An Adult’s View of Mormon Origins

Sam MB will be guest blogging at BCC for a time. He is an aspiring cultural critic with an addiction to alpine environments.

My childhood in Helena, Montana seems to me now like a water-damaged album of sepia photographs. There is a large-boned boy, his face blotted out below bright red bangs, demonstrating the finer points of cigarette smoking. There I am driving our swollen Ford station wagon into the neighbor’s Corvette, my eyes level with the steering column. Later I see his toddler son in diapers raising a Budweiser can in a salute that fascinated and horrified me. Here my brothers and I are delivering an advertising circular named The Adit in the icy quiet of Helena before dawn.

Most of all, though, I remember living in the shadow of mighty Mount Helena. This 10,000 foot peak towered over the depressed capital of Big Sky country. My father, living out dashed dreams of military service through the Boy Scouts of America, often urged us along the miles of trail that traversed the mountain’s craggy sides. I always paused in mystified awe when we passed Devil’s Kitchen, a deeply split rock buttress that stretched for hundreds of near-vertical feet. The black alcoves of the Kitchen seemed to harbor dark spirits, proof of Satan’s parasitism on the beauty of creation. I often wondered whether the volcanic ash that covered us in 1980 had arisen from Devil’s Kitchen. No other explanation, even the suggestion that Mount St. Helens was located in Washington, could account for the inch of gray ash that covered our entire town.

Mountains are the pages of the album to which my memories are attached. They defined my identity as a boy from the Rockies, an association so strong it recently drew me back from urban life in the Northeast. In Helena for the first time in 25 years this Fall, I made a surprising discovery. Mount Helena is an attractive and impressive hill with a band of yellow limestone cliffs near its 5,468 foot summit. Devil’s Kitchen is a cleft in the rock perhaps twenty feet high and ten feet deep, strewn with graffiti, cigarette butts, and shards of beer glass. Bacchus maybe, Satan no.

With the unforgiving presentism that academic psychologists believe is hard-wired, I grumbled for a time at the ludicrous misconceptions of an eight-year-old Montanan. Still, I continued up the 1906 Trail, what is left of a grand project to reforest the sides of the recently burned mountain. I paused to touch the trunks of the trees, to feel with my fingertips the rock both smooth and rough, to taste the hint of pine oils in the air as it flowed into my lungs. The valley rested peaceful and long a thousand feet below me. The cliff bands stand weather-beaten but persistent, unwilling to yield to the incessant pressures of wind and rain and sun. My anger at lost vastness gave way to tender affection for this newly familiar mountain.

Mount Helena has been a great gift to me. As tempting as it is, I am not inclined to erase its prior beauty from my current perspective, projecting backwards my adult sense of scale and grandeur. I prefer to allow it to play different roles for me at different times of my life. Without its childhood majesty I would not have understood myself as I do now. I want my children, while they are young enough to be affected, to have their lives filled with a sense of geologic vastness. I will be happy for them to return as adults to a richer and more complex image, but I want them to have had the awe-filled pleasure of a child’s encounter with eternity. I thank God for this mighty mountain of youth and for its current worn but defiant mien.


  1. Brad Kramer says:

    You have managed to creatively hit the nail on the head of an important decision my wife and I recently came to. We realized that, in spite of how different our perspective on so many important gospel- and church-related questions is from what we get in primary and sunday school manuals, we still want our kids to be brought up in the gospel the way we were–all the smoothing out, all the powerful myth, all the revision–because there is an indelible connection between our rich appreciation of our faith from an “adult” perspective and the idealistic vision that nurtured us as youths.

  2. Superb.

  3. Living now in the Mormon corridor, we are enjoying our children’s affection for a song called “Scripture Power” which features those blue soft-cover scriptures as amulets and a primal beat. That and their great affection for Jesus and Joseh Smit.

  4. Beautifully written, Sam MB. I agree very much with your sentiment. I currently read the weekly emails from my nephew who is on a mission in the UK and it is wonderful. In many ways I get to relive my own naive and enthusiastic missionary experience…and I am grateful for him.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Wonderful, Sam. That childhood majesty is something I hope I can provide to my children as well.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, Sam. (Scripture Power was to my mind the highlight of the Primary Program in November, with the little kids doing their power salutes up on the stand.)

  7. I have driven through Helena, Montana nearly 100 times in my 75 years on earth and I have wondered about Mt. Helena many times. In fact, the whole area north and south of Helena have always been beautiful to me and bring back many fond memories of when I was very young and saw the Missouri river, its waters filled with fly fisherman, the pelicans soaring over the waters landing gentley on the flowing currents. Wolf Creek with its constantly winding roads, before the highway was expanded from a two lane road. I will always remember coming over the mountain pass that precedes Helena and seeing the city in the distance, so near and yet many miles away with its Capital building clearly in its skyline. Then as we passed through Helena and headed south to Butte, the amazing drive through the national forest and the constantly rising road climbing on and on and on until you would think you would never reach the top. The most amazing recolection however was along this same road in the middle of a winter night just past Christmas driving our student children down to Utah to BYU. As we passed down the road south of Helena the beauty of the homes brightly lit against the falling snow and the solitary splendor, I will never forget, nor do I want to. Thanks for the reminder about Montana and its many beauties and of times with my young family together in a Buick station wagon when a cold winter night seemed very beautiful.

  8. The reason that Christ is a baby, the reason he is the lamb, is tied up with youthful innocence. The earth is six billion years old, but spring is always achingly brand new. Innocence doesn’t have to mean ignorance. Christ’s innocence, his idealism, his springtime, is forever.

  9. Thank you Sam. I have been pondering this post for the last couple of days and appreciate your beautifully written insights.

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