Family Breakdown, the Welfare State, and the Family Proclamation: An Alternative History*

Laura Compton at Rational Faiths has an enlightening and informative post on the origins of the Family Proclamation. She effectively demonstrates that the controversy surrounding Baehr v. Lewin–the first major victory for same-sex marriage proponents–gave birth to the quasi-canonical document. I do not dispute the influence of this legal case in the creation of the Proclamation. However, I do think there are other possible influences and contexts that helped mold its final shape. I hope to explore one of these possibilities below. And since she began with a time traveler, I will too. So please step into the blue box…

Continue reading “Family Breakdown, the Welfare State, and the Family Proclamation: An Alternative History*” »

Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy for the Unsettled Latter-day Saint

Title: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding
Authors: Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Religion
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 204
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-723-6
Price $19.95

Reviewed by: Cheryl L. Bruno

Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

Quoting a familiar nonsense rhyme, Samuel W. Taylor described the condition of post-Manifesto Mormons with regard to the once-crucial principle of plural marriage:

Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish that man would go away.

Although Brian C. Hales and, more recently his wife Laura H. Hales cannot make the issue of Mormon polygamy disappear, they have done everything in their power to make it more palatable for faithful members of the Church.

Continue reading “Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy for the Unsettled Latter-day Saint” »

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Presidency

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology (Part VI): November 10, 1985 to 2014 (President of the Church)


Ezra Taft Benson became the 13th President of the LDS church in 1985 after the death of Spencer W. Kimball. His first address began a recurring theme of his presidency – calling on members of the church to read the Book of Mormon. Conspiracies described in the Book of Mormon to overthrow God’s plan – rang true to Benson, who saw similar conspiracies in his time. He compared his call to read the Book of Mormon – to that of Lorenzo Snow’s call to pay tithing. “The Lord has revealed [this, in order] to get the Church … out from under condemnation”.

Upon his ascension to the presidency, non-Mormon journalists noted that his anti-communist politics had “antagonized numerous members of the church, leading to fears of a major schism if he became president.” But the political passion of the 50s and 60s had retreated and the John Birch Society had lost much of its relevancy. He became president in the middle of America’s conservative “Reagan Revolution”, and he largely abandoned his ultra-conservative evangelism, but never-the-less promoted “Birchism” to an extent, such as buying subscriptions to a Birch publication for his new counselors.

During his administration, the Church established a relationship with the communist German Democratic Republic. First, missionaries were first allowed into the country. Then the church was allowed build a temple. And later, the Berlin Wall came down. Also during Benson’s administration, Russia granted the church official recognition. These events seem to be poetic justice for Benson’s earlier anti-communist efforts. Continue reading “Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Presidency” »

Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Julie Smith and Reading the New Testament Anew

This is how I spend most of Sunday School.

I used to have a ritual headache every Sunday I didn’t have to work. I used to think it was due to hunger based on weird church hours that cut into lunch. Or possibly a lack of caffeine since I don’t buy Cokes (or anything else for that matter) on Sunday. But I think I’ve resigned myself to blaming Sunday School and Elders Quorum and the amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to make it through them. I’m even more convinced of this hypothesis since I haven’t had a headache ever since I was called to ward finance clerk and get to skip out on at least one of them. Most of the time, it isn’t the teacher’s fault (I personally like my Gospel Doctrine teacher a lot). The comments, however, are another story. When they are not self-serving and utterly shaming, they are often devoid of any historical or cultural context regarding the text. And this is why I wish more people could have attended Julie M. Smith’s April presentation at the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. Her book Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels is an amazing and thought-provoking commentary (at least, I think that’s what you’d call it); one that I wish every Gospel Doctrine teacher had on their bookshelf. In her presentation, she listed six tips for more fulfilling scripture study:

  1. Read the Gospels separately.
  2. Pay attention to literary structure.
  3. Pay attention to women’s stories.
  4. Look for Old Testament allusions.
  5. Beware of traditions.
  6. Use other translations.

