I returned late last night from the John Whitmer Historical Association meeting in Omaha, Nebraska (the RLDS equivalent of the Mormon History Association). It was a great conference and I always enjoy driving along the Mormon trail, looking out at the Platte River and imagining the columns of Saints making their way to their new home in the west. Meetings with our RLDS (now Community of Christ) counterparts make it difficult not to compare and see the distinctions between us. I’ll confess, the differences don’t always fall in the Rocky Mountain Saints’ favor.
At the MHA meeting in Kirtland two years ago, we walked through the sites owned by the Community of Christ, notably the Kirtland Temple, and were greeted by professional historians willing to answer all of our questions. They were knowledgeable and knew the history of the sites well. When we walked through the LDS-owned sites, we were greeted by young sister missionaries who repeated the same brief stories about the rooms and buildings for each group, and then bore the same testimony – word for word – at the end of each room. At the end of one tour, we asked the kind Korean sister who’d been giving the tour a question or two. She did her best to explain to us that she didn’t know English, and that she had memorized her tour spiel and testimony. I find no fault with this dear, faithful Korean sister doing her best in the assignment she was given. But I was stunned that the Church wouldn’t bother to provide historians, or even just a volunteer who spoke English, to staff these sites while MHA attendees, the vast majority of which are already Church members, tried to learn more about the buildings and grounds.
This time around, at John Whitmer, two other distinctions were very obvious. First, as we discussed the history of the early restoration and our common heritage, I noticed the lack of tension in the room and among the members. History was not used as a way to convert people to the Church or build faith; nor was it used to tear down or attack the Church. History simply was. When Klaus Hansen spoke of his journey writing the history of the Council of Fifty, he made some very matter-of-fact comments about difficulties with LDS Church archives, particularly with General Authority G. Homer Durham and his well-known tight grip on the archives. Hansen didn’t make the comments critically, but he didn’t present it as a positive development; it was just what happened. No one shifted uncomfortably in their seats, or stormed out offended that someone would dare say something not perfectly faithful about a Church leader.
I couldn’t help but think there’s something to not tying so much of our faith into our history. It’s a difficult thing in Mormonism, but it can be done. The historian of the Community of Christ can speak of Joseph Smith and his legacy without having to defend the prophet every five minutes. He can talk of Joseph’s polyandrous marriages to ten women without having to stop and assume an apologetic perspective for what he’s saying. Community of Christ historians treat Mormon history much the way American historians treat American history: They admire the men and women they write about, and you can see the fondness they feel as they speak. But they don’t have a crisis of identity or patriotism when they write about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as slave owners. They write it because it’s true, so far as the evidence explains. Robert Dallek wrote of John F. Kennedy admiringly, but didn’t wonder if he could still like Kennedy when he wrote about his affairs with multiple women. This is the Community of Christ approach to history, and I wonder if we could learn from it.
Finally, the greatest distinction between the two movements comes whenever I hear Grant McMurray, president of the Community of Christ, speak. He approaches faith and history with the question of what they can do to help be good people today. While I think the LDS Church does the same, often we are slaves to our history, insisting that things be done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. When you believe your past comes from God, it makes it tough to change the present, no matter how necessary.
President McMurray’s closing address Sunday morning was a masterpiece. He talked of going to the Nauvoo Temple to the open-house and walking through. He recalled being given booties (no, not that kind of booty!) to put over his shoes. He said he was not offended at this request, and completely understood it. But it did give him cause to pause and think about the divergent ways the two movements view sacred space. He humorously talked of Rocky Mountain Mormons standing in awe at a truck stop in the middle of Nebraska because Brigham Young may have walked there. He said that if you were to ask Community of Christ members what their most important sacred spaces are, most would respond that the campgrounds, where they went on youth camps, are sacred to them. This is where they ruminated over their faith with friends, where they experienced things that forever contributed to their faith journey. President McMurray pointed out that the youth stayed up past curfew, sneaking around to visit other youth. Minds would wander during the testimony meetings and church meetings, and young pranks would be pulled when serious minds ought to be prevailing.
But it is precisely because of these human foibles that makes the space sacred, because our humaness is mixed with spirituality, President McMurray insisted. He told of attending literally hundreds of meetings about the construction of the RLDS temple in Independence, where lengthy discussions would go on and on about what’s appropriate for the temple, and what should be allowed in different rooms, particularly the Sanctuary. A few months after the temple was built and dedicated, the youth had their first meeting. In the sanctuary, a large, inflated globe of the world (picture a beach ball) was symbolically passed around, showing that the youth are the future of the world. It took about two seconds before the ball was being batted around, as if the youth were at a baseball game. This went on while each hand tried to touch the ball. Was President McMurray shocked or outraged? No; this is what makes sacred spaces sacred. Our humanity, trying to become better, is what creates the sacred. A building is not sacred simply because we deem it as such. It is sacred because of what we experience there, and what it does to help build our faith. President McMurray closed by asking us to remove the booties from our shoes, and plant our very human feet on sacred ground.