Sunday, February 3, 2019

Why go to church?

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Not infrequently, I read comments from purportedly liberated ex-Mormons about the glories of churchless Sundays.  Instead of attending mind-numbingly dull and repetitious meetings, they claim to spend most of their Sundays skiing, golfing, biking, reading classic books, listening to superb music, perfecting their highly toned bodies through exercise, enjoying the beach, and sipping fine imported wines.

And perhaps they do.

Would I gain by skipping out on Sunday meetings and spending the day as if God didn’t exist?  Yes.  In some ways, quite undeniably so.  I’m not a big fan of meetings myself.  I love forests and oceans.  And quietly reading.

But I think that my life would also be seriously impoverished.

Bracketing the truth-claims of my faith, I simply want to jot down, in no particular order, some of the things that I would be missing if I were to drop out of participation in my ward on Sundays.

I would lose a great deal of social contact, and other types of socializing probably wouldn’t fully (or even significantly) compensate me for that loss.  I think of people who lack the kind of close society that the Church provides — and not merely of young people who need to cruise singles bars in the hopes of picking somebody up with whom they can have a long-term (or even short-term) relationship.  I’ve often noticed boastful entries on a couple of message boards where apostates want to know what everybody else on their board is doing that Sunday morning instead of attending Latter-day Saint services; the obvious answer, at least at the time people are writing there, is that they’re sitting alone in front of their computers, typing comments into cyberspace directed to strangers, to people whom, overwhelmingly, they’ve never met and probably won’t ever meet.

Virtual community isn’t entirely the same thing as real community.  It’s a well-publicized fact that study after study has demonstrated significant health benefits for religious believers.  Some opponents have dismissed those benefits as coming not from religious belief itself, but from being participants in a strongly supportive community.  Fine.  I’m not sure that that’s all it is, but let’s grant that claim for purposes of the argument.  The fact remains that religious believers have pretty easy and regular access to such supportive communities; the irreligious, on the whole, suffer by comparison.

Sometimes, when my wife has been out of town, members of our ward have called me and invited me out to a restaurant.  More often, I’ve enjoyed dinner at the home of neighbors in our ward.

On other, quite different occasions, funerals are well-attended and grieving families are lovingly supported.  (I’ve been to some funerals, outside of Mormonism, where the non-family mourners could easily be counted on one hand.)  Mine is a community of people who “are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).  “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45).

Weddings and wedding receptions draw large, supportive crowds.  Wedding and baby showers attract eager helpers and enthusiastic participation.  The community rallies around its members at the crucial pivot-points of their lives.  We aren’t social atoms.  A while back, my wife and her sister were in Hawaii for several days.  By coincidence, so were several members of our ward, in the same area of Maui.  They spent a lot of time together.  By contrast, my parents spent their last three decades in an upscale California neighborhood where there was seldom any contact of any kind with the people who lived on either side of them or across the street.  They were all past the age when they had kids in school and ran into each other at PTA meetings, so they had virtually nothing in common, nothing to bring them together.  They sometimes waved at each other across the street, but that was essentially it.  When my parents died, nobody from their neighborhood attended the services.  I doubt that any of the neighbors even knew that they had died.

Some years ago, Hillary Clinton made an African proverb famous: “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Latter-day Saint wards supply such “villages.”  They supplement the efforts of parents and extended families, providing teachers, youth leaders and activities, scouting programs, youth service projects, and the like.  Parents aren’t left on their own for the moral and social formation of their children.

I’m put in mind of Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  The book surveys the decline of “social capital” in the United States since 1950, describing what Putnam holds to be a marked reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans once founded and enriched the fabric of their social lives.  A distinguished political scientist, he believes that this trend undermines the active civil engagement on which a strong democracy depends.  If the earlier Harvard sociologist David Riesman hadn’t already used the phrase in rather a different sense as the title of a famous book of his own, Putnam could easily have described America as, more and more, a “lonely crowd.”  And I doubt very much that Putnam regards internet message boards as an adequate replacement for genuine community.

There are many other values to be found in participation in Latter-day Saint Sunday meetings, or, anyway, in something very like them.  They may not be as hedonistically satisfying as snowboarding or mountain biking on the Sabbath, but they’re probably more important, and perhaps even more satisfying, in the long term.

