Your Help Please: Who Was Surveilling Leonard Arrington While He Worked at BYU?

Leonard Arrington is known for producing some of the most important scholarly work on Mormonism during the twentieth-century, and for being the father or grandfather intellectually speaking of almost every historian of Mormonism over the last several decades. The first academic to be given the title “Church Historian” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (no one who previously  held the position was a trained historian), he worked in that position from 1972-1982 and was, with many of his colleagues in the history department of the LDS Church, subsequently moved to Brigham Young University to help start the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. Arrington’s departure from the historical department of the church and move to BYU came after it went public that there were disagreements and some infighting within the church hierarchy over what kind of history should be allowed to be written, who should be allowed to write it, and what kind of access to the historical manuscripts held by the church should be allowed to not only outsiders but insiders as well. This is all well documented in Arrington’s book Adventures of a Church Historian.

One interesting note that I recently came across in Arrington’s papers, that I have not seen mentioned in his diaries or a recent biography, is the possibility that Arrington was spied on while teaching at Brigham Young University in order to ensure that he wasn’t teaching anything too liberal. This is fascinating in light of the fact that at least a few employees in BYU’s Religious Education department had the same experience as recently as four years ago. If it is true that Arrington was also recorded then this suggests a decades-long tradition of BYU professors being recorded and spied on. That maybe this has happened not just every once in a while when a rogue administrator has feelings similar to Ernest Wilkinson’s, but a continuous attempt since Wilkinson to have near complete control over what is presented in the classroom.

The document itself is only a small piece of scratch paper. In Arrington’s hand the document says:

“Acc. to Jay Bell, David Handy was asked to spy on me at BYU class with a tape. 6/12/98”

I have a good idea who Jay Bell is, may he rest in peace. I do not know for sure, though, who David Handy might be. If you know who he is would you be able to share either here or send an email to yakovbentov at yahoo dot com? Thank you in advance for your help.

 

Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.

Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood

I’m sure all these things have been said before and better, but in order to satisfy my need to respond to some of the assertions presented as self-evident arguments against opening the LDS priesthood to women, I collect my responses here. Here are my top five non-arguments [with a sixth I couldn’t resist]:

1. Men and women are not the same.

2. Women have moral authority.

3. There is no scriptural precedent for ordaining women.

4. There is scriptural precedent for the denial of equal treatment of women.

5. Women have had the priesthood since 1844.

BONUS: Protests and complaints have never resulted in change or revelation.

Continue reading “Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood”

Hans Mattsson and Joseph Smith’s polygamy

The online LDS response to the NYT article describing Hans Mattsson’s struggle with doubt about the Mormon faith that he had once believed in has been interesting to watch. Most responses have been generous and sympathetic, realizing that some serious soul-searching within the community is in order, while others have been more reactionary.

One aspect of this discussion I have found particularly interesting has been the conversations that have ensued over Mattsson’s confusion and concern over Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Some immediately queried, “How could Mattsson have not known about polygamy?” Is his case simply a product of his relative ignorance about Church history and doctrine, which would have made him more vulnerable to difficult new information? Others focused more on how they have personally dealt with the uncomfortable historical data, with attitudes ranging from, “I found out about Joseph Smith’s many wives a long time ago, so now these kinds of issues don’t bother me anymore” to “Polygamy is something that I struggle with and don’t have a good explanation for.”

Still others advocate for increased inoculation efforts, with the assumption being that the more transparent the Church is about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the more we educate people early on in safer settings, the less likely they are to be broadsided with information that could lead to a severe faith crisis.

I myself am not against inoculation. In fact, I think a full-throttled institutionalized effort to be open about such issues is the only way to go. Yet I also believe that we need to go in with both eyes open, recognizing that while transparency and sensitively appropriate discussion at the right times will significantly reduce the numbers of those who feel a strong sense of betrayal by their leaders for not being more forthcoming, in the long term increased knowledge of Joseph Smith’s relationship to polygamy is also surely to have inevitable repercussions on the way we think about his prophethood and may eventually lead to substantial evolution in LDS theology. We may come to think of Joseph Smith less as a prophet with ontologically unique revelatory access to the divine will and more as a radical religious visionary whose “revelations” were a product of his own distinctive interpretive sensibilities as they interacted with the particular cultural context in which he lived.

Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society

Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society[1]

Whenever I watch the film version of the Lord of the Rings, it strikes me that Sam, Frodo’s gardener, is the real hero of the story. Although Frodo is the protagonist, the ring-holder, the champion who saves Middle-Earth, Sam was the one who stood strong when the going was rough, filled in the gaps, supported and carried Frodo when he could no longer go on. This is how I view the history of the Relief Society. Though Joseph Smith, his wife Emma, and Eliza R. Snow are remembered as “Frodos” of the Relief Society, there were also several people who filled the vital role of “Sam.” One of these is Sarah Granger Kimball. Continue reading “Sam Gamgee and the Relief Society”

Faith, Scholarship, and Teaching at BYU Series

For the series announcement and the question to which I am replying, see here.

