Kirtland Sunstone 2014

by: Mormon Heretic

May 12, 2014
the Whitney store - Word of Wisdom was inspired here

the Whitney store – Word of Wisdom was inspired here

This is the first time I’ve ever attended Sunstone outside of Utah.  It was very fun to come to Kirtland, Ohio.  I got in Thursday night and went to the LDS visitors center where they start out with a film.  Joseph Smith came to Kirtland just 8 months or so after organizing the church in New York.  Four missionaries (among them Parley P. Pratt) had great success with Sidney Rigdon’s congregation and many joined there.  I was especially struck by the cameo of Elijah Abel, a black member of the church that the film showed clearly helped build the Kirtland Temple. Following the film, we toured the Newell K. Whitney store.  This is where Joseph Smith first came.  He introduced himself to Whitney and reportedly said, “Newell, you prayed me here.  What do you want from me?”  Whitney allowed Joseph Smith to stay in the upper room of his store for a while, and the first school of the prophets was upstairs as well.  It was fun to see the small room where about 22 people crowded in.  I imagined how smoky it must have been with all the pipe and tobacco smoke, and where Emma complained about the mess these men made.  The Word of Wisdom was a direct result of the events in this room.

Joseph and Emma stayed in the Newell K Whitney home and received revelations there

Joseph and Emma stayed in the Newell K Whitney home and received revelations there

Whitney’s house was just across the street from the store, and Joseph and Emma stayed there as well, receiving revelation.  Emma gave birth to twins who both died in this home.  That same day, Sister Murdock gave birth to twins as well, but she died in childbirth.  Her husband gave the twins to Emma and Joseph who adopted them.  Twin daughter Julia Murdock Smith lived in this house for a time.  (The other child died as an infant from exposure following one of Joseph’s beatings by a mob.) I’m sure it was a time of both grief and revelatory joy. I enjoyed the presentations on Saturday.  Russ Osmond gave an interesting devotional titled “There is no I in church.”  He recently visited Gettysburg, and then adapted Lincoln’s speech to the gospel restoration.  Jan Shipps gave the keynote address, discussing the founding of the church and events that led Joseph to come to Kirtland.

I really enjoyed the presentation by Bill Shepard.  He is a Strangite, and former president of the John Whitmer Association.  He has a forthcoming book called Lost Apostles:  Forgotten Members of Mormonism’s original Quorum of Twelve.  Following the completion of the Kirtland Temple, the Kirtland Bank failed (as did many other banks nationwide), and Joseph Smith was charged with mismanagement of the bank and blamed for its failure by many in Kirtland.  Ten of the original Twelve Apostles dissented:  only Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball remained loyal to Joseph.  Some of them came back (such as Parley P. Pratt), but six of the apostles never returned:  John Boynton, Lyman Johnson, Luke Johnson, Thomas Marsh, William McLellin, and William Smith.  Shepard’s book deals primarily with these men, and I really look forward to reading it.

Jessica Kimball, daughter of Tom Kimball at Signature Books spoke about her experience as a history intern for the Community of Christ in Nauvoo last summer.  Jessica grew up LDS, but her family started attending the Unitarian Church when she was 13 (and yes she is a descendant of Heber C. Kimball mentioned above.)  She offered tours “mostly to Utah Mormons” and said it was “scary, illuminating, and heartwarming—even when old men were calling her to repentance.”  I really enjoyed her presentation, as well as Tom’s response.

Aaron Taylor, Christy Ellis-Clegg, Michael Stevens, and Mary Ellen Robertson were on a panel discussing women’s ordination.  I really enjoyed what Aaron had to say on the issue.  He asked the question about whether female ordination was a bigger theological or cultural problem, and he said it was a cultural problem.  He noted that there is still theological justification for both polygamy and United Order in the scriptures.  There are no theological issues with these 2 Mormon concepts, so theoretically they could be brought back at any time.  But the membership currently does not support it, so these two doctrinal practices are culturally unacceptable.  He notes that the problems with female ordination are also cultural, not theological, and Ordain Women seems to be facilitating social pressure.  Church leaders do seem to accommodate public opinion when there is enough pressure from members.  (I would add that the New York Times seems to facilitate some changes as well.)  Michael Stevens also noted that this issue is more grounded in cultural pressure to keep the status quo.  He said that these are the same dynamics Jesus faced.  Mary Ellen noted that the reasons that Mormon women no longer lay hands on the sick was because of women’s own insecurity about blessings.  When they kept asking men about it, the men gradually took away parts of these blessings until it went away in 1946.

