Friday, December 23, 2011

O Holy Night

O Holy Night, by Adolphe Adam, is probably my favorite Christmas song.  The lyrics are absolutely sublime.  The last verse is my favorite because it speaks to me of the essence of Jesus' life - love, peace, and liberation.

This is also my favorite painting of Jesus - Healing at the Pool of Bethesda by Carl Bloch.  I don't know what the artist had in mind with this painting but to me it speaks of Jesus showing compassion toward the outcasts, the people who have been most forgotten and neglected.  I think of this painting whenever I here the third verse of O Holy Night.

This Christmas as I have remembered Jesus Christ I have come back again and again to this song and this image and it has inspired me.  So I wanted to share it.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Personal and Social Righteousness

The scriptures give some beautiful examples of ideal communities, in records about the past and in prophesy about the future.  There was the City of Enoch where the people “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18) There was the community in the Book of Mormon after the visitation of Christ and afterward in which “there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.  And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:2-3) Prophets have also prophesied that after the Second Coming of Christ there would follow the Millennium, a thousand-year period of peace and righteousness.  It is said, “children shall grow up without sin unto salvation.” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:58) It is also said “Satan shall not have power to tempt any man.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:28) In Revelation it is said that Satan will be “bound”. (Revelation 20:2) In the Book of Mormon, Nephi added some insight to this prophesy saying, “And because of the righteousness of his [the Lord’s] people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness, and the Holy One of Israel reigneth.” (1 Nephi 22:26) It is not because Satan has no power that the people are righteous, it is because the people are righteous that Satan has no power.  Why are the people righteous during these times and why are people not similarly righteous all the time?

What is interesting about such paradisiacal periods is that all the people in these societies are righteous.  This is unusual.  We are used to reading stories about a few righteous people living amid evil—the lone voice crying in the wilderness as it were.  But for an entire people to be righteous is quite noteworthy.  Is it because such a society is made up of very special people or is there something about the shared values of the society itself that helps people to be righteous? 

Looking at an entire community is a different way of approaching the subject of righteousness.  In our churches we focus a lot on individual behavior—and that is important since a society is made up of individuals.  But in the scriptures we often read about groups of people.  Nations and peoples are condemned or praised for their practices.  The scriptures often approach things communally, focusing especially on the rulers: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” (Proverbs 29:2) “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? Says the Lord GOD of hosts.” (Isaiah 3:14-15) In the Book of Mormon as well the warnings are often given to entire cities: “Behold ye, the people of this great city, and hearken unto my words; yea, hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you.  Ye do not remember the Lord your God in the things with which he hath blessed you, but ye do always remember your riches, not to thank the Lord your God for them; yea, your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities.” (Helaman 13:21-22, italics added)

Thinking about these Zion communities, I think there is something fundamental about the things they value that empower individuals in them to live more righteously.  They foster an environment that is highly conducive to everyone's happiness.  This is important because looking at the world now there are ways that our society makes it difficult to live righteously because of the things we value as a group.  A Zion society values love, peace and equality.  But I find that we do not universally value these things in our society, at least not in practice.

The scriptures say to treat people the way we would like to be treated. (Matthew 7:12) But while we pay lip service to selflessness our business culture is not built upon it.  Our ways of dealing with each other are very opportunistic.  A man in a dire situation can be taken advantage of like when he is desperate to sell his home.  We call this a “buyer’s market”.  We are encouraged and rewarded for taking advantage of other people.  The same mentality applies to wages and benefits.  In a recession, you can pay an employee less and offer fewer benefits because he can be easily replaced and is, therefore, “expendable”.  A Zion people with “no poor among them” must have a dramatically different way of thinking about people than we currently do in our society.  Love and equality must be foundational values.

The media contribute a great deal to our values.  In many ways the media improve our lives by allowing us to connect with the rest of the world and to learn.  Indeed, I should think that the media could be a very important, uplifting influence in Zion.  But many of the things valued by the media today are hardly uplifting. The media can be very adversarial, especially many “news” stations that foment anger and division over trivial matters.  It reminds me of the lawyers in the Book of Mormon who would “stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ.” (Alma 11:20) Sensationalism over controversy translates into high ratings for stations that enable them also to get gain.  The system is structured in a way that you have to be negative to be successful.

The media also send many harmful messages about sexuality.  There is nothing wrong with sexuality but our values regarding it can be distorted in ways that can really damage people.  To women especially, the implicit message is that men only value women of a certain appearance and if you don’t look like the doctored images on the magazine covers then you will not be attractive to anyone.  Sexuality is being used a commodity to be bought and sold, literally and figuratively, rather than something to be held sacred.  Of course, by no means should sexuality be suppressed.   It should be celebrated, but in an uplifting, respectful and sacred way founded in real love.

One of the most memorable prophesies of the Millennium is that it will be a time of peace.  To describe this we often quote this beautiful passage in Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) This reminds me of something President Eisenhower said in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” [1] I see Eisenhower’s comments as a kind of modern version of Isaiah’s prophesy.  What will we be able to do when we get over our lust for war?  All the science, technology and labor that we devote to weapons of destruction can be applied to building societies up instead of tearing them down.

Moving from a warlike mentality to a commitment for peace means that we need to be more inclusive in our thought.  We have to include all nations, races and religion into our circle of friendship.  It is not enough to just be nice, honorable people to those within our own community and family.  In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were very loving among themselves.  Jacob said of them, “their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children.” (Jacob 2:7) But even though Lamanites were loving toward one another they were still hateful to the Nephites.  Being peaceful means that we widen our circle to include Muslims, Arabs, Chinese, Russians and everyone else in the world.

In our society we still value power over peace and we still glorify war.  In 1976, the bicentennial year of the United States, the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball said: “We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’” [2]

It is interesting to me that President Kimball would mention that our obsession with weaponry and war distracts us from preparing for the coming of the Lord.  I often hear people express a kind of resigned acceptance of the current condition of the world, expecting that God is just going to fix everything after the Second Coming.  That may be true, but the point is that we should be preparing ourselves and our communities to live a more excellent way.  There is nothing preventing us from adopting the values of these paradisiacal societies right now. 

