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.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Plainest Book Ever Written

            In 1843, the Prophet Joseph made a remark that probably came across as somewhat strange, when he declared that “the book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever In 1843, the Prophet Joseph made a remark that probably came across as somewhat strange, when he declared that “the book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” As on so many other matters, what Joseph Smith said does not match the prevailing opinion, either in the wider world, or within modern Mormonism.

In my experience, most Latter-day Saints, like Christians in general, shy away from the Apocalypse of John, confessing that it is too hard for them to understand. The book is seldom read or studied. If confronted with Joseph’s statement, these Mormons might say that, even though Revelation is a very difficult book, Joseph was able to understand it because he was a prophet.

Except that Joseph Smith didn’t say that Revelation was a confusing book which he himself, on account of his unusual spiritual enlightenment, was able to make sense of. He said that it was one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.

I happen to believe Joseph Smith on this point.

The first time I read Revelation was when I was eight or nine years old. I had received my own Bible at the time of my baptism, after which I slowly worked my way through Genesis. I wasn’t very good at understanding what I read – I could follow the creation and flood narratives, but KJV dialogue is a bit tough when you think that ‘nay’ is nothing more than the sound a horse makes, and circumcision went completely over my head. After finishing Genesis, I became impatient and wanted to see the end of the story – so the next thing I read was Revelation.

As with Genesis, I didn’t really follow most of it. But I remembered the otherworldly throne-room scenes with many-eyed beasts singing praises to God; I remembered the end of the world, with the wicked being destroyed by ghastly and unbeatable plagues, and I remembered how, even in the midst of these plagues, the survivors “yet repented not of the works of their hands.”

That last notion scared me – I was afraid that, if these events happened in my lifetime, then even though I would know the end was near, I would be incapable of repenting.

And all these years later, I still believe that what I got out of the book as a nine-year-old was the plain and simply truth. God is enthroned in the heavens, surrounded by glory that doesn’t make sense to man. Sooner or later, the world will end amid splendiferous calamities.

And throughout all this, the wicked would refuse to repent, although I no longer see this last point as a matter of spellbound men who can’t repent even though they desperately want to, but of men who, through long experience rejecting their God, have lost the ability to desire anything better.

I have read the book of Revelation many more times since then, each time understanding a little more of it. And I still believe that it is the plainest book in the Bible.

But what about all those beasts? You might ask. And the signs of the end times? Which of the catastrophes are occurring in the world today? Which have yet to come?

Except that I haven’t tried to answer those questions. Matching up the seals and plagues to the current news cycle is usually done by the same sort of people who predict the world will end in their own lifetime. Every generation of Christians has had people who thought like this, and so far, they’ve all been wrong – which shouldn’t surprise any of us, since Jesus told us that we don’t get to know the timing of the his return.

And the same sort of Christians that go about tying the seven last plagues to events they saw on the nightly news will also pile on evidence that the beasts are representations of their favorite political enemies. This science seems to have been perfected by the late Robert W. Faid, a nuclear engineer from South Carolina who won the Ignoble Prize in Mathematics for publishing a book in which he calculated the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1) that Mikhail Gorbechev is the Antichrist.

I would argue that the descriptions of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet which John provides are a bit too vague to support such firm conclusions. These things are symbols to be understood, not codes to be deciphered.

What we do know is that the Beast will persecute Christians, and many will suffer martyrdom for not worshiping him. So we can either look at all the centuries of Christians who have endured such things and say, ‘you were persecuted by ordinary enemies, but in my time, we will be persecuted by the Beast of Revelation himself,’ or else we can conclude that the Beast is a symbol of all earthly powers that war against the Saints, and that one generation of Christians has as good a claim at being up against the Beast as the next. The message of Revelation is aimed at Christian men, women, and children throughout the centuries whose hearts are pointed toward God; it was not written for the benefit of a handful of mathematicians.

What of the number of the beast, six hundred and threescore and six? Well, on my second reading of Revelation (I didn’t know what a ‘score’ was the first time around) I simply understood it to mean that 666 is a symbol of the Devil and ought to be avoided. I suppose that at some point in the future, some tyrant will demand that his subjects be branded with the number 666, and a few of them will refuse and lose their lives over it.

Also, at the present time there are thousands of milquetoast American Christians driving around with that number on the backs of their cars, even though there is still enough religious freedom left in this country that they could easily go to the DMV and demand new license plates.

But leaving aside the favorite topics of debate, I will say that every time I study Revelation I see more plain and precious truths. I can’t go over them all in a single blog post, but I’ll talk about a few.

One thing I remember is how, when the Two Prophets are slain in Jerusalem, the wicked celebrate by giving gifts to one other. The idea of present-giving to celebrate a death seemed very bizarre to me at the time; then Margaret Thatcher died, and it was in the news that a lot of Brits who had hated her were taking advantage of the occasion to give presents to each other. Not exactly a fulfillment of prophecy, but it does show the level of depravity to which our world has sunk.

