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.

Jesus in Recent Latter-day Saint Art

At the Mormon History Association conference this weekend, Anthony Sweat shared a funny story during his presentation on “A White Jesus and a Global Church.”  Apparently there were some individuals who were visiting BYU from Saudi Arabia to observe teaching at the institution.  During a class that Dr. Sweat was teaching, the Saudis saw a print of the famous Del Parson Jesus the Christ painting.  They asked through an interpreter who the painting was depicting.  Dr. Sweat explained that it was Jesus, and the Saudis busted up laughing and started chattering.  Confused, Sweat asked the interpreter what they were saying and the interpreter explained that they were laughing about Jesus being portrayed as a white American mountain man.  Dr. Sweat asked them about what they thought Jesus looked like and they responded that he probably looked like them, which probably isn’t far from the truth.  In his presentation, Anthony Sweat went on to discuss the history of how Jesus has been portrayed and ultimately made the point that the traditional European iconography of Jesus as European in appearance is well-established and doesn’t need to go away, but that there does need to be more diversity in depictions of Jesus available for a global church. I’m not going to rehash the whole issue of Jesus’s complexion again, but I am interested in some of the artwork that has been produced in the Church in recent years that provide a different vision…

Considering Emma Hale Smith

Emma Smith isn’t just an elect lady, she’s a complicated one too.  Jenny Reeder, author of First: The Life and Faith of Emma Hale Smith, recently discussed reasons for why that is the case in an interview with From the Desk.  Alternatively vilified or considered an hero of the Restoration in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reeder wanted people to know first and foremost that Emma was a real person, complete with flaws and a very complicated relationship with the Church. One of the more difficult aspects for members of the Church today to consider was Emma’s complicated relationship with plural marriage and her split from the Brighamite portion of the church.  When my wife and I were doing the readings for the “Emma Smith is an Elect Lady” section of Come Follow Me (D&C 25) last year, we decided to read the section of the At the Pulpit that shared thoughts from Emma Smith.  When we read her statement that Relief Society members needed “unite to expose iniquity, to search it out and put it away,” I laughed a little because, as I read it, she was targeting polygamy that was being practiced in secret by her husband and other Latter Day Saints.  Apparently Jenny Reeder was involved in compiling that section of At the Pulpit and had some concerns about that very issue: I knew we had to include something from Emma Smith, but unfortunately that meant cobbling together some…

Collected Thoughts on the Doctrine and Covenants

I spent most of 2021 writing a series of posts to follow along with the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum for the Doctrine and Covenants.  I had a few reasons for doing this.  First and foremost, I wanted to challenge myself to look more closely at the scriptures, to really read and think about what the Doctrine and Covenants says and the context in which it says it to deepen my personal understanding.  Studying the Joseph Smith Papers resources around the earliest versions of the revelations and then writing about an idea or thought that caught my attention is an approach that helped me do that.  Second, there were several ideas that run through the Doctrine and Covenants that I’ve been musing on for years and wanted to take the time and effort to really collect and organize my thoughts on those topics, such as the endowment of power and the development of temple ritual.  Third, I noticed that there was a surprising dearth of literature about the Doctrine and Covenants compared to the other sections of scriptures (that’s not to say that there isn’t literature about it out there, just not nearly as much available as the Bible or the Book of Mormon), so, for better or worse, I wanted to offer my own contribution to that literature in a format that was freely available and which drew on the scholarly analyses that I have read. The results varied from…

The King Follett Discourse

The irony of the King Follett Discourse is that it is the most famous discourse given by the Prophet Joseph Smith, but still rarely quoted in general conference or other official publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a recent From the Desk interview, James Falcouner discussed some of the reasons why that may be. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and some commentary).   In the interview, James Falcouner explained what the sermon was: The King Follett Discourse is a sermon delivered in April of 1844 by Joseph Smith, during a General Conference, as a memorial for an early convert to the Church, King Follett. It was a lengthy sermon, and one in which the Prophet touched on many doctrines which had become important in recent years. The main topics were the following concepts: “God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto yourselves.” The Father once dwelt on an earth as Jesus Christ and we do; so Jesus Christ did what he saw the Father do before him. The Father “found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest . . . could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.” The world was not created ex nihilo. “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as . .…

What is the Church?

