Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Personal History

(Note: Many readers have inquired into the circumstances that led this author to write about history and prophecy. Rather than answer each inquiry at length, it seemed appropriate to address the topic in print, where one telling would suffice for all. The following, then, is an autobiographical sketch.)

Hamilton School stood on the corner of 8th South and 3rd East in Salt Lake; the First Ward chapel stood right next door. It was called the First Ward because it was the first ward constituted by the pioneers after they settled in the valley in 1847. By the time I was born, there were hundreds of wards in Salt Lake, but this had been the first.

In those days, Primary was held on a weekday, immediately after school, not during Sunday services as it is now. When school was dismissed, Primary would be convened next door, in the chapel. The first child to arrive at the ward house would be given a shiny, large hand bell to ring, calling all the children to Primary. The child so appointed, would stand at the top of the stairs outside the chapel entrance to ring the bell vigorously.

After brief opening exercises, the congregation of squirming, noisy children was dismissed to several classes, based on age.

It was in a Primary class, on just such a day, that my first inkling of the value of the scriptures in general and prophecy in particular came from a dear sister teaching a classroom full of inattentive, disruptive children. I do not recall who that diligent teach was, but I owe her a profound debt of gratitude. She set me on a course that led me to where I am today.

That particular day, I was probably one of the least attentive to the subject of the scriptures until she ventured into the idea that one could learn the future by reading them. She emphasized that some of the books in the Bible had been written by men who had seen the future in vision. She went on to explain that by reading what those prophets had written, we, too, could know what was going to happen in the future.

I was hooked. I went home and opened up the Bible — probably for the first time in my life — to read about the future. It was disappointing to learn that there was really very little prophecy. And what there was of it was not easy reading, nor was it understandable. It was all much too cryptic for a young mind.

I needed a key.

That was a setback, but not a barrier. From that day forward, I occasionally found myself searching the scriptures to find those parts that contained prophecy. The desire to search out and understand prophecy proved an excellent motivation to read all the scriptures. After all, if I didn’t read and understand it all, how would I know which was prophecy and which was not?

Later, in my teenage years, whenever anyone spoke in church on prophecy, they had my full, undivided attention. In those days, General Authorities often spoke in local sacrament meetings. Sometimes they even arrive unannounced to speak. On many occasions I listened intently to those men who would deliver profound and sobering commentaries on the last days. The depth of their knowledge, the power of their conviction and the generous influence of the Spirit made an indelible impression upon my young mind and heart.

In those days, Sacrament meetings ran a full hour and a half on Sunday evenings — often much longer when a general authority spoke. In addition, far more meeting time was dedicated to topics of the second coming and the last days than in today’s meetings. Those were topics that sparked my interest and imagination.

On Sunday nights, I would go to my upstairs room at bedtime, but not to sleep. There, lying in bed, I would listen on my crystal radio set to Herbert W. Armstrong’s radio program, “The World Tomorrow.” It was all about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the wake of the Second World War. I was only about 14 years old, but the topic riveted me.

Armstrong was a flamboyant evangelist. Today, we would call him a Millennialist. He preached prophecy, primarily from the book Revelation, and its fulfillment in post-war events. Like all such preachers of that era, he taught of the second coming in the wake of political and social upheaval. Armstrong believed that a union of the European political states would soon come about, as predicted by the prophecy of the many-headed beast in Revelation. Central to his interpretation was the atomic bomb as fulfillment of the “hellfire and brimstone” of scripture. I eventually lost interest in Armstrong because none of the short term predictions he made seemed to occur. More to the point, his views left me hanging. There seemed to be little basis for his interpretation other than mere coincidence.

I was impressed by anyone who displayed some depth of knowledge regarding the scriptures in general and prophecy in particular. Few outside the church seemed to have any real sense of the scriptures. They all seemed to repeat the same views, with only minor variations. Most of it was trite. They depended more upon shrill oratory than upon true substance. Within the church, I found a few whose knowledge of the gospel seemed encyclopedic — far greater than most Saints. I wondered to myself how they had come to know so much and if it would ever be possible that I could achieve such a level of understanding.

I was a senior I high school when I set myself a life’s goal. Sitting in a Sunday school classroom, listening to an engaging and informative speaker, I decided that if it were possible, I would like to become such a gospel scholar. That meant not only reading the scriptures, but also reading everything others had written about the gospel. It was an imposing task that amounted to a lifetime of work, but it was one that I hoped to achieve.

