Sunday, February 9, 2020

Book Review: No Man Knows My History

Fawn McKay Brodie was born in Ogden, Utah in 1915. She grew up in the LDS church (her uncle, David O. McKay, would eventually become church president) but drifted away from the religion while studying at the University of Utah and the University of Chicago. She married fellow-student Bernard Brodie, a Latvian Jew, and went on to become a renowned biographer and a professor at UCLA. The subjects of her five biographies were Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, Sir Richard Burton, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Nixon.

As one might expect, her biography of Joseph Smith, published in 1945 and entitled ‘No Man Knows My History’ after a quotation from the King Follett Sermon, is the most well-known and controversial within the Latter Day Saint movement. Meanwhile, secular opinion of Brodie’s book is rather high; it is generally considered to be the first serious work on Joseph’s life that isn’t a hagiography.

“In official Mormon biographies he has been made a prophet of greater stature than Moses,” writes Brodie in her Preface. “Nineteenth century preachers made him a lecherous rouge, and twentieth century chroniclers have been bemused with what they diagnosed as paranoiac delusions.”

Brodie makes it clear early on that she intends to go in a different direction than her simplistic predecessors, but she admits the great difficulty of searching through a baffling array of historical documents for “the inner springs of [Joseph’s] character.”

Because Brodie took it as a given that Joseph never saw an angel or translated the golden plates, most Mormons have naturally held a dim view of her work, echoing the sentiments of the Improvement Era, whose review bluntly said that the book “of no interest to Latter-day Saints who have correct knowledge of the history of Joseph Smith.”

As someone who believes that Joseph Smith really was called by the Lord, you might expect me to be equally uninterested in Brodie’s biography. Well, I’m not. Some people turn pale and shrink away from challenging information, as they say something about how we should always turn to “faith promoting sources.” I don’t share that attitude. To put it bluntly: if you don’t have the courage to look at a thing from a lot of different perspectives, then you shouldn’t be putting your faith in it.

So I read Fawn Brodie’s book. It is not an anti-Mormon screed. While it is obvious that Fawn Brody is no longer a Mormon herself and does not believe Joseph’s claims to divine powers, she doesn’t go out of her way to paint him as a bad man. Early on in the book Brodie quotes an anti-Mormon source who said that Joseph’s character was “vicious;” she states that this is untrue, and throughout the book relates many accounts of what she sees as his genuine love for and compassion towards his people.

Apparently she sees Joseph starting out as a natural leader with a talent for spinning tales, who was willing to do anything to escape the grinding poverty of the indebted New England farmers among whom he had been born and raised. As more and more people flocked to the religion that the young man had founded, he came to think grander and grander things about himself, and the rest of Mormon history played out accordingly.

It seems very improbable, to me, that a reader could believe every story that Brodie relates about Joseph Smith, and still believe that Joseph was what he claimed to be. On the other hand, Brodie doesn’t shy away from including stories that support Joseph’s prophethood. For instance, the story of Mary Whitmer’s unexpected encounter with an angel who showed her the Golden Plates is included, as is the story of how Joseph healed Elsa Johnson’s lame arm at Kirtland; neither does Brodie neglect to reproduce, in full, Joseph’s famous prophecy about a great war that would one day begin in South Carolina.

If your experience reading Fawn Brodie is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself going back and forth between saying: “If that is true then I cannot be a Mormon,” and “If I’m not a Mormon, then how in the world did Joseph do it?”

For instance, Brodie spends a whole chapter describing the clever structuring, feats of memory and imagination, and shrewd foresight that went into the composition of the Book of Mormon, which she describes as “one of the earliest examples of frontier fiction, the first long Yankee narrative that owes nothing to English literary fashions.”

“Non-Mormons attempting psychiatric analyses have been content,” she writes, “to pin a label upon the youth and have ignored his greatest creative achievement because they found it dull. Dull it is, in truth, but not formless, aimless, or absurd. Its structure shows elaborate design, its narrative is spun coherently, and it demonstrates throughout a unity of purpose. Its matter is drawn directly from the American frontier, from the impassioned revivalist sermons, the popular fallacies about Indian origin, and the current political crusades.”

