Q&A with Bradley Kramer, author of Gathered in One: How the Book of Mormon Counters Anti-Semitism in the New Testament September 16 2019
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For some, hearing that the New Testament contains anti-Semitic language can be challenging. Can you provide a few examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the New Testament?
Yes. However, first I would like to clarify that I do not think that the New Testament as a whole is anti-Semitic. I do think that the New Testament contains many anti-Semitic statements, anti-Semitic portrayals, anti-Semitic settings, and anti-Semitic structuring elements that together form a kind of literary tide that pulls its readers towards an anti-Semitic point of view, but that is not the same as saying the entire New Testament is anti-Semitic or that anti-Semitism is its major theme.
The Gospel of John, for instance, not only contains a statement where “the Jews” are told that their father is the devil (John 8:44), but they are portrayed explicitly as questioning Jesus (2:18), as accusing him of being in league with the devil (8:48), and as instilling fear in his followers (7:13; 19:38; 20:19). In this Gospel, “the Jews” function as a foil to everything Jesus stands for and teaches. They are from beneath while Jesus is from above; they are of this world while Jesus is not (8:22-23), and they, unlike the enlightened Jesus, love “darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil” (3:19).
The Gospel of Matthew reinforces this view of Jews through its portrayal of Pharisees. In this Gospel, Pharisees are hypocritical (Matt. 16:3), judgmental (9:11), rule-bound (12:2), scheming (v.14), stupid (v. 24), sign-seeking (v. 38), superficial (15:1), easily offended (v.12), spiritually blind (v. 14), corrupt (12:33), petty (23:23), tricky (22:15), prideful (16:6), and murderous (12:14). True, the Pharisees are only a subgroup of Jews, but without many examples of other subgroups acting differently, they seem to represent Jews as a totality.
In addition, the Gospel of Matthew uses settings to undermine the viability and validity of Jewish practices. The Last Supper, for instance, is set as a Passover Seder and shows Jesus commenting on two of its most important elements: the bread and the wine. However, in this Gospel, the Mosaic meanings of these elements are not mentioned or discussed as stipulated by the Law of Moses (Ex. 12:25–27). Instead, they are presented simply as food items that have lost their Mosaic meaning and can, therefore, be easily repurposed as memorials of Jesus’s soon to-be-dead body and spilt blood. In this way, the Gospel of Matthew presents Passover, much like the Jews themselves, as something devoid of true spirituality and in need of replacement.
Is there scholarly consensus regarding anti-Semitism in the New Testament? Can you provide examples of scholarly debate on the topic?
I think so, yes. Many scholars, however, prefer to use the term “anti-Judaic,” feeling that the New Testament attacks Jews more as members of a certain faith, which can change, than as members of an ethnic or genetic group, which cannot. I have elected to use “anti-Semitic” in my book because 1) most of my sources use that term, 2) “anti-Semitic” is the more common, inclusive term, and 3) in practice the distinction between these two approaches is not always clear—even in the New Testament. Jesus in the Gospel of John, for instance, does not tell “the Jews” that the devil is their spiritual leader; he says that the devil is their “father” (John 8: 44). Similarly, in Matthew the Jewish multitude cries out for his blood to be upon their “children, not upon their religious descendants (Matt. 27:25).
Scholars, as well as many devoted Christian ministers, are disturbed by this scene in the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to brand all Jews throughout time as “Christkillers” and has been used to justify numerous anti-Jewish atrocities. As a result, many of these scholars, ministers, and laypeople deny that it ever happened. They point out that there is no record of any Roman governor ever releasing prisoners on Passover and question the logic of such a custom. After all, why would a Roman official charged with keeping the peace run the risk of releasing his most dangerous enemies back into society? It makes no sense.
These scholars and ministers similarly dispute the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as a spiritually ambivalent government official who could be swayed by the voice of a Jewish multitude. According to Roman records, not only did Pilate place Roman images inside the Temple precincts in direct opposition of the will of his subjects, but he also confiscated Temple funds when they refused to pay their taxes. Furthermore, when people gathered before him to protest, he had his soldiers disguise themselves, infiltrate the crowd, and slaughter them all.
The majority of scholars and ministers see Pilate as a merciless ruler who would have had no qualms whatsoever about crucifying Jesus. However, by doing so, Pilate presented early Christians with a problem. After all, they had to live and work and worship within the Roman Empire. It would not be wise to paint a Roman official as a murderer, particularly as the murderer of the Son of God. Many scholars and ministers, therefore, see this scene as a fictional embellishment designed to shift the blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the already despised Jews.
Can you provide an example or two of how the Book of Mormon counters anti-Semitism in the New Testament?
I can think of no more powerful condemnations of anti-Semitic behavior than these:
O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people. (1 Ne. 29:5)
Yea, and ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn. (3 Ne. 29:8)
Furthermore, these are not simply official declarations issued by a church or statements from an ecclesiastical leader. In the former, it is God who chastises non-Jews (probably Christians) for persecuting Jews; and in the latter, it is Mormon, a prophet of God, who commands these same Christians to cease oppressing the Jews.
Also, notice that these condemnations do not comment upon any particular passage in the New Testament, nor do they challenge the veracity of any specific New Testament event. However, given their clarity of expression, they make it very difficult for Christians to interpret the New Testament anti-Semitically.
In this way, the Book of Mormon does not change the New Testament’s words or call into question their ability to convey divine messages to their readers directly. However, for believers, it alters how the New Testament’s words are understood. When joined with the New Testament in the Christian canon, the Book of Mormon overwhelms the anti-Semitic statements, portrayals, settings, and structural elements with more numerous and more sweeping pro-Jewish statements, portrayals, settings, and structural elements of its own. In this way, the Book of Mormon turns the literary tide in the New Testament and causes it to flow in the opposite direction.
How does the Book of Mormon limit Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death?
For the most part, the prophets in the Book of Mormon seems more interested in what Jesus’s death accomplished than in who killed him. Nephi, for instance, recounts his vision of Jesus’s death saying only that Jesus “was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” without specifying who did the lifting (1 Ne. 11:33), and Abinadi similarly prophecies that Jesus will be “led, crucified, and slain” again without mentioning who will do the leading, crucifying, and slaying (Mosiah 15:7). The same is true for Samuel the Lamanite (Hel. 13:6) and even Jesus (3 Ne. 11:14).
Furthermore, when these prophets do attempt to identify Jesus’s killers, they use vague terms such as “the world” or “wicked men” (1 Ne. 19:7–10), or they employ phrases that, while they may appear at first to indict all Jews everywhere, actually absolve the majority of Jews of any involvement whatsoever in Jesus’s death. Jacob’s “they at Jerusalem” (2 Ne. 10:5), for example, may seem to some readers to indicate that all Jews participate somehow in Jesus’s crucifixion. These readers link this phrase with “the Jews” in verse 3 and see it as affirming universal Jewish culpability regarding Jesus’s death. However, during Jesus’s lifetime, only a small percentage of the world’s Jews lived in Jerusalem. During that time, most Jews were still residing in Babylon or were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond—as Jacob, who as one of the most far-flung of these Jews, knew very well.
