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Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith.
by Thomas G. Alexander
The Oklahoma Western Biographies Book 31, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
xxiii + 416 pages, Bibliography, Index.
Hardcover, and ebook (Kindle).

Thomas G. Alexander is well known to readers of Latter-day Saint history. He is the author of a number important works, perhaps most prominently his Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, recently republished by Greg Kofford Books in a third edition. Alexander, now retired, was a long time professor of history at Brigham Young University, and Transition was originally intended to be part of the Arrington “new church history” series when he was church historian.

The Oklahoma Western Biographies series publishes short biographies written from published sources. This volume should not be confused as a mere rehash of familiar widely known material. It is a work of careful research that employs the best of recent primary source scholarship such as The Joseph Smith Papers along with published diaries and other scholarly work.

Alexander begins with Young’s early life that involved some remarkable challenges including his father’s invitation to leave home and make his own way at 16. Young’s family and extended family were often deeply religious and their encounter with Mormonism in its formative years is a great story. The book moves quickly in two chapters to Young’s positioning as head of the church and the trek to the Mountain West. The Massacre at Mountain Meadows forms a prominent place in the book and its narration is careful and compact, a masterful summary of a complex and tortured story. The book is worth its price for that alone.

Brigham is known for his polygamy and his preaching, and each has a chapter devoted to those topics. The chapter on polygamy is particularly concise and useful, though by it’s nature it is not comprehensive.

While Alexander is a devoted Latter-day Saint, his treatment of Young largely avoids any hagiographic tendency. Young’s blemishes and contradictions are on display and not excused but his strengths and accomplishments appear with equal honesty. It is an even-handed useful volume for any reader interested in Young’s life and written with a general audience in mind rather than the scholarly market.

Young’s life has been the subject of a number of writers including Leonard Arrington, and John Turner’s more recent biography. The present book certainly has scholarly overtones but it is different in purpose and to some degree intended audience. The reader won’t find footnotes or endnotes, and the usual apparatus typical of a University Press volume (there is a useful bibliography). The advantage is a smooth narrative and ease of quotation. But the reader won’t find assertions and quotations argued and cited explicitly. At some points, I especially disliked this in the chapter on Young’s preaching. it is sometimes hard to discover where Young’s thoughts end and the author’s begin. It is clear that both exist, but it is not always easy to see where the junctions exist nor how to assign analysis of claims, etc.

As a whole, I appreciated the book and it is written by an accomplished, proven scholar. I recommend it for anyone interested in this key nineteenth-century personality.

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Part One: Spooky Jewish Hell Dream

I do not know, and certainly cannot prove, that the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number in the Book of Mormon musical is based on Peter’s remarkable dream in Acts 10:10-15. But it could have been. It is exactly the sort of image that I would use to try to convey to contemporary Latter-day Saints–dancing coffee cups and other forbidden items torturing the young Mormon with their forbiddenness and demanding to be consumed. I would probably throw in some cigarettes and beer–and maybe a Playboy or two. But you get the point. It was dream designed to confront Peter with the things that made him the most religiously uncomfortable.

It is also, I would argue, the most important scene in the most important book of the New Testament. This is a hard call to make, of course. Certainly, the birth of Christ, the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection are the most important events recorded in the Christian Bible. But the narrative arc of the New Testament itself is about the development of the Church–from a small sect of Jewish reformers to the most important institution in the known world. And Acts is the turning point of that story.

We need to understand that the first half of Acts is essentially an argument between two factions about what kind of thing “the Church” is. In one corner we have Peter, who sees a “Christian” as a type of Jew. In the other corner is Paul, a convert from Judiasm, who sees Christianity as something for the world. It’s more complicated than that. Way more complicated than that. But the head-to-head match-up gives us a good place to start.

And the turning point of the whole story is the conversion of Cornelius. Cornelius is not just a gentile. He is a Roman centurion stationed in Caeserea, whose whole purpose in life would have been to try to pacify an increasingly rebellious Jewish population. That’s as about as gentile as one can get. But Cornelius was “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway” (Acts 1:2), and he has a vision telling him to meet a man named Peter. Simon Peter.

Peter will meet him, but he has to be prepared first. God has to make Peter understand that part of his role is to bring to gospel to gentiles like Cornelius–and that they don’t have to become Jews first. This is why God sends Peter the Spooky Jewish Hell Dream:

And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance. And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.

And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Acts 10:10-16)

That’s it. No instructions about Cornelius. No exhortation to teach the gospel to the world. Just a series of images that make Peter extremely uncomfortable, and a commandment not to allow religious discomfort get in the way of his duty as a minister of the gospel. But Peter gets it, and when, like, ten seconds later someone tells him that Cornelius wants to seem him, he knows exactly what to do.

And this is how it starts. Cornelius, by general agreement among the people who generally agree about such things, was the first Christian convert. But it was a one-off. The official policies still have to be hammered out, which takes is to the other bookend of this week’s reading, Acts 15: The Council in Jerusalem.

Part Two: The First Christian Council

Peter’s interactions with Cornelius did not play well back in the Burg. The main body of Jewish Christians, which the KJV refers to as “they that were of the circumcision,” confront him with the fact thta he “wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them” (Acts 11: 2-3). He retells the story of his Spooky Jewish Hell Dream, and he may or may not have convinced them, but they “held their peace” and acknowledged that “God also [hath] to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:20).

And then we cut to Antioch, where Steven had been preaching for some time, but only to the Jews. The Syrian city of Antioch was one of the first Christian congregations, largely because it had a large Jewish section that was very receptive to the Christian message. But let’s be careful here, since there were a lot of cities named “Antioch” (Antiochus, like Alexander, liked to name stuff after himself). And the Antioch of Acts 11 is not the same as the Antioch of Acts 13, which is called “Antioch in Pisidia” and is now in Turkey, though a very different part. The later Antioch is the site of Paul’s first missionary journey, accompanied by Barnabas.

It is in Psidian Antioch that Paul throws down the gauntlet to the Jewish faction that dominates Christianity. Paul preaches first to the Jews, who are not impressed. So he speaks to, and converts, a large number of gentiles: But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming.

Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region. (Acts 13:45-49)

Well, the Church could handle one gentile, even a Roman centurion, as kind of a mascot. But now Paul had delivered a whole urban congregation of exceptions, and the Church was at a crisis point. Paul forced them to decide whether or not Christianity was a branch of Judaism or a thing of its own. The stakes were pretty high. If Christian converts had to be Jewish converts too, they had to obey the Law of Moses. They had to observe dietary restrictions. And they had to be circumcised. This latter point was what we now call a “substantial barrier to entry.”