I believe that the dichotomy between the “intellectual” and the “spiritual” in religious education is a false one. Instead, I would prefer to appropriate for my approach to this important issue the German adjective geistlich (or Hebrew ruchi): a word that sees the spiritual and the intellectual as part of a synthetic whole that also includes an appreciation for the aesthetic. I believe that by adopting this perspective one may more fully comprehend, and so more successfully fulfill, the scriptural injunction to seek God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30). Moreover, this approach attempts to eliminate the dualistic impulse that tries to separate the spirit from the material, an impulse which I believe Mormonism confronts and rejects (D&C 88:15; 131:7).

Of course, one could easily recall numerous Mormon axioms for the importance of the life of the mind, including, “The glory of is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), and the divine command to obtain out of the “best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118; cf. D&C 90:15; 109:7, 14). But I believe that perhaps the best argument from a Mormon perspective for the organic integration of what is sometimes artificially conceptualized as a division between the “mind/intellect” and the “spirit/soul” is the Prophet Joseph Smith himself. Here Mormons have an authoritative religious example who valued and who aspired to combine truths of personal experience, divine revelation, and academic study. He was brave enough to question and to study things out in his mind (cf. D&C 9:8), while also being humble enough to seek out answers from both God and the collective wisdom and learning of other peoples, faiths, and traditions. He truly was an example of learning “by study and also by faith,” someone who fully believed that Mormonism could bravely accept all truth, whatever its source.

Although requiring methodological rigor and pedagogical sensitivity, I genuinely believe that Mormonism has nothing to fear in studying or honestly teaching the methods and results of modern academic disciplines. Indeed, I maintain that such geistliche Studien in fact are a divine obligation that will only enrich an already wealthy tradition that I deeply love and cherish. And, finally, I believe that such engagement is crucial if Mormonism wishes to retain and nourish its rising generations in this ever-increasingly globalized world, and also if it wishes to make an even greater contribution in the next century to that broader world it is called to serve.

TYD

Faith-Promoting [Not] History

Several weeks ago we had a sacrament meeting talk that remains on my mind. The gentleman who concluded the meeting used most of his time to read a story that he frankly admitted came from his mother, who “got it from Google.” If you are thinking that the word “Google” is a bad sign in this context, your spidey sense is doing well.

The narrative he read was the highly embellished story of Gertrude Specht. You can read the Google version here and Jonathan Green’s research here. The bottom line is that the reality and the internet myth share only three points of contact: both talk about a German, both talk about a woman, and both indicate that the woman had at least one doctorate. Otherwise, the story appears to be what we will charitably call a fabrication in order to avoid offending any tender sensibilities with scatological references.

I must admit that I find it disturbing to hear this sort of thing in church – you want to think that what you hear in church can genuinely be called “worship.” But I must report that the irony runs even deeper. For the major emphasis behind the fabrication was an effort to make poor Dr. Specht, a housewife with a dissy in economics, into an expert who could affirm in detail the historicity of the complex of ideas we group under the term “Great Apostasy.” Yes indeedy, it was an unhistorical narrative contrived to lend the highest scholarly authority to the historicity of the LDS version of early Christianity.

 

Continue reading “Faith-Promoting [Not] History”

A Dearth of Understanding Mormon Freemasonry in Nauvoo

A Freemason’s Critique of Sam Brown
by Guest Poster Joe Steve Swick III

Joe Swick is a longtime student of the history and dogmas of Mormonism and Freemasonry. He received his Endowment in 1982 and was raised a Master Mason in 1995. He is twice Past Master of his local lodge, and twice Past High Priest of his Royal Arch Chapter, receiving the Masonic Order of High Priesthood in 2004.

I recently attended a lecture by Samuel M. Brown on the subject of Mormon Masonry, which was a brief summary of chapters from his new book, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death,[i] particularly the chapter, “Negotiating Death and Afterlife in Nauvoo.”[ii] As a Freemason who has also received the LDS Temple Endowment, this topic is of particular interest to me. Unfortunately, there were several significant problems with the presentation of the subject of Mormonism and Freemasonry in Nauvoo, particularly as it touches the central themes of his book. Due to space constraints, I’d like to briefly look at just one of these troubling areas. Continue reading “A Dearth of Understanding Mormon Freemasonry in Nauvoo”

Turning Wine into Water

In a rather strange opening miracle, the author of the Gospel of John depicts Jesus as working a familiar Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine.  Mormons have undone this entirely, turning wine into water.  The modern sacrament prayers go so far as to change the wording of the revealed prayers, substituting “water” for “wine.”  This wasn’t always so.

In the early days of the Church, LDS followers drank wine from a common cup.  The founding church order given in April 1830, revised in 1833 and again in 1835 declares that wine should be used (D&C 20).  Around the end of 1832 and beginning of 1833, wine is again referenced as the drink that is used in the sacrament.

Continue reading “Turning Wine into Water”