Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do we still have the United Order?

A while back I came across a list of some interesting items that the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers thought to share as they were going through some of the papers. One of the items caught my eye. It had to do with the United Order and its basic composition and functions. Below is what the article had to say about the United Order.
"The “United Order” mentioned in sections 78 and 82 of the Doctrine and Covenants actually refers to the “United Firm,” a governing body operating in the church from 1832–1834. The United Firm was a group of nine men set up in April 1832 to govern the Church’s mercantile and publishing efforts. The firm included six men—Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and William W. Phelps—who had been appointed “stewards over the revelations” in November 1831 and who constituted what would become known as the Literary Firm. The United Firm also included the two bishops in the Church, Edward Partridge and Newel K. Whitney, and Sidney Gilbert, who was the Church’s agent and proprietor of the Church store in Independence, Missouri. Frederick G. Williams and John Johnson, who held large parcels of property, were added in 1833. The firm served a governing role in Church affairs for two years until it was disbanded in 1834."
This got me thinking. Typically when we talk about the United Order we do so in the context of it being a social and communal organization that is meant to replace all other forms of commerce and government. In many cases the debate rages about how it is different or distinct from other social systems such as communism or socialism. As a matter of fact several Church leaders have gone to great lengths to differentiate the United Order from communism. I remember this topic coming up with some regularity in seminary and Sunday School as I was growing up, and the issue was never settled to my satisfaction. But when I read the above item it got me thinking about the United Order in a completely different way.

 If we consider the United Order not as a "collectivist program" but as a business firm I think it changes the sense of the intended purpose of the United Order. When I say business firm I do not intend that it was set up with the purpose of being a business, but that as a legal entity in the United States it was a business. At that time in America there were several religious organizations that were experimenting with collectivist or communal living. When the United Order gets mentioned it usually is mention in that context, as an LDS version of a communal society like other religious organizations attempted.

But if we think of the United Order as the United Firm instead, that is, the legal entity that was intended to hold ownership of land, printing presses, copyrights and funds then we can begin to view what was intended by the United Order in a very different way. For anyone who studies early church history you hear stories about members of the church who promised to donate land or money to the church but sometime later they apostatized and refused to honor the commitments they previously made. The only reason this presented a problem was that the person who promised to donate the land kept the deed to property and thus when they left the church they forced the members who lived there to move. This understandably caused problems for the church. But if the property had been transferred to church before this then this problem would not have come up.

Even years later this type of thing was problematic because property, bank accounts and ownership of church businesses was all in the name of various church leaders. Thus when those men died or apostatized it was unclear how the property should be transmitted or even what property or businesses should remain under control of the church and which should remain under the control of widows or families of the church leaders. For example when Brigham Young died there was some confusion as to what he owned because he was the church president and what he owned because he had a large family. This caused some problems between the leaders of the church and the Young family.

Again these problems could have been avoided if what was church property was kept strictly separate and not held under the name of any one individual. That is, if all church property, money, equipment and funds were held in the name of a distinct legal entity that could be controlled by church leadership but was structured in such a way that it kept it separate from their personal property. This, I think, was the intent of the United Order. Typically when we talk about the United Order we always talk about it as an experiment in communal living where everyone was part owner of the communal pot of property and money. But when I reread the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that dealt with the United Order I could see how it could be viewed differently.

If we think of the United Order as the legal entity that held the property of the church then it is not that big of a leap to realize that the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Corporation of The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are the modern day equivalents of the United Order. That is, they operate under the same principles and intent of the United Order and they fill the same role, with the same covenants of sacrifice and consecration still operative.

I can't count the number of times I heard someone say, "We don't currently live under the United Order or the law of consecration, but we will when the millennium comes." That always seemed odd to me consider we do actually covenant to live the law of consecration. If we think of the corporations (the legal entities) that make up the church as the continuation of the United Order, and realize that those who are given direct stewardships over church property (General Authorities and other church leaders) do live the law of consecration, then we can realize that we still live under the covenants and laws given in the Doctrine and Covenants. We still have the United Order.

I wrote a guest post

I wrote a guest post for the blog Warfare and the Book of Mormon, which is written by Morgan Deane. My guest post grew out of comments that I made on one of Morgan's posts where he was looking into what arguments Amalickiah may have used to work himself into a position to be king of the Lamanites. I made some comments and then developed them into a post about the social and political situation that the Lamanites were in when Amalickiah showed up and how that allowed him to become king of the Lamanites.

