Call for Papers: D. Michael Quinn: The Life and Times of a Mormon Historian

Few figures in the development of Mormon studies during the late-twentieth century are more significant than D. Michael Quinn. Educated at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Yale University, Quinn was among scholars who revisited and revised the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He worked as a researcher under Church Historian Leonard Arrington and produced a series of significant works emblematic of the New Mormon History. At times Quinn’s work sparked backlash, and his identity as queer, Chicano, and independent put him at odds with his surrounding culture. His controversial scholarship and activities led, first, to his forced resignation as a full professor at BYU and then, later, to his excommunication from the church. 

Quinn’s legacy has only grown with time. His many articles and books continue to inform and influence scholarship today. The Mormon studies community mourned when he passed on April 21, 2021, at the age of seventy-seven.

We will hold a one-day conference examining the life and legacy of D. Michael Quinn on March 25, 2022, at the University of Utah. Sessions will explore both his experiences as a historical figure as well as his impact on historiography. 

While most panels will be composed of invited speakers, one session will be reserved for junior scholars as a tribute to Quinn’s dedication to mentoring younger generations. We therefore seek paper proposals from those currently in school or less than three years removed from receiving their degree who are working in fields related to those on which Quinn published. These fields include, but are not limited to, Mormon power structures, gender and sexuality, religion and folk culture, post-manifesto polygamy, dissent, and religion and capitalism. Please submit a 250-word abstract and brief CV to quinnconference@gmail.com by December 1, 2021. Decisions will be made by January 15.

Limited funding will be available to assist with travel costs for those whose papers are accepted but lack institutional support. A final program will be announced in January 2022.

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James Huntsman Lawsuit Dismissed

A quick follow-up to one of my previous posts: a federal judge dismissed James Huntsman’s fraud lawsuit against the church on Friday.

This may not have been an absolutely forgone conclusion, but it comes pretty close to one. Remember, Huntsman was suing to get his tithing money back from the church. That’s a tough ask in the first place because, other than conditional gifts, US law treats charitable donations as belonging to the recipient. Just because you later regret having made the donation doesn’t mean you can rescind it.

So Huntsman alleged that the church had fraudulently induced him to pay tithing. He relied, he said, on several statements from the church that it did not using tithing money to build City Creek when, in fact, it did use tithing money to build City Creek.

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Book Review: Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars

Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021)

I was startled to realize recently that I had never read a mainstream novel by and about an LDS woman, despite holding a PhD in English. Although many contemporary LDS writers have achieved national recognition in science fiction and young adult literature, it remains rare for a national press to publish a book by an LDS author in which their religion features prominently–a fact that many have attributed to the lack of national interest in Mormonism, the suspicion with which members often receive unofficial books that deal with the Church, and the lack of robust institutional structures for supporting LDS literature. Those that are published (many of which are excellent) often derive their marketability by playing into sensationalized tropes about Mormonism held by outsiders, particularly those that depict LDS women as in need of rescue from their culture. Rosalyn Eves’ Beyond the Mapped Stars (Knopf, 2021) is a significant achievement, because Eves has written a young adult historical novel published by a national press that both satisfies the hunger of LDS young women to recognize themselves in literature while focusing on themes and events that have universal appeal.

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On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

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The Texas Abortion Ban and the Death of Constitutional Rights

Got your attention? Great!

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Supreme Court didn’t stop a Texas law that bans abortions performed by Texas physicians after six weeks from going into effect.

The Texas law is clearly unconstitutional. Whether or not you think the right to abortion should be a constitutional right, there is no question under Supreme Court jurisprudence that it is. And the Supreme Court has never allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect before, even temporarily.

So what’s different about this Texas ban? Enforcement. Usually statutes that prohibit abortion are enforced by the state government. That means that procedurally, pre-enforcement challenges are straightforward: you sue the government, which would enforce the law, and your case works its way through the court system. If the courts think you have a reasonable chance of winning, they can issue an injunction, preventing the law from going into effect until there has been a full hearing.

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How can we measure our lives?: The crisis edition*

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


As I received with hard-won indifference a job rejection this week, I contemplated how the do-it-all feminism of the nineties on which I had been raised had rested on two assumptions: (1) that there were plentiful sufficiently-paying and meaningful jobs; and (2) the existence of cheap childcare. The latter, I now understand with a clarity that eluded me in my twenties, was synonymous with the maintenance of a set of class, racial and gender hierarchies in which less-educated and often Black women provided care to professional, often white families. 