Take singing, for example.  Some have noticed that, once Americans are out of high school and into their mid-twenties, most never sing much any more.  A small thing, you might think.  But not, perhaps, completely unimportant.  Church, however, offers not only congregational singing, but the chance to participate in a choir.  And, for some, the opportunity to play the piano and the organ on a regular basis.  Good things.  They keep music alive among ordinary people who aren’t professionals at it.  We who participate in church have other sources of music beyond iPods.  We’re not just passive consumers of it.

For Latter-day Saints, Sunday worship offers a weekly opportunity to renew covenants.  Even if critics recognize no transcendent significance in the sacrament service, surely they might be able to see that taking weekly stock of where one stands, and forming weekly resolutions to improve, can have real value.

Sunday services provide a chance for reflection on the biggest of big issues, an opportunity to pause and take stock of oneself and one’s life.  And not just during the administration of the sacrament.  Otherwise, the pressures to careen thoughtlessly through life — “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot puts it in the first of his Four Quartets — are intense.

At church, we think about the meaning of life.  We become part of a community of Saints that reaches back not only into the early nineteenth century but beyond, into biblical times.  And, even beyond that, into an eternity before this world that extends into an eternity ahead, beyond it.  Especially for Americans, who tend to live in an ahistorical Now, this provides a deeply rich ground for our daily lives and decisions and pursuits.  We’re part of a communion of Saints, of those who’ve gone before and those who will follow after us.  And I haven’t even mentioned family history research, so much encouraged and supported by the Church.)  On an even grander scale, too, the Plan of Salvation, the Great Plan of Happiness, endows every day with potentially cosmic meaning.

I’m currently a Gospel Doctrine teacher in Sunday school.  It’s my favorite Church calling, bar none.  This year, of course, we’re focused on the New Testament — which, even if you deny its inspiration or religious authority, must surely be ranked as one of the greatest of the “Great Books.”  From one perspective, church is a kind of continuing adult education seminar.  It’s fabulous to be able to come together each week in order to discuss some of the greatest and most influential texts in human history.  For those of us who believe that, in doing so, we’re hearing the word of God, it’s an inestimable treasure.

There are even benefits to be gained from simply dressing up.  I’m not someone who loves suits and ties; I prefer, indeed, not to wear shoes.  But I feel sorry for those whose days and weeks are casual all the time, without variation, without certain times and places being demarcated as special, as worthy of somewhat greater formality.  This adds richness to life.

Participating in a community of discipleship offers enormous scope for service — which, as many studies have shown, is a major source of human happiness.  It’s not only the children and the youth who benefit from programs for young people.  The adults who’re involved in them also benefit.  And this extends beyond youth programs.  Teaching, heading up activities, participating in organized efforts to fix up widows’ homes and to shovel snow for the elderly, serving in welfare canneries, volunteering at Church employment centers, and a host of other, similar efforts, can provide deep satisfaction.  I think, in this context, particularly of my service as a bishop, which exposed me to people and situations and experiences I would never otherwise have encountered.  They tested me, and sometimes they worked me to the bone, and I didn’t always handle them as effectively and competently as I wished, but I grew from them in a manner that few other assignments could have matched.

I appreciate a community in which elderly people can still contribute, and in which they’re valued.  Not merely within a family, but publicly.  And not merely for their monetary value, or their productivity as employees, which largely ends when  they retire.  In my ward, older men and women serve in multiple capacities, including the temple and various leadership roles.  They aren’t marginalized into irrelevancy.

It’s true that the preaching in our congregations isn’t done by polished professionals.  It can be uneven.  Sometimes it can be a bit pedestrian. But it’s often quite personal and heartfelt, and, through it, we learn to know about, and to know, our neighbors in remarkable ways.

Our monthly day for fasting and for expressing testimonies in sacrament meeting is, when we approach it in the proper spirit, a feast.  And not merely in terms of the comments made in the meeting by members of our ward.  The opportunity to abstain from food for two meals, and then to donate at least the amount of money saved thereby for assistance to the (mostly local) poor, is a wonderful one.  The money doesn’t go to fundraising campaigns, or to expensive overhead, but directly to people who need it.

Our discussions in priesthood quorums and Relief Society can also be deeply meaningful, and serve to bind us to each other.