Then, no sooner than he had finished dictating this “first long Yankee narrative” in the space of some sixty days, Joseph took the Three Witnesses out into the woods and put them under a lifelong mesmeric spell, creating in them an illusion strong enough that they would all vigorously defend their testimony of the Golden Plates after they had fallen out with Joseph and found themselves excommunicated from his church. (Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris eventually rejoined the church under Brigham Young, while David Whitmer, after Joseph’s death, gathered up some fellow anti-polygamist Mormons and led the Whitmerite church).

Did Joseph have any prior experience with casting mesmeric spells? No, no more than he had any with dictating long books. But that was no obstacle to him.

One amusing detail of Fawn Brodie’s treatment of the Book of Mormon is that, even though she devotes three chapters to it, an astute reader can tell that she probably hasn’t read it since her childhood in Utah. She says, for instance, that Joseph included an autobiographical detail when he made Nephi the third of the six sons in his family, and that the Jaredites were almost an afterthought, their history given in a rushed summary at the back of the book to allay the concerns of any readers who might be aware that the America’s were inhabited earlier than 600 BC. (In reality the Jaredites are mentioned all over in the text, with the narrator promising to get to their story in due time).

A similar mistake occurs when Brodie describes the Book of Abraham as the source of the belief that blacks are an inferior race. While the Book of Abraham claims that the Egyptian pharaohs belong to a cursed lineage, black skin is never mentioned as having anything to do with it. But Brodie can perhaps be forgiven for this; after all, the leaders of the LDS church at the time she wrote were saying the same thing.

But weighty speculation on the nature and meaning of Joseph’s sacred texts is far from the whole of what Brodie gives us; indeed, much of her book is full of good frontier stories of the sort that could make the reader wish he had lived among “the long-forgotten realities of religion and politics between 1805 and 1844.”

“Permeating the military atmosphere was the stern discipline of the gospel,” writes Brodie in the midst of her chapter on Zion’s Camp. “Every night before retiring Joseph blew a blast upon a sacred ram’s horn, and his men knelt in prayer for succor and guidance. Minor miracles were a daily occurrence. Parley Pratt, who was frequently separated from the army on recruiting trips, said that an angel awakened him one morning when oversleeping would have meant disaster. Martin Harris offered his naked toe to a five-foot black snake in the road, and when it refused to bite him proclaimed an apostolic victory over the serpent. When he repeated the experiment with another snake and got a severe bite on the ankle, the company jeered uproariously at his lack of faith, and Joseph publicly upbraided him for making a mockery of the Lord’s gifts.”

I think it rather unfortunate that, towards the end of the book when Joseph’s mayorship in Nauvoo produced a sea of historical documents and written recollections of such majestic variety that one could find among them the makings of any kind of story at all, Brodie chose to cite mainly anecdotes that are on the verge of make Joseph out to be an egotistical madman. The theme of these chapters seems to be best summed up in the account of a conversation that Joseph, by then General of the Nauvoo Legion as well as Mayor, had with Josiah Quincy:

QUINCY: General Smith, it seems to me that you have too much power to be safely trusted in one man.

SMITH: In your hands, or that of any other man, so much power would no doubt be dangerous. I am the only man in the world whom it would be safe to trust with it. Remember, I am a prophet.

Describing Fawn Brodie’s book from every angle is too long a task for this blog. Suffice it to say that No Man Knows My History is a book that I believe every thinking Mormon should read. We shouldn’t feel the need to worry about “faithful” versus “critical” biographers. Any man can look good if the storyteller has no other goal besides making him look good.

If we are really interested in the life and work of Joseph Smith, then we ought to take the time to look at the man in every light. Perhaps, by doing so, we can get an idea of where the “faithful” narrative seems strained, versus where it’s the “critical” one that leaves the inquiring mind with more questions than answers. And if you believe that Joseph Smith's ministry really did begin with a heavenly vision and a call from Jesus, then you shouldn’t be worried about Joseph’s version of events always getting worsted.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Some Remarks on the Josephites


One of the consequences of belonging to the largest branch of Mormonism is that you can go through life knowing little or nothing about the other branches. But when you’re looking at things from the bottom up, you don’t have that luxury. So while the Josephites are familiar with the story of how, after the martyrdom of the Prophet, Brigham Young led most of his followers away to practice polygamy in the Utah wilderness, the Brighamites, for the most part, know almost nothing about the faction that gathered around the Prophet’s wife and children, and eventually made his son, Joseph Smith III, their President.