The values of the Gospel such as love, peace and equality are, in many important ways, different from the things we value right now in our society.  Of course, here I have shown examples of problems to contrast them with the ideal of the Kingdom of God.  In many ways we are doing quite well and the world is getting better.  You are much less likely to die a violent death today than in any other time in history.  So there is much to be pleased about.  But we are still not Zion.  We want to value love, peace and equality but we don’t actually do it. The Gospel really boils down to love for all people, without exception.  And it requires action.  It’s not just sitting on the couch or at your computer thinking nice thoughts about people.  Real love involves service and sacrifice.  It’s a matter of taking that seriously, in real life with real people, right now.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sufficient For Our Needs

I once asked a good friend, a pastor actually, what she believed the ideal society would look like.  I really liked her response: “In a perfect world everyone would have what they needed.”  I like this response because it coincides with what I read in scripture concerning God’s vision of the perfect world.  In the Torah, God told the people, “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, italics added) It seems the God too desires that all people in the world have sufficient for their needs.  He also desires that we who have greater abundance should open our hands wide unto them.  This requires us to recognize when we have sufficient for our needs and use the surplus to impart unto others.

In latter-day scripture the Lord established the Law of Consecration in which an individual was made to be a “steward” over his own property, “as much as is sufficient for himself and family.”  The “residue”, or that which was more than needful for the needs of his family was to be used “to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:32-33) In a later revelation this residue was called a “surplus”. (Doctrine and Covenants 119) We learn an interesting story about this later revelation from Brigham Young in a talk he gave some years later:

When the revelation which I have read was given in 1838, I was present, and recollect the feelings of the brethren. A number of revelations were given on the same day. The brethren wished me to go among the Churches and find out what surplus property the people had, with which to forward the building of the Temple we were commencing at Far West. I accordingly went from place to place through the country. Before I started, I asked brother Joseph, "Who shall be the judge of what is surplus property?" Said he, "Let them be the judge themselves, for I care not if they do not give a single dime. So far as I am concerned, I do not want anything they have.  

Then I replied, "I will go and ask them for their surplus property;" and I did so; I found the people said they were willing to do about as they were counselled, but, upon asking them about their surplus property, most of the men who owned land and cattle would say, "I have got so many hundred acres of land, and I have got so many boys, and I want each one of them to have eighty acres, therefore this is not surplus property." Again, "I have got so many girls, and I do not believe I shall be able to give them more than forty acres each." "Well, you have got two or three hundred acres left." "Yes, but I have a brother−in−law coming on, and he will depend on me for a living; my wife's nephew is also coming on, he is poor, and I shall have to furnish him a farm after he arrives here." I would go on to the next one, and he would have more land and cattle than he could make use of to advantage. It is a laughable idea but is nevertheless true, men would tell me they were young and beginning the world, and would say, "We have no children, but our prospects are good, and we think we shall have a family of children, and if we do, we want to give them eighty acres of land each; we have no surplus property." "How many cattle have you?" "So many." "How many horses, &c?" "So many, but I have made provisions for all these, and I have use for every thing I have got.” [1]

The system worked fine until it came time for people judge at what point they had sufficient for their needs.  And it could only rely on the individuals themselves to make that judgment.  The way of the Lord was not a forced redistribution but a society of love and concern for the other.

Beyond the benefit we can offer to others through our own surplus there is a great peace and happiness that comes from recognizing when we have sufficient for our needs.  We live in a materialistic society, always moving forward to the next big thing: the next iPhone, the next car model, the next style of clothing.  We rush around frantically to accumulate more money to buy all of these things without considering the things we already have.  And always the comparisons.  What do the neighbors have that we don’t?  How can I compete in the workforce?  There is no time, no peace.  What we need is to slow down.

Brigham Young was a great organizer and built the economy of Utah from the ground up.  He recognized the material needs of the Saints.  But he also cautioned against the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.  He consistently warned the Saints not to run off after gold during the California Gold Rush.  And he recognized the wisdom in trusting in the Lord to take care of us:

This is the counsel I have for the Latter−day Saints to−day. Stop, do not be in a hurry. I do not know that I could find a man in our community but what wishes wealth, would like to have everything in his possession that would conduce to his comfort and convenience. Do you know how to get it? "Well," replies one, "If I do not, I wish I did; but I do not seem to be exactly fortunate − fortune is somewhat against me." I will tell you the reason of this − you are in too much of a hurry; you do not go to meeting enough, you do not pray enough, you do not read the Scriptures enough, you do not meditate enough, you are all the time on the wing, and in such a hurry that you do not know what to do first. This is not the way to get rich. I merely use the term "rich" to lead the mind along, until we obtain eternal riches in the celestial kingdom of God. Here we wish for riches in a comparative sense, we wish for the comforts of life. If we desire them let us take a course to get them. Let me reduce this to a simple saying − one of the most simple and homely that can be used − "Keep your dish right side up," so that when the shower of porridge does come, you can catch your dish full. [2]

We should not be so concerned about trying to fill up our own dish as much as just preparing to receive the blessings that the Lord will provide and trusting that he will do so—“Keep your dish right side up”.

Jesus was very nonchalant about material things.  “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” Well that’s very nice but what are we supposed to do then?  Jesus says, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?  Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?  And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?  Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-24)

I love this passage of scripture.  It’s so beautiful.  Look at nature and they way the rains provide water and the sun provides energy.  God takes care of the world and He will take care of us.  I especially love the line, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” or in perhaps a clearer translation, “today’s trouble is enough for today.”  Just take things one day at a time and don’t worry so much.  Trust in God.

Before saying all of this Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24) “Mammon” means riches or wealth.  The point of this whole discourse is clear—you cannot serve in Kingdom of God if you are worried about material things.  This is very important.  Satan wishes for us to be preoccupied all the time about not having enough.  He will always put the thought in our ear—“Have you any money?”  “You can by anything in this world with money.”