In other words, instead of serving as a synonym of “the Jews,” “they at Jerusalem” functions as the last element in a grammatical sequence that shrinks the number of Jews connected to Jesus’s death from all Jews everywhere to “those who are the more wicked part of the world” to just those Jews living in Jerusalem during the early first century. In a similar way, 2 Nephi 10 also softens “they shall crucify him” of verse 3 to “they . . . will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified” and complicates their complicity by stating in verse 5 that they do so not because of some deep-seated personal conviction but “because of priestcrafts and iniquities.”
What is supersessionism and how does the Book of Mormon refute it?
Supersessionism is the traditional Christian doctrine that the Jews have been disobedient for so long, failing to follow their own law as well as murdering its originator (Jesus), that their covenantal connection to God has been revoked and they have been replaced by Christian Gentiles. Statements in the Book of Mormon clearly refute this notion by confirming that the Jews remain God’s “covenant people” (2 Ne. 29:4–5) even after Jesus’s death (Morm. 3:21), and by affirming that despite being scattered “upon all the face of the earth,” the Jews will one day be “armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” (1 Ne. 14:14), that they will be delivered from their enemies (2 Ne. 6:17), and that pure people everywhere will seek “the welfare of the ancient and long dispersed covenant people of the Lord” (Morm. 8:15).
In addition to these statements, the portrayal of the Nephites and Lamanites further reinforces the Jews’ ongoing covenantal connection to God. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jews, as Pharisees, are portrayed as so hypocritical and murderous (at least towards Jesus) that it is hard to see them as continuing in God’s covenant. In the Book of Mormon, Nephites also struggle with hypocrisy as do the Lamanites with murder, and yet never are these New World Jews removed from God’s covenant or detached from God’s care. Missionaries go to them, and often they repent, but even when they do not and their civilization disintegrates into self-destructive chaos, God continues to seek after their descendants and sees them always as heirs to the covenantal promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
How should Latter-day Saints relate to Jews?
With charity, just like Nephi (2 Ne. 33:8), and not as potential converts. It is significant that the Book of Mormon never uses the words “convert” or “conversion” in connection with Jews. Instead, it employs “persuade” and “convince,” and presents Jesus as the only person authorized to do this persuading and convincing. As he tells the Nephites:
And then will I gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfil the covenant which the Father hath made unto all the people of the house of Israel. . . . And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, O house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them. (3 Ne. 16:5, 11)
This repetition of the pronoun “I” in this passage and in 3 Ne. 21:1 indicates to me that Christians should not press Jews to accept Jesus. They should instead have enough faith in their Master to let him do what he has covenanted to do without any help or interference from them.
Christians should embrace Jews as brothers and sisters in God’s covenant, as true friends with whom they can talk, play, work, worship, hang out, enjoy, and learn from, especially in regards to the Scriptures. As Nephi reminds his readers:
I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. (2 Ne. 25:5)
What are you hoping readers will gain through this book?
I hope my readers will see more clearly just how the Book of Mormon can augment and enhance the Bible without undermining its scriptural authority or reliability. I hope they will also feel a closer, more informed, more appreciative connection with Jews. I think many Christians are fairly ignorant about Jews and are somewhat split in their opinion of them. Through movies such as “Schindler’s List,” “Denial,” and “The Pianist,” they may feel sympathetic towards Jews because of persecutions they have suffered and the pains they have endured. However, because of the New Testament, they may also be inclined to see Jews as chronic nitpickers who hypocritically follow superficial religious practices.
With this book, I hope to resolve this difference by showing my readers that there is more to the Jews than is offered in the New Testament, that Mosaic practices remain relevant today, that the Law of Moses has been observed admirably by an admirable people; and that Jews have much to teach Christians religiously, ethically, and scripturally. They certainly have taught me much.
Bradley J. Kramer
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Q: Give us a brief background into who you are and why you decided to write this book.
A: I’m a retired father and husband, with six children and five, almost six, grandchildren. My children are wonderful and some no longer believe in basic principles and doctrines of the Church. I’ve been a leader in the Church and with my wife, served two full time and two church service missions. Our last mission was in our stake, working with leaders to better understand why people disaffiliate from the Church.
As we worked with our stake leaders, we research and studied the frequency and causes why people, particularly previously faithful adults, choose to disaffiliate. We found that Church-wide most leaders see disaffiliation as a very important concern in their ward, stake and particularly in their family. We also found that many leaders were not fully aware of the underlying reasons and didn’t feel they fully understood how to help. They probably feel the same in their homes.
So, after completing that calling, I decided that I could take what we learned and create a resource for members to better understand why people leave so that we could find common ground, build understanding and truly minister to those who no longer worship with us. I conducted some original research, interviewed leaders and disaffiliated members, and studied the words of our Church leaders as well as experts in the field. In this research, I learned that the pain of disaffiliation isn’t just felt by that person’s family or leaders, but also by the disaffiliating member. They often feel isolation, fear, anger and other hurtful emotions; often unintentionally caused by their family, friends, and leaders.
I hope this book can bridge that misunderstanding and give us a better understanding to build trusting and meaningful relationships with those who no longer believe as we do.
Q: Who is your intended audience for the book and how do you hope it will be used?
A: I think there will be two readers for the book. I wrote the book for fully believing members so that they can better understand their friends, ward member, or family member who no longer believes in the truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope it gives each reader understanding on how to build a trusted relationship with that person. With that understanding, I hope that some of the pain, fear, and hurt that is felt on both sides can be turned into love and acceptance. Perhaps in some cases, that understanding will create an opportunity for someone to “come back” or to have someone “stay.” For believing members, I hope that reading this book will help build a bridge with a better understanding as they minister to those who doubt.
I also realize readers will include some who no longer believe. I hope that this book will give them hope that we are trying to be more understanding and that their relationship with their families, friends and Church members can be strong and rich, even with differences in belief.
This isn’t a leadership book. But knowing that each leader is also a member and that we rotate in and out of ward and stake callings, I include some ideas that leaders can use with their callings. The principles are the same and can be applied in families, with friends, as church members, and when we serve in church callings.
Q: We hear numerous reports of religious disaffiliation in our modern age, particularly in Western society. How are these trends reflected in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
A: All churches and denominations are experiencing a drop in membership and participation. Younger Americans, particularly Millennials and Gen-Z, see little need to participate in organized religion. In fact, the fastest-growing group of religious identification is “spiritual, but non-religious.” As Latter-day Saints, we are experiencing these same trends. The underlying reasons include society’s broad acceptance of those who are non-religious, people being comfortable going it alone, less trust of institutions in general and of religions specifically, more opportunities to find friends and like-minded people through social media and other settings, and more. The reasons are many.
For the Church in the United States, data from social scientists show that disaffiliation for those born after 1970 is about 39% and, although the sample size is low, that 55% of millennials have disaffiliated. Most of those who disaffiliate remain on the rolls of the Church, but no longer think of themselves of Latter-day Saints. And they disaffiliate younger than previous generations. The average age of millennial disaffiliation is 18.4 years while for boomers it was 23.7 years.
