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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Noteworthy Historical Anniversaries in 2012

2012 is sure to be an exciting year in history. Not only is the world going to end on December 21 (according to those clever Mayans who could foresee the future but not their own demise), but it is also the anniversary of an number of interesting historical events. Here are just a few:

January 6: 100th anniversary of New Mexico becoming the 47th U.S. state.

January 6: Tradition holds that 600 years ago on this day, Joan of Arc, the French soldier and saint, was born.

January 24: 300 years ago, Frederick the Great of Prussia is born.

February 5: 250th anniversary of the Great Holocaust of the Sikhsis, carried out by the forces of Ahmed Shah Abdali in Punjab. In all, over 500,000 men, women and children perish in this campaign of slaughter.

February 6: The Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth II, marking the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne of the United Kingdom, and the 60th anniversary of her becoming Head of the Commonwealth.

February 14: 100th anniversary of Arizona becoming the 48th U.S. state.

February 20: 50th anniversary of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

February 22: 150 years ago, Jefferson Davis is officially sworn in as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.

March 2: Wilt Chamberlain scores 100 points in one professional basketball game (50 years ago).

April 13: 150 years ago, the government of Vietnam is forced to cede the territories of Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Dinh Tuong to France. This will be a huge deal for the U.S. in About 100 years.

April 13: 700th anniversary of Pope Clement V forcibly disbanding the Knights Templar. Some argue that this date is the basis for the stigma surrounding the "Friday the 13th."

April 15: Marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (at 2:20 a.m. that morning), which claimed the lives of over 1,500 people.

April 20: The 100th anniversary of the opening of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.

May 1: The Incredible Hulk made his grand debut 50 years ago.

May 5: The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla...i.e. Cinco de Mayo.

May 21: 80th anniversary of Amelia Earhart becoming the first woman to cross Atlantic.

June 18: The 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States. I'm sure the History Channel will ONCE AGAIN butcher the history of this war. Heck, they will probably try to show how aliens, monsters, ice road truckers and ancient Mayans were involved.

June 28: 300 years ago, the great Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is born.

July 2: First Wal-Mart opens in Rogers, Arkansas 50 years ago.

July 10: AT&T's Telstar, the world's first commercial communications satellite, is launched into orbit 50 years ago and activated the next day (this is for you, Grant).

July 10: 800 years ago, the most severe of several early fires of London burns most of the city to the ground, Over 3,000 people die.

July 27: The opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics begin in London, making London the only city to host the Olympics three times.

August 5: 50th anniversary of the "probable suicide" of actress Marilyn Monroe. She died from an overdose of sleeping pills and chloral hydrate. I have no clue what chloral hydrate is but it sounds BAAAAAD!

August 31: 2,000th birthday of the horrific Roman Emperor Caligula (and he doesn't look a day over 1,200).

September 22: Otto von Bismarck becomes Prime Minister of Prussia 150 years ago.

October 1: 50 years ago, Johnny Carson took over as permanent host of NBC's "Tonight Show", a post he would hold for 30 years.

October 5: The 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, which began with the premiere of "Dr. No."

October 14: 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

October 28: 1,700 years ago, one of the most important battles in world history, the Battle of Milvian Bridge, is fought. Constantine I defeats Maxentius and becomes Emperor of Rome. During the battle, he reportedly has a vision of a cross (labarum) with the phrase "in hoc signo vinces" ("In this sign you shall conquer"). This becomes the catalyst for Rome converting to Christianity.

November 1: 500 years ago today, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti, is completed and exhibited to the public for the first time.

November 25: The 10-year anniversary of the WORST federal agency in American history: the pathetic Dept. of Homeland Security.

November 28: 100th anniversary of Albania declaring independence from the Ottoman Empire.

December 1: 800th anniversary of "The Children's Crusade", led by 12-year-old Stephen of Cloyes from France. That's right, there was a Children's Crusade (oh the insanity!).

December 21: The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (Mayan calendar) completes a "great cycle" of thirteen b'ak'tuns (periods of 144,000 days each) since the mythical creation date of the calendar's current era. Oh, and the world comes to an END!!!!!!
There you have it! 2012 is sure to be another fantastic year. God bless you and yours in this new year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas, 2011

It finally came! After 365 days of counting down to the greatest day in humanity, Christmas is finally here! And it was a WONDERFUL Christmas for our family. Here are a few highlights (and yes, the new Christmas countdown clock is up and running on the right-hand side of this blog):

Some videos:

Calm Before the Storm:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Crazy Helicopters

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Colonial America: A Drunken Bash?

Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd has written an interesting article on how colonial Americans celebrated the holiday season. He writes:

In the 1700s, Christmas was notorious for drunken bashes more reminiscent of Mardi Gras than our family-friendly holiday. An account from New York published during the "twelve days" of Christmas in early 1787 (the same year Americans would frame the new Constitution) paints a picture of a deeply conflicted holiday. As one might expect, some people focused on the religious meaning of the season, setting aside the time "for a most sacred purpose." Others, however, spent the twelve days "reveling in profusion, and paying their sincere devotions to merry Bacchus," the Greek god of wine and festivity.

The city's churches were full on Sundays in the twelve days of Christmas, but so were the "temples dedicated to the service of merriment, dissipation and folly . . . where the sons of gluttony and drunkenness satiate their respective appetites." The taverns let out around midnight, when Christmas revelers poured into the streets, and "by their unmeaning, wild, extravagant noise," the account grumbled, "disturb those citizens who would rather sleep than get drunk."
And the following short poem illustrates the frustration that many pious early Americans had with their wild, drunken neighbors:

So merry at Christmas are some, they destroy
Their health by disease, and by trouble their joy
At Christmas, mix wisdom with mirth and never fear,
You'll secure the wished blessing—a happy New Year.
It has long been a fascination of mine to look at how people of the past celebrated the holidays. Contrary to popular belief, the modern American Christmas celebration is a relatively new phenomenon. As historian Nicole Harms points out:

Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
But not all of the earliest settlers detested Christmas. As I point out in a previous post, the settlers of Jamestown celebrated Christmas by getting absolutely hammered on "grog." Grog was colonial slang for any beverage containing rum (brings a new meaning to the expression of feeling "groggy" in the morning). Eventually, the word was changed to "nog" giving rise to its current name: eggnog. In addition, eggnog probably descended from the English drink "posset" or "sack posset," which was a hot drink made with sweetened milk and ale and was often mixed with eggs.

So however you choose to celebrate your holiday make it a safe one! God bless you and yours this Christmas season and throughout the new year!

Amazing Grace: Fact and Fiction

One of my favorite movies in recent years was the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which is the story of British politician William Wilberforce and his quest to destroy the slave trade. The film is also meant to explain the origins of the popular Christian hymn Amazing Grace, written by John Newton in 1779.

The film is both inspiring and aggravating. I say this because the movie does an excellent job of shedding light on an important historical figure (William Wilberforce), and aggravating because the film omits some important truths.

The film also does an solid job of recreating the Great Britain of the 18th century, including an excellent portrayal of London's contrasting social classes. The film brings to live the stark reality of both 18th century British poverty, its plight in the wake of emerging market capitalism, and its almost complete dependence upon the far wealthier gentry class. 18th century Britain was a world of two extremes: an incredibly wealthy gentry class invested with power, prestige, comfort and education, and the poor masses, ignorant, brutish, and in the infancy of emerging as a stronger class.

Despite these delightful movie recreations, Amazing Grace is deeply saturated with pop culture imagery that distorts the historical record. As Adam Hochschild points out in his article, English Abolition: The Movie, the abolitionist movement to end the slave trade was in no way a solo effort on the part of William Wilberforce. In fact, Wilberforce had a tremendous amount of support for his abolitionist agenda. As the articles states:

In recent decades, however, scholars have seen the history of British abolition as involving far more than Wilberforce's personal virtue. In 1787–1788, during the heady period between the American and French Revolutions, a huge grassroots movement against the slave trade burst into life in Britain, startling abolitionists and slave traders alike… more than 300,000 people refused to buy West Indian sugar. This was the largest consumer boycott the world had yet seen.
To be certain, Wilberforce is a man that is more than deserving of the accolades he has received over the years (and in this movie in particular), however, we should all be mindful that British abolitionism was a movement in which thousands of British citizens felt morally compelled to take action. In fact, the British abolitionist movement was deeply inspired by the Quaker movement. As Hochschild again points out:

The movement was led by an extremely imaginative, hard-working committee of activists, most of them Quakers, who pioneered tactics that are still used by human rights groups today...In addition, Anglican sentiment against the slave trade forced clergy members to adopt a pro-abolitionist stance in their sermons.
In addition, the best-selling memoirs of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who became a powerful voice for abolition in Britain (essentially Britain’s Frederick Douglass) made mention of the Christian imperative to end the slave trade:

“O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African as you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
Any you can see, Wilberforce was FAR from alone in his quest to end slavery in Britain.

