Category Archives: LDS History

New Gospel Topics Essay: “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints”

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A 19th century depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, printed in T. B. H. Stenhouse's book The Rocky Mountain Saints (1873).

A 19th century depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, printed in T. B. H. Stenhouse’s book The Rocky Mountain Saints (1873).

A new essay on the Gospel Topics website went up this morning. It is titled “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints” and covers, among other things, 19th century vigilantism and violence among Latter-day Saints.

The article begins by emphasizing that the Church strives to emulate Jesus’ call to peace.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The virtues of peace, love, and forgiveness are at the center of Church doctrine and practice. Latter-day Saints believe the Savior’s declaration, found in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, that “blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” In Latter-day Saint scripture, the Lord has commanded His followers to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” Latter-day Saints strive to follow the counsel of the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin, who taught that those who are converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ “will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably.”

But, given the religious persecution perpetuated against the Saints in the 1830s and 40s, and given the historical context of vigilantism in 19th century America, the article goes on to discuss lamentable moments of violence and retaliation that the Saints committed. During the 1838 Missouri War, for example, “some [Mormon] leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians.” While the Danites may initially have had noble intentions, as the war escalated their actions quickly turned violent and aggressive.

Danites intimidated Church dissenters and other Missourians; for instance, they warned some dissenters to leave Caldwell County. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were apparently absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints. These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.

But violence among 19th century Mormons did not end in Missouri. As the Saints settled the Rocky Mountains, vigilantism and violence cropped up in some instances of conflict with Native Americans. As relationships between some Mormons and Native Americans strained, “A series of battles in February 1850 resulted in the deaths of dozens of Utes and one Mormon. In these instances and others, some Latter-day Saints committed excessive violence against native peoples.”

During this time was also the so-called “Mormon Reformation” of the mid-1850s.

In the mid-1850s, a “reformation” within the Church and tensions between the Latter-day Saints in Utah and the U.S. federal government contributed to a siege mentality and a renewed sense of persecution that led to several episodes of violence committed by Church members. Concerned about spiritual complacency, Brigham Young and other Church leaders delivered a series of sermons in which they called the Saints to repent and renew their spiritual commitments. Many testified that they became better people because of this reformation.

One aspect of this “reformation” was the proliferation of violent rhetoric or imagery in the sermons of some Church leaders, such as Brigham Young and Jedediah M. Grant.

Nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise. Throughout the century, revivalists had used violent imagery to encourage the unconverted to repent and to urge backsliders to reform. At times during the reformation, President Young, his counselor Jedediah M. Grant, and other leaders preached with fiery rhetoric, warning against the evils of those who dissented from or opposed the Church. Drawing on biblical passages, particularly from the Old Testament, leaders taught that some sins were so serious that the perpetrator’s blood would have to be shed in order to receive forgiveness. Such preaching led to increased strain between the Latter-day Saints and the relatively few non-Mormons in Utah, including federally appointed officials.

Commonly termed “blood atonement,” this rhetoric, while mostly just that, also appears to have led to violence in some instances.

While many of the exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature [about blood atonement] are easily disproven, it is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric. Nevertheless, most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.”

Violence committed by 19th century Mormons reached its bloody apogee in 1857 with the terrible massacre of a group of emigrants from Arkansas at the site of Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. The history of this event, besides being summarized by the new essay, has been discussed in an article published in the Ensign and in the 2008 volume Massacre at Mountain Meadows. As explained by the essay, “while intemperate preaching about outsiders by Brigham Young, George A. Smith, and other leaders contributed to a climate of hostility, President Young did not order the massacre. Rather, verbal confrontations between individuals in the wagon train and southern Utah settlers created great alarm, particularly within the context of the Utah War and other adversarial events.” So then who was ultimately responsible for this crime? “A series of tragic decisions by local Church leaders—who also held key civic and militia leadership roles in southern Utah—led to the massacre.”

The essay concludes by acknowledging violence committed by 19th century Mormons but also emphasizing a need for caution in outright condemning the early Saints as a violent people.

Many people in the 19th century unjustly characterized the Latter-day Saints as a violent people. Yet the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, in the 19th century as today, lived in peace with their neighbors and families, and sought peace in their communities. Travelers in the 19th century often noted the peace and order that prevailed in Mormon communities in Utah and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the actions of relatively few Latter-day Saints caused death and injury, frayed community relationships, and damaged the perception of Mormons as a peaceful people.

The violent actions committed by early Mormons should not be excused or justified, but should be understood in proper historical context. Thankfully, the tumultuous early years of the Church, which saw violence being committed both against and by Mormons, are behind us. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes of the past while also tempering rash judgement with sound historical understanding.

