Monday, November 22, 2010

Church History Q&A: Did Brigham Young Really Try to Implement a Secret Deseret Language?

(Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, George D. Watt)           . 

Widely unknown - even for life long members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - is a remarkable endeavor in the mid to late 1800’s in which Brigham Young, then the president of the Church, commissioned and advanced a movement for the creation and implementation of a new written system of the English language. Important to note is that it was not a creation of a new language but rather a new alphabet for the existing spoken English language. This new alphabet was called the Deseret Alphabet. The alphabet was commissioned in 1862, created and material published in 1869, and finally abandoned prior to the death of President Bingham Young in 1877. There are several questions which can be asked of this - Why would Brigham Young have such an interest in creating a new alphabet? Was it an effort to keep further separate the Mormons from the rest of Society? Was it to keep secrets? Why did it fail? Was the failure a reflection of the Prophet Brigham Young and the Church?
The History and Reasons
From the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary work has been a forefront of the doctrine and culture of the church. It is an attempt to do as Jesus instructed to his apostles of old: “Go… and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt 18:19)

          One prophetic missionary effort by the church was the missions to England. Joseph Smith advocated and emphasized that missionary work must be taken to England, that it was the will of God. The validity and prophetic nature of this direction can be seen immediately prior and shortly after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844.  During this time of turmoil many American Latter-day Saints had their testimonies and beliefs tried to the core through persecution, confusion, doctrinal objections and attacks on their beliefs. Many Latter-day saints were in one way or another separated from the church. The British immigrants started arriving by the thousands pumping new life blood into the church this crucial time in church history. Famously thousands of immigrants crossed the plains in handcarts after the Saints had established themselves in Salt Lake. Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve reported of the importance of the English extradition:
"80 percent of the members of the Church today are of British extraction. All of the presidents of the Church except the Prophet Joseph Smith have, at one time or another, accepted the call and performed full-time missionary labors in Great Britain."
(Richard L. Evans, “History of the Church in Great Britain,” Ensign, Sep 1971, 25)(Link)
There is a cherished and well known story in the church of the very first English baptism. In 1837, seven years after the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, missionaries for the church came to England. Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards, and Joseph Fielding traveled to Preston England to meet with Joseph Fielding’s brother Reverend James Fielding. Joseph Fielding had previously traveled from England to Canada in 1832 where he and his wife were baptized in 1836 by the Apostle Parley P. Pratt. Joseph having talked to his brother received permission to preach in his chapel in Preston.
The preaching had much effect and on July 30, 1837 there several who desired to be baptized, of these there were nine who participated in a footrace to become England’s first official convert. A man named George D. Watt won the race and was the first convert in England. George was a skilled student in Pitman shorthand and he along with Parley P. Pratt would eventually be approached by Brigham Young in 1852 to create a phonetic writing system.
From 1850 to 1860 the territory of Utah grew as a population from 11,380 to 40,273 an increase of 253.9%. By 1870 more than 35 percent of all Utah residents had been born outside of the United States. By 1890 two thirds of Utah’s population of 210,779 was Immigrants. Of these many did not speak English and most English speakers were themselves illiterate. Even among literate or partially English literate or partially literate there was large variations in spelling and grammar particularly the 80,000 immigrant from the British Isles by 1890.
Due to the difficulty of the English language to master and with the vast majority of the people in Utah illiterate Brigham Young and his advisors decided to create and implement a new English phonetic alphabet. A phonetic alphabet means that words are spells as they sound and not through vast converse and convoluted rules and history. Following are some example of phonetic spelling using the English language.