Apart from the story on the abolition of the slave trade, Amazing Grace attempts to provide an inspiring tale on the origins of John Newton’s infamous hymn. In the movie, the Reverend John Newton is portrayed as a former heathen, who goes the way of the world by taking part in the transportation of thousands of African slaves to the New World. While in the course of transporting these slaves, Newton allegedly experiences a change of heart, in which he realizes the errors of his ways and devotes the rest of his life to the ministry and a remission for his sins.

While this comes off sounding nice, the truth is actually a bit different. As Adam Hochschild points out:

The reality was quite different. Most inconveniently for sin-and-repentance storytellers, John Newton came to evangelical Christianity before making four transatlantic voyages as a slave-ship officer, not afterward. He left the trade not for reasons of conscience but of health. And when he later was ordained a minister, he had all his savings invested with his former employer, who still had a fleet of slave ships at sea. There is no evidence that he mentioned slavery when Wilberforce first came to see him. Newton said not a word in public against the slave trade until 1788, several years after meeting Wilberforce and more than thirty years after he left the sea; by then a huge mass movement was underway and it was no longer easy for so prominent a former slave trader to avoid taking a stand. He then wrote a forceful pamphlet against the trade, testified twice at hearings, mentioned the subject once or twice in sermons, and otherwise did not openly raise it again for the remaining two decades of his preaching and writing life. He believed that the major evil of the day was blasphemy, which he once called "Our national sin."
So instead of being offered as an atonement for sin, Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace was actually written while the reverend continued to profit from the slave trade.

Though thoroughly entertaining and enlightening to the viewer, Amazing Grace is far from an accurate portrayal of real history. With that said, the film is still worth watching. The story of William Wilberforce is inspiring to say the least. And even if the back story behind John Newton's epic hymn isn't what we would like to envision, the hymn itself is still a timeless classic.

Here is the trailer for Amazing Grace

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Pearl's Great Price: Juxtaposing the Book of Abraham With the Book of Moses

And What They Teach Us About
the Nature of Revelation

One of the most popular "smoking gun" allegations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and of Joseph Smith in particular, has been the Book of Abraham. This book, along with the Book of Moses, comprise the majority of what Mormons call The Pearl of Great Price, one of four works canonized as scripture by the LDS faith. To understand the nature of these allegations we must first briefly revisit the history of the Book of Abraham and of the Pearl of Great Price in general.

A Brief History of the Joseph Smith Papyri
In 1833 a man named Michael Chandler purchased a collection of mummies, scrolls and other Egyptian artifacts from an excavator named Antonio Lebolo. Chandler attempted to earn money by touring the eastern United States with the artifacts, electing to sell a number of them along the way. In 1835, while traveling through Kirtland, Ohio, Chandler sold his last four mummies along with a collection of several scrolls to Joseph Smith for $2,400. While examining the artifacts, Smith declared that the scrolls "contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt" (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236). Smith immediately set out to translating the record and completed most of the work in the latter months of 1835. After a few revisions in 1842 the work was completed and published in the church magazine Times and Seasons later that same year. In 1880, along with other works, the Book of Abraham was canonized as scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price.

For members of the Mormon church in Smith's time, the Book of Abraham was seen as the palpable reality of Smith's divine revelatory powers. Though members already had access to the Book of Mormon they did not have access to the golden plates. The Book of Abraham, however, retained its original primary source material in the form of ancient Egyptian scrolls. Even today most members of the church accept the Book of Abraham at face value. Few have found any reason to question its authenticity.

And though Mormons of the 19th century had an excuse to not question the Book of Abraham (the Rosetta Stone had still not been deciphered making any translation of Egyptian impossible), today's Mormon is forced to confront some difficult hurdles. Unlike 19th century historians, modern day scholars know precisely what the book of Abraham scrolls and facsimiles have to say. How? Because we have the scrolls themselves.

When Joseph Smith died in 1844, the papyri became the property of his wife, Emma. In the wake of the succession crisis over who would replace Smith as prophet, a battle that Brigham Young eventually won, Emma refused to relinquish control of the documents to the church. At some point, Emma elected to donate the artifacts to a Chicago museum. For decades thereafter it was believed that the ultimate fate of the papyri ended with their destruction in the great Chicago fire of 1871. However, in 1966 the papyri were rediscovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The papyri were then given back to the church where they remain to this day.

So What do They Say?
The natural question for us today is, "Have modern Egyptologists deciphered the papyri?" The answer is "Yes." The obvious followup question is "What do modern Egyptologists have to say?" For Mormons the answer isn't very appealing. It turns out that the papyri are nothing more than common Egyptian funerary texts from the first century B.C. (a full translation of the papyri can be found here). In addition to the papyri being common funerary texts, the facsimile's from the Book of Abraham are of note. Contrary to Smith's interpretation, modern day Egyptologists have conclusively shown that the facsimiles are not a depiction of Abraham on an altar (facsimile 1), or of Kolob and other heavenly representations (facsimiles 2 and 3). Rather they are common embalming scenes and a hypocephalus from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Book of Breathings. When asked about Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles, Dr. W.M. Flinders of London University stated, "It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in [Smith's] explanations" (I recognize that these facsimiles deserve further attention but that is not the purpose of this post. You can find a plethora of good material on the topic with a simple Google search. I'll let the reader decide what are good sources for further research). In short, modern day Egyptologists have successfully shown that the Book of Abraham is not what Joseph Smith said it was. And make no mistake, this isn't a conspiracy nor an attempt to smear Joseph Smith. This is factual, provable, verifiable reality. There is no reason that I or any other Mormon should attempt to sugarcoat these undeniable facts.

Now before my Mormon friends bail on me for sounding too "anti-Mormon" hear me out for a second. Though it is true that the papyri and facsimiles are not what Joseph Smith said they were, and regardless of the fact that Joseph Smith didn't understand Egyptian in any way, shape or form, and in spite of the true interpretations of modern Egyptologists, I still maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired scripture. Here's how:

Don't Throw the Baby Jesus
Out With the Bathwater

As I write this post we are but 2 days away from my favorite holiday: Christmas! This is truly the best time of the year! Holiday cheer is in the air, Christmas lights decorate the town, and homes smell sweet with the scent of freshly cut Christmas trees. But most importantly I love Christmas because of Christ. And though I love this holiday more than all the rest, I fully recognize the fact that almost everything we do on Christmas has nothing do do with Christ. In fact, most of what we do to celebrate this season is pagan in origin. From Christmas trees to holiday wreaths, yule logs to mistletoe, Christmas is LOADED with pagan rituals and tradition that have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity (for more on this topic see my post here).

Does this truth about Christmas take away from the holiday season? Is it the duty of all good Christians to reject these traditions? Does the baby Jesus care that we celebrate his birth with pagan symbols in the dead of winter? I contend that he does not. What matters is that Christmas, even with all of its pagan elements, is the medium through which we celebrate the birth of Christ. We are imperfect people. Imperfect people make mistakes. This means that it is only natural that our imperfections will manifest themselves through our traditions, customs and yes, even our history.

And the same is true of the Book of Abraham. Is the book good history? Absolutely not. Is it good scripture? No doubt about it. And make no mistake, there is a clear difference between history and scripture. The former must be analytical, objective and rely on demonstrative evidence, while the latter is allegorical, inspiring and faith-promoting. For critics to expect perfection from the Book of Abraham is to expect what never was, is, or ever will be. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it:

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
And though my defense of the Book of Abraham will no doubt come off sounding like the rantings of a biased apologist to critics, I still maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired scripture, and to support this claim I now turn to the Book of Abraham's "twin sister" in the Pearl of Great Price: the Book of Moses.