So there was the first General Conference, taking the whole of Acts 15. And, unlike recent versions of the same event, it featured a lively debate between Paul and Barnabas on one hand, and the bulk of Jewish converts to Christianity on the other. Peter, because of his recent vision, listened intently and, in the end, stood against the circumcision squad and carried the day. I imagine:

And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (Acts 15:7-10)

As a result of Peter’s conversion, the Apostles issued their first general epistle to the Christians of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24). But with this decision in hand, Paul was free to begin converting Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire and setting up Church in many of the major cities. Had the decision gone the other way, the history of the world would have worked out very differently.

The first council of Christianity did some remarkable things. In it, the apostles debated with each other intensely, weighed the consequences of their decisions, and came to a decision that dramatically expanded the pastoral reach of the Church. But to do this, they had to radically reconsider their idea of what it meant to be a Christian, and they had to do things that went against their religious sensibilities and made them profoundly uncomfortable.

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It’s become an article of faith in some circles that the end of the racial temple and priesthood ban was motivated, at least in part, by the specter of the church losing its tax-exempt status. And that’s not just the bloggernacle, and it’s not just ex-Mormon reddit (though you can certainly find the assertion—repeatedly—on various internet fora). The same claim is made in academically rigorous places.

For example, in The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History, Harris and Bringhurst write,

Specifically, the Mormon hierarchy became concerned about potential lawsuits over their tax exemption status, particularly in light of the student protests against BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had watched very closely the Bob Jones University case, in which the IRS revoked its tax exemption status in an important 1975 ruling.

(p. 106)

They go on to quote a 1978 letter from church historian Leonard Arrington to his children where he talks about Wisconsin refusing to exempt church property from its property tax because of the church’s racial discrimination, and extrapolating from that the church’s potential loss of its exemption may have been one reason why the revelation came when it did.

And it’s clearly possible that the potential loss of exemption played into church leaders’ urgency in 1978. On the other hand, I’m not convinced. I can’t find any contemporaneous evidence (besides Arrington’s letter, only he’s guessing—it suggests that he wasn’t privy to any conversations citing Bob Jones) that there was public pressure for revoking the church’s exemption, or that the church was concerned about the potential loss of exemption.

I mean, in searching newspaper databases, I’ve found assertions that the church was motivated, not by pure revelation, but to preserve its tax-exempt status. Typical of that assertion is this:

Some church critics found the action [i.e., eliminating the temple and priesthood ban] intolerable, and denounced the change as a business move rather than a revelation from God. There were suggestions that ordination of black priests was motivated by fear of losing tax-exempt status.[fn1]

The problem is, this piece was written a decade after OD2, and half a decade after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bob Jones that said the First Amendment didn’t prevent the IRS from revoking the tax exemption of organizations that violated a fundamental public policy. So by 1988, the risk of the church losing its exemption likely felt a lot more salient, and retrospective memories could easily slip it in.

Still, the search function on most PDF newspaper databases I’ve searched is not remarkably powerful; it’s clearly possible that my searches have missed contemporaneous agitation against the church’s exemption. And I just as clearly don’t have access to church records (though again, the fact that Arrington had to extrapolate his conclusion suggests there likely aren’t any such records).

So I’d welcome correction if I’m wrong: is there any evidence from the 1970s that individuals or groups were agitating for the church to lose its tax-exempt status as a result of its racially-discriminatory temple and priesthood ban? And is there any contemporaneous evidence that church leaders were concerned with the risk of the church losing its exemption?

(Bonus question: if anybody was living in Wisconsin in the 1970s, do you remember the state refusing to exempt church property from the property tax? I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to run that down, and I certainly can if I need to, but if anybody can give me a starting point, I’ll definitely take it!)

[fn1] Lance Guerwell, Mormons Have Accepted Black Priests for Past Decade, Times Herald, Jun. 11, 1988, at 4.

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Does it matter if the “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” is ever canonized?

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So I cracked open the latest BYU Studies Quarterly 58/2 (2019) and read the first article, Reid L. Neilson and Carson V. Teuscher, “Pilgrimage to Palmyra: President B.H. Roberts and the Eastern States Mission’s 1923 Commemoration of Cumorah.” B.H. Roberts was the President of the Eastern States Mission, and September 1823 was going to be the 100-ywar anniversary of Moroni’s appearance to Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah, and Roberts wanted to hold a big event to celebrate that milestone (which would be attended by the Church President and several Apostles). As part of the spiritual preparation, Roberts instituted a season of “country work” that summer for the missionaries. “Country work” or “country tracting” is a Mormon expression for having the missionaries leave the cities and towns in which they are stationed, walk out into the countryside, and rely on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. This is the Mormon version of preaching the Gospel “without purse or scrip.” I find this old practice really interesting and so resolved to blog a bit about it.The scriptural warrant for preaching “without purse or scrip” is found in Luke 10:4 and parallel passages in the Gospels: “Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes, and salute no man by the way.” This basic idea is elaborated on in D&C 84:77-90:

77 And again I say unto you, my friends, for from henceforth I shall call you afriends, it is expedient that I give unto you this commandment, that ye become even as my friends in days when I was with them, traveling to preach the gospel in my power;

78 For I suffered them not to have apurse or scrip, neither two coats.

79 Behold, I asend you out to bprove the world, and the laborer is worthy of his chire.

80 And any man that shall go and preach this agospel of the kingdom, and fail not to continue bfaithful in all things, shall not be weary in mind, neither darkened, neither in body, limb, nor joint; and a chair of his head shall not fall to the ground unnoticed. And they shall not go hungry, neither athirst.

81 Therefore, take ye no athought for the morrow, for what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed.

82 For, aconsider the blilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin; and the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory, are not arrayed like one of these.

83 For your aFather, who is in heaven, bknoweth that you have need of all these things.

84 Therefore, let the morrow take athought for the things of itself.

85 Neither take ye thought beforehand awhat ye shall say; but btreasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be cgiven you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.

86 Therefore, let no man among you, for this commandment is unto all the afaithful who are called of God in the church unto the ministry, from this hour take purse or scrip, that goeth forth to proclaim this gospel of the kingdom.

87 Behold, I send you out to areprove the world of all their unrighteous deeds, and to teach them of a judgment which is to come.

88 And whoso areceiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go bbefore your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my cSpirit shall be in your hearts, and mine dangels round about you, to bear you up.

89 Whoso receiveth you receiveth me; and the same will feed you, and clothe you, and give you money.

90 And he who feeds you, or clothes you, or gives you money, shall in nowise alose his reward.

The “without purse or scrip” language is archaic and so often misunderstood. The Greek word ballantion rendered “purse” refers to a bag in which money was kept; modern translations typically use wallet, purse or something like money bag. The Greek word tEra rendered “scrip” means a traveling bag for possessions, like a knapsack.

