David Salisbury (1836-1918), my great-great-great-grandfather, joined the church in England, crossed the plains and settled in Nephi, where he had 12 children. He wrote an autobiography, so we know a lot about him.

We also have eight letters he wrote to his son Jacob (my g-g-grandfather) between 1916 and 1918. They are not casual letters; they are in the style of Benjamin or Alma, letters of an aged father to a son. Apparently David thought Jacob and his family were straying from the gospel.

A recurrent issue in the letters is that of generational difference. David saw the experiences of his generation — namely crossing the plains, settling the wilderness and being involved in the Utah War — as formative and defining:

‘I cannot tell you what it means for us at our age to have followed the Prophet not just in our habits but in our whole lives, to go across this country because we knew the Lord had commanded it through the voice of those he had chosen. And to arrive here and find only work, but glorying in the part we played and relying only on the faith we all had. How can I be other than I am?’

He saw Jacob’s generation as recipients of the efforts of his generation:

‘Your generation had much to support you. Not just the farms and the houses, also the Sunday School, which I built with my own hands, and the temple in Manti. When we did the work of God, we thought of our children and how they might grow strong with the Spirit of the Lord, in the Kingdom of God, which I stood ready to defend with my life.’

He implies throughout all the letters that the younger generation has not taken advantage of the blessing they were provided, and even hopes that ‘the Great and Terrible war will humble the sons of the church and bind them closer to the Lord.’

I don’t know if his generational identity is representative of a trend in the church at the time. For myself, I have never seen my generation as a useful identity: the boundaries seem artificial, and in my own life I think church membership and culture have dulled the influence of being Generation X, or whatever it is.

But I wonder if in the church, does generation matter? I have seen people comment here that understanding of some doctrines differs by generation. Is that accurate? Does the church’s official rhetoric of the greatest generation have an influence in people’s lives? I think we have three generations of bloggers around: can we tell, or does it matter?


  1. Mark IV says:

    I think we have three generations of bloggers around

    LOL Norbert. As one of the, ah, more experienced and wiser generation, I’ll go first.

    Yes, I think generation absolutely matters. My dad grew up in southern Utah and knew real polygamists who were in good standing in the church. There was a spittoon on the stand for the use of the bishopric. This was only seventy years ago, but it’s hard for me to imagine looking up at the stand today and seeing the bishop with a chaw of Red Man in his cheek.

    Once, after I married and moved away, my parents were visiting us when the automatic sprinklers came on on a Sunday morning. For my folks, who grew up with irrigation and the hard labor it involved, the watering of the lawn on Sunday was like Sabbath shopping at the mall. It bothered them enough that they brought up the topic, and we talked about it.

    It is also common for each generation to think that their children are growing up in a world that is becoming ever more wicked. It was interesting to me to discover that the rate of illegitimate births is about the same now as it was in colonial America.

  2. John Taber says:

    Does the church’s official rhetoric of the greatest generation have an influence in people’s lives?

    I don’t know, but I’m really sick of hearing it.

  3. Generational differences are apparent when my mom visits and helps take care of the kids. How we drive with them, how we diaper and wipe them, the dogma of how they should sleep and when, all these have changed just since we were kids.

  4. I simply love those letter excerpts, Norbert. Thank you for sharing them. I think that while there is a change in every generation the disparity between the pre- and post-accommodation area of Mormonism is dramatic. I can see why a Utah war participant might think we are all pansies.

  5. Matt W. says:

    As a member of Generation Y (The huge generation which covers births from 1977-1994) I can say there are definitely doctrinal differences between Gen Y and the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation (Both together cover people born in the 1940s up to 1964. These doctrinal differences include understanding of the temple, as most Gen Yers only have the current endowment as their first experience. They also are pretty much unaware of the Church’s stance on Communism or the ERA, as both were doctrinally irrelevant by the time they were born. Also, most Gen Yers are only aware of Church on Sunday only, as they never went to church in anything but the block schedule.

    And I’m not sure I understand what 70s used to do, even today. Were they just Ward missionaries?

  6. The “chosen generation”/”greatest generation” rhetoric may have some motivating effect on the thinking and actions of children and teenagers.

