August 18, 2008

"Saints and crockery ware": The Temporal and Spiritual

On the use of historical and temporal examples in the LDS worldview and sermonizing
George A. Smith
April 6, 1856

Mormons are likely to hear about car sales, mountain hikes, or dirty windshields in any given sacrament meeting talk; a temporal instance becomes a spiritual lesson. Terryl Givens' People of Paradox examines LDS culture in terms of the seeming incongruities inherent in the gospel as restored through Joseph Smith. One particular paradox involves Joseph's collapsing together of the temporal and spiritual; what Givens calls the "blending and blurring of sacred and secular categories." Brigham Young as explained the paradox in these words:
When I saw Joseph Smith, he took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth; and he took the earth and brought it up, and opened up, in plainness and simplicity, the things of God; and that is the beauty of his mission.1
Givens concludes Americans were "not ready to disregard the boundaries that kept heaven and earth apart."2 Combining the heavens and earth flew in the face of the conventional dualism of Joseph's day; that heaven and God are "wholly other," the earth and mankind eternally different in fundamental ways.

"Utilitarian"-based talks may focus on how temporal matters can affect souls; practical matters take on eternal significance. George A. Smith's 1856 sermon on fence mending resulted from Heber C. Kimball's request that Smith "preach on matters of policy." Smith discussed avoiding distractions and quarrels by efficiently completing one's work. By keeping our house in order we allow for more reflective time and we are less apt to be drawn from thoughts of higher things by knowing the dishes haven't been cleaned yet or the cows are out causing havoc, etc. This introduces another LDS paradox: Church authority versus individual agency. This occurred even more so when the Church was largely focused in the Great Basin where leaders were often apt to offer temporal counsel in a religious setting. These paradoxes contributed to the tensions felt by early Saints, such as when the temporal matter of the Kirtland Anti-Banking failure combined with the religious leaders involved therewith, or when "gentile" merchants blamed the tyranny of Brigham Young's policies for sagging sales.

In short: part of the Mormon preaching tradition blends the sacred and profane through temporal examples and stories (either hypothetical or based on real experiences), and at times includes counsel over practical matters (in this sermon, fence-mending).

First, George A. believed the difficult tasks plaguing life of early Utah settlers served as a sort of filter; a mechanism to separate the wheat from the chaff. Their very temporal location in the territory of Utah became a part of God's gospel plan:
The condition of our Territory, the nature of our soil [and] climate, appear as if designed expressly by the Almighty for the...upbuilding of the kingdom of heaven in the last days. It matters not what corner of the earth men come from, unless they possess the spirit of the leaven of truth, they will remain but a short time in these mountains before they begin to consider it the wrong place, for the leaven is working. They cannot quite endure the climate and the peculiarities of the country or something of the kind and off they go. On account of our altitude we are most advantageously situated for the drainage of the filth, scum, and corruption, when it accumulates to a certain extent, for it flows off in different directions, thus leaving the people of the kingdom remaining as it were alone.
As time passed, Utah became less exclusionary as industry, railroads, and settlement expansion changed the face of the West. Even then, however, everyday tasks formed a part of the gospel plan to Latter-day Saints. Temporal arrangements are necessary; the gospel is not an all-encompassing transcendent event that leaves the reality of life behind. In certain ways it works to combine the two. This worldview was interestingly described by editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald in 1842, who said the Mormons
...are busy all the time establishing factories to make saints and crockery ware, also prophets and white paint.3
Again, one reason G.A. Smith mentioned temporal matters in his religious sermon was for the practicality of "avoiding annoyance." He likely remembered some of the the annoyance caused to neighbors of the Mormons back East where they were literally driven from their homes and property. He didn't wish to see division among the Saints resulting from annoyances:
There are many here, as religious as this congregation looks, who have not got a good fence around their farms, yet they will kneel down in the mornings perhaps, to offer a prayer. By the time they have got one knee fairly to the floor, peradventure somebody thunders away at the door and cries out, "Neighbor, there are twenty head of cattle in your wheat; they have been there all night, and are there now."