My (tentative) association with such a small branch of the Latter Day Saint movement has led me into a lot of long-winded explanations of its history and doctrines. The interest in this movement seems to be enough to justify giving an outline of what I know about the Josephites so far.

The Josephites, or ‘Eastern Mormons,’ with whom I associate are a rather small group that originated from a schism in the RLDS church in 1984. The name of ‘Josephites’ was originally applied to all of the followers of Joseph Smith III in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Prior to 1873, they simply called themselves ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ just like their rivals out west, but Joseph III added the word ‘reorganized’ to distinguish themselves from the Utah sect, whose practice of polygamy was eating up all the attention in the press.

The Reorganized Church was led by Joseph III until his death in 1914, and was headquartered in Missouri. Joseph III had seventeen children by three wives (he was not a polygamist; he just outlived the first two), and three of his sons led the church after him; the last retired in 1978.

At first, the RLDS church was distinguished from the LDS church mainly by its rejection of polygamy and of Brigham Young’s racial doctrine, neither of which were believed to have originated with the Prophet Joseph. It also had a different succession mechanism, reserving the presidency as well as the patriarchate for descendants of Joseph Smith.

In the late 20th century, the leaders of the RLDS church began to drift away from the original doctrines, making every effort to transform their denomination into an ordinary, liberal protestant church. They stopped believing in the Book of Mormon, abandoned their claim that Joseph Smith was a monogamist, and finally, in 1984, voted to ordain women to the priesthood.

The vote at the 1984 general conference wasn’t unanimous, but the yeas carried. This became the beginning of a schism, as traditionalists in their various wards all voted in the negative every time a woman was presented for ordination, which led to the leadership purging them out of the church; even eight-year-old children were tried before disciplinary councils, as this was the only way to get them out of the voting population.

After these events, what was left of the RLDS church experienced a complete reversal of fortunes. Before then, it had grown at about the same rate as the LDS church in Utah, keeping pace with about one seventh of the larger church’s membership for over a century. Now, it is only one fiftieth as large. Nor was ordaining woman the last change in doctrines; the church continued to morph and dissipate as it gave its presidency and patriarchate to men who were not related to Joseph Smith, began marrying homosexuals, and eventually changed its name to “Community of Christ.”

As for those who were cast out in the Schism of 1984, some, having lost the church of their youth, simply disappeared into secular society, others dissented over to the Brighamites, and yet others, refusing to either give up their faith in the Book of Mormon, or to unite with the spiritual progeny of the polygamists, formed independent Restoration Branches devoted to living the original doctrine as best they could, though they do not claim authority to ordain any offices higher than elder.

All of this led the priest from whom I first learned about the Josephites to conclude: “Satan must really hate our church.”

Members of these Restoration Branches, which I have been investigating since early this year, number somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 worldwide, and are most numerous in the midwestern United States, especially Missouri, though they also have congregations in Kenya, the Philippines, and Latin America, and a very small presence in Europe.

Even so, the Eastern Mormons are few and far between. The congregation whose meetings I have been attending numbers about a dozen on a good week, and it’s an hour’s drive from Lafayette to Bainbridge to get there. When we desire to meet in larger groups, we have to travel to reunions. I attended one of these in Ohio in June; about 50 people were present. For news of the global progress of the movement, they publish a periodical called Tidings of Zion.

The Josephites that I have met are very friendly and hospitable – just like with the Western Mormons, any place you can find a community of them is a place you can expect to be fed and sheltered. The winnowing process of the 1984 schism and subsequent need to rebuild from an extremely scattered state has left a membership with more than the usual level of commitment to their religion. At the same time, they are very suspicious of centralized authority, and view attempts to unite the Restoration Branches under a single corporate structure as a dangerous heresy.

