My Experience Reading the Holy Qur’an

I recently had the opportunity to visit the East London Mosque with a group of study abroad students. We were given a tour of the mosque and learned some of the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith tradition. At one point our tour guide made the following comment: “How do we know that the Qur’an is true? Because it was given by an angel to the Prophet Muhammad who was from a rural background with little education. How could someone with so little schooling have produced something as pure and true as the Holy Qur’an?” With this my Mormon ears immediately perked up as I’d heard a similar argument many times before in my life about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. So I decided to give it a try. I’d never read the Qur’an before and so I picked up a copy and read the text cover to cover over the course of about two months this summer. What follows are some of my general impressions of my experience with the Qur’an. For full disclosure: I am completely unqualified to speak authoritatively about Islam in any way. My intention is merely to offer my perspective as an “outsider” who knows only a little about Islam. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity would be able to offer better context and analysis than what I present below. Any errors in how Islam is presented are entirely my own. SCATTERED IMPRESSIONS AND REACTIONS The first thing that struck me was how “familiar” the narrative of the Qur’an felt, especially given how much Islam is unfortunately so often perceived as “The Other” in contemporary American religious culture. In fact, at times it felt much like I was reading the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). There are narratives of prophets and heroes. God commands regulations for prayer, diet, community interactions, family structures, charity, and social justice. There are multiple narratives of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Pharaoh, and others from the Bible. There are also a fair number...

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Joseph Smith’s Indictment for Adultery and Fornication

Joseph Smith’s Indictment for Adultery and Fornication: Some Answers but Many Questions On May 20, 1844, Nauvoo Stake President William Marks was subpoenaed and selected to serve on the grand jury of Hancock County. This Circuit Court was held twice a year, for two weeks in May and October. Described as being “better than a travelling circus,”[1] Grand Jurors were selected throughout the whole county, meaning Mormons would be mixed with their non-Mormon neighbors. Eighteen jurors were selected, including two Mormons, William Marks and Edward Hunter. Also included was a Mormon friend, Daniel H. Wells. Grand jurors were likely expecting to hear testimony of ordinary crimes, such as counterfeiting, larceny, burglary, and assault. It likely came as a surprise when they began hearing testimony regarding the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith. On May 23, and again on May 24, the grand jury heard testimony from William and Wilson Law accusing Joseph Smith of the crimes of adultery and fornication. The surviving documents in this case include an arrest warrant, an indictment from May 23, 1844, an indictment from May 24, 1844,[2] a list of potential witnesses,[3] and docket books from Hancock County.[4] There is no record of the testimony from the Law brothers, only the indictment by the grand jury. Meaning, the jurors found “good and sufficient evidence” to Indict Joseph Smith. However, little in this case is clear. The extant documents raise as many questions as they provide answers for. Setting the Stage In May 1844, adultery and fornication were illegal in the state of Illinois under a statute passed in 1833 entitled “Offenses against the public Morality, Health, and Police.” This law stated, in applicable part Any man and woman who shall live together in an open state of adultery or fornication, or adultery and fornication, every such man and woman shall be indicted, and on conviction, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding two hundred dollars each, or imprisoned not exceeding six months. This offence shall be sufficiently proved by circumstances...

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Does Joseph Smith Pass the Biblical Prophet Test?

I have always enjoyed scripture study. I was attempting to “feast on the words” of the Bible but it had always been difficult for me. There seemed to often be some bit of historical context I was missing, or certain passages that seemed to contradict Mormon doctrine. To make matters worse, each time I would look through all of the Mormon resources I had available to me, the verses or chapters I had the most questions about seemed to be completely ignored. I looked everywhere to find Mormon-written books on the Bible to provide answers: Institute and Seminary manuals, commentaries available at Deseret Book, etc. I found almost all of them to be unsatisfying; most were devotional in nature, and typically used the verses as a starting point from which to quote from prophets and apostles, which meant it didn’t really address the scriptures directly. I went on a search for non-Mormon commentaries and first found a lot of Evangelical commentaries which were often more scholarly and certainly longer and more in-depth, but just as frustrating. When it came to interpretations of scripture, everything had to fit in an evangelical belief system. So while I had found more detailed commentaries, I was simply trading one religious interpretation for another. Eventually I found more academic commentaries such as the Anchor Bible series. Some may argue that these commentaries still have a bias, simply an academic or even non-believing bias. However, I found them refreshing. Rather than sweeping confusing passages under a rug and quoting from other parts of the Bible to support a position, the commentators actually read what the scriptures said, and tried to interpret what it means, even if it contradicts other scripture. This academic approach also created problems, however. I quickly ran into areas of academic consensus which were either superficially, or entirely opposed, to Mormon Doctrine. While Mormons emphasize the importance of scripture written by Prophets, I learned that many books attributed to famous Biblical figures were actually not written by...