Q: What are a few root causes for religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints?
A: Latter-day Saints experience all the same issues as other religions, but there are unique issues which we face. Some leave because they become aware of issues in our history which are controversial or seem inconsistent with our values. They may have concerns about particular Church policies, like our teachings about LGBTQ issues. They may disagree with the way in which women and men serve and experience the Church. Church culture and what they experience in their wards and classes may feel judgmental and perfectionistic. They may be different in some way, like being childless, or being single, experiencing mental illness, being politically liberal. Others just don’t feel the Church addresses the areas which are meaningful to them, including issues of social justice, poverty, racism, sexism or violence.
Q: What are a few typical responses among families and congregations towards those who disaffiliate or become disaffected with the Church’s teachings?
A: As I interviewed members and read their comments and experiences in my surveys, I was frankly surprised by the disconnect between fully believing members and local leaders and those who doubt, question, or have left the Church. Many believing members feel the primary reasons why people leave is because they are offended, have sinned, or are lazy. They sometimes blame the disaffiliating member for having not studied scriptures, prayed, or attended the temple often enough. Those members who are struggling with their faith often have serious doctrinal, historical, or cultural concerns about the Church. When members or local leaders don’t have a true understanding of why these people leave or struggle to stay, their efforts are often ineffective, or worse, hurtful, and push members further away.
Sometimes it is because they don’t understand, but also, it causes fear when a family member learns their child, sibling, or spouse is struggling with belief. It threatens their hope for an eternal family as they worry about their spiritual welfare.
Without thinking about it, we make a snap judgment as to why they have left and assume that it is because they have been offended or because of secret sin. We may be afraid to ask them because we don’t want to offend them. We might keep them at arm’s length and be afraid that they will infect us with doubt. Some disaffiliated members feel that they are labeled as “anti-Mormon” or “apostates” and don’t feel that they are welcome. We may exclude them from our social life because we are uncomfortable with them or with having our children associate with them. Leaders may release them from their callings even though they are willing to serve.
Sometimes in our interactions with disaffiliated members, we seek to testify or explain away their concerns when they just want to keep their close relationship, friendship, or continue to worship even with their doubts.
Q: What are a few ways we can minister to disaffiliated and disaffected members, both individually and as congregations?
First and most important, we need to learn to listen to them individually and collectively. We really don’t know their concerns unless we take the time to listen. Listening is hard—it means that we suspend trying to explain their decision and instead really let them share with us what they are feeling and why. Our minds will naturally try and explain it away and find the fault in their logic or life that lead them to their new beliefs. As they are talking, our minds might be filled with how we can counter their concerns. We might be tempted to encourage them to read more scripture, pray harder, or go to the temple. But first, we need to just listen to understand their concern and why it is important to them. Giving unsolicited advice rarely works.
While listening, we need to take their concerns seriously. These issues are very real to them and we should never try and minimize their concerns. We need to validate, even if we disagree. Later, after they know that we really care about their concerns and how it impacts them, perhaps we can discuss ways to think about the issue or even more forward without a clear resolution.
Q: What brief message can you offer to family members or friends of individuals who have become disaffected with the Church’s teachings or who have chosen to disaffiliate?
A: As we listen and validate, we can answer some questions; and when we can’t, we can mourn and comfort our family or friend who has become disaffected. We can find common ground, even if we aren’t 100% united in the values we live and in our spiritual beliefs. Our relationships can be meaningful, close, and full of love, even with these differences.
If they come back, that’s wonderful. If they don’t, we can trust the Lord and enjoy every moment, even within our differences. I take great comfort from Elder Orson F. Whitney, who said, “Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable than even the best of his servants, and the everlasting gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend.” Our Heavenly Parents love our family member or friend far more than we can comprehend. They want their happiness too, today and forever.
David B. Ostler
“A riveting compilation for any reader looking to discover this monumental and defining experience in Mormon history through the accounts of the common people who lived it.” — BYU Studies
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“Will be a standard work on the Nauvoo Temple among the Mountain Saints for many years to come.” —Dialogue Journal
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“This is a fascinating book worthy of a truly fascinating nineteenth-century frontiersman.”
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Jedediah Morgan Grant’s voice rises powerfully in these pages, startling in its urgency in summoning his people to sacrifice and moving in its tenderness as he communicated to his family.
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Embry offers a new perspective on the Mormon practice of polygamy that enables readers to gain better understanding of Mormonism historically.
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“A marvelous record of an LDS everyman meandering through the Mormon West. . . . Fascinating and superbly researched.”
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“Bleak’s annals are a lasting tribute to the early settlers of Southern Utah and will yet influence many thousand more in our day. The wonderful work in this volume makes that possible.” —Elder Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian and Recorder
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Q: When did this project begin and how did you two connect?
A: [Aaron] The project began around 2004 when I was a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While working on my master’s thesis on the significance of tabernacles in the development of LDS communities, I discovered the Annals. That exposure came at Special Collections at BYU, where they had essentially a photocopy of the record. Many of the copies were of very low quality. When you consider that there was no index, it made them very hard to work with. Despite the problems involved with accessing the record, I realized that it was a gold mine of information.
To support my research agenda for my dissertation, the UNLV History Department used a sizable portion of their yearly book budget to purchase a $1,000 collection of scanned documents from the Church archives, which included the Annals. Given what an incredible resource the Annals are, I was amazed that they were so hard to access and resolved to rectify that situation. While working on my dissertation, I undertook a detailed transcription from the scans the library purchased. When I needed a break from the dissertation, I relaxed by transcribing.
Reid contacted me in my last semester of graduate school about working together to bring the Annals to print. He brings a vast amount of experience and resources to the table, and I was very glad to work with him.
Q: What challenges (if any) did you face while compiling this volume?
A: [Aaron] The biggest challenge with this project has simply been time. I did the bulk of the transcription while writing my dissertation and working full-time at UNLV Special Collections. Once the transcription was complete, I knew that we needed two independent verifications and we would eventually need an index. Arkansas Tech approved a professional development grant to pay for students to assist in the process. One of these students helped finish one verification even after grant funds were exhausted. I was very grateful that Reid took care of the index.
Q: Who was James Bleak and what makes his annals so valuable for historical research?
A: James Bleak was the historian for the Southern Mission. What makes the Annals so amazing is how he went about fulfilling his duties as a historian. Firstly, he created a sizable archive of records as events happened. When he actually started writing the history, he had decades of records to work with instead of having to conduct research. Second, is when he was writing, he was careful to include an in-text citation whenever he quoted sources. As a practicing historian, I love that I can tell what text belongs to who. Third, he quoted huge numbers of records in their entirety, not just selections that promoted his narrative. As a concise narrative, it is a 2200+ page nightmare, but it is an absolute goldmine for historians, genealogists, etc.
Q: What do we learn from the Annals about Latter-day Saint pioneer relations with Native Americans?