John and Ruth Halstead gave a very interesting presentation on dealing with a spouse’s change in faith.  They both met while attending BYU.  John was a returned missionary from Brazil. After they married, John had a crisis of faith and resigned from the LDS Church.  It was very hard for their marriage, and they considered divorce.  John eventually embraced Paganism as a religion, and they have raised their children in both Paganism and Mormonism.  When their daughter turned 8, she participated in both a Pagan “baptism” service that John designed.  (She was “baptized”—which is not an ordinance in paganism—in Lake Michigan, close to their home), and then she was baptized LDS two days later.  I really admire their ability to hold their marriage together, but I must confess that I had a very hard time relating to their experiences.  Such a change in faith either in myself or my wife would cause tremendous difficulty.  (It was fun hanging out with them as their children rang the bell Sunday morning at the Kirtland Temple.) David Howlett, Tom Kimball, and Cheryl McGuire discussed the new Gospel Topics section on  David (a member of the Community of Christ and professor at Skidmore College) discussed several new essays that came out on post-Manifesto polygamy, race, becoming like God, etc, and said that he felt the LDS Church was moving out of “folk fundamentalism” and moving into a post-correlation church.  He noted that folk fundamentalism is a kind of proof texting in which “the Bible speaks for itself.”  He noted that in several essays, the anonymous authors allowed for the idea that people will interpret scriptures differently, and that some of the essays allow for liberal interpretations as well.  He felt this could allow for less homogeneity in the church, similar to what happened to the American Catholic Church in the 1960s in which American Catholics can embrace both progressivism as well as conservatism.  He didn’t see correlation going away, but it marks a new chapter in Mormonism.

Tom felt that the essays were a reaction to some rising dissension within the church.  He noted the fairly well-publicized case of Hans Mattson, a Swedish General Authority who was blindsided to learn about some aspects of Mormon history to which he was unfamiliar.  Church leaders were so shaken to learn of some things (such as Joseph’s polygamy, multiple First Vision accounts, the translation of the Book of Mormon was done with a seer stone, etc) that the Church sent assistant Church Historian Rick Turley and Church Historian Marlin Jensen to Sweden to address their concerns.  Tom felt the new essays were commissioned by a committee, sent to the Correlation Department for fact-checking, reviewed by a committee of 2-3 apostles, returned to Correlation, returned to the LDS History Department, and then back to the original committee for approval.  He felt some of the essays were written by LDS historians, and felt that the essay on the black Priesthood/Temple ban was probably originally penned by Paul Reeves under a commission from an LDS Committee.  He felt that Ugo Perego probably wrote the essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon.  He felt that all the new historical essays had moved the goal posts and acknowledged new facts previously not held by the LDS Church.

Cheryl McGuire noted that the Gospel Topics section has been trimmed from 400 topics to 200 topics.  While she felt there were some improvements in historical essays, some other topics needed improvement.  She took issue with topics on tattoos and abortion needed better updating, while other topics such as Noah’s flood still held a traditionalist view of a worldwide flood and could still be improved.  She thought it would be a nice project for someone to compare the old and new Gospel Topics section to compare.

Historic Cemetery next to Kirtland Temple

Historic Cemetery next to Kirtland Temple

It was very fun to attend a devotional Sunday morning in the Kirtland Temple.  For modern LDS folks who are so used to needing a temple recommend to enter, the ability for anyone to enter the Kirtland Temple feels rather strange.  In my mind, the Kirtland Temple served more of a function of a tabernacle than a temple.  The saints in Kirtland had no place to meet, so the temple was a gathering place.  While most people are familiar with the famous podiums of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood on both ends of the main assembly hall, I didn’t realize that the second floor has similar podiums at each end too.  The temple was used for regular church meetings, not temple ordinances or baptisms for the dead which had not been revealed yet. In a previous post, I discussed the mummies that were displayed in the Kirtland Temple, and was told they were probably showcased on the second floor where the general public was invited to view them.  (Here is a wonderful transcript discussing the history of the Kirtland Temple.)  I was surprised to see a cemetery next to the temple because you don’t find that near most Mormon temples, but it is much more common among Catholic and Protestant churches.  We were there for the ringing of the Church Bell at 9 AM, and that was fun to watch the Halstead children participate in that.  Apparently the bell was planned in the original plans, but was not added due to the expense.  It was later added in the 1870s.

Here are some questions for you. Do you agree that the main problems with female ordination is social, rather than theological? Do you think the new essays signal the beginning of a post-Correlation era? Have you been to Kirtland?  What are your thoughts?

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15 Responses to Kirtland Sunstone 2014

  1. New Iconoclast on May 12, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    I don’t know that I agree that “the main problems with female ordination [are] social rather than theological;” I would say that they are not necessarily purely theological. I’ll say at the outset that I think the question has not been finally settled for all eternity, although I do think that Elder Oaks’ statements in April 2014 PH session are a lot less ambiguous than supporters of female ordination are hoping and claiming.

