Author: Chad Nielsen

Chad’s three great intellectual passions in life are science, history/religious studies, and music. He has pursued a career in biotechnology, but maintains an active interest in both of his other passions on the side. Chad is a four-time winning contestant in the Arrington Writing Award competition held at Utah State University for his essays on Mormon history and has presented at the Logan Institute of Religion scholar’s forum and the annual meeting of the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology. He is a faithful Latter-day Saint who has served in a variety of music, teaching, and clerical callings at his church as well as in the music ministry of a Presbyterian church. Currently he is serving as a music missionary as a member of the Bells on Temple Square.

Shaking the Dust from Your Feet

Have you ever performed a ritual shaking of the dust from your feet?  I never have (in fact, I’m pretty sure I was specifically instructed to not do that as a missionary), though as a 20-year old, I was somewhat tempted while serving a full-time mission on a few occasions.  In an interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Weber discussed some of the intentions behind the ritual in the first place and also why it is no longer performed in the Church today.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In the interview, Samuel Weber explained the ritual of shaking dust from feet.  As he put it: Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a ritual practice common in the early Latter-day Saint movement. The basic idea of the ritual was to invoke a curse on individuals who rejected the message or messengers of the restored gospel. Similar to other Latter-day Saint rituals and ordinances, it was a practice intended to call down God’s power on behalf of His servants. Although no longer practiced today, ritual cursing is found in scripture and church history, making it a topic of continued interest for Latter-day Saints. So, the ritual was one of cursing against those who rejected the Gospel or missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As mentioned by Weber above,…

Grass Roots in Mexico

Grass Roots in Mexico: Stories of Pioneering Latter-day Saints by F. LaMond Tullis (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2021) was one of the books I was most excited to see on the lists of books coming out in 2022.  Released in early July, Grass Roots in Mexico offers an important glimpse into the Church’s history in Mexico.  The first two chapters give a brief overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  These are followed by 19 chapters of short biographies or vignettes of Latter-day Saints in Mexico.  The selection includes a range of different people—from indigenous converts to Euro-American colonists from Utah, both men and women, relatively well-known stories (i.e., Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales), and some about people who are largely unknown.  The book is not, by any means, comprehensive, but it does provide snapshots of various experiences of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. One thing to know going in is that the book does have a devotional dimension to it.   It is a history of the Church written by and primarily for faithful members.  Within the vignettes (the 19 short biographies), the majority of them follow a pattern of focusing on conversion stories followed by brief overview of some way in which they contributed to the Church and then a note on how many descendants they have in the Church and what high-profile Church callings those descendants have held.  A few chapters…

Women and the Priesthood with Lisa Olsen Tait

“Do women have the priesthood?”  You would think the answer would be a simple yes or no for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The reality, however, seems to say differently, with people arguing for a whole spectrum of answers while discussing this topic of perennial interest.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Lisa Olsen Tait shared her historical perspective on how we arrived at the current state of women’s relationship to the priesthood in the Church, drawing on her research that was presented in an article in BYU Studies’ “Yet to Be Revealed” issue.  What follows here is a co-post, a shorter post presenting and discussing excerpts from the interview and related materials. In the original article, Lisa Olsen Tait divided the history into sections with inflection points between them, as follows: 1840s: “The Ancient Priesthood” 1850–1900: “In Connection with Their Husbands” 1900–1940: “The Blessings of the Priesthood” 1960s: “The Home Is the Basis” 1970–2000: Feminism and Responses Twenty-First Century: Priesthood “Power” and “Authority” In the interview, Tait explained some of the evolution through those eras, specifically related to the temple.  To quote in relation to the 1840s: The revelation commanding the Saints to build the temple (Section 124) repeatedly spoke of it in terms of priesthood. “Therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained,” it said. In the House of the Lord the “fulness of…