    I now smile a bit when I hear it said in church talks about today’s children and youth. I suppose I am still a member of a chosen and pretty great generation, but my generation, like those in the past, doesn’t hold a candle to the current generation, whose members were evidently generals in the war in heaven and who, when they enter heaven, will be greeted with bows from the heavenly host.

  7. Norbert,

    We have a few of those kinds of journals and letters in our family history, and they are fascinating. I do think they led more physically difficult lives. As a boomer, my church experience recalls being told what a valiant generation we were, of being told that the peace sign in the back window of my car was an antichrist symbol, and I have a great letter from my late father received while I was seriously dating my then-fiance-now-lovely-wife, about how no respectable girl would want to date me with my long hair (it was mostly a silly Prince Valiant cut). He sent me $10 with that letter to pay for the hair cut, and Kate and I went out to dinner with it, and didn’t cut the hair.

    I was reminded of that when some 15 years ago, my second oldest son walked in with an earring in one ear. I was furious, but all I could think of were arguments that my father had used about my hair that all seemed pretty empty. My wife handled it better, and just walked in to his room where I had banished him while I agonized, and demanded he remove it and give it to her.

    I see that my kids haven’t got quite the same perspective on history that I do, nor the same handicaps that I have. I grew up in a home that was benignly racist, and have had to struggle with that (and still do). My father was given to conspiracy theories, flirted with the John Birch Society (do you remember?) and was horrified that my favorite actresses were Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine.

    I still watch NBC News evening broadcast, while my kids watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on cable (so do I from time to time). I finally gave up looking at movie times in the newspaper, and now get them from Fandango on my Treo.

    I feel like my boomer generation is the bridging generation from the old insular world of Great Basin Mormonism to the new global church with all it’s challenges and opportunities. Four of my kids have served Spanish speaking missions (Chile, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and New Jersey). My wife and I know a smattering of Spanish, and I remember a little high school German. They’ve had a personal computer in the house since the oldest was 12, and the youngest has never known a time without one. I grew up technically illiterate (BS in Communications/Journalism), but now work in technical marketing for a network equipment company.

    I remember The Who when they first sang “My Generation”, and the line about “Hope I die before I get old”. I now take that to mean that Pete Townsend didn’t want to grow up and be his parents. I do, and I don’t. I wonder what my kids think.

  8. My parents (“they”) and my children have the exact same foundational understanding of the Gospel, but they (as well as my in-laws) tend to see things as much more black-and-white than my children do. (I am of the missing generation in Matt’s listing – born between 1965 and 1977.) They were raised and spent most of their lives in homogenous Utah County; my children have lived in Boston, Alabama, Utah and Ohio. They were influenced by the remains of the fear over Gentiles actually attacking the Church and its members; my children are very aware of the spiritual conflict, but I doubt they have considered the possibility of physical persecution. They learned of graphic punishments for breaking temple covenants; my children will learn of the covenants without hearing of specific punishments. They learned of racial differences from textbooks and talks; my children learned and are learning of them through friendships and foster brothers.

    I believe that the generational differences in the Church are a result of the generational differences of the world in which they were raised – in which their formative perspectives were formed. Brigham Young (the Lion of the Lord) was necessary in that day of bitter, fracturing trial and the very real threat of death by persecution; Gordon B. Hinckley (the PR President) is necessary in our own time of constant and global media. All of us, to some degree, manifest the generational differences we can observe in those two leaders.

  9. One more note:

    People who are persecuted for their beliefs tend to be more passionate about them than those who are not – or even those who are not persecuted as severely. My journals consist mostly of my writings regarding my family and the Gospel; my and my wife’s ancestors’ journals chronicle suffering and death and persecution that I simply cannot fathom in a very real and practical sense. I have had my life threatened for believing in the BofM, but I only have an intellectual understanding of what my ancestors who crossed the plains experienced. That alone, I believe, creates generational differences that cannot be underestimated.

  10. They did great things, and built a movement, and now they’re dead. In 100 years, we will have done great things, and we’ll be dead. It all ends the same.

    Do they get extra credit for suffering? Is their faith “better” than yours because they had to sacrifice so much? Perhaps we could start wearing hair shirts or flogging ourselves for penance, like the more extreme monastic orders of Catholic monks, as a way of proving how much we love God. Would we measure up then?

    I always thought parents sacrificed for their children so we’d have it easier, not so they could lord it over us how hard they had it and how we don’t appreciate them.