These are just a few hasty thoughts.  If I were to forego gathering with the Saints on Sundays, I would miss out on all or most of what I’ve mentioned above, and probably on much else besides.  Would there be some gains?  Yes.  I might get more writing done.  I could, very conceivably, spend more time in the mountains.  I would have more time for television and, even better, for reading.  And so forth.  But, in the long term, even (for now) bracketing the eternal benefits that I foresee, my life would, in several important respects, be measurably less than it now is.

Do you have anything to add?  (Confession:  I’m more interested in comments from believing Latter-day Saints here than I am in hearing from sneering and alienated former believers.  I already know pretty much what they think.  That’s what led me to write this.)

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https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/why-go-to-church.html?fbclid=IwAR0jvp1xelrII6AqJ_oh27tX461GWWwRC59PkZBTZeCMM4GrXojBHSwitfk


Keeping meaninglessness at bay?

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/keeping-meaninglessness-at-bay.html?fbclid=IwAR3suPuxNNpGBqAsqVdbKXB92-flhZVfbSURiMeBy6RhMzWCyYUokA44UPY

New Testament Note 6

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

Matthew 1:2-17
Luke 3:23-38

Most people simply skim or even skip over the genealogies provided for Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.  Those who don’t, however, frequently wonder about the differences between them.

I draw here on S. Kent Brown’s important volume The Testimony of Luke (Provo: BYU Studies, 2015), which is part of the ongoing project of producing a multivolume, multiauthor “Brigham Young University New Testament Commentary” and which offers this comment:

The first, clear impression, of course, is that the two records differ notably.  Whereas Matthew’s is a descending genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry down from Abraham and through David, Luke’s is ascending, tracing Jesus’ ancestry up all the way to Adam.  Matthew records the names of forty-two male ancestors between Abraham and Jesus, Luke sets down fifty-five between the two.  Matthew follows Jesus’ descent from David through the kingly line, beginning with Solomon, but Luke traces the Savior’s progenitors through Nathan, another son of David.  Matthew’s table rests on the number fourteen, multiplied three times; Luke’s list rests on the number seven, multiplied eleven times.  Matthew’s genealogy aims to demonstrate that Jesus is the king of Israel, descended from David through the line of kings.  In fact, Matthew enhances this objective by the repetition of the number fourteen, which represents David, whose name, when reduced to numerical equivalencies in Hebrew, adds up to fourteen (D + V + D [daleth + waw + daleth] equals 4 + 6 + 4).  In contrast, Luke’s genealogy seeks not only to tie Jesus to Adam, and thus to all humankind, but also to further establish his place as God’s son, a concept already revealed in Luke 1-2.  (215)

And here’s another worthwhile comment from Kent Brown’s commentary regarding Luke 3:23:

Luke’s note alone establishes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  According to Numbers 4:3, when a descendant of Aaron reaches thirty years of age, all things being settled, he is then permitted to officiate at the temple (see also Num. 4:47).  A connection to David may also lie in this expression because, according to 2 Samuel 5:4, “David was thirty years old when he began to reign.”  In this connection, Judah ben Tema, a rabbinic authority of the second century AD, taught that “at thirty” a person is fit “for authority.”  (213)

Finally, for those who have worried about what became of Mary’s husband, the Savior’s adoptive father, the Joseph Smith Translation adds a phrase right after Luke 3:23’s “thirty years of age” — “having lived with his father” — that suggests the possibility that Joseph lived long enough to see at least the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  By the time of the crucifixion, though, he seems to be gone.

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https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/new-testament-note-6.html?fbclid=IwAR05NHp4TzZ2GQStAViVDptjdBesuux2Ck1PFIkMxG03SpCvUXmQgEQdPHs

Homosexuality, the Latter-day Saints, and Suicide in India

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/homosexuality-the-latter-day-saints-and-suicide-in-india.html?fbclid=IwAR0nMfWQaLXNIUchpeh2REay-xw5QPnat9oOxwXXaCYyiUsNQQnnU7uA0YY

Thoughts on the passing scene

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/thoughts-on-the-passing-scene.html?fbclid=IwAR2272sRQFim5AcmuyRNMln9Ur_LV7i9H6paxXg6o-o6llXZeWx8O6cNJxM

“Unspeakable words”

(by Dan Peterson sic et non blog)

I mentioned the other day that among the classes that I’m teaching this term is Middle East Studies (Arabic) 467R, which is also listed as Philosophy 360R.  The first book that we’re reading for the class is Lenn Evan Goodman, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), where we’re focusing on Professor Goodman’s translation of a wonderful Andalusian text from the twelfth century.