Enoch: The Mystery Man
Unlike the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses was the result of direct revelation to Joseph Smith while he attempted his revision of the Holy Bible. The work was completed long before the book of Abraham (1830-31) and was incorporated into the Pearl of Great Price as a "sister book" to the BoA. In Smith's translation, 3,422 words were added to the Genesis story up until chapter 6:13, which is where the Book of Moses ends. That almost exactly doubles the conventional word count of Genesis up to that point in the King James Version. The Book of Moses deals with the creation story and a few short narratives on Moses himself, but the bulk of it centers on the story of Enoch. This is significant because the story of Enoch is almost non-existent in most Christian scripture (particularly the Bible) but is the central theme of the Book of Moses. And it also helps that the Enoch of the Book of Moses just happens to fit very nicely with the Enoch from the actual ancient texts. For example:

Moses 7:67 "And the Lord showed Enoch all things, even unto the end of the world."

2 Enoch 40:1 "Now therefore, my children, I know everything;...my eyes have seen from the beginning even to the end, and from the end to the recommencement."
Moses 7:4 [the Lord said to Enoch] "Look, and I will show unto thee the world for the space of many generations."

3 Enoch 45 "And I saw Adam and his generation, their deeds and their thoughts...And every deed of every generation, whether done or to be done in the time to come, to all generations, till the end of time."
Moses 6:51 "And he called upon our father Adam by his own voice, saying: I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh."

2 Enoch 23:4-5 "You [Enoch] sit down and write all the souls of men, whatever of them are not yet born,...For all the souls are prepared for eternity, before the composition of the earth."
Moses 7:44 "And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted.

2 Enoch 41:1 "And I [Enoch] sighed and burst into tears, and I said concerning their disreputable depravity, Oh how miserable."
Moses 7:59 [Enoch to God] "Thou hast made me, and given unto me a right to thy throne."

3 Enoch 10:1-3 [Enoch speaking] "The Holy One made for me a throne like the throne of glory...He placed it at the door of the seventh palace and sat me down upon it."
Needless to say, the similarities between Smith's Book of Moses and the actual records of Enoch are striking (and there are a lot more than what I listed above). These incredible similarities are a fact not lost to many experts. For example, noted Yale scholar Harold Bloom, who specializes in ancient and sacred literature, stated that the Book of Moses (and Abraham) is "strikingly akin to ancient suggestions" that essentially restate "the archaic or original Jewish religion, a Judaism that preceded even the Yahwist." Bloom continued by stating that he found "enormous validity" in the way these writings "recapture critical elements in the archaic Jewish religion...that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity and that survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched [Joseph] Smith directly." So while the Book of Abraham is often the recipient of criticism, it's "sister book" has been praised by scholars in a variety of fields.

Of course, critics have countered these claims by pointing out the fact that the first English translation of the Book of Enoch (the Bodleian/Ethiopic manuscripts) was published in 1821 by Richard Laurence, nine years before Smith's Book of Moses revelation. However, these early translations (and others like them) do not contain the similarities mentioned above. Those come from later (and better) translations of the ancient text made long after Smith's death. In addition, though these works were published in the early part of the 19th century, they did not become popular (even in Europe) until the 1850s. So while it is possible that Smith had access to a condensed early version of the ancient Enoch, it is certainly not probable.

The Nature of Revelation
So how can one book in the Pearl of Great price (the BoA) have so many apparent problems, while the other (the BoM) receives praise? The answer lies with the nature of revelation itself. Contrary to what many believe (even within my own faith) I maintain that revelation is not some magical, mysterious, supernatural connection to heaven. I do not believe in psychics and I reject the "hocus pocus" tactics of fortune tellers. Heck, I reject a lot of the supposed "revelation" that many in my own faith hail as fact (every faith has its mythology). Instead, revelation is (in my opinion) the quiet, consistent persuasions of the mind that often lead to those "AHA!" moments. Or as Joseph Smith himself put it:

A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon...And thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, 1976, Pp. 151).
Does that mean that anyone can receive revelation? Absolutely, and I believe that most of us receive it without our even knowing it. Revelation is a part of us. It invigorates the mind the same way air invigorates the lungs (and most of us breathe without even thinking of it). Revelation is the "light bulb" of the mind turning on to new and exciting ideas. It is what inspires the poet, motivates the scientist, drives the composer and enlightens the philosopher. This is how everything from the Bible, the Qur'an, Handel's "Messiah", and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel can be seen as the fruits of revelation (yet all of those still have their human imperfections). I believe that some of the world's greatest thinkers received revelation. As James E Faust taught:

The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.
It is arrogant presumption for us to think that all of our thoughts and ideas are exclusively our own. We thank God for the air we breathe and the food we eat. Why not for the inspirations of our mind? In short, revelation is the "eye" (or "I") to enlightenment, which we discover through: "I"nspiration, "I"ntellect, "I"ntuition and "I"nstinct.

None of this, of course, can explain how the Book of Abraham can appear as an apparent historical fraud and still be inspired scripture. Much of this rests with the eye (or "I") of the beholder. What we do know is that inspiration, intellect, intuition and instincts are tricky things. We all know that they are real but they can also be quite deceiving. It's hard for us imperfect humans to fully trust our intellect, intuition, etc., but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. Perhaps Joseph Smith's intellect and intuition were wrong about the papyri he purchased but that doesn't mean that he wasn't inspired. Could the papyri have served to "spark" the revelation? To the critic such an assertion is ridiculous, to the believer in revelation...true revelation...it is quite probable. As Nephi put it:

But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught (2 Nephi 33:2).
For me, the real beauty of the Pearl of Great Price rests with its lessons on revelation. Here are two books, with very different pathways to revelation, testifying of the truthfulness of the Gospel. It is true that scripture never has, nor ever will be, good history or science, but history and science have never been good scripture. History may answer the "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions, while science answers the "how" questions, but it is religion that answers the ever-important "why" questions. The truth of the matter is that we need them all to gain further light and knowledge...i.e. further revelation. As one important revelation put it: "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (and dare I say that the glory of God is also Inspiration, Intuition and Instinct as well).

Let us all be grateful for the revelation we receive, regardless of its source. Whether in the form of "non-Mormon" source material or questionable historical relics is irrelevant. The work of revelation, though often painstaking and difficult to sort out, is worth all of the work. Remember, every butterfly was first a caterpillar, every flower had to first push through dirt, and every pearl of great price was first irritating sand inside of an oyster. No revelation is meant to be easy, if this were not the case, what would it be revealing?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

David Cameron: "The U.K. is a Christian Nation"

In a speech delivered last week at Oxford for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a "revival" of Christian values to counter Britain's "moral collapse." "We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so" stated Cameron to an audience of more than 3000. Cameron also stated that he was a man "full of doubts" when it came to matters of faith, but that he was, nonetheless, a Christian:

I am a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith, but who is full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues

But what I do believe is this.

The King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history. And none of us should be frightened of recognising this.


We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so. Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.


Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities, these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them. Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths.
But not everyone agrees:

If values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths why the need to specifically label the country Christian? Why not say that we share a common morality and common values? Call it humanism, call it whatever you want - don't call it anything at all. Only this will unite us.

the only reason to evoke Christianity is a desperate attempt to address the declining morality. But he falsely makes the classic polar argument 'it must be either this or god', just as people assume it must 'science or god'. There are alternatives - it just takes just a little bit of forward thinking and trust in mankind's ability to be a moral being.
And from Richard Dawkins' website:

Firstly, the UK is not a Christian country except constitutionally - the Queen being the Head of State and the Head of the Church of England. We are not even a practising religious country.

Secondly, the morals of the bible are, to put it generously, 'confused'.

Thirdly, in any event, Christianity is not the basis of even the good parts of our 'moral code' given that concepts such as the 'golden rule' (like it or loathe it) pre-date monotheistic 'Abrahamic' religions by some distance.
To be honest, I tend to side with Cameron on this one. One doesn't need to be an expert in British history to recognize just how important Christianity has been on Great Britain (and Europe in general). Heck, in many respects Christianity pre-dates the establishment of England, and certainly of Great Britain and the U.K. From Catholicism to Henry VIII's break with the church, from Elizabeth I's creation of the Church of England to the Puritans, Protestants, Methodists, Baptists, etc., etc., etc., the United Kingdom has a rich Christian heritage AND founding.

So how does this relate to the United States?

