Author: Nate Oman

I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah (autobiographical blogging here), and attended Brigham Young University from 1993 to 1999. Between 1994 and 1996, I served in the Korea Pusan Mission. While at BYU, I mainly studied political science and philosophy. (I was lucky enough to take several classes from T&S's Jim Faulconer.) I also took just enough economics to get myself in trouble. After graduation, I married the fabulous and incredible Heather Bennett (now Oman) and worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) while Heather finished graduate school at George Washington University. Beginning in 2000, I attended Harvard Law School, escaping with my JD in June, 2003. After practicing law for awhile, I became a law professor at William & Mary Law School. Somewhere along the line, Heather and I managed to have a son and a daughter.

Reforming the Church, Angst, and the Spirituality of Democratic Liberalism

t seems to me that what is at issue here is less one’s conduct than one’s emotional and intellectual stance.  In other words, I suspect that there is relatively little in terms of conduct that would differ between folks here.  We’re all interested in remaining faithful, contributing, serving, etc.  I suspect that none of us is likely to go along with some great evil perpetrated by the church (such evils being — in my opinion — mainly hypothetical intellectual playthings rather than regular aspects of lived experience). We can all think of changes that we would welcome and that we would be willing to act to bring about.  The difference, it seems to me, lies in the presence or absence of a particular kind of angst and how we interpret it. I can’t help but notice the many places in which James invokes analogies to democratic liberalism.  There is a desire for participatory self-government, a fear of institutional suppression of rights or other kinds of abuse, a desire for an ever more egalitarian, universal, and inclusive kind of discussion.  Seen in these terms “fatalism” looks like an abdication of political responsibility, a failure to behave as virtuous citizens ought.  It seems to me that the spiritual angst here is a spiritual angst that is filtered through a set of political ideas, ideas that we would do well to treat with some skepticism.  Indeed, one of the intellectual virtues of a…

How to write a revelation

I have been working on a paper looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, and my research has me thinking about how the texts of modern revelation were produced.  I think that there are a lot of Mormons who assume that the words of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were dictated word for word to Joseph.  On this model, the Doctrine and Covenants is rather like the Qua’ran, which also consists of a series of revelations given to a prophet over a period of years in response to concrete historial circumstances.  Pious Muslims affirm that the Qua’ran was dictated word for word in classical Arabic to the Prophet Muhammed and transmitted without error to the present.  Some Islamic theologians have gone farther, declaring that the Qua’ran is uncreated in time.  Rather, it is an eternal emanation of the Divine mind, the Word that was in the beginning with God incarnate in the world.  (There are problems with this story of the Qua’ran’s text of course.  The verses inscribed in the Dome of the Rock, for example, which represent one of the earliest extant Islamic texts vary slightly from the current version of the Qua’ran.)  Despite flirting with it in a couple of places in our scriptures, Mormon metaphysics isn’t especially congenial to such a super-charged version of textual inerrancy, but I don’t think that it is a stretch for many Mormons to see the texts of the Doctrine and Covenants as…

Zion and the Limits of Intellectual Agrarianism

There is a strand of progressive Mormon thinking that associates Zion with an exaltation of agrarian virtues.  I am thinking here of folks like Hugh Nibley or Arthur Henry King or my friend Russell Arben Fox who argue that small scale, local economies, ideally based in large part on agriculture provide the best possible model for building Zion.  At least one way of understanding this line of thinking is to see it as a kind of Mormonization of agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry.  It is striking in this regard that Leonard Arrington, whose works on nineteenth-century Mormon communitarianism provide the historical ur-texts for much of this thinking, was trained at North Carolina in a progressive economics department then much under the influence of an earlier generation of Southern agrarian thinkers. I am skeptical.

