The NACA and the National Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan

Aerial view of the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan at NASA Ames.

Aerial view of the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan at NASA Ames.

During World War II it became obvious that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) required new tools to pursue a high-speed/high altitude research program. The National Unitary Wind Tunnel Act of 1949 addressed these needs, providing NACA funds to build three new supersonic wind tunnels at its laboratories, to upgrade other NACA facilities, and to support selected facilities elsewhere.

The NACA effort began in April 1945 with a letter to the committee’s director of research, George W. Lewis, from an engineer at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) in Cleveland. Bruce Ayer wrote because he believed that the idea had not given “sufficient consideration” to the needs of supersonic flight. Ayer suggested that the advent of jet propulsion ensured that research problems for the foreseeable future would emphasize high-speed flight. He recommended, among other things, building new instruments for researching in this flight regime at existing NACA facilities.

Ayer received a polite and non-committal response from Lewis, but not until the following summer when NACA representatives returned from Germany did the need for new wind tunnels win support at NACA headquarters. When first viewed in 1945, the 100,000-horsepower water-driven supersonic wind tunnel built by the Germans just outside Munich greatly impressed the NACA representatives, as did a planned 500,000-horsepower tunnel designed to produce airspeeds between Machs 7 and 10. NACA leaders concluded that “the Committee should at once take steps to preempt this field of high-speed research and an aggressive and vigorous policy should be adopted in the interest of keeping America first in scientific development along these lines.”

With this decision, the die for the agency’s future had been cast. In essence, in a period of only nine months new supersonic facilities had started as an interesting but essentially unfeasible idea offered by a journeyman research engineer. It had gained support along the review process, and with its adoption through the NACA committee structure new supersonic wind tunnels had become the cornerstone of the agency’s plans for future aeronautical research.

At the same time, the Army Air Forces had also been working quietly on a proposal remarkably similar to that of the NACA. Sensing that the NACA was already on to something important for the future, and seeing firsthand the German research facilities under construction at the end of the war, in June 1945 the USAAF began developing their own proposal to support research for a new generation of jet fighters that would revolutionize aerial combat. The Army Air Forces investigated the need for new supersonic research facilities informally at Wright Field until October 1945, and then established a formal committee to prepare plans for an “air engineering development center.” On December 10, 1945, the USAAF published a formal plan and sent it through Army Air Forces and War Department channels in search of support.

The NACA, not wanting to lose this opportunity to advance supersonic flight technology—in the same way that it had with the jet propulsion revolution of the early 1940s—pursued the effort with diligence. The Army Air Forces, concerned that the NACA might be unable to make the rapid advances the military desired and at a fundamental level wanting a “piece of the action” for itself, was equally tireless. Both started as rivals in the unitary wind tunnel plan, only to be forced into cooperation through an intense political process.

Convergence of these two initiatives became essential for the effort to have much chance in Congress. At the April 25, 1946, meeting of the NACA, the Committee appointed Arthur E. Raymond of Douglas Aircraft Corporation to merge the two proposals into a single package acceptable to all concerned. In June 1946 he recommended a unitary wind tunnel plan incorporating the main features of the rival proposals, a national supersonic research effort for the NACA, and an air engineering development center for the Army Air Forces. The principal addition recommended by the Raymond panel was a provision for wind tunnels at universities, both to allow independent testing and research and to serve as training tools for engineers of the future.

The estimated $2 billion effort recommended by Raymond, which most believed was still not enough to do everything, appeared to many advocates as a “poison pill” for the whole effort. Always a voice of reason, Hugh L. Dryden of the National Bureau of Standards recommended an approach to supersonic facilities less aggressive than those advocated by others.

The National Unitary Wind Tunnel Act of 1949 as implemented by the NACA and by the Air Force included five wind tunnel complexes, one each at the three NACA Laboratories and two wind tunnels plus an engine test facility at what would eventually become known as the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC). These ground test facilities were built and operated to meet the needs of industry, the military services, and other government agencies. Primarily, these organizations needed large, or as near to flight as possible, Reynolds Number (Rn) testing of supersonic aircraft and missiles and high-speed/high altitude testing of engines.

The NACA committed to the construction of five supersonic wind tunnels located at its various research laboratories. At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, a 9 in. supersonic tunnel was operating, in which much of the pioneering research on swept wing drag reduction was performed. Langley also committed to designing and building a 4 X 4 ft. supersonic research wind tunnel. This tunnel would become operational in 1948 following installation of 45,000 horsepower drive system.


A technician mounts a model of the Apollo Launch Escape System (LES) in the Unitary Wind Tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, in 1963.

