“I would present to you, my brethren, Joseph Smith”

Joseph Smith III

In traveling to Amboy, Illinois 6 April 1860, Joseph III shared these words (150 years ago today) with the gathered conference preceeding consideration of him to the prophetic office:

I would say to you, brethren, as I hope you may be, and in faith I trust you are, as a people that God has promised his blessings upon, I came not here of myself, but by the influence of the Spirit. For some time past I have received manifestations pointing to the position which I am about to assume.

I wish to say that I have come here not to be dictated by any men or set of men. I have come in obedience to a power not my own, and shall be dictated by the power that sent me.

God works by means best known to himself, and I feel that for some time past he has been pointing out a work for me to do.

For two or three years past deputations have been waiting on me, urging me to assume the responsibilities of the leadership of the church; but I have answered each and every one of them that I did not wish to trifle with the faith of the people.

I do not propose to assume this position in order to amass wealth out of it, neither have I sought it as a profit.

I know opinions are various in relation to these matters. I have conversed with those who told me they would not hesitate one moment in assuming the high and powerful position as the leader of this people. But I have been well aware of the motives which might be ascribed to me,—motives of various kinds, at the foundation of all which is selfishness,—should I come forth to stand in the place where my father stood.

I have believed that should I come without the guarantee of the people, I should be received in blindness, and would be liable to be accused of false motives. Neither would I come to you without receiving favor from my heavenly Father.

I have endeavored as far as possible to keep myself unbiased. I never conversed with J. J. Strang, for in those days I was but a boy, and in fact am now but a boy. I had not acquired a sufficient knowledge of men to be capable of leading myself, setting aside the leading of others.

There is but one principle taught by the leaders of any faction of this people that I hold in utter abhorrence; that is a principle taught by Brigham Young and those believing in him. I have been told that my father taught such doctrines. I have never believed it and never can believe it. If such things were done, then I believe they never were done by divine authority. I believe my father was a good man, and a good man never could have promulgated such doctrines.
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Summarizing the Church: Then and Now

David Howlett, Barb Walden, and I have spent a lot of time in the past few months getting a new, 72-page, full-color illustrated history of the church ready in time for World Conference. (I’ve previously blogged about it and shared pictures of some of the mockups here.) I have the first printer’s proof in my hands now and I have to say I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. We’ll share more details about it soon, but it does look like we’ve finished in time to have plenty of copies at World Conference and Restoration Studies. (If you haven’t registered for Restoration Studies, do so right away, it looks like it’s going to be a great program!)

As we were working on the new book, Ron Romig sent me a beautiful 14-page brochure, printed c. 1956, that summarizes the church at that time. As might be expected, there are some differences between the way the story was told then and the way we have just now told the story again.

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Comparing the Missouri Mormon War with Contemporary Conflicts

UPDATE 11 January 2010: Kenny and Jake Ballentine, two brothers who make films together, have just announced the upcoming release of a new movie ‘Trouble in Zion’, a documentary on the Missouri Mormon War. Several years ago, Kenny Ballentine read the essay attached to the below posting and talked with me about it while making the film. Click here to find out more about their movie.

The 1838 Missouri Mormon War (see LeSueur’s great book) resulted in at least 22 fatalities, millions of dollars worth of property destruction and the displacement of 15,000 people. Fought in a context of fierce rhetoric, sectarian and paramilitary violence, weak governmental authority and a privatization of military force, it actually bears significant resemblance to what some security scholars (e.g. my former PhD supervisor Mary Kaldor) have called the “New Wars.” These contemporary conflicts in places like the Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Columbia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan are characterized by the targeting of civilians; powerful non-state actors; prolonged, seemingly intractable, hostilities; connections to organized crime; and exclusivistic ethnic, religious and sectarian ideologies.

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Do you get it?

Awesome is the only word I can think of in describing a Christmas celebration I attended yesterday.  It was indeed a worship service (although some there might not have realized it) involving loud rock, long hair, and shooting jets of fire.  The enlightened readers will immediately perceive that I speak of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or “TSO.”

In the midst of the lasers and fireballs and dueling electric violins, I was struck by a verse from Ecclesiastes.  While The Preacher might not have intended it to be used this way, it was nonetheless compelling:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
Eccl. 1:9-11 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

While there is nothing new under the sun, many try to disguise the ways in which their creations are indebted to another. Continue reading

Painting an Inspiring Story

New Illustrated History of the Church
I’ve been working around the clock the past two weeks with Barb Walden and David Howlett to create a new, brief, illustrated history of the church. We want to have the book published in time for the sesquicentennial of the Reorganization next year, so time is tight.

Our goal has been to tell the church’s history vividly, using the graphic-intensive format we created for last year’s illustrated history of the Kirtland Temple. The new book will be 74 pages long. Writing a 74-page book doesn’t initially seem like that big a deal, but some times it can be harder to write a short book than a long book. Continue reading

The Elect Lady

Lately, Emma Smith has become quite the popular figure in Mormon history circles. I’m offering some of my thoughts about Emma, her legacy, and our modern-day treatment of her story.