Waiting Outside the Temple

This story in the Arizona Republic got me thinking. It recounts the temple wedding of a Mormon convert. His mother opposed his baptism, and when it came time for him to be married she was devastated by her inability to attend the ceremony. The article was, I thought, a poignant telling of the story, one that nicely captured the mother’s pain. Among other things, the article notes that in countries where marriage must be a civil ceremony Mormons are allowed to be sealed immediately after a non-temple wedding. But not so in the United States, where a couple must wait a year before they may be sealed. Relaxing this policy strikes me as a good idea. I think that the church should continue to emphasize temple marriage and can even continue to teach that civil marriages followed by temple sealings are disfavored. Providing the option of a civil marriage followed by a temple sealing, however, would give families in difficult situations a tool for assuaging understandable pain. It could also alleviate a point of animosity against the church without compromising its doctrinal integrity. I do think that Mormons need to do a better job explaining why non-Mormons cannot attend temple sealings. This is universally explained in terms of the absence of a temple recommend and this, in turn, is explained in terms of worthiness. Hence, non-Mormon parents are told that they are excluded because they are “unworthy.” It’s understandable that…

Polygamy, Natural Law, and Imperialism

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first polygamy case, on and off for several years.  For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN.  Reynolds is an important case in American constitutional history, because was the first time the U.S. Supreme Court ever passed on the meaning of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion.  Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction.  The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West.   I offer a new interpretation.

Truman Madsen

Truman Madsen died earlier today.  For those who don’t know, Madsen was a long-time professor of philosophy at BYU.  His intellectual influence, I think, came in two forms.  First, he produced a series of popular lectures on Joseph Smith and other gospel topics.  These were not academically rigorous productions, but I think that they opened a window into a much broader and intellectually exciting vision of Mormon history and theology for many members.  Madsen’s lectures were also a wonderful link back to an earlier, more oral Mormonism, one that placed a real premium on powerful preaching.  He was a powerful preacher.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, he provide two or three generations of BYU students with a role model of a man who remained absolutely committed to the Restored Gospel while at the same time willing to grapple with the hard questions of philosophy.


One of my favorite hymns is not in the hymn book. No, it’s not “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” although that is one of my favorites as well. Rather, I am talking about the hymn “Jerusalem,” one of the great anthems of the Church of England when it gets low-churchy enough to sing hymns rather than letting the chior do all the work. The words are taken from a poem by William Blake:

Mormons as Minorities

Today I gave a presentation to the William & Mary chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Society on “Mormons as Minorities” in which I discuss some of my research on Mormon legal and political history (and other stuff). If you are interested, you can listen to the presentation here.

What I Learned about Mormon Courts (and the Writing of Mormon History)

For those who are interested in Mormon legal history, my article “Preaching to the Court House and Judging in the Temple” was just published in the most recent issue of the BYU Law Review. (You can download a copy of the article here.) This article provides my own take on the rise and fall of civil cases in church courts in the nineteenth-century. Of course the story of how nineteenth-century Mormons took lawsuits over broken contracts, wandering cows, disputed property lines, and the like to their local bishops has been told before, most elaborately in Ed Firmage and Collin Mangrum’s book Zion in the Courts, which was published about twenty-years ago. Here is where my take differs from previous interpretations.

The Double-Minded Essence of Mormonism

A while ago I was reading some sermons from the 1880s in the Journal of Discourses.  The 1880s, of course, is the decade when the anti-polygamy crusades were at their most intense.  Thousands of Mormons were incarcerated, the Brethren were in hiding from the law much of the time, and every time you turned around there was a new law confiscating Mormon property or disenfranchising Mormon voters.  Hence, I was surprised to come across a sermon in which George Q. Cannon spoke unironically of his admiration for George Edmunds.  Edmunds was a Republican Senator from Vermont, and the chief proponent of harsher anti-Mormon legislation in Congress.  Cannon noted that he disagreed with Edmunds and thought him mistaken.  Nevertheless, he said in effect that he thought Edmunds an admirable man of principle.  Cannon’s remarks reveal a deep double-mindedness in nineteenth-century Mormonism, a double-mindedness whose preservation surely counts as one of the triumphs of the modern Church.