Let’s take a look at each one:

Continue reading “Miller Eccles Study Group – Texas Edition: Julie Smith and Reading the New Testament Anew” »

Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness

Mormonism’s nineteenth-century white Protestant critics often cast the Latter-day Saints as racially degenerate—a tragic decline into non-white barbarism. Anxious about the lack of obvious physical markers of this degeneracy, critics constructed fantasies of distinctive Mormon bodies: red, black, yellow, and otherwise malformed.

Mormons responded with a counter-image of themselves as the very paragons of white racial progress. And indeed, after a long “struggle for whiteness,” Mormons in the early twentieth century did finally succeed in passing as white. But with the advent of the mid-century civil rights movement, Mormons came to be seen as too white. They had achieved snow-whiteness just as the fashion for it was on its way out.

Such, at least, is the contention of W. Paul Reeve’s new book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Reeve’s book has been met with great critical acclaim, and for good reason. He writes with rare verve and real insight. I began the book with the expectation that racialization of Mormons would be fairly subtle and evident only upon close reading of the sources. So I was surprised to learn that nineteenth-century critics spoke quite explicitly of Mormons as a “new race,” even going so far as to offer elaborate scientific analyses of their supposed distinctive racial characteristics. Reeve packs all his best evidence for this into his first chapter, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Another standout chapter is Chapter 4, where Reeve examines how the politics of slavery and fear of “amalgamation” shaped early anti-Mormon sentiment. Reeve does a particularly good job contextualizing the Mormons’ 1833 expulsion from Jackson County. In a decade when “at least 165 antiabolitionist riots convulsed the North,” the expulsion appears as “an early salvo in a violent, riot-filled anti-abolitionist backlash” that climaxed with the Civil War (114–15). For instance, abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy had his printing press destroyed by angry mobs four times—once in Missouri and thrice in Illinois—before his 1837 assassination. So when Jackson County citizens destroyed the Evening and Morning Star’s printing press and drove Mormons from the county, they followed a fairly typical pattern for dealing with perceived abolitionists. Continue reading “Race and the Mormon Struggle to Revise Whiteness” »

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology during the Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball administrations

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology (Part V): January 23, 1970 to November 10, 1985 (Apostle, President of the Quorum of the Twelve)

Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson

Under the presidencies of Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson’s promotion of ultra-conservative politics went into decline, in part due to more assertive presidents who were opposed to Benson’s politics, and also due to the demise of the threat of communism. Some of his public pronouncements were considered inappropriate and met with a gentle rebuke, or with clarifying statements from the First Presidency. Other correctives were more direct. Kimball was more lenient towards Benson than Smith and Lee.

Some ultra-conservative members of the church were unhappy that Benson’s pronouncements had been restricted. For example, in the 1970 General Priesthood meeting, Harold B. Lee denounced a mass mailing to local LDS leadership calling for a “a dissenting vote against the liberal factions” of “the First Presidency with its social-democrat thinking.” In 1976, a 3rd proposal was made to have Elder Benson run as part of a presidential bid, but he declined the offer as impractical.

Benson felt gospel teachings trumped secular ideas, and he declared “false” the theories of men like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. He also forwarded materials to President Kimball that he felt were too liberal, or critical of the church. Later, he (and other apostles) directed reading assignments to monitor and flag potentially objectionable materials. Benson also forwarded to President Kimball materials expressing the concerns of ultra-conservatives about the subversion of democracy.

Benson was concerned about some materials being published by the professionally staffed church history department. Upon the publication of a book on the history of the church, Elders Benson, Peterson and Packer took issue with it, and it was pulled from the shelves of Deseret Book, as well as removed from the Institute of Religion’s reading list. He warned CES personal about subscribing to, or owning “apostate” materials, and instructed that they should publish faith-promoting articles only. In the early 1980s, a multi-volume history of the church was cancelled and the church history department was reorganized with the church historian being quietly released. Newsweek subsequently covered tensions between historians and conservative apostles.

Ezra Taft Benson organized efforts to have LDS women attend the International Women’s Year conference in Utah. He encouraged bishops to meet or exceed per-ward quotas of attendees. Conservative groups such as the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum held information meetings suggesting the conference had an extreme feminist agenda, and encouraged LDS women to follow their lead at the conference. Attendance far exceeded expectations, and a polarized atmosphere prevailed. Common sense resolutions such as better enforcement of child support, and equal pay for equal work were voted down along with liberal issues such as abortion rights and government funded sex education. LDS women were also mobilized in six other states to participate in this conference.

