be unified and without contention (verse 21). The church members were also commanded to preach (to one another and to others) – they were to be missionaries (verse 22). They were also commanded to keep the sabbath day holy and thank the Lord in all things (verse 23). Related to this, the church members were to meet together one day a week for church services but also meet together as often as they could.

Next we get to something important – Christ’s church had a lay ministry (“he also commanded them that the priests whom he had ordained should labor with their own hands for their support” – verse 24). This was also important in the context of King Noah and his priests who were supported by taxes of their people. Alma did command church members to be free with their substance, to give freely to support those in need; the needy could be the priesthood leaders but they were not otherwise supported: “And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.” (verse 28). The lack of coercion is important – the giving needs to be freely done. This support was both temporal and spiritual (verse 29).

Doesn’t this sound like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today? I think there are great reminders for us in Mosiah 18 about our responsibilities and duties as members of Christ’s church.

In Mosiah 25 we learn a little more about the nature of Christ’s church. It was divided into multiple congregations (we call these wards today):

“And Alma did speak unto them, when they were assembled together in large bodies, and he went from one body to another, preaching unto the people repentance and faith on the Lord…And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church. Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly; Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma. And thus, notwithstanding there being many churches they were all one church, yea, even the church of God; for there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God.” (Mosiah 25:15,19-22).

Alma was given authority by King Mosiah (who was also the prophet). Mosiah held the priesthood keys, he authorized Alma to direct and organize the different congregations. Alma essentially acted as an apostle under the keys of Mosiah. He traveled to the different conjugations to teach them the gospel. Even though there were different congregations, they were all one church. This is just like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Wherever you go in the world, there is likely to be a congregation (there are many places the LDS Church is not but it is spreading). All of these different congregations are part of Christ’s church. They are different bodies of people but all are one.

While this church structure as found in the Book of Mormon is not novel to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon. It served as an important guideline in conjunction with revelation for Joseph Smith to use to set up Christ’s restored church.

Reverence for the Lord’s House

LDS Orlando Temple
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Yesterday we were at the temple. While my children and I were waiting outside for my wife to come out, I asked my children if they wanted to peak inside. There is a little waiting room just inside the entrance; a person does not have to have a temple recommend to sit in the waiting room or stand just inside the front entrance. My oldest daughter shook her head, “No, I do not want to go in.” I quickly realized it was because she did not feel comfortable entering the temple wearing her play clothes. I asked if she would go in if she was wearing church clothes and she nodded and said, “Yes.”LDS Orlando Temple

I was touched by her sensitivity, her discomfort at the idea of going in the front (even at my suggestion) in her play clothes. This reminded me of a story from Joseph F. Smith’s life. Quoting Pres. Hinckley’s rendition of the story:

“While serving [in Hawaii Joseph F. Smith] experienced a remarkable dream. I quote from his narrative concerning this. Said he:

‘I was very much oppressed [when I was] on a mission. I was almost naked and entirely friendless, except [for] the friendship of a poor, benighted … people. I felt as if I was so debased in my condition of poverty, lack of intelligence and knowledge, just a boy, that I hardly dared look a … man in the face.

‘While in that condition I dreamed [one night] that I was on a journey, and I was impressed that I ought to hurry—hurry with all my might, for fear I might be too late. I rushed on my way as fast as I possibly could, and I was only conscious of having just a little bundle, a handkerchief with a small bundle wrapped in it. I did not realize … what it was, when I was hurrying as fast as I could; but finally I came to a wonderful mansion. … I thought I knew that was my destination. As I passed towards it, as fast as I could, I saw a notice [which read B-A-T-H], ‘Bath.’ I turned aside quickly and went into the bath and washed myself clean. I opened up this little bundle that I had, and there was [some] white, clean [clothing], a thing I had not seen for a long time, because the people I was with did not think very much of making things exceedingly clean. But my [clothing was] clean, and I put [it] on. Then I rushed to what appeared to be a great opening, or door. I knocked and the door opened, and the man who stood there was the Prophet Joseph Smith. He looked at me a little reprovingly, and the first words he said: ‘Joseph, you are late.’ Yet I took confidence and [replied]:

“‘Yes, but I am clean—I am clean!’

“He clasped my hand and drew me in, then closed the great door.” (April 2007 General Conference).