A: There are some major things that the Annals have to offer in regard to relations with Native Americans. The first is that it covers such a long period of time. This allows us to see some longer-term interaction patterns. This is especially important because those interactions were complicated by the fact that the Saints in southern Utah were interacting with Southern Paiute, Navajo, Ute, and Hopi, each of which had their own internal politics that influenced those interactions.
Overall, Brigham Young’s attitude towards Native Americans was that it made more sense to “shoot them with biscuits” than fight with them. Compared to most groups of white settlers, the Saints had much better relations with Native Americans in general. The Annals, unfortunately, has some very good examples of how some of those interactions went wrong.
Q: What were some of the struggles that pioneers faced in settling southern Utah?
A: Any time people build communities from scratch, there are going to be lots of struggles. The one that stands out the most to me for the Saints in southern Utah is their fraught relationship with water. There is a saying in the West that “whiskey is for drinkin’, and water is for fightin’ over.” The Saints didn’t drink whiskey, so that only left water. This is not to say that they were always fighting about it, but it was clearly never far from their minds. All of the settlements in the Southern Mission were in the desert, and all were reliant on agriculture. Getting enough water for crops was a constant challenge, except for when there was too much water that was washing out those crops that the irrigation works that fed them.
Q: What role did spiritual matters play in the actions and decisions of the southern Utah pioneer settlers?
A: As far as the Annals are concerned, spiritual matters were the things that mattered. You need to recognize that Bleak's position as historian was in an ecclesiastical organization, so the kinds of records he collected and used were influenced by that. Evidence indicates, however, that the average settler was similarly motived by spiritual matters. What indicates that to me is that ecclesiastical leaders were consistently elected or chosen for secular leadership positions.
Q: For each of you, what was one of your big takeaways from the Annals?
A: [Aaron] I have a few takeaways from the Annals project. The first is that you can accomplish some very cool things if you just keep plugging away on it. I worked on the project for nearly fifteen years. Second, you can never have too many friends. It is amazing how many people will jump in and help finish a worthy project if they are given the opportunity. Finally, Bleak’s work inspires me as a historian. I can only hope that more than a century from now that people will look at histories that I have written and find them as worthy as Bleak’s work is today.
[Reid] That James Bleak was so committed to getting the history of his people down in ink. That he was thinking generations ahead of his contemporaries who were barely eeking out a living and in survival mode. But he was looking to the future and appreciated that it was up to him as the designated historian to keep a record, just as the LDS scriptures commanded him to do (D&C 21:1). I marvel at his persistence and am grateful for his attention to detail.
Aaron McArthur and Reid L. Neilson
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Q: For those unfamiliar with Jan Shipps, what can you tell us about her and why she is important within Mormon studies?
A: In the mid-to-late 1970s, Jan Shipps began to emerge as an important new scholarly voice in Mormon history circles. She was not a Latter-day Saint (LDS), and she was a woman claiming the right of place in a field dominated by men. Yet she proved she could more than hold her own with the male scholars who constituted the inner circles of both the LDS-based Mormon History Association and its RLDS counterpart, the John Whitmer Historical Association. Her scholarly work was fresh and insightful, she rapidly ascended to positions of leadership and made meaningful organizational contributions within both groups, and she helped mediate differences between scholarly proponents of these two historically antagonistic camps of Mormonism. These men respected, accepted, and encouraged her. By the early to mid-1980s Jan’s reputation for unbiased and nonpolemical writing and speaking on Mormon topics also earned her the confidence of both the national media (who consulted her constantly for her take on news stories related to Mormons and the LDS Church) and upper echelon authorities of the LDS Church (who gave her unprecedented access to them and their views on the same topics). She was simultaneously instrumental in persuading many prominent religious studies scholars and American Western historians of the significance of Mormonism as a case study in their own disciplines that had previously trivialized or dismissed the serious study of Mormons, past and present. Her 1985 book, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, received widespread critical acclaim and cemented her reputation as an authoritative scholarly interpreter of both Mormon history and contemporary Mormon culture. In succeeding years, her reputation and influence remained strong, and she continued—well into her eighties—as an active scholar, mentor to a new generation of women historians, and as an organizational participant within the expanding field of Mormon studies that she had herself helped to legitimate.
Q: What made you decide to write a book about her?
A: Although the two of us are only marginally connected to Mormon history circles, we had known Jan professionally for a number of years. This connection was due mostly to Jan characteristically reaching out to people like us who demonstrated a manifest interest in the scholarly study of Mormonism from other perspectives (sociology in our case), and we were well aware of her important contributions to the related fields of Mormon history and Mormon studies. Five years ago, she invited us to her home in Bloomington to confer for two days on a then-current project of ours that she found interesting while soliciting our views on a current project of her own. Our natural inclination is to ask a lot of biographical questions in the process of interacting with other people, and we quickly became a lot more familiar with her as a person on this occasion (and on others that subsequently followed). We reflected on what a remarkable transformational story her life presented—a life that merited telling at least in terms of how she had transitioned from unpromising beginnings growing up in Depression-era Alabama, to entering into adulthood as a post-World War II housewife and mother without a college degree, to eventually emerge, in middle age, as a pre-eminent scholar of Mormonism. It didn’t take long for such reflections to crystallize into a conviction that we could, should, and would attempt to tell her story.
Q: Can you briefly explain what kind of analysis this book provides beyond a typical biography?
A: We have not tried to write a thorough, conventional biography that explores every known pertinent fact about our subject in detailing the full arc of her life. We call our project a “social and intellectual portrait,” laying out a basic summary of what we perceive as life-shaping experiences, personal characteristics, role model and mentor relationships, and environmental circumstances—from early childhood through mid-adulthood—that shaped, prepared, and eventually propelled Jo Ann Barnett into improbable prominence as Jan Shipps, the “outsider-insider” Mormon observer par excellence. We also make a detailed argument that Jan’s Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition merits inclusion with Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, and Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre as the three most impactful scholarly books thus far written on Mormon topics. Hand in hand with this argument, we also show how Jan’s deep and extensive participation in professional academic circles—both Mormon and non-Mormon—significantly advanced the stature of Mormon studies as a legitimate and important field of scholarly inquiry. Finally, we suggest how Jan’s own evolving religious beliefs and attitudes regarding contemporary feminist issues have interacted with her understanding and interpretation of Mormonism.
Q: Give us a brief look into Jan Shipps background. When did she decide to start researching and studying Mormonism and what prompted her?