The man of no fence is roused up, and instead of praying he is apt to think, "Damn it," and to start off get the cattle out and put them into the stray pen...

Thus you must see that some temporal arrangements are necessary, to enable men to enjoy that quiet which would be desirable in attempting to worship our Heavenly Father.
It was quite practical to keep the cows in so one could attend to religious matters. George A.'s sermon gives interesting insight into the use of temporal stories and history being cast into the LDS worldview of life being a probation. He related the elusive story of Thomas B. Marsh and the "milk strippings" which were said to have ultimately caused Marsh's apostasy. Using a simplistic explanation, Smith admonished the Saints to avoid annoyances in temporal matters for spiritual reasons:
You may think that these small matters amount to but little, but sometimes it happens that out of a small matter grows something exceedingly great. For instance, while the Saints were living in Far West, there were two sisters wishing to make cheese, and, neither of them possessing the requisite number of cows, they agreed to exchange milk. The wife of Thomas B. Marsh...and sister Harris concluded they would exchange milk, in order to make a little larger cheese then they otherwise could. To be sure to have justice done, it was agreed that they should not save the strippings, but that the milk and strippings should all go together. Small matters to talk about here, to be sure, two women's exchanging milk to make cheese.
Mrs. Harris, it appeared, was faithful to the agreement and carried to Mrs. Marsh the milk and strippings, but Mrs. Marsh, wishing to make some extra good cheese, saved a pint of strippings from each cow and sent Mrs. Harris the milk without the strippings. Finally it leaked out that Mrs. Marsh had saved strippings, and it became a matter to be settled by the Teachers. They began to examine the matter, and it was proved that Mrs. Marsh had saved the strippings, and consequently had wronged Mrs. Harris out of that amount.[Two appeals were made, the last to the High Council.]
Marsh being extremely anxious to maintain the character of his wife, as he was the President of the Twelve Apostles, and a great man in Israel, made a desperate defense, but the High Council finally confirmed the Bishop's decision. Marsh, not being satisfied, took an appeal to the First Presidency of the Church, and Joseph and his Counselors had to sit upon the case, and they approved the decision of the High Council.

This little affair, you will observe, kicked up a considerable breeze, and Thomas B. Marsh then declared that he would sustain the character of his wife even if he had to go to hell for it. Then the President of the Twelve Apostles, the man who should have been the first to do justice and cause reparation to be made for wrong, committed by any member of his family, took that position, and what next? He went before a magistrate and swore that the "Mormons" were hostile towards the State of Missouri. That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an exterminating order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs.

Do you understand what trouble was consequent to the dispute about a pint of strippings? Do you understand that the want of fences around gardens, fields, and yards, in town and country, allowing cattle to get into mischief and into the stray pen, may end in some serious result? That the corroding influence of such circumstances may be brought to bear upon us, in such a way that we may lose the Spirit of the Almighty and become hostile to the people?

And if we should not bring about as mighty results as the pint of strippings, yet we might bring entire destruction to ourselves. If you wish to enjoy your religion and the Spirit of the Almighty, you must make your calculations to avoid annoyances, as much as possible.

History became the basis for exemplifying and teaching a moral principle.4
...I have come to the conclusion that the best policy is to undertake to cultivate a little land, and to fence and cultivate it as it should be, and to only keep as many cattle as we can take care of, and keep from destroying our neighbors crops. In that way I believe we will be able to avoid a good many annoyances, and to adopt a great deal better policy than we now have in those respects.
If anything, George A. quipped, you ought to have a good fence so as not to insult the cows who might be offended enough to challenge you to a duel after seeing your feeble fence.5 By being frugal and industrious one could avoid annoyances and help the community become Zion:
In this way Zion can be made to blossom as a rose, and the beauty of Zion will begin to shine forth like the morning, and if the brethren have not learned by experience that this is the course to pursue, by that time they will learn it. I presume a great many have become satisfied that it would be better to avoid many of these annoyances.
George A. believed many problems in the Church might be avoided by following his practical advice, and he thus combined the religious principle of love for God and fellow man with practical work in  home-spun temporal sermon. In other words, he tied a historical example (the milk strippings) to a contemporary issue (contention over cattle, land and fences), and both instances served to teach eternal principles of love, awareness, work, and the general building up of Zion.