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Joseph Smith has Risen from the Grave

It isn’t every day a dead man speaks to you.  Much less reads your mind. So when it does happen, I guess it is worth writing about. The day is July 26, 2015. The dead man in question is Joseph Smith. The person he talked to is my wife, Dee. Here is how it all came about.   Of Salads and Spirit Babies It is a Sunday afternoon. Dee and I are in the kitchen. She is making a large salad for us to share. The subject of plural marriage had come up earlier that day. Specifically the fact that the LDS Church has backed off its position that plural marriage must be practiced in heaven. This is a good news/bad news thing. The good news is that wives won’t have to share their husbands with other women for eternity. The bad news is that a single wife will have to put in a lot of overtime bearing and birthing the billions of spirit babies for the worlds her husband will create. Hard as it is to believe, this idea is less popular among women than among men. Dee is one of those women who isn’t keen on it. A Correlation Curiosity Now back to the kitchen confab.  Dee is slicing carrots. “You know,” I venture, “The doctrine of women literally begetting spirit babies in heaven didn’t originate with Joseph Smith.” “Really?” Dee quizzes. “Do you know where it came from?” “It was a later addition to the doctrine.” “Did Joseph Smith say anything about it?” “It’s funny,” I admit, “But the last time he ever addressed the subject was in the King Follett Discourse shortly before he died.” “What did he say?” “Well, I can tell you he didn’t mention anything about women giving birth to spirit babies,” I reply. “Instead, he taught that spirits have simply always existed. They were never created.” “Wait a second,” Dee rejoins, peeling a zucchini.   “You mean intelligences. Intelligences were never created. Spirits were created when they were begotten by heavenly parents.” “Not exactly,” I say....

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Souls in Waiting: The Embryo and Abortion in Nineenth-Century Mormonism

May 14, 15 Souls in Waiting: The Embryo and Abortion in Nineenth-Century Mormonism

Posted by in Family, Featured, Uncategorized

Originally published on Of all the non-dinner-table political topics, abortion certainly ranks near the top.  So charged is it that its mere mention breaks down social gatherings into battling tribes where, they believe, reasonable people don’t disagree. Yet the viciousness with which the better part of Latter-day Saints have fought the issue reveals more about Latter-day Saint relationships with the broader Christian community than it does about Latter-day Saint doctrine. John C. Bennett brought the scandal of abortion to the Saints’ front door. Abortion providers had low reputations and were treated as accessories to murder, if not murderers in deed (For examples, see Evening Post, June 16, 1842; Boston Courier, March 10, 1842; Massachusetts Spy, November 30, 1842).  After John C. Bennett joined with the Saints in 1840, he quickly acquired a reputation for being a philanderer (and accused Joseph Smith of the same).  The rumor mill spread a variety of tales about Bennett’s and Smith’s sexual relationships.  Both friend and foe claimed Bennett was an abortion practitioner. In 1842, Hyrum Smith signed an affidavit claiming that Bennett “would give [women] medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.” Sarah Pratt, the wife of apostle Orson Pratt and the most prominent of the alleged mistresses, was accused of alternatively being both Joseph’s and Bennett’s mistress.  Though Pratt’s animosity towards the Prophet endured for generations, she acknowledged that Bennett was an abortion doctor: “There was a house in Nauvoo,” Pratt further told an anti-Mormon author, ‘right across the flat,’ about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house” (William Wyl, Joseph Smith, The Prophet, 59).    In 1842, “the flat” was a settlement for the poor on the western end of Nauvoo along the Mississippi riverbanks where Joseph was attempting to build a hotel.  John Taylor’s and Heber C. Kimball’s family lived there  Helen Kimball recalls “hear[ing] delicious strains of music” from steamers as they rode by.Pregnancy in early Mormon...