Current English Spelling
Possible Phonetic Spelling

The Birth of the Deseret Alphabet
Brigham Young commissioned a committee headed by George D. Watt to create a new Alphabet to put phonetically with the existing English spoken language. We know that partial funding of the effort, $10,000 (approximately $266,000 in today’s currency (2009)), was given by the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) which also published the material printed in the Deseret Alphabet. Legislature allocated $2,500 (approximately $66,500 in today’s currency) dollars for the font type of the Deseret Alphabet.  Altogether the printing and publication of the Deseret Alphabet and material costs around $18,500 (approximately $492,000 in today’s currency). This was a huge price for the small church of under 100,000 impoverished members.
Brigham Young heavily encouraged the people to lean and use the Deseret Alphabet.  In the fall session of General Conference in 1868, one year before most of the publications took place Brigham Young instructed and advised the saints concerning the alphabet
"There are a few items I wish to lay before the Conference before we dismiss, which I think we shall do when we get through our meeting this afternoon. One of these items is to present to the congregation the Deseret Alphabet. ...The advantages of this alphabet will soon be realized, especially by foreigners. Brethren who come here knowing nothing of the English language will find its acquisition greatly facilitated by means of this alphabet, by which all the sounds of the language can be represented and expressed with the greatest ease. As this is the grand difficulty foreigners experience in learning the English language, they will find a  knowledge of this alphabet will greatly facilitate their efforts in acquiring at least a partial English education. It will also be very advantageous to our children. It will be the means of introducing uniformity in our orthography, and the years that are now required to learn to read and spell can be devoted to other studies."
 (Journalof Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 298, Brigham Young, delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Oct. 8th, 1868.)

During the publication period at least four books were printed. Ten thousand copies of The First Deseret Alphabet Reader,and ten thousand copies The Second Deseret Alphabet Reader were published and started distribution on August 13, 1868; the former for 15 cents while the latter for 20 cents. 8,000 copies of a book of Mormon section "First Nephi-Omni" was published and sold for 75 cents a piece. 100 copies of The Book of Mormon in its entirety was published and distributed 1869 selling for 2 dollars each.

          Aside from official publication the Deseret News published a weekly section of their paper in the Deseret Alphabet to encourage the saints to learnt the alphabet. In fact the very first printing of the Deseret Alphabet was Sermon on the Mount which in the Deseret News February 16, 1859. During the period of 1859-1860 Brigham Young’s Journals were written in the Deseret Alphabet. Coins were also made using the Deseret, there were even tombstones made using the Deseret Alphabet. Although never publish Parley P. Pratt saw the transcription of the complete Bible and Doctrine and Covenants. It was estimated that to create a publication of 1,000 in the Deseret Alphabet would cost a staggering $5,000,000 dollars (approximately $133,000,000 in today’s currency) a logistically impossible task for the Saints.
This attracted attention from the East – In the New York Herald there was an article published about the Alphabet:
"One prominent and striking feature connected with the News just received is the introduction into its columns of the new Mormon alphabet. It is clearly the intention of brother Brigham to have his people go to school again. Every number of the paper is to contain familiar portions of the Bible, so that the people may the more easily acquire a knowledge of the new language. As the apostle Hyde says in his epistle, that the Mormons are 'a very peculiar people,' with many peculiarities--and none doubt him--the language now introduced is calculated to make the faithful still more peculiar than anything that distinguishes them from other mortals. Gentiles are not likely to take much trouble to acquire a knowledge of the new characters, so that in course of time we may expect to be cut off from much that we have been accustomed to receive from the Rocky Mountains.
"The characters seem a conglomeration of the Celtic and the phonotypic, and are intended, like the latter, to represent distinct sounds. No classification is made into vowels and consonants, as that is by them considered of little consequence. 'The student is, therefore at liberty to deem all the characters vowels, or consonants, or starters, or stoppers, or whatever else he pleases.' There is no perfection claimed for the system, but the projectors 'are sanguine that the more it is practised and the more intimately the people become acquainted with it, the more useful and beneficial it will appear.'"
(The New York Harold, Wednesday, April 6, 1859)

Despite the efforts made in forms of admonition, monetary funding, and apparent benefits the effort failed within the decade and is now a virtually unknown to even Mormons being only a small footnote in most texts. 

            The Deseret Alphabet has attracted linguistic critics both in and out of the church due to some rahter unintuitive aspects of the alphabet – it has no extenders such as ascenders and descenders (letters rising or descending outside of the mean line length lines. e.g. ascenders: capital letters, d, or l; descenders: p, q, or y). Ascenders and descenders aid in the recognizability of words which aid in reading and understanding quickly. For this purpose of British road signs no longer print in all capital letters.
Some historians see the Deseret Alphabet as an attempt for the already isolated Latter-day Saints to further distance themselves from the rest of society. They claim that it was created as an exclusive writing system to keep their secrets from "gentiles" while at the same time prohibiting the Mormon population from learning or exploring the world outside of the Mormon Corridor. American Mormon Historian David L. Bigler writes:
“[The Deseret Alphabet] demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, controlled what children would be allowed to read…”
(Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, by David L. Bigler, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1998, p.56)