At the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, in the Bay area of California, two supersonic research wind tunnels were constructed. These included the 1 X 3 ft. SWT that operated to a maximum test section airspeed of Mach 2.2. A larger 6 X 6 ft. supersonic research tunnel was also constructed at Ames. This tunnel is notable as it was the first large supersonic tunnel that made use of the asymmetric supersonic nozzle that would be successfully used in several of the yet to be designed Unitary Plan Wind Tunnels. It also contained for purposes of flow visualization a 50 in. Schlieren window system. Tests performed in the Ames tunnels included research on wing shapes, dynamic stability, aircraft control, panel flutter and air inlet design.

Finally, at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, a large 8 X 6 ft. transonic wind tunnel with the capability to operate at test section airspeeds from Mach 0.4 to 2.0, was built for testing aircraft power plants and was operational by 1949. This wind tunnel was an open-circuit tunnel where the air was vented to the atmosphere in order to dispose of the engine exhaust.

Through the design of these supersonic wind tunnels, NACA engineers perfected their understanding of the differences between supersonic and subsonic wind tunnels. Lessons learned by NACA engineers in the operation of these five supersonic research wind tunnels at the three NACA sites laid the groundwork for that organization’s future successes in designing and building modern aircraft.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Baseball in 1889”

Baseball in 1889Baseball in 1889: Players vs. Owners. By Daniel M. Pearson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993.

This book is not a bad book, but it is a far cry from being a really good one. Daniel M. Pearson’s narrative is at one level a generic account of one season in the history of major league baseball. There many other books of that type, some of them superb. This one is adequate but not exceptional. At another level it is about the labor issue in baseball, and this is what makes the book a worthwhile reading experience.

In the latter 19th century major league owners instituted the “reserve clause” in which through successive one year contracts the owners could reserve the next year’s services of their players, and immediately tried to depress salaries. The players responded, under the leadership of John Montgomery Ward, by organizing a player’s “brotherhood” and later creating the unsuccessful Players League.This story is fascinating, but modestly told in this short history of a single season. It deserves better than what is available here.

Then there are the stories of Charles Comiskey, Chris Von der Ahe, and the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. They were a colorful pair, and the Browns are terrific team. Chris Von der Ahe, mustachioed and speaking with the accent that betrayed his birth in an obscure Germanic province in 1851, became the prototypical spotlight grabbing major league baseball team owner. He spent freely, indulged his players, and built the Browns into a baseball dynasty in the 1880s.

Von der Ahe loved the celebrity his ownership brought him, for now he was not just a prosperous businessman but also a public figure. It was an unbeatable combination, perhaps the real attraction for baseball ownership up to the present, and something repeated many times by many different owners since. The players and other owners play second fiddle to this story. And while the Browns were excellent in 1889, and had won the four previous American Association championships, they lost out to the Brooklyn team that year. Why was Von der Ahe featured as he was, except that his exploits make for interesting reading?

While the book has some positives, it is overall something of a disappointment. It has references and a bibliography, but no index. It rushes at the end and fails to tell the punchline of the labor dispute of 1889, when many players bolted and formed the Players League the next year.

The labor issue in sports is a fascinating area of investigation. Something that deserves more than in offered here.

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Edward P. Warner and the Transformation of Aeronautics in America

 The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility's early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility’s early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

I have been researching the history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and compiling biographical information on several of the early leaders of the organization. Edward Pearson Warner (1894-1958) is one of those key people. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warner became one of the foremost American aeronautical engineers, consultants, writers, and educators of the first half of the twentieth century. Although not a famous flyer or aviation corporate executive, during the last forty years of his life few in the U.S. were more important in shaping the course of aviation.

From his position as assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics (1926-1929); editor of Aviation (1929-1934); committee member of the NACA (1919-1920, 1929-1945); and chair of the interim council (1945-1947) and then president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (1947-1957), Warner fundamentally influenced virtually every policy decision affecting aviation.

Warner charted a path toward aeronautics in 1911 when he and a friend won a soaring competition in Boston; Warner designed a glider and his friend piloted it. Warner went on to Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in engineering with honors in 1916. He then pursued additional work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a B.S. and then and M.A. in 1919.

After a short time as an employee of the recently created NACA in 1919-1920, Warner returned to MIT as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering. He stayed at MIT for the next six years, attaining the rank of full professor. While at MIT Warner was member of the faculty involved in teaching in Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker’s pioneering aeronautical engineering curriculum. Known as a no-nonsense, staccato-style lecturer, his students both feared and respected him.