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Polygamy and the Modern Mormon

Apr 07, 15 Polygamy and the Modern Mormon

Posted by in Featured, Polygamy

It should come as no great surprise that many Mormons are troubled by polygamy. HBO’s Big Love, Warren Jeffs, and Mitt Romney’s presidential run have kept the practice on the cultural radar. More recently, the Church released a series of Gospel Topics essays on the subject (here, here, here, and here). and one member is facing Church discipline for writing about his disbelief in the practice. While many members are able to reconcile their acceptance of the early practice with their abhorrence of contemporary polygamy, others reject the concept in its entirety. But rather than sanctioning those troubled by polygamy, we need to reaffirm that members with a variety of responses to the practice are still welcome among us – even as the Church continues to defend the historic practice. To understand why the old practice of polygamy may be causing new waves, it’s worth contrasting the Gospel Topics essay with the usual depiction in Church materials and classes. Joseph Smith’s polygamy has never been a total secret for modern Mormons. But in my experience many members had at best a vague sense that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and that it was kept secret at the time. Few knew anything about his wives other than Emma. And I think the general sense of most members was that this arrangement was primarily spiritual rather than sexual, and that it provided economic security for women who otherwise might be on their own. Something, in short, like what is written in the manual Truth Restored (2001): “Although polygamy is no longer practiced in the Church, no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice. It was first announced by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842. Many of those close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement. However, it was not publicly taught until 1852. “In the families that practiced polygamy, each wife, with her children, occupied a separate house, or, if the wives lived...

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My First Name is Not “Apologist”

Currently the issue of Joseph Smith and plural marriage is receiving a great deal of attention both in the media and on the blogosphere. As the author of a relevant trilogy, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, coauthor of the newly released Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, co-webmaster of, and webmaster of, it has been interesting to see how various writers, bloggers, podcasters, and others deal with this topic and the historical evidences. I have seen my name pop up many times and believe I might need to advise everyone that my first name is not “apologist” and my middle name is not Brian. Most of the references to me by name seem to be “apologist Brian Hales.” Gratefully the “a” in apologist is usually not capitalized, so maybe there is no confusion. I have also been referred to as a conservative Mormon, a believer, and, more recently, a fact-checker. Titles like scholar, doctor, researcher, and historian are less common or non-existent.  I am, in fact, a historian, but an amateur not a professional. Within blogs and essays dealing with polygamy, one is less likely to encounter an author labelled as a critic, unbeliever, antagonist, skeptic, or liberal than an apologist. This may be because some of these words are pejorative, and people, in general, try to be respectful. However, the word “apologist” can also be used pejoratively, but its use seems to be acceptable nonetheless. Everyone has biases and understanding those biases is often important to contextualize the interpretations advanced by any author.  However, one observer recently wrote to me: “The dialogue about polygamy has been fascinating although it is disappointing that . . . at times, it turns into more of a personal attack on you than a mere debate on the issues.” This is sometimes referred to as an ad hominem attack, which is a logical fallacy meaning one is attacking the person proffering the argument rather than attacking the argument itself. This tactic is often employed...

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Reductio ad Absurdum: Joseph Smith and His Critics