A: Jan arrived in Logan, Utah in the summer of 1960, accompanying her husband, Tony, who had just been hired as the new assistant head librarian at Utah State University. Jan was 30 years old, mother of an 8-year old son, had a number of credits earned at women’s colleges in Alabama and Georgia (but had not completed an undergraduate degree) and knew virtually nothing about Mormons. But she was naturally tolerant and curious about Mormons and immediately began to read as much as she could find about them, including Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom (Arrington was then professor of history at USU but on sabbatical at the time). Jan registered for classes at USU to obtain teaching credentials so she could supplement the meager family income. She changed her degree from music to history to facilitate this aim and serendipitously took a historiography course from visiting professor, Everett Cooley (who was temporarily filling in for Arrington). Cooley recognized Jan’s potential as a student and gave her an assignment to research and write about a Mormon topic from primary source materials to which Cooley had access. Jan succeeded brilliantly in this assignment while pursuing a self-directed crash course in readings on Mormon history. When Tony was hired for a new library position the subsequent year at the University of Colorado, Jan opted to enroll in a master’s degree program in history at UC, again with the intention of gaining additional required credentials to become a public-school teacher. Given her recently acquired experience at USU, she chose to write a course paper on a Mormon topic and produced what later became her first published article: “Second Class Saints,” an analysis of Black Mormons. She followed up this paper by expediently writing on another Mormon topic for her master’s thesis, “The Mormons in Politics. 1839–1844.” When Jan was subsequently (and unexpectedly) encouraged by CU history faculty to continue graduate studies as a Ph.D. student, she was by now committed by intellectual passion and commitment (and not just convenience) to write her dissertation on “The Mormons in Politics: The First Hundred Years,” and to continue pursuing a scholarly focus on Mormon topics.
Q: Above, you heralded Jan Shipps’s 1984 book, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, as one of the most significant books in Mormon studies. For readers who are less familiar, can you give a brief description of her book and offer a few reasons for its significance?
A: In spite of Jan’s subtitle, “The Story of a New Religious Tradition,” the story she tells is not a conventionally detailed or comprehensive narrative of Mormon history and the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jan’s approach is to instead understand the rise of nineteenth-century Mormonism using comparative, analytical, and theoretical religious studies methods. While the seven chapters of her book can all be read as separate essays, combined they sustain a coherent thesis about the relatively rare emergence and organizational transformation of a new religious tradition in the context of nineteenth-century American history and religious culture. Jan’s central thematic argument requires that we not only consider early Mormonism in the context of American religious history but that we also see it in broader historical comparison to the rapid rise of Christianity as a new religious tradition from its initial incarnation as a Jewish sect. By new religious tradition, Jan means explicitly that the theological beliefs and associated religious symbols, rituals, and religiously mandated practices diverge so much from the parent religious tradition that they burst the bounds of the old and must be grasped as something fundamentally new and distinctive.
The insights about the emergence and subsequent development of Mormonism that Jan produced began with an analogy to early Christianity. Analogies are heuristic devices that stimulate possible solutions to unresolved problems or debated questions. The debated questions about Mormonism are: What kind of religion is it? Is it Christian or non-Christian? How and why did it emerge and spread so rapidly when and where it did in nineteenth-century America? How did it not only survive furious resistance as a perceived Christian heresy but ultimately flourish to become a rapidly expanding international religion in the twentieth century? And in the process of doing this, what kind of religion did it consequently become for its adherents both at home and abroad? These are the kinds of questions that concern Jan’s analysis of Mormonism and not merely a descriptive, chronological account of its history and most prominent leaders.
In short, Mormonism is not written to be either faith promoting or faith debunking. It is not a conventional history. It is a comparative and analytical treatise that positions Mormonism within larger historical, cultural and social contexts. It commanded the attention and respect of eminent scholars and conferred increased recognition and legitimacy on the scholarly field of Mormon studies.
Q: You mentioned that Jan Shipps became a go-to expert for the national media whenever they covered a Mormon-related topic. How did Jan achieve this status? And how did her national media presence affect her relationship with the leaders of the LDS Church?
Jan not only became deeply involved with “insider” LDS and RLDS scholarly organizations (The Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association), she also presented and published her work on Mormonism in a number of nationally prestigious outlets while simultaneously assuming active leadership roles in the professional organizations that sponsored these same scholarly conferences and journals (e.g., The National Historical Society, the Western History Association, the Center for American Studies, and the American Academy of Religion, among others). Prominent participation in these organizations gave national exposure to her scholarly work and advocacy of Mormon studies and garnered the attention of the media at a time that coincided with escalating interest in Mormons and the LDS Church due to such issues as Blacks and the priesthood, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Hoffman bombings, and the rapid growth and increasing influence of the LDS Church and prominent individual Mormons around the world. Given her growing reputation in national scholarly circles, It didn’t take long for the media to discover Jan as a non-Mormon expert on Mormons, who could provide unbiased but authoritative information and analysis on these and many other issues of interest. At the same time, through both local and national network sources, LDS Church officials reciprocally came to appreciate Jan’s unflagging promotion of detached but non-polemical scholarship on Mormon subjects. This appreciation was particularly facilitated through the savvy efforts of LDS Church Director of Press Relations and Public Communications, Jerry Cahill, to arrange Jan’s access to Church leadership as a mutually trusted bridge between them and national news outlets.
Q: How did Jan's Methodist faith evolve through the years that she studied Mormonism? How do you feel her religious tradition affected her writings on Mormonism?
A: Jan grew up as a dutiful, simple believer but a not very pious Methodist. The most important religious principles she acquired from her childhood were tolerance of others’ religious beliefs and the notion that the primary purpose of religion was to help people in need. Her religious tolerance has matured into an active curiosity about diverse religious perspectives and genuine respect for the legitimacy of religious beliefs that are sincerely held in different religious traditions. This outlook came into its maturity as she studied Mormon history, beliefs, and practice—all completely unknown to her at the outset of her academic career. Jan’s detached, analytical, but respectful treatment of Mormonism’s beginnings and development as a new religious tradition was a hallmark of her early, acclaimed work. Ongoing, increased contact with ordinary Mormons, Mormon scholars, and LDS Church leaders have deepened her appreciation of Mormonism as a valid religious tradition. But she is not a convert to Mormonism and remains committed to the organizational expression of her Methodist beginnings. However, Jan’s private religious beliefs are more complicated, diverse, and universal than those proclaimed either by conventional Methodism or Christianity in general. She prays for others because she knows it brings them comfort. But Jan does not pray for herself, because she believes in her own ability to cope with life’s problems and in a just God who knows her heart.
Q: What are you hoping readers will gain from this book?
A: We hope all readers will come to appreciate—as we did in conducting our research—the truly remarkable, utterly unanticipated unfolding of Jan Shipps’s life and career. This is a life that should inspire us all. But it should particularly inspire the aspirations of many young LDS women who struggle to strike a working balance between their deeply felt religious and family commitments and the full development of their intrinsic talents, potential to grow, and ability to see and take advantage of life opportunities on an equal par with men. And we hope readers with a scholarly interest in Mormon studies, particularly younger students and scholars whose awareness and interests have developed since the heydays of Jan’s seminal contributions, will become more appreciative of the foundational role Jan played in promoting Mormon studies as an important field of study.
Gary and Gordon Shepherd
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Who is Lot Smith? Forgotten Folk Hero of the American West November 06 2018
WHO IS LOT SMITH?
LOT SMITH is a legendary folk hero of the American West whose adventurous life has been all but lost to the annals of time. Lot arrived in the West with the Mormon Batallion during the Mexican-American War. He remained in California during much the Gold Rush, and was later a participant in many significant Utah events, including the Utah-Mormon War, the Walker War, the rescue of the Willie & Martin Handcart Companies, and even joined the Union Army during the US Civil War. Significantly, Lot Smith was one of the early settlers of the Arizona territory and led the United Order efforts in the Little Colorado River settlements. What follows is a brief sketch of Lot's service in the Mormon Batallion and the experiences that shaped him.
