Interpreting Spiritual Experiences

In 1877, shortly after the dedication of the St. George Temple, Wilford Woodruff reported what would become one of the most beloved stories in Mormonism. He described a visitation by the Founding Fathers of America, who demanded to know why their temple work had not been performed in the Endowment House. After the experience, Woodruff quickly had the work performed for these Brethren and their wives, including such luminaries as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Although this story has been repeated often to encourage Latter-day Saints to attend the temple and perform work for the deceased, I believe it has far more important implications and teachings. It turns out, of the people that appeared in vision, almost all had their temple work performed prior to their visit to Woodruff. George Washington in fact, had been baptized no fewer than three times. Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and others had their work performed by John Bernheisel in the Endowment House – the same Endowment House that the visitors insisted had not been utilized in their behalf. Why would these spirit beings maintain that their work needed to be done, when in fact it had already been performed (in some cases more than once)?

This experience, like so many others, can tell us something about the difficulty in interpreting our spiritual experiences. At the outset, I think it’s important to note that there is no reason to believe Wilford Woodruff was lying about his experience. It seems clear that, at the very least, he believed something had happened. He did go on to baptize these brethren and their wives – something he probably wouldn’t have done had he not been somehow prompted or inspired to do so. My friend Brian Stuy, who researched this topic and published his findings in the Journal of Mormon History, theorizes that Woodruff saw no difference between his dreams and actual visions, and perhaps Woodruff’s dream became a vision with various retellings.

How do we know we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly? They are immediately filtered through the lens which we view the world, making it hard to keep them pure. We all know someone who prays and receives an answer that the Book of Mormon is true, and the next thing we know, they’ve interpreted that to mean they must vote a straight-Republican ticket, attend BYU, don CTR jewelry, and pray in restaurants. But such extremes aren’t the only examples. What about a friend of mine who had a powerful spiritual experience while holding a document penned by Joseph Smith, only to later learn it was a Hofmann forgery? If we experience the divine when reading the Book of Mormon, does it really mean it’s true, or does it simply mean we’re in the right place at the right time?

Is Woodruff’s experience a cautionary tale – warning us to be careful in reading too much into our encounters with the divine? Or is it a lesson about finding value in all things, regardless of the accuracy or truth of how we deconstruct our spirituality? Or is it something else entirely?

Abraham and Isaac

If you haven’t noticed from my posts, there are many issues which I haven’t thought about in great detail or depth, but that I like to pontificate about anyway. One such issue is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in the book of Genesis.

I’m no scriptorian or scholar of any kind of the Old Testament. So my hope is that some will be able to shed a positive light on what strikes me as an appalling story – at least the way it is used in the Church. Given that much is made of Abraham’s tremendous love of Isaac, I assume the story is one of the importance of submitting to God’s will and being obedient. The obvious allusion to the sacrifice of Christ is also present. Yet this particular story carries some very unpleasant baggage with it about the nature of God and what he might ask us to do.

For my part, I picture the story in today’s time and world, and any attempt to make it personal leaves me sick. If any parent attempted to sacrifice their child by claiming God told them to do it, would any of us have any doubt that they were nuts? Would any of us hesitate to contact the proper authorities if a relative, friend, or neighbor mentioned they needed to sacrifice their child? Can any of us imagine raising a knife to our own children, ready to cut their throats or stab their hearts? Such an image is fairly graphic, but I think if we embrace a literal interpretation of these scriptures, we should be aware of precisely what such a sacrifice entails.

Certainly there are better ways to teach us about the importance of obedience, submission to God’s will, and the importance of the Savior’s atonement. I can’t fathom feeling too kindly towards anyone or anything that demanded I kill my own child. How would one worship God in confidence after such an event? If God is our parent, shouldn’t he of all people understand? Can you imagine telling your own child to get ready to kill a beloved pet or possession, only to say “Just kidding! – I just wanted to test you” at the last minute?

I have yet to find much that is positive in the story. I love the words of Clifton Jolley at the Sunstone symposium in Dallas: “There’s only one answer a parent should ever give when asked to kill a child – N0! You respond to the request by saying, ‘You’re God; give him cancer, and his mother and I will take care of him before he dies.'”

A Few Thoughts on ‘Believing’ and ‘Doing’

Over at some other blog, in a topic that seems to be winding down, a comment made by Jared really grabbed my attention. He said, “As Nate Oman and others never tire of pointing out, the church mostly cares about what we do rather than what we believe.”

Upfront I have to say I’m not familiar with previous threads or discussions that have touched on this topic. So I’m most likely misunderstanding what Nate and others have been trying to say and what their perspectives are. (Nate’s obviously a very thoughtful fellow and I have no doubt he’s put a lot into his reasoning, as always.)