This is part 1 of 2. I'll post again when the second part goes up. Go take a look by following this link.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noah's Temple

Typically when we talk about Noah we talk about Noah's ark, and the need to be prepared for any potential calamities. Today during Sunday School the teacher presented the subject matter of Noah and flood and then asked the class how they thought the story of Noah applied to all of us. The rest of time in class was taken up by an extended discussion of food storage and emergency preparedness, along with handouts and flyers about 72-hour kits and the like. It was an interesting discussion, and several people had some experiences to share due to the recent snow storms that have lashed the South.

But as I sat there I kept thinking about a presentation given by Jeffrey Bradshaw last year about the first 11 chapters of Genesis, I thought, "There are so many interesting things we can talk about when it comes to Noah! We don't need to talk about food storage and emergency preparedness every time we talk about Noah!" After everyone finished talking about food storage there wasn't enough time for me to share my thoughts about how when I think about Noah, I now typically think about the temple.

As Jeffrey Bradshaw pointed out in his presentation, the case can be made to view Noah's ark, not as a boat, but as a stationary building that acted as a temple that contained symbolism of the fall, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the Atonement, and the return to God's presence.
"Not only the Garden of Eden, but also Noah’s Ark seems to have been “designed as a temple,” specifically a prefiguration of the Tabernacle, as argued so well in a recent book by Michael Morales. In fact, a few ancient accounts go so far in promoting the motif of the temple as to describe the Ark not as a floating watercraft but rather as a stationary, land-based place of protection, where Noah and “many other people” from his generation “hid in a bright cloud” of glory.
"The Ark’s three decks suggest both the three divisions of the Tabernacle and the threefold layout of the Garden of Eden. Indeed, each of the decks of Noah’s Ark was exactly “the same height as the Tabernacle and three times the area of the Tabernacle court.” Note that Noah’s Ark is shaped, not as a typical boat, but with a flat bottom like a box or coffer. The ratio of the width to the height of both Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant is 3:5."
The above quote comes from approximately 20 minutes into the presentation. You can also find his paper with associated notes and references here. In one sense I think it is more interesting to think of Noah and his Temple rather than Noah and his ark.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Internet Comments, Language Out of Context

Many years ago, before Web 2.0 but after the invention of the internet, I would occasionally go to the public library and check out music CDs instead of books. I would do this because the public library was the one place where I could discover new music that radio DJs would never dream of playing on the radio, because it was, you know, actually good music and they can't play that on the radio.

It was on one of these trips to the library that I was perusing the music selection and I happened to come across a CD by Yanni. I had heard of him before and had heard someone play one of his songs on the piano so I was considering checking it out so I could hear his music and see if I liked it (I later bought two of his CDs). While I was standing there looking at the cover, a man who had been browsing the music near by noticed what I was looking at and made some comment about Yanni. I, being the socially awkward person that I am, grunted a non committal grunt.

Undeterred, the man continued on about how he finds Yanni boring (let's face it, after two CDs I agreed), but then he went on and made some comment about Yanni and John Denver (this was shortly after John Denver died in a plane crash). I gave him a quizzical look so he explained that he had heard that John Denver and Yanni were lovers. It was at this point that I decided the conversation was over. It was just a little too awkward for my normal stoicism.

As I look back on this brief interaction I realize that what I experienced was a real life version of an anonymous internet comment. I do not need to belabor the nature of (semi-)anonymous comments on the internet, but I would like to point out some important differences between my real life encounter with an anonymous commenter and internet comments. When that random man at the library made his comments there were some crucial differences between the real life version and the equivalent virtual conversation. What fills the difference is the unspoken nuances of language that are not found in the actual words.

If I had written down verbatim everything the man had said I still would not have captured everything that was conveyed in our brief encounter. The unspoken elements of language that in many cases go beyond what is said, or even how it is said, can be used to judge and evaluate the veracity and usefulness of what is said. For example, the man's speech, while not exactly slurred, was not all that precise in its pronunciation. That is, his pronunciation immediately made me think of him as someone who is not too bright. I do not mean uneducated, I am sure he was sharp enough to graduate from high school, and perhaps go to college, but given the context his pronunciation marked him as someone who would not be making or thinking profound thoughts. Beyond his speech there was his demeanor and grooming that seemed to indicate that he had at least taken a bath before leaving his parent's basement to go to the library (he was probably in his late 20's). In short, if you met this guy on the street you probably would not take seriously anything he said.