Neil Alexander Walker, a current Doctoral candidate in Linguistics (UCSB) said on the subject:
“Contrary to the assumptions of outside critics, who have claimed that this alphabet was intended to cloak LDS writings from Gentile view and further isolate the Mormons in their mountain retreats, the Deseret Alphabet was intended solely to ease the burden imposed upon students learning to read and write English.”
 (A Complete Guide to Reading and Writing the Deseret Alphabet, by Neil Alexander Walker,2005, p.13)(Link to E-book)

Furthermore in every book published was a key for the alphabet; any book, any page, any phrase, could be translated given the time and effort.

Recently there has been an interest in the Deseret Alphabet, in fact it has been incorporated into Unicode. Meaning that it has been accepted and standardized as a alphabet, Unicode is intended to be a Universal character set supporting every written script used on Earth. The Deseret Alphabet has recently been added to the UK Mac OS fonts.

The Deseret Alphabet was a very logical and methodical endeavor which ultimately failed as a result of lack of commitment or dedication to the principle.  Although it can be seen as a failed project sponsored by the church and the government at the time it does not reflect on Brigham Young as a prophet as he never claimed it was from a divine source, furthermore regardless of the source the failure was primarily in the reception of the instruction and message. Whether the implementation of such an alphabet would have been a beneficial effort or an error is unknown and only open to speculation. If indeed the alphabet were to be used as Mr. Bigler postulated – that it would be the exclusive alpha of Utah – than there could be severe consequences with the expansion of the west, with integration and segregation. However if the alphabet was to be used in tandem with the English, or if all of the English speaking world were to adopt the alphabet, than it would be an asset. Whatever the influence could have been it has now become an interesting unique part of the Mormon Culture that by and large has been forgotten.

Bateman, Edward. "The Deseret Alphabet." Web log post. XMission Internet. 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
Bancroft, Hubert Howe. Reproduction of Hubert Howe Bancroft's History of Utah, 1540-1886. Las Vegas (Box 15444, Las Vegas, NV 89114): Nevada Publications, 1982. Print.
Bigler, David L. Forgotten Kingdom: the Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998. Print.
Evans, Richard L. “History of the Church in Great Britain.” Ensign. Salt Lake City, Utah 1971. Print 
Jensen, Richard L. "Utah History Encyclopedia." Media Solutions - Information Technology - The University of Utah. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
"Measureing Worth." Measuring Worth - Measures of Worth, Inflation Rates, Saving Calculator, Relative Value, worth of a Dollar, worth of a Pound, Purchasing Power, Gold Prices, GDP, History of Wages, Average Wage. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
Walker, Neil A. A Complete Guide to Reading and Writing the Deseret Alphabet. 2005. E-book.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gospel Scholarship: Objects in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear

Gospel Scholarship: Objects in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear

Many movies are based on the idea of the average Joe finding out he is actually someone/something special. Whether it is Harry Potter finding out he’s a master wizard that is intricately connected to his arch-nemesis; Jake Sully finding out he has more in common with his Avatar than with his fellow marines; or Dwayne Johnson discovering he is a real Tooth Fairy with deep-seated issues, we find that the teachings in the scriptures are more complex than they seem on the surface.

In the movie, The Blind Side, we are reminded that along with the complex characters in the movie, we have to “peel back the layers” of the onion that makes up the gospel. In joining the Church at 16 years of age, I found the Book of Mormon to be filled with lots of cool, gory war stories. While 1975 preceded the shoot-everything-in-sight video game era, young men in any period tend to be attracted by a show of violent force. I was intrigued by the war stories, and looked forward to getting to the end of long sections of teaching. It’s been remarked that the movie Titanic would have been the perfect guy movie if it would have actually started about an hour into the movie.

The story goes of two missionaries walking along a road to an appointment. One elder was a veteran of 18 months on his mission, the other had been out just a few days. As they walked along, a huge pit bull rushed up from behind some bushes. It lunges towards the missionaries. The experienced elder quickly side stepped the massive dog. The second elder froze in terror with his scriptures in his hands in front of him, hoping to shield him. Amazingly, the pit bull chomped down on the scriptures, pulled them out of the missionary’s hands, growled and tossed his head around. After a few minutes of mangling the book in its massive jaws, the pit bull sighed, dropped the book and trotted off.