Mar 09, 15 Reductio ad Absurdum: Joseph Smith and His Critics

Posted by in Featured, LDS Church History

“Liar,” “Fraud,” “Adulterer,” “Charlatan,” “Pedophile,” “Con-man,” “Blasphemer,” “Anti-Christian.” These are just some of the negative epithets that Joseph Smith’s critics use in describing him. The Latin phrase reductio ad absurdum means literally “reduction to the absurd.” But it also means “disproof of a proposition by showing an absurdity to which it leads when carried to its logical conclusion.” In this brief note, I intend both meanings. In terms of the first, “reduction to the absurd,” one need only list one-word epithets of Joseph Smith that contradict the above list to show how reductionist any single epithet is: “Prophet,” “Visionary,” “Genius,” “Revolutionary,” “Saint,” “Martyr.” This makes me think how easily anyone in the world can be reduced to one word and how any single label—negative or positive—fails to capture the fullness of that person, no matter, on the one hand, how intelligent, spiritual, or gifted he or she may be or, on the other, how limited he or she might be in talent, intelligence and personality. Every person in the world can be reduced to a single word, but all the words in the world can never hope to describe adequately or characterize any single person. In terms of the second meaning—to disprove a proposition [or one-word epithet suggesting a proposition] by revealing its absurdity, those who negatively label Joseph Smith forget (or simply refuse to admit) that he is regarded by historians as one of the most influential Americans in our history. That he is also one of the most complex, paradoxical and controversial figures only emphasizes how absurd it is to categorize him in any kind of limited way. The prophet himself recognized the impossibility of capturing the multi-dimensional, many layered aspects of his personality when he exclaimed, “No man knows my history.” For all of the attempts in the more than two centuries since his birth, including Faun Brodie’s provocative biography, No Man Knows My History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1945) and Richard Bushman’s definitive prizewinning biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Alfred...

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Goodness is Rarer Than Greatness.

What makes someone ‘great’? Most of the figures to whom we gift the epithet ‘great’ have earned their distinction primarily by being masters of the art of butchery. The vast majority of people known as ‘the great’ are rulers, founders and expanders of empire: Alexander the Great conquered the known world, expanding upon the empire built by Darius the Great. Charles the Great (better known as Charlemagne) rose to his historical prominence by dispossessing the Frankish king, then the Italian king and eventually being proclaimed the first Holy Roman Emperor since the fall of that great state. Even leaders who are known as quasi-benevolent rulers are notable for their violence. As an example, Catherine the Great, known for presiding over Russia’s golden age, ushered in that age by successfully campaigning against the Ottoman Empire, colonizing areas around the Black Sea and gobbling up a chunk of Poland as a sort of imperialistic digestif. Even the few sports figures known as ‘great’ come from the violent sports (Gretzky in hockey and Muhammed Ali in boxing), to say nothing of the Great Gonzo, which of all muppets is the most likely to be seen in the company of a cannon. Great people get things done, but they seem to make a mess doing it. When it comes to our political leaders, we don’t mind a little slaughter. We even enjoy listening to the tales of conquest and battle. We marvel at military innovation and tactical brilliance. In short, we don’t expect our great political leaders to be good. Does this hold true, however for our religious leaders? Surprisingly, throughout much of history the answer is ‘yes’. Scriptural prophets were remarkable for being the proximate cause of tremendous amounts of death. Whether it was a bald prophet summoning she bears to eat obnoxious kids, or a noble Nephite lopping the arms off of would-be thieves, we like our prophets tough. In fact, all three of the great monotheistic religions of today (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) were spread...

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“Even Fifty Six Years, Should Wind Up the Scene”

In 1876, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a revised edition of the Doctrine and Covenants which included, for the first time, section 130. This section includes the founding leader Joseph Smith’s prophecy that if Smith lived “until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man.” In 1879, Apostle Orson Pratt added extensive cross-references and explanatory foot-notes for the publication of the English mission edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. One foot-note Pratt added to section 130 was a “prophecy” from a meeting in Kirtland Ohio, on February 14, 1835, which is discussed below. This edition was reprinted in Salt Lake City and then officially canonized at the October 1880 general conference of the Church. The timing of these changes in the Doctrine and Covenants should not be underestimated. The belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ near Smith’s eighty-fifth birthday was very real for Utah Mormons, of the time, and it seems to have worked as a coping mechanism in the face of general “persecution” as they perceived it on several fronts, including the abandonment of the practice of plural marriage. On February 14, 1835, a meeting was held in Kirtland, Ohio to ordain the newly called Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who had previously been selected by the three witnesses. Smith was the first speaker at the meeting, and made a stunning declaration “the coming of the Lord, which was nigh, even fifty six years, should wind up the scene.” In other words, Christ should come sometime around February 1891.1   A patriarchal blessing given by Joseph Smith Sr. to Seth Church on May 23, 1836 states that “thou shalt stand till the winding up scene of this generation and Christ shall come in the clouds of heaven. Satan shall have no power over you, and thou shalt stand on the earth & thy strength shall be great when thou art seventy five.” Church was born in 1814, which would make him...

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