This is the condition of our time.  The prophet Mormon saw our day and he didn’t seem particularly impressed: “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts.  For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (Mormon 8:36-37) It is clear that Mormon compiled the records in the Book of Mormon he felt were most relevant to us and to our problems.  He saw our materialism and our disregard for the poor, a loss of perspective on the things that are most important.

Paul also warned Timothy of people who would teach, “that gain is godliness”.  Paul said further: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.  But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:3-10) After we have food and raiment we may be content.  And the Lord has promised that the Father will provide these things if we trust in him.  Just keep your dish right side up.

There is great peace in being content with our basic needs.  Life is beautiful in it’s basic simplicity—love, family, friends, memories.  The earth is beautiful, not for it’s resources but for it’s own sake.  If we take time to slow down, as Brigham Young said, to pray and to meditate we can find that we already have much of what we need.  And to those who do not have sufficient for their needs we can be a blessing to others.  We can bring more people into our circle of friends by helping them.  The Lord has asked us to care for one another and to give of our surplus to those who are lacking.  But first we must recognize when we have a surplus.  We will be tempted to neglect the needs of others, distracted by expensive toys and clothing.  But the wise and proper response has always been the same—we have sufficient for needs.


1.  Journal of Discourses 2:306-307
2.  Journal of Discourses 15:36-37

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Lord's Ways

This is a transcript of a talk I gave in church on Sunday, October 30, 2011.

My thoughts this morning are on our Heavenly parents and their relationship to us as well as our relationship to each other.  The springboard I’ll use here is this month’s theme in Isaiah chapter 55.  I want to read the scripture in its full context to see what Isaiah was saying here.  Chapter 55 is a beautiful invitation to return to the Lord.  It’s a message of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness.  This invitation is given to all: “Ho, every one that thirstest, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David… Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:1,3,6-9)

We are asked to consider our ways and thoughts.  This is an invitation for introspection, to compare our ways and our thoughts to God’s.  The scriptures say that we are created in the image of our Heavenly parents.  We are similar to them in our nature.  But in behavior, in practice, in custom, our ways and our thoughts, we are, collectively, very different from them, even radically different.  The ways of the Lord our higher than ours.  The thoughts of the Lord are higher than ours.  But the invitation is to forsake our ways and our thoughts.  To do what?  To adopt the ways and thoughts of the Lord.

So then what are the ways and the thoughts of the Lord?  This is important because the way we understand and view God will influence our values and our aspirations.  It is an easy thing to fall into theological idolatry and to create a god fashioned in our own image, to project our own ways and thoughts onto a god of our own vain imagination rather than to conform our ways and thoughts to those of the true and living God.  In the introductory section of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord said the people “seek not the Lord to establish righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16)  Babylon, in the scriptures always stands in contrast to Zion.  The people of God are to follow His law and His ways while the world follows after the ways of Babylon.

There is some low-hanging fruit here that we as Latter-day Saints can easily recognize as ways of the world that contradict the ways of the Lord: sexual immorality, pornography, drug use, alcohol and so forth.  These are ways of Babylon that encroach upon us and we should not conform our ways to them.  In addition to these obvious sinful actions there are ways of being and thinking that alienate us from God.   The invitation is for the wicked to forsake his ways and thoughts, not only to stop doing wicked things.  This transformation has more to do with who we are than what we do.  Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “…the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” [1]

We are invited to transform ourselves, our ways and our thoughts to conform to those of God.  How shall we know the ways of our Heavenly parents?  Jesus said to his disciples: “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.  Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.  Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?  He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?  Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.  Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” (John 14:7-11)  We know the ways and thoughts of God primarily through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Biblical scholar Marcus Borg said of Jesus: “He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion—of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about.  He shows us the heart of God.” [2]

It is through Jesus then that we can come to understand the character, the way and thoughts of God.  Jesus is the way to become like God, or as he said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but my me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus is the example that we should emulate and imitate.  Jesus asked the Nephites—“What manner of men ought ye to be?  Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27).  We find the path in Jesus’ life and teachings. 

If we dare to study Jesus at face value we find that the Kingdom of God he preaches is a world radically different from our own.  When we understand the radical difference of the Kingdom of God and the way its imminence threatens our own customs and ways of thinking it is easier to see how this preacher from Nazareth would cause so many in positions of authority to clamor for his swift execution and crucifixion.  In Jesus we can see the incarnation of the premise “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  Jesus stands out in history because he was so fundamentally, strikingly different.  It’s very important not to domesticate his teachings to make them more palatable to our own ways and thoughts.  His teachings are challenging and they should be challenging.  Jesus’ teachings flip the entire way of the world upside-down.  “The last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16)  “Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)  “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”  It’s all backwards, flipped around, upside-down, a complete one-eighty.  If we adopt the way of Jesus we are transformed, entirely forsaking our ways and thoughts for his, for God’s.

One of the first things to understand about the Lord is that he does not see people in the same way we do.  We place importance on very superficial things like physical attractiveness, prestige and wealth.  But the Lord sees people on a much deeper level.  The scriptures say: “the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) If we were to see people in the way God sees them we would treat them much differently than we treat them now.  But first we have to change our world-view.  Our way is to alienate and devalue certain groups of people.  We see light skin and dark skin, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat and we make value judgments, reasons to exclude, to demean.  But in the eyes of God these divisions and barriers brake down.  It’s not that this diversity no longer exists, but that all are equally invited to come unto him, “black and white, bond and free, male and female… all are alike unto God…” (2 Nephi 26:33) It is only after changing our way of seeing and thinking about others, those who we exclude from our circle, that we can truly begin to adopt the ways of the Lord.

