November 19, 2009

Old Testament narratives, historicity, and a new commentary

Deseret Book recently published a beautiful volume just in time for Christmas (and next year's Gospel Doctrine curriculum) called Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament. If you're anything like me you've struggled in the past to make much sense of some of the more miraculous or colorful Old Testament stories. This large photo-filled one-volume treatment of the OT has been a blast to read so far. It is more academic than homiletic. Rather than shoehorning the OT into an LDS paradigm, or using it just to teach some moral principles, the authors contextualize the narrative in history. Understanding the culture of the Old Testament helps us better understand the Old Testament. It's refreshing to see this sort of thing published by Deseret Book. I'm working on a full review, but for now here's a short excerpt from a sidebar in the book called "Interpreting Biblical Narratives." Hopefully this will give a sense of what to expect from this book. The information might seem obvious to many readers, but I believe many Latter-day Saints would benefit from a more realistic understanding of the Old Testament as described by these authors. They spend a good deal of time discussing the kind of "history" readers should expect from the OT, which obviously differs from modern academic standards.

Interpreting Biblical Narratives
Although many Bible students have read and enjoyed narrative texts in the Old Testament, the following five important principles help to facilitate more insight, enjoyment, and accurate interpretation.

1. None of these narratives tells the complete story, and there is always more we wish we knew. The authors and redactors consciously selected, emphasized, and arranged their materials in a particular way for a reason, generally theological. Thus, it is helpful to regularly ask, "Why was this information included?" and "What purpose(s) does it serve?" [In many instances the authors discuss historical problems, anachronisms, inflated numbers, and other aspects of the "history."]

2. Remarkably, Old Testament narratives present what actually happened, which means they often provide negative examples, rather than just the "right" way to live. [The authors contrast this with other Ancient Near Eastern texts that do not discuss failures of leaders, but only extol their power. See, for instance, pg. 210.]

3. Old Testament narratives rarely teach doctrinal principles explicitly. Rather, they illustrate them. Readers need to consider what principles are being represented.

4. Likewise, these narratives do not usually explicitly state the "moral" to the story (no written "and thus we see" insights). Readers must judge what was right and what was wrong in an account based on information contained elsewhere in scripture. [Throughout the book the authors describe some of the more gruesome biblical narratives including rape, incest, murder, and other things that might make modern readers squeamish.Sometimes the moral is not explicitly spelled out in the biblical text itself, leaving readers hanging in a way.]

5. As is often observed, Jehovah is the main character or figure in the Old Testament narrative. Whether he is depicted as actively intervening in human affairs or not, the Bible depicts him as always there, blessing, cursing, and bringing about his purposes. [Thus, history is viewed from a theological, not academic, perspective.]


See "Interpreting Biblical Narratives," Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, Deseret Book (2009), p. 172.

November 17, 2009

Early authoritative efforts to curb "badly written" LDS publications

A transcript of Parley P. Pratt's "Regulations for the Publishing Department of the Latter-day Saints in the East" (1845).

"The views expressed herein are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
This disclaimer is found in most unofficial Church-themed publications, but it wasn't always so. Most (if not all) early publications by members of the Church didn't include such disclaimers until after the death of Joseph Smith. Interestingly, centralization of producing Church literature was motivated by finances as much as anything else. Financial considerations have been an important part of LDS publishing ever since Martin Harris mortgaged his farm for money used to print the Book of Mormon. From the very start, Latter-day Saints took full advantage of early 19th-century print culture to spread the gospel.

For example, in 1831 Joseph Smith received a revelation creating a Literary Firm to take charge of publishing revelations and receiving remuneration therefrom.1 Missionaries produced their own tracts to warn of the impending Millennium and counter anti-Mormon accusations.2 Several LDS newspapers disseminated news, sermons, revelations, political positions, birth, death and marriage notices, and other items of interest.3

Historian David J. Whittaker has analyzed early Mormon pamphleteering to shed light on how the Church begun to form a more centralized (or "official") voice. Among other significant factors, flooding the market with LDS tracts decreased the sales of works by apostles like Parley P. and Orson Pratt. Money that could have been better spent to fund construction of the Nauvoo Temple went to pamphlets that simply borrowed from earlier pamphlets or presented poorly-executed scriptural proof-texts. In 1845 Parley P. Pratt published "the first attempt to establish guidelines for publishing in the early Church."4 Following the death of Joseph Smith, leaders of the Church tried to keep things together using Church publications to promote unity, oppose schismatics, and to more effectively use tithing and other resources. Pratt's call for correlation was published in the New York Prophet in early January 1845 and reprinted in the Times and Seasons a week and a half later. Pratt emphasized several reasons for centralization including improving quality, decreasing redundancy and oversupply, and making better use of "vast sums" he felt should be used to help complete the temple. Another slightly understated—but perhaps most important factor—was the question of succession. Pratt noted that the only current "emporiums of light, truth, and news" are those "appointed by the Twelve" and "published by authority." Tellingly, the article directly following Pratt's also demonstrates the use of print media to warn members of the Church about schismatics. "BEWARE OF IMPOSTORS" cautions readers against Daniel and Nancy Botsford's "improper and erroneous efforts" to take advantage of charitable saints, in addition to their "reporting certain slanderous tales respecting the leaders and church at Nauvoo."5

The following is a full transcript of Pratt's article. It's an interesting glimpse at one of the initial steps toward what we might call "correlation."