Obviously the history of Britain and the U.S. are joined at the hip, however, I still maintain that the United States, though incredibly religious in its own right, has a different founding than Europe. As I stated in a previous post, America's PLANTING is certainly Christian in many respects (the Puritans being the prime example). However, America's FOUNDING was something different entirely.

Of course, much of this debate boils down to semantics: what constitutes a "Christian", what constitutes a "Nation"? I maintain that if we look at America's founding from a traditional orthodox Christian perspective we cannot conclude that America was founded as a Christian nation (though England certainly was).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My 2011 Person of the Year

At the conclusion of very year, since 1927, Time Magazine has selected a "Person of the Year", to headline a special December issue of their magazine. Everyone from Adolf Hitler to Franklin D. Roosevelt; the computer to the endangered Earth have been given this distinction. For 2011, Time has selected "The Protester" as the person of the year. And though I agree that "The Protester" is a fair selection, I have a problem with Time selecting a very generic "person" to headline their "Person of the Year." This isn't the first time that Time has chosen a generic figure. In 2006, Time selected "You" for person of the year. In 2002, the honor went to "The Whistle blowers", and in 1993 the award went to "The Peacemakers."

Now, I realize that Time is trying to do two things with these types of selections: first and foremost, sell magazines and second, I do believe they are trying to be objective. However, I personally believe that a "Person of the Year" needs to be just that: a PERSON! Picking a large, generic group of people just seems like a cop out.

With that said, here are my 10 selections (from 10-1) for the 2011 Person of the Year:

10.) Muammar Gaddafi
The former Lybian dictator, who was killed on October 11 of this year, kicks off my list. I chose Gaddafi not because of anything great he did but rather for all of his horrible acts towards the people he claimed to "love" so much (those same people are the ones who killed him). Gaddafi was the epitome of a narcissistic dictator who used his position of power to exclusively benefit himself. The irony is that his style of leadership is ultimately what led to his pathetic demise. He is deserving to be on this list because he is essentially the embodiment of a changing Middle East. His long reign of terror is finally over. Adios, puto!

9.) The Scientists as CERN
Ok, I know I started this post off by complaining that Time sometimes chooses a group of people for their person of the year, and here I am doing the same thing (I actually do it twice on this list. Another "group" is coming). I chose the scientists at the CERN laboratory for one big reason: they may have proven Einstein wrong. Earlier this year, CERN released the findings from their neutrino studies conducted at the Swiss/French Hadron Collider. In a nutshell, what they discovered is that neutrinos apparently can travel faster than the speed of light. This is a monumental discovery because, if substantiated, it would prove a portion of Einstein's Theory of Relativity to be wrong, and would force us to reevaluate some of the ways we look at physics.

8.) Princess Kate Middleton
Ok, I know that most Americans don't understand the importance of the British Royal Family but that doesn't mean that they are irrelevant to the rest of the world (and especially to Britain). Earlier this year, Kate Middleton married Prince William, the future King of England, making Kate the future queen. Kate has become an icon for the British people. As the spouse of the son of the Late Princess Diana, the pressure for Kate to meet expectations is extreme. Needless to say, she has met those expectations. Kate Middleton, a "commoner" by birth, actually has a great deal in common with her mother-in-law. She has been a vocal advocate against poverty and children with cancer. Kate was also a vocal proponent in favor of the new British law (passed this year) which no longer gives favor to males as heirs to the crown. This means that if Kate has a daughter first, she will be the first future Queen of England to have preference over a brother.

7.) Mitt Romney
As we all know, Romney is running for president in 2012. But unlike the other candidates, Romney has managed to stay consistent and relevant in what has been a whirlwind mess of a GOP field. It seems like every other month a new Republican candidate gains a ton of momentum and then fizzles out. Romney, however, has been the epitome of steady consistency, which according to many political experts, makes him the biggest threat to an Obama reelection.

6.) Ai Weiwei
Most Americans are probably not very familiar with Weiwei (I wasn't until earlier this year) but he has done some wonderful things in China. Weiwei is by trade an artist, but in recent years has taken to being a very vocal supporter of Chinese reform. A former communist himself, Weiwei is now a staunch supporter for democratic reform in China. His work has landed him in prison on a number of occasions, where he has been the recipient of several police beatings. Unlike other Chinese advocates who usually fizzle out, Weiwei is extremely popular throughout the country.

5.) Barack Obama
Anytime you are the President of the United States you are probably a perennial person of the year. Obama has fallen in popularity this year but is still a powerful contender for 2012. Among his other accomplishments this year, Obama concluded the war in Iraq, cut taxes (yes, he really did cut taxes), and ordered the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden. Obviously, 2012 is going to be the most important year for Obama's presidency as he seeks a second term, but his role as President of the United States in 2011 secures him a spot on this list.

4.) Gabrielle Giffords
In January of this year, Congresswoman Giffords was nearly killed in a horrific shooting that claimed the lives of six people. Giffords' prognosis was grim for most of 2011 as she struggled for life while on a ventilator and in a coma. Doctors were unsure if she would survive let alone return to her seat in the House of Representatives. And though she initially had several complications including an inability to walk, talk and breathe on her own, Congresswoman Giffords eventually made a near complete recovery. Less than eight months after being shot several times (including in the head) she was back in the House attending to the affairs of her elected position. Regardless of one's political leanings, Congresswoman Giffords is one heck of an example and inspiration!

3.) Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan, who is the Prime Minister of Turkey, is the personification of the many changes that are taking place all over the Middle East. A devout Muslim, career politician, popular protester (he served time in prison for opposing Turkey's dictatorship), and a former professional athlete, Erdogan's politics appeal to a wide range of Turks who have been hungry for change. Erdogan has helped Turkey emerge as a serious economic juggernaut. Next to China, Turkey is currently the second fastest growing economy in the world. Erdogan has also been a champion of Islamic pacifism by promoting secular democracy and by opposing Syria. And though he has opposed the United States on its policies regarding Israel and Iran, Erdogan is considered an important American ally in the Middle East.

2.) Seal Team 6
Seal Team 6 is my second "group" nominee for person of the year. Needless to say, Seal Team 6 succeeded in killing a man who had been on the run for almost 10 years. The killing of Osama Bin Laden was a righteous achievement, though not one in which we as Americans should boast. The taking of any life is never an occasion for celebration. With that said, the men of Seal Team 6 did a remarkable job in completing a very complex and important mission and they deserve to be praised.

And the winner of the Brad Hart Person of 2011 is...



1.) Steve Jobs
On October 5 of this year, Steve Jobs passed away after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. Jobs was a rare and special talent to say the least. As the co-founder of Apple, Jobs became a pioneer in the computer and technology world. He revolutionized the music industry, improved the entertainment business and made personal computers a reality (heck, a near necessity) for humanity. Jobs was the epitome of a dreamer, an innovator, an inventor and a visionary. Jobs' genius was that he wasn't a genius. He was a normal person who knew what he wanted out of life and did it. He expected greatness from himself and all others around him, but not so much that he didn't know how to cut loose. It is a well known fact that Jobs was a drug user in his early years while creating apple (especially LSD). Even though at the end his body fell apart, Jobs' mind was always sharp. He was the primary advocate for the creation of the iPad and the iPhone, innovations that have catapulted Apple to an even greater level.

And even in death Jobs saw what we couldn't. His final words were, "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow!" One can only imagine what Jobs was seeing but I would imagine that it would have to be pretty damn impressive to get that kind of a reaction from Jobs. There is no doubt that the world lost an icon in 2011. Thank you, Steve Jobs for all you gave us! And don't rest in peace (since we know that's the last thing you want to do). Instead, go dazzle the heavens with your next innovation!

Steve Jobs' EXCELLENT address at Stanford University:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We Mormons: An Essay on Church Culture

We Mormons are a strange bunch sometimes. Most see us as being an ultra-cheerful bunch (which is a good thing), who despite being a bit naive to the realities of the world (which is probably true...that darn "Mormon bubble"), are always willing to give a helping hand wherever possible. And like most churches, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also developed their own sense of "Mormon-ness", or in other words, our own micro-culture. Heck, we even have our own language. We "know beyond a shadow of a doubt" and "with every fiber of our being" that certain things are "true", we always ensure that our food is blessed to "nourish and strengthen our bodies", we "revere the brethren", "obey all traffic laws" after General Conference (except for the idiot drivers in Utah County), we "search, ponder and pray", color our favorite scriptures in our "triple combinations", and sometimes believe that popcorn really does pop on an apricot tree.

