Separated but not Divorced: The LDS Church’s Uncomfortable Relationship with its Polygamous Past

Abstract: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s uncomfortable relationship with its polygamous history is somewhat like an awkward marriage separation. This is, in part, because of the fitful, painful cessation of plural marriage and the ever present reminders of its complicated past. This essay looks at examples of members’ expression of discomfort over a polygamous heritage and concludes with suggestions of possible pathways to a more comfortable reconciliation. Continue reading

The Inevitability of Epistemology in Historiography: Theory, History, and Zombie Mormon History

Abstract: Fundamental changes have occurred in the historical profession over the past thirty years. The central revolutionary change is that workers in the historical profession can no longer ignore theory and philosophy of history. A built-in resistance to theory causes historians to abjure philosophical analysis of their discipline at a time when such analysis is recognized to be indispensable. If one doesn’t have an explicit theory, one will appropriate one uncritically, without the felt need to articulate and defend the theory. The dominant theory in history over the past century has been positivism, a conception of disciplinary work that ruled history and the social sciences during the twentieth century but has been stripped of rhetorical and persuasive power over the past three decades. Although positivism has been overwhelmingly rejected by theoretically informed historians, it continues to dominate among the vast majority of historians, who fear adulterating history with philosophical examination. The most common version of positivism among historians is the assertion that the only evidence from the past that is valid is testimony based on empirical observation. This essay focuses on recent comments by Dan Vogel and Christopher Smith, who deny this dominance of positivism in the historical profession, and in Mormon history in particular, by misunderstanding positivism without even consulting the large scholarly literature on the topic that rebuts their assertions. They make no attempt to engage the sophisticated literature on the transformation in historiography and philosophy of history that has made most of history written [Page 112]to standards of the 1970s obsolete and revealed it as ideologically inspired; while at the same time these historical researchers assert their own objectivity by appealing to a conventional wisdom that is now antiquated. This version of positivism is especially hostile to religious belief in general, and in particular to that embodied in the LDS tradition. Continue reading

A Brief History of Critical Text Work on the Book of Mormon

I begin this brief historical account of alternative work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon by including material that I wrote in an original, longer review of John S. Dinger’s Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon (Smith-Pettit Foundation: Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013). The final, shorter review appears in BYU Studies 53:1 (2014). The Interpreter recently published Robert F. Smith’s review of Dinger. In these additional comments, I especially concentrate on work done in the 1970s by Stan Larson on the text of the Book of Mormon. In the latter part of this account, I discuss the more recent work of Shirley Heater in producing The Book of Mormon: Restored Covenant Edition. Continue reading

The Cowdery Conundrum: Oliver’s Aborted Attempt to Describe Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 1834 and 1835

Abstract: In 1834, Oliver Cowdery began publishing a history of the Church in installments in the pages of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. The first installment talks of the religious excitement and events that ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision at age 14. However, in the subsequent installment published two months later, Oliver claims that he made a mistake, correcting Joseph’s age from 14 to 17 and failing to make any direct mention of the First Vision. Oliver instead tells the story of Moroni’s visit, thus making it appear that the religious excitement led to Moroni’s visit.

This curious account has been misunderstood by some to be evidence that the “first” vision that Joseph claimed was actually that of the angel Moroni and that Joseph invented the story of the First Vision of the Father and Son at a later time. However, Joseph wrote an account of his First Vision in 1832 in which he stated that he saw the Lord, and there is substantial evidence that Oliver had this document in his possession at the time that he wrote his history of the Church. This essay demonstrates the correlations between Joseph Smith’s 1832 First Vision account, Oliver’s 1834/1835 account, and Joseph’s 1835 journal entry on the same subject. It is clear that not only did Oliver have Joseph’s history in his possession but that he used Joseph’s 1832 account as a basis for his own account. This essay also shows that Oliver knew of the First Vision and attempted to obliquely refer to the event several times in his second installment before continuing with his narrative of Moroni’s visit. Continue reading

Passing Up The Heavenly Gift (Part Two of Two)

Review of Denver C. Snuffer, Jr., Passing the Heavenly Gift, Salt Lake City: Mill Creek Press, 2011. 510 pp., no index. $25.97.

Claims #4 and #5: The Source of the Authority of Brigham Young and the Apostles After Joseph’s Death

Snuffer writes of the apostolic succession:

In 1847, Brigham Young publicly explained his understanding of the keys he obtained in these words: “an apostle is the Highest office and authority that there is in the Church and Kingdom [of] God on the earth. From whom did Joseph receive his authority? From just such men as sit around me here (pointing to the Twelve Apostles that sat with him.) Peter, James and John were Apostles, and there was no noise about their being seers and revelators though those gifts were among them. Joseph Smith gave unto me and my brethren (the Twelve) all the Priesthood keys, power and authority which he had and those are the powers which belong to the Apostleship” (87).1 Continue reading


  1. Snuffer cites Richard S. Van Wagoner, editor, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2009), 1:241. The original is in the Woodruff diaries; see Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898, 9 vols. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983–85), 3:257 (15 August 1857). Cited as WWJ hereafter.