That said, this notion that the Church cares more about doing than believing is pretty much foreign to my own experience. I’m one who wanders through Mormonism wary of saying precisely what I believe in Church. I don’t want to suggest that my experiences or my perspective are somehow evidence that my paranoia is correct. I’m truly very curious as to what others’ experiences are and if people think my concern about speaking out is without merit.

My experience tells me: If I don’t show up to help someone in Elder’s Quorum move, no one says a word. If I miss my home teaching, no one calls to chastise me. If I don’t sign up to do a cannery assignment, not a word of disapproval is uttered in my direction. I’ve had times in my Church activity where I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) participate all that much. No one talked to me, no one criticized me, no one approached me and asked me what my problem was. I showed up to Church each week and coasted by.

On the occasions I’ve dared venture my beliefs in Church, it hasn’t gone so well. When I introduced the Book of Mormon to my Gospel Doctrine class, I touched very briefly on Joseph’s money digging. I suggested that Joseph used his seeing talents to try and provide for his poor family before realizing that he had a much higher calling and that there were more important ways to use his gift. One woman a week later told me how disturbed she had been at what I said and pointedly told me not to stray from the manual, since that’s all the Brethren had approved. When I mentioned that the Melchizedek Priesthood was probably restored in 1830 and not 1829, two people were so angry I thought after Church they’d be heading to the hardware store to pick up torches and pitchforks.

During a discussion while I worked at Deseret Book, the topic of progression between degrees of glory came up. I mentioned President McKay’s letter that said we don’t know if it is possible, and I also pointed out that some leaders had said it would be possible, while others quite strongly insisted it would not. One man (these were employees chatting in the breakroom – not customers) became very uncomfortable and said he didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about this. Another woman actually began to cry and said this was the reason her brother had left the Church, and why did people like me refuse to believe the truth (in this case, the truth was that you could not progress between kingdoms).

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say I’m not persuaded that these are just a few anecdotal stories that prove nothing. These kinds of disagreements are hardly over fundamental points of doctrine. So here’s my problem: Given the experiences I’ve had and the experiences I’ve seen others go through, I proceed through Church convinced that if I spoke up, I would not be accepted. Perhaps it isn’t fair to assume how people would act. But I can’t see it being too well received if I said that I didn’t believe the Book of Mormon was a historical record, or if I mentioned my support for gay marriage.

The temple recommend interview, which seems to be the primary criteria for determining worthiness in the Church, seems to be mostly about belief. Yes, many things involve both believing and doing, such as the Word of Wisdom. But I suspect one’s condemnation would be the same regardless of whether they actually broke the Word of Wisdom or whether they said they believed it was ok to break it.

In short, the Mormon community I’ve grown up in and lived seems to have repeatedly demonstrated to me that it’s beliefs that get you in trouble or get you accepted. I’ve seen it as my father’s left the Church, as friends in Sunstone have been looked upon with suspicion, and as I’ve garnered more raised eyebrows than you can count. If you stray from the orthodox perspective, someone will be there to correct you or remind you that you’re wrong. Granted, most people probably won’t say anything. But we don’t pay attention to those who don’t come up to us, while we tend to make a pretty big deal out of the ones that do.

First Presidency Adds New Statement to Letter on Political Neutrality

The First Presidency has written the expected letter on political neutrality and by now it has been read over most pulpits throughout the U.S. But this year as I sat in Sacrament and heard the letter, I could swear there was a new addition. As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong. (You can view the full text of the letter here.) The last line in this year’s letter reads, “In addition, members who hold public office should not give the impression they represent the Church as they work for solutions to social problems.”

For those of us living in Utah, this (at least at first glance) seems like an obvious allusion to the Utah State Legislature (which is 90% LDS). In recent years the Legislature has prompted almost half a dozen statements from the Church in an effort to clarify its position after the Church was cited as a reason behind proposed legislation. One such statement addressed the issue of concealed weapons in Church. The ultra-conservative legislature insisted those with concealed weapons permits have a right to carry their 9mm glock into a school or church building. Some legislators expressed their genuine shock and surprise when the Church announced it was opposed to weapons in their buildings and would take the steps necessary to prevent such weapons.

Another surprise for conservatives in Utah came when the Church announced it did not oppose a bill to create hate-crime legislation. Gayle Ruzicka, director of the Utah Eagle Forum (a group so conservative they make John Birchers look like socialists) insisted the Church’s statement on the hate-crimes bill had been misunderstood, and then she graciously took the time to tell everyone exactly what the Church really meant. In response, the Church actually released another statement effectively chastising Ruzicka (a member of the Church) by reiterating that it did not oppose the hate-crime bill and that any attempt to attribute any other meaning to their first statement was a mistake.