I recently finished a review of the April 2022 general conference, and one of the talks that stood out to me most was Reyna Aburto’s talk, “We Are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  I love the vision she articulates of feeling more ownership within the Church—that it isn’t just the institution—with its hierarchy of leaders and physical buildings—but mostly the members who are the Church. In the talk, she explains this as follows: From the beginning, God has sought to gather and organize His children “to bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life.” With that purpose in mind, He has instructed us to build places of worship where we receive knowledge and the ordinances of salvation and exaltation; make and keep covenants that bind us to Jesus Christ; are endowed with “the power of godliness”; and gather together often to remember Jesus and strengthen each other in Him. The Church organization and its buildings exist for our spiritual benefit. “The Church … is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families.” While talking to a friend going through a difficult time, I asked how he was surviving financially. In tears, he replied that his bishop was helping him using fast-offering funds. He added, “I don’t know where my family and I would be if it wasn’t for the Church.” I replied, “The Church is the members. They are the ones who willingly and joyfully give fast offerings to help those of us in need.…

Women of the Hebrew Bible

In a culture that is often male-centric, it can sometimes be easy to overlook women in the scriptures. While very few are mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, the Bible has many women who are mentioned by name and featured in the stories therein. In a recent From the Desk interview, Camille Fronk Olson discussed some of what she has learned about the women of the Old Testament over years of studying, teaching, and writing about them. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with done excerpts and commentary). I learned a fair amount from reading what Camille Fronk Olson said in the interview. One interesting point had to do with Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Olson stated that: The Dead Sea Scrolls contributed to my appreciation and understanding of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). In the King James version of the Bible, Hannah’s husband Elkanah tells her, “only the Lord establish his word” (1 Sam. 1:23), indicating an understanding that Hannah was free to make daily decisions as she deemed best, except when they violated a promise to the Lord. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, Elkanah tells Hannah, “May the Lord establish that which cometh out of thy mouth” (4QSama), showing that Elkanah believed that Hannah spoke the words of God—and that God was working through her. This same wording also appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.…

George D. Watt’s Journey

I’ve heard it said before that Leroy Anderson was America’s best-known forgotten composer. It could likewise be said that George D. Watt is Mormonism’s best-known forgotten reporter.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, Kurt Manwaring discussed why Watt is important and the recent publication of his 1851 journal with LaJean Carruth and Ronald G. Watt.  What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter discussion with excerpts). In the interview, Ronald G. Watt (a former archivist for the Latter-day Saint Church Historical Department and George’s great grandson) explained that: George D. Watt was born in Manchester, England, on May 18, 1812. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Preston, England, and ran a footrace with at least one other man to be the first person baptized into the Church in the British Isles in 1837. He moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in 1842, and then returned to Britain in 1846 as a missionary. In February 1851, he traveled from Liverpool, England, to Great Salt Lake City with a large group of Latter-day Saint emigrants. The 1851 Journal of Missionary George D. Watt includes his journal of that trip from Liverpool to Chimney Rock, and we have included other items. Watt’s main significance in the Church, though, came through his ability to report the words of Church leaders.  He had learned to use Pitman shorthand, which LaJean Carruth explained is “a form of…

Mormon Doctrine, McConkie, and Modern Mormonism

Bruce R. McConkie stands in an interesting place in the history of the Church. For some, he holds a place in the upper echelons of a pantheon of Latter-day Saint thinkers and writers who have shaped, advocated, and defended the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For others, he is seen as an example of anti-intellectualism who mingled the doctrines of the Church with fundamentalist Protestant beliefs and outlooks.  Regardless of where one stands, mention of Elder McConkie is likely to lead to a strong reaction when it comes to discussing Church history and beliefs.  In a recent, lengthy interview with Kurt Manwaring, Dennis B. Horne (one of McConkie’s biographers) shared some of his perspectives on the influential apostle.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview, focusing in on a small part of what is discussed. One thing that has been an area of ongoing discussion in Latter-day Saint thought is McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine.  Originally published in 1958, this encyclopedic work on doctrine is known for its authoritative tone and topical discussions of Latter-day Saint beliefs.  Controversial for its inclusion of McConkie’s beliefs about people with black African ancestry, evolution, the Great and Abominable Church, etc., it has been an ongoing target of criticism.  Horne responded to some of those criticisms, such as the ones leveled by Greg Prince and Wm. Wright in their biography of President David O. McKay.  For example, one part…

