I’m excited to have Dr Casey Griffiths back on the show. He’s a Church History professor at BYU and we’re going to talk about 2 of his newest books, 50 More Relics of the Restoration & Truth Seeker. He’s the incoming JWHA president, and we’ll talk about several relics from other restoration groups, including James Strang’s scepter!
Intro to JWHA
GT 00:52 And you’ve got a new title now. I know you’re the new president of the John Whitmer Historical Association.
Casey 00:58 I am.
GT 00:59 2023.
Casey 01:00 For 2023.
GT 01:01 Tell us about that.
Casey 01:02 I love the John Whitmer Historical Association. It’s a smaller Historical Association. It is to the Community of Christ, what the Mormon History Association is for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And yet over the last couple of years, it’s kind of morphed into less of an emphasis on Community of Christ and more of, I don’t know, diverse restoration movements. So you can go to John Whitmer, and it’s a little bit smaller. It’s a little bit cozier. You’ll hear some really, really good research. And you’ll also hear a lot of diverse restoration perspectives. For instance, our 50th anniversary conference was just back in September. And we had a healthy contingent of Strangite scholars that were there. You don’t hear very much about Jesse James Strang, because there’s not very many adherents to his branch of the restoration anymore. And, in the meantime, the Joseph Smith photograph was the main session.
Crossing Dressing Wife
GT 09:07 And then there was another presentation, Kyle Beshears. Do you know Kyle?
Casey 09:14 Yeah, he’s one of the Strangite guys.
GT 09:15 Right, and so I was like, “Are you a professor?” Do you know? Tell us his background.
Casey 09:21 Kyle, I think he’s a Pentecostal or a Baptist.
GT 09:25 I thought he was a Baptist.
Casey 09:26 Yeah, he’s a Baptist minister who just wrote his master’s thesis on James Strang. And let me tell you. There’s no bottom to the well when it comes to James Strang. There’s a lot to process there. I ate lunch with Kyle and I called them the Strangite Community, even though half of them aren’t affiliated with anything having to do the restoration. They just think James Strang is really fascinating.
GT 09:54 Well, yeah, because he talked about–because James Strang was a polygamist. I’m trying to remember if he talked about–was it Elvira? Was that the cross-dressing wife?
Casey 10:10 What was the name of the cross-dressing wife? Just the phrase cross-dressing wife tells you how strange this is.
GT 10:16 Exactly. Yeah, because there was a presentation, and maybe they’re the same person. But two of James Strang’s wives, one was named Elvira, and I can’t remember if that was the one that was cross-dressing as Charles Thompson.
Casey 10:30 Yes. Yeah. Charlie Thompson.
GT 10:32 She claimed to be his nephew.
Casey 10:33 Yeah, another one, and, I guess this tells you how strange John Whitmer can be. One of the keynotes was Amy DeRogatis, who’s not a member of any restoration movement, but who’s a scholar on the daguerreotype that one of–James Strang’s first plural wife originally dressed as a man. So, it was on cross-dressing in the 19th century. And that kind of shows you what a typical weekend is with John Whitmer. You can go from “here’s the Joseph Smith photograph” to “here’s a photograph of James Strang’s wife dressed as a man.” And like I said, for me, it’s really fun.
GT 11:14 I love it.
Casey 11:15 It’s not General Conference for sure. But the diversity of the presentations that I got a chance to, I took the Strangite community on a tour of the Temple Lot. I showed them around and it was really fun to be with Vicki Speek, who’s written that great book on James Strang, and Amy and Kyle, who were all really interested to kind of get back to, “This is where Strang was coming from. This is Joseph Smith and the Temple Lot.” And then Strang comes onto the scene a lot later.
James Strang’s Sceptre & History
Casey: Basically, there’s this big theatrical ceremony where Strang has a paper crown of stars placed on his head, and a wooden scepter placed in his hands. So the object, itself, is very humble looking.
GT 18:37 Yeah.
Casey 18:37 Like, if you saw it, you would just think that it’s kind of a lacquered, nice…
GT 18:41 It almost looks like a bat.