Most recently, a political group that supported a bill that would have made it impossible for undocumented workers to get a drivers license, cited LDS teachings of honoring and sustaining the law as a reason why the bill should pass. The group also insisted the Church would not give a temple recommend to an illegal immigrant. The Church issued yet another statement, saying it had no position on the bill in the legislature, and that illegals can have temple recommends, since they are issued based on personal worthiness, not nationality.

So for the millionth time in the bloggernacle, what is it with some Mormons and politics? I just learned that church-owned Deseret Book has received several complaints from customers who are incensed that the store would dare carry Bill Clinton’s memoir. As one customer put it, “Deseret Book used to be my safe haven. Now I can’t even trust it.”

Are most Mormons political conservatives who just can’t fathom that someone would be a Mormon and a liberal? Or are a few squeaky wheels getting lots of oil in the media and in our minds? Am I just so annoyed at people like those who complain to Deseret Book that I magnify them in my own mind to be more representative than they really are?

Growing Old Ungracefully

I was getting a haircut today (for the record, I get my hair cut at a posh salon known as “Dollar Cuts”) when the stylist had to run to the front to make an appointment for a walk-in. While she was gone, I looked down at some of the hair that had fallen in my lap. It looked remarkably like salt and pepper. “That’s impossible,” I thought. I’ll find a rogue gray hair now and then, but I’m 27 years old and I hardly look gray. I also didn’t have my glasses on so I figured there must be some mistake.

Turns out, it isn’t. Gray hair seemed to surround me – to mock me. I never thought I’d be this kind of guy, but I don’t handle getting older well. I know I don’t qualify as “old” – not by a long shot. But I’ve had a very enjoyable last five or so years. Childhood and adolescence wasn’t kind to me, so being a young, post-missionary Mormon was pretty sweet.

To get to the point, I think dealing with age and death is where a lot of Church members have me beat. I’m the kind of person who says living is a lot more important than believing, that life is short so make the most of it, and that the here and now is a lot more appealing than the hereafter. So I find, unlike most faithful Church members I meet, that I don’t deal well when pondering old age or death. I like living and what life has to offer. And my inherent skepticism means I can’t be all that confident of where (if anywhere) I’ll be headed when I give up the ghost. Getting old is pretty much the one thing we’re all guaranteed, so it seems silly to fret over it at all. And the rational person in my mind tells me that very thing. But I still find I do it.

So, any advice for a young fellow who hasn’t the wisdom, experience, or mind to deal with the inevitable in a very thoughtful way?

Are Mormon Men Repressed?

In the wake of Jennifer’s great post on the supposed repression of Mormon women, I thought I’d ask if Mormon men are repressed. As a Mormon man, I’ve certainly never been confronted the way Jennifer was and told that I’m repressed. On the surface, it looks like we’ve got it pretty sweet.

But deep down, are we not allowed to participate in the world of maleness? Let’s look at some facts:

* Mormon men can’t drink beer, arguably a strong part of American male identity
* Mormon men generally are discouraged from watching shoot ‘em up, profanity laced movies, with all the scantily clad women you can shake a stick at.
* Some Mormon men might even be denied the sacred joy of watching football on Sunday
* With the emphasis put on families, Mormon men may not feel like they can spend evenings or weekends with “the guys”
* Mormon men may suffer an identity crisis – encouraged to weep during Sacrament meeting, yet discouraged from weeping during Steel Magnolias
* Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, with the Church’s emphasis on industry, hard work, providing for oneself and family, Mormon men may be denied that trait so beautifully embodied in Doug Heffernen, Homer Simpson, and others: Laziness

Of course, there’s mostly sarcasm above, but I truly am interested in the differences between Mormon men and “wordly” (I hate that word!) men. I’ve actually heard one ex-Mormon argue that Mormon men are emasculated by the Church – just a teensy bit extreme in my opinion. But are there male rights of passage or other aspects of maleness that Mormon men are missing out on that they shouldn’t?

Another Round: DNA, Zelph, and the Book of Mormon

Patty Henetz of the Associated Press has written an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon, focusing on geneticist Simon Southerton and his forthcoming book, Losing a Lost Tribe. Although DNA and the Book of Mormon has probably made the rounds through the bloggernacle, I suspect it’s a story that won’t go away for a while. I find the DNA issue to be fascinating, though hardly the death knell for the Book of Mormon that some portray it as. But I had an experience sometime ago that both troubled me and helped me resolve many of these issues, albeit perhaps unsatisfactorily for most members.