It should come as no surprise that few students were upset when the demanding professor left MIT in 1926 to become the assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics, a position he held until 1929. In this position, Warner shaped the course of naval aviation, bringing to fruition plans that had been gestating for several years for the development of ship-based air power. During his tenure, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga entered service. Warner was tireless in his quest for additional funding for naval aviation, expanding facilities, personnel, and operations. But he also took time to continue his academic studies. In 1927 Warner published his first book, Aerostatistics, quickly followed the same year by Aeroplane Design: Aerodynamics, an important textbook for a generation of aeronautical engineers.

Warner left federal service in 1929 to become the editor of Aviation, the premier U.S. periodical dedicated to flight. He had already made a name for himself as a writer not only of technical papers, several of which he published while at MIT, but also as a thoughtful policy analyst and popular writer on aviation for such publications as the Christian Science Monitor.

Taking a leave of absence from his editorial post in 1934-1935, Warner returned to government service as vice-chair of the Federal Aviation Commission. This blue ribbon commission had been appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to review the structure of aviation in the U.S. and to make recommendations for legislation. At stake were the twin issues of air carrier regulation and airmail service. Warner, who drafted much of the final report, recommended the creation of an overarching organization to regulate air commerce, to establish and operate airways, and to set safety standards and investigate accidents. This was made a reality when the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706) signed into law in July 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Air Safety Board.

When this work was finished, Warner did not return to Aviation, but began an engineering consulting business. Among other projects, between 1935 and 1938 Warner worked with the Douglas Aircraft Company on the first practical four-engine transport aircraft, the DC-4. He was especially perceptive in taking general descriptions of desirable flying qualities provided by pilots and converting them into the exacting specifications required by engineers. In 1936 Warner also rewrote his classic text and published it under a new title, Aeroplane Design: Performance. Most important, Warner included in this book a calculation, later known as the Warner K speed formula, which allowed designers and engineers to compute the performance of specific aircraft.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

In 1938 Warner again reentered federal service, this time as an economic and technical advisor to the Civil Aeronautics Authority. A year later he was appointed a formal member of the authority. In 1940 some of the functions of the CAA were split, particularly those of rate setting and policy formulation for scheduled air carriers, and vested in a new entity, the Civil Aeronautics Board. Warner moved over to serve on this board and by 1941 he had been called as its vice-chairman. He held that post until the end of World War II.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

While working on the CAA Warner had been exposed to some of the issues affecting international aeronautics, and began to take greater interest in the policy considerations than ever before. It was appropriate, therefore, that he headed the interim council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an organization answering to the United Nations, between 1945 and 1947. When the ICAO was institutionalized in 1947, Warner became its first president and served for a decade. This organization, which grew from 26 to 70 member nations during his tenure, was involved in a variety of international aviation issues from establishing procedures for diplomatic clearances for overflight and landing to establishing standards for air traffic control and the transfer of flight information around the globe.

Warner retired in 1957 and died at his home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, the next year.  His career had been significant not only because his contributions to the engineering of aircraft, but also because of his efforts to structure and executive rational aviation policy both in the United States and throughout the world.

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The Tragedy of Bo Jackson

Bo Jackson

After winning the Heisman Trophy as the greatest college football player in 1985, the Kansas City Royals persuaded Auburn University athlete Bo Jackson to sign with the Royals instead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the National Football League. He joined the Royals after just fifty-three games in the minors. While showing speed and power, Jackson struck out frequently and too often displayed questionable defense. In his first major league at bat on September 2, 1986, Jackson hit a monstrous home run that many took as a portent of his great ability. Could Bo Jackson be the next generation Hall of Famer for the Royals, someone who would pick up the mantle of George Brett? Many people thought so at the time.

Kansas City Monarchs star Buck O’Neil described in his autobiography how he heard a unique crack from Bo Jackson’s bat, a sound he had heard only three times in his life. He wrote that he first heard it from Babe Ruth. “It wasn’t so much the sight of him that got to me as the sound,” O’Neil wrote. “When Ruth was hitting the ball, it was a distinct sound, like a small stick of dynamite going off.” That sound set Babe Ruth apart from everyone else. “The next time I heard that sound was in 1938, my first year with the Monarchs. We were in Griffith Stadium in Washington to play the Homestead Grays, and I heard that sound all the way up in the clubhouse, so I ran down to the dugout in just my pants and my sweatshirt to see who was hitting the ball. And it was Josh Gibson. I thought, my land, that’s a powerful man.”