During my time working at the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo, Illinois, I’ve seen many people pick up a certain postcard depicting Emma Smith. They gaze at her photograph, the one with the embroidered shawl around her shoulders and her simple gold-plated necklace around her neck, and they say, “She just looks so tired. She had such a hard life, I can’t even imagine.” Her right eye droops and her mouth is turned down. She may look sad to modern eyes.

But Emma was in her 60s when that photograph was taken, and besides, people didn’t smile for photos back then. Back then, most women lost half of the children they bore; back then, settlers of all types, of all nationalities, all across the fledgling United States, eked out a living from the rough, stony ground and disease-ridden swamps.

Emma was no different from any of these. She might have simply been one more of those thousands of individuals whose names and stories blur together to form our collective understanding of  “the settlers.” No different, other than she was married to Joseph Smith. A decision made against the wishes of her father, back in the eastern United States, in the years of her youth, became a decision that forever solidified Emma’s name as a permanent fixture in the history books. Emma Hale became Emma, the wife of Joseph, the “Elect Lady,” and later, even after she remarried Lewis Bidamon, Emma was known as the Widow Smith. Continue reading

Feast Your Soul on This: Church HQ Officiousness

I’m just back from a week in Independence. One of the things I picked up there was an old 1980 souvenir booklet from the sesquicentennial of the church (bought from the Temple Library for 25¢). As we’re approaching another sesquicentennial — the first was 150 years since the organization of the church, next year is 150 years since its reorganization — I was eager to see how the last one was commemorated.

This 48-page booklet, entitled Called to the Work, is a concise summary of the church in 1980. The photos of church leaders were the first thing that jumped out at me. These headshots take up 14 of the total pages. But out of 237 pictured leaders, there was only a single woman: Marjorie Troeh, who was a “staff executive” and “Commissioner of the Women’s Ministries Commission.” It’s incredible how recently and how completely church leadership was a boys-only club. Continue reading

Reflections on Whiteness

A couple weeks ago I dropped by the John Whitmer Historical Association’s annual meeting on “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration”; I was impressed to see Community of Christ scholars beginning to really think seriously about issues of race within the church. Then today I received an email newsletter from the Community of Christ’s young adult network with the theme of race and nationality, linking to this blog posting Mariana Coradeli Medeiros-Shelton, a translator for the church. These two things have inspired me to write a few reflections on race in the Community of Christ.

The Community of Christ membership is overwhelmingly white, and as William Russell argued in 1979, has tended to follow mainstream North American thinking on race rather than be on the cutting prophetic edge.  This ambivalence is displayed in Joseph Smith III’s instruction to the church in 1878 that the church should “ordain priests…of every race”, but nonetheless “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race….”

Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, the editor of the Saint’s Herald, (the church’s magazine, not this blog), urged members not to participate in civil disobedience and instructed blacks in the segregated South to “obey the local laws” even if the “feel they are the victims of discriminative laws.” When William Russell wrote a pro-Civil Rights editorial in the Herald, the church leadership responded by dimissively saying the “internal racial problems in our church have been very minor.” This was despite an earlier article by the African-American pastor William T. Blue, Sr. decrying the existence of segregated RLDS congregations in the south. For more on the church’s history of attitudes on race, click here to read a college paper I wrote on the topic for my Civil Rights history class.

It strikes me that the Community of Christ could benefit from a spending some time reflecting on its ‘whiteness’ — defined by one scholar as the phenomenon of “how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture.” What does whiteness mean in the Community of Christ? I would like to open a discussion of what this means by inviting readers to reflect in the comment section on how race has manifested itself in their lives and in the church.

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Googly-eyed Lions and Lambs: Material Objects and Community of Christ Identity

Two pairs of googly eyes stared at me day after day as I practiced the piano as an elementary student. These eyes were mounted to a small, plush lamb and a slightly larger golden lion. Both sat on a lacquered piece of wood that bore a white-lettered sticker saying “Peace.” Even as a nine-year piano student, I was being reminded that I was part of a specific church, back then the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Objects all around my house told me about this identity—from a full-color framed print of Lehi holding the Liahona with a curious Sariah looking on, to a black-and-white print of Jesus painted by RLDS member Nida Vincent King, based on an RLDS member’s vision of Christ. Even though we rarely attended church by the time I was nine, my home was a deeply traditional RLDS home.

Religious material objects are bearers of memory, identity, and evidence our participation in modern consumer-driven economies. Before we get too dour on how Christians have simply “sold out to culture” with loads of “Jesus junk,” it might be good to reflect on why we fill our homes with religious material objects. Continue reading

Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).

Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind SinghMohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity.  Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.

It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.

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