During my stay in the mission field, someone loaned me a copy of Crowther’s Prophecy: Key to the Future. I was impressed by his exhaustive research, which included many obscure prophecies by Joseph Smith. Sadly, however, Crowther’s conclusions differed little from those of millennialists like Armstrong. To my way of thinking, Crowther had done a marvelous job of compiling ancient and modern prophetic utterances but had not provided the key as the title promised.

By that time I had already read most of Skousen’s books on prophecy. Like Crowther, he had many invaluable insights, but could not provide a key. Later, when Elder McConkie published his observations on prophecy, it seemed like more of the same — an interesting compendium of prophetic utterances, yet no truly insightful interpretation. In my mind, they all said just about the same things. However, that wasn’t good enough for me. After reading all I could find that had been written on prophecy by exegetes in and out of the church, I still felt unfulfilled, that something was missing. Most prophecy was still a mystery to me. The imagery was too foreign, too exotic. No one seemed to see it clearly — least of all me.

After my mission and throughout my early years as a husband and father, my interest in prophecy waned but my appetite for gospel knowledge did not. Having found little new insight or interpretation to prophecy, I turned my full attention to the gospel as a whole. I was determined to become as knowledgeable on gospel subjects as anyone else.

My hunger for knowledge impelled me to read almost all Mormon scholars and general authorities. I came to appreciate Nibley’s insightful gospel dissertations. He had an inquiring, encyclopedic mind. His work also made it clear that there was much to be learned. To understand the scriptures, one must be well versed in a multitude of disciplines. The more one knew about ancient history, the more one understood the scriptures. Nibley helped me see how vast an enterprise I had undertaken.

Increasingly, I found that I was called to teach, most often as the Gospel Doctrine instructor. This served to confirm for me that I was making good progress in my quest to become thoroughly gospel literate. Still, I had not found the key, nor was I sure that such existed.

Then, in the mid-1970s, my whole view of the gospel, ancient history and prophecy began to change when Reader’s Digest published a condensed version of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision in its book section. After reading it, I commented to my wife that Velikovsky’s views were certainly unorthodox and novel, but they also fit nicely with the scriptural record of events. It seemed remarkable that one agent was made to be the cause of so many diverse natural events, yet the interpretation did not seem forced or exaggerated to me. It was one of the most reasonable, logical analyses of biblical history that I had ever read.

I was interested to know more of Velikovsky, and so commented to my wife. A few days later, she produced paperback copies of both Worlds in Collision and Earth in Upheaval that she had located on the bookrack in a local store. After reading both books, I was convinced that Velikovsky had stumbled upon a central truth: planetary catastrophes had played a vital role in shaping ancient history. Years later, Nibley’s response to my inquiry as to the correctness of Velikovsky’s thesis was that Velikovsky was “essentially correct, but he could have cited better sources” — a comment only Nibley could make.

Velikovsky’s was an intellectually invigorating thesis. Having studied Geology, Archeology, Anthropology and the world’s religions in college, as well as having gained firsthand knowledge of the ancient Meso-American cultures on my mission in Mexico, Velikovsky’s views were especially meaningful for me. They opened sweeping new historical vistas that bore directly upon the scriptures. His thesis of ancient planetary catastrophes brought everything into sharper focus. It was as if a bright light had suddenly illuminated almost everything I had ever learned. The arcane imagery of the scriptures suddenly became more intelligible. The disjointed analyses of history made by scholars became far clearer.

I had found the long sought key.

Almost immediately I began to share my newfound wisdom with other saints. Equally immediately, I began to encounter the indifference and hostility that remain a constant in my work today. Close friends who shard my enthusiasm for knowledge and love of the gospel were only lukewarm about the idea I quickly embraced. A few showed genuine interest, but the majority were indifferent to the ideas. This apathy puzzled me, but it did not dampen my desire to know more.

It occurred to me that if Velikovsky was right about the nature of the Exodus miracles, then some general authority in the church — from Joseph Smith to the present leaders — must have said or written something that would substantiate or verify Dr. Velikovsky’s thesis. I began my search with the History of the Church, a five-volume record prepared under Joseph Smith’s direction and supervision — almost all of it in his own words. Surely, I reasoned, Joseph would have had something to say along these lines if Exodus actually recounted a planetary catastrophe, as Velikovsky maintained.