At middle age, I am now old enough to have had both of these assumptions thoroughly dispelled. There are some people whose interests and training have been lucky enough to correspond with market demands and structural expectations, but I trained first to be an academic and then (primarily because of the failing academic job market) to be a lawyer. I have stayed home for the last few years due to a combination of desire, complications with remote working and never finding the right job in the same city as my spouse. I cannot presently work firm hours with two children and a limited support network. Although outsiders often suggest that I find a public sector position or hang up my own shingle, I know that such jobs are extremely difficult to get (I’ve been rejected from every one to which I’ve applied) and that starting a business is no easy lift (and one for which I have no passion). Although I wouldn’t consider the dismantling of my career(s) a privilege, I enjoy being with my children far more than I expected. I know that if I went back that I would give up some things I value.

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3 quotes I like better than the musket stuff

When I worked at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute I was aware of Elder Maxwell’s musket analogy that Elder Holland recently borrowed. The Institute had been tasked with fortifying the faith of Latter-day Saints, which includes apologetics, or defending the faith, so we spent a lot of time thinking about it. I helped cultivate a style of apologetics that exhibited charity, curiosity, flexibility, and strength.

Not everyone was satisfied. Elder Maxwell was often cited as calling for more aggression with his metaphors about muskets and slam dunks. But in all my time at the Institute those analogies didn’t resonate with me. I was more drawn to this counsel from then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, who called the one of the Institute’s predecessors (FARMS) to a undertake a ceasefire back in 1994:

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Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

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I Want It Back

There are two recent lawsuits filed against the LDS church that are worth taking a look at. Both lawsuits demand that the church return donations to the donor (or the donor’s heirs).

And both face a major impediment: as a general rule, if you make a charitable donation, you can’t get that donation back. And that’s the case even if the you have a falling out with the charitable organization. In fact, that’s the case even if the charitable organization uses your gift in a way that you, personally, find offensive. (In that case, you can certainly stop making charitable donations in the future, of course. But you don’t get your prior donations back.)

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. And the plaintiffs in the two cases try to get around the rule by using two different exceptions.

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On Peace and Getting Along

Divisiveness is in the news again at the BYU, and, it seems, we must all pick a side. On the one side, we have same-sex marriage, commandeered commencement speeches, disobedience, sin, and disunity. On the other side we have institutional dignity, unequivocal love, loyalty, swords beaten into plowshares, and peace. Easy choice, right? Who wouldn’t want peace? That is, after all, what all disciples of Christ should work for.

But we have to be careful when striving for peace. Like most beautiful and powerful words, “peace” can mean several things, not all of them worth striving for. The ancient world gives us two profound metaphors for peace: the desert and the river. Both deserve careful attention.

The concept of desert peace comes to us from the great Roman historian, Tacitus, speaking about Rome and the much-vaunted Pax Romana. Without any context, his famous phrase “Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (They make a desert and call it peace) works like a wrecking ball on the idea that peace is always a good thing. It reminds us that one can get to a permanent absence of war simply by destroying every living thing. Where there is no life, there is no conflict.

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Conspiracy Theory and the Idea of Freedom: The Lessons of Bo Gritz

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my third post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here and the second here

In 1985, James “Bo” Gritz received a patriarchal blessing. According to him, a few years later, it promised “the gift of discernment,” and “the ability to explain in words people will understand. You will have multitudes that will follow you. They will have no allegiance to you. They will only have allegiance to what it is you stand for.”

Regardless of how accurately Gritz reported on the blessing, this was certainly how he liked to perceive himself. He possessed special insight as a result of spiritual gifts; he stood for a Cause, not personal aggrandizement; nonetheless, he was part of a movement.

When Gritz received the blessing he was well past forty, but this was because he was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His conversion was similarly dramatic—the product, in part, of the same impulses that drove his interpretation of his blessing.

Gritz was a career soldier, a Vietnam veteran, and by all accounts a sterling officer, the recipient of multiple honors and praised all the way up the military chain of command. He retired after thirteen years of service at age forty in 1979. He remained restless, though, and drank deep of the anti-government cynicism that pervaded the 1970s: the product of American withdrawal from Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the growing mobilization of conservative thinktanks, funded by major corporations, that steadily blasted regulation as the death of freedom.