Joseph F. Smith in his dream came upon a mansion. Before entering it, he prepared himself – even though he was in a hurry – by bathing and changing into clean white clothing. He took the time to be prepared to enter the mansion. Joseph Smith softly chided his nephew Joseph F. for being late but Joseph F. was there and clean. Just as Joseph F. Smith felt in his dream that he needed to take a bath first and become clean, my daughter recognized that she would only feel prepared and ready to enter the temple if she was dressed more appropriately. I learned a lot about reverence from my daughter’s example.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

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I recently started reading Hugh Nibley’s book Abraham in Egypt (nicely available online too, through that link). I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Nibley’s keen insights and outstanding scholarship (he’s someone who very few people even try to criticize; how do you even start to try and address any faults in his scholarship?). Much of Hugh Nibley’s works have focused on direct products of Joseph Smith. Jesus Christ is the center of our religion, He is its Head, He is our Savior. Joseph Smith, though, is the prophet of the restoration. It is through Joseph Smith that we have the restored gospel and the restored authority to act and perform ordinances in the name of Christ. Joseph Smith is as important to us as Abraham is to the Jews. None of this focus on Joseph Smith detracts from the importance of the Savior; Joseph’s works and life are only important because they help us draw near to the Savior in word and deed. Our love of Joseph Smith and our recognition of his importance is one reason many try to attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by attacking Joseph Smith (he was used to personal attacks starting when he was 14 so Joseph certainly was no stranger to the attacks; I don’t think anything is said about Joseph Smith today that was not said to him and about him in his lifetime).

So most of the work of people antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent trying to discredit the work of Joseph Smith; more accurately, most of their work is spent trying to discredit Joseph Smith, particularly by attacking his character once all of their other attacks or critiques fall short, as they invariably do.

With this context, I present a quote from the opening chapter of Hugh Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt (my emphasis added).

To discredit Joseph Smith, or anyone else, in the eyes of an uninformed public is only too easy, requiring but the observance of a few established routines in the art of public relations. That gets us nowhere honestly. What about the Book of Abraham? In it Joseph Smith has given us a straightforward and detailed narrative, whose boldness, ingenuity, and originality should excite the interest and command the respect of anyone who has ever tried to write anything. Even as a work of fiction it does not permit the reader to see in it the production of some poor fool who had no idea of what he was doing, completely befuddled as to his sources, trying to squeeze a story out of a handful of perfectly meaningless Egyptian doodles. We invite the critics to use the great advantage of their superior education and vast resource material to produce anything like it. We will even allow them full use of what they call Joseph Smith’s modus operandi, which they have so brilliantly suggested as the explanation of how he really did it. And to assist them further, we offer at no extra charge another clue, a statement by the great E. A. Wallis Budge that is all the more revealing for its frank hostility to the Prophet: “The letter press [Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible, and some of the Old Testament apocryphal histories.” As to those apocryphal sources, why have all his other critics overlooked them, insisting that the whole thing is “a pure fabrication,” and “simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination”? As we have already observed, what could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories? Budge was possibly the greatest authority of his day on apocrypha, but that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum among original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed a number of important apocrypha published in Budge’s day—but in the 1830s? Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials even today?” Now if Budge insists that the Abraham story in the Pearl of Great Price is clearly based on Old Testament apocryphal sources, that story deserves to be treated with some attention. What, the relatively uneducated Joseph Smith using sources of which none of the experts save only Budge, the most prodigiously learned and productive Orientalist of his time, was aware? What a flattering accusation!

What happens is that when serious scholars try to discredit Joseph’s Smith’s work, they often unwittingly give him far more credit than they intend to do. This is because they recognize the themes and truths in Joseph’s work; however, they perfunctorily discount him, so they form hypotheses that fit their pre-conceptions of Joseph Smith’s character. There is the assumption that Joseph Smith was a charlatan or at least misguided, thus all of his work is wrong. Based on this assumption, many people then try to interpret his works. In other words, they interpret his work in light of his – as they perceive – faulty character. This limits their critiques of his work because why should they give serious consideration to the works of someone they view as below their consideration. What Hugh Nibley calls for is to assess Joseph’s works independent from his character. The following quote is referring specifically to the Book of Abraham but it can be extrapolated to all of Joseph’s works.

“In short, it is the Book of Abraham that is on trial, not Joseph Smith as an Egyptologist, nor the claims and counterclaims to scholarly recognition by squabbling publicity seekers, nor the provenance and nature of Egyptian papyri, nor the competence of this or that person to read them. The resounding charge in the headlines was that ‘the Book of Abraham is a pure falsification.’ Joseph Smith is no longer with us; his reputation must rest on the bona fides of the book, not the other way around. By his own insistence, he was merely an implement in bringing forth the record, not its creator.” (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Chapter 1).