    Since it seems to be in vogue to use the ordination of blacks as an analogy to the ordination of women in discussing this issue, let’s start there. It’s not a bad analogy – in both cases, we’re dealing with a subset of people who were locked into a subordinate role in society, thought by most at the time (including many of them) to be both permanent and divinely-ordained. (I’m searching for concise language here without a lengthy comparison and exposition.) Joseph Smith seems to have ordained black men to the priesthood without a great deal of thought and consideration as to whether or not he “should,” or whether or not it was in accordance with the divne will. There they were, they were baptized members, they were living the life, he ordained them. There weren’t many ordained, but then there weren’t many black members overall. Historical consensus seems to be, as the Church has finally admitted, that the ban was both later and cultural.

    Yet Joseph didn’t ordain women. (The “ordinations” experienced by early RS leaders clearly refers to what we would today call a “setting apart,” not the conferral of the priesthood.) Why not? Was it simply beyond his comprehension? He wasn’t exactly an inside-the-box thinker. Was there an implicit understanding of Paul’s admonitions in Corinthians and Timothy to exclude female priesthood even though women did and do lead in many ways in the Church? Did Joseph think that it wouldn’t be well-received, either by his supporters or by the world at large? He was not really one to shrink from bold doctrine; structural leadership roles for women would have been very bold indeed in the 1830s (there were female preachers associated with some of the dissenting evangelical sects but not really any trained, ordained clerics) but not more bold than some of Joseph’s other claims, like a personal visit from God, the translation of the Book of Mormon, baptisms for the dead, and (among his intimates, no pun intended) the doctrine and practice of plural marriage.

    We might also consider the effect of the ordination of women on the rest of the Church. Again going back to the PH ban, I’ve heard it said that it wasn’t revoked until church membership was ready for it to be revoked. I don’t know that I buy that as a stand-alone explanation, but I think there’s a grain of truth to the underlying attitudes. Although it is very hard doctrine indeed to say that there’s a fear that vast numbers of people might leave the Church if the male-only priesthood changed, it could be a very real concern both from a practical and a spiritual sense for Church leadership. I am not prepared to say that they should discount it, although I’ve always been one to charge on ahead regardless of consequences. (That might give me some insight into my career limitations . . . ) Is that a cultural or a theological concern? Could be both; for us to be patient and attend to the weightier matters of the law is difficult for many, but doing so could be a much smaller stumbling block for many fewer people than a massive change would be for many more. That is not an insignificant consideration if your main care is how the Church is to fulfill its mission and enable its members and units to care for one another’s spiritual well-being. It bears remembering that after 30 years, the Community of Christ is still not fully recovered from its own decision to extend its priesthood to women.

    All of that is just a few long paragraphs of saying “I don’t know,” but I do think that there’s a lot more going on than a simple “Culture or Theology?” dichotomy. It’s easy to oversimplify the thinking of people on either side of a complex and divisive issue. Those oversimplifications can become little straw men to be knocked down in arguments, and reasons to discount the views of people we disagree with, and clubs used to knock people off the fence. Now, some arguers are simple, there’s no doubt about that. But all iin all, I’ve been impressed with how thoughtful, considerate, and open-minded most people have been about this issue as it’s been discussed here and elsewhere. I hope we won’t lose sight of the complexity of motives and potential reasons, or of the lessons of our history, since it is in embracing these that we remain able to embrace each other as we seek to iron out our differences.

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  2. Howard on May 12, 2014 at 10:32 AM

    I enjoyed this article MH. Thanks for posting it!

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  3. Howard on May 12, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    I like your comment I’d just like to add that RS minutes of 30 March 1842 show Joseph wanted to make the Relief Society “a ‘kingdom of priests’ as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day.”

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  4. New Iconoclast on May 12, 2014 at 12:18 PM


    I’ve seen that line, now that you mention it, and of course I find myself asking, “Well, why didn’t he, then? It would have saved us all so much trouble. ;) I would especially have liked him to elaborate on what appears to be a reference to female NT leaders.

    Although many of us like to think of the church as true and complete, I think President Uchtdorf’s recent comments that “revelation is continuing” underline the fact that there was a great deal left to be revealed when Joseph was killed, and a number of those things have not yet been resolved. Whether or not they’re super-important (what we used to call “mission-critical” in the Corps) is a different story, but for my part, I’d just like to know.

    Too often my shortcoming is in acting on my knowledge.

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  5. markag on May 12, 2014 at 12:32 PM

    MH: I’m curious to know which Restoration segment attracts the largest number of participants in Sunstone? (LDS, CoC, Strangite, Remnant, or total exes)

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  6. Mormon Heretic on May 12, 2014 at 1:09 PM

    Sunstone is a mixture of believers and unbelievers of all branches. I didn’t poll people (and it was much smaller that attendance in Utah–I’d say 40-50 people. Utah typically has several hundred attendees.) But I would bet more than half of the attendees had an LDS background (believing or non), the next largest group was CoC. I was pleased to meet 3 Strangites. I didn’t meet any Remnant members, but I have met them when MHA was in Independence, MO a few years ago. Because the LDS Church dwarfs all other branches of Mormonism, LDS attendees dominate in terms of numbers. But you are also much more likely to meet the minority Restoration Groups than you will in any other setting either. Sunstone also attracts more atheists with interest in Mormonism than other settings like MHA as well.