A certain lawyer asked Jesus, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus asked him to answer his own question based on the written law, which says: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”  This was the correct answer and Jesus told him to go and do this and he would live.  But the lawyer then asked the perennially relevant question: “who is my neighbor?”  This is the critical question if the law is to be meaningful in any way.  To love your neighbor is not an abstract principle.  You can only love an actual person, a living, breathing individual.  So who are those people that we are required to love?  We have to know who they are in order to follow this law.  So Jesus told him a story.  A man traveled to Jericho and fell among thieves.  He was beaten nearly to death and stripped of his clothing.  A Levite and a priest both passed him on the road but walked on by.  To Jesus’ Jewish audience the Levite and priest were the obvious neighbors; they were of the same religion and well respected members of their society.  But the implication here was that for the priest or the Levite to touch a dead person would have made them ritually unclean, not permanently, but it would have been an inconvenience to them in their religious duties, too great a risk.  But a Samaritan, found the man and had compassion on him, dressed his wounds, gave him lodging, and paid the innkeeper for all expenses on his behalf.  The Samaritans were not nice to the Jews and course the Jews were not nice to them.  They were enemies.  The Samaritans wouldn’t even receive Jesus when he traveled among them, with a few exceptions.  To these people, a “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron, impossibility.  But Jesus set up the story in this way on purpose and asked the lawyer “which one was a neighbor to him that fell among thieves?”  And the obvious answer was that the Samaritan was neighbor to him. (Luke 10:25-37)

This is sometimes called a Parable of Reversal—it flips things around and forces you to consider things in a way completely opposite of the way you normally do.  This is the way Jesus helps us to see that his ways and his thoughts are higher than ours.  We are not inclined to love all people so indiscriminately.  But Jesus said, “love your enemies”.  “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?” (Matthew 5:44-45) Can this kind of universal love for all people really work in our world today?

The way we show love for God is by showing love to our neighbors.  When we show compassion to our neighbors it is as though we have loved the Lord himself.  “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)  Who are “the least”?  I think we can answer that question by looking within ourselves and asking whom we devalue most.  The least are the forgotten ones, or worse, the despised and rejected ones.  Some of them are the homeless sleeping on the street corners, the families in generational poverty.  Or maybe they are the migrant workers loitering on the street corners hoping to find a day’s labor.  They are even the ones in prison, the drug traffickers, the drunk-drivers, the thieves, the murderers, the sex-offenders, people who have done harm to others, the lowest of the low.  Our way is to look upon these is to judge them and, in the case of those in prison, to seek retribution and punishment, the harsher the better.  But the ways of the Lord are not our ways.  Jesus said that we are to look upon such and see His face, the image of God in the lowest and most depraved of all humanity.  The message of the parable is that we will be judged by the way we treat these people, not by the way we treat our friends.  In the eyes of God, the very things we that do to these people we have effectively done to the Lord himself.  We must not forget that Jesus himself was despised and rejected of men; he descended below all things.  What did this experience teach him?  It gave the Son of God the perspective to understand the state of the least among us and the impulse to lift them up and redeem them, no matter how horrible their past.  In the mind of the Lord, no child of God is undeserving of love and compassion.  This is the way God sees.

The Lord expects a great deal from us but He is also infinitely merciful.  If only we could be as merciful to each other as he is to us.  It is possible to return to the Lord and become a new creature through his Atonement.  When we enter into the way and the thoughts of God we are transformed and we can become a transforming force in the lives of others to bring about the Kingdom of God on the earth.  Then our thoughts will be His thoughts and our ways will be His ways.


1.  Dallin H. Oaks. The Challenge to Become. October 2000
2.  Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity. p. 81

Friday, October 7, 2011

Korihor and Social Darwinism

The Book of Mormon contains the teachings of three great heretics or Anti-Christs. The most famous of these is probably Korihor, the Anti-Christ who confronted the prophet Alma. Here is a quick recap of the story. Korihor taught that there was no need for Atonement, there was no God and that whatever a man did was no crime. He debated Alma and demanded a sign of God’s existence. As a sign from God he was struck dumb. When Korihor was struck dumb he admitted that he had always known there was a God and asked to be healed, but was denied this request. He ended his life pitifully, trampled down among a merciless crowd.

The Book of Mormon presumably includes these stories and teachings so that we may recognize these same false doctrines today. It serves as a warning. So it is important to understand exactly what false doctrine is being taught. Obviously, Korihor taught that there was no God and we usually focus on this in Sunday school. But this is not the only thing he taught. There are many atheists who are also humanists, care about others and live moral lives. But Korihor was not this kind of atheist. His teachings encouraged an immoral way of living. He had five basic teachings. (Alma 30:17)

1. “There could be no atonement made for the sins of men”
2. “Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature”
3. “Every man prospered according to his genius”
4. “Every man conquered according to his strength”
5. “Whatsoever a man did was no crime”

In Korihor’s own view we don’t need God. We don’t need atonement for our sins because nothing we do is sinful. The supreme authority is one’s self. The only thing we have to do is climb our way to the top using our abilities, intelligence and strength.

This reminds me of a more modern philosophy called Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a philosophy that justifies and exalts the pursuit of wealth without regard to compassion or responsibility for others on the grounds that the cutthroat business world promotes the “survival of the fittest.” This philosophy is often placed historically in the late nineteenth century but similar ideas are alive and well today. The English philosopher Herbert Spencer saw natural selection, or in his words “survival of the fittest”, working in nature and concluded that this was not only the way things work in nature, but the way they should work in all areas of life, including economics.

In Spencer’s view, predatory instincts served to "exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in the way, with the same sternness that they exterminate beasts of prey and herds of useless animals." Spencer became wildly popular among the elite industrial tycoons of America. People like to think that their way of life is moral and correct and Social Darwinism not only justified harsh business practices, it encouraged and glorified them. In response to the sympathetic feelings we might have toward those less fortunate Spencer tried to put our minds at ease:

"Those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shallows and in miseries,' are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskillfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artisan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death... The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better."

Social Darwinism today takes form in some of these commonly-held beliefs:

“If you work hard you can make it. Poor people just haven’t put forth the effort to succeed.”

“If the poor would just get up and work then they wouldn’t be poor anymore.”

“If we help the poor it will just encourage them to be lazy.”

“I worked hard for what I have. Why should I help anyone else? No one helped me.”

“This is a harsh, cruel world and some people just aren’t going to be as successful. There’s nothing you can do about it so you just have to accept it.”

“We shouldn’t create a society of dependents.”