Throughout all this, they are happy to point out that theirs is the branch of Mormonism that has been the most careful to follow the original doctrines, whether that be the doctrine on polygamy (they’ve always been against it), the ordination of blacks (always for it), the ordination of women (always against it), or homosexuality (again, always against it). From their point of view, both the Brighamite (LDS) church and the post-schism RLDS church are guilty of repeatedly changing their doctrines in order to appease the wider society.

One of the less-than-ideal aspects of the Restoration Branches is that they seem to have forgotten about some of the more eccentric teachings of Joseph Smith; even their priests usually can’t tell you what the Book of Abraham or the King Follett Sermon are. To be fair, the Brighamites in Utah are also capable of forgetting history – i.e. Joseph Smith’s many clear commands to the Saints to not believe anyone who claimed that he was secretly authorizing polygamy.

The difference, at least as I see it, is that among the Josephites a wider range of beliefs seems to be tolerated. In other words, most of them may have forgotten about a particular teaching of Joseph Smith, but if a minority still believes it, there’s nobody in a position to tell them not to.

It’s also ironic to note that the Josephites share the Mormon myth of the Council in Heaven and the rival plans of salvation, even though most of them don’t remember that this originally came from the Book of Abraham.

On the whole, I have a favourable opinion of the Josephites, though I have not met as many of them, or learned as much about their practices, as I would like. For example, I have yet to meet or talk with anyone involved in their foreign missionary work, something in which I am very much interested.

As I learn more about this little-known branch of Mormonism, I will be sharing my findings on this blog. I think it’s our responsibility to find out everything we can about all of the religious traditions who share our belief that Joseph Smith had a message from the Lord, and that the Christian faith can best be lived by those who heed that message.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Best Evidence For Joseph's Monogamy


There is a general attitude, among both the Brighamites and the secular world, that people such as myself who believe that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a monogamist simply don’t care what the historical evidence says – the evidence in question being merely that a lot of people said Joseph had multiple wives. Meanwhile, the search for something more conclusive – either a genetic link to a child born of a polygamous marriage, or a document authorizing polygamy written in Joseph’s own hand – has turned up empty on both counts.

 But even lacking such supports for their own claims, these people still manage to wave away any protestations that Joseph might have told the truth about having no wife but Emma. Cite any piece of history that favors the prophet’s honesty, and they’ll just ignore it and say something like “your only evidence is a closed mind.” And curiously enough, TBMs who deride us for not following the consensus of secular scholars on this matter are still perfectly willing to reject the secular consensus that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction.

While I could go on at length about the contradictory alibis – how the people who claim that Joseph had instructed them to take many wives changed their stories often enough to thoroughly discredit themselves – or how all the children born to the alleged plural marriages have been turned out, after genetic testing, to not be Joseph’s, I think that there’s one oft-overlooked point that might be the best piece of evidence for Joseph’s monogamy.

None of the women who claimed to be Joseph’s wives ever became anti-Mormons.

Now, this isn’t the case with all of his alleged wives. There were plenty of women, such as Fanny Alger and Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, who are included in lists of Joseph’s wives, and who later left the church. But for them, all the evidence is second-hand – rumors, essentially – and the women themselves never said anything about being married to Joseph Smith.

The women who actually made such claims for themselves, like Eliza R. Snow and Helen Mar Kimball, were all, by that time, the plural wives of Brigham Young and the other higher-ups in the Utah Church. Furthermore, they didn’t go public with their stories until the 1870s, when the doctrine of polygamy was under attack from the Reorganized Church and the Brighamites needed to gather up evidence to defend it.

These women’s affidavits were used to bolster the Utah Church’s claims during the Temple Lot Suit, in which the Utah Church and the Reorganized Church each argued that it was the rightful continuation of the religion that Joseph Smith had founded. Judge John F. Philipps, approaching the matter as an impartial fact-finder, rejected the evidence for polygamy as unreliable and sided with the RLDS.

These disputes might have gone very differently if even one woman had had a polygamous relationship with Joseph Smith, came away from it feeling hurt and abused, and gone public about her bad experience with Mormonism. But this never happened.