In 1977, another BYU spy-ring was organized by Elder Benson, and ran by William O. Nelson, a secretary to Benson. It was uncovered when a report intended for Benson ended up on Elder Peterson’s desk. BYU President Dallin Oaks referred to it as “that Birch Mafia that surrounds ETB.” President Kimball personally ended this spy-ring.

President Kimball expressed (before the revelation on blacks and the priesthood) that if he didn’t give priesthood to black members of the church, “my successor won’t.” When the revelation was received, Elder Benson recorded: “Following the prayer, we experienced the sweetest spirit of unity and conviction that I have ever experienced. . . . Our bosoms burned with the righteousness of the decision we had made.” He also said he “had never experienced anything of such spiritual magnitude and power.”

As president of the Quorum of Twelve during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, Benson worked to streamline church policies and procedures. He guided the Quorum effectively in dealing with various issues, helping the church move into the modern era and accommodating international needs. Reflecting his past humanitarian mission to post-WWII Europe, Brigham Young University honored him by establishing the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute.

Elder Benson gave a talk called the “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophets.” It may have been in response to a full page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune taken out by the professional anti-Mormons Gerald and Sandra Tanner. Their book, promoted by the ad, called into question consistent prophetic declaration. But Benson’s talk was interpreted by many as a precursor to own ascendency as prophet of the church, he being next in line. President Kimball apparently asked Benson to issue an apology to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and then to a meeting of all general authorities. Continue reading “Ezra Taft Benson Chronology during the Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball administrations” »


A Review of “Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany”

Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany By: David Conley Nelson Copyright 2015 University of Oklahoma Press 416 pages ISBN: 978-0-8061-4668-3 $29.95

Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany
By David Conley Nelson
Copyright 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4668-3

The contextual place of Mormonism in the nineteenth century is an increasingly broad subject, and there is no shortage of qualified historians who work to describe past events, revising and expanding on the work of previous scholars. There is a noticeably quantitative difference, however in the number of academics whose contributions to the field of Mormon Studies primarily address the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first half of the twentieth century. David Conley Nelson’s latest addition to this diverse body of literature on Mormonism clearly falls within the latter specialty. Unlike early Mormonism, which was replete with canonized revelations, visions, martyrdom, polygamy, and clashes between the Church and the U.S. government, its twentieth century identity was remarkably more socially integrated and politically active—exhibiting a conscious, calculated submission to civil authority both in the Intermountain West and in established ecclesiastical units abroad. This paradigm shift was clearly accented through the globalization of Mormonism spurned in the years immediately following Second World War, and solidified through executive actions implemented by the Church well into the 1960s. On an international level, the marked emphasis on adherence to secular laws began even earlier.

Latter-day Saint involvement in World War II has been the subject of a surprising number of scholarly works—written almost exclusively by Mormon authors—as well as many devotionalized historical-fiction novels, theatrical productions, and films. Nelson readily utilizes some of these resources in establishing the background and justification for writing Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany—the corpus of which was written as his doctoral dissertation at Texas A&M University. Nelson clarifies ambiguities and corrects some significant literary deficiencies produced by earlier authors, producers, and playwrights, endeavoring to rebut apparent faith promoting claims that sanitize or falsify the history of Mormonism in Nazi Germany. There has been a steady stream of material produced within the Mormon academic community that tells the stories of Latter-day Saints who lived in Axis nations during the conflict. Nelson’s work on Mormonism’s place in the Third Reich is an addendum to the recent scholarship of several other historians, and offers a new and distinctly more critical perspective on a considerably controversial topic. Nelson exhibits a style and level of detail reminiscent of what one might encounter in Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets or Keele and Tobler’s groundbreaking 1980 Sunstone paper “The Fuhrer’s New Clothes: Helmuth Hübener and the Mormons in the Third Reich.”

