Kirtland Sunstone 2014By: Mormon Heretic
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.
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 LDS.org. 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.
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?