These ideas cover a broad range of economic and political issues that I won’t try to cover here. I have my own doubts about the efficacy of government action to solve these problems. But my main concern is the philosophy of Social Darwinism and what religion has to say about it.

Korihor was very concerned with possessions. He accused the priests of taking property from the working people and living off of them. This was a false accusation but we can see that Korihor believed that the church was keeping people from enjoying their own possessions. He said that the church was keeping the people under a yoke of bondage “that they durst no look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges. Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own…” (Alma 30:27-28)

Korihor’s doctrine was very individualistic and meritocratic. In his view, every man prospered according to his own genius and conquered according to his own strength. A man owed nothing to God or to any other person. This was an extreme expression of ingratitude. In the Bible, the Lord, warned the people not to forget what God had done for them.

“Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God… And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:10-18)

Everything that we have we owe to God. This includes our intelligence and our strength that allows us to prosper and to conquer. And God does not desire that those who have greater ability and strength than others trample the less-fortunate under their feet. Rather God desires that we impart of our substance one to another. It is true that this is a harsh, cruel world but that doesn’t mean that we should perpetuate that condition deliberately. If you are blessed with great business acumen or technical ability or any number of abilities that have enabled you to succeed the Lord expects that these abilities will be used to serve. Our talents and gifts are not to be hoarded and buried in the earth but should be used to bless the lives of others.

What of the philosophy that we shouldn’t help the poor because it will make them lazy and create a society of dependents? King Benjamin addressed this in the Book of Mormon. “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent.” (Mosiah 4:17-18) It is not for us to judge others, ever. Maybe the beggar would just buy a beer with some change. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give him food directly. What’s even better is to work to address the social and economic conditions that led to the beggar being where he is in the first place. We have a culture in the workplace and in management that can be more employee-focused. We don’t have to depress wages and salaries to the lowest possible level to increase profits. That is the culture of Social Darwinism, not Christianity.

The essence of Korihor’s teaching was selfishness. Korihor replaced worship of God with worship of self. Korihor taught that we should use our strength, intelligence and any other advantages to conquer and to prosper over others. The Lord asks us to use our gifts and talents to benefit and bless others.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Expansive Mormon Views

Thomas Paine, according to his own account, realized soon after writing Common Sense, “that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” [1] He had observed that the “adulterous connection of church and state” was effectively employed to limit religious discussion and exploration by means of the established creeds.  He also believed that if this connection were dissolved “a revolution in the system of religion would follow.” [2] Paine was prophetic in maintaining that a religious revolution would come, though this revolution was not a widespread conversion to Deism, as he might of hoped.  The America visited by Alexis de Tocqueville years later was teeming with religious fervor.  The religion of America was not some stale, second-hand observance but a dynamic driving force impelling people’s lives.  De Tocqueville reported: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.” [3]

It was at this time that Joseph Smith burst onto the American religious scene seeking “to lay a foundation that [would] revolutionize the whole world.” [4] Joseph Smith, like Paine, resisted the constraints of creeds.  He thought himself a prophet and spoke with confidence as one having authority that transcended creeds. Like Moses, he wished enter into the very presence of God to receive knowledge directly from its eternal source.  “I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ which I cannot subscribe to.” [5] Joseph Smith was willing to push the boundaries of religious innovation further than most would dare.  “Thy mind O man if thou wilt lead a soul into salvation must search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanse of eternity, thou must commune with God.” [6]
Joseph understood that during his short ministry he was sliding fast into heterodoxy, at least relative to the creeds of established Christianity.  And he often felt frustrated that his followers were not able to keep pace.  “But there has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation.  It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle.  Even the Saints are slow to understand.  I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.” [7] I can certainly sympathize with the Saints for being slow to accept Joseph’s more radical teachings.  But I also admire Joseph’s tenacity in pushing religious ideas to a more expansive vista of possibilities.
One of Joseph’s followers, Parley Pratt, was nearly as intrepid.  In his great work Key to the Science of Theology, Pratt celebrated “an age of progress, of change, of rapid advances, and of wonderful revolutions.” [8] He was especially enchanted by the discoveries of science and technology.  Yet he, like Joseph, was frustrated with the comparatively slow pace of religious development.  “While every science, every art is being developed; while the mind is awakened to new thought; while the windows of heaven are opened, as it were, and the profound depths of human intellect are stirred—moved from the foundation on all other subjects, religious knowledge seems at a standstill.  The creeds of the Fathers seem to have been cast in the mold of other ages, to be adapted to a more narrow sphere of intellectual development, and to be composed of material too much resembling cast iron; or, at least, not sufficiently elastic to expand with the expansion of mind, to grow with the growth, and to advance with the progressive principles of the age.” [9]
This time was a veritable Pentecost for the early Saints.  The heavens were opened and the Spirit surged forth among them as a rushing wind, “as pure intelligence” generating “sudden strokes of ideas.” [10] This spirit led to new and innovative views.  There are certain ideas from this movement that I would call expansive.  They were expansive because of the freedom with which they were explored and also because of their immense implications.  I have thought of ten ideas or doctrines taught to one extent or another in the history of the Latter-day Saint movement that I think best exemplify this expansive spirit

1.  Revelation
2.  Free Agency
3.  Rejection of Original Sin
4.  Pre-mortal Existence
5.  Materialism
6.  Universal Salvation
7.  Law of Consecration
8.  Heavenly Mother
9.  Eternal Marriage
10.  Mortals Can Become Gods

While some of these ideas are not unique to Mormonism, taken together they constitute perhaps the most dramatic restructuring of Christian doctrine in all of history.  The pioneers of Mormon thought did not settle for a tidy systematic theology beginning with creation and ending with the final judgment.  Rather, they probed further past the veil into the eternal past and eternal future.  What was going on before creation?  What are even being saved for?  Joseph had a vision of eternity that extended far beyond playing harps in the clouds.  What could be more expansive than to progress from one state to the next for all eternity, creating and designing as God, attaining all power and all intelligence?