Although the subject of Moroni and the Swastika necessitates describing a distinctly Mormon experience in the Third Reich, there are portions that could benefit from more clarity and contextual clues that establish a broader framework for the events and policies described. Nelson goes to great lengths to document how some Latter-day Saints constructed an ideological bond between their theology and Nazism. A prevailing theme throughout Nelson’s book addresses how Mormons in Nazi Germany fell under Hitler’s propagandistic spell. The Mormon experience was somewhat unique in comparison to other faiths because its ecclesiastical doctrines, administrative policies, and connections to prominent American politicians may have preconditioned German members of the Church to seek out unique congruity with pre-war National Socialism. Continue reading “A Review of “Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany”” »

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Continued fight against communism (through McKay administration)

Ezra Taft Benson Chronology (Part IV): Oct 18, 1963 to January 18, 1970 (Apostle; 2nd European Mission; promotion of Birch Society; exploration of U.S. presidential bids)

Ezra Taft Benson

Ezra Taft Benson


Ezra Taft Benson’s Mission call to Europe was viewed by some apostles, and his son Reed Benson, as a rebuke for using his religious influence to advance a political agenda. Both father & son said his political promotions had President McKay’s endorsement. LDS Congressman Harding responded by threatening to release his own private correspondences with General Authorities and McKay family members – in order to demonstrate otherwise. Soon these letters became public.

After Benson left for his mission, McKay held a meeting with the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve where he defended Benson, but avoided discussing Benson’s endorsement of the John Birch Society and public condemnation of President Eisenhower. McKay denied to apostles (and later to the public) that Benson’s European mission call was a rebuke.

At his farewell talk, Benson predicted that within ten years, the U.S. would have “concentration camps, tortures, terror … [with] about 3% of the population to rule the other 97% as slaves,” and he encouraged citizens to become “conspirators against established government.”

At various times, he preached that communists were using the civil rights movement to take over the country. He wrote the forward for a book that featuring the decapitated head of a black man on its cover. The book warned of “the establishment of a Negro Soviet dictatorship in the South.” Upon the designation of a day of mourning for Martin Luther King, Benson released a statement listing his objections to King. He also questioned missionary efforts in predominantly black countries.

The NAACP called for a prayer march in Salt Lake to encourage church leaders to promote civil rights. In response, Utah Birch chapters (headed by Reed Benson) were instructed to begin a “Whispering campaign … that the Civil Rights groups are going to organize demonstrations in Salt Lake City in connection with the forthcoming LDS conference.” They hoped “few well-placed comments will soon mushroom out of control” and deliver a “telling blow” to the civil rights movement. Police took serious the rumors of blacks armed with “machine guns and bombs” intent on destroying all temple square property. Two weeks later, Reed was promoted to public relations director of the Birch society. Upon repeated inquiries, Reed did not take the opportunity to deny he was the author of these instructions.

Efforts by Benson to have Birch Society president Robert Welch speak at BYU or general conference were thwarted by other general authorities. Without telling McKay that the American Opinion Magazine was a Birch Society publication, Benson convinced him to allow his photo on the magazine cover. Permission was later rescinded by the efforts of other church leaders and McKay’s son. However they were surprised when a photo of former McKay counselor J. Reuben Clark was used instead.

Tensions increased among church members, and a stream of letters came into church headquarters. A “crisis” was declared when church leaders learned that some Latter-day Saints were trying to organize efforts to have Benson removed from the Quorum of the Twelve.

Several different spy-rings were organized at BYU. Benson authorized rings, or received reports about selected professors from them. His political endeavors in church venues drew sharp debate at both BYU and the University of Utah.

McKay approved Benson exploring the possibility of running for President of the United States with Strom Thurmond as his running mate. Later, efforts were taken to have Benson run as George C. Wallace’s running mate, but McKay notified Wallace that Benson would be unavailable. Continue reading “Ezra Taft Benson Chronology: Continued fight against communism (through McKay administration)” »

The Great and Spacious Building

“[I]t appeared to reach to the very heavens.  It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed.” (Lucy Mack Smith 1853, 59, describing a dream of Joseph Smith Sr.)  1877 photograph of the Reynolds Arcade interior (built 1828), looking south toward the front entrance.  From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division; used with permission in Mormon Parallels, p. 1401.