 The same cannot be said about Brigham Young and his harem. Even among Brighamite apologists, there’s no concealing the fact that some of Brigham’s wives eventually became bitter toward him and the Church and turned into enemies of Mormonism. That is certainly what happened with many of Brigham Young's wives, such as Ann Eliza Webb, who became a minor celebrity with her caustic memoir Wife No. 19.

Granted, there were plenty of non-Mormons and ex-Mormons who accused Joseph of polygamy back in the Nauvoo days, but it's one thing to spew calumnies against someone you hate, and quite another thing to denounce an embarrassing relationship of which you were once a part. There were women who did the latter for Brigham, but not for Joseph, and this seems, in my mind, to be one of the strongest evidences for Joseph's monogamy.

Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball each had more than forty wives; each produced at least as many children, and both endured vitriolic denunciations from former wives who had become grossly dissatisfied with the whole business. Joseph, according to the LDS church, also had dozens of wives, and yet those relationships produced zero children, and zero angry exes.

As I see it, the simplest way to account for that evidence is to conclude that Joseph simply wasn’t doing what Brigham and Heber were doing. Or in other words, that Joseph told the truth.

And for those of us who, like myself, believe that Joseph was a messenger of Christ and that the Lord chooses honest men to do his labors, that shouldn’t be a conclusion that we need to feel shy about.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

God Reveals Himself Through Narrative


         September 22 is a holy day within my faith, for it is a day of beginnings and of endings: the beginning of the Prophet Joseph’s work – and hopefully yours and mine as well – of bringing the Book of Mormon to all people. And the end of the ‘awful state of blindness’ in which the gentiles had been left by the loss of so many ‘plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb.’

And if you approach this holiday from the perspective of Sacred Time (a concept which has, sadly, been almost lost today) you just might experience it as a time of beginnings and endings in another way as well.

As night fell on the Sept. 21, the 196th anniversary of the angel Moroni’s appearance to the young Prophet, I read Moroni’s awful tale of the destruction of his people, when thousands of them were ‘hewn down in open rebellion against their God, and heaped up as dung upon the face of the land.’ And then, a week later, having finished the book and turning back to the beginning, my eyes once more took in those old, familiar words, ‘I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….’

From the perspective of the Nephites, time moved in cycles: their history as a nation began when their God led them out of captivity; they would prosper so long as they kept his commandments, and they would suffer when they forgot who it was that had delivered them in times past. But in the times of prosperity, pride always crept in after a little while, and so the people cycled in and out of God’s favor until, at last, they took their wickedness too far, turned away one too many chances to repent, and were destroyed from off the face of the Earth. Then God would bring in another people to possess the land, and the cycle would continue.

Meanwhile, amid all the toil and contention and bloodshed, and the sound and fury of rising and falling civilizations, the Savior stands with open arms to receive anybody who will forsake Babylon and all its works and choose the things of the Spirit.

That is the story which the Book of Mormon tells over and over again. To me, as a believer in Mormonism, it’s one of the most important stories ever told. And yet I don’t expect the summary I just gave to hold any weight for someone who hasn’t already read the book like I have, because there are just some things that can’t be reduced to any terms simpler than themselves. Scripture, and history in general, is one of those things.

And that finally brings me around to the central point of this whole post, namely, that God reveals himself through narrative.

The Bible doesn’t begin with a list of God’s attributes, or a list of his commandments, or a list of virtues and vices, or a list of things that people have to believe in order to be saved. Rather, its first words are simply ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.’

And that’s where you have to start if you want to understand what’s going on. You can’t simply say that since the Four Gospels contain the story of the ministry of the Lord himself, they overshadow the rest of the scriptures. You have to start in the beginning, when God gave his creatures life, and move from there to the covenant with Abraham, and the law of Moses, and on through the other events in their proper order, because Christ the Redeemer can only appear where Christ the Creator and Christ the Lawgiver have already tread.

At the most basic level, the scriptures are a history of God’s dealings with men. They’re not sacred because they’re infallible, nor because they form an ideal and complete picture of what our faith ought to be. They’re sacred because of their subject matter. God has chosen to reveal himself through narrative, and the Bible and Book of Mormon are the narratives that we’ve got.