After reading 4 of the 5 volumes, I began to despair. It seemed that Joseph had said nothing to validate Velikovsky. However, I persevered in my task, and the answer came in the last volume. When it came, it also brought new, invaluable insight that opened up an even greater vista. It was as if a door that had only opened up a crack were suddenly thrown wide open.

Recorded in volume 5, page 337, Joseph Smith was speaking to a congregation of Saints on the Nauvoo Temple grounds. On that occasion, he swerved into a discussion of the signs of the second coming. Remarkably, I immediately recognized the signs he listed as identical to the natural phenomena that Velikovsky associated with the Exodus event. Still more remarkable, Joseph identified the agent of those events as “a comet, a planet.” Astoundingly, those were the same two words that Velikovsky used to describe the agent of the Exodus miracles. In a flash of insight, I realized that what I had been studying had as much to do with prophecy as with ancient history.

This was what they meant by epiphany! It was as if a brilliant light had suddenly illuminated every corner of my mind! This entire study was as much about prophecy as ancient history! The ideas began to rush through my mind, tumbling and falling over one another like boulders in an avalanche: History will end as it began; the symbolism of prophecy is rooted in ancient catastrophes; gospel symbolism stems from past catastrophes; clearly, Joseph Smith believed and taught this. Nothing I had ever read or heard approached this significance. Everything I had ever learned was a prelude to this discovery.

At long last I had the key!

More remarkable still, I had never heard a Mormon scholar expound on these ideas. I marveled that this could be so, given the power of these new ideas to unlock the most cryptic ideas, symbolism and teaching of the scriptures. Of course, in time I realized that one Mormon scholar — Joseph Smith himself — had, indeed, written and said much in this regard. This was part of the reason for his intense interest in things Egyptian: The Egyptian religion was the purest example of Saturn traditions know to the world in the mid-nineteenth century.

For a year or two, I presented my ideas to everyone who would stand still long enough to listen. I was enthused, amazed and in awe of the power these ideas had to explain some of the most enigmatic parts of the gospel. I could not keep it to myself. I felt compelled to share what I had learned, thinking that other saints would certainly share my eagerness for these novel ideas. Once again, I found that most simply tolerated my little lectures out of simple courtesy; some were openly hostile. It was clear that most did not share my enthusiasm for these views.

Still, I felt certain that many others would find these ideas a truly remarkable and fulfilling as I did. I felt compelled to reach out to those who might share my enthusiasm for what I had learned. I wondered how that might be done. I began thinking about writing a book — a prospect that filled me with dread because I felt terribly inadequate as a writer. As a result, I procrastinated the task for over two years.

One day, after enduring yet another of my diatribes, a good friend, Kaye Jansen, suggested I stop talking about it and start writing about it. He offered the use of his newfangled typewriter, called a word processor. The rest, as they say, is history.

Every LDS publisher turned down my initial manuscript. Not only was it poorly written, but they were concerned about how much appeal it might actually have. After all, publishers depend upon a book’s sales to justify the expense of bringing it to the marketplace. One publisher, thankfully, thought my book had merit. Keith Terry, the owner of Crown Summit Books, called to say he wanted to publish.

With the help of a very patient and capable editor named Allen Young, the entire manuscript was revised and a full-fledged book was written. In the course of doing so, I had a crash course in writing that eventually led me to the career I’ve pursued for the last 30 years.

At first it seemed that one book, And The Moon Shall Turn To Blood, (the title was suggested to me by Mike Jensen, Kaye’s son) would be enough to cover the subject. But my more immediate concern was the business failure of my initial publisher. The time came when I had to walk away from publishing or become a desk drawer publisher. I opted for self publishing and borrowed funds from my parents in order to do so.

In time, it became clear that a second and third book might be necessary, due to the voluminous research by others following Velikovsky’s lead. The idea for a trilogy evolved and was adopted in place of issuing revised, enlarged editions of the original book, and The Prophecy Trilogy was born.

In time, I learned of David Talbott’s work on the Saturn myths, which became the basis for the third volume in The Prophecy Trilogy. Equally as important as Velikovsky’s seminal work, Talbott’s insights proved to be the key that unlocked the entire package: gospel symbolism, cultural and religious tradition of all ancient cultures, temple architecture and iconography, the language of the prophets, as well as the interpretation of ancient myth and tradition.

Only the light and knowledge that came through the Prophet Joseph Smith eclipses the invaluable research and dissertation of Velikovsky and Talbott. In fact, it is my considered opinion that without the work of Velikovsky and Talbott we cannot fully comprehend what Joseph sought to convey.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2000

No comments: