Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: holzapfel
I am finishing co-directing the BYU summer study abroad program in Rome this weekend before moving on to Athens for the final week and half of the summer term.
It has been a hot and humid month as Dr. Gary Hatch and I have tried to keep a day ahead of the forty students who joined us. We have seen a lot of Rome and of Italy during the month.
However, Rome has been our base of operation, and during the term, we lived in several different apartments located around Vatican City, the smallest independent nation on earth. Two student apartments, in fact, have direct views of St. Peter’s Basilica from their bedroom windows.
Of course, like other travelers and tourists, we visited the Vatican museums, the Vatican gardens, the Scavi (the first-century necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica), and inside the church itself. The students also attended a papal audience the very first week. On other occasions St. Peter’s magnificent square was a meeting place for the group before we headed off to some other location in the city. Nevertheless, it seems as though we were in the shadow of St. Peter’s every day no matter where we were in the city.
Even for non-Catholics, St. Peter’s is a must place to visit in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta is located in the church, and his dome looms over the skyline of Rome itself, beckoning people to gather at this remarkable site.
According a long-held tradition, Peter was crucified in Nero’s Circus and buried nearby sometime between AD 64 and 66. At some fairly early date, maybe by the middle of the second century AD, Christians marked a tomb they believed contained the bones of Peter. Later, Constantine erected a church on the site in the fourth century. Eventually, Pope Julius II began the construction of a new church, the current basilica, on the site in 1505. Beginning in 1939, the Vatican sponsored several archeological investigations under the Basilica where they found the remnants of the first church building and some first-century tombs.
Today, visitors to the Scavi are shown a specific tomb Catholics believe is that of St. Peter, directly under the current high altar covered by Bernini’s canopy directly under Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Although most likely not the tomb of the fisherman from Galilee, there is something remarkable about visiting a site that has been the focus of pilgrimages for nearly two thousand years. And while we may never know exactly what happened to Peter (where, how, and when he died), there is something that makes us think about him in the shadow of the basilica named after him in this amazing city on the Tiber River.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Reid L. Neilson, assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Pioneer Day typically invokes images of handcarts and wagons on the westward trail to Utah. Such a myopic view of our Church’s history, however, obscures the pioneering efforts of Latter-day Saints around the world. Thankfully, historian Andrew Jenson did all he could to expand the historical awareness of Church members—something we all should remember during this holiday time.
While working for the Church’s Historical Department in Salt Lake City, Jenson was sent by the First Presidency to tour the Church’s mission field outside North America. The intrepid Dane departed from Salt Lake City on May 11, 1895, and did not return to the City of the Saints until June 4, 1897. Over the course of his twenty-five-month solo circumnavigation of the world, Jenson passed through the following islands, nations, and lands (in chronological order): the Hawaiian Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Italy, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Prussia, Hannover, Saxony, Bavaria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. He traveled 53,820 miles by a variety of steamships and small boats on water; his land conveyances included railroads, carriages, jinrikishas, horses, donkeys, and camels. Jenson became the first Latter-day Saint to visit all the existing non–North American LDS missions after the Mormon evangelization of the Pacific Basin frontier commencing in the 1840s.
Jenson preached the importance of record keeping in his many sermons and general conference addresses. “If it had not been for the writers . . . who belonged to the original Church, what would the doings of Christ mean to us?” Jenson challenged the Latter-day Saints on one occasion. “And if somebody had not recorded them and other beautiful sayings of Christ and his apostles, what would we have known of the ministry of Christ and of his apostles? We would merely have had some vague ideas handed down by tradition that would lead astray more than lead aright.” In other words, if not for the writers and historians of past dispensations, there would be no sacred history in the form of Hebrew and Christian scripture. The same would hold true in this dispensation, he often taught, if church members failed to keep contemporary ecclesiastical and personal histories. This spiritual sense of destiny, coupled with an unmatched work ethic and passion for history, shaped Jenson’s life and work. One merely needs to search the Church History Library catalog for works by Jenson to get a glimpse of his labors.
I have argued elsewhere that global LDS history is Church history. Latter-day Saints need to realize that much of our most interesting history has occurred abroad. We must remember that the “restoration” of the gospel occurs every time a new country is dedicated by apostolic authority for proselyting. In other words, the original New York restoration of 1830 was in many ways replicated in Great Britain in 1837, Japan in 1901, Brazil in 1935, Ghana in 1970, Russia in 1989, and Mongolia in 1992. Mormon historians need to refocus their scholarly gaze from Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City to Tokyo, Santiago, Warsaw, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. These international cities and their histories will become increasingly important to our sacred history. These non–North American stories need to be told with greater frequency and with better skill. In this sense Jenson was a man ahead of his times. In the final years of the nineteenth century, the yeoman workhorse of the Church Historian’s Office had the foresight and willingness to dedicate two years of his life to documenting the global Church and its membership. As Louis Reinwand points out, “Jenson played a vital role in keeping alive the ideal of a universal Church. He was the first to insist that Mormon history include Germans, Britons, Scandinavians, Tongans, Tahitians, and other national and cultural groups, and that Latter-day Saint history should be written in various languages for the benefit of those to whom English was not the native tongue” (“Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Historian,” BYU Studies 14, no. 1 [Autumn 1973]: 44).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The BYU Religious Studies Center promotes research and publication through grants and publication venues. One aspect of the RSC’s mission is to help reconstruct the world of the scriptures and the Restoration to provide helpful context.