The experienced missionary slowly walked over and picked up the book. He opened it up and noted that the dog had bitten the Book of Mormon only through a portion of Second Nephi. The young elder, still trembling from the experience, said, “it makes sense, I always struggle getting through the Isaiah portions myself.”

That is how I viewed the difficult portions of the scriptures for the first several years I was a member. Even as a missionary, the focus on doctrine was limited primarily to the concepts taught in the discussions. Gospel scholarship requires time and effort. Lots of time and effort, in order to become a better scholar. There is no such thing as becoming the know-all scholar, as the scriptures, connected with modern revelation, is an onion with a never ending supply of layers to peel.

Just as we have to go step by step in growing in Gospel scholarship, so did the Savior of the world:
“And I, John, saw that he (the mortal Jesus) received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness” (D&C 93:12-13,

In this same manner, we receive grace for grace as we move from grace to grace. Or better said, we move from one level of righteousness and knowledge to the next level. It requires us to take action, and then to allow God to sanctify us to a new level of grace, until we receive a fullness, even as Jesus did.

One eats an elephant one bite at a time. One peels back the layers of the gospel onion one at a time. It is alright to look at it as a long term, even lifetime, goal. On my first foray into reading the Book of Mormon, I could never imagine that 35 years later I would have read it more than 75 times more (I’ve frankly lost count). And I now enjoy the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon much more than the war accounts. So, how do we begin peeling the layers?

First, schedule the time and then make the time to study the scriptures each and every day. If all you can find are 15 minutes a day, it may not seem like much, but each small layer adds up. In a year’s time, you will have read over ninety hours in just one year. The first few times you may want to read straight through the books of scripture, so you can get the gist of the story lines and most obvious concepts being taught. Familiarity, in this instance, breeds inspiration.

Next, ask yourself questions about what you are reading. Go into the scriptures with questions that you would like better answers to. Think about the things you are reading and how such teachings can apply to you in a modern sense, or in an ancient sense. Is there more than one way to interpret a scripture? Is the specific scripture incomplete, and we need to find a more complete answer elsewhere in scripture? This is how Joseph Smith received many of his revelations. He studied it, trying to understand what it was really suppose to mean. While translating the Book of Mormon, he read about baptism. He pondered on it, trying to understand the passages as best he could. It led him to pray about it, and the Lord restored the Aaronic Priesthood through John the Baptist (D&C 13, His later studies in the Bible would lead to the Book of Moses, and many other revelations.

Third, ask God to help you have a greater understanding of what you are studying. Oliver Cowdery, Joseph’s chief scribe, wished to assist in the direct translation of the plates. The Lord granted him the gift of translation, however Oliver quickly became frustrated and stopped trying. The Lord explained to him:

“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:7-8,

You’ll note that Oliver had to do more than just ask God to reveal it to him. He first has to study, ponder, and try to find possible answers for himself. Only after such effort would God reveal the answers to him from on high. So it is with us. We cannot be like Nephi’s rebellious brothers who did not bother to pray because they felt “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:8-9, Nephi chastised them for the hardness of their hearts, because they were not diligent in keeping the commandments, which would include inquiring after the Lord to find answers. Are we in the same boat as Laman and Lemuel, and don’t even realize it?

Peeling the layers of hidden knowledge from the scriptures does one other thing for us. It helps us to peel the hidden layers from ourselves, as well. We get to see deeper within ourselves, even as God peers into our souls. It causes times of reflection and a will and desire to change. A part of the change is to go, layer by layer, grace to grace, from being like Laman to being like Nephi.