Casey 18:42 Yeah, it’s smaller than a baseball bat. And I’ll let you get the book and see the picture, because we got a photograph of it. Community of Christ was very gracious in saying, “Yeah, take this and take a photograph of it. In fact, it was hard for me to get the photo because Lack Mackay, an apostle in the Community of Christ, loves the scepter, too.
GT 19:01 (Chuckling)
Casey 19:03 And he had, a couple of times I came to photograph the scepter, and Lach had it in Nauvoo, because he loves to show it off, as well. It’s really a cool relic. But it was in Independence, and I took a picture and it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s well-crafted. It’s not especially ornate, or anything like that. It’s just kind of smooth wood. When you look at it, it’s about the size, I guess, a scepter would be. I would guess that…
GT 19:30 Is it about four or five feet tall?
Casey 19:32 No, no, no, it’s about, I don’t know, maybe a foot, a foot and a half.
GT 19:36 Oh, it’s tiny.
Casey 19:37 It’s tiny. Yeah, it’s just something you’d kind of hold in your hand like this. And some reason, every time, the first couple times I saw it, it was wrapped up in aluminum foil, too, which adds to the weirdness factor, as well. But Strang took that as his–his calling was King of the Kingdom of God, which is built, primarily, on Beaver Island. So, that’s another place we’ve been begging to go to for John Whitmer. But everybody that’s been to Beaver basically said that it’s really hard to get there. The facilities on the island are limited.
There is a cricket team called the Islamabad Moroni’s!
Casey 02:11 Yeah. And this was one of those cases where these people were both were Christians that had converted to the Church. They weren’t Muslims. But I mean, Pakistan, and a lot of these Muslim countries have Christian populations. There’s a robust population of Christians in Egypt, which we typically think of as a Muslim country.
GT 02:32 Yeah, the Coptic Christians.
Casey 02:33 Yeah, yeah. And so, both of these people, I talked to the guy and his wife, and they were both converts to the Church. But I mean, proselyting is complicated.
GT 02:42 Because you don’t talk to Muslims, period.
Casey 02:44 Yeah, yeah. And this guy had served a mission for the Church, and so had his wife. His wife had served a mission on Temple Square.
GT 02:50 Oh wow.
Casey 02:51 But basically, they wanted a way to sort of let people know about the Church. But it’s sort of a friendly way. So they came up with the idea of, “What if we put together a Latter-day Saint cricket team?”
GT 03:06 Oh my goodness!
Casey 03:07 So their logo literally is the angel Moroni that you would see from a Latter-day Saint publication and their shirt says Islamabad Moroni’s. I found out that there was actually different teams in different places around. There were the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s.
We’ll also discuss a science apostle, Joseph Merrill. Merrill advocated for theological training for LDS seminary teachers, and believed science showed the existence of God.
Apostle Joseph Merrill
Casey 12:54 And then he was a professor of physics at the University of Utah. [There were] all these letters back and forth with his wife. His wife is the granddaughter of John Taylor and Orson Hyde, Annie Laura Hyde Merrill. She goes by Laura. And she, also, was a great discovery, too. She is lively and political. And she’s like, telling him…
GT 13:14 She turned him into a Democrat.
Casey 13:16 Yes! I can’t marry a Republican. I can only marry a Democrat. Basically, she gives them an ultimatum in one of his letters. But they, also in the 1890s, are having all these really smart, sharp conversations about women and the priesthood, and plural marriage and a bunch of things that we think they just didn’t think about back then. So, he writes her and basically says, “Yeah, women can hold the priesthood, with their husbands.” Which is the standard line you still hear in the church today.
Casey 13:41 And she’s writing back and saying, “No, women can go to the temple without their husband. So isn’t that priesthood?” Like, “Can’t they hold the priesthood?” And she’s familiar with the Relief Society. And that’s where Joseph Smith is saying, “I’m going to give you authority to heal. I’m going to ordain, you to the priesthood and everything like that.” So, she is remarkable.