“[I]t appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed.” (Lucy Mack Smith 1853, 59, describing a dream of Joseph Smith Sr.) 1877 photograph of the Reynolds Arcade interior (built 1828), looking south toward the front entrance. From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division; used with permission in Mormon Parallels, p. 1401.

Last week WWE offered a guest contribution from Rick Grunder—historian, antiquarian bookseller, and author of Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source. In this follow-up post, Rick shares one of the most important “Mormon parallels” he has discovered in his decades of research.

If you live long enough, you end up with a few good stories to tell.  In order to further both of those conditions, antiquarian booksellers love to get together (like fishermen boasting about the one that didn’t get away) to trade their latest adventures.  Gathering at a restaurant, we may raise a few eyebrows—of adjacent diners who overhear famous names and scary prices, or of weary wait-staff wondering if we plan to stay the night (“Would you like another pitcher of water, Sir, while we clear the tables?”).

Great pieces occasionally come to us by appointment, complete with carefully-prepared write-ups, pictures and provenance.  More often, however, the full import of what we find is not evident at first glance.  It is only after background research and some thought in the shower that an item gets fully appreciated, and appropriately priced.  Sometimes the discovery is even less obvious, yet more significant.  “I sold,” wrote veteran bookseller Harold Nestler,

to a dealer, and thorough researcher in central New York a small 36 page pamphlet titled, “Illustrated Guide to Reynolds Arcade . . .”  It was published in 1885.  When built this Arcade was the largest and most expensive building in the United States west of Albany, New York.  The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, has a vision of a great and spacious building by a river-side.  Several years later the purchaser sent to me a one and a half page article which he had written, in which it is suggested that Joseph Smith, author of the Book of Mormon, may have gotten his vision of a great and spacious building when he saw the Reynolds Arcade in Rochester, not far from his home in Palmyra.  It is amazing what influence a small and apparently minor item may have upon a person with a curious and investigative mind.[1] Continue reading “The Great and Spacious Building” »

A Twenty-Fourth Century Mormon Parallel

“[T]he first speaker sat down by my side and in a low tone begged pardon for his manner to me and confessed that I had . . . learned him . . . more astronomy that evening than he had ever known before[.]” Horatio Robinson manuscript autobiography, describing events in an upstate New York tavern ca. 1820. (Mormon Parallels entry 355.) Artist’s conception painted by Marie Vlasic.

Worlds Without End is very pleased to host the following guest contribution from historian and antiquarian bookseller Rick Grunder. Rick holds an M.A. in history from Brigham Young University. His 2300-page magnum opus Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source is available for $10 through his website, Rick Grunder – Books. When he isn’t researching Mormon history, Rick enjoys writing fiction. He combines his talents to bring us the following parable.

Three hundred years from now, a wonky scientist (perhaps bored to tears on his third orbit past the dark side of Saturn) is going to dig into his folder of recreational data chips and discover a science-fiction story written by some American high school student in the year 1988 (earth-date-CE). Our theoretical researcher won’t be much of a historian, but he will know that the first permanent extraterrestrial colonization did not commence until 1 April 2092. Yet here was a narrative in a magazine, published more than a century ahead of that event, which described—surprisingly well—theoretical life in outer space.

The mysterious young author had to be brilliant beyond his years (imagines our scientist)—clearly ahead of his time! Living in the nineteen-hundreds, he shouldn’t have known about air locks or gravity simulation or many other developments he recounted so graphically, which would not exist until the modern era. That boy had to be a genius, and he was probably inspired.

Anyone who has explored the development of ideas or the transmission of thought can guess easily what happens next in my scenario above. We know the excitement which will ensue, and the confusion—the uneasy mix of creative explanations and deep philosophies clashing against simplistic solutions or denials of the perplexing phenomena at hand. We have been there already in Mormon Studies, until sometimes the nonsense obscures a larger picture. And in the study of Mormon parallels in particular, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. As I confessed in the introduction to my own work on that subject, Continue reading “A Twenty-Fourth Century Mormon Parallel” »