Oh, and we "always" vote Republican. =)

Of course, these stereotypes are nothing more than an illustration of the fact that Mormonism has, like virtually every other group of people, developed its own culture. And though this culture is far from a fair representation of church theology, the fact of the matter is that Mormon culture does sometimes get messed up with Mormon religion, and occasionally it can be difficult to separate the two.

For example:

1.) We Mormons sometimes revere a BYU education to any other. And though the "Lord's University" is a great institution (I can't rip on it too hard, my wife and most of her family graduated from BYU) there is definitely a cultural preference that is granted to all things BYU. For some, a BYU degree increases one's intellect (and spirituality) to an "Einstonian" level. In addition, BYU football is ALWAYS cheated out of a national championship by evil "gentile" voters, and Steve Young is the greatest athlete in the universe. Oh, and there is no greater musician than a BYU musician. =)

Of course, Mormons should be proud of BYU. It is a wonderful school with much to be proud of. It was inevitable that BYU would eventually become a big part of Mormon culture.

2.) We Mormons obsess over politics. In fact, politics are seen as almost a religious duty for every Latter-day Saint. To be uninterested, or worse, to be a DEMOCRAT, is akin to being sent to "Outer Darkness" for eternity. Republican politicians, even if not Mormon, are almost always considered to be soldiers of goodness, while Democrats are wolves in sheep's clothing. Glenn Beck (who will one day be a General Authority) is a treasure of righteousness that is to be praised in many a testimony meeting.

I find politics to be arguably the most interesting influence on Mormon culture. As most already know, Utah (and American Mormons in general) are overwhelmingly Republican. And though there is surely a large number of Mormon Republicans who are truly conservative to the core, the majority of Mormon "conservatism" is cultural in nature. Most Mormons are probably unaware of the fact that early Latter-day Saints were overwhelmingly Democrat. In fact, when Utah was applying for statehood church leaders resorted to assigning members to join the Republican Party in an effort to show that Mormons embraced all political ideas (the U.S. Government was deeply concerned that Mormons were overwhelmingly Democrats). Mormons in the 20s and 30s overwhelmingly supported FDR, the New Deal, and other "evil" progressive programs.

3.) We Mormons sometimes get upset when we aren't considered mainstream or when we don't get the media attention we think we deserve, but then are furious when South Park makes a "Book of Mormon" musical. I'm not saying I like negative attention but you have to be able to take the good with the bad if you are wanting to become more public.

4.) We Mormons start and end every activity known to man with a prayer, believe violence is only warranted in a church basketball setting, think green Jell-O with shredded carrots is a delicacy, believe the Holy Spirit goes to bed at midnight and think that every time an R-rated movie hits theaters an angel dies. =)

5.) We Mormons celebrate the 24th of July (the day early Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley) as a second Independence Day of sorts. We proudly cover floats in the red, white and blue and waive "Old Glory" from our rooftops. This is ironic since early Mormons were fleeing from the United States. Most early saints had a deep hatred for the U.S. government (and rightfully so). Their arrival to Salt Lake had nothing to do with American patriotism. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. And though I have no problem with modern day Mormons demonstrating our incredible patriotism (and make no mistake, Mormons today are very patriotic) I do think we sometimes forget that early Mormons were actually quite anti-American...and for good reasons.

6.) We Mormons love to collect and store tons of food. The church has done a remarkable job of making canned goods available to its members. Some Mormons have literally years of food storage saved up. We even like to cook creative meals with our massive surplus and then show them off. This is actually a wonderful cultural practice that most people in the world would greatly benefit from if they followed our lead.

7.) We Mormon men are given the "big" leadership roles in the church but the reality of Mormonism is that women run the show. There is no doubt that local Mormon wards and stakes would literally crumble without the women. Almost all of the actual work that is done in the church is done by those who lack a Y chromosome.

8.) We Mormons like to think that we are deep religious scholars. We debate over "deep" religious stuff like, "Did Adam have a belly button?", "What is an intelligence?", "Where is Kolob?", "Is Emma Smith going to heaven?", and "Were we all friends in the pre-existence?" We Mormons hold Gospel Doctrine classes every Sunday, send our kids to four years of Seminary during their high school years, include Institute of Religion classes as part of one's college curriculum, and send our missionaries to intense training centers. Yet despite all of this, most Mormons know very little about other religions. Heck, most don't know much about Mormon theology and/or history. Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking these FANTASTIC church programs (I have participated in all of them) but the fact remains that most Mormons are fairly ignorant when it comes to theology in general.

9.) We Mormons like to say, "The church is true no matter where you go." And though I agree that church theology can be found anywhere, the fact is that not all Mormon wards are created equal. Depending on location, demographics, wealth, age, etc., Mormon wards are actually very different from one another.

10.) We Mormons HATE swearing. And though I agree that swearing can be a disgusting practice, most Mormons probably don't realize that early Latter-day Saints swore like sailors...even occasionally in a talk. Hell, some habits are just too damn hard to break!

11.) We Mormons are extremely quiet during church services. Aside from the occasional obligatory laugh at a lame joke, the Mormon congregation sits quietly during a service (with the exception of kids). There is no applauding a musical number and it is rare that people get up during the service (again, usually because of kids). This is ironic because early Latter-day Saints were quite expressive during the church services. Members in the congregation would regularly chime in with an "Amen" or a "God be praised" comment. Members would even interrupt the speaker with a long comment and then the speaker would respond! In the modern Mormon church, the passing of the sacrament is a quiet, reverent time of reflection. In the early church, the sacrament was handed out while speakers spoke and music was sang. And instead of separate cups for the Sacrament water, early Mormons simply shared a cup (and it wasn't always filled water) that they passed around. Oh, and there was even some early Mormons who did the whole "speaking in strange tongues" thing while at church.

12.) We Mormons treat the Sabbath day (Sunday) with great respect. Most refrain from work, shopping, television, and eating out. Spending money on Sunday is sometimes seen as a Sabbath-breaker. And though I greatly enjoy such practices on my Sunday (for me they make Sunday feel special), early Mormons were notorious for spending money on Sunday. In fact, early leaders didn't care much about it. Of course, they preached against gambling and buying alcohol on Sunday, but spending money was no big deal. In addition, work was common on Sunday, in fact, it was a necessity. Crops had to be tended to, cows milked, chickens fed, land plowed, etc.

13.) We Mormons stress the importance of living a healthy life. Our "Word of Wisdom" teaches that we should abstain from harmful things like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and eating too much meat. And though this is great advise, we Mormons sometimes forget that early Latter-day Saints regularly drank coffee, alcohol and tobacco...even in church.

14.) We Mormons preach frugality and condemn obsessive materialism, yet Utah is a leader in the nation in foreclosures and bankruptcies. That is a sad aspect to Mormon culture.

15.) We Mormons love to meet...for EVERYTHING! It seems like we have a meeting in order to plan more meetings.

16.) We Mormons are huge into scouting. For some, earning the rank of Eagle Scout is as important as baptism. Some Mormon girls require an Eagle Scout of their future hubby's. And though I have no problem with scouting, there is no doubt that the church's devotion to the program is purely cultural.

17.) We Mormons have refreshments for EVERYTHING. I remember going to a viewing for a dead person and seeing a table full of bean dip, casseroles and, of course...green Jell-O with carrots...at a VIEWING!!!

In conclusion, though these cultural facts are amusing, I love my faith. It has made me a better person than I would have been without it. Yes, there are a number of crazy cultural components to Mormonism that are fun point out, but none of them fly in the face of the Mormon religion. Perhaps some of my fellow Mormons will think it inappropriate for me to even point out these cultural truths. They may feel that it is "mocking" the faith. This is not my intention. Instead, I think it's more than proper to laugh at the silly things we do. Yes, life is serious but not so serious that you can't laugh at yourself. Being a member of the Mormon Church (or any church for that matter) means taking the good with the bad; accepting the religion and the culture. And even if I sometimes complain about Mormon culture I am, in the end, grateful for it. After all, where else would I get my laughs?

***Special hat tip: S. Faux's incredible blog

A Few Random Kid Pics

It has been a while since I posted any pictures so here is some random stuff that was hanging around on my computer's hard drive:

Pretty awesome kids!!!