Lot was reared by a hard-working Yankee father and a devoutly religious mother. His mother passed when he was fourteen. At the impressionable age of sixteen, Lot joined the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican-American War as one of its youngest members. His father passed before he returned to his family. Consequently, his experiences in the Mormon Battalion shaped his life significantly. The struggles of this heroic infantry march of two-thousand miles across the country embedded within him several valuable characteristics.
During most of the journey, his company marched with very scanty rations. Despite his teenage-boy-appetite, he learned that he could survive on almost nothing. At one point during the march, Smith and others were so hungry that they ate the bark from a pepper tree. It did not agree with Smith. Ever after, he never allowed pepper at his dining table. In later life, when he and the soldiers under his command suffered intense hunger during the Utah and Civil Wars, he knew how they felt and empathized. When neighboring Arizona colonists faced famine, he quickly came to their aid. When his own colonists had food shortages, he did not ration the provisions. He knew what near starvation felt like.
Lot Smith came to value the comfort of clothing and shoes in the absence thereof. As the battalion march continued, his clothing and shoes wore out. He had only a ragged shirt and an Indian blanket wrapped around his torso for pants. At the death of one of the soldiers, he gratefully inherited the man’s pants. His feet were shod with rawhide cut from the hocks of an ox. Ever after, he never took shoes for granted. It appears that he may have developed an obsession for them. Soon after his arrival in Utah Territory, he was known to have bought himself a pair of shoes that was outlandishly too large. He said that he wanted to get his money’s worth! Years later, he bought thirty pairs of shoes at a gentile shoe shop. When he saw the astonishment of the shopkeeper, he said, “If these give good service, I’ll be back and buy shoes for the rest of my family!” He frequently carried an extra pair of shoes. In at least two recorded instances, he gave an extra pair of shoes to grateful men who were in desperate need. He knew how feet with no shoes felt—sore, bruised and cut.
Several times the battalion marched miles and even days with no water. One of the more fortunate times, the soldiers found rainwater in wallows mixed with buffalo urine and dung. Only a few sickened. Once after marching two days without water, they were promised water at the end of their march, only to find that there had been water, but the officers and their mounts had finished it off. The troops crowded around the moist hollow and dipped with spoons and sucked through quills for a mouthful of water. Another time after a more than two-day waterless march, Smith helped dig for water. He was then asked to carry a keg of water back to the soldiers, who had been too weak to continue, with strict orders to start with the farthest soldier. He passed the first few but could no longer pass his pleading thirsty comrades. Compassion became one of his strong characteristics. Yet he also learned obedience—strict obedience. For his disobedience, he was tied to the back of a wagon to walk in trying and humiliating circumstances. Throughout his life, he expected firm obedience of himself and from those he led in war, those he led in colonizing, and those within his family.
Smith developed endurance during the Mormon Battalion march. He carried a shoulder load of paraphernalia, walked as many as twenty-five miles or more each day—sometimes dragging mules through the heavy sand. There was no stopping—and absolutely no pampering. When the going got rough, he had to keep going. He suffered extreme heat and freezing nights on the deserts. Through all of these challenges, he learned to laugh at the hardships and to maintain a happy optimistic view of life. He emerged from the Mormon Battalion as a young man who knew he could do hard things.
It is not known how skilled Smith became with a gun during his battalion march, but during his later years in Arizona, he was known to be an expert marksman who could shoot accurately even from the hip. Every morning he took a practice shot. Navajos and Hopis would come from miles around to challenge him. He gained a reputation of the most feared gunman in Arizona.
Smith faced many life-threatening ordeals throughout the rest of his life. Many different kinds of hardships would test his endurance. He faced them with courage, a trust in God, and an upbeat attitude. His example inspired those who followed him. As a significant and beloved military leader, he knew how to succor those under his command. One who served with him in the military said, “We loved him because he loved us first.”
Lot Smith learned many valuable life lessons on the Mormon Battalion march that served him well. Yes, he rid his table of hot pepper—and he should have done away with something else hot—his temper!
Talana S. Hooper is a native of Arizona’s Gila Valley. She attended both Eastern Arizona College and Arizona State University. She compiled and edited A Century in Central, 1883–1983 and has published numerous family histories. She and her husband Steve have six children and twenty-six grandchildren.
Lot Smith recounts the Mormon frontiersman’s adventures in the Mormon Battalion, the hazardous rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart companies, the Utah War, and the Mormon colonization of the Arizona Territory. True stories of tense relations with the Navajo and Hopi tribes, Mormon flight into Mexico during the US government's anti-polygamy crusades, narrow escapes from bandits and law enforcers, and even Western-style shoot-outs place Lot Smith: Mormon Pioneer and American Frontiersman into both Western Americana literature and Mormon biographical history.
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Q: Give us some background into this book. How did it come together?
A: My grandfather James M. "Jim" Smith was the youngest of Lot Smith's fifty-two children. Since Lot Smith was killed by a renegade Navajo six months before my grandfather's birth, my Grandpa James sought his entire life to learn all he could about the father he never knew. He soon discovered that his father had lived a life which generated myths and legends. He obtained many firsthand accounts which were most often tinged with admiration and love—yet not all were complimentary. Jim Smith's oldest son, my father Omer, recorded the stories and enlisted the help of my mother Carmen to more completely research Lot Smith's history in libraries around the country. When Omer unexpectedly passed, Carmen continued to research, interview, and compile for another thirty years. However, by her mid-nineties, her eyesight had failed enough so that even with her magnifying glass she could no longer see her computer screen well enough to continue. I knew that Lot Smith's life story was too compelling and valuable to be lost. With her blessing and help (while she was still able), I began working to bring the biography together for publication.
Q: For readers who are unfamiliar with Lot Smith, can you give us a basic background of who he was?
A: Lot Smith, a man with a fiery red beard and a temper to match it, experienced firsthand many of the significant events in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His life was one adventure after another. He joined the Mormon Battalion at the age of sixteen and participated in the California Gold Rush. The life lessons he learned during the Mormon Battalion prepared him for a life of service—many times grueling—for the Church and his fellowmen.
Smith continued his military career. His reputation of fearlessness became widely known as a member of the Minute Men Life Guards—the cavalry that defended the Latter-day Saints in the Rockies from Indians. He was a captain of the Life Guards who rescued the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies. Major Smith served a critical role in defending his fellow Saints from what seemed certain annihilation by the US Army by burning their supplies and wagons in the Utah War. For that act, he was hailed as a hero by the Saints, but indicted for treason in the US courts. After Smith fought in the Walker War, he was appointed as a captain in the US Army to guard telegraph lines and mail routes during the American Civil War. During that service, he and his men endured a harrowing, life-threatening chase after unknown Indians who had stolen two hundred horses. Readers will enjoy several interesting trips with Brigham Young when Smith served as an escort guard. Smith lastly served as Brigadier General in the Black Hawk War and then served a mission in the British Isles.