Casey 14:02 And part of the theme of the book, too, is that Merrill was a scientist, and he approached religion scientifically. He has two major spiritual experiences in his life. The second one, he’s on a train coming back to Utah. And he has just decided, “Okay, I’m going to go to church, but I’m going to sort of be neutral.” And he opens up a newspaper where his friend, Richard Lyman, had just been made a Sunday School president.
GT 14:31 General Sunday School president, right?
Casey 14:33 I don’t know if it was a general Sunday school presidency, but he gets this electric feeling. “You’re going to be one of his counselors.” And he describes it as the second spiritual experience of his life. The first one happens right before he goes to college. And he’d literally wrote up like, here’s the sensations I felt, and sends it to a scientific conservatory in Boston for their analysis. Like, “Can you tell me what was happening physiologically, with me at this moment that I felt the spirit.” And that becomes one of the funnest aspects of his character is this is a guy who, when he bore his testimony, was more prone to talk about the laws of physical science than he was to talk about the scriptures. I think he loved the scriptures and was familiar with them. But, to him, the real evidence that God exists was the world around us.
Faith vs Science
Casey 23:11 Another apostle, and so all this is weaved together. But, boy, a book project I’d really love to pursue is that, in the 1930s, you have James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, Richard Lyman, Joseph Merrill, all professors at the University of Utah, all scientists, who all migrate to the Quorum of the Twelve. And this is, we’re talking, around the same time as the Scopes Monkey Trial, when Christian fundamentalists are basically saying, no science, no evolution. It’s faith-destroying. In our Church, for some reason, it was like, “Hey, there’s a great chemist at the University of Utah. Let’s put him in the Quorum of the Twelve. It seems like you still had your Joseph Fielding Smith, who was a scriptural fundamentalist too. But the leadership of the Church saw the scientists as great leaders and great advocates for the gospel. And that’s another place where a statistic from A Marvelous Work and Wonder that struck me as a kid, LeGrand Richards is touting Utah. He says Utah, per capita, produces more scientists than any other state in the nation. Now, I don’t think that’s true anymore. But the statistics sequence there are from the 1930s. And there’s this scientific flowering, where Latter-day Saints really ran contrary to the national trends, in that we just didn’t see science and religion as opposed to each other. And I tried to find a place where Merrill dealt with evolution. It seems like every time the question was brought up, Merrill would be like, “Why are you playing around in the mud? Like, look at the stars? And look at the order of the universe? Of course, there’s a God who cares how he created our bodies,” basically, was the gist of the message I got from him. He just didn’t engage, basically, on that question, because to him…
GT 23:17 It just wasn’t an issue.
Casey 24:40 The physics were evidence enough for him that you know what, if we if we came from evolution, who cares? That’s how God created our bodies. And it feels like a lot of the solutions that he presented in the 1930s are the sorts of things we could still use today to reconcile faith and science to basically say, “Hey, do we really have to argue over how old the Earth is? Or, you know, humans evolved from lower orders of creation, when we’ve got this big, bright, beautiful universe to explore.” There’s this quote by Carl Sagan that Neal A. Maxwell started to like to quote a lot where he said, “Science has surpassed religion in delivering awe.” He said, “You’d think the religions would grasp onto science and say, ‘God is greater and more powerful than we thought he was.’ But, instead, religions will say, ‘No, no, no, my God is a small God, and I want him to stay that way.'” Then Carl Sagan said, “A religion old or new that embraced science as evidence of God’s majesty, would really be able to do some amazing things.”
Casey 25:53 And I think you can see in the 1930s, guys like James Talmage, and John Widtsoe, and Richard Lyman and Joseph Merrill, breaking that ground, basically saying, “Why are we fighting against science? Why aren’t we using it as evidence?
Theologically Trained Seminary Teachers?
GT 31:30 I know we talked a little bit about this last time. But he was the one who wanted to get seminary teachers theologically trained at the Chicago Divinity School.
Casey 31:39 Yeah, one of the teachers, George Tanner said, “Joseph F. Merrill had so much faith in the gospel, he didn’t think that anything we learned at Chicago would harm our testimonies.” And in reality, it did. But I also think that that’s, I also think that’s a false dichotomy. Like, there were some people that went to Chicago, and learned there and apostatized from the Church. But for every one of them, there’s a Sydney Sperry, who learned the tools of scholarship and used it to bolster the Church. He used it to explore. And like I said, I think that ultimately what happened at Chicago and Joseph Merrill’s influence– because all Joseph Merrill was saying is like, “If we’re going to have a religion department at BYU, we’ve got to have experts in religion.
GT 32:24 Right.
Casey 32:24 He writes a letter…
GT 32:25 Like experts in science.
Casey 32:26 Yeah. He writes a letter where he says, “Would you have somebody teach physics that doesn’t have a Ph.D. in physics? We need to have Ph.D.’s in religion.” And for a long time, we were really uncomfortable with that, because we have a lay clergy. The head of the church isn’t a professional religion scholar, which is totally fine. It’s actually really healthy. But, nowadays, we’re more comfortable with the idea of religious scholars. We have rigorous projects like the Joseph Smith Papers. We have great scholars in places like BYU, and BYU Idaho, who are experts in their field. One of the reasons why Joseph Merrill wanted to keep BYU around was he said, “We need to have experts in every field, including religion, that are familiar and conversant with the wider conversation about each one of these subjects, including religion, so that they can speak for the Church in those areas.”
Casey 33:13 And just because the head of the church isn’t a Ph.D. in theology, doesn’t mean that we don’t need Ph.D.’s in theology that can translate when we’re talking to other faiths. So I just think he had a far reaching vision. And I mean, one of the reviewers for the book, I hope I’m not bragging here, says it seems like Joseph Merrill did for education in the Church, what Reed Smith did for politics in the Church, where he just dragged us into the wider world and said, “We’ve had our own cool little thing going on here. But we’ve gotten to engage with other people, if we really want to be the kingdom of God and influence people.”
GT 33:47 Well, the one question I had for you, though, was, it seems like Joseph Merrill said, “Let’s get this divinity training going with University of Chicago,” and then they call him on a mission. And then it seems like J. Reuben Clark became a little bit concerned about some of this, and then it seems like Merrill kind of sided with Clark. So, I was wondering, if he hadn’t gone on that mission, which was important because he was President Hinckley’s mission president but do you–it just seemed like he kind of changed a little bit. He became a little bit more conservative, a little more concerned about the religious training.
Casey 34:28 Yeah, some of the Chicago Boys come back and they start to make waves. And J. Rueben Clark gives the speech called The Charted Course of the Church in Education, where he basically says, he lays down the mom says that you might have advanced training, that doesn’t take precedence over the leaders in the Church who don’t have advanced training. And there’s some battles that happen there. And Merrill, like I said, is a mediative force. He participated in some of these things, him and John A. Widtsoe got pulled into J. Rueben Clark’s orbit, and they helped pull back some teachers who were at BYU who were disturbing people’s faith. But, at the same time, too, I mean, and this is secondhand by George Tanner, who was one of the Chicago scholars, too, who’s the head of the Moscow Institute for 30 years or something like that. He, by the way, is Leonard Arrington’s teacher. Leonard Arrington said George Tanner was the first person to show them an alternative translation of the Bible and introduce them to religious studies. George Tanner said he met with– he ran into Joseph Merrill near the end of his life. And I have to pull up the source, but he asked something like, “Do you regret sending us to Chicago?”
Casey 35:36 And Merrill said, “No. I’m not afraid of any kind of learning.” And I mean, you could argue that biblical scholarship has either hurt the Church or injured it, I just don’t think it has. I mean, I think it’s part of our growing up process where we start to listen to the voices of other people.
Questions for you. Have you been to JWHA? Do you enjoy learning about other “Mormon” churches? Are you familiar with Joseph Merrill? Do you wish we had more theologically trained seminary and institute teachers?