In that previous entry, I introduced the text’s distinction between learning about something, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, seeing something directly, which is something like the difference between knowing about somebody and knowing somebody — corresponding, roughly, to the contrast between the German verbs wissen and kennen.  Ibn Tufayl, the text’s author, uses terms like ecstasy and intimacy to describe the sort of direct experiential knowledge of the divine that he has in mind.

I quote now another passage from that text in which Ibn Tufayl addresses the person to whom he is ostensibly writing.  (That person may be a real individual or, alternatively, a fictional literary device not unlike “Wormwood,” the junior tempter to whom the senior demon “Screwtape” writes his famous letters in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or, for that matter, like the “Theophilus” of Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1, who may have been an actual historical correspondent of Luke’s, but whose name, Greek for “Friend of God” or “Lover of God,” has always struck me as somewhat suspicious.)  Anyway, here is Ibn Tufayl:

You may be asking what is actually seen by those who undergo the experience and reach intimacy.  If so, this is something which cannot be put into a book.  Whenever anyone tries to entrust it to words or to the written page its essence is distorted and it slips into that other, purely theoretical branch of discourse.  For, clothed in letters and sounds and brought into the perceptible world, it cannot remain, in any way, what it was.  Accounts of it, thus, differ widely.  Many stray into error by trying to describe it, yet presume others to have strayed who never left the path.  All this is because it is something vast, infinite — encompassing, but unencompassed.

But on the other hand you may desire a discursive, intellectualized introduction to this experience.  And this — God honor you with His intimacy — is something that can be put into words and set down in books.  (98-99)

I think, in this context, of the experience that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, an ascension experience that, by the way, is symbolically and ritually represented (in my view) by certain elements of Latter-day Saint temple worship:

It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Note that there is a two-fold constraint on Paul’s ability to tell us what he heard in paradise.  (The “man” to whom Paul refers is clearly Paul himself.)  The “words” that he was given were not merely unlawful or impermissible for him to share (οὐκ ἐξὸν ἀνθρώπῳ λαλῆσαι) but actually “unspeakable” or inexpressible (ἄρρητα ῥήματα).

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https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/01/unspeakable-words.html?fbclid=IwAR2gGyY72EWb8CqfHpHrwvqRpQabjXTL7dwcdwMNUkCW91VM5rTzvdtw8eQ

Temples and Binding Together

(by Dan Peterson , sic et non blog)

I’ve been reading N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018).  The two passages below remind me of the Latter-day Saint conception of the temple, linking this world and the next, heaven and earth, those who have gone before with those living now and beyond.  I think of family history, and sealing, and the binding of generations together, and of the idea of the streets of a temple-centered city being numbered outward, to the north and the south and the east and the west of the temple:

All this . . . is many a mile from what we today mean by “religion.”  That is why I often put that word in quotation marks, to signal the danger of imagining that Saul of Tarsus, either as a young man or as a mature apostle, was “teaching a religion” in some modern sense.  Today, “religion” for most Westerners designates a detached area of life, a kind of private hobby for those who like that sort of thing, separated by definition (and in some countries by law) from politics and public life, from science and technology.  In Paul’s day, “religion” meant almost exactly the opposite.  The Latin word religio has to do with “binding” things together.  Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants of a city (the gods and perhaps the ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, and home life.  (A distinction was made between religio, official and authorized observance, and superstitio, unauthorized and perhaps subversive practice.)


The Jewish equivalent of this was clear.  For Saul of Tarsus, the place where the invisible world (“heaven”) and the visibile world (“earth”) were joined together was the Temple.  If you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect.  Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living: the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last reaching the point where God would reveal his glory in a fresh way.  The One God would come back at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people — or at least his chosen people — to keep the Torah perfectly.  Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.  (22-23)


All this meant that the symbolism at the heart of all ancient temples would come true at last.  Temples were built to hold together the divine realm (“heaven”) and the human realm (“earth”).  Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos.  This was where the One God of Creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people.  (48)
 
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https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/02/temples-and-binding-together.html

A major new Latter-day Saint resource for New Testament study

(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 1-24-19)

Fortunately, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints move into a new curriculum year focused on the New Testament — and, indeed, into a new kind of curriculum expecting serious individual and family study at home — helpful though unofficial supplemental resources are available.