A Time When Tithing was Almost Done Away

In the aftermath of the US Civil War, the Church faced a heavy tax settlement that led to a contemplated hiatus in requiring tithing.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Samuel Brunson discussed how that situation came about, what the leaders of the Church tried in order to work through the situation, and the surprising resolution to the whole incident. Federal income tax was something that first began to be used in the United States during the U.S. Civil War.  As Brunson explained: “The Civil War was expensive. And it turned out that tariffs weren’t going to be enough to fund the war effort, so the North decided to engage in a 10-year experiment with income taxes.”  In the midst of that, John P. Taggart, the Internal Revenue Assessor for Utah Territory, assessed that the tithing collected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was taxable income and, as such, the Church (more specifically, Brigham Young) needed to pay $59,338.51.  His reasoning was that: Taggart believed that tithing was obligatory, not just a free-will offering, both because the church occasionally kept a ledger of how much people owed and how much they had paid and because he claimed that nonpayment of tithing was punishable by death or expulsion which, in his mind, was basically the same thing for Mormons in Utah. (It’s worth noting that the pioneer church was on the…

Three Degrees

Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes, when someone says a word, it can mean something very different to them than it does to us. This can be particularly true when that person is from the past and the exact meaning of a word changes over time. In a recent interview with Bryan Buchanan about an article by Shannon Flynn at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk discussed a major example of where this seems to have happened in our understanding of the afterlife about divisions within the Celestial Kingdom. What follows here is a copost – a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion. The concept that there are three subdivisions within the Celestial Kingdom is based on one section in the Doctrine and Covenants (131). In the current edition of the scriptures, it reads as follows: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.” The assumption is that “celestial glory” is precisely equivalent to the Celestial Kingdom-the highest degree of glory announced in Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision (D&C 76). As it turns out, that may not be a great assumption. The word in question is “celestial”. Buchanan explained that: If we look at contemporary dictionaries (like Webster’s 1828 dictionary), “celestial” was simply a synonym for “heavenly.” In other words, Joseph Smith may have been expressing the idea that “in the heavenly glory (or just, heaven), there are three gradations.” … If we argue…

Method Infinite: On Masonry and Mormonism

The recently-published Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski (Greg Kofford Books, 2022) is an insightful and information-packed volume about a plethora of possible points of contact between Freemasonry and the Restoration of the Church of Christ.   While many studies of Masonry and the Latter Day Saint movement focus primarily on temple rituals, Method Infinite covers the entirety of Joseph Smith’s life and follows the influence of Masonic ideas and rituals into some of the major branches of Mormonism that emerged in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death.  The book starts with a brief history of Freemasonry and its existence in the early United States of America, then discusses how Joseph Smith grew up in an environment saturated with Freemasonry.  It points to ideas that were being discussed or practiced by Freemasons and compares these with strains of Latter Day Saint thought and action, suggesting that Joseph Smith saw himself as the restorer of the pure form of Masonry from the outset and that he viewed the Freemasonry practiced at the time as an apostate or spurious form of Masonry.  Evidences for this idea that are pointed out have to do with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, the way various organizations within or connected to the Church were organized, specific teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders, the ways that the City…

Daughter of Mormonism

Susa Young Gates was an interesting and important personality, and Romney Burke’s recently-published biography Susa Young Gates: Daughter of Mormonism (SLC: Signature Books, 2022) provides a well-researched glimpse into her life. Perhaps the best-known daughter of President Brigham Young, Susa led a life as a prominent figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  She would go on to serve missions in Hawaii, write prolifically about the Church, serve prominently on the National Council of Women in the United States and also participate in the International Council of Women as a feminist advocate, serve in the general boards of both the Young Lady’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society and edit publications for both, teach courses at universities in Utah, and raise a family with children who would go on to make their own significant contributions in the Church.  She could also be outspoken, overbearing, and tactless in pursuing her goals, which could cause her trouble, but also showed herself to be very capable in getting things done and in rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous. Burke’s biography follows her life chronologically at first, then shifts to addressing different aspects of her life and career topically by chapters, then returns to discussing the twilight of her lifetime at the end of the book in a more chronological fashion.  The book is meticulously researched, drawing on a treasure trove of documents that record her life, particularly from a…

Was Jesus Married or Not?