Religious ideas matter.  They impact they way we see the world and each other.  They affect the way we treat each other.  What is the impact of seeing people not as fallen creatures, stained with sin from birth, but rather as divine beings, gods in embryo?  What if we took the Law of Consecration seriously and strived to build Zion with no poor among us?  We hear a lot of people telling each other they are going to Hell.  What if instead we told each other we were all going to Heaven and started creating Heaven on earth now?  There is power in these ideas and I believe they are worth exploring.


[1] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (from The Thomas Paine Reader, Penguin Classics) p. 401

[2] Ibid

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1851) p. 335

[4] History of the Church 6:365

[5] Ibid, 6:57

[6] Ibid, 3:295

[7] Ibid, 6:184-185

[8] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Deseret Book) p. vii

[9] Ibid, vii-viii

[10] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 151.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Women in the Early Church

Emmeline B. Wells
This is the written version of a talk a gave in church on Mother's Day.

I have been asked to speak about the positive influence of righteous women of the early, restored church.  I was quite excited to speak about this topic because it so happens I have been interested in this subject for some time.  Heather and I have taken an institute class covering the history of the church in Utah in the nineteenth century.  It is fascinating history and perhaps not so well known among members of the church.  This is especially true when it comes to the history of women.  This isn’t true only with Mormon history but history in general.  Whether it’s Roman history or American history the story of men tends to dominate but we forget about half the population.  There’s a lot more going on if you take the time to look for it.

The nice thing about Mormons is that they have tended to write things down.  And this has been very helpful for going back to learn about the early church and the settlement of Utah.  And even just regular people would often keep journals.  That’s where we get a lot of the really interesting stories.

Some of these stories are actually pretty funny.  I just love learning about life on the frontier.  This is a story from the diary of John D. Lee. 

“One day when Lee was away from home, John Lawson, one of his neighbors, and George Dodds, Lawson's son-in-law, commenced to chop down the trees and willows that grew along a creek that ran through Lee's property. This was just behind the house occupied by Emma and Ann, Lee's two youngest wives. They both went out and asked Lawson to stop, stating that they needed the shade for their ducks and chickens. But Lawson paid no attention to their protests, so they sent for their husband. Lee and his son Willard came on the run, took Lawson's axe away, and ordered him off the place.

“Early the next morning Lawson returned with additional help and began once more cutting away the brush from the creek bed. This time Ann had no time to send for help. She filled a pan with boiling water and when Lawson disregarded her protests, she threw it at him. She was so far away that it fell harmlessly in front of him, and he said, "Pour it on," and continued his chopping. Desperately, Ann ran back to the house and returned with Emma and a pan of hot water each. Seeing that they were determined, Lawson held up his ax, and told them to stand back. Emma threw her water at him, and when his attention was diverted, Ann sprang at him and grabbed the arm that held the ax. They both fell, with Ann on top. ‘When I with several others reached the scene of action," wrote John D. Lee in his diary,  I found them both on the ground & Ann with one hand in his hair & with the other pounding him in the face. In the mean time Emma returned with a New Supply of hot water & then pitched into him with Ann & they bothe handled him rather Ruff. His face was a gore of blood. My son Willard finally took them off him.” [1]

These women out of the frontier really had to be pretty self-reliant and they had certain tenaciousness so that when they wanted things done a certain way they got done.  I use this humorous story as an example of a theme I have found reading about all these pioneer women. When I read about the women in the early church the thing that sticks out to me is a common drive to action.  Mormon women saw opportunities, both big and small, to make a difference in the church and in their communities.  I find this over and over.  Issues like poverty, education, women’s suffrage, they were all over that stuff.  And they came up with plans do something about them and they were unstoppable.

The sad thing is that I don’t think we really know much about the women in our church history.  I think we know the names of Lucy Mack Smith and Emma Smith, maybe Eliza R. Snow.  But probably fewer people would be familiar with Emmeline B. Wells, Susa Young Gates, Aurelia Spencer Rogers, Louisa Lula Greene, and Sarah M. Kimball.  These are really names we should all know because they shaped the church from its early days.  And I have to emphasize that this is not history that just women should know.  For us men in the church it’s important to realize how the early women of the church have shaped our heritage. 

I think to start off I’d like to talk a little about the Relief Society.  This is an interesting story.  And what’s interesting about it is that this was maybe the first big move in the restoration of the church that was led by women.  They asked Joseph Smith to organize them officially but the idea started with the women of Nauvoo.  The first person to really move in this direction was Sarah M. Kimball.  I’m going to read her version of the story as she wrote it in an autobiographical essay in the Woman’s Exponent in 1883.  First as background to this story, Sarah M. Kimball had been working with a seamstress named Margaret A. Cook and they wanted to make shirts for the men working on the temple.  This is how it all started.  Sister Cook said she would love to do it but she didn’t have the material to make the shirts so Sarah M. Kimball told she would provide that.  From this they decided that it might be good to get a lot of the women in the city together to work together on this and they eventually decided to form a Ladies’ Society.  Now I’ll read from her account.

“The neighboring sisters met in my parlor and decided to organize.  I was delegated to call on Sister Eliza R. Snow and ask her to write for us a Constitution and By-laws, and submit them to President Joseph Smith prior to our next Thursday’s meeting.  She cheerfully responded and when she read them to him he replied that the Constitution and By-laws were the best he had ever seen.  ‘But,’ he said, ‘this is not what you want.  Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord, and he has something better for them than a written Constitution.  I invite them all to meet with me and a few of the brethren in the Masonic Hall over my store next Thursday afternoon, and I will organize the women under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.’  He further said, ‘The church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.’  He wished to have Sister Emma Smith elected to preside in fulfillment of the revelation which called her an Elect Lady.” [2]

The object of the Relief Society was nothing less than “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of benevolent purposes.”  That’s a big mission and a very noble one.  These wonderful Nauvoo sisters saw a problem and they banded together to do something about it.  Joseph Smith wrote afterward, “Our women have always been signalized for their acts of benevolence and kindness.” [3] What I have found in reading back into all of this is that these women, along with Joseph Smith is seems, truly viewed the organization of women in the Relief Society to be an essential part of the Restoration of the Lord’s church.  I found an interesting line in the first issue of the Woman’s Exponent, published in Utah in 1872.  Eliza R. Snow wrote a brief sketch of the organization of the Relief Society.  She said: “According to authentic testimony, an organization, of which the present Female Relief Society is a fac-simile, has always existed when the Church of Jesus Church [Christ] has been fully organized.  ‘Elect lady,’ as it occurs in the New Testament, has direct reference to the same—alluding to one who presided over this Institution.  See 2d Epistle of John, 1st verse.” [4]

So to further consider the impact of righteous women in the early restored church I invite you all to think about your church experience, especially as youth.  In addition to the Sacrament meeting and Priesthood meeting we have Relief Society, Young Men, Young Women, and Primary.  The remarkable thing is that these organizations that have probably been so crucial in our spiritual growth also have their roots in the initiative of faithful women.