The Constitution of the Council of Fifty

What is the Kingdom of God? If it were a political entity, how would it be organized? What sort of charter would it have? In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk, Nathan Oman discussed an early effort to think through these types of questions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as the Council of Fifty. What follows here is a copost to the full interview, which is available here. Believing that the Last Days were at hand, “Latter-day Saints expected secular governments to fail and that religious community would form the nucleus of a divinely inspired government to replace them,” Oman explained. The Council of Fifty was intended to be that nucleus–a shadow government of sorts to step in and take the place of existing political systems as they collapsed in the final days.  While that sounds like a conspiracy that could lead to some dramatic stories, the reality was much more tame.  “Practically, the Latter-day Saints were facing rising persecution in the United States and needed a forum in which leaders could discuss plans to deal with that persecution—and ultimately to relocate beyond the then-borders of the United States,” and they spent most of their time discussing “practical and political matters related to the Latter-day Saint community, particularly plans to quit the United States and settle someplace in the western interior of North America.” Still, one interesting aspect of this Council…

Do All Prophets and Apostles See God?

A popular joke that I have heard before from both Latter-day Saints and Catholics (with roles reversed, depending on who’s telling it) goes that the pope’s secretary enters his office one day and tells the pope: “I have good news and bad news.” “Well, what’s the good news?” the pope asked. “We just got a phone call—the Parousia is happening and Jesus Christ is on the line.” “That’s wonderful! What bad news could there be with that?” “He’s calling from Salt Lake City.” ***** In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we focus a lot of on following the prophets and apostles with emphasis on the idea that they are special witnesses of Christ. Often times, the reasoning is that in order to be special witnesses, they have to have had an experience or opportunity that sets them apart as special in some way that makes their witness of Christ more powerful than the average person. The assumption is often that they have personally met Christ during this life and possibly talk with him often (similar to how Moses is portrayed in the later chapters of Exodus with the Lord), but the experiences are too sacred to share in public. I believe that it is accurate to state that the men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators receive revelation on a regular basis. I don’t believe, however that they have regular, personal interviews with Christ, though it…

Is the Song of Solomon Scripture?

Is the Song of Solomon (also known a The Song of Songs) scripture for Latter-day Saints? It’s an interesting question, given that it is included in the Old Testament, but has also been dismissed as not inspired by Joseph Smith. Dana Pike recently discussed this question with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with quotes and discussion). In the interview, Dana Pike discusses the origin of the Song of Songs: The Song of Solomon is a biblical book comprising eight chapters of poetry, primarily the words of a female and a male lover describing their own and each other’s bodies and their feelings about and sensual desires for each other. Although authorship of the Song is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, the general academic consensus is that Solomon is not really the author. The Song shares several features with ancient Egyptian love poetry, and most scholars see the Song as originally an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A major factor in the Song’s inclusion in the Bible is that some early readers began to allegorize the male and female lovers, seeing God and his people as represented in the Song. While that allegorical reasoning for including the book has some validity, the book is also controversial because it is an erotic love poem, sparking debate about whether it is appropriate reading. Dana Pike shared his perspective as…

Saints, Volume 3: A Review

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldy, Nobly, and Independent, 1893-1955 is a fantastic addition to the Church’s official histories.  Picking up after the ending of the previous volume at the dedication of the Salt Lake City Temple, this volume begins with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and wraps up with the dedication of the Bern, Switzerland Temple in 1955.  It covers a time of growth and transition for the Church and discusses shifts and decisions at Church headquarters in Utah that are significant in shaping the institution today; expansion in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia; the development of the welfare programs of the Church during the Great Depression; and the experiences of Church members in the two world wars.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume and look forward to its general release tomorrow, April 22. The writing style of the book is very readable, continuing the approach of being written in the style of a novel with focus characters throughout.  In the early parts of the book, Susa Gates continues to be a central character, along with her daughter Leah Dunford and son-in-law John Widtsoe.  Along with these people, other individuals from Church History are used as the ensemble of characters for the book, such as B. H. Roberts, Heber J. Grant, Hirini Whaanga, and others.  As time passes, the narrative shifts its focus onto other individuals, including…