People who try to reduce Mormonism, or any form of the Christian religion, to creeds, listings of the tenets of the faith, or encyclopedic compendia of doctrine will always produce only a pale imitation of the rich stories in which God is truly revealed.

And that is the reason why starting another annual reading of the Book of Mormon with those some words, ‘I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…’ brought me as much light and joy last Sunday as it did when I first got my own Book of Mormon at the age of eight.

There are some people in the church today who try to introduce investigators to the Book of Mormon starting with a few quotes cut out of 3 Nephi 11, under the impression that because that’s where Jesus appears in person at the temple in Bountiful, it must be the most important part. But when you really understand the importance of scripture-as-narrative, you can’t think that way. Mormon began the record with Lehi’s vision for a reason, and back in the days of Joseph Smith, when the new religion was able to grow from six believers to 25,000 in just fourteen years, each of those new converts began his or her faith journey with Father Lehi, the pillar of fire that dwelt on a rock, and the vision of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Is Christ absent from that vision? Of course not! The very first chapter states that the things which Lehi ‘read in the book manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.’ But Christ is revealed gradually, through narrative, in the thousand year story of a people who tried, at some times more sincerely than at others, to live by his commandments and walk in his light. The Lord’s personal appearances are brief, but the whole Nephite record is his story, and the whole Book of Mormon is his word.

And that holistic understanding of scripture-as-narrative will, I believe, do a much better job of bringing souls to Christ than any attempt to reduce our beliefs to a few vignettes, lists, creeds, or declarations of doctrine, no matter how Christ-centered they purport to be.

And that’s why, for me, drawing near to Jesus consists, in large part, of lighting my candle tomorrow evening, opening up my old Book of Mormon to the second weekly portion, and immersing myself in the tale of Lehi and Nephi and their wanderings in the desert.

Because that tale is how God has chosen to reveal himself to me.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

June 27


         The centrality of the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith to my faith should require no explanation. There are some people who complain that Mormons focus too much on Joseph Smith rather than on the Lord, but I disagree. If Joseph was not a messenger of Jesus, there is no purpose in following any branch of Mormonism. But if he was, then he deserves our respect and reverence.

During his ministry, Jesus made it clear that he held the prophets who testified of him, and especially those who paid for their testimony with their blood, in the highest regard. It has been my belief for a while now that the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph – of which today is the 175th anniversary – is not given enough weight among present-day Mormons.

Part of the problem is simply that the whole of modern society has forgotten how to mourn. That is why we are more likely to see commemorations of Joseph Smith on his birthday on 23 December, even though it has always been Christian tradition to celebrate the saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom. And this is, I think, related to the reason why modern America has no holidays dedicated to fasting and mourning: even the ones like Memorial Day that originally had a somber tone are now just another excuse to take the day off of work, shop, and eat.

But I think that another part of it is that modern Mormons, used to living in the days of smooth transitions from one aged church president to the next, have forgotten how much of a shock the death of the Prophet Joseph was to the early saints, who had no expectation that revelation would continue without him - see, for example, this epistle from the Twelve Apostles, published in Times and Seasons on 15 Aug 1844.

“Forasmuch as the saints have been called to suffer deep affliction and persecution, and also to mourn the loss of our Prophet and also our patriarch, who have suffered a cruel martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus... You are now without a prophet present with you in the flesh to guide you; but you are not without apostles, who hold the keys of power...

“Let no man presume for a moment that his place will be filled by another; for, remember he stands in his own place, and always will; and the twelve apostles of this dispensation stand in their own place and always will, both in time and in eternity, to minister, preside and regulate the affairs of the whole church.”

The Twelve were trying their best to reassure the Saints that the work could go on without Joseph, but even so, none of them yet claimed to actually be a prophet like Joseph was.

If, for some reason, the Mormon church had a fixed lectionary like the Catholics and Anglicans do, and if, for some reason, I was in charge of choosing the reading for 27 June, I think I would go with the 3rd chapter of Lamentations, the one that begins:

“I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

“He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.

“Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day. ...


Friday, June 7, 2019

Christianity – A Religion of Guilt

            One of the problems with the spiritual condition of the modern world is that so many people are seeking guilt-free forms of spirituality, both within and outside of Christian churches. Those who have abandoned traditional denominations often talk of how happy they are to have left their feelings of guilt behind – and in response, some people try to defend Christianity by burying the role of guilt in the Lord’s gospel. But such a quest is futile: Christianity, when practiced correctly, is a religion of guilt.

            The scripture says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” It is natural for someone who discovers that he has harmed his fellow man, or neglected his duties, or defiled something pure, to feel an awful sense of guilt when he realizes what he has done.

We all do such things from time to time, and only a blockheaded fool can fail to see the ill effects that his shortcomings have in his own life and the lives of others.

In light of this, no Christian can claim to be truly righteous. We can at best claim to be Godfearing – that is, when we realize we have made a mistake, we repent and change course. But we do not see our errors as soon as we ought, and we don’t change course as fully as we ought, so we aren’t really righteous.

Christians are not unique among religions for believing in the concepts of sin and repentance. Muslims, too, believe that men have been called to repentance, beginning with Adam, who obtained forgiveness for eating the forbidden fruit. The process is fairly straightforward: a man regrets his wrongdoing, repents, and changes his ways, and God forgives him.

But that paradigm is too straightforward for Christians, who insist on adding another step, in which God must send his only Son to suffer and die for their sins. In other words, a Christian feels his guilt so intensely that it isn’t enough for God merely to say that the sin has been forgiven. No, the only way that sin is going away is for God himself to come to Earth and SUFFER.

The concept of the atonement is difficult to understand for unbelievers, who are often baffled at the idea of a God who is willing to forgive sins if and only if an innocent man is punished in the sinner’s place. But I do not think that is quite how it works – rather, I believe that Jesus had to suffer in order to gain the power to forgive sins. A being who has never suffered cannot grant meaningful forgiveness, and it is only by suffering the consequences of human viciousness in the way he did that the Saviour is able to forgive our acts of viciousness.

Just as Christians, in general, are united by an acute feeling of guilt for their shortcomings and a desire for forgiveness, progress in the Christian faith often consists of a man becoming increasingly aware of his guilt.

When I was young, I hadn’t quite internalized the concept that I was a sinner, and thought of myself as a righteous person because I didn’t commit the kinds of sins that the Bishop wanted to hear about – drinking, fornication, etc. But as I got older, I realized the severity of the sins I had committed, such as idleness, pride, and neglect of friends and family, to the degree that I more and more often found myself wallowing in guilt.

I was beginning to understand Christ’s rebuke to the Laodiciean Church: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”

Obviously, it isn’t right to spend all, or even most of our time wallowing in guilt. The Protestant Work Ethic requires us to be up and doing. Alma the Younger worked very hard to preach repentance and build up the Church after coming to terms with his guilt as a young man. On the other hand, Nephi, one of the workingest men in the scriptures, penned the following:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord
In showing me his great and marvelous works
My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am!
Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations
And the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice
My heart groaneth because of my sins…

To the outside observer, it seems that whatever sins Nephi committed were trivial compared to what Laman and Lemuel had done. But they weren’t trivial to Nephi. Both Nephi and his brothers had reason to feel guilt, but only Nephi felt the need to sing about it – because Nephi was a better Christian than his brothers.

            Guilt is also responsible for building Christian civilization.

         Most of the societies that have ever existed on earth are what sociologists call “shame societies.” People do what they’re supposed to because to be seen doing otherwise will bring shame on themselves and their families. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and most reformers who say they want to do away with shame are in reality only interested in destigmatizing sex sins; for example, very few people would argue that stealing should have no negative social consequences.

            But a guilt society is better than a shame society, because even though shame and fear are still necessary to control the amoral segment of the population that doesn’t feel guilt, most people, having a functioning conscience, will do the right thing even when no one is looking.

            One effect of this is in sexual equality. In a shame society, women are expected to be chaste, but men generally aren’t; this is because men have always had a much easier time hiding their infidelities, and they aren’t at risk of getting pregnant. But in a guilt society, chastity is valued in both men and women.