When Babylon the Great falls, and the plumes of her smoke are seen from afar off on the oceans, there will be a lot of mourning for her. But it isn’t lamentation on account of all the death and human misery that such an event entails; it is, rather, a pathetic spectacle wherein “the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.”

Nearly half of Chapter 18, which describes Babylon’s fall, is about the merchants and all their fine goods that Babylon will no longer purchase. The whole mood fits in quite well with modern American politics, where the magnitude of human death inflicted through abortion and undeclared wars takes second place to the ups and downs of the stock market as the driver of national emotion.

And then there is my favorite Bible verse, Revelation 3:17, part of Christ’s rebuke to the lukewarm Church at Laodicea: “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.”

Why would I choose that as my favorite verse? Because I have experience with thinking that my conduct is pleasing to God, and then realizing that I am wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

What I have time to write here only scratches the surface of my insights from studying Revelation – and I won’t even go into some of the connections I made when I began looking at the text in the original Greek. Suffice it to say that there is a lot to be learned from what John wrote, and like any book of scripture, you will get more out of it the more you study it.

But you don’t need to worry that studying Revelation will be too difficult. The Prophet Joseph said that it is plain, and easy to understand. And even when I was a small child, I grasped the basic message of the book: The wicked have no hope of victory, and although the faithful Saints will suffer great tribulations, in the end, Jesus wins.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Joseph's Letter to the Relief Society

In my studies of the history of Joseph Smith and the religion he restored, I will from time to time come across source documents important enough that I feel I ought to reproduce them here. This particular letter is addressed to Emma and the Relief Society, dated 31 March 1842.  You can read the original in the Joseph Smith Papers here; my version has had the strike-throughs cleared out, a few words de-abbreviated, and the spelling and grammar modernized.

The letter does not mention polygamy by name, due to the stronger taboos which prevailed in those days against calling licentious things by name in public. Nonetheless, when the Prophet declared that "we don’t want anybody to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals and virtues and scriptural laws regulating the habits customs and conduct of Society," everyone knew what was meant.  

To the President of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Greeting:

Can the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo be trusted with some important matters that ought actually to belong to them to see to which men have been under the necessity of seeing to their chagrin and mortification in order to prevent iniquitous characters from carrying their iniquity into effect? Such as, for instance, a man who may be aspiring after power and authority and yet without principle, regardless of God, man or the Devil, or the interest or welfare of men, or the virtue or innocence of women? Shall the credulity, good faith, and steadfast feelings of our Sisters for the cause of God or truth be imposed upon by believing such men because they say they have authority from Joseph or the first Presidency, or any other Presidency of the church, and thus with a lie in their mouth deceive and debauch the innocent under the assumption that they are authorized from these sources?! May God forbid!

A knowledge of some such thing having come to our ears we improve this favorable opportunity, wherein so goodly number of you may be informed that no such authority ever has, ever can, or ever will be given to any man, and if any man has been guilty of any such thing, let him be treated with utter contempt, and let the curse of God fall on his head, and let him be turned out of Society as unworthy of a place among men, and denounced as the blackest and the most unprincipled wretch, and finally let him be damned.

We have been informed that some unprincipled men, whose names we will not mention at present, have been guilty of such crimes: we do not mention their names, not knowing but what there may be some among you who are not sufficiently skilled in Masonry as to keep a secret; therefore suffice it to say there are those, and we therefore warn you and forewarn you in the name of the Lord to check and destroy any faith that any innocent person may have in any such character, for we don’t want anybody to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals and virtues and scriptural laws regulating the habits customs and conduct of Society, unless it be by message delivered to you by our own mouth, by actual revelation and commandment.

And all persons pretending to be authorized by us, or having any permit or sanction from us, are and will be liars and base impostors and you are authorized on the very first intimation of the kind to denounce them as such shun them as the fiery flying serpents, whether they are Prophets, Seers, or Revelators, Patriarchs, Twelve Apostles, Elders, Priests, Mayors, Generals, City Council, Alderman, Marshall, Police, Lord Mayor or the Devil, are alike culpable. and shall be damned for such evil practices; and if you yourselves adhere to any thing of the kind, you also shall be damned.

Now beloved Sisters, do not believe for a moment that we wish to impose upon you; we actually do know that such things have existed in the church, and are sorry that we are obliged to make mention of any such thing, and we want a stop put to them. And we want you to do your part, and we will do ours, for we wish to keep the commandments of God in all things as given directly from heaven to us, living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.

May God add his blessings upon your head and lead you in all the paths of virtue, piety, and peace, that you may be an ornament unto those to whom you belong, and arise up and crown them with power and by so doing you shall be crowned with honor in heaven & shall sit upon thrones, judging them whom you are placed in authority  over in the world, and shall be judged of God for all the responsibilities that are conferred upon you.

At a more convenient and appropriate season we will give you further information upon this subject.

We are your humble servants in the bonds of the New and Everlasting Covenant. Let that epistle be had as a private matter in your society, and then we shall learn whether you are good Masons.

Joseph Smith, P. C. J. C. L.
B. Young, Prest. Twelve

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...