    I didn’t read the letters. I’m feeling a little prickly today. I’m sure they’re lovely.

  11. Throughout my days in the youth program, I heard about the unique importance of my age group, how we were stronger than the youth of any other era, that I was part of a host of spirits saved for the last days. I humbly believed what I was told. This confidence inspired and motivated me to faith and missionary work and charity, which brought on some grand experiences for which I am truly grateful.

    In my twenties however, I began to question the paradigm. Is each generation better than the previous one? Does the world grow progressively more wicked? How can we measure that? Does it matter?

    I have concluded that either everyone is reserved for the time and place in which they live or no one is; everyone’s history is important or no one’s is important. I can’t seem to justify elevating the people of one dispensation or generation above the people of any other dispensation or generation.

  12. I’m much senior to Mark IV, so I’m going to take a stab at this. (In fact I may be the oldest member of this blogging community.)

    First I think it is much harder to be a parent now than at any time in my lifetime. Neighborhoods are empty. Parents have to arrange playdates. We just had to shove the kids out the door and there were lots of kids to play with and also parents watching out, not only for their own kids, but for anything that was amiss. Kids lives are much more structured, which means their parents are also. I recently encountered a two y-o who was taking singing lessons. Such a thing would never have occurred to me or any other parent I knew. Today, parents are hyper aware of dangers of all sorts. I do think it is a less innocent time and it is hard to know where to draw the lines, but real independence and experimenting in relatively safe ways almost seems to be a thing of the past. Carseats are almost symobolic of how much more difficult every thing seems to be now. It seems like such a chore to go ANYWHERE.

    My generation (having babies in the 60s) generally took some real time off from Church callings and such when we had a baby. Now days the turn-around is virtually instant.

    On the plus side today, people seem to be generally kinder to those who are different, racially, handicapped, etc.

    Kids are super-smart (and their parents were way ahead of my generation.) I hadn’t even heard of dinosaurs until I was eight. I know 2 y-o who can rattle off the five sylabel names of several dinosaurs and identify them.

    Our married kids talk to us and share things in a way we never did with our parents.

    Our sons and son-in-law are much more involved dads than the guys from my generation. Although in all fairness my DH has always been a very involved dad and grandpa (he is everybody’s favorite grandparent, somewhat to my chagrin.) But even at that the dads now are even more involved than he was at their age.

    One thing that does bother me however, is that many members of the younger generation seem very cavilier about the wearing of garments. Not all by any means, but many are casual in ways virtually unheard of in my generation.

    Overall, I have a sense that the good are much better and the bad are far worse. In general it seems that we live in a much more polarized world on almost every dimension.

  13. Ray, you mean overestimated?

  14. Norbert says:

    Thanks for the interesting responses. I was wondering about whether generational differences had more to do with the influence of the outside world or changes within the church. It sounds like both.

    For myself, being in the same group as Ray, the solidifying of correlation and the consolidated schedule I think have had an effect on how my peers and I interact with the church. In addition, having ‘every member a missionary’ and ‘every young man serves a mission’ as mantras changes things as well. The hold of Utah as a center seems to have weakened as well, but that may be my experience alone.

    As for the ‘greatest generation,’ a kid came into my mother’s seminary class bragging about it. My mother laughed and said she had heard the same thing in 1950, so don’t get too excited.

    Ann: If it makes you feel any better, the evidence suggests Jacob didn’t take his father’s advice. I come from a long line of Jack Mormons.

  15. Yes, MCQ, he said as he hung his head in shame.

  16. John Taber says:

    As for the ‘greatest generation,’ a kid came into my mother’s seminary class bragging about it. My mother laughed and said she had heard the same thing in 1950, so don’t get too excited.

    The room elders’ quorum used in the ward I was in from 2000 to 2002 was used for seminary during the week. It had a big picture of President Hinckley on one wall, with a “never been greater” quote below it in big letters.

  17. I also think our generational differences mirror those in the larger culture, as far as church members currently alive. On the other hand, to me, the pioneer generation that settled Utah really are our greatest generation. I read their journals and I really almost cannot overstate my immense gratitude and respect for them, for what they did. They were incredible, and I feel incredible gratitude for their heroic actions. And it isn’t that I think they were perfect; you can see their flaws and human imperfections in their own records, but they were absolutely heroic.