In 1876 Brigham Young called Smith to lead colonization in the Arizona Territory. Young charged Smith to establish the United Order and to befriend the Indian tribes. Both these directives brought more adventures as they struggled to secure a mere livelihood. Smith served as Arizona's first stake president, and his Sunset United Order provided a way station for others colonizing in New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. Smith also helped lead Church colonization in Mexico—another ordeal.
Smith was one of the most feared gunmen in Arizona. He several times drew his gun on men meaning harm but pulled the trigger only once. Besides defending his rights as a stockman, he vowed he would never be arrested for polygamy and narrowly escaped arrest many times. His untimely death came from a shot in the back by a renegade Navajo.
Q: Can you give us a scene from Lot Smith's life that you found particularly interesting?
A: It is difficult to choose just one scene from Lot Smith's life to share. I considered the incident when one of his men was accidentally shot during the Utah War or the rescue of the Martin Handcart Company. I remember the death-defying chase up the Snake River in the Civil War. And then I consider the time when he had a shootout with a man hired to kill him. All are incredible events! And yet, I choose simple episodes Smith shared with his sons.
While Smith lived in Arizona, the federal marshals increased their efforts to arrest any polygamists. Smith had four wives in Arizona, so he was a target. He was always on the alert and evaded arrest many times by riding a fast horse and carrying a fast gun. One time when Lot and his sons were shucking corn in the field, a marshal appeared some distance away. Smith told his boys to shock him up in the corn. When the officer rode up, the boys greeted him cordially. The officer never did figure out how Smith escaped the area!
On another occasion, Smith was traveling with his son Al in a wagon. Lot looked up the road to see a man on horseback and said to Al that it looked like a U.S. Marshal. Since Lot was convinced that no deceit could enter the Kingdom of God, he wanted all his posterity to be honest and truthful at all times—even in the face of danger. So when he saw the marshal, he told his son to stay in the wagon and not to lie, or he'd skin him alive. Lot took his gun and hid behind a bush. The officer approached and asked Al if he were Lot Smith's son. Al replied that he was. Then the officer asked where his father was. Al replied, "Right behind that bush beside you." The officer didn't look; he feared Smith's gun. He merely said, "Well, you tell him that I passed the time of day with him," and said good-bye.
Q: There are a lot of myths and legends that surround Lot Smith. Can you talk about a couple and set the record straight?
A: Several preposterous stories have been attributed to Lot Smith—probably because of his reputation as a rough character with a strong personality, and an expert gunman which caused people to fear him. One widespread myth was that he was involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. How could Smith, the hero of the Utah War, be in Wyoming and southern Utah at the same time? Yet the myth persisted, and newspapers printed at his death that he was involved in the massacre.
One of the most oft-repeated myths of Lot Smith was that he branded his wives. It was so widely believed that at the death of his wife Jane in 1912, people still speculated if she had been branded.
The myth followed Smith to Arizona. Children of his last wife, Diantha, were told that their mother had been branded. The real story of Smith "branding his wife" involved his second wife Jane after his first wife Lydia had left. While Lot and two of his friends were branding near his home in Farmington, Jane was preparing dinner for her husband and the guests. Jane needed eggs. She went out and spied some eggs in the manger where she couldn't reach without entering the corral. Jane knew that Lot's stallion chased and bit anyone but Lot, but the stallion seemed to be dozing in the far corner of the corral. She reasoned that she could sneak in unnoticed. However, the stallion was not as drowsy as she has assumed. He jerked up his head, shrieked, and charged Jane. Without dropping his branding iron, Lot jumped and ran between his wife and the stallion. When she ducked to go under the fence, he pushed her through with the branding iron. The men at the branding fire watched as Jane twisted to check her nice skirt that she wore for company. The branding iron had cooled enough that it didn't even scorch it. One of the men laughed and said, "That's one that won't get away from you; she's branded!"
Lot, who loved to entertain and enjoyed a sense of humor, was partially responsible for starting the myth. In church meetings after this incident, he arose to bear his sincere testimony. Along with recounting his blessings, he was heard to say on more than one occasion, "And anything I own, I brand—including my wife!"
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?
A: Most of all, I want readers of the Lot Smith biography to enjoy the incredible and fascinating life of Lot Smith. His life was one thrilling adventure after another! Since his life entwined significant events in the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hope that readers get an up-close perspective of some of these events.
I hope readers learn through Lot's experiences that trials and hard circumstances can refine us. When Lot was in the Mormon Battalion, he experienced periods of no food, no water, no shoes, and scanty clothing. His compassion for others in similar situations was born. He was always generous to the poor and could never turn away anyone who was hungry even when food was scarce. It seems he often carried an extra pair of shoes to give away freely.
Lot's strong leadership in the colonization of the destitute Arizona Territory in the United Order was phenomenal. Through hard work and wise leadership, the colonists avoided starvation and established homes. I want readers to more fully realize and understand some of the sacrifices our forefathers made to settle the frontier land for future generations.
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Flash Sale: 40%-63% off Mormon theology titles! October 25 2018Friday, Oct 26 through Monday, Oct 29. Theology titles by James McLachlan, Blake Ostler, Adam Miller, Joseph Spencer, James Faulconer, Jacob Baker, Blair Van Dyke, Loyd Ericson, Charles Inouye, Charles Harrell, Robert Millet, and more...
Dime Novel Mormons awarded Best Anthology at JWHA September 24 2018
To celebrate the award, we are offering all titles from the Mormon Image in Literature series for 30% off from Sep 24 through Sep 28. Use discount code DIMENOVEL at check out to get the discount.*
*Offer valid for US domestic customers only. Limited to available inventory. Ends 9/28/18.
Book of Mormon Flash Sale: 40%-64% off! September 20 2018
Friday, Sep 21 through Monday, Sep 24
In commemoration of Joseph Smith receiving the golden plates on September 22, 1827, we are pleased to offer a sale on the following Book of Mormon titles:*
*Offer valid for US domestic customers only. Print book sale limited to available supply.
Q&A with Laura Rutter Strickling for On Fire in Baltimore: Black Mormon Women and Conversion in a Raging City September 11 2018
Q: Will you give us a little background into your formal education and how it relates to this book.
A: I received an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University way back in 1977, then, twenty years later, completed post-baccalaureate work in Spanish at Augusta State University. In between this time, our family of six lived in southern Spain for seven years where the kids attended Spanish schools in Rota, across the Bay of Cádiz. Later, back in the States, I taught high school Spanish in North Carolina until our four kids left home, then went on to do graduate work. I received an M.A. from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Intercultural Communication, and a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Linguistics. My doctoral research focused on the impact of educator's attitudes toward students who speak African American English, and I developed a model that explains the process of reframing a linguistic mindset. This model shows that standard language ideology (in this case, the belief that Black English is poor English, instead of a language variation) is not easily modified, but requires incremental training, and the implementation of linguistically aware practices followed by analysis. I also completed a two-year post-doctoral position in Urban Education in Baltimore where we evaluated the efficacy of Turnaround interventions in low performing schools. In terms of writing On Fire in Baltimore, my academic preparation provided me with an interdisciplinary theoretical foundation regarding language, race relations, and intercultural difference; and living in the city provided me with day to day experience in an interracial neighborhood.
