Author Archives: Trevor Holyoak

FairMormon Questions: How can the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing at the US Presidential Inauguration and put the stamp of religious approval on that event?

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FairMormon has a service where questions can be submitted and they are answered by volunteers. If you have a question, you can submit it at http://www.fairmormon.org/contact. We will occasionally publish answers here for questions that are commonly asked, or are on topics that are receiving a lot of attention. The question below has been rewritten to maintain confidentiality.

Question: How can the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing at the US Presidential Inauguration and put the stamp of religious approval on that event?

Answer from FairMormon volunteer Craig Foster:

I am only a volunteer at FairMormon and, therefore, my comments are my own and do not represent either the LDS Church or FairMormon. Nor do I or any other member of FairMormon have access to convey messages to the First Presidency regarding the decision to allow the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing at the inauguration.

Still, I saw your message and decided to respond, hoping that I might at least give some thoughts that might prove helpful.

By now, I am sure that most of the country is aware that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has accepted an invitation to sing at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. There have been mixed reaction both within and without the LDS Church. These reactions have varied in the spectrum from whole-hearted approval to dismay and disapproval.

Some of the strongest disapproval has come from Latter-day Saints, active and inactive, believing and non-believing. While most of the criticism appears to have been from those politically liberal and/or Democrat-leaning, it has also crossed political boundaries with some I know to be conservative or Libertarian expressing disapproval. I myself was a Never Trumper and did not vote for Donald Trump. Nevertheless, I approve of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s decision to sing at the inauguration. Let me explain why. Continue reading

The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846

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[For more information on the Council of Fifty, see Matthew J. Grow’s 2016 FairMormon Conference presentation.]

In September 2013, it was announced that the minutes from the Council of Fifty would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. This was significant because they had not been available for research, and so most of what was known of the council had been gleaned from journal entries of members and rumors spread by publications such as the Nauvoo Expositor, which were repeated over the years by each generation of critics. Besides being able to put these hyperbolic claims to rest, we now have new information about what happened during the Nauvoo period, and some new statements made by Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church.

The Council of Fifty was a secret organization formed in Nauvoo, made up of the leaders of the Church, as well as other men, including some nonmembers, with Joseph Smith at the head. Their purpose was to do civil business, separate from the ecclesiastical business done elsewhere. Under Joseph Smith, the three major functions involved Joseph’s presidential campaign, planning a “theodemocracy [that] would protect liberty and freedom ‘for the benefit of ALL’” [page xxxvi], and to find a place of refuge away from the government of the United States, which had failed them.

After the death of Joseph Smith the council was reconvened under Brigham Young, and dealt with the repeal of the Nauvoo charter, completing the temple, and finding a new place to settle. It was later reconvened in 1848, after settling in Salt Lake City, and functioned off and on until 1885. This book contains the minutes through January, 1846, and there are currently no plans to publish the rest, which would be beyond the scope of the Joseph Smith Papers. Continue reading

Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones

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Joseph Smith's Seer StonesIn September 2015, photographs of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones were published in the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations: Volume 3.To go along with this, an article was published in the October 2015 Ensign [1] that gave a brief overview of seers, seer stones, and the translation of the Book of Mormon, and also included one of the photographs. This was significant because prior to that, it had been unseen, locked away in the First Presidency’s vault. As it turns out, there were many that were unaware that a seer stone had been used in the translation of the Book of Mormon, and for some this caused some surprise and confusion.

This book goes much further than the Ensign article to “provide a friendly introduction to seer stones,” as well as to “provid[e] an introduction to the historical sources in an accessible style for Latter-day Saints and others.” [2] In doing so, they include sources both friendly and unfriendly to the church (but unfortunately do not always differentiate between them for readers that may not be familiar with some of them). This is an important book in that it is the first fully devoted to the topic.