An enigma that has been explored repeatedly over the years, both in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in Christianity more broadly, is the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little to reliably indicate either way in the established canon of the New Testament, but that hadn’t stopped people from discussing the topic. And in organizations like the Church that emphasize marriage, there are some theological reasons to want to say that he was indeed a married man.  In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Christopher Blythe discussed the issue in connection with a recent article published in BYU Studies. What follows here is a copost to that interview. In addressing how Latter-day Saints have approached the question “was Jesus married?” over the years, Blythe described how it has shifted within the Church. It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married. Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process: First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married. Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it). And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position. For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not…

Masonry and Mormonism

The relationship between Freemasonry and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a subject of controversy for members of the Church.  In the near future, two important studies of that relationship are slated to be published – Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski, which will be available on 9 August from Greg Kofford Books (which discusses possible influences of Freemasonry on Joseph Smith’s ministry throughout his life) and Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, which is anticipated to be released the same day by the Interpreter Foundation (and which analyzes the relationship of Freemason rituals and Latter Day Saint temple rituals).  Last week, two interviews related to these books (one with Cheryl L. Bruno and one with Jeffrey M. Bradshaw) were published on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to the two interviews. Jeffrey Bradshaw summed up the crux of the concern that members of the Church have when approaching Freemasonry.  He wrote: There are elements of the Nauvoo temple ordinances—for example, some of the signs and tokens and related language—that are almost identical in form to those used in Masonic rites. Since Freemasonry is an 18th century creation, similarities like these seem to undermine Joseph Smith’s claims that the temple ordinances are ancient. The same applies to the Restoration…

The Poisoning of Deseret

One biographer of the famed British composer and ethnomusicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams posted a question – how could Vaughan Williams be both a socialist and a nationalist at the same time?  One tended towards trying to eliminate boundaries and differences while the other tended toward glorying in boundaries and difference.  He answered through two different quotes from the composer himself: I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.[1] Art, like charity, should begin at home.  If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself [the artist], the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. … Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art? … The composer must not shut himself up and think about great art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.[2] His approach was a melding of aspects of both sides – embracing and loving your own culture and community, but not at the expense of respect for other people’s culture and making room for them to do the same. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading about the history and composers of European art music.  (I know, I’m weird.)  One trend of the…

Consecration and Tithing

What do you think of when you hear about the law of consecration?  For me, the initial images that flash through my mind have to do with past attempts in the Church to implement programs like the United Order of Enoch in various communities in the Midwest and Utah during the 1800s.  Yet, I also recognize that there is more to the topic, even if it’s hard to adjust that mental image that I have held in the past.  When I first encountered it, I assumed talk of promising to live the law of consecration today was usually a hypothetical “if the Church reinstitutes the United Order, you’ll live it” type of promise.  However, as historian Steven C. Harper discussed in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk in connection with his forthcoming book Let’s Talk About the Law of Consecration, the Law of Consecration really is something that we can live by today in ways that the temple covenant reflect rather than strictly being limited to the United Order systems.   What follows here is a co-post to that interview. In introducing what the law of consecration means to him, Steven C. Harper had the following to say: It’s the two great commandments. People who love God and their fellow beings consecrate all they have and are to the welfare of God’s children. The Law of Consecration is part of the revelation in D&C 42 known…

The Pony Express Before the Pony Express

Growing up in Utah, I remember a time when my parents took me out to a remote location where there was a reenactment of the Pony Express, a famous mail system in the western United States of America that facilitated fast communication. As noted in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, however, it wasn’t the first time that an attempt was made to create a mail system that used riders passing mail across the western United States. Years before the Pony Express started, Brigham Young initiated his own “Swift Pony Express” system to facilitate delivery from the east. Devan Jensen discussed some of the details about the mail system. What follows here is a copost to the full interview. Called the “Y. X. Company”, the initiative predated the more famous Pony Express by three years. The venture came about because of conditions in the west. As Jensen explained: By the 1850s, fast, reliable delivery of people, food, supplies, and mail became top priorities in Utah Territory, and Governor Brigham Young and other territorial leaders gathered in February 1856 to propose an express line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. … Because so many Latter-day Saint emigrants came from the eastern United States or the United Kingdom, the mail was an emotional lifeline to the families left behind, as well as a source of news that was vital to immigration. Brigham Young proposed…