If I Were President...

My "Twelve Step" Program
to Modernize America

Partisan politics have been a staple in the American experiment ever since this nation's conception. Contrary to popular belief, our Founding Fathers fought every bit as much as we do over the issues of their day. However, the massive commercialization of politics in our modern world is something new. The emergence of 24/7 political analysis on television, coupled with the explosion of political talk radio and the ever-present stream of "best-selling" books, has caused the supposed rift between left and right to widen and deepen over the past two decades. Like the devil himself, pundits on both sides are continually clashing to claim the political souls of man. Unfortunately, this bizarre and prideful war has sacrificed sincere political debate and rational inquiry upon the altars of fame, money and control. Politics in America has become more about who can yell the loudest rather than who can inspire meaningful dialogue. The voices yelling at us through our televisions and car radios care more about provoking an emotional response from their target audience than they do about creating sincere thought-provoking commentary. As a result, you end up with a society that becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories, evil government plots and doomsday hype.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that politics are important. It is both right and good that "We the People" be involved in our nation's political discourse. With that said, it is not acceptable to allow one's pride and/or personal leanings to distort reality, and unfortunately this is what is happening in American politics today. Politicians on both sides are virtually handicapped by know-it-all pundits and a dim-witted populace, who can't see past their own entrenched partisan bickering to effectively distinguish the forest from the trees. In addition, this collection of simple-minded hacks usually does nothing more than complain about our nation's state of affairs without presenting any plans or solutions. I guess they enjoy the misery that comes with bitching about life without the responsibility that comes with trying to fix things.

It is for these reasons that I believe people who engage in political discourse have a responsibility to outline their solutions to the various problems they see before them. Anyone can whine and complain about how horrible things are but very few can articulate a clear plan to correct those things. In essence, one has to pretend that he/she is the president (a scary proposition to say the least). After all, it's one thing to scream from the sidelines and quite another to be in the game.

As one who enjoys INTELLIGENT political discourse I offer up my "Twelve Step" program for America. One of the problems I have with our fair nation is that it seems to be falling behind and is afraid of the modern world. We are caught up in a bizarre and incorrect desire to "return" to the "glory days" of long ago. This is foolish for two reasons: first, looking back prevents one from moving forward. Second, the "glory days" are an illusion. As Thomas Jefferson stated: "I prefer the dreams of the future to the history of the past." To live in the past is to die in the past. Sure, it is important that we all study our history (and as a historian I do that quite often) but the future will ALWAYS be superior to the past. Learn from the past, but don't live in it.

So, without further delay, here are my "Twelve Steps" to modernizing America (if I were president):

1.) Quadruple Funding for NASA
This would be the single most important goal of my "administration". I would give NASA a virtual blank check, but at the same time be a thorn in their side, demanding a mission to Mars, exploration beyond our Solar System, etc. Now, I know that we live in tough economic times but that does not mean we should cut funding for what is arguably the most important agency in the United States. That's right, I am calling NASA one of the most important government agencies in our land. I know that those opposed to further funding for NASA have said things like, "NASA has become outdated", "We've already explored everything worth exploring in our Solar System", and "there are more pressing issues than sending rockets into space", hence the reasons why the space shuttle program was ended (click here for my opinion on the end of the shuttle program) but all of these excuses are just that: excuses. The fact of the matter is that we CANNOT affort to cut spending for NASA. The technology created by the Apollo program alone has resulted in incredible growth and prosperity for humanity today. Without NASA, you can say goodbye to the modern car, iPods, satellite television, GPS navigation, virtual reality, artificial limbs/joints, dialysis, MRI and CAT scans, breast cancer screening, improved water filtration, temper foam, improved eye glasses and eye surgery, cordless power tools, remote controls, athletic shoes, personal alarm systems, weather forecasts and warning systems, cellular phone service, protection for endangered species, many forms of plastic and metal alloys, the Internet, etc., etc., etc.

Yes, space travel is dangerous and expensive but it is worth every single penny. There is no doubt that the continued exploration of the heavens will require great sacrifice of both wealth and manpower. It will require patience, sacrifice, bravery and fortitude. Yes, more astronauts will be lost in the process and more children will see first-hand the unfortunate consequences of human exploration, but is there a greater lesson to be learned? Would we not prefer to have our children emulating people like Neil Armstrong, Christa McAuliffe and John Glenn instead of Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore? Shouldn't our goals be to land a man/woman on Mars instead of becoming the winner of American Idol or Next Top Model?

You cannot put a price on what NASA has given us.

2.) Invest in Infrastructure and Civic Renewal
Ok, here is another area in which I would spend BIG money. Our nation's infrastructure SUCKS and we need to improve it. In addition, we need to invest in civic renewal. I believe we could kill two birds with one stone here by investing in local community projects that would do both. We don't just need better roads and bridges, but better transit systems, playgrounds, parks, community centers, health clinics, libraries, etc. And you can't tell me that the money isn't there because over the past decade we have seen a huge number of state of the art sports arenas being built all over America. Now, I am not against these stadiums being built (they are good for local businesses, generate a ton of money and are a good diversion) but they are not as critical a need as those I listed above. It is time that we draw people out of the bleacher seats and living rooms and into the common spaces of democratic citizenship. If we are to have better public discourse that would require us to gather together. It is time we invest in community again. As Martin Luther King stated: "We hate each other because we fear each other, We fear each other because we won't sit down and talk together."

Included in this project would be a massive federal program to construct a high speed rail system across our nation. For whatever reason, the United States has fallen behind Europe and Asia in this regard. The construction of a modern railway would prove beneficial for a number of reasons: first, it would be a huge, long-term job creator. Second, it would create competition with airlines, which have long neglected the American traveller, and third, it would modernize our national infrastructure. Sure, it would be very expensive but I believe worth the cost. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Act of the 1950s was met with tremendous opposition but was eventually hailed as one of the finest presidential investments of all-time. Building a modern high speed rail system would be even greater.

***Ok, so the first 2 ideas are big spenders. The next 2 are where I would cut spending.***

3.) Reduce Military Spending
Everybody knows that the United States needs to cut spending, however, nobody seems to want to face the basic fact that our biggest spending problem is the military. Now, I know that the military is important and everyone wants to (rightfully) support our troops, but the fact of the matter is that military spending over the past 30 years has been atrocious. President Eisenhower's quasi-prophetic warning of the military-industrial complex is a reality today that we need to reduce. Our nation consistently spends over half a trillion dollars every year on defense, which is more than the next 38 nations combined (35 of which are our long-time allies) The reason that no politician wants to cut military spending is simple: it would be impossible to get elected. Pundits would be able to portray such a politician as being "anti-American" and against our men and women in uniform. But Americans are eventually going to have to accept reality here. Let me be clear that any military cut would not go towards active service members or veterans (veteran funding is actually a separate category from defense spending anyway). Instead I would eliminate contractors (who are essentially nothing more than hired vigilantes and/or mercenaries). I believe we can cut military spending dramatically without effecting national security.

4.) Phase out the U.S. Postal Service, Eliminate Homeland Security
One of the things that bugs me most about those wacky tea-party folks is their bizarre deification of the Constitution. They treat the Constitution as a religious idol that is more holy than scripture. And though I revere the Constitution for what it has provided, I side with Thomas Jefferson in his appraisal that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that must change in order to survive. The 18th century was a great time for America but let's face reality, those days are long gone. The earth belongs to the living, not the dead. As a result, I think we can safely assume that some things in the Constitution need to be changed or done away with. Case in point: the U.S. Postal Service and Homeland Security

The U.S. Postal Service has been a great institution for over 200 years but it has served its purpose. Gone are the days when mail delivery needs the protection and sanction of government. The emergence of private mail couriers and electronic mailing have made the U.S. Postal Service a dinosaur that is sucking resources. Since the 1950s the U.S. Postal Service has limped behind private companies in a futile attempt to stay relevant. I am not one of those "the private sector does everything better than the government" types, but in this case I think it is pretty clear that the Postal Service is an outdated relic that is simply costing taxpayers too much.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most ridiculous government bureaucracies in American history, sucks over $100 billion every year just for its basic operations. It is the most pathetic, wasteful, over-the-top government agency in American history. Prior to 9/11, the United States already had 22 major federal law enforcement/intelligence agencies under its umbrella. The creation of a new agency, which receives more funding than all the others, is one of the most irresponsible acts of the Bush Presidency. I would abolish it completely.