After hearing about the Zelph story here and there, and remembering it when I read History of the Church on my mission, I decided to do some digging. As a quick reminder, the Zelph story goes as follows: While on Zion’s camp, some bones are unearthed on top of a small mound. Joseph Smith declares that the man was Zelph, a white Lamanite and a righteous man.

I expected to hear that the Zelph story couldn’t be taken seriously as an actual event – it was just a rumor. It turns out at least 7 or 8 people present at the camp reported on Zelph, including Wilford Woodruff. President Woodruff recorded in his journal that Joseph had a revelation, and that he learned that Zelph was a warrior under the great Prophet Onandagus. After doing my reading, I came away pretty convinced that the Zelph episode did in fact take place.

The first problem with this story is immediately evident. If Joseph had a revelation about Zelph, what does that mean for the limited geography theory? If the Book of Mormon took place, as we’re now told, in a small area in Mesoamerica, how did Zelph’s bones end up on a mound in Illinois? For whatever reason, that didn’t affect me too much. What surprised me, to the point where I had what might be called an epiphany, was reading about this great Prophet Onandagus that Zelph served under. I served my mission in upstate New York – just slightly east of Palmyra. One of the areas I served in was Onandaga County, one county over from where Joseph Smith lived. Coincidence? I think not.

I know it probably seems silly, but this information struck me hard. Rarely have a felt so sure of something: Joseph Smith was making stuff up. I’d always been able to negotiate my doubts and my faith without making scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, a casualty. It seemed now I couldn’t even keep the most basic parts of my faith safe from my Sunstone side. Since this experience, I’ve calmed down, chilled out – relaxed a bit, if you will. The reality is I don’t know what the Zelph story means. I see several possibilities:

1. The Zelph affair never happened. One or two men saw Joseph looking at the bones on a mound, told some of the other men, a story got cooked up and passed on as truth. Or, Joseph speculated a bit, and it was reported as revelation. (For the record, I think this is highly unlikely. The consistency and specifics with which the men report the event are impressive.)

2. The Zelph affair did happen, and Joseph did have a revelation. The limited geography theory is simply wrong, or flawed, and Lamanites and Nephites did live in what is now Illinois, despite what current research and science suggests.

3. The Zelph affair did happen, and Joseph did have a revelation. However, the bones were actually not that of Zelph, but this event was a way for God to strengthen those who were in his service in Zion’s camp. They may have been feeling down and out, and this boosted their spirits. The theological implications of God revealing something that isn’t true are problematic, but I also think this possibility need remain open.

4. The Zelph affair did happen, but Joseph received no revelation. Instead, he made it up to boost the men’s spirits and remind them of the divinity of their mission. This does not necessarily invalidate the Book of Mormon, but suggests that Joseph was willing to lie to help people.

5. The Zelph affair did happen, but Joseph received no revelation. He not only made this story up, but made the entire Book of Mormon up. He was, as Dan Vogel might suggest, a pious fraud.

I’ll confess I’m partial to number 4. (I’ve left off a few other variations on these possibilities, such as Joseph was delusional.) What this experience forced me to do, for the first time, was look at what I valued in the scriptures. I was guilty of what a lot of us are guilty of – I paid lip service to things I didn’t really believe. We say that we don’t try and prove the Book of Mormon true, because we’re really only interested in its spiritual message and witness of Christ. But how do we react when it’s veracity as a historical book is challenged? FARMS, for example, will spend one paragraph in a book saying that the spiritual witness the Book of Mormon provides is what’s important, and that we can’t prove it to be true, then they spend the rest of the entire book trying to do just that.

We’ve tied so much into the Book of Mormon (if it’s true, then Joseph’s a prophet, and if he’s a prophet, then Mormonism is true, yada, yada, yada.) For my part, I’m learning to appreciate the book as a wonderful spiritual guide, regardless of its origins. I find I enjoy the New Testament a bit more (as if that doesn’t have its own historical dilemmas), but for the first time in a while, I’ve learned to read the Book of Mormon without the baggage we’ve attached to it. It’s really quite remarkable.

Shameless Plug

The annual Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium is three weeks away, so it’s time I started spreading the word. I’ll just mention a few things:

1. The program is online in pdf format at www.sunstoneonline.com. Do check it out. Note that students with a valid ID can attend for free and first time attenders are $50 for the whole conference. (Make sure to look over the workshops – Linda King Newell teaching a writing biography workshop – not too shabby!)

2. One panel in particular I’ll mention is session 233 – Internet Mormons vs. Chapel Mormons. Kristine Haglund Harris will join others on this panel that discusses if there is a disconnect between those Mormons who are familiar with online forums, and those who are not. For example, those familiar with Internet forums and websites will tend to accept a much smaller body of canon (ie, not everything said or written by Church leaders is doctrine) – do those unfamiliar with online forums agree?