There are too many for me to comment on all of them. But here are some suggestions:

• On Saturday, Jan. 26, the BYU New Testament Commentary project will host a conference in the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni Center on Brigham Young University’s Provo campus under the title “In the Beginning Were the Words: A Closer Look at Key New Testament Terms.” It will run from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. — obviously, interested people are welcome to attend whatever portions they can — and admission will be free. Afterward, videos of the conference presentations will be posted. See bookofmormoncentral.org/node/62910 for information.

• The online Meridian Magazine is posting podcasts relating to this year’s New Testament study at ldsmag.com/podcast.

• The Interpreter Foundation — full disclosure: I serve as its president — is posting (and continually expanding) a “Resource Index” for the 2019 New Testament curriculum; see
interpreterfoundation.org/come-follow-me/come-follow-me-new-testament-index/.

• But the resource to which I call particular attention here is a landmark book very recently published by Thomas Wayment, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University (and, before that, of religious education) who received his doctorate from the famous program in New Testament studies at California’s Claremont Graduate School.

Wayment’s “The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints: A Study Bible” provides a modern English version that draws upon his expert knowledge of both the ancient Greek language and the best ancient manuscript evidence. Displaying the text in paragraph form while highlighting quotations, portions of early Christian hymns and poetic passages, it makes the biblical accounts more readable and accessible. Further, the book’s extensive notes are sensitive to Latter-day Saint practices and beliefs, featuring not only alternative renderings, references to manuscript variants and historical explanations, but cross-references to the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

I do not suggest that Wayment’s or any other modern translation should replace the King James Version of the New Testament in Latter-day Saint usage. It’s not my place to do so, and the King James continues to be the official English translation of the Bible for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But many readers find the often majestic early 17th-century English of the King James Version intimidating, not to mention occasionally incomprehensible. Accordingly, a modern translation such as Wayment’s can significantly increase understanding.

Moreover, even for those to whom the Jacobean English of the so-called “Authorized Version” poses little or no challenge, reading the text in a different translation — whether in a foreign language or a new English version — can provide a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on very familiar passages. And more than four centuries of scholarship on New Testament Greek since the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, to say nothing of the discovery, since then, of many important manuscripts and variant readings, has in some cases strengthened our grasp of what the ancient New Testament authors wanted to say (and wanted us to know).

Permit me to supply an example of how modern translation of a biblical passage can clarify its meaning. Latter-day Saints have long seen in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 an obvious enough prophecy of looming apostasy:

“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”

However, 2 Thessalonians 2:7 is rather obscure in its King James translation:

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“For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”

Wayment’s excellent rendering of the whole chapter, however, suggests that the tidal force of apostasy is being controlled by apostolic authority — but only temporarily:
“For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who restrains him will do so until he is taken out of the way.”

See deseretbook.com/p/rsc-the-new-testament-a-new-translation-for-latter-day-saints-a-study-bible for more information on the book.

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https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900052213/daniel-peterson-a-major-new-latter-day-saint-resource-for-new-testament-study.html

The Nauvoo West Grove Regeneration Project


(by Kenneth Mays deseretnews.com 1-23-19)

During the period when the Prophet Joseph Smith lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, he often preached to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outdoors at several different sites referred to as the groves.

One such site, known as the West Grove, was located on or near the hill that descends from the temple site on the bluffs down to the Nauvoo flats, closer to the Mississippi River. The West Grove was the site of such historic events as the funeral sermon for the Prophet Joseph, which was preached by William W. Phelps (see "Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise," by Glen M. Leonard, page 403.)

Several years ago, a parcel of land at the site of the former West Grove was fenced off. This was to keep visitors out of an area that, up to that time, had been a field of ordinary lawn. Signage at the fence now explains: “In the 1840s, this hill was home to a small group of trees called the West Grove. Latter-day Saints gathered in the grove to learn gospel truths from the Prophet Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. After the Saints left Nauvoo, the trees were cut down for firewood and lumber. In 2015, saplings of those same species of trees were planted here. They will be allowed to grow naturally, protected by this fence. When the trees are mature, visitors will be able to enter this sacred place.”

In the meantime, a site representing what were once the groves in Nauvoo has been recreated to remind visitors of the role the groves once played in Nauvoo. That site is in a grove of trees on the west side of Partridge Street, just south of Mulholland Street.

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https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900051954/picturing-history-the-nauvoo-west-grove-regeneration-project.html