For more on the topics discussed in the new essay, be sure to check FairMormon’s articles on the Mormon Reformationcrime and violence in early Utah, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and blood atonement. Also, as you’re browsing the new Gospel Topics essay, be sure to click on the links on the right of the page, such as on the link to the new Doctrine and Covenants and Church History seminary manual, for further reading.

*Cross-posted from Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So’s Mormon Blog.

Articles of Faith 2: Royal Skousen on Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and Mary Whitmer Witness to the Gold Plates

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Royal SkousenRoyal Skousen is a professor of linguistics and English at Brigham Young University. He is considered to be a leading expert on the textual history of the Book of Mormon.

Royal Skousen talks about his 25+ year effort on the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, his findings about the language of the Book of Mormon and his assertion that the text is from the language of the 1600’s, not the language of Joseph Smith’s day–concluding that Joseph was revealed an English text, not taking broad theories and applying them to the language of his day.

Royal is also the author of an article from the Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture entitled Another Account of Mary Whitmer’s Viewing of the Golden Plates. This article articulates the discovery of an additional account of Mary Whitmer’s being shown the Gold Plates from the Angel Moroni. This account articulates a motivation for Moroni’s showing her the plates.

For other texts from Royal Skousen, click here.


Brian C. Hales Interview – Articles of Faith Show

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Brian C Hales – Dissenters: Portraying the Church As Wrong So They Can Be Right Without It

Brian C. Hales is a board-certified anesthesiologist in Layton, Utah. He graduated from Utah State University with a B.S. in biology and from the University of Utah, College of Medicine.

He authored Setting the Record Straight: Mormon Fundamentalism (2008) and The Priesthood of Modern Polygamy: An LDS Perspective (1992). Hales has published articles in Mormon Historical Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and the Journal of Mormon History. Brian Hales is also webmaster of and

Brian has also served as president of the Utah Medical Association and as president of the Medical Staff at Davis Hospital and Medical Center. He is the father of four adult children and author of the 3 volume set, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy.


Fair Issues 50: Book of Mormon DNA issue one of science, not theology

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Ash (newer) PictureLDS critics with training in genetics acknowledge that if a small group of Israelites came to the New World and intermixed with a larger Native American population, their DNA could have disappeared as well…the DNA issue is one of science.  The question as to who lived in the Americas in addition to Book of Mormon peoples is not one of doctrine or revelation, but is one of personal opinion based on research and evidence, including textual evidence from the Book of Mormon

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore.

Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The view and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon.


4th Watch 14: True Doctrine

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4thWatch SmallBrother Ned Scarisbrick and Nick Galieti discuss some of the core doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how we understand them from a general member perspective.

Future podcasts in this series will be geared toward the practical application of gospel principles based on truth and transparency of past and present Church teachings and leaders. Critics of the Church and those who have concerns about their faith may find this approach appealing from previous generations who may have had difficulty dealing with what some consider conflicting viewpoints of official Church doctrine.

The view and opinions expressed in this podcast may not represent those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon.

4th Watch 13: Doctrine, Folklore and Superstition

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4thWatch SmallThe subject of doctrine within the LDS Church has been discussed on many occasions with the written word and scholarly  commentary to the spoken word in local Sunday services and general conference talks by the presiding leaders of the Church.  In this podcast a brief introduction to the subject of what is considered official doctrine in the Church is discussed by Ned Scarisbrick and Nick Galieti.  Nick is the host of his own podcast called the “Good word podcast.”  He is also the production talent behind the “Mormon History Guy” podcast.

The articles of faith are the center point in this podcast and other issues relating to what may be considered faith promoting rumors are mentioned to help us avoid the error of making our own personal views the gospel of Jesus Christ official doctrine.

Future podcasts in this series will be geared toward the practical application of gospel principles based on truth and transparency of past and present Church teachings and leaders. Critics of the Church and those who have concerns about their faith may find this approach appealing from previous generations who may have had difficulty dealing with what some consider conflicting viewpoints of official Church doctrine.

Mormon Fair-Cast 203: Odds are you are Going to be Exalted

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Odds_Are___Exalted_detailAlonzo GaskillMany Latter-day Saints worry whether they’re capable of reaching the celestial kingdom. Are these anxieties born of a sense of unworthiness, or is it that we just don’t think we can “do it all?” Author Alonzo L. Gaskill believes that such pessimism results from misunderstanding God’s great plan of happiness and what it is that the Lord actually requires of us. In this hope-filled book, he reviews the teachings of the scriptures and modern prophets to instill in readers a greater sense of God’s unfailing love and mercy and of His power and desire to exalt His children. Exaltation may be not only possible but probable!

Dr. Alonzo L. Gaskill was reared near Indepence, Missouri, and joined the Church in the fall of 1984. One year later, he served a mission to England. He has attended several schools and universities, earning a master’s degree in theology and a Ph.D. in biblical studies.