             Nowadays, as American civilization has dechristianized itself and abandoned both guilt and shame, we can expect its future to hold only a brutal collapse.

            In the meantime, those of us who can still feel guilt will have to make a choice. Either suppress those feelings, become an amoral being, and join the enemy – or else acknowledge our guilt and, in consequence, commit to living the rest of our lives in a radically different way, as Saint Paul did.

            When Paul saw Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, and realized how wrong he had been to persecute the Christians and consent to the martyrdom of Saint Steven, he didn’t fight the feeling of guilt and seek refuge in cheap grace – instead, he repented, and spent the rest of his life bringing forth fruits meet for repentance, in the hope that Christ would one day say to him, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

            All of Paul’s travels, and preaching, and his writings, and his sufferings for the faith, and his eventual martyrdom would not bring Saint Steven back from the dead. But they could make it so that, after Paul’s own death, he and Steven could embrace in the Celestial City with no ill will between them – only gratitude that Paul had done so much to keep and spread the faith for which Steven had lost his life.

And that is the joy that springs from the Gospel of Guilt.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Public Feast


            Some three weeks ago, the First Presidency announced a policy change – members of the church who married civilly would no longer need to wait a year before being sealed in a temple. This had been the rule already in most countries (where the authorities do not tolerate secret weddings) but not in the United States. Indeed, church magazines had often run articles praising American couples for the great sacrifice they made by marrying in the temple, even to the exclusion of their non-member relatives.

            Then came the current press release, which features a church spokeswoman from Spain talking about what a blessing it was to be able to marry in the presence of her non-member family and friends and be sealed later that day, and how glad she is that everyone will now be able to enjoy that blessing.

            This has led a lot of Latter-day Saints to question whether the “sacrifice” that they were previously asked to make was really necessary at all. Some simply chalk it up to God requiring different sacrifices of different people at different times, while others refuse to acknowledge that any good at all came from a practice which alienated so many people from the church by excluding them from their children’s weddings.

            Getting to the bottom of the matter requires us to look at what the Prophet Joseph Smith had to say about weddings. The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835, had a section (no. 101 at the time) which set forth the Church’s beliefs about marriage. Joseph didn’t write this (the assignment had gone to Oliver Cowdery) but he preached out of it during the Nauvoo years and reaffirmed that it was the only law of marriage recognized in the Church. The relevant passage reads:

According to the custom of all civilized nations, marriage is regulated by laws and ceremonies. Therefore, we believe that all marriages in this Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints should be solemnized in a public meeting or feast prepared for that purpose, and that the solemnization should be performed by a presiding high priest, high priest, bishop, elder, or priest-not even prohibiting those persons who are desirous to get married of being married by other authority.

This section is no longer a part of the Doctrine and Covenants; Brigham Young removed it during his presidency, on account of the trouble that another passage was causing for him, namely, the part that reads:

Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.

Even after polygamy was done away with, secret weddings remained a part of the program, although they were not the norm until the mid-twentieth century, when temples became more widespread and it was easier to get married and sealed at the same time.

Then, the church began penalizing couples who chose to solemnize their marriage “in a public meeting or feast prepared for that purpose.”

No doubt many thousands of people have been left with a bad impression of Mormonism as the religion which made them sit out of their son or daughter’s wedding. And those who have chosen to remain aloof from the gospel for this reason might be reasonably condemned for their hard-heartedness, if the requirement that their child marry in secret had come from God.

But as it turns out, the practice which seems repugnant to these fathers and mothers is one that was rejected by the Prophet Joseph. These people cannot be condemned for rejecting that which Joseph also rejected; therefore, the guilt for their alienation from Mormonism must lay elsewhere.

It was a good move for the leaders of the church to stop penalizing Mormons who choose to marry in public as was required in Joseph’s day. It would be a better move to restore the original law of marriage and to stop permitting secret weddings entirely.

Book Review: No Man Knows My History

Fawn McKay Brodie was born in Ogden, Utah in 1915. She grew up in the LDS church (her uncle, David O. McKay, would eventually becom...