3. Dallas Robbins, at his website here, outlines some criticisms of the symposium. I’d be curious to hear what others think of his criticisms and if they have suggestions for improvement. I’ve posted some followup questions on his site and would love ideas from all places.

My Naïveté

I’m starting to think I’m extremely naïve. There’s something I believe that seems like it ought to be the most obvious fact on the planet. “Two plus two equals four” or “the sky is blue” kind of obvious – the sort of thing everyone ought to know.

But it turns out not everyone does know it. And the many people that do know it have long ago made peace with it – it’s just not the issue to them that it is to me. I bring it up online or in group discussions, thinking I’m somehow shining some light in the world. In reality, I’m starting to think I’m embarrassing myself, playing the role of the “master of the obvious.” So, with that in mind, here goes.

It seems to me that something that ought be understood by all religious people, something that ought to be as plain as the nose on one’s face, is that religious beliefs aren’t facts. They’re called “beliefs” for a reason. We don’t really know that the Bible is the word of God – we believe it is. We don’t have a scrap of proof or evidence to back us up. We believe God is out there, we don’t know God is out there.

Yes, people have spiritual, supernatural, or other-wordly experiences that seem to confirm the truth of these sorts of things. But these experiences, when taken from across the religious spectrum, are so diverse, so numerous, and so contradictory as to make them almost useless in determining truth. Not that individual experiences are worthless, but that using them to compile an idea of what truth is strikes me as pointless. For example, I’ve had some remarkable experiences in paying tithing. I’ve experienced things that I label as blessings, and I assign those blessings as having come from the Mormon concept of God. Those experiences are very real to me and I hope people will respect them. But that tells me that I have to respect the experiences of others. If someone else experiences blessings and traces those blessings to Vishnu, how on earth can I tell them they are wrong and that their blessings really come from my concept of what God is.

I remain entirely amazed at what people will do in the name of their religious beliefs, given that there is no way of proving they are somehow “right.” Beyond one’s own religious tradition, how does one choose Christ over Buddha, for example? Perhaps one tradition will ring truer with one’s personal experiences, but it isn’t like someone can demonstrate that Christ is the true way, while Buddha isn’t.

This “fact” seems so obvious to me, and so very important. If understood by all, it means the guys won’t fly the plane into the buildings. In short, it means (at least as I see it) that people don’t need to mistreat other people over religion, because they realize we’re talking about ideas and beliefs, not truth. Because when someone thinks they have the truth, they can justify anything – everything from religious violence to just being plain mean. Lonnie Persifall (an anti-Mormon preacher in Salt Lake) can call Mormon women “whores of babylon” while professing to love them, because he has “the truth.”

But few others seem interested in this “obvious idea”. When brought up among true believers, I’m usually seen as weird or even influenced by Satan (this logic is exactly the kind Satan would use to fight the truth, they reason). When brought up among the more intellectually minded (for lack of a better term), I seem to be regarded like the little kid who just figured out something obvious. They’ve dealt with this issue, and have decided to live their lives following their own faith. And yet I continue to contend that this kind of understanding essential to a peaceful, tolerant religious community.

For what it’s worth, I’m not trying to make belief a morally relativistic place where truth is everywhere yet nowhere. I believe in exercising faith – acting on one’s belief. That’s why I go to Church, obey the commandments as best I can, etc. Belief isn’t worth a lot unless it has action to back it up.

Am I being naïve in feeling this way? Am I watering down religion to nothing (and making it boring along the way)?

A Difference in Values

The R rated movie debate emerged recently at another blog, so I can thank them for inspiring this post. It goes without saying that what is offensive is highly subjective. Hopefully we as Latter-day Saints would have at least some consensus about some films. Try as you might, justifying a XXX movie is pretty tough to do (and that goes for either the porno kind or the abysmal Vin Diesel kind). But other things are tough to pin down. I had a friend (one who’d been to several R rated movies with me) strenuously object to showing Gone with the Wind at a ward movie night. He was appalled at the scene where Rhett Butler snatches up Scarlett in the middle of an argument, carries her upstairs amid her protests, and insists she needs to be loved. In the next scene, we see Bonnie, the product of the night’s passion. “He basically rapes her and it’s portrayed as romantic,” my friend argued. Those 10 seconds ruined the 4 hour movie for him.

I’ll confess right now, I’m tough to offend at films. Those who are easily offended are quick to label folks like me, “desensitized” (we don’t feel the same way they do, you see). I used to return the favor with labels like “sheltered” and “prude.” Now I just try and appreciate that we’re different.

With that in mind, I’d love to hear everyone’s most inspirational R rated films. The rules are: 1) Unless you are absolutely convinced you’ve got a brilliant, original new point to add to the “no R rated movie” debate, let’s just avoid that line of discussion altogether. Yes I’ve heard President Benson’s talk; yes, I know how crappy the rating system is; yes, I know about . . . yada yada yada. 2) Feel free to disagree with a film selection and tell us why, but please do so respectfully. In other words, don’t just say that you were offended at this film and you just can’t imagine why the rest of us haven’t seen the light like you. 3) Tell us your reasons. Don’t list Zombie Mutant Cannibals 4: Death Rides a Zombie without a little explanation as to why this inspired you. 4) Try and stick to movies that truly moved you – especially movies that changed the way you view life or enhanced your spirituality somehow. I love Stripes just as much as the next guy, but it didn’t exactly change my life. Finally, 5) You don’t have to list only R rated movies, but I am especially curious about movies that might not traditionally be considered inspirational.

I’ll kick it off with a very cliched one, but one that changed my view of war forever: Saving Private Ryan. I can’t explain why or how, but in the first 20 minutes of the film I was overcome with grief. I’d read about World War II, I’d studied it and watched veterans on TV. But that film made the sacrifice so real, so tangible. For the first time I was struck with the knowledge of what war means. I knew as I watched the camera pan across Omaha Beach after the battle, that if I were to go to war, I most likely wouldn’t be a rugged Tom Hanks-like hero. No, I’d be the guy lying face down in the sand in the corner of the screen, next to other nameless, faceless people. Hopefully I’d be lucky enough to still have my dog tags so my family could be notified properly.

How Does the Brethren’s Worldview Influence Church Policy?

I’ll confess upfront I’m posting this for selfish reasons. I’m considering a paper for Sunstone and want to feel out some ideas. I’d even like to hear if people think I’m on to something or if I’m over-analyzing as usual.

This latest letter from the First Presidency announcing that garments can only be purchased with a temple recommend or a valid i.d. (to confirm one is an endowed member) seems to have added to a growing list of policy decisions that come from a very specific, narrow perspective. What I mean is, although the Church is a worldwide organization, many decisions are made based on the problems faced only in the Great Salt Lake valley. But those decisions are still imposed on the global Church.

For example, when President Hinckley announced changes to the missionary program, including the way farewells are handled, I was overjoyed. Growing up in Holladay (a suburb of Salt Lake), I felt like every other week we were hearing from weepy mothers telling stories about how their son or daughter drew all over the kitchen wall with markers when they were five and how they were going to miss them so much and so on and so on. But then I read an article by Peggy Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune that opened my eyes beyond my own Utah experience. A woman in a small branch in Wisconsin had recently had her home remodeled to host her son’s farewell. He was the first missionary their tiny branch would have in some 25 years. She expressed disappointment at the policy but admitted she would obey. I can’t explain how powerfully this story hit me. It felt like the whole Church was being affected because the east bench of Salt Lake City had more missionaries than the Sacrament meetings could handle.

This one example perhaps has the most negative ramifications. Others aren’t necessarily negative or bad, but still seem to reflect the perspective of Utah Mormons, rather than a worldwide Church. Other examples include:

* Renewing Temple recommends every two years because bishops and stake presidents are spending so much time doing it, according to President Hinckley. Surely a branch president in Denmark (where the new temple has only 1,000 people in the entire district) isn’t overburdened with requests for recommend interviews.

* The recent letter stating members should not quote from notes or statements made by Church leaders at regional or local conferences. This seems like a direct reaction to Elder Perry’s comments in the Kuna, Idaho Stake conference, that spread over email and the Internet. Granted, the Internet is global, but I find it hard to believe it would have been seen as a pressing issue if the Brethren lived in Peru. Most of the emails and discussion seem to have been localized in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and California.

* The above mentioned letter on garments. Would this be an issue if the Deseret News weren’t running stories on garments for sale on eBay, or if Lonnie Persifull weren’t waving garments in front of General Conference-goers? I suspect members in Japan haven’t heard anything about these issues that likely prompted the policy change.

* Rhetoric surrounding the media. Many times (including recent conference addresses by Elder Ballard and President Hinckley) Church leaders address movies, TV shows, concerts, etc. that are only available in Utah or the United States. Members in South Africa will be entirely unaware that there is a controversy surrounding these issues.

* Just as with above, the same is true surrounding the intense rhetoric about gay marriage.

What think ye? Are policies that are only necessary for the Great Basin unfairly being imposed on the whole Church? Is this an absolute non-issue? In what ways is the Church doing better in recognizing local customs and culture?

When a Spouse Loses the Faith

One of Robert Kirby’s greatest newspaper articles tells the story of his friend Boone. Boone it seems, lost his faith–if only temporarily. At the very least, Boone was having some very serious doubts about the Church. His wife was, naturally, deeply troubled. She was so troubled in fact, that she was threatening divorce.

Mormonism complicates marriage because of our moral absolutes. For example, Glen Lambert, a marriage therapist, mentioned during a session of Sunstone that he’d met with a couple who was struggling. The husband had seen an R rated movie, and his wife was thoroughly appalled. He points out that because she was dealing and viewing the world with moral absolutes, there was no room for the compromise or negotiation that is so essential to marriage. What he had done was wrong, period. There could be no discussion, there could be no understanding — at least, no understanding beyond he had sinned.

How might couples navigate this tricky road, especially when faced with the loss of faith? If there’s one “moral absolute” in Mormonism, it’s that the Church is God’s kingdom and being a part of it is a pretty important step to the Celestial kingdom.

For my part, I see both sides of this issue. For the one who loses faith, or questions, it’s an impossible situation. As Kirby mentions, you can lie to your spouse or be honest with yourself. Believe me, as one who’s been there, no one wants to question their faith. It isn’t fun and it isn’t done deliberately, or to be an apostate. On top of such a difficult dilemma, the one person who is supposed to be supportive, is supposed to understand, is perhaps the one most troubled by this lack of faith.

On the other side of the coin, the believing spouse is thoroughly convinced that their husband/wife is jeopardizing their families eternal togetherness. They married this person in the temple, made very serious promises and covenants with them, and now they’re backing out. Friends might not know how to act around you if your spouse left the Church. Your spouse might start drinking alcohol; they might stop wearing garments. Soon enough, the person you’re living with doesn’t resemble the person you married.

Is divorce too extreme in such a scenario? Should spouses be understanding of another’s doubts and perhaps even a total loss of faith? Is there anyway to compromise or negotiate what seems like opposite ends of the spectrum?

The Lingering Legacy of Post-Manifesto Polygamy

For the few that might not be familiar with post-Manifesto polygamy, a very brief overview might be in order. Today members of the Church look at the 1890 Manifesto as the revelation that ended polygamy. However, Wilford Woodruff and those around him, although they may have believed the Manifesto (or at least the idea of issuing the Manifesto) to be inspired, they definitely saw it as a political document meant to save the Church in the short-term. It was not issued to declare the conclusive end to polygamy. And in fact, polygamy continued to be sanctioned and practiced at the highest levels of the Church until at least 1904. Apostles such as George Teasdale, Abraham Cannon, John W. Taylor, and Matthias Cowley took additional wives during this period, while they and other apostles continued to seal men and women in plural unions.

I’ll only briefly say that this history of new plural marriages might at first look ominous, and as evidence of lies and deceit on the part of Church leaders. It is true leaders were not always as forthright, candid, or perhaps as honest as they could have been when it came to the subject of post-Manifesto polygamy. However, I believe a more sensitive, albeit complex, view is in order. The many facets of this view cannot be enumerated here, but suffice it to say, I believe it is possible to judge Church leaders as righteous, honest men, despite the dilemma of post-1890 plural marriages.

So with that all-too lengthy introduction, I come to the lingering legacy of post-Manifesto polygamy. I’ve only begun now to appreciate the huge, in fact, enormous impact these marriages have had on Mormonism and how we are today.

First and foremost, post-Manifesto polygamy forced an answer to the “Mormon problem” as it was called. It came in the form of the Smoot hearings — perhaps the most important recognition given to the Church that they could be considered a part of American culture and society. In fact, I would argue that the outcome of the Smoot hearings was more important than granting Utah statehood. Kathleen Flake, in her new book and in her dissertation, has argued quite convincingly that the Smoot hearings created the compromise between the Church and the government that allowed the Church to continue. As testimony in the trial quickly indicated, polygamy was still very much alive in Utah, much to the dismay of the rest of the country. The Church finally gave up polygamy, and even sacrificed two of its own, John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, as evidence of their willingness to obey the law. This, I believe, is the beginning of the respect and admiration the Church has grown to have in the 21st century.

Quite ironically, we are almost the exact opposite of what we were 100 years ago. Then we were fighting against a constitutional amendment defining marriage, now we support such an amendment. Then we were arguing for a broader approach to marriage, now we are perhaps the most representative group of the nuclear family. Then, we were separate, despised, and looked upon as a threat. Today, we are respected, and are seen as an important ally to those wanting to preserve the status quo. Then, we were hardly patriotic; we reviled the government and looked upon their treatment of us as injustice of the worst kind. Today, we are counted among the most patriotic; our Boy Scout troops proudly place flags on the lawns of Church members every holiday. We stand as one of the very few Churches to support war in Iraq, even as most others spoke out against it. I would argue the change began with the death of post-Manifesto polygamy.