O’Neil then added, “I didn’t hear it again for almost fifty years. I thought I’d never hear it again. But I was at Royals Stadium, scouting the American League for the Cubs, and I came out of the press room and was going down to field level when I heard that ball sound as if the Babe or Josh were still down there. Pow! Pow! Pow! It was Bo Jackson—the Royals had just called him up.” O’Neil certainly understood baseball, and he was convinced that Jackson had the talent to become one of the greatest players ever.

Jackson was also a media celebrity from the very beginning. Steve Cameron observed, “Bo was a one-man circus. He drew crowds like Elvis or Princess Di….Bo was the Royals’ biggest attraction ever. Never mind that Brett, a future Hall of Famer, shared the same dugout, George was ignored like a utility infielder whenever the Bo Show came to town.” That star power caused jealousy in the clubhouse and a certain amount of tension within the Royals organization, but as long as he performed on the field any complaints sounded hollow. In 1987, Jackson’s first full season in a Royals uniform, he batted only .235, but he also hit twenty-two home runs. While his average could stand improvement, the homers were welcome.

Bo Jackson announced late in 1987 that he intended to play professional football with the Los Angeles Raiders as a “hobby” in the off-season. His teammates immediately criticized him for not taking baseball seriously enough, a criticism that was both accurate and beside the point. While he did not make baseball his life, like his teammates, Jackson also had such enormous talent that he could pursue other sports and perform well in everything he did. Unfortunately, had he decided to commit himself only to baseball he would probably still be playing and headed to Cooperstown at the end of a long and illustrious career? Jackson responded poorly to these criticisms and found himself at the center of a controversy in Kansas City, as many questioned if he would ever fit in there. He found himself booed on the field and castigated in the media. In some respects, Bo Jackson was more suited to the spotlights of New York or Los Angeles than to the traditional culture of Kansas City.

Even so, every year that he played for the Royals, Jackson’s performance improved. In 1988 he slammed 25 homers and stole twenty-seven bases but still struck out 146 times. However, in 1989 he finally raised his batting average to .256, hit 32 home runs with 105 RBIs, and used his speed and strong arm to become one of the most exciting left fielders in baseball. That year he made the All-Star squad for his first and only time. In his last year in Kansas City in 1990, Jackson raised his average to .272, and still hit twenty-eight homers.

Jackson suffered a serious hip injury while playing for the Raiders in the 1990-1991 football season. The Royals fully believed he was finished because of this injury and gave him an unconditional release at the beginning of the 1991 baseball season. Jackson then signed with the Chicago White Sox, but played only twenty-three games before realizing he could not continue. He received enormous sympathy for his attempt to come back, but it was painful just watching him try to run bases and chase fly balls. Such an elegant player previously, he appeared as but a shadow of the person who had performed so well for the Royals. Jackson submitted to a hip replacement and tried to come back in 1993. He saw part-time service as a designated hitter with the White Sox in 1993 and the California Angels in 1994 but never performed as he had with the Royals.

It was a sad end to the career of Bo Jackson. Some would say it was a tragedy, and they would not be far off. Of the three great bat sounds that Buck O’Neil wrote about, all were made by men who might be considered tragic figures. Babe Ruth, of course, had an enormously successful career in the major leagues. That success was never equaled in life as a whole, and he died earlier than the normal three score and ten, with his last years riddled with despair. Josh Gibson, the “black Babe Ruth,” hit more home runs in the Negro Leagues than anyone but never got a chance to play in the majors. He died in 1945 just as the National League was on the verge of being integrated, and humanity will never know how good he might have been.

Bo Jackson had his shot in baseball and showed flashes of excellence, but his career was cut short by an injury that took place on a football field. Had he been able to play a full career in the major leagues he might well have become among the greatest in the game. Buck O’Neil was right: Jackson had a unique gift. I wish I had been able to see him demonstrate those gifts over a long career.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Safe is Not an Option”

Safe is not an Option

Safe is Not an Option: Overcoming the Futile Obsession with Getting Everyone Back Alive that is Killing Our Expansion into Space. By Rand Simberg. Jackson, WY: Interglobal Media, LLC, 2013. 242 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0989135511. $19.95 USD, paperback.

Rand Simberg may state it a bit crassly in his title, but the present risk aversion in human spaceflight by NASA is a major detriment to moving forward if our objective is to become a multi-planetary species. Simberg’s thesis is simple: “No frontier in history has ever been opened without risk and loss of human life and the space frontier is no different. That we spend untold billions of dollars in a futile attempt to prevent loss of life is both a barrier to opening the space frontier, and a testament to the lack of national importance of doing so” (p. xvii).