He has taught graduate and undergraduate religious education courses at the University of California (at both Berkeley and Santa Cruz) and Idaho State University. He was the director of the LDS institute of religion adjacent to Stanford University, and is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. He is a frequent presenter at BYU’s Campus Education Week and Know Your Religion seminars.

Dr. Gaskill and his wife, Lori, are the parents of four children and reside in Payson, Utah.

This book is available through the FairMormon Bookstore here.

You may also be interested in his blog here.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon.

Mormon Fair-Cast 202: Barry R. Bickmore, “Restoring the Ancient Church”

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Barry R. Bickmore Restoring the Ancient Church 2nd EditionBarry R. BickmoreMills Chrenshaw who is the host of the program “Drive Time Live” on K-Talk AM 630 radio in Salt Lake City Utah interviews Barry Robert Bickmore about his book “Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity.”  In this interview brother Bickmore relates how the teachings of the early Church are reflected in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This book meticulously examines the earliest teachings of Christianity and how some of those teachings were modified, abandoned, or forgotten in the centuries following the death of the Apostles. By exploring the writings of early Christian leaders, Dr. Bickmore is able to recover those early teachings while illustrating the significance they played in the theology and Christology of the pristine Christian Church. Most importantly for Latter-day Saints, Dr. Bickmore demonstrates that many of forgotten early Christian teachings were restored through the prophet Joseph Smith.

This 2nd edition is enlarged and revised.  This book is available through the FairMormon bookstore here .

A written review of Barry R. Bickmore’s first edition from a non-LDS perspective is also available at FairMormon here.

This interview was used by permission of Mills Crenshaw and K-TALK radio. The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of FairMormon.


LDS Church Essays Tackle Controversial Issues

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[This article first appeared in the Student Review. It has been reposted here with slight alteration.]

In a fireside devotional given at Utah State University in November 2011, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, an emeritus Seventy and former Church Historian and Recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, included a question and answer segment in his remarks. During this Q&A, one member of the audience asked about the concerning trend of Church members, particularly younger members, leaving the Church over controversial historical issues they encounter online and elsewhere. “Is the Church aware of that problem?” the questioner asked. “What about people who are already leaving in droves?” Jensen’s response to this question has gone viral, having been reported in the press and discussed on a number of blogs and other sites. “The fifteen men that are above me in the hierarchy of the Church . . . really do know. And they really care. And they realize that, maybe, since Kirtland we’ve never had a period of—I’ll call it apostasy—like we’re having right now, largely over these issues.” Jensen then explained that the Church was then in the process of creating resources to address these concerns. “So we are trying to create an offering that will address these issues and be available for the public at large and to people who are losing their faith or have lost it.” Continue reading

A New Church History Seminary Manual

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The cover page of the new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History seminary manual.

[Cross-posted from Ploni Almoni: Mr. So-and-So’s Mormon Blog.]

The Church has released a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History manual for seminary students. One of the remarkable aspects of the new manual is that it includes a discussion of several sensitive topics in church history. These topics include the following.

1. The various accounts of the First Vision are highlighted in the new manual. “There are nine known accounts of the First Vision—four written or dictated by Joseph Smith and five written by others retelling his experience,” the manual states (p. 20).

The multiple accounts of the First Vision were prepared at different times and for different audiences. In these accounts, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his experience of the First Vision, but the accounts all agree in the essential truth that Joseph Smith did indeed have the heavens opened to him and see divine messengers, including God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the 1838 account was part of Joseph Smith’s official history and testimony to the world, it was included in the Pearl of Great Price as scripture. (p. 20)

The manual then recommends students to read articles by Milton Backman and Richard Lloyd Anderson published in the Ensign discussing the various accounts of the First Vision (pp. 20, 22).

2. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Utah War (Lesson 151). The manual gives a brief historical overview of the events leading up to the massacre and acknowledges the participation of “Latter-day Saint leaders and settlers” in the crime (p. 523). Besides citing an article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre published in theEnsign, the manual also reproduces this quote given by President Henry B. Eyring at the 150 year anniversary of the massacre.

The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [at the Mountain Meadows] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.

3. In a chapter on the history of the Pearl of Great Price there is a brief overview of the history of the Book of Abraham, including the loss and recovery of several papyrus fragments once in the possession of Joseph Smith (pp. 524–526). Included in the discussion about the Book of Abraham is this (which is actually reprinted from the Church’s Pearl of Great Price Student Manual).

In 1966 eleven fragments of papyri once possessed by the Prophet Joseph Smith were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They were given to the Church and have been analyzed by scholars who date them between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. A common objection to the authenticity of the book of Abraham is that the manuscripts are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, who lived almost two thousand years before Christ. Joseph Smith never claimed that the papyri were autographic (written by Abraham himself), nor that they dated from the time of Abraham. It is common to refer to an author’s works as ‘his’ writings, whether he penned them himself, dictated them to others, or others copied his writings later. (p. 525)

(Incidentally, yours truly has written a thing or two on this subject over at the Interpreter blog, which you can access here.) The manual also states, “Although we do not know the exact method Joseph Smith used to translate the writings, we do know that he translated the book of Abraham by the gift and power of God” (p. 525).

4. The new manual has material covering the practice of plural marriage, including an entire chapter on Joseph Smith’s plural marriage (Lesson 140) and a mentioning of Post-Manifesto plural marriage. Below are a few pertinent excerpts from the manual.

In this dispensation the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and many other Church leaders found this commandment difficult, but they obeyed it. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). (p. 204)

While Joseph Smith was working on the inspired translation of the Old Testament in 1831, he read about some of the ancient prophets practicing plural marriage (also called polygamy). Under this practice, one man is married to more than one living wife. The Prophet studied the scriptures, pondered what he learned, and eventually took his questions about plural marriage to Heavenly Father in prayer. . . . the Prophet Joseph Smith was reluctant to begin the practice of plural marriage. He stated that he did not begin the practice until he was warned that he would be destroyed if he did not obey. . . . Because of a lack of historical documentation, we do not know about Joseph Smith’s early attempts to comply with the commandment. However, by 1841 the Prophet had begun to obey the commandment and to teach it to some members of the Church, and over the next three years he married additional wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands. The Prophet Joseph Smith’s obedience to the Lord’s commandment to practice plural marriage was a trial of faith for him and his wife Emma, whom he loved dearly. (pp. 477–478)

Practicing plural marriage brought additional challenges. Because the practice was initially kept very quiet, rumors began to spread about Church leaders marrying additional wives. These rumors greatly distorted the truth, slandered the names of the Prophet and other Church leaders, and contributed to increased persecution against the Saints. (p. 479)

A small number of Latter-day Saints continued to enter into new plural marriages after the Manifesto was given. In 1904, President Joseph F. Smith announced “that all [plural] marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage he will be . . . excommunicated”. . . . This policy continues today. (p. 530)

Towards the end of the chapter on Joseph Smith’s plural marriage, the manual warns, “Much unreliable information pertaining to plural marriage exists on the Internet and in many print sources. Be cautious and wise with such information. Some authors who write about the Church and its history present information out of context or include partial truths that can be misleading. The intent of some of these writings is to destroy faith” (p. 479). I myself have raised a similar point in this post. The manual then concludes by recommending, “Reliable historical research concerning the practice of plural marriage can be found at and” (p. 480).

5. On describing the nature of the Joseph Smith Translation, the manual says the following.

Around the fall of 1830, Joseph Smith was commanded by the Lord to translate the Bible. He did not translate the Bible from one language to another; nor did he have an original biblical manuscript to work from. Instead, Joseph would read and study passages from the King James Version of the Bible and then make corrections and additions as inspired by the Holy Ghost. Thus, the translation was more of an inspired revision than a traditional translation.The Joseph Smith Translation is estimated to have affected at least 3,400 verses in the King James Version of the Bible. These differences include additions (to clarify meaning or context), deletions, rearranged verses, and complete restructurings of certain chapters. The Joseph Smith Translation clarified doctrinal content, especially the mission of Jesus Christ, the nature of God, the nature of man, the Abrahamic covenant, the priesthood, and the Restoration of the gospel. (pp. 180–181)

6. The historical circumstances surrounding the priesthood ban and President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation are discussed in a chapter on Official Declaration 2 (Lesson 157). As part of this discussion, the manual reprints the introductory material to OD 2 printed in the 2013 edition of the scriptures.

The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice.

There is also the recommendation at the end of the chapter for students to “go to Gospel Topics on and search for ‘race and the priesthood'” to learn more about the priesthood ban (p. 545).

7. Finally, in discussing section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the manual straightforwardly says, “The 7,000 years [in vv. 6–7]  refers to the time since the Fall of Adam and Eve. It is not referring to the actual age of the earth including the periods of creation” (p. 280).

I am sure there is more that could be said about the new manual, but suffice it to say from the above examples that the Church is implementing productive measures towards introducing these sort of issues in a faith-promoting, safe, and positive environment (seminary). This will hopefully serve to “inoculate,” to use the popular metaphor, seminary students against the often highly debatable claims and negative information one can currently find on the Internet. While one might perhaps quibble over how certain issues are addressed in the new manual, that there is even a discussion at all in Church curriculum is, in my estimation, a step in the right direction.