Robert Eaton on Henry B. Eyring

Truman G. Madsen once said that: When people ask me: ‘Why are you so preoccupied with reading the life and teachings of Joseph Smith?’ One answer, and it is the most powerful one, in my heart, is because he is like a window, through which I can see the living Christ. (https://www.fromthedesk.org/truman-madsen-biography/) Occasionally, other Church leaders are the type of person that also provide a window to Christ through both words and actions. One of those for me is Henry B. Eyring. In a recent From the Desk interview with Robert Eaton (one of the co-authors of I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring), Kurt Manwaring discussed some about the recently-published biography of Henry B. Eyring.  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview. In the interview, Robert Eaton discussed how studying President Eyring has made him a better disciple of the Christ: First, I have strived to seek to know in my own life not just what God permits, but what he would prefer. Second, I’ve sensed that I need to make the same course correction Craig Moore helped President Eyring make. I’ve been busy since third grade, and that busyness, that sense of busyness, often gets in the way of offering the most important kind of service we can render—spontaneous service to those in need. I’ve tried to pray for and become attuned to unplanned opportunities each day, despite the length of…

Saints 3: Thoughts from Scott Hales and Jed Woodworth

I hope by now it’s apparent that I am a fan of the Saints history series and that I’ve been really looking forward to Volume 3, which comes out on the 22nd.  I will say, it’s fantastic, but you’ll get to read more of my thoughts next week.  Today, however, Kurt Manwaring published an interview with Scott Hales (General Editor and lead writer) and Jed Woodworth (General Editor and lead historian) that discusses the volume.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview. In Volume 3, we’re entering an era in the volume where the Church begins to become the modern Church as we know it, and with the growth that comes during that era, it becomes more difficult to capture all the different threads of the Church’s worldwide history.  Hales and Woodworth discussed some of how they deal with that growing complexity in a way that doesn’t bloat down the narrative: Scott Hales: When we’re considering a story for Saints, we look for three things. First, we’re looking for interesting stories—stories that will engage readers. Second, we’re looking for sacred stories—stories that show people making and keeping covenants with God. Third, we’re looking for stories that show change in the Church over time. We look for stories that help us advance the narrative and show how the Church changes and evolves under the Lord’s direction. Since we know we can’t make Saints a comprehensive history of the Church, our aim is to make it…

A Mother There: The Quotes Behind the Essay

I mentioned in my post last week that the BYU Studies article “A Mother There” by David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido had more quotes than I could put into that post.  Here is the follow-up with as many of the quotes cited in that article as I could find (excluding the ones presented last week).  It’s not everything cited, but it’s the vast majority.   Heavenly Wife and Parent   First Presidency (1916): Jesus Christ is not the Father of the spirits who have taken or yet shall take bodies upon this earth, for He is one of them. He is The Son, as they are sons or daughters of Elohim. So far as the stages of eternal progression and attainment have been made known through divine revelation, we are to understand that only resurrected and glorified beings can become parents of spirit offspring. Only such exalted souls have reached maturity in the appointed course of eternal life; and the spirits born to them in the eternal worlds will pass in due sequence through the several stages or estates by which the glorified parents have attained exaltation.[1]   Orson Pratt (1853): As God the Father begat the fleshly body of Jesus, so He, before the world began, begat his spirit. As the body required an earthly Mother, so his spirit required a heavenly Mother. As God associated in the capacity of a husband with the earthly mother, so likewise He associated…

Mother in Heaven: The Quotes Behind the Essay

On the Saturday evening session of General conference, Elder Renlund stated that: “Very little has been revealed about mother in heaven but what we do know is summarized in a Gospel Topic found in our Gospel Library application. Once you have read what is there, you will know everything that I know about the subject.” While there were cautions he offered that have raised concerns in some sectors of the Church, there is also a strong affirmation for the Gospel Topics essay on the subject. In that light, I felt that it was appropriate to collect and present all of the quotes about Heavenly Mother that were referenced in that article to make them more easily accessible. (With the caveat that the Paulson and Pulido BYU article that is referenced is extensive enough that the quotes referenced in that essay will be presented in a separate post.)   Susa Gates on a Zina D. Young recollection from 1839: An interesting sidelight is given to this time through a possible glimpse of the thought-kernel which grew into such fragrant bloom in the full-voiced poem of Sister Snow [“O My Father”].  It was told by Aunt Zina D. Young to the writer [Susa Young Gates] as to many others during her life.  Father Huntington lost his wife under the most trying circumstances.  Her children were left desolate.  One day, when her daughter Zina was speaking with the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the…