Relief Society Records

Documents feel like treasures to me.  They give insight into the past and have to be mined to get everything you can out of them.  Because of that, it’s really exciting that the Church has begun to release minutes from the Relief Society General Board.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring interviewed Anne Berryhill about the minutes that have been released.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview. In the interview, Anne Berryhill introduced the meeting minutes as follows: During the inaugural meeting of the Nauvoo Relief Society, on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith said: “The minutes of your meetings will be precedents for you to act upon—your Constitution and law.” (Minutes, 17 Mar. 1842) The Relief Society General Board Minutes contain records of the meetings and work of the Relief Society General Presidency and Board from its inception in Nauvoo in 1842 and can be seen as the constitution and law of Relief Society globally. The records represent efforts to organize and administer Relief Society both at a church-wide and local level. They reflect the work of women who sought to care for one another physically, morally, and spiritually. Early welfare efforts, home industry, discourses, and visits are documented. Collaborative work with national and international organizations is detailed within these records. They cover a wide range of topics and allow one to see how the work of Relief Society…

Grace, Works, and Becoming

Since at least the time of Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius, western Christianity has been embroiled in a debate about salvation and grace. The two extremes have been represented as salvation by grace alone and earning salvation by our own works.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Terryl Givens described the need to shift our paradigm about how we approach this issue in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion). In the interview, Givens brought up his concerns that we have focused too much on fitting in with more mainline Christians in our efforts to improve faith relationships.  As he put it: For a long time, many Latter-day Saints have felt inadequate—or like newcomers at the table of interfaith relations. Some have been persuaded that we have neglected the role of grace in our theology and discourse alike. That may be true, but in overcompensating, we have at times neglected to recognize distinctions between our understanding of grace and that of fellow Christians—distinctions so essential as to render them incommensurate terms in our respective contexts. Context matters, and our system of belief works differently than most other Christians.  And, frankly, western Christianity’s obsession with grace vs. works is a bit off the mark within the context of the Restoration.  I’ve noted before that I find that the Eastern Orthodox…

Accuracy of the Journal of Discourses

One of my ongoing dreams is to be able to afford a full set of the Journal of Discourses as part of my collection of Latter-day Saint books (though given the price tag,  it probably won’t happen any time soon). In any case, the Journal of Discourses holds an interesting place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It is not an official Church publication, contains a lot of statements that aren’t regarded as doctrinally sound today, and its accuracy is questionable, but it is also one of the primary sources through which we access the words of earlier Church leaders.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, LaJean Carruth (a professional transcriber of manuscripts written in Pitman and Taylor shorthands and the Deseret Alphabet at the Church History Library) discussed some of her findings from transcribing the original shorthand records behind some of the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses. In the interview, Carruth shared an introduction to the Journal of Discourses: The Journal of Discourses began as a private venture endorsed by the First Presidency. George Darling Watt reported the proceedings of Sunday sermons, general conferences, and other meetings in Pitman shorthand. He then transcribed many of these for publication in the Deseret News. He was not paid for this work, and had a large family to support. It was suggested that Watt publish transcriptions of his sermons in England, and use the profits from this transcription…

The Smith Family and the First Vision

One of the more interesting points of contention about the history of the First Vision is how much Joseph Smith’s family knew about the First Vision.  During his lifetime, only 4 accounts of the First Vision were published in English – Orson Pratt’s “A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions” in 1840, the official history of the Church that began to be published in the Times and Seasons  in 1842, the Wentworth letter (also published in the Times and Seasons in 1842), and an interview with David Nye White that was published in the Pittsburgh Weekly in 1843.  Other contemporary accounts were recorded in private journals, unpublished histories, or were published in German.  The best-known accounts from Joseph Smith’s family were recorded years later and often seem to conflate the First Vision and Moroni’s visit, which has given rise to the thought that he may not have told them much about the First Vision.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, however, Kyle Walker discussed some reminiscences from Joseph Smith’s younger sister, Katherine Smith Salisbury that indicate that he may have told more to his family than was previously thought.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview, with excerpts and some discussion. In explaining what the accounts from Katherine say, Walker stated the following: Katharine recalled the persecution directed towards the family that was a direct result from Joseph telling the Methodist minister about his First Vision. She even…