Currently, I am codirecting a BYU Study Abroad program in Rome and Athens for the summer with Gary Hatch, associate dean of General Education and Honors. Forty students have joined us on this adventure, and it is an adventure—it is hot, humid, and sometimes difficult to get everyone to a particular museum or archaeological site via a congested and confusing bus, subway, and train system.
As one can imagine, we spend a significant amount of time walking through ancient Rome. In some places we may have even walked in the footsteps of Peter and Paul. This coming week we take a journey further afield—to ancient Pompeii, near modern Naples, Italy.
I have made my way to Pompeii on numerous occasions since my first visit with a group of high school students from York, Maine, in 1972. With each successive visit, I go away more melancholy than the first, so I am not really looking forward to this visit. I am haunted by the images of death in the city, especially by plaster casts ingeniously made of the bodies of the people who died there so many years ago. Nevertheless, I have been preparing for the visit with our students by reading a new book on Pompeii by Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).
Beard’s book reminds me that the past is much more complex than we sometimes imagine. This is an important book for anyone dreaming of going to Pompeii or anyone wanting to understand the complexity of history. First, the author tells us Pompeii is more than a city “simply frozen in midflow” (9). Chapter after chapter, the author tells us, “Everything is not as it may at first seem” (13). There was destruction before the famous eruption in AD 79 (she argues against the August 25 date), and there was looting almost immediately after the tragedy. Then in 1943, Allied bombs did even more destruction—it is a very complicated story indeed! Nevertheless, Beard notes, “It is true that the city offers us more vivid glimpses of real people and their real lives than almost anywhere else in the Roman world” (15). However, “the bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed” (16).
Beard provides word pictures that help us see beyond the modern reconstruction of the city and our Hollywood imagination of what it may have been like, to a nuanced and complex story that is, in reality, what life is like. Next time you read the second part of the New Testament, consider filling in the cultural and historical gaps in the story found in Acts. It will reveal an interesting and complex world, providing context to the writings of Paul, Luke, Peter, and others.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting a phrase from modern revelation, “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). From the beginning of the Restoration in the 1820s, a common theme of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s religious quest was to seek knowledge, light, and understanding. When he went into a grove of trees near his home to pray in the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith was impelled by his trust in the biblical promise found in James 1:5 that he could find wisdom if he sought it. This prayer resulted in the First Vision, in which Joseph saw the Father and the Son—beginning a spiritual sunrise unexpected by men and women of Joseph’s own day, but anticipated by prophets and apostles of old (see Acts 3:20–21).
Gospel truths continued to roll forth through the young prophet as he personally sought wisdom from God. Interestingly, Joseph Smith not only prayed for such wisdom but also studied the word of God and the languages of the biblical world (for example, Hebrew and Egyptian), practicing the command to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” His example in this two-part effort set a pattern for Latter-day Saints that continues to challenge us today.
Recently, there has been an explosion of self-help books for “dummies” or books to make something easy. With less time in a busy world, we often look for a quick fix to our problems, even when it comes to scripture study. However, when applied to the scriptures these efforts, even though popular and well meaning, may not necessarily raise one’s understanding of the topic. My colleague Robert J. Millet opined sometime ago that we need the scriptures to be understandable, not easy. I do not believe that he was playing a semantic game but that he was identifying an important difference between the two approaches.
Fortunately, Joseph Fielding McConkie, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, helps us in making the scriptures more understandable with his latest book, Between the Lines: Unlocking Scripture with Timeless Principles (Honeoye Falls, NY: Digital Legend, 2009).
What I like most about this book is that it forced me to think about how we read and study the scriptures. Sometimes in order to focus our thoughts, it is important to consider how and why we do a routine thing such as studying the scriptures. McConkie is not interested in “procedures,” such as what color of pencils one use to mark the scriptures or whether one should mark the scriptures at all. His goal is to enhance our study by providing “timeless principles that facilitate sound scriptural understanding” (viii).