While it is true that speech and appearance cannot always be used to judge someone, in that context the unspoken parts of language were the things that allowed me evaluate and ignore what he had said when the actual words that he said could not be proven one way or the other. So it was precisely due to the fact that he was standing there with me in the flesh that I could evaluate his character and decide that what he said, almost no matter what it was, could not be trusted as accurate. But in the realm of the internet all of those unspoken cues of language are stripped away and language is reduced to the bare words.

In this expropriation of words from their linguistic context it is too common to mistake comments that should not be taken seriously for those that should, and mistake those comments that should not be treated lightly for those that we do not give a second thought. This does not mean that this confusion does not exist for language in context, but it is easier to lose sight of which comments to ignore and which ones demand a response when we divest the unspoken cues from the words that we say.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Book of Mormon and DNA Evidence

Over the past few years the Church has been putting out articles on the official website that address some of the common criticisms of the Church, its doctrine and its history. These articles rely on the best scholarship that has been done over the past 40 or 50 years. The most recent article is one that addresses the issue of DNA evidence and the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

As DNA tests and sequencing has become more common critics of the Book of Mormon have pointed out that if there really was a group of people that traveled to the Americas from the Middle East (West Asia) then there should be some DNA evidence of that found in the modern descendants of those people. But DNA studies have shown that the ancestors of the American natives came from East Asia. Critics quickly jumped on these studies to say, "Look! DNA evidence proves that the Book of Mormon is a fabrication of fiction!"

Part of this criticism is based on the assumptions made by members of the Church when they assumed that all inhabitants of the Americas before Columbus were descendants of the people in the Book of Mormon. Because this assumption was taught as doctrine for many years it became deeply ingrained in our (LDS) culture. But like other assumptions that members have made that have lead to accusations of anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, a careful reading of the text demonstrates the incorrectness of the assumption that the Book of Mormon takes place all over the Americas, as opposed to just a limited geography. Thus we cannot assume that all, or even most, of the American natives are descended from the Book of Mormon peoples.

As a quick illustration of this, below is a map of the world and I have marked in yellow approximately where the majority of the Bible took place.
Original image from Wikipedia.
On top of that most of the Old Testament took place in only a small part of that area. So if we were to study the DNA from a random sampling of people from all over Eurasia and Africa and then try to establish the authenticity of the the Biblical account we would have a hard time. The only reason why we can even attempt to do it for the Biblical record is because we have a continuous written history detailing the lands and people of the Bible going back more than 2000 years. We do not have anything comparable for the people of the Book of Mormon.

So while I can see why many members of the Church in their enthusiasm assumed that all the inhabitants of the Americas were descended from Book of Mormon peoples, the simple fact is we cannot make that case for the Bible, and we cannot make that case for the Book of Mormon. For reference I have included the same map from above but now marked with the assumed location of the Book of Mormon lands, based on the best current scholarship in the field.

The article put out by the Church explicitly sides with the limited geography model of the Book of Mormon (but not with any particular location) and allows for the vast majority of American natives to be descended from the people of East Asia. It then gives a very good review of why it would be very difficult to either prove or disprove the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence. As the article puts it, "In short, DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon."

I found the article very interesting to read and it does a very good job at explaining, very simply, the complexity of doing DNA studies to find and track historic populations. I know of people who have lost their faith over this issue but if we take the time to learn just a little more about the subject we will see that these things should not be so faith shaking. We still have a lot to learn, and I'm excited about that. We may have to give up some of our preconceptions or ideas that have been regularly taught as "doctrine" over the past ~150 years but it is something that will be given to us line upon line, here a little and there a little.

Occasionally we will be confronted with things where we will say, "But that doesn't make sense because it completely undermines everything I know to be true!" But if we take the time to learn the new understanding offered to us then we will see that it is not incompatible with the faith and knowledge that we already have. It is just more being added upon us and not taken away.