    I will just add that it was an enjoyable experience to bear testimony in the Kirtland Temple. I did bear testimony that “Christ Lives” (as I often do), but it did feel a bit different knowing that there were more open atheists in the congregation than at church. I was a little surprised that I said it, but it also felt natural to me, and I did feel touched by the spirit to say that.

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  7. Howard on May 12, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Ni wrote: I find myself asking, “Well, why didn’t he, then? Of course, but you may have answered your own question, he died little more than two years later. I find myself asking the inverse: Why did he say that IF he didn’t mean it?

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  8. Andrew on May 12, 2014 at 2:47 PM

    NI – You’re very right that JS wasn’t one to hold public opinion too highly when it came to much of his teachings and opinions. However, one interesting exception was polygamy. He was very publicly against it with documentation of his public repudiations up until the months before his death, yet he was an ardent practitioner of it (at least according to the consensus view of most credible historians).

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  9. New Iconoclast on May 12, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    Andrew, hence my statement that he proclaimed it quite openly among his intimates.

    I’ve often wondered if his reluctance to go public was due to his personal ambiguity about the practice, his knowledge that Emma abhorred it, the counsel of cooler heads concerned with public opinion, the difficulty in explaining the nuances between the real practice and the John C. Bennett counterfeit, or some hodgepodge of the above. It’s the one part of his public persona that I’ve always felt was a little bit out of character, and I’d bet he was more than a little bit uncomfortable with it, too.

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  10. Howard on May 12, 2014 at 5:57 PM

    Yes, I’ve often wondered if his reluctance to go public was due to it’s potential to get him killed, his inability to control it during start up and his lack of experience keeping multiple women happy. It can’t be easy in the beginning.

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  11. New Iconoclast on May 13, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    Howard, I think your last point might be the reason why the majority of LDS polygamous families, historically, tended to have only two wives. That would be difficult enough for three believing adults to manage, with all the best of intentions. I was often asked on my mission how many wives I had; my response was always, “One will be plenty, thank you!”

    It is a lot of work to develop and maintain a strong marriage with one man and one woman. We’ve been working at it for almost exactly 25 years, and I don’t think I’m terribly good at it. I can’t even imagine how it would be to manage two such relationships.

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  12. New Iconoclast on May 13, 2014 at 7:41 AM

    Back on topic, I used to belong to an email list for Restoration Saints in general, non-denomination specific. I think I was the only “Brighamite” on there, and the rest were a mix of CoC members and independent Restoration Branch members. It was an exciting time to watch from the outside, as that was the period in which Fred Larsen was emerging as the leader of the Remnant Church, the RLDS Church was changing its name, Grant McMurray was resigning as its president, and so on. Some interesting interplay, and I was just as happy to (in effect) be “everyone’s nemesis” and so out of the mainstream, so to speak. :) I asked a lot of questions, learned a lot, and further developed my already-strong love and respect for our non-Utah LDS Restoration brothers and sisters.

    That’s an experience our insulated and isolated “mainstream Saints” don’t often have, other than an occasional brush with a tour guide at the Smith Family home in Nauvoo. I’ve found that even there, as I’ve visited with my ward a number of times, most LDS just assume that everyone is CoC. In the past, my tour guides have been CoC, Restoration Branch, and local Methodist hired for summer job. All of their viewpoints have been interesting and valuable, and by simply not being a typical Utah Mormon [insert slang for male organ], I’ve learned a great deal from all of them.

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  13. Geoff - Aus on May 13, 2014 at 8:50 PM

    I believe the reason the leadership at present opposes the “priesthood for all worthy members” is the conservative culture of the older Apostles.

    I have been surprised and impressed at the changes they have allowed so far.

    I believe the first presidency, and particularly Elder Uchtdorf, are transitioning the church from a culture centred around obedience is the first law of heaven to Love is the first law of heaven.

    I’m hoping that there will be a shift of power as the over 80s Apostles die off, and that within 10 years women will have the priesthood equally.

    I think there would be little resistance if the Prophet announced the change. The resistance comes from those who believe they are defending the Prophet and church, which is what obedience centred people do.

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  14. Ziff on May 13, 2014 at 9:23 PM

    I really enjoyed your review, MH! And it was great to meet you at the conference!

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  15. MH on May 13, 2014 at 9:48 PM

    Yes it was great to meet you and Rock!

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