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Elder Holland’s university address reflects a failure of moral judgment that is endemic to the Church

A few months ago, there was a twitter thread about what it means to be an LGBT ally if you are a member of the church. Is it even possible? It gave me pause. I’ve never considered myself much of an ally because, believe it or not, I usually keep my mouth shut and roll my eyes. And it reflects in my friends. I have a few gay friends, but none who are particularly close. I’m sure I have some homophobic tendencies. I am who I am and I’m okay with that. But it made me wonder about why I’m in the church.

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What if I Don’t Recognize Jesus in my Final Interview (or The Tricky Jesus Test)

I heard the story of the Jesus Interview at church again last Sunday. Once again, as I listened to the story* of the people who didn’t recognize Jesus, I imagined myself flubbing up an interview in a similar way. For one thing, I haven’t spent a lot of time visualizing Jesus sitting behind a desk.

I created a 9-question ‘Tricky Jesus Test’ to help me think about the notion of an elusive God, the kind of Jesus that would dismiss me from the room if I didn’t recognize him in time.

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The Parable of the Talents: What If It Really Is About Money?

This is not a post about the recent disclosures regarding the LDS Church’s investment in the City Creek Mall, but it is inspired by some of the discussions I have had about those disclosures. More than anything else, it is about the difference between managing (including investing) money and spending money, which, I think, is at the heart of the disagreement. If the Church has been spending tithing dollars on city malls, that is a big problem. If they have been investing savings — wherever the origin —in a in a city mall, then, it seems to me, that is no different than investing in oil companies, or tech stocks, or bitcoin. The management of resources, I think, follows a different set of moral rules than their expenditure.

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Let’s Talk About Money

I don’t have any idea if $100 billion is a good amount for the church to have in its endowment. Personally, I tend to think, given its revenue and expenditures, that the number is high. At least as long as it continues to bring in a significant amount of tithing annually, it feels to me like it doesn’t need a cushion quite that big.

But the thing is, I don’t know. Church leaders are completely opaque in how they’ve made their investment/spending decisions. And to be honest, I suspect that it has been a decision only in the loosest sense. Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.

But arguably the church should communicate its financial thinking better. And I don’t mean that the church needs to tell members exactly how much it has in assets (though it certainly could). But I believe that if the church viewed members as stakeholders, it could and would communicate its thinking to us. What considerations has it made in deciding whether to spend or invest? How did it decide how much it needed for current expenditures and for future expenditures.

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It’s not about masks, it’s not about vaccines

It’s now been about a week since the First Presidency sent a message to each member’s inbox directly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated against COVID if possible, and to wear masks in any indoor setting where you’re not socially distanced, until the pandemic is over.

Sam’s post today does a great of of explaining why a regulation requiring masks for indoor meetings, religious or not, would not violate anyone’s first amendment rights. But as I read Sam’s post it occurred to me that for many members, the real takeaway from the First Presidency’s instruction last week is not the narrow issue of masks or vaccines at all, or of their the legal issues surrounding governments requiring such precautions. The takeaway is really about epistemology.

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Masks and the First Amendment

Photo by Kyle Austin on Unsplash

Effective today, the city of Chicago has reinstituted an indoor mask mandate. And we’re not alone: Washington state and Washington, D.C. have them. Dallas appears to have one. Benton County in Oregon has one. And I’m sure there are others and, in light of the Delta variant and the U.S.’s not-so-impressive vaccinate rate, there will be others.

A week ago, the First Presidency sent a letter to all members of the church encouraging us to get vaccinated and wear masks at indoor meetings where we couldn’t social distance.

What does this mean for our church meetings? Well, in light of the First Presidency’s guidance, I would have thought it would be uncontroversial: we’ll return to requiring masks in our meetings, at least in places that have implemented mask mandates.

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Turning Grief into Charity and Welcome

The majority of my career has been spent designing, administering, or managing foreign assistance programs for Afghanistan.  I spent 10 years in the State Department, including two living at the Embassy in Kabul.  Seeing the flag lowered at the Embassy compound was a moment of real grief for me.  It was my workplace and home.  After my time at the State Department, I spent a few more years helping to administer a grant-funded scholarship program at a university to educate Afghan legal scholars on the rule of law.