From Apollo to the present, Simberg insists, something approach a phobia consumed the NASA as it overemphasized human safety to the detriment of positive developments in innovation and achievement. NASA officials, responding to the caution of members of political elites in the White House and Congress, have demanded outsized safety standards for astronauts that are unattainable. Simberg notes that we accept greater levels of risk for those engaged in Antarctica, why not at least the same level for astronauts. Any that says nothing about the level of risk we accept for all manner of other occupations; a favorite for Simberg is the not insubstantial fatality rate for long-haul truckers. Despite this emphasis on safety, the Space Shuttle program had two very public catastrophic failures with the loss of two orbiters and their crews.

At the same time, this caution, in Simberg’s view, has impeded the persistent objective of ultimately becoming a multi-planetary species. There is no possibility of undertaking voyages to Mars without consciously accepting a greater level of risk than currently tolerated in the human spaceflight endeavor. Of course, the devil is in the details. How much risk is acceptable? How do we know the true nature of the risk? Then we must also ask, acceptable to whom? I would argue that those answers are different depending on where you set in the decision-making system. Astronauts, generally understanding of the technology they use, make decisions about placing their lives on the line with that knowledge. Technical people at NASA have another level of understanding and acceptable of risk. Political appointees and elected officials have a myriad of other priorities make decisions about acceptance of risk based on criteria that is probably less about the technology than about the public perceptions of it. All of this makes for a very difficult issue, one that NASA has failed to come to grips with and our democratic society has largely disregarded until a crisis raises the concern, and not always in a positive way.

Simberg traces in seven chapters the history of NASA’s efforts in the space age—from the heroic age of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo through the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the on-again/off-again Hubble servicing mission in the first decade of the twenty-first century—as well as three chapters on the potential for moving forward. The majority of this book is a sustained dissertation on the history of human spaceflight with the intention of proving that NASA’s overemphasis on 100 percent human safety is incompatible with an expansive human space exploration agenda.

Simberg asserts that NASA should accept a less than perfect human spaceflight safety program; only by doing so will we create the capability to go to the Moon and Mars, to pioneer, and to settle there permanently. He is, no doubt, correct about this. But the real question is how to get past current perspectives. There are no good answers here. Most people do not see the value of human spaceflight—even though they might accept the astronauts at heroes and generally have a positive view of NASA and its activities—and accordingly any loss of life in the endeavor is not readily accepted. This is not true in all government activities; certainly national security is in a different category and although we do not embrace them we are accepting of some level of combat deaths.

Until the rewards—and those need to be carefully defined—of human space spaceflight are recognized as something worth the cost of at least some sacrifice nothing will change. Simberg believes that NASA has implemented approaches to risk avoidance that ensure that innovation is stifled, technological systems remain stagnant, and policies are overtly cautious. He asserts that “settlement and development” is the reason for human spaceflight and only bold actions will achieve that end. I don’t see a way out of this maze at present, because most Americans do not agree that “settlement and development” is an appropriate immediate reason to pursue human spaceflight as a greater good in which loss of life will definitely occur.

Moreover, even if we all accept intellectually that astronaut deaths are a possibility, what does that mean in terms of policy objectives, technology development, and mission planning? The Space Shuttle had a reliability rate of greater than 98 percent—and getting there to that was no small or inexpensive effort—yet the program yielded two catastrophic accidents. As much as anything, and we saw this both with the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, the public and its perceptions have driven NASA’s emphasis on safety,

This represents a major conundrum; the reward of human spaceflight does not support a willingness to risk all to accomplish it. Accordingly, from a NASA perspective there is no impetus to undertake bold initiatives. Simberg is optimistic that commercial entities—Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin or perhaps some other company—might be able to break the cycle of NASA’s orbital interlude. Might we develop a new appreciate for the justification for human spaceflight? So where do we go from here?


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A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945 – by Isao Hashimoto

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a truly fascinating–as well as undeniably scary–time-lapse map of the 2053 nuclear explosions which have taken place between 1945 and 1998, beginning with the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos in 1945 and concluding with Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998. This leaves out North Korea’s two alleged nuclear tests in this past decade (the legitimacy of both of which is not 100% clear). For those who don’t remember the Cold War, this helps to get across its seriousness.

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Zion in Mormon History: An American Promised Land

Joseph Smith Jr.

Joseph Smith Jr.

Mormonism’s self-identification as a modern replacement for ancient Israel mandated the quest for Zion as a literal place. The establishment of what the Saints called Zion had been the most persistent goal of the early Mormon movement. The early Latter-day Saints had believed they were commissioned from among the world to help usher in the triumphal second coming of Christ and the advent of the millennial reign by building a society from which Christ could rule the world.