Especially given the circumstances of the late 1850s, LDS leaders in the Great Basin preached on being self-sustaining. They would rely on no one but themselves and the mercy of God:
Good domestic policy requires us to be careful in providing such comforts and necessaries as we can produce within ourselves. If we let our sheep perish our clothing will be scanty, or we shall be forced into the stores to support distant producers. If we let our cattle die we shall not only lack beef, but our home made leather will be missing.
In short, the difficulties and wrongs which may grow out of such carelessness are numerous. It should by all means be our policy to produce every article, which we can, within ourselves.
George A. asserted these principles were a part of his faith and would lead to temporal and spiritual prosperity:
These sentiments are strictly within the scope of my religion, and those comforts and conveniences, which we are constantly in need from day to day, are necessary to enable us to perform the duties God requires at our hands. One of those duties is to take a course that will enable us to enjoy the blessings and comforts of life, [to] preserve our health and strength to labor for the upbuilding and spread of the kingdom of God.
This blending resonates in Mormon culture today with emphasis on personal responsibility, work ethic, and the saying that "cleanliness is next to Godliness" referrs to physical as well as spiritual hygiene, all in addition to salvation and the grace of Jesus Christ. While at times it is a matter of practicality, Saints continue to find the gospel in everyday living and easily combine the two in Church sermons, lessons, and comments without a second thought, as Givens noted:
Those inhabiting the theological universe [Joseph Smith] created find themselves in a place where the sacred, the human, and the divine find new meanings and require new orientations.6
George A. concluded:
I have offered these remarks, on the subject of policy, in rather a rambling manner, something like the parson, who was told that he did not speak to his text, "Very well," says he, "scattering shots hit the most birds." May the Lord bless us all, and prepare us to enter His kingdom. Amen (JD 3:280-291).


Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 5:332.

Terryl Givens, "The Paradoxes of Mormon Culture," BYU Studies 46, no. 2 (2007): 191-192. In his interview on Helen Whitney's documentary The Mormons, Givens explained:
One finds in the revelations of Joseph Smith an immense range of subject matter. One can go to the Book of Abraham, where he describes in vision pre-mortal councils where God himself participated, and we were present as unembodied spirits. One can go to section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which was called just The Vision, in which he describes the glories of the celestial world and the inheritance of those who go to the celestial or the terrestrial kingdoms. Those are examples of revelations that are about as exalted and transcendent as one could ask for. Then one can also find a number of revelations in which he tells people that they should open a print shop on this property, or they should sell this property here, or that they are called to New York to do this. His revelations range from the sublime to the mundane. And yet I think that there's no contradiction there.
Interview located at (last accessed 12-14-2007).

James Gordon Bennett, New York Herald, August 4, 1842 (as cited in Givens, ibid).

See Daniel C. Peterson and David B. Honey, "Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History," BYU Studies 31:2 (1991) 1-41 [.pdf] Smith's account here seems too simplistic but has still been used recently by various General Authorities and in Church manuals. Other unofficial LDS publications and members have examined the story and published explanations. Later this week I'll look into how the story has been used and what the historical record tells us about Marsh's apostasy.

George A. jested:
There has been a constant complaint about selling the land for fencing, quarreling here and there about cattle doing mischief, and they have become thoroughly converted to the doctrine I recommended. Experience had to teach them the lesson, though it was not so much experience with me, for my father taught me that a man could not raise a crop with any certainty unless he first fenced his land, and it was considered one of the most ridiculous things a man could be guilty of, in a new country, to plant a crop and let the cattle destroy it for want of a fence. Some settlements have made tolerably good fences, but as a general thing the poles are stretched too long for their size, the points sag down, and should a cow or an ox happen to pass by such an apology for a fence, and understand that it was designed to keep out animals, they would be insulted, and, were it not against the law to fight a duel, you might expect such a cow or ox to give you a challenge for such gross insult (JD 3:285).
Terryl Givens, "The Paradoxes of Mormon Culture," BYU Studies 46:2 (2007): 192. A subsequent sermon by Brigham Young demonstrates the blending, especially in the early territorial Church when a Zion society was an immediate goal:
Our preaching to you from Sabbath to Sabbath, sending the Gospel to the nations, gathering the people, opening farms, making needed improvements, and building cities, all pertain to salvation.
The Gospel is designed to gather a people that will be of one heart and of one mind. Let every individual in this city feel the same interest for the public good as he does for his own, and you will at once see this community still more prosperous, and still more rapidly increasing in wealth, influence, and power. But where each one seeks to benefit himself or herself alone, and does not cherish a feeling for the prosperity and benefit of the whole, that people will be disorderly, unhappy, and poverty-stricken, and distress, animosity, and strife will reign (JD 3:228).
Orig. posted 12/10/2007. Revised and reposted 8/18/2008


Chris said...

Hi LoaP,

As for Givens' comment that Americans were "not ready to disregard the boundaries that kept heaven and earth apart," I disagree. It's true that one of the major objections to Smith was his merging of sacred and secular categories. But such objections generally were not expressed until the merging of sacred and secular categories produced catastrophic results. This was a popular objection, for example, in the aftermath of the Kirtland Bank failure. John Corrill is typical: he rejected the law of consecration revelation, but then proceeded to sell all his property and give the proceeds-- a small fortune of 2100 dollars-- to about 160 needy Mormon families. Apparently his objection had more to do with a specific distrust of the Mormon leadership than to a principled separation of sacred and secular categories. If the meeting of heaven and earth had actually produced the glowing results Smith promised by revelation, the dissenters' misgivings would surely have melted away into insolvency.



LifeOnaPlate said...

True enough, the statement of Americans not being ready shouldn't apply across the board. Some were ready, as they embraced the gospel. Others were a little TOO ready for Joseph's visions, as they embraced the gospel and whatever else they could find.

Citing the Kirtland bank failure as a blurring of the sacred and secular is arguable; Joseph, to my knowledge, didn't set that anti-banking company by revelation. I'll have to look further into that, but from what I can remember, some viewed it as a divine idea, but I can't see that from Joseph's own writings and instruction.

This is one reason I think the word "blur" is used, rather than something more specific. Divine mandates can be exalting or deadly, dangerous or benign. The very possibility rankled some religious thinkers of Joseph's day, who thought it ridiculous to have visions in the age of railways.

People saw the paradox of mortal men working for a divine being.

I believe you focus on one aspect of Joseph's mission, one involving money. Perhaps this is natural when referring to "sacred and secular." My thoughts on the subject reach much higher than that, though. I mean theologically, Joseph made humans a part of a divine race. This blurring and blending still causes consternation by enemies of the religion, and even embarrassment or equivocation by some of the followers of the faith.

You also seem to believe Joseph largely failed in his mission, that he did not produce glowing results promised by revelation. In regards to establishing the New Jerusalem in his day, seeing the Church living in peace, these things did not come to fruition as he'd hoped, but they did keep him trying until the very last. What he did succeed in is establishing a vibrant community of faith, with ritual, sacraments, doctrines, and faithful followers who really do seek a "Zion" community today, and still hold out for those blessings given -as what seems to be- long ago.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Additionally, what do you think about the Mormons finding "salvation in wheat," and their religiosity in seemingly nonreligious matters?

Chris said...

Hey LoaP,

There are several occasions on which JS was reported to have given revelations about the bank, including the promise that it would swallow up all other banks. More than that, he clearly saw it as a Church institution, and when certain members of the Church opposed its printed currency as being illegal or overvalued he pronounced "severe judgments" on them and called them "traitors". One place you might look for info on this is

Dudley, Dean A. "Bank Born of Revelation: The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company." The Journal of Economic History 30, no. 4 (1970): 848-53.

I haven't read this piece recently, so I don't recall all the details except for the examples given above.

As for your other comments, while it's true that JS produced a community of people who strive continually for Zion, and I do see some real value in that, it also seems that along the way a lot of people suffered due to religious exploitation and empty promises.

I haven't heard the term "salvation in wheat", but in an age where the LDS Church declares itself officially neutral as far as politics are concerned, in what respects do you see LDS folk being more religious in seemingly nonreligious matters than people of other faiths might be? There may be legitimate examples; I just can't think of any off the top of my head.

LifeOnaPlate said...

The essay you cite quotes William Alexander Linn's Story of the Mormons, a polemic work, stating Joseph said the bank would "swallow up all other banks." Other than Linn's accusation, I have seen no evidence that Joseph Smith founded the bank upon revelation. As FAIR pointed out, the bank venture was a failure, and was likely illegal, but it wasn't a unique experience; many financial ventures failed in the same time period (Something I was apprised by reading Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling).

Empty promises are in the eyes of the beholder, it would seem.

Sometimes I fear Mormons mix the sacred and secular a little too much; for example, the somewhat ironic dominance of the Republican party in Utah. Some believe a true Mormon would be a Republican, for example.

The official political Church position, taking a place on a global scale, attempts to render unto Caesar. My blog, as you can tell, has not been extremely political.

More religious? I'd say at least in the idea of the very nature of mankind, they exhibit unique views that affect everything they do. Living accordingly is another matter, altogether.

Chris said...

Hey LoaP,

It wasn't Linn; it was Warren Parrish in the Painesville Republican (Feb 22, 1838). Parrish wrote,

"he declared that the audible voice of God, instructed him to establish a Banking-Anti Banking institution, which like Aaron's rod should swallow up all other Banks (the Bank of Monroe excepted,) and grow and flourish and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins."

The statement is certified by Luke Johnson, John Boynton, Syslvester Smith, and Leonard Rich.

Woodruff also wrote that "I also herd [sic] President Joseph Smith, jr., declare in the presence of F. Williams, D. Whitmer, S. Smith, W. Parrish, and others in the Deposit office that HE HAD RECEIVED THAT MORNING THE WORD OF THE LORD UPON THE SUBJECT OF THE KIRTLAND SAFETY SOCIETY. He was alone in a room by himself and he had not only [heard] the voice of the Spirit upon the Subject but even an AUDIBLE VOICE. He did not tell us at that time what the Lord said upon the subject but remarked that if we would give heed to the commandments the Lord had given this morning all would be well." (Journal, Jan 6, 1837).

On a related subject, according to Benjamin Winchester Joseph Smith in the 1830s "received a revelation especially concerning Kirtland": "It was to be the great center of the world. Kings and Queens were to come there from foreign lands to pay homage to the Saints. It was to be the great commercial point of the universe." - Charles L. Woodward, "First Half Century of Mormonism," 195.

The bit about people turning traitors is from Woodruff's journal again:

'As late as 6 April he apparently believed his banking project might work: "If the elders will remember the Kirtland Safety [p.57] Society and do as they should Kirtland will become a great city." But three days later his mood changed for he warned the Saints that "severe judgments awaited those characters that professed to be his friends & friends to…the Kirtland Safety Society but had turned traitors and opposed the currency."'

Kenney, Woodruff's Journal, 1:131-39; Cited in Hill, Quest for Refuge (

There are other less explicit insinuations to this effect, like Pratt's accusation that JS had led them into illegal practices by "false prophesying."