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Keep Waiting for the Miracle

This post is adapted from a sacrament meeting talk I gave yesterday.

The first two books of the Book of Mormon give us a tale of two Nephis: First Nephi gives us a young man full of zeal. He’s going undercover, sneaking into Jerusalem under cover of darkness, fighting, hunting, adventuring, sailing, having visions, rebuking his brothers. He’s full of confidence in his own spiritual power and righteousness. He’s working to achieve his father’s dream of a land of promise where his descendants could live together in righteousness.

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The Mormon Quadrilateral: Or, the Problem With “Speaking as a Man”

In the comment section of various Utah news websites, on the Church’s social media feeds across the Internet, a phenomenon is manifest. Usually confined to agonized supporters of lefty social politics, it is now the vax-suspicious and anti-maskers who are crying out that Russell M. Nelson, sustained as a prophet by Church members, is “speaking as a man.”

That slightly awkward phrase has a long history. Ezra Taft Benson actually used it in “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” his defiantly anti-modern sermon that asserted that prophecy is the ultimate trump card over all other forms of knowledge. J. Reuben Clark explored the idea in his own 1954 BYU address. Its usage probably goes back to a line in the 1838-1856 “History of the Church.” Written by scribes in the voice of Joseph Smith, the 8 February 1843 entry reads; “This morning I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan who thought that “a Prophet is always a Prophet”, but I told them that a Prophet was a Prophet only, when he was acting as such.”

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Look. At. The. Damn. Snake.

To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.

—The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, August 12, 2021

God must have known that the Latter-day Saints would be a stiff-necked people, as he gave the second half of the story only to us. In the Old Testament, we can read about Moses and the Brazen Serpent: the Children of Israel were tired of wandering, so they did what they do best: they complained about it. And they complained so much that God decided to send them fiery serpents. Poison Fiery serpents that could fly, even, as if regular old fiery serpents weren’t scary enough.

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Regrading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Or maybe: awarding the Church’s pandemic response some extra credit.

Last week I wrote that the church had done a poor job encouraging members to get vaccinated against Covid. While leaders had shared posts of themselves getting vaccinated and had put out language encouraging vaccination broadly, it had not been as direct as it is capable of being.

But I’m always happy to offer extra credit to bring a struggling grade up and today the church has earned some extra credit. In a message sent to members around the world[fn1] and posted on the Newsroom website, the First Presidency “urge[s]” members to get vaccinated against Covid, pointing out that the vaccines “have proven to be both safe and effective.”

And it goes further: it also urges the use of face masks in public meetings where members can’t distance.

Now it’s on members; the church leadership has made a clear and unequivocal statement that it takes Covid seriously and that, through vaccination and mask-wearing, we can beat Covid back. Will we respond to their clear guidance?

I certainly hope so.


[fn1] It hasn’t hit my inbox yet, but I trust that, at the very least, it’ll be there soon.

The Lord’s Supper – Prayer Memorization and Open Communion

Memory is tricky thing. I’m a Gen Xer, and in my memory the chapels in which I grew up attending had pull out microphone trays with the prayers typed out on cards that were taped onto it. As I turned sixteen, like the other priests, I knelt, pulled out the tray, and read the words carefully, hoping not to be asked by the Bishop to repeat it because I screwed up. It hasn’t always been that way, however. There was a period when church leaders actively encouraged priests to memorize and not read the prayers. Documenting practice is always challenging, however. I have one friend whose parents grew up during the memorization-only period, whose dad always read the prayer from a card, and whose mom was instructed to memorize it.

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Is Polygamy Funny?

The Pros and Cons of Laughing about Polygamy

Look at Great-Great-Grandpa in his jailbird stripes!” The large photo was taken down from the mantelpiece and passed around to the cousins with a chuckle. 

Did you kids know that your grandfather was in the state penitentiary (haha)?” Everybody seemed to get a kick out of the photo of grandpa in jail.

Many generational Latter-day Saints from Canada, the US, and Mexico have polygamists in their family tree. If this describes you, what is your family’s attitude about your ancestors? What are the pros and cons of how your family tells their story? Perhaps my list of pros and cons will clarify or challenge the narrative you received. 

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Grading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how the church has responded to it. And [deeply fatherly voice]: I’m so disappointed.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The church started out great, cancelling all church meetings at the front end of when we (in the U.S., anyway) realized this was a serious problem. But since then, it hasn’t done a lot to deal with this unprecedented (in recent memory, anyway) worldwide issue.