Accordingly, during the 1830s and 1840s they had established Mormon communities to serve as utopian centers, places that would foster a new, righteous social order preparing the earth for Christ’s return: Kirtland, Ohio; Independence and Far West, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. However, in each case the vision dissolved in failure and disillusionment. The reasons for failure were complex but essentially rested on the unwillingness of the Saints to live under the strict laws of the community established by the prophet and on persecution by non-Mormons.

This quest for Zion drove much of Joseph Smith Jr.’s scripture and doctrine, from his concept of “law” and a restored “priesthood” to his identification of America—and specifically Independence, Missouri—as the “promised land” to which Jesus would one day return. This concept of building an American Zion became the rallying cry of his young church throughout much of its early history. It was the glue that brought humanity together in the unity of pursuing a common and noble goal.

Indeed, the quest for Zion loomed as the quintessential belief among early Latter-day Saints. Even as other concepts proved nettlesome to many in the church—especially the theological speculations of the temple experience—the doctrinal development of Joseph Smith’s concept of “Zion” or “the New Jerusalem” has remained significant in all branches of Mormonism to the present, although its early millennial trappings withered over time.

Mormonism began in 1830 to focus on Zion as place, energized by ideas expressed in the Book of Mormon. When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon during 1827-1830 period, it confirmed a prevalent notion among many Americans in the early 1800s that the American Indians were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel. The book contained the story of God’s dealings with two groups of Hebrew peoples who migrated to America by ship sometime before 600 before the common era (B.C.E.), but the second migration was the more important and made up the core of the account.

These people, led by a prophet named Lehi and later by his son Nephi, established an advanced and—for a time at least—righteous civilization in the Americas. The Nephite people’s civilization reached its apex with the visit of the resurrected Jesus Christ to America. During his sojourn with the Nephites Christ taught them his philosophy much more clearly and with less confusion than had been the case in Palestine. Following Christ’s visit the Nephites took part in a 200-year Golden Age that saw the formation of a Utopian society where all respected and cared for those around them.

From this success, however, the Nephites slowly degenerated to the depths of civil war. As the civilization deteriorated, the Lamanites (enemies of the Nephites although they had also once been a part of the society) began to destroy these people and in time exterminated virtually all of them. According to Mormon theory these Lamanites were the predecessors of the American Indians—the last remnants of a once righteous Hebrew people. The Book of Mormon peoples, therefore, are presented as descendants of Joseph through Manasseh (Alma 8:3).

A painting by C.C.A. Christianson of Joseph Smith preaching to the Sac and Fox Indians who visited Nauvoo, Illinois, on August 12, 1841.

A painting by C.C.A. Christianson of Joseph Smith preaching to the Sac and Fox Indians who visited Nauvoo, Illinois, on August 12, 1841.

The early Latter-day Saints, who held the native population to be descendants of the ancient Lamanites, believed their Christianization one of the church’s highest callings. The conception of this missionary mandate to the Indians was well illustrated by a hymn published in the church’s first hymnbook in 1835:

O stop and tell me Red Man,

Who are ye? why you roam?

And how you get your living?

Have you no God; no home?


With stature straight and portly,

and deck’d in native pride,

With feathers, paints and broaches,

He willingly replied:


“I once was pleasant Ephraim,

“When Jacob for me pray’d;

“But oh! how blessings vanish,

“When man from God has stray’d!


“Before your nation knew us,

“Some thousand moons ago,

“Our fathers fell in darkness,

“And wander’d to and fro.


“And long they’ve liv’d by hunting,

“Instead of work and arts,

“And so our race has dwindled,

“To idle Indian hearts.


“Yet hope within us lingers,

“As if the Spirit spoke:-

‘He’ll come for your redemption,

‘And break your Gentile yoke:


And all your captive brothers,

‘From every clime shall come,

And quit their savage customs,

‘To live with God at home.


“Then joy will fill our bosoms,

“And blessing crown our days,

“To live in pure religion,

“And sing our Maker’s praise.”

Since they were both the children of Joseph—and therefore spiritual cousins—the Latter Day Saints and the American Indians were believed by the early Saints as kindred peoples who would come together to jointly build up an American New Jerusalem as the land of their eternal inheritance—their own “promised land.”

Indeed, a mere fifty-four verses into the Book of Mormon these Israelites are told that God would send them from Jerusalem to “a land of promise” (1 Nephi 1:54)—the American continent. According to the Book of Mormon God was giving this “land of promise” to the descendants of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) as the land of their inheritance—for both time and all eternity. The Book of Mormon peoples were given a “Promised Land” in the western hemisphere on condition of keeping God’s commandments.