The introduction talks about “Mormon Paradigm Shifts.” This is for those that were taken by surprise to find out about seer stones, in spite of a multitude of references in church literature throughout the years. “WIth so many Latter-day Saint scholars acknowledging and studying Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, it is clear the the Church has not been hiding this information. And yet, as with many historically specific topics, without direct references provided in Church teaching materials and curriculum, the average Latter-day Saint would not necessarily encounter the seer stones in the course of their devotional study. …That is why the latest appearance of the topic in the October 2015 Ensign (and Liahona) was so important: it underscores how, even while keeping a sacred relic private, the Church continues to be open about the miraculous process of the translation of the Book of Mormon.” [3] Continue reading

Book Review: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History

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Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

In the prologue of A Reason for Faith, the editor, Laura Hales, lays out the purpose of the book. Members of the church sometimes come across new information in an unfriendly setting that damages their faith. This book is a compilation of articles about many of the topics that are not often discussed in a church or family setting, and can be difficult to understand. They are laid out by scholars in an honest but faithful manner, and while they can’t possibly cover the topics completely in the amount of space given, they are meant to be a springboard for further study where necessary.

The first chapter is by Richard Bushman, on “Joseph Smith and Money Digging.” He recounts the history of scholarship in this area, where it was originally denied by those inside the church due to being based on accounts thought to be unreliable published by critics of the church. As he began his own research, he found evidence that convinced him that Joseph was indeed involved with folk magic and seer stones, and that these things were too common in the 19th century to invalidate Joseph’s prophetic claims or be scandalous. Continue reading

The Critic’s Big List of Problems

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by Michael R. Ash

hands-computer-828898-galleryAny member who has undergone a faith crisis knows that there are many critics on the Internet who are happy to share a Big List of Mormon Problems to help facilitate one’s exit from the Church. These lists can serve as the catalyst for the initial testimony damage, or contribute the final straw in a “death by a thousand cuts” (the “Big List of Mormon Problems” is not the real name of any list but designates features which all of these lists have in common).

Such lists have been around long before the Internet was invented but received limited interest and distribution. While some of the works found their way into member or investigator homes, in the hands of missionaries, or even in local libraries, much of the material was picked up only by those critics or LDS apologists (defenders) who found the topics interesting.

Today, however, anyone can create a quick Big List of Mormon Problems, convert it to a pdf, and post it on-line. Depending on the creator’s writing abilities and social networking skills, a well-written piece by an outgoing author could quickly attain viral status. Continue reading

The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age

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Patrick Mason’s presentation from the 2016 FairMormon Conference. The transcript can be viewed here.

You can purchase access to the rest of the conference videos here.


Patrick Q. Mason holds the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, where he is also an associate professor of religion and chair of the Religion Department. After earning his BA in History from Brigham Young University, he attended the University of Notre Dame where he earned an MA in International Peace Studies and PhD in History. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of several books, including most recently Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute), Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945 (Oxford University Press), Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century (University of Utah Press), and later this fall an introductory college textbook called What Is Mormonism? (Routledge). A frequently sought-after expert on Mormonism and religion in American life, Mason has appeared in numerous media outlets including National Public Radio, the Today Show, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post. He lives in Claremont, California, with his wife Melissa and their four children.

Book Review: The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 4, April 1834 – September 1835

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Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

This is the fourth in a projected twelve volumes in the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers. The Documents series is the core of the JSP project, containing documents that Joseph Smith was personally involved in producing in chronological order. The documents in the book are also available online, but the annotations and introductions – which are very valuable in understanding the documents – are not put online until 18 months after each volume is published.

The main events covered in this volume are Zion’s Camp; the publication of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants; financial difficulties (particularly those related to publishing and the building of the Kirtland Temple); the formation and operation of the Kirtland high council; the call of Joseph Smith, Sr., to patriarch, and the calling of 12 apostles; and the beginning of the writing of the early history of the church.