In beginning these steps, the path will look long and foreboding ahead of us. But if we stop to enjoy the grace we receive as we peel back each layer of the sweet gospel onion, we can rejoice in the journey. And the day will come when we look back at the gospel scholarship path we’ve walked and stand pleased with how far we’ve come. Then we can look forward again, and continue further along the scholar’s path.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith – The First Vision

Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not then this work is a fraud. If it did then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.” Gordon B. Hinckley

            Does God communicate with mankind? Sure, he spoke personally with Adam and Eve in the Garden, as some believe. How does God typically speak to us though? Through prophets, chosen seers set apart as His mouthpiece. He spoke to Jared, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, Isaiah, Malachi; John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and his Twelve Disciples, as well as a plethora of men and prophets in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the prophets today, currently President Thomas S. Monson.
            For most people, that last part is a whole lot to swallow. It’s for this reason I’m writing today about an experience had by Joseph Smith Jr that has come to be known as the First Vision.

            Joseph Smith Jr. received his namesake from his father, Joseph Sr. His father and mother, Lucy Mack had eleven children, of which Joseph was the fifth. He was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. In 1816, after several moves, Joseph Sr. moved to Palmyra, New York, and his family later followed. Up until the 1830’s, the nation was undergoing the Second Great Awakening, so called as it was a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment and the secularism that went along with it. Joseph Smith Jr. was raised in a family where they joined every morning and evening for prayers, scripture reading, and hymn-singing.
            When he was 15, his mother, two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and his sister Sophronia joined the Presbyterian faith. In his recorded history, he states, “my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit” (Joseph Smith-History, v.8). Joseph wondered on matters deeply spiritual, and felt a great desire to join the correct, or at least the most correct church.
            James 1:5
            A scripture that can be recited by nearly every Latter-day Saint, it reads:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Joseph Smith records he read the above scripture and determined to ask of God which church he must join. Others cite his brother William as saying Joseph heard the scripture quoted by a religious minister, and also suggesting his brother ask of God. Many of those who believe William believe that man was Methodist minister, Reverend George Lane, who visited the area around Palmyra during a large Methodist conference in 1819.

Before The Vision
In the spring of 1820, after coming to the conclusion that he would “do as James directs, that is, ask of God” (JS-H 1:13), he made his way into a grove of trees on their 100 acreage. When he found the place he had before decided to go, he knelt down and began a vocal prayer. He records that some great power took hold of him, binding his tongue. He records that “Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” (JS-H 1:15). But he wasn’t. He did everything he could, praying for deliverance, and “at the very moment when [he] was ready to sink into despair and abandon [himself] to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin... just at this moment of great alarm...”

The Vision
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me... When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
            If we are to believe this, which many people do, in its simplest form it shows that God and Jesus Christ exist. Even more, it means they have bodies of flesh and blood like us, that we were created in their image, that they have two separate bodies, and that like the people in Biblical times, we’re not being left alone.
            So Joseph Smith asked his question: Which church should he join? He was told that he shouldn’t join any of the churches, that none of them contained the fullness of Christ’s church. The way my missionaries explained it to me, the Gospel is like a glass table. After Christ and his disciples died (well, except John the Beloved and the three Nephites) the Gospel, or the table, shattered. From that, men picked up pieces of the Gospel and made their own churches, many, without a doubt, with the best of intentions. Each church had a piece, but not the every piece. The Restoration, completed through Joseph Smith, enabled that glass table to be repaired.

            Like stated above, if this did occur, then Jesus Christ and God exist, and not only that, they also possess bodies of flesh, from their image we were created, and they possess separate and distinct bodies. As amazing as those concepts are, I think a greater reality is the fact that God hasn’t left us here to try to manage on our own, to try to work out our salvation without a chance of success. In other words, the promise that was made by James is true – if we ask God in faith, God will provide us with answers. Also, because of what Joseph experienced prior to receiving the Vision, he understood and appreciated the reality of Satan. Obviously, the big point of this is the fact that Joseph Smith was told all the churches at the time didn’t contain the truth, and this prepared him in his future task of restoring Christ’s church on the earth. President Joseph F. Smith said:
The greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high, was the coming of the Father and of the Son to that boy Joseph Smith, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom—not the kingdom of man—never more to cease nor to be overturned. Having accepted this truth, I find it easy to accept of every other truth that he enunciated and declared during his mission of fourteen years in the world.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 495-96.)

