Mormons, Urban Legends, and the Need to Believe

Perhaps part of my skepticism about belief stems from my fascination with urban legends. I find the human need to believe that which will confirm our perspective on the world to speak volumes. We all do it – no one is immune. If you follow urban legends, even with just the occasional visit to www.snopes.com, you’re well aware that people believe things that simply aren’t true.

Mormons are no different. We swap stories meant to remind us of the divinity of Mormonism, of our status as a “peculiar” people, of our special favor with God, and of God’s personal involvement with each and every one of us. Some of our urban legends appear to be homegrown. Many, however, are adapted from wider Christian legends and made to fit the Mormon perspective. For example, take the story about sister missionaries saved from rapist/murderers because the would-be killer was scared by the “three big Indian guys” standing behind them. This story made several rounds outside the Church before hitting the Mormon circuit, featuring a good Christian girl instead of sister missionaries and angels instead of the Three Nephites. The creepy story about no missionaries showing up for a zone conference in the World Trade Center on 9/11 (because why hold a conference in a chapel when you can rent space in an expensive office building) was borrowed from an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory insisting no Jews were in the World Trade Center.

Other Mormon urban legends abound: The little girl who, after she survives an accident that kills her parents, recognizes Jesus in a painting as the man that helped her following the accident. A maintenance worker sees a light on in the temple late at night, makes some phone calls, and learns (sometimes from the Prophet himself) that Christ is home (the temple being the House of the Lord and all). Two missionaries are rejected by a town, and when they dust their feet off as they leave the town is soon destroyed by a natural disaster.

Here’s my question: is it that big of a leap from someone who believes that a little girl recognized Jesus in a picture as the man who rescued her, to someone who believes in the miracle of the seagulls? Today, urban legends can usually be debunked (though a story’s status as urban legend doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true) by any number of methods. But the more time we place between us and an event, the more room for leeway. Despite some historical dilemmas surrounding the traditional seagull story, it’s easy to say that “we just don’t know” or “well, a handful of journal entries doesn’t prove anything.”

Is there a difference between today’s urban legends and historical stories we point to as evidence of the divinity of our faith? (The primary difference might obviously be that urban legends involve “a friend of a friend” and usually anonymous participants. The story of Brigham Young’s transfiguration doesn’t involve a “friend of a friend.”) We seem to tell these stories for the same reason: to strengthen belief. Put another way, does our need to believe blind us to the possibility that what we’re hearing might not be true? I’m not necessarily talking about the ultimate truth of Mormonism, but the stories we tell to convince ourselves of that truth. And when we say “I have faith that Church history stories are real,” is it any different than saying, “I have faith that a janitor got the Prophet on the phone at 2:00 AM to find out that Christ was in the temple?”

Comments

  1. John, with some of these stories can we differentiate based on some sort of proximity to key doctrinal points or nexus with some points? I guess I’m asking because if you take the urban legend tack too far, pretty soon you reduce the BoM to urban legend, or any other historical event in Church history — heck, even the Atonement. There’s clearly got to be a point where these faith-related stories are no longer important, but I’m not sure where to draw the line.

  2. “We seem to tell these stories for the same reason: to strengthen belief” I totally agree with that premise. It seems to be somewhat of a circular thought. If we choose to believe the faith building stories then our faith actually increases, which is always a good thing. I think a recent experience is related to that issue.

    I was having a conversation with our current bishop. He was my second counselor when I served in the previous term as bishop of the ward. We discussed the idea that when people come to the bishop for a blessing, their expectations are greater than when someone in their family or their home teacher gives them a blessing. This can be a bad thing but it is usually a good thing. They have greater faith that the bishop’s blessing will actually help them and so they look harder for the evidence of that fact. They may find a small bit of evidence that they were benefited by the blessing, so small that it might be overlooked had not their faith in the bishop’s blessing been so great. Therefore, their faith increases in the power of the priesthood and their lives improve by way of that experience. I’s not suggesting that the bishop’s blessing was not, actually, helpful to them but I’m suggesting that their increased faith had as much to do with the blessing as the faith of the bishop.

    Likewise, when we hear faith promoting stories it increases our faith and we are better for it. We may even tell our skeptical selves, in the back of our mond, that it is just an urban legend but if we allow some possibility that it is true, we will benefit from that belief.

  3. Lamonte, I don’t find your argument entirely persuasive–you seem to be saying that faith is a good thing, and that more faith is always better. I only want to have more faith if what I have faith in is *true.*

  4. I suppose it depends on the person telling or hearing it and what their expectations are for the stories to be real. Most faith building stories are taken in good faith (no pun intended) that the speaker is genuine and not stretching the truth. Pres. Monson uses these a lot, but I have faith they are true when he says they happened to him.

    Most of the time, it shouldn’t hurt as long as someone doesn’t build thier testimony on purely word of mouth urban mythology.

  5. Kristine, you make an excellent point. I suppose I’m working from the premise that what you believe IS true (the existence of God, the restored gospel, etc.) What I find most disheartening are those who have had faith promoting experiences enough to convince themselves of the truth and then lose their committment because they have not deliberately put themselves in a position to have more experiences. I have spent a good deal of my life as a luke warm church member and, generally speaking, a skeptic. But certain personal experiences within the last 15 years of my life have changed me – not enough to rid myself of some skepticism – but enough to keep me pointed in the right direction. I find an important aspect in keeping my direction is to re-live some past experiences or to make sure that I have more experiences. This usually comes through the music I listen to or the things that I read. These experiences help to strengthen a belief that I already know exists but that sometimes gets a little dim.

  6. I’m with Kristine – I don’t want to have “faith” in or believe in something unless it is the truth. Of course, this makes belief in the unproveables difficult, although not impossible. The way I approach stories like these that we tell in church, to children, to each other, to investigators … is with almost total disbelief. I don’t believe much that I don’t experience as a personal spiritual truth. I try not to rain on anyone else’s spiritual parade, as I recognize that I do not in fact know whether any given faith-promoting story has experiential truth. I do, however, refrain from telling or repeating or believing in these stories for my own self. Of course, I have my own experiences that I believe have truth, and I treasure them. But I would not expect anyone else to believe them, because another person most likely does not have knowledge or confirmation of their truth.

  7. I guess I have one quibble with John’s post: I don’t think urban legends are a significant part of the Church. Now, before you laugh me off the board, consider:

    How often do people really take those stories seriously? I’m a life-long member from the heart of Salt Lake City and have lived in Los Angeles for 20+ years. The wards I have lived in are absolutely typical. My experience is that such folk tales are idle chatter and just about everyone sees tham them as such. Every now and then I hear one of those stories but they are almost always prefaced with a disclaimer, such as “I really have no idea whether this is true but it it kind of interesting.” I do not hear them in Gospel Doctrine classes or priesthood lessons or sacrament meeting talks. The one about the missionaries and the World Trade Center on 9/11 was circulated on some e-mails but a bishop in our stake de-bunked the tale within two or three days.

    There are many bases on which LDS culture can be criticized and ridiculed (and this board does its share of that, I must say) but I don’t think a reliance or over-emphasis on folk tales is one of them. We are probably less prone to to do that than other cultures, due to our faith’s teaching that everyone should have his or her own personal spiritual witness of the gospel’s truthfulness.

  8. Actually Lowell, I tend to agree with you. And I think your point at the end, about the Church’s encouragement for each person to gain his or her own testimony, is a good explanation (just don’t be one of those who doesn’t manage to gain that testimony). My point isn’t about the frequency of urban legends, however, it’s just that I find they do resemble our stories about the past, meant to inspire belief. There are of course differences, but the key seems to be that they exist to encourage belief.

    I also think Christina has a good point as well – if we experience something first-hand (such as a spiritual witness of the First Vision) then it’s a bit different than repeating stories we like because they confirm our worldview. But then, where do we draw the line between passing on rumors and urban legends and bearing testimony?

    I, like Kris, would also quibble with the idea that if it’s faith-promoting, it’s good. It isn’t good if someone reads The Work and the Glory, for example, then later learns Church history didn’t happen like that and has their testimony harmed. As the great Albus Dumbledore once said, “Truth is always preferable to lies.”

  9. D. Fletcher says:

    Trust me to say the controversial thing (read no further if it’s bothersome). People believe in unknown/unseen things because it’s pleasurable. They like it, and they dismiss or ignore evidence of the real truth because it’s bothersome.

    The reason to believe in some urban legends is the same as fascination in a car accident or fire: there but for the Grace of God go I. If God saved those missionaries from terrible death on 9/11, he’ll save me too because I’m one of the chosen, too.

    People believe because they want to. If missionaries can get investigators to “want” to believe, the job to conversion is 90% over. Get investigators to feel the pleasure of faith, and they’ll stick around.

    Similarly, some who no longer feel the pleasure of the Gospel probably will stop believing it.

    This sounds a little simplistic, and it is, to make the point. Obviously, everyone’s experience with faith (and with urban legends) is going to be a little bit different. But humans need validation, and tend to veer towards other humans who validate them, who make them feel good.

    Joseph Smith had a talent for making people feel chosen, wanted, validated.

  10. D. Fletcher, I’m interested in your last sentence, “Joseph Smith had a talent for making people feel chosen, wanted, validated.” It’s consistent with what I know about him, but you are making a fairly definitive statement there. Do you have any basis for it? And are you saying that Joseph’s success with his followers was based primarily on his charisma and interpersonal skills? If so, what evidence can you point to?

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    Sorry, Lowell, LOL, I didn’t really mean to be so definitive. I meant, Joseph had a way of making people believe stuff that they literally could not see. Like golden plates, for instance. Joseph’s charisma must have been so great, that people got a lot of pleasure out of believing in him.

    I’m not saying that what he said was true, wasn’t. I’m saying that the vessel the Lord chose to reveal the truth was a great one, Joseph Smith. Had the truth come from some less attractive, sterner, less charismatic, perhaps the Church wouldn’t have taken hold. The Lord needed someone to make people enjoy the truth, want to believe, and Joseph was certainly that.

  12. Christina, I’ve given some more thought to your comments and to the comments of Kristine and I don’t mean to make too much about this minor issue but I thought about a talk I gave several years ago in church. I told a story, which I assume was true, as told by an elderly woman in National Geographic magazine about an experience she had as a small girl growing up in Northern Idaho in the early 1900’s. She told a basic story of how her father had done a kind deed for a Nez Perce Indian family and in turn, they did many kindnesses for her family for years to come. I was contrasting that experience with another that I had witnessed while attending college in Northern Idaho in the 70’s where the actions of some were quite the opposite of what the elderly woman had witnessed. Her story was pretty matter-of-fact and didn’t give much detail. So I added detail. I told my audience that I was speculating on the embellishments to the story but I tried to add words that would make the father’s act of kindness, and the follow up acts by the Nez Perce family, seem even more noble than the woman had made them sound. Was my story true? Certainly not all of it was but hopefully it instilled in the listeners the idea that we need to follow the Lord’s teachings and do as he would have us do. If an urban legend that has been passed down for years and changed to meet circumstances does the same thing for the listener, then I see no harm in that and, in fact, I think it’s a good thing.

  13. Lamonte,
    I suppose we disagree about the necessity of underlying factual truth for the validity of a story. While both factual and non-factual stories can promote faith, make people feel good, inspire good deeds, I assert that your (or anyone’s) failure to stick to the facts has undesirable consequences. I think this is pointed up in John’s post. Would you feel as good about the Book of Mormon if you learned that it was factually untrue, although it still inspired you to do good acts and believe in God? Some people are content with that, but I am not.

  14. I think many people exaggerate. Likewise distance makes us remember the events in light of other events, and to discount those apsects we don’t like. It’s an unfortunate property of memory. When stories are told to make a point, we emphasize those aspects that fit the point and downplay those aspects that don’t. I suspect both these phenomena occur in most “tellings” including the scriptures.

    Urban legends, however, often have the ring of truth, resemble something we’ve heard, or seem initially plausible. They are told over and over again, with the origins being lost. However not all are without merit.

    Some stories when investigated are far less than they initially appear in the telling (i.e. the seagulls and the crickets story). Others upon closer examination appear more dubious (i.e. the wandering Moroni in Utah stories, or the wandering Cain story). Others appear more believable. (The tale of German saints adding in candles to Sacrament services during WWII) Some are ambiguous and whether one believes them or not depends upon ones prior commitments. (i.e. the transfiguration of Brigham Young)

  15. Whoops – hit return too soon.

    What’s so interesting is how many urban legends that are true on examination. For instance I can think of several “urban legend” missionary stories that I heard which were absolutely true and I knew the people involved. Probably though the stories related to oft repeated shenanigans of missionaries and not just one event.

    My point is, that often the problematic stories are the ones that are easiest to fact check and on the surface just ring false. Further often you can tell the quality of the story on the basis of who told it.