5.) Create Extremely Strict DUI Laws.
I'm not against people who drink. I'm not against people who party at bars. I'm not against people who love getting hammered in their free time. To each their own. HOWEVER, I am EXTREMELY against those who choose to drink and drive. Every year in this country roughly 20,000 people are killed in DUI related accidents (roughly half of all automotive fatalities). And let us not forget the estimated $75 billion every year in legal/medical costs. That means that every three years more Americans are killed by drunk drivers than soldiers killed in the entire Vietnam War. And though law enforcement has done an excellent job of reducing DUI fatalities over the years I still think they need more help. As president, I would adopt a hybrid of the Swedish/Russian strategy to DUI laws. In Sweden, an offender is imprisoned for A MINIMUM of a year, while in Russia you lose the privilege of driving FOREVER. Some may think this is strict but consider the fact that in this nation a felony conviction (or domestic violence conviction) results in you never being able to own a gun again. How is a moving vehicle any less of a weapon?

6.) Establish a National Teacher's Corp and Modernize the American Classroom
The problems facing America's educational system are multi-faceted. Everyone wants to blame "the teachers", "the administrators", "the union", "the parents", etc. as the exclusive scapegoats for all that is wrong with education in this country. Reality, however, is that education requires ALL participants to take responsibility for their respective roles. Yes, there are bad teachers, bad parents and bad even students, but that doesn't mean we can't fix the problem.

Of course, the basic starting point to improve education is the classroom, and as president that is where I would focus. It is time that we modernize the American classroom. It's time to do away with traditional teacher-in-front-of-chalkboard/students-sitting-quietly-in-desks education. We need to modernize our approach. In addition, I would support new teachers (and provide them funding for graduate education...that's right, our teachers need graduate level education) by creating a federal Teacher's Corp. These teachers would then "repay" their schooling by working in areas where needed.

7.) Create a National I.D. Card
Now I know that the conspiracy theorists and the Bible-thumpers would freak at this idea, but spare me the "Big Brother is watching" and/or "Mark of the Beast" rhetoric. We live in a modern world, and that means we need modern day ideas and technologies to keep us safe. A national I.D. card is good for two reasons:

1.) It would help keep track of immigrant workers and aid in controlling illegal immigration. The only surefire way to control immigration is to control workers. Immigrants come here for one reason: jobs. This national I.D. card would be required for ANY form of employment (and severe punishments would be created for those who hire workers without an immigrant card). The idea of building a wall on the border is stupid. There are ways around, over, under and through all walls. A national I.D. card (and immigrants would, of course, have a different card than actual citizens) would help to monitor, control and regulate immigration. It's the best alternative to an almost impossible to control situation.

2.) Identity theft is the fastest growing form of crime in America today. A national I.D. card could help to alleviate and protect our citizenry. It would also do away with the need for social security cards/numbers. A national I.D. card would allow for easy, efficient and effective crime protection, passport/visa application, job protection, etc.
8.) Bring Back Jobs From Overseas
It’s time to bring back the jobs that corporations have been sending overseas. America is in dire need of a manufacturing sector. One way to do this is to make it more expensive to outsource jobs. That means outsourcing is going to have to be a profit killer. Essentially, I would enact a 50-75% tax rate on all profits made due to outsourcing. That would force companies to hire American workers so as to avoid that kind of tax. Is it harsh? Absolutely. But it will force American companies to hire American workers. In addition, I would place stiffer regulations on imported goods. This would help give American companies an advantage over their foreign competitors. It's time that we reinvigorate the "buy American" slogan.

9.) Eliminate the Electoral College System
Here is another example of outdated constitutional law still being used in the modern world. The electoral college was a wonderful, cutting-edge idea in the 18th (and even 19th) century but it is stupid today. Pure and simple.

10.) Create Term Limits for Congress.
Our Founding Fathers were great men, but they were not infallible men. I think it is safe to say that they missed the boat when they established a congress without term limits. I understand why they did what they did (it made perfect sense back then) but it needs to be changed. Having life-long congressmen today is an affront to effective democratic government. I propose two, four-year terms for the Senate and four, two-year terms for the House. That way, no person in congress would exceed 8 years.

11.) Abolish the Death Penalty.
I know there are a lot of people who agree with the death penalty, and I don't necessarily blame them, but I am 100% against the death penalty. It is archaic, barbaric, immoral and just plain wrong (IMHO).

12.) Prohibit Lobbyists and Religious Institutions from Government
The idea that corporations, churches, institutions or other groups with particular interests should be allowed to lobby members of Congress is insane. No elected official should ever be given a single cent from any lobbying interest. This is common sense.

There you have it. Let the debating begin!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Great-Great-Great Grandfather: Thomas Hart

I have a HUGE family. In fact, I can recall family gatherings during my childhood where standing room only was the expected norm, and the line for Thanksgiving turkey seemed like something you would expect to find at Disneyland. And what is even more impressive is the fact that these family gatherings (in Grand Junction) only represent a small fraction of the Hart family as a whole. Yes, my big, cancerous family spreads out all over the United States (and other countries for that matter); one large, loud collection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. who all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to one man: Thomas Hart.

I am guessing that some of my family members are a little surprised to hear me say that Thomas is the man who deserves our appreciation and respect. For most in my family the man who is credited with being the "patriarch" is my great-great Grandfather, James Henry Hart. And though there is no doubt that James was a remarkable man worthy of my family's deepest love and admiration, I feel that the story of his father often goes overlooked.

My first encounter with my great-great-great Grandfather came in the form of long, boring lectures on genealogy from my dad, who would harangue my brothers and I on the importance of family history. Of course, like most young boys, my brothers and I would pretend to listen to what my dad had to say, though most of our focus was on "more important" things like basketball, video games, etc. But surprisingly, even though I was young and somewhat uninterested, my dad's words managed to sink in. Tales of my family's proud history, particularly of James Hart and his important role during the critical formative years of the early Mormon church, resonated inside of me. Perhaps it was the passion for history that my dad and I have always shared, or perhaps it was something more. Maybe Malachi's words about "the heart of the fathers [being turned] to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" was true. Perhaps nothing does run thicker than blood.

Either way, as I became older my curiosity with James Hart grew. I recall reading Edward Hart's excellent 1978 biography on James Hart and feeling even more impressed with my roots. But the more I learned about James the more I wanted to know about his father, Thomas. For some reason, Thomas stood out to me. Maybe it was the simple fact that ever since I was a child, I wanted to name one of my children (coincidentally) Thomas (I never fulfilled that goal, though I would certainly consider it now if I were ever to have a 3rd son). Or maybe it's the fact that I too married a woman (coincidentally) named Elizabeth. Whatever the case, my strange attachment to a man I know very little about has remained with me all these years. And now as an adult, after all the years that I have studied history (my family's history in particular), I can confidently say that I have a very proud and noble heritage. Sure, this declaration may sound somewhat conceded (though I certainly don't mean it as such) but I stand by it. Though I never met my great-great-great Grandfather, and regardless of the fact that very little about him survives, I am happy to proclaim loud and proud the name of Thomas Hart!

Unfortunately not much is known about Thomas' life other than a few surviving letters and what his son James briefly wrote in his journals. Even Edward Hart's excellent bio of James Hart treads lightly on the life of Thomas and his wife Elizabeth. From what does survive, however, we can conclusively say that Thomas was a devout Christian man who took his family, civic and church responsibilities extremely serious. In his advanced age, James Hart paid homage to his father by calling him "an upright, honorable, God-fearing man" who loved his wife and family. And though nothing in the way of primary source material survives, I maintain that we can draw some reasonable conclusion about the man from the history of the time in which he lived.

Thomas was born circa 1783 in Godmanchester, England. He was the son of John "Shakespeare" Hart and Alice Rickets. Family legend has it that this John "Shakespeare" Hart was a descendant of none other than William Shakespeare, but this family story is almost certainly a myth. William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Hamnet (who died at 11), Susana (who had a daughter named Elizabeth, who had no known children) and Judith (who had three children, all of whom died before she did). As a result, the supposed Hart-Shakespeare connection is, to borrow from Shakespeare himself, "Much Ado About Nothing." The fact that John was born in Stratford-upon-Avon is interesting, since that is the birth and death site of Shakespeare himself. However, the "Shakespeare" middle name was probably nothing more than a nickname given to honor the town's favorite hero.