            Inconsistencies (READ Assumed Problems)
            There are nine accounts of the first Vision given by the Prophet Joseph Smith. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this, critics say, except for the fact that they differ, some differing in a manner which seems to be great. I cannot enter into this in great detail, but I would like to touch on it, and since it was a problem for me in the early days of my membership, it seems important to me to include this and explain, at least a little, that just because they differ, it doesn’t mean the event never occurred, or that Joseph somehow evolved his story to be more and more grandiose. I won’t include the text of each version, but they were given as follows:
(1) the Prophet’s handwritten description in 1832, an attempt to start a manuscript history of the Church;
(2) a Church secretary’s brief 1835 journal entry of Joseph talking with a visitor who called himself Joshua, the Jewish minister;
(3) the 1838 history discussed above, published in 1842 and now in the Pearl of Great Price;
(4) Orson Pratt’s publication, the first publicly disseminated, of the Prophet’s vision in his Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, issued in 1840 in Edinburgh, Scotland;
(5) Orson Hyde’s revision of Orson Pratt’s pamphlet, published in 1842 for German readers and adding some insights that may have come from his contact with Joseph Smith;
(6) the Wentworth Letter, created in response to editor John Wentworth’s inquiry and published by Joseph Smith in 1842 in Times and Seasons; this account adapted parts of Orson Pratt’s pamphlet;
(7) Levi Richards’s diary about Joseph Smith preaching in the summer of 1843 and repeating the Lord’s first message to him that no church was His;
(8) a newspaper interview in the fall of 1843;
(9) Alexander Neibaur’s 1844 journal entry of a conversation at the Prophet’s house. (Papers of Joseph Smith 1:1, 125–27, 265–67, 387–91, 405–9, 430, 444, 461.)
These accounts of the Vision are not all the same, obviously. So clearly something has to be wrong, right? Some critics cite this as evidence of an evolution of Joseph Smith’s experience. However, if a man were to get up on the stand in front of a judge on several different occasions, I think suspicion would arise if the man told the exact same story with the exact same words on each occasion. When I tell a story of one experience to a friend, I won’t emphasize the same points, or speak the same words I would use when talking to my mother, or a significant other, or a young child. It’s only through combining each record that we find the original. Just because some details are omitted in one version and included in another does not mean that those details have evolved through excessive story-telling or the like.
The 1932 record of the First Vision seems to refer to the presence of only one being. While I cannot provide the accounts (unless you go and pick up a copy of The Papers of Joseph Smith) in their entirety, this particular account refers to their being the Lord, who opened the heavens to Joseph, while the Son explains more to Joseph. This account seems to focus mainly on the words of the Saviour and seems to just hint at the presence of God there.

As my seminary teacher once told me: If the First Vision really happened, then Joseph is a Prophet. If Joseph is a Prophet, then the Book of Mormon is true. If the Book of Mormon is true, then the Church is truly God’s Church, and God's work.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Church History Q&A: Rebaptism in the Early Church

            Many times in the church we develop erroneous social conceptions of corporal and eternal principles. As close knit communities of Latter-day Saints we can sometimes, without doctrinal substance, develop social norms and taboos which can, because of the context in which they were developed, inherit a spiritual or ecclesiastical authority which the principle does not originally embody.  Such practices can be seen as Cultural Mormonism, which is to be contrasted with Doctrinal Mormonism, in which the substance comes from scripture or prophetic council rather than society or interpretation of doctrine. 

            Some examples of Cultural Mormonism could be the abstinence of caffeine, the former apologetic beliefs and justifications of the ban of the Priesthood from the blacks, the former and continuing stance of anti-evolution, the belief that the hill Cummorah is the same hill that Joseph Smith retrieved the plates out of, the belief that to be a “good Mormon” you must be a democrat. These opinions are not, nor were, inherently wrong but they do not come from official Latter-day Saint Doctrine, but rather through cultural influence.

The Doctrine of Baptism
            The doctrine I will discuss today is that of baptism, one of the most essential doctrines of the Latter-day Saints and all of Christendom.  The word “baptism” come from the Greek baptizo meaning to “dip” or “immerse”. For Christianity (and Mormonism) it is the key initiatory event in conversion and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

            For Latter-day saints baptism and confirmation are an inseparable saving ordinance. A saving ordinance in the Latter-day Saint church is a solemn convent made by the individual with God in order to accept Christ more fully into their life and inherit eternal life. Baptism and Confirmation are the first two initiatory ordinances which starts the process of fully accepting Jesus Christ into their lives.