    Having said that there are a few great faith promoting missionary stories that I’ve heard. They seem somewhat plausible but are the sort I wouldn’t be surprised to hear were false. Usually ones involving “Running Men” or Shapeshifters and missionaries out in the Navaho deserts.

  16. Jonathan Green says:

    John, concering urban legends and personal testimony, I think the difference is quite clear: one the one hand, we say, “this guy once had this great experience…” while on the other, we say (or, at least, are supposed to say), “I believe X” (and also, I hope, “because of Y, which I myself experienced”). One reason I don’t like faith-promoting stories at all is that they tend to diminish and cheapen the real spiritual experiences that we have or believe in. I think it’s possible for Mormon urban legends to become testimony crutches, and that is Not A Good Thing.

    Your question more directly addressed accounts of historical miracles, and here the comparison is appropriate. Legends have been tied to religion for a very long time. The word ‘legend’ is itself the present passive participle of Latin ‘legere’, “to read”: ‘legenda’ are “the things that are to be read”; in the Middle Ages, a saint’s legend was his or her spiritual biography and one of the staples of monastic reading. We are not the first people to have stories about miracles, martyrs, and confessors.

    The saints’ legends from the Middle Ages make me hesitate to see promoting belief (in the narrow sense) as the primary concern of our own faith-promoting stories. It’s an issue, of course, but there are others: what people and institutions benefit from belief in a given version of a story, and which lose out? what actions does a story promote or legitimate? who owns a story? What is a story’s agenda? (Latin again: “things that are to be done.”) Scholarship on medieval legends tends to be less concerned with how saints’ lives promote a general belief in orthodox Catholicism and more concerned with the specific historical circumstances that led to a particular text. For contemporary Mormon urban legends, I think we can aim for much more specific results than finding simply that a story in circulation promotes belief.

    Example: that stupid story about the zone conference on 9/11 wouldn’t do much for the belief of non-Mormons, I would guess. But for people who already believe, the story shores up support for the missionary program as presently constituted. At a time when sending young men out into the world seems needlessly perilous to some, while at the same time young men would seem to others better employed as soldiers against our enemies, the 9/11 zone conference story reaffirms that the Lord protects missionaries and supports their assignment in proselytizing. (With more time and work, someone should be able to come up with a much more specific contextualization than this.)

    I guess, then, that church history stories, like urban legends, aren’t terribly sturdy foundations for faith. For that, try scripture reading, fasting, prayer, following the commandments, and so on. For analyzing stories in church history and faith-promoting stories alike, I think there are are more interesting aspects than just the degree to which they promote belief.

  17. Jonathan Green says:

    On the other hand: because of all those Mormon adaptations of the disappearing hitchhiker legend, an office mate who was TA’ing a folklore course asked me one day, “Who are the three Nephites?” I had no choice but to explain the Book of Mormon, the organization of the early church, and Christ’s visit to the New World.

  18. A couple comments about urban legends.

    Many “legends” occur because they are thematic — that is, they are a natural occurance. In the Church I can think of many missionary stories that actually happen over and over again. The spread of the stories wears down until they happen again. It is like mice in Coke bottles.

    Are they legends that never happened? I’ve seen people pontificating that mice in coke bottles never happened … most law students encounter reported cases involving them. When an appellate court is reviewing a specific incident, it is more likely than not that it happened.

    Even some of the more outrageous urban legends are true at times, thinking of one that was debunked at scopes.com while related litigation was running its course in Wichita Falls, Texas.

    As for others My experience is that such folk tales are idle chatter and just about everyone sees tham them as such. fits my experience as well.

    Finally, there are folk lore stories. They linger on, not really believed in, but transmitted just enough that they don’t fade away or require another dose of real examples to keep them going (like the missionaries hijinks stories that fade away until they happen again). What is just as interesting is the stories that fade all the way away — I often wonder what makes the core difference between a story that fades and one that lingers — not to mention, the difference between a story I’ve heard and one that I’ve encountered for the first time here.

    ______________________

    Postscript, some stories come easily from glib remarks (e.g. A maintenance worker sees a light on in the temple late at night, makes some phone calls, and learns (sometimes from the Prophet himself) that Christ is home (the temple being the House of the Lord and all).,) as they do from someone making the story up. I’ve seen that happen with my children when they were young.

  19. Speaking of stories, I’ve always found that I tone them down from what really happened. It is interesting to look at people who dress things up vs. those who tone them down.

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