On Winter Quarters

Sometimes called the “Valley Forge of Mormondom”, Winter Quarters was the primary (thought not exclusive) location that Latter-day Saints in the United States of America lived between their forced exodus from Nauvoo and their efforts to move westward to the Great Basin region. In a recent interview with Richard Bennett, Kurt Manwaring discussed the history and legacy of Winter Quarters with the president of the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with quotes and some discussion), but feel free to also read the full interview here. As the Latter-day Saints planned to leave Nauvoo due to increasing hostility from their neighbors, they had to explore options for where to go next.  Richard Bennett explained some of what their plan was when they began to evacuate Illinois in 1846: The original Latter-day Saint plan of exodus, as laid out by Brigham Young and his colleagues of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, and with advice from various members of the Council of Fifty, was to locate a new “Zion” home for the Saints somewhere “over the Rocky Mountains.” The Prophet Joseph Smith may have indicated on different occasions that the Saints would have to go west to escape mounting persecution, but he never specified a precise location. Nor did Brigham Young announce a firm destination, although he clearly felt that he would know the site when and where he laid eyes…

The Book of Abraham Book

I once had a teacher who loved to say that: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  To some degree, this is not infrequently the case when it comes to studying issues in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham is an easy-to-read summary of the important scripture text from the Pearl of Great Price. Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein recently discussed the book with Kurt Manwaring.  What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with quotes and some discussion), but feel free to read the full interview here. There are a lot of interesting questions to ask about the Book of Abraham, its origin, and nature.  For example, one question is whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham is directly based on the text that was on the papyrus or not.  Muhlestein shared his view that ultimately: We cannot tell for sure. There is some evidence that it was. Joseph Smith certainly spoke of it that way, and that is pretty weighty evidence. Further, the more I research the life and interests of the priest who owned the papyrus fragment which contains the original of Facsimile One, the more I become convinced that this priest would have been very interested in the text of the Book of Abraham. That is circumstantial evidence that the text of the Book of…

What If …. Chad Updated the Doctrine and Covenants? Part 3

Joseph Fielding McConkie recalled that when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve were discussing adding the documents that are now Sections 137 and 138 that Elder Bruce R. McConkie had a few other suggestions.  One was to add two Articles of Faith about the restoration of the Gospel and the Plan of Salvation (to which Thomas S. Monson good-naturedly responded: “We all know there are only thirteen Articles of Faith, not fifteen”).[1]  McConkie also suggested adding several excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation to the Pearl of Great Price, the entire Wentworth Letter, and the Lectures on Faith.[2]  While these weren’t accepted into the official canon of the Church, Joseph Fielding McConkie indicated that these, along with the official expositions from the early 20th century known as the Origin of Man and Father and the Son, Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, and Joseph Smith’s Sermon in the Grove, were still regarded as scripture by Elder McConkie.[3] I agree with some (though not all) of these suggestions, which dovetails nicely into my hypothetical series about what I would do if I were asked to update the Doctrine and Covenants.  Reviewing from last time, the goals I have in mind in this theoretical project are that updates to the scriptures must do the following: Increase faith in and worship of our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Teach core doctrines with power and clarity. Comfort the weary and inspires…

Of Brigham and Bridger

Jim Bridger and Brigham Young are two very important people in the Euro-American colonization of the American west. Their relationship with each other, however, was complicated. Kurt Manwaring recently discussed that relationship with Jerry Enzler in connection with Enzler’s biography, Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with quotes and some commentary), but feel free to hop on over to the full interview here. Young and Bridger only met on one occasion–June 28, 1847, as the vanguard company of Latter-day Saints settlers made their way west. Bridger was an experienced trapper and frontiersman that the Saints consulted for information about the areas they were considering settling. As Enzler summarized: Jim Bridger gave them a lengthy description of the lands ahead as well as his recent trip to California. Young and other members of the Church had been studying Frémont maps and journals, and Bridger pointed out that Frémont was in error when he depicted Great Salt Lake connected to Utah Lake as one continuous body. Several Latter-day Saints recorded Jim Bridger’s extensive description of the Great Basin and surrounding area. Bridger told them that the Indians south of Utah Lake grow corn, wheat, and other grains in abundance. One common story from this meeting is that Bridger was quite negative about the prospects of settling along the Wasatch Front in what is now Utah, going as far…