Moroni, one of the Book of Mormon prophets, warned future inhabitants of this land: “Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free…if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:12). An evolving concept, later Joseph Smith declared that in the “last days” before Jesus Christ’s return to Earth and the advent of the millennium the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh would be gathered to the land of their “inheritance,” as the Jews would be gathered to the Jerusalem in Israel.

These descendants would build a city on the American continent that would be called “Zion” or “New Jerusalem” to coexist simultaneously with the Jerusalem of Israel that would also be built up. After the end of this age when “there shall be a new heaven and a new earth” both the American “New Jerusalem” and the Jerusalem of Israel would return to a renewed Earth. LDS converts also embraced the idea that the New Jerusalem is where the “lost ten tribes” will first come.

Joseph Smith continued to embellish his concept of America as a sacred space for Zion, “the New Jerusalem,” throughout the remainder of his life. In the early 1830s he undertook what he referred to as a “new translation” of the Bible that elaborated on America as a Promised Land of Zion. Not a translation in any strict sense of the term, he rewrote passages of the King James Version, adding and modifying as he thought appropriate, always contending that he was restoring through inspiration parts of the Bible lost over the centuries.

Moroni and Joseph Smith. From "Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet" (Salt Lake City: Stevenson, 1893), p. 21.

Moroni and Joseph Smith. From “Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet” (Salt Lake City: Stevenson, 1893), p. 21.

For example, in Smith’s revision of Genesis (chapters 6–7) written in December 1830, he told an extended story of Enoch, the father of Methuselah, suggesting that Enoch built a city for his followers—coincidentally also called “Zion” (Genesis 7:25). Smith wrote: “And the Lord called his people, Zion, because they were of one heart and of one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them. And Enoch continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the city of Holiness, even Zion.” Because of its righteousness, this city was ultimately “translated” and taken up into heaven. From that point on, many other righteous people were similarly “caught up…into Zion” (Genesis 7:34).

Moreover, in this scripture Enoch beheld in vision that in the last days before the return of Christ in triumph to usher in the millennial reign that the elect would be gathered “from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare; an holy city, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion; a New Jerusalem” (Genesis 7:27, 70).

Just prior to Jesus Christ’s return to usher in the millennium, Smith wrote in his revision of the Bible, another city of “Zion” would be built on the Earth that would also be called “a New Jerusalem” (Genesis 7:70). Upon His Second Coming, Jesus would bring Enoch’s heavenly Zion with Him and join it with the Earthly Zion that had been established on the Earth (Genesis 7:71–72). This lengthy—and highly inventive—insertion into the Genesis account provided additional support for an American Zion as conceptualized by Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers. The Enoch revelation suggests that Smith had begun to explore methodologies for understanding and controlling church community, sustenance, and the concept of Zion.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Gospel According to Lost”

The Gospel According to LostThe Gospel According to Lost
. By Chris Seay. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

My father used to say when he was unimpressed by some observation that it represented “a remarkable grasp of the obvious.” That is how I felt when reading The Gospel According to Lost. Chris Seay is a church planter, pastor, and “internationally acclaimed speaker.” Perhaps he should stick to that work because this book for all of its promise is neither particularly insightful about the relationship between the gospel and “Lost” nor especially helpful in laying out principles for righteous living and achieving social justice.

Seay had a lot to work in his effort to explore the religious dimension of Lost, the perplexing, fascinating, and often obscure television series that aired between 2004 and 2010. I wish he had done a better job. The show’s writers have been overt in their efforts to create a drama with a specific sense of good and evil—as well as the shades of gray—allowing characters to work out “right relationships” through a quest for enlightenment and justice. Each of the characters, all flawed in fundamental ways, represents a particular type of person drawn from sources ranging from the Bible to the latest pop culture fads; each also struggles and grows and changes in response to experiences on the island and in relation to the island. Seay begins the task of trying to lay out these issues, but then stops just as he might offer some insight or enlightenment. This tendency is the most infuriating aspect of The Gospel According to Lost. It left me with the sense that a banquet existed just beyond a veil and Seay was allowing a taste but blocking entry to the feast.

Let me offer one example. Seay comments, and this is nothing unusual since the writers used the same terminology on the show, that John Locke is a man of faith and Jack Shephard is a man of science. OK. Tell me something I didn’t know. Is this really true, and I would argue that it really isn’t for these two characters? But even if it were, what does it mean to be a man of faith or a man of science? Can one be one without the other? Are both men of the enlightenment more than anything else? The potential for a deep philosophical discussion exists when pondering these and other questions of a more sublime nature? The fodder for this discussion is present in “Lost” and Seay’s unwillingness or inability to pursue such an exploration ensures that this will be a disappointing book for anyone with basic curiosity.