It is interesting to me that Mormon missionaries never truly went completely without purse or scrip. Some mission presidents would not authorize country tracting because they felt it would violate state vagrancy laws, but the mission presidents who did authorize it got around that by instructing the missionaries to keep on them an amount of cash equal to the minimum set by statute to avoid a vagrancy conviction (which varied by state, it could be $2 or $5 or $10). Also, missionaries took a small suitcase called a “grip” for pamphlets, toiletries, and presumably spare clothing or maybe even some sort of food so they wouldn’t starve if no one would feed them.

There’s a great overview of this mission practice in Jessie Embry, “Without Purse or Scrip,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought29/3 (1985): 77-93 available here. When I first read this years ago I was struck by how relatively recent the practice was. I think I had thought of it as pretty much a 19th century thing, but it was common, though not universal, in the first half of the 20th century, and even existed post=WWII in about a half a dozen missions lasting up until 1950! I remember being surprised by that.

Reactions of missionaries to this practice varied. As a ne missionary in the Central States Mission in 1914, Spencer W. Kimball was assigned to do coutry tracting for several weeks. After walking for 12 miles, he and his companion started asking for “entertainment. At house after house we were turned away. On, on, on we dragged our tired limbs. After walking 3 mi and having asked 12 times for a bed without success we were let in a house, not welcome tho. 15 miles. Very tired, sleepy and hungry. No dinner, no supper.” Conversely, S. Dilworth Young was a fan as a young elder (and would be one of the last MPs to follow this practice). Ogden Kraut, who would later become the famed fundamentalist, was thrilled that Oscar McConkie was still doing this in his California mission after the war, because he viewed it as revelatory and a commandment.

This method didn’t lead to a lot of baptisms, because these visits were one offs and there was no consistent follow through. And even if someone did get baptized, there was no church organization there for the person to attend, and so they drifted back to whatever they had been before. Where the practice seemed to have a positive effect was in growing the faith and confidence of the missionaries, so when they returned to the cities and towns in the winter months they ended up being more effective then.

Central church leaders were often dubious of this practice, but when they actually went out into the field to observe it for themselves (as Harold B. Lee did), they generally changed their minds and supported the practice.

So far as we know, sisters never did country tracting, this was for the elders only.

When the last great proponents of the practice concluded their missions around 1950, their successors did not continue it. After the war there were practical and cultural changes. Private automobiles became much more common, both among the people and in the missions.  Also, the culture had changed, and as hard as it was before, the likelihood of people letting strange men into their house to spend the night plummeted. Also, the development of standardized discussions such as the Anderson Plan required repeated visits, and one-offs were no longer going to work.

I’m curious what your thoughts are about this. Would you have liked to try doing country work on your mission? Can you imagine any circumstance where we might resurrect this old practice? Do these young whippersnappers today have it too easy with their cars and apartments and showers and food? What do you think about this?

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Acts 6 Acts 7 Acts 8 Acts 9

These chapters are crucial to understanding the development of the early Christian church and there is just no way to discuss everything in them. Moreover, the lesson manual is very brief, so consider this a supplement to the material in the manual. These chapters include the conversion story of Paul (Acts 9) and since that story is so well known, I’m not going to emphasize it. Instead, I will focus mostly on how these chapters deal with cultural differences in the Jerusalem church and what that reveals about how the early church was getting on in the period shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and departure. Even so, we will barely scratch the surface, yet I hope there will be something useful for the lesson this coming Sunday. One important thing to keep in mind is that Acts, like the Gospel of Luke (they likely had the same author) was written with a great deal of hindsight. I mean, much had taken place between the time of Jesus and the composing of Acts, most importantly perhaps, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. Thus, the author is including events with a purpose: to explain through early origin stories (likely the subject of preaching during the apostolic and post-apostolic years) how the church of circa 90 AD got where it was and help explain the Christian position relative to the Empire since Luke more than the other writers of the Gospels is writing to people in a broader Roman world.

In Acts 6-8 (the time period for these chapters is roughly 36 AD), Luke narrates a very old tradition about conflict and dissent in the early Christian church which leads to the death of Stephen (Acts 7), whose vision of God and Christ was a classic missionary reference in support of Joseph Smith’s first vision. When we talk of this whole episode, we usually ignore the meaning of the outcome (Acts 8), which is one of the most important influences on the course of Christianity after Jesus.

1. Transplants versus Natives

Luke tells us this (Acts 6:1): “in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews.”[1] “Hellenists” [Grecians in the KJV] refers to Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem who had a Greek background in some way, Luke doesn’t explain, but he does give some names: Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (the proselyte), all are Greek names. They are Jews, but the text draws a distinction between them and the “Hebrews,” probably meaning natives of the city or its near environs. That both groups are Jews and Christians, is the important point.

Thus, there are these two groups of Christians in Jerusalem, the members of both are Jews, and they “have all things in common.” This note is very important for not only the early Latter-day Saints but so many antebellum social experiments that formed a cultural milieu for those 1830s Saints—but we have no space for that. The Hellenists then had a history of being part of the diaspora, I mean Jews who were born in cities of the empire outside of Palestine. Therefore, they were brought up to speak Greek and were given Greek names, while remaining Jewish in belief, with certain differences. The apostles had distinctively Jewish names, their history suggests that they belonged to the Hebrew faction and this is confirmed by later events.

In addition to the cultural differences between these two groups in the early Jerusalem church, there were some theological differences too, and this becomes important to the story as I will show below (sections 5, 6). The Hebrews appear to be the dominant group in the Christian community. It seems that the Hebrews, trying to force some kind of agreement on the Hellenists, and have stopped supporting the widows of the latter, who were completely dependent on the community, the common funds and property of the church. It’s not an unusual sort of thing—when people disagree with a church or a faction in a church, they often withhold their economic support. That seems to be what is happening here.

2. The Fateful Act of the Apostles

The apostles don’t like the situation, and they call the community together to come to some kind of resolution. This kind of judgment by the whole (“multitude” surely refers to the entire Jerusalem church) is a feature that reappears in Acts 15, and it signifies the depth of the problem. In early Mormonism, church conferences often functioned as decision/discipline bodies, borrowing in particular from (among others) Methodist practice. Indeed, the organizational layout for judgement by the mid 1830s narrated in Doctrine and Covenants 107 (this link is my article on the subject) may suggest that the whole church is the final court for the most troublesome cases, a largely impractical feature these days. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate a similar kind of function, where the community was presided over by twelve persons, representative of the 12 tribes, and three others, representative of the priestly families, and the community in this setting seems to be called by the same name (English: multitude) as the group the apostles call together, the official church if you will. In any case, the apostles preside over the gathering, the “multitude.”

The apostles propose a solution to the problem. They decline to micromanage the situation but offer a kind of separate leadership solution to the Hellenists. The text puts it that the apostles are not going to serve tables. This means they aren’t going to get into these decisions of dividing funds, food, etc. The apostles say, “choose seven men of good repute, full of wisdom,” and we [the apostles] will appoint them to this role. They probably don’t have a name for the office being created, that will take time, but the Seven might be thought of in terms of LDS bishops or stake presidents in some way, or traveling bishops, or some such thing, or a combination bishop-seventy. The early proto-bishops of the second century, or as the idea occurs later in the pastoral letters (Timothy) are different from the Seven. In fact, the Seven act more like apostles as we get into chapter 8. As Luke tells us about these chosen Hellenist leaders (see their names listed above in section 1) he makes sure to say that one of them was a proselyte (convert to Judaism) meaning that the rest of them were born Jews. Traditional modern LDS mission literature cast the Seven in an Aaronic Priesthood role (something that almost surely didn’t exist in the way it does in the modern church–see the link above). This modern narrative got bolstered by the later Acts story of Phillip’s baptisms and Peter and John following in his wake, laying on hands. This gets rather complicated as far a ritual development so I’ll leave that here.

3. Compromise over the Temple

The important thing is that the apostles don’t expel the Hellenists over the unmentioned issue that created the withholding of funds/goods from the Hellenist widows. Instead, they create a body of leaders for them, which the Hellenists choose themselves, and this in some ways diffuses the problem between the two community factions. We don’t learn how these men function with regard to the whole body at Jerusalem. Do they have access to some common storehouse, or do they break off on their own? In the end, things progress to the point where that doesn’t matter. It is not clear that the apostles agree with the theological positions of the Hellenists (these differences become apparent as Stephen gets killed over them–see below). In fact, they almost certainly do not. Whatever differences they have about their Jewish beliefs, it’s not worth splitting the community over it: they are common believers in Jesus (exactly what that entailed at this point I don’t think is completely clear, but obviously baptism, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord’s Supper). Put another way, the apostles decide that a plurality of belief can exist in the church, provided there is unity on some things, and further, that not splitting the body had a much higher value than a doctrinal difference.[3] What were the doctrinal differences among the Jerusalem Christians? I think they were quite important at the time and it was related to the kind of Jews Christians should be, a problem that Paul encounters a decade after his conversion as he gets out on the missionary trail (things were too hot for Paul among Christians and Jews and perhaps he hadn’t worked out his own theology to jump right in to extensive preaching after the events of Acts 9—see Galatians for example—he first spends 10 years in his home town Act 9:30).

The difficult difference that comes up in Acts 15 (Paul), where the issue was how gentiles should fit into the Christian community was a tough one but closely connected to this lesson’s material. It took a lot of time to reach a widely accepted resolution–there were ups and downs for many years–and it was one with deeply troublesome consequences. But in fact, this first trouble in Acts 6-8 telegraphs the later one in Acts 15 in a profound way. The decision of the apostles resulting in the Seven is interesting because of its far-reaching positive and negative effects.

The growth in the church that Luke mentions at the outset is a natural cause of the trouble. The apostles required a more complex structure to deal with questions, problems, and immediate needs, and this begins a primitive organization for the church. You see this in early Mormonism, where at first there were two ruling persons, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but after a year and a half, more structure and definition is required to supply the needs of the community. The changes in both cases were in response to need. There wasn’t a blueprint: it largely developed organically.

4. Only Half the Story

Now, the Hellenists have these Seven men who in effect, are like new apostles. The Seven are not called apostles, but they perform at least some of the functions that may have fallen to the apostles early on, and later their actions appear apostolic. The Seven are led by Stephen, who will shortly be stoned to death over his dissenting (from the Sanhedrin policy/leadership) Judaism (Acts 7), and this has a major effect on the Christian movement. As an aside, we don’t know what happened with the Hebrews at the time, but presumably the apostles didn’t want to be involved in the trenches with them either, and quite soon we see evidence that James (one of Jesus’ brothers) and the elders (an indication of the Hebrew Christian’s traditional Jewish beliefs about functionaries) are in place in the church and seem to be running affairs in Jerusalem (Acts 15). So it seems reasonable that the apostles gave both factions a set of leaders at the same time (when Paul later comes back to Jerusalem, it’s clear that James and the other elders are in charge there).

The apostles stand above both groups, not precisely as everyday leaders, but as symbols of the whole. Recall that they are very deeply associated with Israel, they are the ultimate judges of Israel according to the words of Jesus, and this probably played a large role in how the Jewish church saw them. Even the Book of Mormon regards the Nephite 12 leaders as “disciples” not using the word apostles for them. And the infant ecclesiology of the 1830 church does the same thing: there will be 12 disciples established “like mine apostles” but the founding revelation (D&C 18) never names them as apostles. Even Paul, at the end, after all he went through over Gentile converts, his dismissal (in Galatians) of the “pillars of the church”—he cares nothing for them in his anger over what he saw as a betrayal of their (the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem) agreement over the requirements of Gentile converts (no circumcision, Jewish feasts, etc.), does not relinquish the overriding importance of Israel when he engages an olive tree parable (Romans 11), much like that of the Book of Mormon in Jacob 5. This persisting racial identity politics takes a long time to dissipate or at least be reinterpreted, spiritualized, and that turns out to have terrible aspects.[4] The 1830s church works out a solution: everybody is an Israelite (though not Jews) in effect.

Again, the fascinating thing about this moment in Acts 6 is how the apostles deal with this conflict, which is really based on dissent from what is the majority. Unity is more important. And it may set some precedent, because something similar happens later. But as I noted, choosing the Seven has a dark side. One wonders how things might have evolved if various dissenting movements in Mormonism had stayed together in some way, with some compromise or other (Emma, Rigdon, Wight, etc.). What might have happened? In the case of the early Christians the consequence was profound.[5]

5. Stephen Expresses the Complaints of the Diaspora

What happens after the apostles (it’s not clear that the whole group isn’t involved here, actually) lay hands on the Seven? Nothing easy. Stephen begins preaching, and he is a powerful speaker, but he seems to offend other Hellenists (not Christians) in some way (possibly they want to distance themselves from the Christian subset of Jews) and the offended ones accuse him of blasphemy, one of the more serious charges one could face. They accuse him of speaking against Moses and the LORD. This stirs up the Jewish elders who bring him before the Sanhedrin. There are false witnesses against Stephen, and they accuse Stephen of saying Jesus will destroy the temple (undoubtedly connected to Jesus as the temple and the prophecy mentioned in the stories about Jesus’ trial before the same body found in Mt 26, Mk 14, Jn 2). At this point, Stephen gives a long sermon. And the end of the sermon is highly impolitic, given the audience, and I think what Stephen articulates at the end of his sermon was at the heart of the original schism in the Jerusalem church that led to the Seven being appointed in the first place.[6]

Stephen’s sermon (Acts 7) gives an account of Israel’s history (importantly, it seems to be drawn from different sources—it differs in a number of ways from the KJV Old Testament. Scholars see elements of the Greek OT and Samaritan thought in Stephen’s preaching, and the latter was bound to anger the Sanhedrin. Some have wondered if Luke is presaging here what happens to the Hellenist Christians later. Possibly Luke thought of Stephen as a model for how the church eventually evolved (Luke, again, is writing many decades after this incident, so perhaps he is using his narrative to explain in part what the church became as I mentioned above, and that is reinforced with his calling out Saul/Paul at the succeeding events).

As noted, Stephen closes his sermon with some very offensive stuff: the LORD does not dwell in houses made with hands and so forth (he’s talking down the value of the temple) then he called the “jury” stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, saying they always resist the Holy Spirit, and he asks them rhetorically which of the prophets “did your fathers not persecute,” etc. you betrayed and murdered the Messiah—oh boy. This, of course, makes them very angry, and Stephen is stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin (and Paul participates).[7] There are a number of parallels Luke purposely calls out between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death which I won’t go into here but they are worth noting as you read.

6. The Natives Remain But the Hellenists are Forced Out of Jerusalem–The Original Problem

Now, the Sanhedrin is willing to leave the Christians alone, but it won’t tolerate attacks on the temple, a boundary Stephen forcefully breached, and in doing so he surely expressed the view of the Hellenists. Those returning from a diaspora likely didn’t hold the temple in high regard. We know in fact, that there was a very sharp division among Jews of Jesus’ time over the temple. One thing was the problem of the high priests. An important division here centered on the revolts in the second century BC when non-high priestly families took over in Palestine, and more legitimate high priests were in Egypt. The Egyptian Jews tried to build a temple there, but the high priest in Jerusalem conspired with the Egyptians to destroy that effort and they also attacked the Samaritans to destroy their temple project. There was some resentment through the diaspora (probably) about paying in support to the Jerusalem temple and the associated idea that God can only be fully and rightly worshipped at the Jerusalem temple. This appears to be one key to the dispute that generated the apostle’s intervention at the beginning of Acts 6. This dissent is the kindling of future change.[8] And Luke tells us that a great persecution arises against the church, but this is almost surely against the Hellenists because the Jewish authorities don’t bother the apostles at all and clearly the other Hebrew Christians are not touched, surely because of their regard for the temple and their belief in its function and the importance of the Law, etc. Indeed, as Luke notes at the end of his Gospel, after Jesus’ goes into heaven, the apostles go and worship in the temple. And elsewhere in Acts we see Peter and John worshipping in the temple and the Saints and others line their path where they walk believing that Peter’s very shadow, should it fall on them, will heal them (Acts 5:15).

For the apostles apparently, though they are constantly in Solomon’s Porch, belief in Jesus was more important than unity over the value of the Temple in Jerusalem. The apostles balancing of the issues was and is a useful and unifying thing in some ways. The downside was this: tolerating Jews with different beliefs within the church body meant that those Christians brought conflict with other Jews in Jerusalem, who were not Christians but who shared doctrine with the Hebrew Christians (namely, the value of the temple). That kind of conflict can bring trouble for the whole church, and we see this happen and it has, as I said, unforeseen consequences.

The Hellenist Christians are scattered from Jerusalem and these are Jews who are what may be described as “liberal.” Their attachment to the temple is minimal and may be even less after their forced exit from Jerusalem. The Hellenists go to Samaria, where there is sympathy for people who don’t value the Jerusalem temple OR its Davidic heritage and meaning (See Gospel of Matthew for the opposite point of view). Luke gives us some of the exploits of Phillip, perhaps next in the leadership line of the Seven. And Luke tells us in chapter 11 of Acts that it’s these Hellenists who first begin a ministry to the Gentiles. No doubt Luke oversimplifies much of this, but the narrative makes this remarkable point about what the apostles did: the consequence of their decision for unity led in part at least to the fall of Jewish practice within Christianity, and ultimately the complete removal of Christianity as a subset of Judaism. The Hellenists carried with them the devaluing of the temple, and of Jerusalem itself. There was no way to predict the sort of butterfly effect this decision had on the church that resulted from the appointment of the Seven. The apostles had no particular wish to preach to the Samaritans or the Gentiles in general. They are Jews who believe in the continuing value of the Law and the temple in their lives. They are leaders of a Jewish sect if you will. We see more of this in the way Paul comes into Luke’s picture of the church. It seems that the Holy Spirit is really largely in control, working around and through human choices, and it’s this that makes one wonder about the whole history of God’s interaction with humans and how he uses church leaders, political passages, and even human prejudice. This is the biblical picture of God’s dealing with the future: he’s the ultimate tennis player–he can always return the serve generated by the free acts of his creatures.

7. What is the Long Term Plan of God?

Especially in the case of modern Latter-day Saints: where does human or prophetic apprehension of the situation, and the resulting decision-making come into play with God’s plan? It seems that in many cases, where the church or church leaders see some issue as vital or necessary, the result is quite different from the expected value (I use the term advisedly!). One could point to the usual suspects here, but I’ll leave it to you to think about it and the circumstances of change.

————-
[1] The KJV reads “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The “increasing in number” portends a number of problems and challenges culminating in the gentile conversions.

[2] This process was frequently used in earlier Mormonism, where election of officers was quite common, especially at a local level, but even in central offices. It wasn’t universal though.

[3] Joseph Smith’s complaint about a doctrinal difference and church discipline seems apropos. Joseph had some charisma though, and when he died, it was pretty clear that no one had a similar cachet. Dissent was therefore less tolerated as time went on. John Turner writes importantly on this in his Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. On a modern version see the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s dilemma.

[4] An unfortunate result of the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity is the terrible narrative that surfaces among Christians that the Jews, as a whole, carry ever continuing guilt for executing God (the Book of Mormon speaks out against this), and this story continues through the Reformation and into the twentieth century. Some of the language employed by even the greats like Augustine and Jerome is terrifying, advocating slavery, forced migration. Hilary: “before the Law was given, the Jews were possessed of an unclean devil, which the Law for a time drove out, but which returned immediately after their rejection of Christ.” Hilary’s Commentary on Matthew, XII, 22. Marcion is the most extreme view theologically: throw out Jewish Law, liturgy, priesthood, AND scriptures. John Chrysostom: “it’s incumbent on Christians to hate the Jews because God has always hated the Jews.” Aquinas: “it’s perfectly licit to hold the Jews in slavery because of what their ancestors did to Jesus.” By the fifth century, Christian motivated laws essentially deprive Jews of nearly any benefit of citizenship, forcing them into ghettos. Probably the disappearance of Jesus’ statement from Lucan manuscripts “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” was a result of later preaching against the Jews, especially post-Julian, when Christians become politically dominant. Jerome wrote that Jews have the Mark of Cain, and must be beggars and be examples of depravity for Christians to look upon. The great evils of the Nazis was the sharp end of this theological spear, as it partook of the racial theories that fruited from it in the nineteenth century. For a much broader treatment up to the fifth century CE, see James Everett Seaver, The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1952).