Ghostwriter to the Prophet

I suspect that if we really knew and experienced the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for ourselves, we might be surprised by who were the most influential members in shaping the developing Church. In a recent From the Desk interview, Bruce A. Van Orden discussed one candidate for that last that tends to get overlooked – William Wines Phelps. Best remembered for his contributions to the hymnals of the Church,  he was also an important publisher and author of Church literature,  sometimes acting as a ghostwriter for Joseph Smith. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and discussions) to the full interview. Bruce A. Van Orden described some of W. W. Phelps’s contributions and background: In D&C 57, W. W. Phelps was called as “printer unto the church” and to dedicate his writings to building the Kingdom of God. More than any other man up through 1845, he was the major writer of gospel themes in the church. He was also instrumental in leading the Missouri saints ecclesiastically from 1832 to 1838 and in being one of Joseph Smith’s key scribes. Consequently, I claim that W. W. Phelps was one of the 10 most influential Latter-day Saints in the Church’s first 15 years. … W. Phelps penned twenty-five hymns entirely by himself. More surprisingly, he adapted in various ways another thirty-seven pieces, making sixty-two in all where his words are…

Juneteenth and Utah Territory

Tomorrow is Sunday, June 19, which is celebrated as Juneteenth National Independence Day in memory of the day that the Emancipation Proclamation began to be enforced in Galveston, Texas by the Union Army (19 June 1865).  In Utah, this also doubles as the anniversary of the day that Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law that banned slavery in United States territories (19 June 1862), ending slavery in Utah Territory: CHAP. CXI.–An Act to secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. APPROVED, June 19, 1862. Prior to this bill passing, Utah Territory was a slave territory.  While the practice of slavery was relatively small in Utah (from what Sally Gordon was saying at the Mormon History Association Conference, most Latter-day Saint enslavers moved to the California colony of San Bernardino), it was present in Utah and had been made legal by the territory legislature in 1852, with Brigham Young’s encouragement.  In fact, three slaves, named Green Flake, Hark Lay, and…

Of Flags and Symbols of the Church

The state of Utah is looking into creating a new flag.  I was interested, so looked into best practices for flag making (vexillology) and found a handy guide from the North American Vexillological Association that suggested five basic principles of flag design: Keep it simple (the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory) Use meaningful symbolism (the flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes) Use 2-3 basic colors (limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set) No lettering or seals (never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal) Be distinctive or be related (avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections)[1] An example of a good flag is New Mexico, with two colors (red and yellow) and very simple (sun symbol) while Utah is a bad example, with a complicated seal on a blue background (just like 14 other states in the United States of America).  I enjoy pondering, and after designing a few ideas for a Utah flag, I’ve been musing on what a flag for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could look like. Obviously, the most likely path forward would be to just use the official symbol of the Church (the Christus with the arch around it and the cornerstone beneath) and use that as a flag.  The simplified…

Susa Young Gates

When I was a child, I heard of Susan B. Anthony, Susa Young Gates, and John Sousa, but had trouble separating them out in my mind because of similarities in name.  The result was that I thought Brigham Young had this rockstar daughter who was featured on a silver dollar for her women’s rights activism and who wrote the “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other popular marches.  Well, obviously that’s not quite true to reality, though at the same time, aspects of it aren’t that far from the truth – Susa Young Gates was Brigham Young’s daughter, was highly involved in women’s rights activism, and was a musician.  In a recent From the Desk interview, Romney Burke (whose biography of Susa Young Gates was recently published) discussed more about this notable woman in Church history.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and commentary). In the interview, Romney Burke introduced who Susa Young Gates is and what she did: Susa Young Gates was a human dynamo. She served on the general boards of the Young Woman’s Mutual Improvement Association and the Relief Society. She started the journals for both organizations. She served as an officer in the National and International Councils of Women. Her work in genealogy really established the guidelines we still use today in family history. She knew virtually all the important figures in the women’s rights movement, including Susan B. Anthony. She met…