Q: How did this study come together and what were your goals with it?
A: Well, come together is probably a good description because it implies a process. Qualitative research can be fluid and take on twists and turns as the research unfolds. I began a study focused on recording the life and conversion of the African American women in my congregation—an endeavor that spanned over ten years and resulted in twenty-five recorded interviews and four hundred pages of transcription. But the interviews were more than data collection; they opened the door to sisterhood and sojourn into the Black community. Sitting side by side in their living room or at the kitchen table, these women would draw me into their narrative with Black vernacular, laughter, and tears. More than once I would find myself holding their hand as their eyes welled up from painful memories or smiling at their sarcasm as they described a family member. And my association did not end with the interviews; the women would invite me to family celebrations and birthdays or ask for rides across town to pick up prescriptions. They would call me out of the blue because they “had a feeling,” then tell me another story about their lives. These church sisters also let me know that they were interested in my work. “How are the stories coming?” some would ask as they passed me in the church halls. “We are praying for you,” they would tell me as the unfinished book advanced from months to years.
But our time together was not always easy; sometimes there were tense moments that were difficult to navigate. Sometimes I would find myself in a racialized snare that I could not resolve by intuition. A feminist theoretical approach obligated me to be mindful of these emotions and enabled me to adopt a reflective process aimed at exposing my biases and questioning my responses. It provided me with the theoretical underpinning to acknowledge that, as a researcher, I would naturally affect the research I do, but also, in the process, I would be affected by it. Keeping this in mind, I documented the evolution of my thoughts as I interacted with these Black women and as I attempted to peel back the layers of my racialized assumptions.
Q: You mentioned that what began as a linguistic study quickly turned into racially-entangled conversion narratives. Can you explain that a little further?
A: What I’m saying is that intersectionality became clearer to me. By intersectionality, I mean that socially constructed categories such as, race, class, and gender-hierarchy interrelate and come together to impact the degree of marginalization or healthy acceptance into a society. You cannot separate these Black women’s marginalized lives from their conversion stories. For example, Delilah talks about “the worst time in her life” when her husband pushed her to the floor, then held a gun to her head. After that, he beat her up, so she left him. Alone and without food for her children or electricity for the house, she went to her Baptist Church seeking help. Instead of help, she ended up losing twenty dollars. In anger and without resources, she yells at God, telling him that she would not go to church anymore—God would have to send a church to her. A few days later, she says “two White boys came knocking at my door, and I wondered, what are these White boys doing in this Black neighborhood?” Delilah says that her life changed after baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ.
But once Black women join the Latter-day Saints, they also have to reconcile that the Church denied them full access to full membership before 1978. Their membership was yet another layer of marginalization. The women in On Fire in Baltimore each have their own way of explaining the reason for this lack of access. Delilah, for example, researched the story of Black Mormon pioneer, Jane Manning James, and found comfort in Jane’s fortitude.
Q: Can you provide one or two specific examples from the book of stories that stood out to you in particular?
A: Every one of these Black sisters’ stories impacted me, but I can offer two examples. The first is found at the beginning of the book and was an experience that left me deeply reflective as to where I would take my work. In this excerpt, I am interviewing Ruth:
"I love doing these interviews," I explain, taking a stab at getting the interview started, "because I feel like the sisters are with me every day when I listen to their recorded voices and transcribe their words." Ruth smiles at me and nods her head, and I'm feeling confident in the work I'm doing. But my satisfaction is short lived, and I am quickly reminded of how fragile the interview process can be. With my next comment, I fall from academic grace onto uncertain interview ground. I tell Ruth that I have run across colleagues who were surprised to learn that there were African American Mormon women in Baltimore, and that they were interested in hearing their conversion stories. Without a hint of accusation and with her customary mild voice, Ruth asks, "Are you only interviewing African American women? Because I'm not African American. My father was White and my mother was Native American."
I catch my breath for one speechless moment as a wave of panic washes over me. I had assumed Ruth's racial identity. After years of theoretical study regarding the hegemonic construction and social complexities of identity, culture and race--how had I done that?
This experience sent me on a four-month journey researching race--in particular, the racialization of America and the formation of whiteness.
The second excerpt is found toward the end of the book and shows the reader how this work is more than a series of interviews or a collection of conversion stories. It illustrates how my life became intertwined with the Black sisters in my congregation. At the time of this story, I was the choir director and Clara was a member of the choir:
“[A]s I went to sit down Clara appeared out of nowhere. ‘Could we meet together for ten minutes some time?’
Thinking that this must be a question about the choir, I answered, ‘How about now?’ and followed her out the chapel door into the hall. But when she kept on walking, I realized that she must have wanted to meet more privately. Clara led me into a classroom and closed the door.
‘Can we have a prayer?’ She was asking me. In the split second that I automatically said yes, I was also wondering which one of us would be praying and for what purpose. But I was not left to ponder long because Clara immediately grabbed my hands, facing me. She pulled me close and started praying out loud in a strong voice. But she had crossed her arms in front of her chest so that she was holding onto my hands, right to right and left to left. I did not hear what Clara was saying at first, because I was trying to figure out the meaning of this hand position.
She was praying for me. ‘Heavenly Father, thank you for Sister Strickling. She was inspired to come today. Help heal her with the treatment she is going through. Thank her Heavenly Father. Heal her. Heal her Heavenly Father.’”
Q: In what ways did this study challenge your view of whiteness, and how race impacts your own perspective?
A: Generally, we do not become “raced” until we experience a racialized encounter. In other words, because race is a social construct, we are not aware of our whiteness, blackness, or browness, until someone’s behavior points it out. Several of the Black women in this book told me that they did not realize they were Black until they got their first paycheck and went shopping only to be told that Black people could not try on clothes in that store. Growing up in rural Oregon, I did not have many racialized experiences, and living in Spain, I viewed my day to day encounters with Spaniards in terms of cultural or linguistic difference. Baltimore was a good place for me to learn about racialized behaviors.
A: What are you hoping that readers will gain from this book?
That the last shall be first and the first shall be last. In other words, I'm hoping that these stories will inspire readers of all races to question their assumptions. Lorraine Hansberry, author, and the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway, said: [Do you want to know about] love . . . and life? Ask those who have tasted of it in pieces rationed out by enemies . . . Ask . . . those who have loved when all reason pointed to the uselessness and fool-hardiness of love. Out of the depths of pain we have thought to be our sole heritage in this world—oh, we know about love! Perhaps we shall be the teachers when it is done.
Today, social discourse on race and racism persists, in the news, on talk radio and social media, but how do we go about being the teachers and the students that Hansberry described? What quality of relationship would foster this reciprocity? This book is really the beginning of that discussion.
 Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 104. Hansberry (1930–1965) playwright and author, wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and was the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway.
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