[5] A much later example is Luther’s case, where his ally in the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon, tried to get the parties to consider what they had in common, rather than what..

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When we say, in the Articles of Faith, that we believe in the Bible, “as far as it is translated correctly,” what exactly do we mean?

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Readings:

Acts 1-5

This week we have finished the gospels and are moving into Acts. The transition here is from the story of Jesus to the story of the church and the apostles.

Sometimes we talk of Jesus having organized his church during his ministry, but that’s not really accurate, at least not according to the gospels. He makes a reference to having “ordained” his apostles, but he doesn’t do (m)any of the other things we associate with ecclesiology in the modern church.

He doesn’t organize wards or stakes. Unless you count the last supper as an instance of the sacrament, he doesn’t really perform ordinances (other than maybe the equivocal reference to having ordained the apostles, and, maybe when he “breathes on” them and tells them “receive ye the holy ghost”). And if you do count the last supper, he doesn’t do it until the very end of his ministry. He doesn’t seem to organize regular weekly meetings with hymns and preaching. He doesn’t seem to create any kind of organization at all. His mortal ministry is almost entirely as an itinerant preacher of repentance and a sometimes cryptic prophet. The work of organizing the movement of people he left behind when he ascended to heaven was something he left to the apostles. And it’s not something they did all at once, it’s something that developed over time, partly from revelations, partly from policy decisions, or even just chance, and partly from traditions that developed. The beginning of that development is the story that Acts tells.

He doesn’t organize wards or stakes. Unless you count the last supper as an instance of the sacrament, he doesn’t really perform ordinances (other than maybe the equivocal reference to having ordained the apostles, and, maybe when he “breathes on” them and tells them “receive ye the holy ghost”). And if you do count the last supper, he doesn’t do it until the very end of his ministry. He doesn’t seem to organize regular weekly meetings with hymns and preaching. He doesn’t seem to create any kind of organization at all. His mortal ministry is almost entirely as an itinerant preacher of repentance and a sometimes cryptic prophet. The work of organizing the movement of people he left behind when he ascended to heaven was something he left to the apostles. And it’s not something they did all at once, it’s something that developed over time, partly from revelations, partly from policy decisions, or even just chance, and partly from traditions that developed. The beginning of that development is the story that Acts tells.

Something I’ve been especially struck by reading through these first few chapter of acts this time is how strikingly the experiences of the apostles and primitive saints parallels the experience of Joseph Smith and the early latter-day saints. We like to focus on what makes us unique among Christians, and in doing so, I think we sometimes overlook the degree to which those early revelations were closely modeled on things happening in Acts. The better the understand the story told in Acts, the better we can understand our own history and our own church.

Chapter 1: The Promise of the Endowment of Power

Acts is narratively funny because it opens with a bit of anti-climax. The big charismatic event, the resurrection, has just happened, and now the disciples are kind of asking “what next?” So Acts opens with the apostles meeting with and receiving instruction from the resurrected Jesus before he ascends to heaven and is basically gone from then on. After giving them “infallible proofs” of his resurrection, his post-resurrection teachings cover three things: (1) “things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” on which see Michael’s post today for some great discussion, (2) an instruction to go to Jerusalem and wait until they received the Holy Ghost and “power,” and (3) a prophecy that after they do receive this promised power, the apostles will be his witnesses to “the uttermost part of the earth.”

Jesus doesn’t use the word “endowment” here in Acts, but the gospels have him using the closely related word “endued” when he gives his apostles the instruction to wait until they receive the Holy Ghost and are “endued with power.” This is a big, big deal. It’s the foundation on which the rest of the story of Acts is built. Without the Holy Ghost and the pentecostal endowment, the disciples, per Jesus’s express instructions, could not become his witnesses and do all the rest of the stuff they do in Acts.

This is a close parallel to the church in 1830. After years of effort, the Book of Mormon had finally been obtained, translated, and published. The big, charismatic, dispensation-opening event had finally been completed. Now, Joseph Smith and his small group of followers were sort of left asking “what’s next?” The answer to that question came in a bunch of early revelations, but those revelations focus on the same three things as Jesus’s post-resurrection teachings to the disciples in Acts 1.

One focus of those revelations was “things pertaining to the Kingdom”: In particular, Oliver Cowdery was instructed to “build up my kingdom” and referred to the Book of Mormon for details on how to do so (D&C 18:2-5). But the next focus of those early revelations was to go to Ohio where God’s law would be revealed and the church would be “endowed with power” (D&C 38:32). And the promise of the endowment also came with a prophecy that after being endowed with power, the church would “go forth among all the nations” (D&C 38:33).

After returning to Jerusalem, the disciples do what Jesus said and they wait, united in prayer, for the Holy Ghost and the endowment of power (v. 14). While waiting, they decide to replace Judas as one of the twelve. Peter sets certain criteria: the new apostle has to be one of those that followed Jesus from his baptism until his ascension (vv. 21-22). They narrow it down to two (v. 23). Then they pray for revelation (v.v. 24-25). And finally, they use lots to make the final selection (v. 23).

  • What can the process of selecting Judas’ replacement teach us about revelation?

Chapter 2: The Pentecostal Endowment and beginning of the church.

When Pentecost comes (50 days–a week of weeks–after Passover), the promise of the Holy Ghost and of an endowment of power is fulfilled with a charismatic spiritual manifestation including the “sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind,” “cloven tongues of fire” sitting on the apostles heads, and the gift of tongues (vv. 2-4). In this case, the gift of tongues was xenoglossia–the ability to speak in foreign tongues previously unknown to the disciples, and with that gift the apostles preached the gospel (the message of the resurrection of Jesus, faith, repentance, baptism, and the promise of the gift of the holy ghost–see v. 38).

Again, the parallels to the early restoration are striking. In the early church, the fulfillment of the promise of the endowment of power was fulfilled initially when the office of high priest was revealed in Kirtland, and then more fully with the Pentecostal manifestations that happened with the dedication of the Kirtland temple.

And in his preaching here, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy about the last days (vv. 17-21). This is one of the most commonly quoted old testament scriptures in the early revelations–sons and daughters prophesying, old men dreaming dreams, wonders in heaven, signs in the earth of blood, fire, and vapor of smoke, the sun turning to darkness, the moon turning to blood, and the promise that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. It really doesn’t get much more restoration than that. We may miss this sometimes, because we are basically biblically illiterate compared with previous generations, but the early saints would very much have seen themselves as living out the pattern of establishing the church that they were familiar with from these early chapters of Acts.

  • According to the John 20:22, Jesus had already said “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” to the disciples before. Why did they not receive it until Pentecost? Can this tell us something about our own confirmation? Do we receive the Holy Ghost completely when we are confirmed or do we have to “continue in prayer and supplication”?

  • How is this “endowment of power” different from the modern temple endowment? How is it similar? What can that tell us about the relationship between the ordinance of confirmation and the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the temple endowment? What might it tell us about the eternal or changeable nature of the specific mechanics of the endowment?

Anyway, Peter’s preaching is massively successful and three thousand people are baptized and join the disciples. But joining the church (by which I mean joining the company of baptized believers–there still wasn’t really an institution like we think of today) didn’t just mean coming to meetings. It was a radical change in their way of life: the church sold all their belongings, gave the proceeds to the needy, and jointly possessed what was left to live on (vv. 44-46).

Given the close parallels between Acts and the narrative of the early church noted above, it should not be too surprising at this point to note that many of the Kirtland-era revelations also focused on the principle of consecration (see e.g. D&C 42:37-39). But I think we sometimes misunderstand consecration as just a more intense version of sacrifice: if you sacrifice you give up something and if you consecrate you give up everything. That’s fine, I guess, as far as it goes, but it misses that the salient point of consecration in these revelations is that it is instituted in order to care for the poor (see D&C 42:30, 31, 37, 39). Not surprisingly, even though Acts doesn’t use the word consecration, it describes the same thing (v. 45).

Chapter 3-5: the Chief Priests just don’t know what to do with the Christians.

The rest of the reading for this week describes an odd sort of situation where the chief priests really don’t like having Peter and the church around, but they also don’t really know what do with them either. So there’s this kind of recurring pattern of arresting them and then letting them go.

First Peter and John go into the temple and heal a man who cannot walk (3:1-11), and Peter makes another bold and fiery speech at the temple (3:12-26) about Jesus and about repentance, resulting in about another five thousand converts (4:4). This gets them arrested by the Temple guard and dragged before the council of chief priests, who demand to know by what authority they healed the man (4:1-7). Peter makes another fairly defiant speech boldly proclaiming that they did so in Jesus’ name (4:8-12). This puts the priests in a tough spot because they don’t like this challenge to their authority, but they also can’t deny that they had performed a “notable miracle” that had already become public knowledge (4:13-16). So they decide to inflict no punishment, but to “straitly threaten” Peter and John to speak no more of Jesus (4:17-18). That doesn’t go over to well with Peter, who basically says, “look, we’ll obey God, not you” (4:19-20). So they threaten them some more and let them go (4:21).

So Peter and John go back to the church the church prays together that the apostles will have the strength not to give in to the threats of the council (4:29). The next part seems like deja vu: While praying they receive another Pentecost-like manifestation and receive the Holy Ghost again (4:31). And then the latter part of chapter 4 repeats the consecration and common possession described above, but it seems to have really kicked into high gear: the church sold their belongings, gave the proceeds to the apostles, and at the apostles’ direction “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (4:32-35).

  • If the church had already received the Holy Ghost, why did the Holy Ghost fall on them again? What does this teach us about the gift of the Holy Ghost?

  • We don’t practice common ownership in the church, anymore, but we still frequently discuss the principles of consecration and stewardship. What principles can we derive from the church’s practice in Acts of selling all their belongings and giving the proceeds to the needy of the church? How can we apply those principles today without waiting for the church to institute common ownership again?

And that brings us to Chapter 5, where we find Ananias and Sapphira. Their story is short and kind of uninteresting, really. They sell their belongings like the rest of the church, but keep part of the price for themselves and lie about it. Peter calls them out, and they drop dead. The end.

  • Moral of the story: don’t lie.

The apostles keep healing people in the streets and causing a commotion, so the council again has them arrested and thrown in jail (5:17-18). But “the angel of the Lord” opens the prison later that night and tells them to leave and go preach in the temple (5:19-20). So the council sends the temple guard to arrest them again, but because they are so popular now with the common folk, the guards simply ask them to come instead of arresting them by force (5:26). So they go before the council and have almost the same conversation as before. Chief Priests: “Didn’t we tell you to stop preaching in Jesus’ name?” Apostles: “We’ll obey God, not you.” Peter: [Gives fiery speech about Jesus] (5:32). But this time, the council think they should kill them (5:33). They’re saved by Gamaliel who de-escalates the situation by saying, basically “look, these movements come along every so often and they always die out. If this is just another false messiah movement it will die out too. But if there’s something to it, we can’t stop it, and if we try to, we might find ourselves fighting against God” (5:34-39). So instead of killing them, they beat the apostles, tell them not to talk about Jesus anymore, and let them go (5:40). This of course does nothing to stop them (5:41-42).

  • Gamaliel has a refreshingly open mind. Can we apply his attitude ourselves? How can we remain open to the possibility of prophesy, miracles and other spiritual gifts without being deceived by false gifts?

From the archives:

Prayer for the day of pentecost.
More here about the law of consecration.

More here about the relationship between the temple endowment and the day of pentecost.

More here about the gift of tongues.

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My goal here is to provide brief reviews to give readers a sense of what the books are about, what they’re like, their general quality and a recommendation of whether or not the book belongs in the collection of the average reader. This time, some heavy hitters in Mormon Studies.

The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, by Jana Reiss. Oxford University Press, 2019. I’m late to the party in reviewing. You couldn’t ask for a more topical, more engaging and more fascinating book about the current state of the Church. Reiss has brought together some solid survey data (a large enough data set to provide for validated statistics) about the younger generation’s approach to belief. The results are in some respects surprising, in other ways troubling. I don’t want to spoil her book here, but even if you don’t think her survey data are compelling the conclusions are worth discussing and thinking about. Her discussion is both rigorous but understandable and digestible. It is a straightforward and compelling look at the present, with some prognostication about the future. The only group with better data is the Church itself, but they’re not sharing that data anytime soon. Reiss does not necessarily propose solutions or corrective actions; her job is to describe what the data say. In this respect, The Next Mormons is extremely challenging and interesting. I think everybody should read it and talk about it.

Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences, by Gregory Prince. University of Utah Press, 2019. I found this book difficult to review. The topic of gay rights in the Church is extremely complex with a history laden with deep emotion. Prince has gathered oral histories and documents that tell a heartbreaking story, with voices that historically have been sidelined and demonized. This book should be a landmark work, and in some respects it is, particularly with respect to how it brings together the myriad articles, teachings, and policies of the church, alongside of the personal histories of those who have been personally affected by them. No one else has done this work on this level. Unfortunately, I found that the book’s organization was convoluted, the writing was sometimes lacking and it strongly needed editing, from the repetition of large block quotes to the extended insertion of personal viewpoint. Prince has excellent sources, but in my view he fails to provide the level of dispassion and thoroughness that the topic deserves. Further, this book is about gay rights, not lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights or those of other identities. Prince says, basically, that this is his chosen focus because this has been the Church’s chosen focus. That’s a serious deficiency. In my view, the topic is not well-served by partial histories. Regardless of its weaknesses, however, it is a significant book, the only one of its kind to my knowledge. This is a deeply important topic in our history. I believe we are currently standing at an pivotal place in the narrative, and we desperately need to have a deep understanding of what has come before. I hope that future histories will build upon this beginning point.

Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures Through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood, by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye. Neil A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2019. Inouye is a scholar of Asian Studies, who grew up in California and has a PhD from Harvard. She has traveled extensively and experienced many different cultures and challenges. Hence the title of her book, which implies the various intersections of her life: the US, China, New Zealand, being Asian, a wife and mother, a member of the Church, a cancer patient. Inouye also happens to be one of the most patient and kind people you there is. Her book is composed of letters, essays, blog posts and other materials gleaned from a rich life exploring faith at the geographic, cultural, and spiritual margins. It is a deeply personal book, one that courageously takes on the contradictions in our faith. Inouye teaches us how our differences in culture, our personal fears, and our own failings can all be paths to building Zion and making us more Christ-like. Even if you are not always swayed by Inouye’s arguments on topics like gay marriage or women and the priesthood, her efforts to bridge gaps and be of good faith are evident. The book is the embodiment of living faith, a tangible effort to understand and be understood. I recommend it.

A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon, by Larry E. Morris. Oxford University Press, 2019. For the uninitiated, a documentary history approaches an event or group or item of historical interest by looking at the primary documents written about that event or group or item. Here, Morris (formerly an editor with the Joseph Smith Papers project) has assembled an impressive collection of letters, articles and other sources of about the Book of Mormon, spanning the years 1823-1830. I especially valued Morris’ introductions and explanatory notes and maps, which were concise but extremely clear. It is fascinating to see, for example, the many years during this time period where there are simply no extant records or where nothing was said at all about the book. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the origins of the Book of Mormon through a new, unfiltered lens. The raw historical materials are refreshing and immensely interesting. I would also recommend this review for more detail about Morris’ work.

The Joseph Smith Papers:Documents Vol. 8. Brent M. Rogers, Mason K. Allred, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Brett D. Dowdle, editors. Church Historian’s Press, 2019. This Documents volume spans February to November 1841. As the JSP volumes progress towards their ultimate conclusion, the volumes grow more dense, with various figures introduced the way Chekhov introduces a gun in his plays. For example, John C Bennett – advocate of tomatoes and spiritual wifery, and largely viewed as a traitor to Smith – appears in this volume, though his excommunication for adultery would not occur until the spring of 1842. This volume shows the growing importance of the Twelve, from their increasing administrative responsibilities to their foreign missions (eg Orson Hyde’s expedition to Jerusalem). The collection is important background for the conflict to come in the next years in Nauvoo. As such, while extremely important to historians, I don’t know that the casual reader will need this as part of their collection. But the Joseph Smith Papers continues to be one of the most significant activities of the Church in providing transparency and access to its history, and for that it is invaluable.

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Eric Huntsman is working on the Gospel of John volume of the BYU New Testament Commentary. When it appears, it no doubt will be three inches thick, weigh several pounds, and be substantial enough to serve as a door stop if need be. But as an appetizer to that forthcoming tome, Eric has recently published a slighter, less intimidating volume at 155 pages, which is more of a devotional overview of the Gospel, titled Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming unto Christ through the Gospel of John, published by Cedar Fort, of which this blog post is a review.

Most of you probably know Eric (or of him), but for those who do not, an introduction is in order. He graduated with a double major in Latin and Greek from BYU in 1990, followed by MA and PhD degrees in ancient history from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught classics at BYU from 1994 to 2003, then transitioned to Ancient Scripture, where he remains today. Eric recently posted a fun FB update that gives some sense of his wide ranging academic interests:

The question of my fluctuating academic identity may have been solved. Ancient Scripture? ANES? Classics? Kennedy Center? Jerusalem Center? Maxwell Institute wanna-be? While buying some interesting books (attached) at the BYU Store, when the clerk ran my purchase card, she said, “The computer says you are your own department: The Department of Eric D Huntsman!”

He also sings in the Tab Choir (which I personally find hella impressive) and next year will begin a two-year stint as director of the BYU Jerusalem Center. (Oh, and his abs could grate cheese.) So yeah, no big deal.

I have to be honest, I feel a certain amount of envy for Eric. My academic career started out with the same professors he took in the same program. My dream was to become what Eric in fact has become. But in my case we got pregnant, it was a horrible recession, and I just couldn’t justify the huge risk that pursuing the PhD would have been at that time, so I went to law school so I could actually, you know, earn a living, and became a scholarly dilettante. Such is life; you gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.

The volume features a lovely Foreword by my blogmate Michael Austin, who is a real pro at that sort of thing.

So as I started to read it, I assumed the title referred to John the Apostle as the “Beloved Disciple,” because we presume that John the Apostle was the author of the Gospel, and we further presume that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is a modest self-reference to John.

But as I read the book, I slowly realized I had misunderstood. Whoever the Beloved Disciple is, the fact that he is not specifically identified in the text means that the reader can see herself in that role (much like, to a lesser extent, the mother of Jesus and the Samaritan woman are not named permitting us to see ourselves in their sandals). So the book is focused specifically on discipleship, and how we ourselves can become the “beloved disciple.” I simply didn’t see that coming, but it becomes clear as you read the text.

The theme of discipleship is explored throughout the book. A summary of the Table of Contents will give a sense for this focus:

Introduction–Discipleship in John: Embarking on a Journey through the Fourth Gospel

Chapter 1–The First Disciples: Come and See

Chapter 2–The Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene: Women as Witnesses

Chapter 3–Nicodemus: How Can These Things Be?

Chapter 4–The Woman at the Well-: Drinking the Water of Life with the Woman of Samaria

Chapter 5–Followers of Jesus and “Hard Sayings”: Murmur  Not among Yourselves

Chapter 6–Friends of Jesus: Lord, If Thou Hadst Been Here

Chapter 7–Peter and Thomas: Impulsive but Devoted Disciples

Conclusion–Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Fundamentals of Discipleship

Back matter includes the Logos Hymn, an outline of the Gospel, q bibliography and an index.

The writing is very straightforward, and I guarantee it is not beyond anyone reading this blog. The chapter endnotes make it clear that substantial scholarship stands behind each chapter, but I promise the text is clearly written and perfectly comprehensible.

Eric moves seamlessly between scholarly insight and devotional application. This book absolutely does not require serious NT scholarship chops to read productively.

I especially appreciated the extent to which Eric was able to highlight the witness of women. Women could not serve as witnesses under the law of the time, so the prominence of women witnesses of the Savior requires us to move beyond that ancient legal disability and to trust their testimony.

Now, I realize that our GD schedule is starting to slide into Acts, but be honest, many of you are behind in your reading, right? So here is a way to catch up in a hurry, which you will be able to follow and which will launch you as with a slingshot into the rest of the NT. So check out a copy. I give it two thumbs up; really good stuff!

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