Second, post-Manifesto polygamy single-handedly contributed to the many fundamentalist schisms that exist today and that still force the Church to confront its polygamous heritage. Polygamy after 1890 was practiced among knowing winks and nods, among double-speak and an environment where one thing was said to outsiders, another to insiders, and still another to those in leadership positions. Because of this environment, fundamentalists today still argue that the Church never intended to abandon polygamy, but that some leaders were simply not strong enough to resist the pressures of the world. The legacy of post-Manifesto polygamy gives them tremendous ammunition in their fight to convince us of the legitimacy of their claims.

These fundamentalists continue to be a thorn in the Church’s side to this day, causing embarrassment and reminding the world that Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy. They’ve forced us into a very uncomfortable position — one in which we have to say polygamy was inspired (otherwise there are some very unpleasant implications for Joseph Smith), yet we also have to confess our own lack of desire to practice it, and we are ambiguous about its future in the Church.

Third, although the practice of saying one thing to outsiders and another to insiders had been practiced in the Church before, it reached its height during the years following the Manifesto. Today, the Church continues to exhibit such a practice. President Hinckley has gone on national television and conducted interviews with high profile magazines, announcing to the world that the Latter-day Saints don’t believe in some of the doctrines that make us most unique. Then he returns and while speaking in General Conference, with a smile and while getting a big laugh, announces that he knows the doctrine of the Church just as well as anybody. From my perspective the message was clear: We’re going to tell them certain things to move the work of the Lord forward, but don’t you all worry about it.

Finally, I believe post-Manifesto polygamy has helped contribute to an environment of shared secrecy and of circling the wagons. Many, many Church members descend from such marriages. Yet they normally keep it quiet. For a Church that prides itself on ancestry and our rich past, those whose grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were part of post-Manifesto unions are normally silent. We keep our secrets in the Mormon Church — we don’t let the skeleton out of the closet. Post-Manifesto polygamy, ironically, is one of those great secrets.

What Can Mormonism Offer to Young People

Hi all,

I’m honored to have been invited by Steve Evans to guest blog now and then. I’m relatively new to the world of blogging, so forgive any gaffes on my part. By way of a brief introduction, I’m the managing editor of Sunstone magazine and the symposium coordinator. I’m also editor of Danish Apostle: The Diaries of Anthon H. Lund, coming this summer from Signature Books.

Compared to many in the world of independent Mormonism (ie, Sunstone, Dialogue, Mormon History Association, Association for Mormon Letters, etc.), I’m a relative youngster at 27. I am struck by how many of my friends are leaving Mormonism. It’s as if there is no middle ground for young people right now. They’re either in the Church – in without any questions, fears, doubts, concerns or worries. Or they’re out – out without any interest in trying to hang on or in trying to find value in the faith of their parents. They aren’t angry as they leave, so far as I can tell. There isn’t a sense of “I’ve been lied to!” or anything close to it.

Rather, they seem bored stiff by Mormonism. And eventually, they seem to wake up one day and realize there really isn’t any good reason (in their minds) to continue to put their trust in authority figures who tell them that Mormonism is God’s Church. They’ve been told their whole life that it’s a sin to not go to church, that it’s a sin to drink or smoke, and that if they aren’t part of Mormonism, there may not be salvation for them. Then, they realize their own personal experience doesn’t bear these claims out, or that they have no reason to inherently trust the voices that have been telling them this. So they drift away.

My question is, does Mormonism have something to offer young people? By that I mean, does it have something to offer beyond the belief that it is God’s church? In other words, if a young person isn’t convinced that Mormonism is God’s kingdom on earth, if they might be questioning or doubting, do they have any reason to stay?

By way of partly answering my own question, I believe Mormonism has much to offer people my own age. Faith is a very important component of life, and I worry that so many people seem to be losing it. But I believe there are certain things that need to happen before retention among young people will increase. First and foremost, we must begin to trust journeying more in the Church. As it is, if someone begins a journey of self-discovery or walks down a path where they question their beliefs, we see that as something to rescue them from, not something to encourage as part of life’s learning process.

What else can be done? Am I alone in believing that young people leaving Mormonism has reached near-critical levels? What value can we offer young people in Mormonism in the here and now (rather than simply saying that if they endure to the end – which can be a gloomy outlook – they’ll be with God in the next life)?

John Hatch

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