The book contains more than just ideas about scripture understanding. There are also concrete suggestions. For example, the author suggests that we take advantage of “various study Bibles” (29). He enjoys “the help of an Archaeological Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The Catholic Study Bible, and a variety of Protestant study Bibles” (29) and even provides a brief list of such study Bibles in the section “Sources” (165–66).
There are some light-hearted moments scattered throughout the book as the author has some fun pointing out rather common practices that we have engaged in through the years that may in fact have diverted us from understanding the scriptures. It may be healthy to laugh at ourselves from time to time, especially when we consider that we all have likely endured our “fair share of scripture abuse” (viii). I recommend this book to all who want to improve the quality of their scripture study and teaching.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Luke prepared a two-part work known as the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts nearly two thousand years ago, but the stories are as still as fresh and exciting as any modern story. He may be at his best in the last two chapters of Acts, which contain one of the finest first-century sea travel narratives to have survived from the past (see Acts 27–28). Paul had been languishing in prison for two years at the Roman provincial capital of Judea when Luke begins this well-known part of the story: “And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band” (Acts 27:1).
Luke provides a dramatic account of a storm, a warning, and then a shipwreck. Paul, who has been pictured as tireless missionary out to save the world, does in fact save the crew, soldiers, and prisoners. They find safety on an island, most likely modern Malta, and after three months, board a grain ship from Alexandria, Egypt, headed for Rome.
Luke continues, “And landing at Syracuse [in modern Sicily], we tarried there three days. And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium [modern Reggio Calabria, Italy]: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli [modern Pozzuoli, just north of Naples]” (Acts 28:12–13).
I have been retracing Paul’s journeys during the last fifteen years. This has been not only a professional project (I teach New Testament) but also a personal quest—Paul has had a hold on me for some time. This past Sunday, I was finally able to visit one site that has been on my agenda for a very long time—Pozzuoli. With an old missionary companion, Steve Smoot, leading the way, we made our way to this quite small Italian seaside town.
Pozzuoli has been in the news lately. Only last week archaeologists unearthed a marble head of the Roman emperor Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (click here).
At this point, Luke transitions from the sea travel narrative to the land travel narrative with six emotionally laden words: “and so we went toward Rome” (Acts 28:14). Of course, Rome was the final destination of the journey, but more importantly, the climax of his story in Acts—Paul will announce the “good news” in Rome, the heart of the empire itself.
The best part of visiting historical sites is that from that day forward I will feel something different as I teach a particular story. Like Luke, I will be able to provide a word picture to my students. In this case, I will visualize the blue Mediterranean Sea, the shoreline crowded with boats, nets, and birds, and the surrounding hilltop horizon at Pozzuoli. In my mind’s eye, I will picture Paul climbing the bluffs that separate the village from the plain above to begin his journey toward Rome. I will recall the heat and humidity and the smell of the seawater and the fish. My students will travel with me as we travel with Luke and Paul to Pozzuoli while reading the account of a journey to Rome.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Robert C. Freeman, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Strike up the band, fire up the grill, and get to your favorite fireworks show. This month American Latter-day Saints will join the rest of the nation in celebrating the birth of the United States. For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in collecting stories of Church members who have served in the military (Click here to learn more: www.saintsatwar.org).
Latter-day Saints have a long history of patriotism to their individual countries, including the United States. Sentiments of loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution were espoused by Joseph Smith himself. He said, “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [SLC: Deseret Book, 1976], 326). The Prophet’s perception of the Constitution’s need to be broader is insightful when one considers that he died well before the addition of such crucial constitutional additions as the civil rights amendments (thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen) and the nineteenth amendment, which extended the right to vote to women.
Today, American Latter-day Saints are as red, white, and blue as ever. Brigham Young University’s hometown of Provo boasts one of this nation’s biggest Fourth of July celebrations—the Freedom Festival. Of course, the influence of the Church stretches across the earth, which prompts us to consider some important questions—for example, what does patriotism mean in view of the global church? Certainly, we are obliged to maintain a proper perspective on patriotism. We celebrate because this is the land of our fathers and the land for our children. We embrace all that is good about our country and hope to make a difference in matters of freedom both at home and abroad. We espouse the principles of liberty and equality anywhere they are under attack.
Several decades ago, at the time of the bicentennial of the founding of America, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the militant tendencies of modern mankind: “We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching” (“The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks also warned of other risks of overzealous patriots when he said, “Love of country is surely a strength, but carried to excess it can become the cause of spiritual downfall. There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and Church” (“Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, October 1994, 17).
Such teachings remind us of the need to refine our patriotism to ensure it is genuine and within the Lord’s bounds. True patriotism brings honor upon any nation in which freedom and liberty are embraced. Such liberties are needed in order for the kingdom of God to flourish among the Lord’s people. There is much to be celebrated about our blessed country and other countries that strive for freedom. Let the fireworks begin!