With that said, there is one scenario in which Thomas may be related to Shakespeare in a roundabout way. One of William Shakespeare's eight siblings was a woman named Joan, who married a hatter named William Hart. There is the possibility that William Hart was the great-great-uncle of Thomas Hart. If so, that would make William Shakespeare my great-great-great-great-great uncle.

But getting back to Thomas...

Records show that Thomas Hart most likely married a Lady Barnard who probably died shortly thereafter (The "Lady Bernard" connection is also probably another source for the Shakespeare myth, since Shakespeare had a granddaughter named Elizabeth, Lady Barnard). At some point, Thomas made the short move to Huntingdonshire and on March 27, 1807 was married for a second time to Elizabeth Marriott. The couple would go on to have 10 children, the 8th of which was my G-G Grandfather, James. We can say, based on some circumstantial evidence, that Thomas was probably employed as a thatchmaster (and possibly a tenant farmer of sorts). This is supported by the fact that Thomas worked as his church's sexton (and was probably a Verger), which meant that he was responsible for maintaining the church's cemetery, grounds, etc.

Thomas served faithfully for over fifty years as church clerk and sexton for the Church of St. Margaret of Hemingford Abbots, the family's local Anglican parish. It is interesting to note the fact that Thomas' family had apparently maintained a very close attachment to the Church of England for several generations. This is noteworthy because Huntingdonshire was also the birthplace of the infamous Oliver Cromwell, who as we know, overthrew the English crown during the English Civil War. Cromwell's hatred for the Church of England is no mystery to historians. His Puritan leanings were well known to all, and his hometown of Huntingdonshire was certainly aware of, and sympathetic to the views of its favorite son. In addition, Huntingdonshire was home to a massive 19th century surge of Baptist a Quakers, the same time that Thomas was serving in the Anglican church. As a result, the Hart Family's loyal attachment to the Church of England essentially flew in the face of the sweeping tides of change that were taking over the English countryside. Staying loyal to the faith of his fathers was surely a chore for Thomas.

Life in Huntingdonshire must have been an interesting experience for Thomas. Though never a massive center of commerce and industry, the small town did experience a wide range of changes in the 19th century. Expanding industry and increasing agricultural demand were the main changes that would have certainly impacted Thomas' life choices. And if Thomas was employed as a tenant farmer/thatchmaster (which is almost certainly the case), the emerging forces of market capitalism were probably overwhelming. Instead of following in the traditional land subsistence economy that had been standard operating procedure for decades, Thomas was probably forced to acquiesce to new market demands and pressures. No matter what the case, it is clear that Thomas was able to (at least while his kids were young) provide a happy, stable life. As his son James would later write, Thomas and Elizabeth were "held in high esteem."

But as is the case with life, somewhere along the line things changed for Thomas. Probably the result of market forces, the stability of life in Huntingdonshire was becoming more difficult to sustain, and as a result, Thomas eventually longed to follow his son's lead and immigrate to the United States. In an 1854 letter to James' wife, Emily, Thomas wrote:

I long for the time when we shall have your presence more fully. I wish I was on the ocean now. I would rather be drowned in the might of the sea than spend my last days in this country. I am quite tired of it & that will be joyful to meet to part no more, to be with them I so dearly love.
There are several reasons why Thomas may have grown tired of his native soil. First, the English middle class of the 1800's had experienced decades of economic and political pressure. The budding industrial world and emergence of large scale market economics heaped tremendous burdens on the English working class. As a result, criminal activity skyrocketed as impoverished citizens were forced to seek other means for their survival. Workplace theft, begging, prostitution, petty theft, shoplifting, receiving of stolen goods all became commonplace practices as many of the poor were left to their own devices.

For a man like Thomas Hart, who spent an incredible amount of time in the affairs of the church, the plight of the poor was a reality he had to be extremely familiar with. After all, the church was oftentimes the last beacon of hope to those who had nowhere else to turn. As historians Steven King and Allanah Tomkins point out:

For most of its history, the local church parishes had controlled and ordered their poor with a combination of national legislation and local initiative. Poor relief was usually organized by the parish vestry [which Thomas was most likely a part of] who appointed an overseer of the poor to administer relief. Poor relief was an essentially face-to-face system, focused on the relationship between pauper and parish officer.
In other words, Thomas Hart would have been very familiar with the intimate details of poverty relief in his community. In fact, it is likely that Thomas himself had fallen on hard times. In a January, 1854 journal entry, James Hart wrote:

I wrote a letter to Mr. Linton asking his assistance & influence to get my Father & Mother away with me to America, alleging as a cause their age and the distressing times, giving as an apology his past kindness and exigency of the case (my emphasis).
It therefore comes as no surprise that Thomas, and thousands of his fellow countrymen, would look across the Atlantic and see greener pastures. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo completed, the United States had what must have seemed like an endless supply of land and resources just waiting to be plucked.

But perhaps there was a second reason that Thomas wished to immigrate to the United States. In his letter to James' wife, Emily, Thomas states that he had been working with James on an arrangement that would end with Thomas and his wife "going to the Valley." This is noteworthy because the Mormons had settled the Salt Lake valley by this time and were already starting construction on the temple. Now, perhaps Thomas was simply referring to the Mississippi River valley near St. Louis, where James and Emily were living at the time, but there can also be little doubt that Thomas would have been aware of the Mormon settlement in the west. In addition, it is worth pointing out that most early saints referred to Salt Lake as "Zion", "Deseret" and "the Valley." If Thomas was trying to refer to St. Louis why not simply say St. Louis? By writing "going to the Valley" (capital V), one wonders if Thomas was looking forward to settling with the Saints in Salt Lake. After all, he knew that this is where James and his family would eventually end up.

I find this significant because aside from James converting to Mormonism, Thomas' son John and daughter Elizabeth were also members (along with their spouses). There is little doubt that Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, were familiar with the church's doctrines. If Thomas was wanting to convert, it would have made sense to move first. After all, he was a prominent figure in his community's parish. To avoid angering the church's parishioners, and to maintain social graces, Thomas would have needed to relocate before converting. The impropriety of converting to Mormonism and remaining in Huntingdonshire would have been almost too much to bear, especially in their older age and poor health. Unfortunately, Thomas and Elizabeth were never able to fulfill their dream of immigrating to the United States. Elizabeth fell on poor health and died on Christmas day, 1862. Thomas followed her four years later, passing away in January of 1866.

There is no doubt in my mind that Thomas Hart's devotion rubbed off on his children, particularly James. Though he never crossed the Atlantic, his love of God and devotion to family crossed all oceans and is felt even 150 years later by his descendants. Thomas' steadfast life is an example of how the integrity of one common man can change the world for the thousands of descendants who have and will continue to follow his lead. And for his descendants, Thomas' testimony of God is captured in his letter to his daughter-in-law, Emily when he wrote:

"Whether we live or die, we shall be safe, for God will hide us in the cleft of the rock, his faithful ones, and truth shall be my shield and buckler. He is also the house of my salvation. O what a happy thing it is when one can say Jesus died for my sake. O what joy to anticipate the time when this earth will be celestialized, when we shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, no more to be tormented by the scoffer and the infidel, when we shall see that spoken in Revelations, a woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and 12 stars on her head: a beautiful emblem of the church of God. O, my dear, no tongue can tell nor heart can conceive the things that God has laid up for them that love him.
Thank you, great-great-great Grandpa for your example and faithfulness. I look forward to the day when you and I meet!

Thomas Hart's work was completed for him on the following dates:
Baptism: 29 May 1894, Logan, UT.
Endowment: 30 May 1894, Logan, UT.
Sealed to parents: 4 Dec. 1968, Logan, UT.

Elizabeth Marriott's work was completed on the following dates:
Baptism: 29 May 1894, Logan, UT.
Endowment: 30 May 1894, Logan, UT.
Sealed to parents: 11 Mar. 1993, Idaho Falls.

Thomas and Elizabeth were sealed on 30 May, 1894 in Logan, UT.

***I, Bradley A. Hart, am the son of Alan W. Hart, who was the son of Wendell D. Hart, who was the son of Arthur W. Hart, who was the son of James H. Hart, who was the son of Thomas Hart.***