I really looked forward to this book as a hefty investigation of the religious, spiritual, and moral implications of Lost. I agree they are present in the series virtually everywhere. I will have to await these possibilities when someone else explores them in another publication.

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The Latter-day Saint Movement and the Concept of a “Chosen People”

Joseph Smith Jr.

Perhaps the single most important tenet of Joseph Smith Jr.’s (1805-1844) theology in founding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)  was the identification of his followers as a “latter-day Israel.” This identification drove much of the rest of his scriptural and doctrinal innovation, from his concept of “law” and a restored “priesthood” to his identification of America—and specifically Independence, Missouri—as the “promised land” to which Jesus would one day return.

This represented an appropriation of ancient Israel’s sentiments and traditions, and especially its special status as God’s covenant people. The God revealed in the Old Testament made a covenant with Israel that should they keep his commandments they would be blessed and extolled above all others on the Earth. As God stated, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee [Abraham] and thy seed after thee…for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed” (Genesis 17:7). God then removed his persecuted people from Egypt and gave them material blessings of lands, cities, fields, and power. (Joshua 24:12). The Israelites, demonstrating their commitment to this God, obeyed strict ethical and ritualistic demands of priestly law. In the Old Testament, God leads and his chosen people follow, and both act. God was not passive, to be apprehended only by faith, but he moved in history and Israel knew him by what she saw him doing for her. Israel was not saved merely by faith, but by obedient action, by serving its God.

This approach is not unlike the replacement theology of Christians through the millennia since the first century church. A dominant view in Christianity insists that it is the New Israel, a continuation of the concept of Israel from the Old Testament. This view teaches that Christianity is the replacement for Israel and that the many promises made to Israel in the Bible are fulfilled in the Christian Church.

So, the prophecies in Scripture concerning the blessing and restoration of Israel to the Land of Promise are “spiritualized” into promises of God’s blessing for Christians. The Latter-day Saints, however, carried the replacement further, also substituting themselves for the Christian church.

According to early Mormons with the “great apostasy” of the true followers of God the ancient covenant, first passing from the Israelites to the early Christians, withered and God removed his gospel from the Earth until returned to Joseph Smith. Latter-day Saints accepted God’s covenant with Abraham and his lineage, but emphasized its departure after the death of Jesus, and explicitly state that this covenant was reestablished at the time of Joseph Smith (D&C 110:12). Known as the “new and everlasting covenant” (D&C 22:1; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:36-40), it is included in the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ practiced by Mormons.

Further, this new chosen people, favored by God above all others, implies a community willing to accept anything Joseph Smith chose to say was God’s complete law, which he claimed as latter-day revelation through himself as the church’s officially-sanctioned prophet. This requires an acknowledgment that God has spoken to both ancient and latter-day prophets and continues to do so. LDS believers early came to accept that the promises and blessings said to be bestowed on Israel at the end of days was no longer the inheritance of Israel but would now be bestowed on the followers of Joseph Smith.

Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

Such a perspective allowed the making of not a little mischief at the behest of Joseph Smith Jr. during the first generation of the Latter-day Saint church. Smith could enunciate any doctrine, command any action, order any demonstration of faith and his followers tended to accept it. Over time the followers of Joseph Smith followed him into all manner of esoteric and outlandish practices. These ranged from remarkably obscure temple practices such as baptism for the dead, sealing families together, and marriage for time and all eternity, to plural marriage and efforts to establish a theocracy as the end point of human history.

In all of this Mormon conceptions of themselves as a “chosen people” enable them to disregard any alternative group or position that did not recognize their primacy amongst all in the world. Fundamentally Mormonism as a movement was steeped in a deep disgust for American society and sought to build a refuge that would be able to weather a great apocalypse that was soon to come upon the Earth.

Those who embraced Smith’s message of a new chosen people saw little of worth in American civilization and sought a place in which all choices would be made for them, and Smith was happy to oblige. They longed to overcome secular influences in the pluralistic American society.

This Latter-day Saint paranoia that the world had gone awry and would subvert or co-opt them if it had the chance permeated every aspect of early Mormonism. The sense of specialness and apartness fed that belief.

The result was an effort to close off the outside world, to revitalize a magical Medieval world view in which Smith’s a theocratic order reigned supreme. No wonder Mormonism has so long been at odds with larger American society.

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Stars Wars/Top Gun?

Here are some select scenes from the Star Wars saga with the infamous Top Gun song “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins added. Here is the result.

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