            Preparatory to baptism the person must first find faith in God, His Son, and His Church. Whey must repent for their sins by recognizing them, confessing them, and forsaking them.  They are then prepared to make convents with God through baptism.

            There are five main purposes for Baptism and confirmation in the church:
  1. To be cleansed from the sins that the individual has repented for previous to his or her baptism.
  2. To covenant with God to follow him, and thus take on a portion of Christ name into our hearts, or to accept Christ (to a degree)
  3. As a saving ordinance, it is necessary prior to the entering into God’s presence
  4. To receive the Holy Ghost as a constant companion
  5. To enter into Christ’s Church

            This process and convents are not a “one time” affair, the same process, promises, and covenants are repeated weakly in The Sacrament of the Lords Supper (Also known as communion, sacrament, or the Eucharist). As one properly partakes of the Lords Supper they recovenant and refresh their baptism. It can be seen as a weekly baptism, a scheduled cleansing appointment.

            There is much cultural Mormonism attached to baptism; this is not so much in explicit writings of the doctrines or practices but rather in the underlying traditions and expectations. These range from the trivial matters of the format of the baptism and refreshments after; to the very serious misconception that baptism erases all sins committed by the person baptized to believing that we fully take upon us the name of Christ when we are baptized.[1][2]

            In this publication I am going to discuss an issue that deals with a topic which not only dealt with social misunderstanding but doctrinal.  This is the topic of rebaptism.

Re-baptism: Then and Now
            Today in the church it is unusual to be re-baptized, virtually the only case of rebaptism is for those who have been excommunicated and thus by necessity forfeit the blessings and covenant that were made at baptism. After undergoing the necessary repentance process the individual can re ovenant with god and get rebaptisd; for those who have been excommunicated reinstates the blessings of baptism, and readmits them into Christ church. Other than these circumstances rebaptism does not occur.

            Imagine that next Sunday in sacrament meeting the bishop gets up and announces that to recommit the ward everyone is going to get rebaptized that Saturday at 1:00pm (refreshments will be served after). I would hazard to assume that there would be more than just confusion and a knee-jerk, jaw-dropping surprise but many would see this as an act of blasphemy, undoctrinal, and a form of apostasy.  However this would have not been the case but 120 years ago. In the early church rebaptism was embraced, encouraged, and practiced by virtually everyone in the church.

Was Joseph Smith Baptized Twice?
            A little known fact is that Joseph Smith himself was baptized more than once. As is well known on May 15th 1829AD Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went to pray on the banks of the Susquehanna River, near Harmony, Pennsylvania received the Aaronic Priesthood under that hands of John the Baptist as heavenly messenger, and was instructed to baptize one another.  Joseph first baptized Oliver in the Susquehanna after which Oliver baptized Joseph. 

            This baptism, although achieving the first three aforementioned purposed of baptism and confirmation, did not however allow entrance into Christ restored church as the Restored church was not yet organized on the earth. The next year, April 6th 1930, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized and both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith got rebaptized into Christ church.

Rebaptisms in the West
            Some may point out that the hypothetical situation I posed and the example of Joseph Smith are not analogous as the example of Joseph Smith had a logical and practical reason behind it while the hypothetical situation merely purports baptism as merely a whimsical desire to be more committed to the gospel. This whimsical desire however was a very valid and accepted reason to be rebaptized in the middle to late eighteenth century.

            After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the succession on Brigham Young, and the forced exodus out of Nauvoo Illinois the Saints headed west eventually to end up in the Great Salt Lake Valley. As the church settled into the Rockies a decision to emphasize rebaptism was made. This was done for two main reasons. The first reason was that the records of the church were somewhat scanty as the time and there was some uncertainty about the validity or existence of Baptisms or Baptismal Records, thus a mass rebaptism effort would allow for security in baptism and a chance to document and redocument baptismal records. The second reason as described by the prolific journalist and future President of the church Wilford Woodruff:

On this day the Twelve were re-baptized. Why? Because the Church, having broken old ties in the East was, in a way, experiencing a new birth. Because, owing to conditions of life on the plains, regular Church routine could not always be observed. For this reason for non-observance of certain regulations were made by the people and accepted by their leaders. But now those who stood at the head of the Church wanted a gesture of support to themselves and a sign that willing obedience would be given to the rules of the Church. This was affected by re-baptism.
(Wilford Woodruff Journal, August 6, 1847.)
            On August 6th 1847, Brigham Young, The Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency lead the way into this new age by setting the example and getting rebaptized as a sign of commitment to the ideals of the church and to Jesus Christ himself.