The main body of the book consists of documents directly involving Joseph Smith, and then there are a series of appendices with documents for which Joseph Smith’s involvement is questionable. Such documents include the first Lecture on Faith, “Letter to the Saints Scattered Abroad”, “Statement on Marriage”, “Declaration on Government and Law”, and patriarchal blessings given to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and William Smith. Continue reading

Book Review: Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This book is from the 2013 BYU Church History Symposium, held March 7–8, 2013. The Church History Symposium is a nearly annual (there apparently wasn’t one held in 2015) event that draws speakers from places such as Brigham Young University, other universities, the LDS Church History Department, and often LDS general authorities as well. The book contains many of the papers that were presented, but unfortunately there are a few missing, such as Steven C. Harper’s presentation on masonry. However, that and most of the other papers that were given (including all but one that is in the book) are available to view here, although the video presentations are generally abbreviated versions of what is in the book.

The conference spanned two days. The first day was held at BYU and the second was at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. I was only able to attend the first day, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book. The keynote address was given by Richard L. Bushman, and it was very crowded, which left many of us without seats until after he was done (apparently there were many students that had come just to hear Bushman).

The preface of the book states that the theme for the conference came out of a professional development training trip taken by new faculty from the BYU departments of Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine to church history sites in Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo. As they visited these sites, they “were impressed as the extraordinary range of Joseph’s encounters with antiquity became increasingly apparent” (page xiii) and “deeper reflection upon these issues convinced us that there was an important, dynamic, and under-explored relationship between Joseph Smith’s personal interactions with ancient material and many of his unfolding revelations” (page xiv). Continue reading

Book Review: The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This is the first publication from The Church Historian’s Press other than the Joseph Smith Papers. It is a collection of documents brought together for the first time that cover the first fifty years of the Relief Society, starting in Nauvoo, restarting in Utah, and then spreading throughout LDS settlements as far away as Canada. The book format and production procedures (transcription, verification, etc.) are very similar to how the Joseph Smith Papers are being done, and at least some of the staff (including editor Matthew J. Grow) are involved in both. And as with the JSP project, much of the book is available for free online. It is accessible at https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society

The book contains a general table of contents, then a Detailed Contents listing each document, followed by a list of illustrations, a general introduction, and a description of the editorial method. The main section is split into four parts, covering the time periods of 1830 and 1942 to 1845, then 1854 to 1866, 1867 to 1879, and finally 1880 to 1892. The end matter contains reference material including lists of the different Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary Association presidencies from 1842 to 1892, a biographical directory, works cited, acknowledgments, and then a pretty thorough index spanning 50 pages.

The main feature of this book is the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, which was kept by Eliza R. Snow and then brought to Utah by her, where it was used in getting the Relief Society going again. This is the first time it has appeared in print, although it was included in the Selected Collections DVD set published in 2002, and more recently has been included in the online documents for the JSP project. Among other things, it has the only sermons given by Joseph Smith to the women of the church.

In one of these sermons, on April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith addressed speaking in tongues and administering to the sick: Continue reading

Additional Witnesses of the Coming Forth and Content of the Book of Mormon

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[Cross posted from Truth Will Prevail.]

By Dennis B. Horne

As Joseph Smith was dictating the translation of the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery, they learned that the gold plates were to “be hid from the eyes of the world” in general. platesNevertheless “three witnesses” would be enabled to view the book or plates “by the power of God” in addition to Joseph—“him to whom the book shall be delivered.” These three witnesses would then “testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (2 Nephi 27:12; see also Ether 5:2-4 and D&C 5:11, 15).

It is well known that Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were granted the privilege of becoming these three designated special witnesses (see D&C 17, including section intoduction). Their signed statement of solemn testimony has been printed with each edition of the Book of Mormon.

Further, the prophecies of the Book of Mormon indicated that “none other[s]” would be able to view it, “save it be a few according to the will of God,” and that the purpose of these others would be “to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men”—the world. This would allow the prophets and saints of the Book of Mormon to “speak as if it were from the dead” (2 Nephi 27:23).

These “few” others are generally thought of as the “eight witnesses,” and include members of the Whitmer and Smith families that helped Joseph by providing board and room and financial assistance.[1] The testimony of these eight, who saw, hefted, and closely examined the gold plates, is also printed in the Book of Mormon: “[Joseph Smith] has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work.” And, “we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken.”
Continue reading