I know what you mean about Republicans. It's much the same in the Evangelical churches I grew up in. I honestly think that a lot of people haven't thought much about it; they just know that that's what's expected of them, and it's what the party line they always here in church and at home.

Anyway, Best.


LifeOnaPlate said...

I don't feel bound in the least to accept the statement by Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, John Boynton, Sylvester Smith, and Leonard Rich. This occurred during the large-scale Kirtland apostasy. Interestingly, your sources were all a large part of that apostasy. These were the men who pulled bowie knives and guns in the Kirtland temple. Of further interest is Parrish himself being implicated for dishonest dealings in regards to the banking society.

Their allegation included that Joseph was a fallen prophet, and Parrish claimed to be the one who had the right to take over the Church, so they established their own at that time, which fell to pieces within the year.

Some apostates wanted to declare the Book of Mormon a false book, others wanted to keep it and declare Joseph a fallen prophet. When they invited Martin Harris to their gathering to renounce his testimony of seeing the plates Martin ticked some of them off pretty good by reaffirming his testimony. their "Church of Christ" no longer exists. Parrish is supposed to have become a Baptist minister. It can't be fully verified, only on the word of George A. Smith, that Parrish requested the Saints not to mention his prior involvement with the Church so as to not damage his reputation.

As for Wilford Woodruff, here is the part that sticks out to me, and I'm glad you brought this to my attention, as it helps my understanding of the circumstances even more:

"He did not tell us at that time what the Lord said upon the subject but remarked that if we would give heed to the commandments the Lord had given this morning all would be well."

This in no way leads me to believe the enterprise was prophesied to be perfect, or lasting, or encompassing of all other banks.Joseph received counsel on many temporal subjects.

If the counsel wasn't followed, the promised results would therefor come to naught. Jonah[!] told Ninevah they'd be destroyed if they didn't repent. Ninevah wasn't destroyed.

Nor was "all will be well" defined by Woodruff.

He also gave some detail about Parrish as follows:

"It might be stated here that Warren Parrish fell through disappointed ambition. He aspired to the Quorum of the Twelve, or to be a leading spirit of the Church. He was what is termed a smart man, and through his smartness, which was distorted by ambition, envy, and bitterness, he turned against Joseph and the Church, having fallen into darkness and given himself up to the power of Satan."

See Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, History of His Life and Labors, pg. 88, here:

Chris said...

Hi LoaP,

One of the unfortunate things about these schisms is that people on both sides have a vested interest in laying all the blame on the other side. I suspect there is truth in both tellings of the story. If something didn't go badly wrong in the Kirtland Bank affair, why was it not just Warren Parrish, but something like 50 respected Church members who were excommunicated at the time? I seriously doubt that all the blame can be placed on the apostates.

Anyway, you can believe the worst about the dissenters if you wish. But don't forget that the Danites seriously considered murdering them, and even drove them into battle unarmed at the head of the Mormon troops. I think Joseph and Sidney's track record inspires substantially less trust than anything you could pin on the dissenters.


LifeOnaPlate said...

You appear to believe Joseph directly caused all Mormon events. I know you don't believe that, but in order for your arguments to make sense this would be implied.

Why all the hubbub? Money, money, money, my friend. I think Joseph well learned his lesson about God and Mammon.

By the way, the Danites were terribly unsuccessful at doing what they are thought to have been "commanded" to do. Their contemporaries are no better, either! They refuse to even consider you as a possible target. ;)

Chris said...

Well that's a disappointment! And here I had my windows all boarded up and everything!

LifeOnaPlate said...

It's not too late. ....


LifeOnaPlate said...

One last thing: I take the "audible voice" aspect as being less credible. Joseph rarely emphasized hearing God's audible voice. I can think of two occasions; the first visitation and perhaps Christ in the Kirtland temple.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Also: if you wanna put stock in some affidavits, let's talk about the one printed in the Book of Mormon by 3 and 8. ;)

Thanks for the chat; this is the longest response- by far- I've ever received on my blog. You think the Mormons wanna read this stuff? Ha!

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