There are two main areas that really stoke my fatherly disappointment: vaccines and the return to the status quo.

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Eugene England and the Modern Mormon Mind: A Review Essay On Two New Biographies

Eugene England was long due for a “moment,” and 2021 might finally give him one. Two new biographies, one just out and the other forthcoming, will introduce readers to one of Mormonism’s most prominent intellectuals from the late-twentieth century. England co-founded Dialogue as a graduate student at Stanford, taught English for two decades at BYU, helped establish America’s first Mormon studies program at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), and was one of the tradition’s best essayists. His frequent clashes with church leaders, resulting in his expulsion from a tenured professorship, also highlight the fraught relationship between LDS authorities and academics during the era.

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LIVE FROM SALT LAKE, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!!!

So the church just announced that they were reinstating the Saturday evening session of General Conference. To be honest, I had kind of forgotten that they ever got rid of the Saturday evening session of General Conference, probably because it happened, like, six weeks ago, and that’s ancient history for my middle-aged brain. But now that they mentioned it, I did recall them announcing they would discontinue the Saturday evening session now that every session was available for viewing on the internet because what’s the point of having a Priesthood session if it can’t be a secret from the ladies, amirite?  

The difference between the new Saturday evening session and the old Saturday evening session is that this new Saturday Night Conference will not be geared toward any particular group of church members, such as priesthood holders or birthing people 8 & up. (Was it okay that I said “birthing people”? Am I just trolling now? Signs point to yes.) It will just be another opportunity for “more gospel topics to be taught” and “more general leaders to address the conference.” Because if there’s anything people who’ve just sat through four hours of gospel teaching want more than another two hours of gospel teaching, I don’t know what it is.

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Signs of a True Church

Infuriating. Intriguing.

Why did I find this sign intriguing, even endearing, when I saw it on a church in the Cook Islands last week … but would find it frustrating if I saw it on my LDS church building back at home? 

Why would I feel a sense of loss if this church in the Cook Islands decided to be more inclusive and modern but cringe when my own church gives any indication of non-inclusivity or traditionalism?

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Why LDS Women Turn to the Media

Natalie Brown holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. She is currently guest editing an issue on the role of homes and houses in LDS culture for Irreantum, the literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters. She encourages anyone interested in this topic to read the issue-specific guidelines and submit by July 31.

This is not a post about the content of the July 21 New York Times article on women’s garments, though in full disclosure I privately wrote the Distribution Center with similar complaints years ago and found them highly responsive. This is a post on why I believe we have seen, and will continue to see, many LDS women turn to the media or to outside organizations in order to voice their complaints, despite the fact that the Church (and I suspect most members) would prefer to resolve concerns internally rather than through a mainstream media that has often sensationalized the Church, its members, and its underwear. The short answer, of course, is that there is no effective channel for most members’ voices to be heard when working within the Church.

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A Non-Believer’s Benediction for Cumorah, and Other Things

Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song | The Point Magazine

A little less than two weeks ago, the church broadcast a Hill Cumorah Commemorative Devotional, acknowledging that the Hill Cumorah Pageant was no more, and celebrating its legacy. However, for better or worse that commemorative devotional was very much a product of the contemporary church–not the church in which creative, inventive, deeply devout, culturally oblivious, and definitely slightly crazy Mormons came up with the pageant, and kept it going, over the decades. I never saw the Hill Cumorah Pageant live (shout out for the Manti Pageant, however, my personal favorite!). Andrew Kay, a non-Mormon writer and a native of the Hill Cumorah region of New York, did see it however–saw it in 2019, in fact, in what turned out to be its final performance. The essay he has crafted about the experience, and what he has thought about it since–“Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song“–is the finest essay I have read about our church and our culture in many years. Using the pageant as a lens, Kay sees the American Mormonism that was–but isn’t so much anymore–whole: devout, campy, decent, rich, insular, plainspoken, charitable, practical, kind of racist, kind of sexist, and really very weird. It is a deeply compassionate essay, one that captures the vagaries of a genuine, comprehensive belief in a society where belief is mostly compartmentalized into discreet boxes for the sake of the believer and the non-believer alike. Here’s a taste: [Read more…]