The Young Women organization used to be the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association and was started by Brigham Young.  This organization has an interesting history and a really fun church video made sometime back in the seventies I think.  The basic idea was to encourage simplicity and frugal living.  Eliza R. Snow played a huge role in running this organization as she traveled from ward to ward.  While she did this she found many bishops distressed by the behavior of the young men.  She started suggesting that a similar organization be set up for young men.  During one of her visits she asked all the girls to bring their boyfriends to the meeting and warned all the young men that if they did not “have off their drinking and tobacco, where were the young girls to get husbands?”  It seemed she struck a nerve with these young men and it was said that they were after their bishop before the next morning to get them organized like the young women. [5] And so it went on.  The historian Maureen Ursenbach Beecher was of the opinion that the Young Men Mutual Improvement Organization was organized in part resulting from indirect but persistent pressure from Eliza R. Snow.  So it seems that to a certain extent, even the Young Men organization that many of the brethren here grew up with arose out of the initiative of the faithful Latter-day Saint women.

The beginning of the Primary is interesting.  It started off very simply as a local organization in Farmington, Utah.  It was organized by Aurelia Spencer Rogers.  Once again Eliza R. Snow was involved in this too and encouraged sister Rogers to do this.  Eliza R. Snow wrote that Mrs. Rogers “expressed a desire that something more could be effected for the cultivation and improvement of the children morally and spiritually than was being done through the influence of day and Sunday Schools.  After consulting together a few moments, I asked Mrs. R. if she was willing to take the responsibility and labor on herself of presiding over the children of that settlement, provided the Bishop of the Ward sanctioned the movement.  She replied in the affirmative.” [6] Well, the Bishop was very enthusiastic about the idea and so the Primary began, just from the desire of one woman to do some good in her ward.  I keep seeing this again and again that these women just saw a need and did their best to fill it.

This drive to do some good extended to very broad areas as well.  The Mormon women in Utah recognized that the way their sisters around the world were treated was not right.  The 1870s were tough times for members of the church.  The rest of the nation was pressing down on the church and its members and women bore a huge share of this treatment.  Women had had the right to vote in Utah since 1870 when the territorial legislator granted them suffrage by unanimous vote.  However, in 1887 the United States Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which, among other things, specifically took the vote away from women.  However, Utah was a hotbed of Latter-day Saint women no longer content to live below their privileges.  In a religion that taught them that they would be queens and priestesses to the most high God, they could not allow the world to treat them as anything less.  I think there is an important lesson in this example.

The best information I have found on the thoughts of feelings of Mormon women during this time period is a biweekly newspaper called the Woman’s Exponent, which I have quoted previously.  In its later issues the newspaper carried the subtitle: “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.”  This newspaper basically functioned as the newspaper for the Relief Society, though it was officially independent.  The founder of the paper was Louisa Lula Greene, afterword, Emmeline B. Wells was editor for most of the paper’s history.

Even as a modern reader, the positions taken by the authors in the Woman’s Exponent seem to me remarkably bold.  I would like to read from an article from the first installment titled “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.”

“The agitation of the woman’s rights question aims at obtaining a broader recognition for the rights of women, as a moiety of the social structure, now deprived of many privileges it is contended they should enjoy, and refused rights which it is claimed they should possess equally with men… There are many rights which woman should possess yet of which she is denied by custom and by statute law, but more especially by the former.  She should have the right to live, and to live purely, and not be compelled by the force of custom and fortuitous circumstances to seek a living death that the physical body may be sustained.  And to secure her this right, she should have access to every avenue of employment for which she has physical and mental capacity… Custom also says that if a woman does as much work as a man, and does it as well, she must not receive equal pay for it, and herein a wrong is inflicted upon her by the deprivation of a right to which she is justly entitled… In the application of manhood suffrage a wrong is inflicted upon the women of these United States, as States—one which the women of Utah do not have to bear… women are deprived of it, simply because nature qualified them to become mothers and not fathers of men.” [7]

The women of Utah stood shoulder to shoulder with the great names of the Women’s movement in the United States such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Emmeline B. Wells, later President of the Relief Society, could be considered on of the great women’s rights advocates in United States history.  Sisters Wells herself represented the state of Utah when she spoke at conventions of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National and International Councils of Women.  Emmeline B. Wells had the opportunity to speak on behalf of women around the world in front of Congress and the President of the United States.  When Utah was granted statehood in 1896 women’s suffrage was restored along with full access to political office.  Thus women in Utah enjoyed the right of the vote twenty years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment made that right universal throughout the country.  Mormon women like Emmeline B. Wells and Susa Young Gates continued to advocate the rights of woman along with many other faithful sisters working behind the scenes.

I think in this way and many more ways the women in the early church fulfilled the commission the Relief Society for “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of benevolent purposes.”  These were go-getters who got things done and I think they are a great example to every one of us. 

The historian Claudia L. Bushman has said that it’s important to remember that history is more than just studying the lives of the most prominent members of society or of the church.  History is really lived by the regular people.  Today I have talked a lot about some of the more prominent women of the church, mostly because I don’t think we know enough even about them.  But there are also the stories of our ancestors and the women who lived more quiet lives that can give us just as much inspiration.  I’d like to share two examples from an article by historian Leonard Arrington. 