Hugh Nibley takes this stance because too many people do not look at the validity of Joseph’s works. They impugn his character and then try to leave it at that. People attack Joseph as “a corrupt tree” that cannot “bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). But in doing so, they are approaching Joseph’s character in the reverse order the Savior said. Jesus said, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). We cannot declare a tree corrupt and then assume all the fruit is bad; we have to look at the fruit to understand the nature of the tree. That is precisely what Hugh Nibley is suggesting, yet that is what few outside the LDS Church actually do. For an other example of this, read the account of what happened when some of the characters from the Gold Plates were showed to Charles Anthon, who had some expertise in ancient languages. He was a man who couldn’t see the fruit for the tree.

The Christianity of Mormons

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With two Mormons currently vying for a nomination as candidate for president of the United States of America and with a large public relations campaign by the LDS Church, there has been considerable focus on the church. Much of it has been informative (and largely neutral), some has been positive, but some has been negative. One particular charge made against Mormons by some (usually of a particular Protestant vein) is that Mormons are not Christian. We find this charge odd considering the name of the church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – as well as of our belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. That is not enough for some people but I’ll not get into a discussion of why some people do not believe Mormons are Christian.

Regardless of what others claim about our Christianity (which in the end, is really a personal thing), we Mormons make a claim to historical Christianity that other Christians do not. Catholics make a claim of continuity from Peter. However, Mormons go beyond that. Our claim is one that others do not even think to make because it’s based on LDS theology that is unique. We do not just claim Christianity back to Christ but to a time long before then. We claim our religion, our Christianity, is a continuation from our life before we came to earth. Some of the specific practices in the LDS Church might not be a continuation of pre-mortal life but the priesthood authority is. Further, the doctrines are continuations of what was taught before we came to earth. In essence, much of our current Church organization and our doctrines are mirrors of what was and is done and taught in Heaven.

The fact that we lived with Heavenly Father before we came to earth might seem strange to many people but it is central to the gospel of Christ and LDS theology (which really are the same). Many do not think it strange to think that they will live forever more after this life but to think that we lived before this life is foreign to most people. Why is this? It stems in part from the creation story as found in the Bible. Over the years the understanding of the process of the creation was lost as was the understanding of our relationship to God. People started viewing humankind as creations of God rather than as sons and daughters. This means that many view people as no more than clay in God’s hands, rather than as His progeny. While it is true that we are God’s creations, our physical bodies are imbued with the bodies of our spirits. Together – body and spirit – we are in the likeness and image of God. We are more than just creations, we are His children with the potential to grow to become like Him. What a beautiful promise – the son, the daughter, can grow up to be like the father and mother!

I digressed in order to provide a foundation for the LDS claim to historical Christianity. We claim that our Christianity is pre-creedal. It pre-dates Christ’s mortal ministry. In the pre-earth life Heavenly Father presented a plan to all His children. It provided an opportunity for us to gain physical bodies and learn and grow to become more like Him. However, knowing that we would all fall short, God provided a means for us to return – through His Son Jesus Christ. This sacrifice was to be eternal and infinite so that it would help us overcome death and sin. All the prophets from the beginning of time taught this – the centrality of Christ. Even the Mosaic law pointed toward Christ but over time, the understanding of the role of Christ was lost. Jewish leaders changed the law. The Mosaic Law became an end to itself, rather than a means to Christ.

Christ came to earth to restore that which was lost – authority and organization and ordinances. However, following His death it did not take long for His authority and the truths of His gospel to be lost and changed. In the darkness of apostasy, committee replaced prophecy and revelation. Creeds and consensus counterfeited canon and calling. The scriptural canon was declared closed instead of continually expanding; it was closed for a time because God’s authority was lost but scripture was never meant to be God’s final word. God has always used prophets to declare His word. There have been times without prophets because of apostasy but we are no longer without living prophets. With the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, the canon burst open with radiant rays of truth. Once again there was authority on the earth. The truths of the gospel that had been lost or taken away were once again on the earth. The organization of the church was restored to what existed in the primitive church. The gospel was restored in fulness, including the ordinances and blessings of the temple:

“And verily I say unto you, let this house [the temple] be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people; for I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times” (Doctrine & Covenants 124: 40-41).

We are living in a time when things that have been hidden (not generally available to the world) from before the creation of the earth are now on earth. We Mormons claim a heritage that extends back an eternity and will continue for an eternity. Our Christianity dates from that established by our Heavenly Father in a life before this one. We have a heritage directly from God. This heritage is tied to the priesthood authority that God restored to Joseph Smith.