            Rebaptisms continued to be preformed not only as a sign of recommitment but also in preparation for major life commitments or spiritual experiences such as marriages, temple endowments, temple dedications, or entering into the United Order. At one point there were rebaptisms preformed for those who were in failing or poor health in faith that they would be healed. Rebaptism became so common that the Ward Membership Forms placed a section for rebaptisms in 1877.

            The practice was heavily endorsed by the church to the point that Joseph Fielding Smith in 1878 gave instructions to bishops regarding those being endowed that “No person, male or female, should be recommended for these ordinances, unless they have first renewed their covenants by baptism.”[3]

            Baptisms in this manner are just as effectual in it’s purpose as is the taking the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  If we wished to we could be baptized every week at church, and every time we would be baptized all of the sins that we had truly repented of would be washed away.  Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lords Supper are essentially one and the same, the only difference is that the Sacrament it only effectual to those who have already been baptized and made those covenants with God, while those who are not baptized are encouraged not to partake in the covenant-ordinance. As Paul taught to the Corinthians:
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
(KJV, Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
            The practice of rebaptism in the early west became struck by cultural Mormonism. Although rebaptisms are a good doctrinal idea, and could provide a greater, more dramatic, more public sign or repentance the idea of rebaptism ceased to be thought of as a sign repentance and opportunity to receive forgiveness and it became in the minds of the people a form of repentance and the act of forgiveness. Just because one gets baptized does not mean that they have repented, nor does it mean that they are cleansed from all their sins.

            This idea of baptism persists to this day in cultural Mormonism.  I have been to many baptisms, particularly baptisms of those who are young, where a member of the church in a talk proclaims that the baptized is now totally clean of all their since, or that they are the cleanest person on earth. While to a extent this can be true baptism does not guarantee total forgiveness any more than the sacrament guarantees it. Baptism without repents in ineffectual and hallow, void of reason or meaning.

            For this cultural misinterpretation the practice of rebaptisms, rebaptisms was later discouraged and eventually against official policy. In the Church History in the Fullness of Times manual for the formal religious education of the church (The Church Educational Services (CES)) it explains this period of time:
Church leaders also discontinued the long-standing practice of rebaptism. Oftentimes Latter-day Saints had been rebaptized in conjunction with important milestones, such as marriage or entering the United Order or sometimes for improvement of health. These rebaptisms were recorded on Church membership records. The First Presidency grew concerned that some members were substituting rebaptism for true repentance. In 1893, stake presidents were instructed not to require rebaptism of Saints wishing to attend the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and in 1897 the practice of rebaptism was discontinued altogether. As President George Q. Cannon explained, “It is repentance from sin that will save you, not rebaptism."
(Salt Lake City, Utah : Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992, 1989.)

            Rebaptisms are now against church policy and the history is generally unknown and un-understood. I am not suggesting that we reinstitute rebaptisms as it is against policy, but to understand that rebaptisms of these kinds were and are still valid and effectual. The policy may have changed but the principle has not. Similar cases where policy has been changed but not doctrine would be the doctrine of the Law of Consecration (the United Order), or the doctrine of polygamy.

            Although in my original hypothetical situation there was great (theoretical) opposition to the idea of rebaptism, this animosity was not based on church doctrine or even on church policy but on a cultural Mormonism knee jerk. The issue in this problem is giving authority to cultural norms particular to the Latter-day Saints which do not warrant such authority by the doctrines of the church.  We need to introspectively ask ourselves of our motives and reasons for our beliefs so as to get closer to the “trunk” of the gospel, closer the essence of the gospel and further away from the flimsy branches of opinion, culture, and speculation.

[1] Legrande Richards, A Marvelous Work and A Wonder, Deseret Book Co, 1976,  
[2] Dallin H Oaks, Taking upon Us the Name of Jesus Christ, Ensign, May 1985, 81
[3] Joseph F. Smith to Frederick Kesler, 4 Dec. 1878, in papers of Frederick Kesler, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.