“The first is found in the diary of Christina Oleson Warnick.  It is evident from this diary that Mrs. Warnick helped build her house, being primarily responsible for the fireplace and chimney. She dug irrigation ditches; she plowed, planted and fertilized the land while the men put in the dam; she cut the 'wild hay along the river bottoms and stacked it for the cows for winter; she grubbed the brush and sheared the sheep; she took in washings and spun and wove cloth; and she always walked from one village to the next with her knitting in her hands.

A second example comes from the diary of Mary Julia Johnson Wilson.  She tells the story of a young man who was leaving in one week on a mission, but had no suit to wear. When the neighbor women heard of this, they went to work with the result that ‘one Sunday the wool was on the sheep's back, but by the next Sunday it had been clipped, cleansed, corded, spun, woven, and made into a splendid suit and was on the back of the missionary as he delivered his farewell address in the little church house.’” [8]

I really like this last story.  Here was a missionary standing before the congregation in his new suit.  But the story behind it is these many women in his ward that made that suit for him and got him on his mission.  On this Mother’s Day I invite you all to think about the women like this Mary Julia Johnson Wilson who have made it possible to do the things that you do every day.  Every part of the restored church we enjoy today has been touched by faithful women.


1.  Arrington, Leonard. “Blessed Damozels: Women in Mormon History.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol 6, Num 2 (Summer 1971): 24

2. Sarah Granger Kimball. "Auto-Biography." Woman's Exponent. Vol. 12, Num 7 (September 1, 1883): 51 (Available here)

3.  History of the Church, 4:567

4.  Eliza R. Snow. “The Female Relief Society.” Woman’s Exponent. Vol 1, Num 1 (June 1 1872): 2 (Available here)

5. Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach. “Eliza R. Snow” from Mormon Sisters. Edited by Claudia L. Bushman. (1997) p. 29

6.  Beecher, Maureen Ursenbach. “Eliza R. Snow” from Mormon Sisters. Edited by Claudia L. Bushman. (1997) p. 30

7.  “Women’s Rights and Wrongs.” Woman’s Exponent. Vol 1, Num 1 (June 1 1872): 5

8.  Arrington, 23

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Radical Nonviolence in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon can be read as a story of two brothers—Nephi and Laman.  It begins with the family of Lehi, which is constantly divided between the influences of these two sons.  The brothers ended their lives as enemies, separated from one another and the rest of the history of this family was a constant struggle between these two groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites.  After hundreds of years this bad blood and intense hatred boils over into destruction of epic scale.

The Book of Mormon is written from the perspective of the Nephites and their perspective of the Lamanites is often less than flattering.  Historian Richard Bushman has speculated what the history would have looked like if Lamanites had written it. [1] The two groups had many prejudices toward each other, which they had carried down from their parents. 

The Lamanites taught their children that Nephi had cheated Laman of his inheritance and sought to rule over his people and had stolen all of their records.  The Lamanites also taught their children “that they should hate them, and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they [had] an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi.” [2]

For their part, the Nephites didn’t have a very high opinion of the Lamanites either.  When the four sons of the King, Mosiah, intended to go to the land of the Lamanites they were mocked by their fellow Nephites.  They said of the Lamanites that their “hearts delight[ed] in the shedding of blood.”  Some even suggested violence as the only solution: “Let us take up arms against them; that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us.” [3]

But the four sons of Mosiah did go the land of the Lamanites and their first experiences among them did much to confirm the prejudices of the Nephites.  They were treated very harshly.  Ammon was bound and taken before the local leader.  Luckily, he was able to win over the king, Lamoni.  His brothers were not as lucky, and they were beaten and thrown into prison.  But eventually, relations started to ease and many of the Lamanites began to change.  They had been murderous and bloodthirsty, but when they learned of the Gospel they began to see the error of their violence.

Some of the Lamanites began to change in ways so radical that we might even think unwise.  They still lived amid the danger of invasion and attack but their hearts were so transformed that they had no more desire to fight.

Their king said to his people: “Now, my beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren… Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.  And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.” [4]

So they buried their weapons, promising never to raise them again.  They were indeed attacked and began to suffer a mass slaughter.  And they just gave up their lives, because “they buried the weapons of war, for peace.” [5] As the other Lamanites were killing them they saw that they didn’t fight back.  “Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done.  And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.  And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain.” [6] This radical nonviolence by the Lamanites was more disarming than retaliation.  But many died in the process.  It was a heavy cost but the result was a dramatic transformation of an entire people.

In modern times nonviolence has been extremely effective in bringing about dramatic change. Mohandas Gandhi used nonviolence to end the occupation of India from British rule.  Martin Luther King, influenced by Gandhi, used nonviolent protest in his struggle for civil rights for African Americans.  But these men have been criticized by some who believed that nonviolence was weak and ineffective.   George Jackson, a member of the Black Panthers, said, “the concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative.” [7]

But the enduring impact of Martin Luther King and Gandhi seems to vindicate and validate their nonviolent practices.  For one thing, the former oppressors have for the most part admitted their wrongdoing much as the murderous Lamanites recognized their own sin.  Had Martin Luther King encouraged violence, civil rights for Africans Americans might not have the widespread acceptance it has today.

The practice of nonviolence is not only effective to win people’s rights and freedoms.  It also brings people together.  The dream of Martin Luther King was not only that black Americans would enjoy the freedoms of white Americans.  Rather it was that “all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…” And who could argue with that?  Why would we not all want that?  At its heart, nonviolence appeals to the desire of every man and every woman for peace and love, that’s why it touches us all.  To quote the Book of Mormon one more time: "the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else." [8]


[1] Bushman’s essay is titled The Lamanite View of Book of Mormon History.  It can be read in his book Believing History: Latter-Day Saint Essays.

[2] Mosiah 10:17

[3] Alma 26:24-25

[4] Alma 24:12,15-16

[5] Alma 24:19

[6] Alma 24:24-26

[7] Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Lawrence Hill Books, 1994

[8] Alma 31:5