Dear Brethren:-- Are you not all aware that very many, if not all, of our men, women and children are turning authors, and publishing works purporting to be illustrative of the doctrine of the saints. Some of them are badly written, and some of them are mixed with error, and very many of them which are true and useful are borrowed, in part or in full, from our standard works which are already extant, and therefore, these new vamped pieces or tracts are not particularly needed; besides, there is another consideration—vast sums are expended by men who have but little experience in publishing, and perhaps pay double for the paper and printing, and all this into the hands of those who feel no interest in our cause.

In this way thousands of dollars are drawn from the saints and from the elders, while the temple cause is neglected. All these things are out of order and must come to an end; or else those men who have experience, and whose business it is to write and publish the truth; will have to cease and have no more to do with publishing. For they, and the others too, cannot find support in the business so as to make the works pay for themselves.

We have now three departments, duly appointed by the presidency of the church, viz: the Nauvoo office, under the management of Mr. J. Taylor, the English department, under Brother W. Woodruff, and the New York publishing department, now committed to my charge.

These three great emporiums of light, truth, and news, are quite sufficient until the work enlarges and other similar establishments are appointed by the Twelve.

The church, therefore, is hereby instructed not to patronize, purchase, or support any publication pertaining to our cause, except they emanate from one of these three offices, and under the sanction and authority of those who are appointed to manage this matter.

Let the books, tracts, periodicals, pamphlets, &c. of Mr. B. Winchester and others no longer be patronized by the saints.6 Let the ‘Times and Seasons,’ ‘Neighbor,’ ‘Millennial Star,’ and ‘Prophet’ be well supported, together with the standard Hymn Book, Book of Mormon, and such other works as are, or may be, published by authority as approved standards; and this will be all the church is able to do at present. Considering the tithings for the temple, and the duties of charity and hospitality which are required of them.

The public are also cautioned that no works will be considered as a standard by the saints concerning their principles except they are published by the authorities above named.

New York, Jan. 1st, 1845.

[Editor's note:] We shall second the “regulations” of Elder Pratt: there is nothing like order in the kingdom of God.7


See Doctrine and Covenants section 70; Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations, (Deseret Book, 2008), pp. 243-246. See also the entry for "The United Firm" at Later efforts to publish canonical books were contingent on approval from Joseph Smith or other leading authorities. For example, Brigham Young deferred to Smith's judgment on publishing an edition of the Book of Mormon in England in 1840, though it seems he acted first and asked second (see Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, University of Illinois Press [1986], pp. 81, 84, 89). In 1839 Parley P. Pratt requested to publish an edition in the eastern states but was advised against it (see Parley P. Pratt to Joseph Smith, 22 November 1839; Hyrum Smith to Parley P. Pratt, 22 December 1839, in the Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives; David J. Whittaker, "Early Mormon Pamphleteering," Journal of Mormon History Vol. 4 [1977], p.43).

These include works from leading Latter-day Saints like the Pratt brothers in addition to other missionaries who published on a smaller scale. Whittaker, ibid., pp. 35-49.

Latter-day Saint newspapers preceding Pratt's 1845 call for correlation included The Evening and Morning Star (June 1832-July 1833), Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate (October 1834-March 1837), Elders' Journal (October-November 1837), Times and Seasons (November 1839-February 1846) and the Millennial Star (1840-1970). More secular-oriented papers included the Nauvoo Wasp which became the Nauvoo Neighbor (May 1833-October 1845), and the New York Prophet or The Prophet (August 1844-February 1845). The Gospel Reflector, published by Benjamin Winchester, was the first "independent" Mormon newspaper (January-June 1841). John E. Page also published two short-lived periodicals, Gospel Light (1843), and People's Organ (1844).

Whittaker, ibid., p. 44.

Calvin C. Pendleton, "BEWARE OF IMPOSTORS," Times and Seasons 6 (15 January 1845): 778.

Benjamin Winchester was an early convert to Mormonism who participated in Zion's Camp and became a member of the first Quorum of the Seventy. He was president of a large branch in Philadelphia and was one of the most prolific non-Apostle publishers in the early Church. He published five single-volume works and twelve issues of his periodical, Gospel Reflector. He was excommunicated in 1844 and despite being singled out in Pratt's article his publications evidently were not the direct cause of his excommunication. He became a follower of Sidney Rigdon during the so-called "succession crisis" after Joseph Smith was killed and his publications were marginalized by Parley Pratt on behalf of the Apostles. Winchester eventually left Mormonism altogether. See Whittaker, ibid., p. 43; "East of Nauvoo: Benjamin Winchester and the Early Mormon Church," Journal of Mormon History 21:2 (Fall 1995), pp. 31-83.

Parley P. Pratt, “Regulations For the Publishing Department of the Latter-day Saints in the East,” New York Prophet 1 (4 January 1845): 2; reprinted in Times and Seasons 6 (15 January 1845): 778.