Parenthood, Missionaries, and Bayonets

My son will take a test on the Civil War today. On Sunday, he and I watched Gettysburg as partial preparation for this test.

I love Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain as portrayed by Jeff Daniels in that film. He reminds me of my husband. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric who became a great soldier. In the most famous scene of Gettysburg, he leads his men in a seemingly impossible bayonet charge down Little Big Top Mountain, and the Union’s flank is preserved. As Daniels portrays him, Chamberlain trots a bit uncertainly down the hill, while the more seasoned soldiers lope. I do see my sweet husband in such a role—sometimes uncertain but determined nonetheless, and drawing up his courage in a way he had never imagined he could. I think most parents find themselves in some metaphorical charge against their own selfishness, against forces which would divide our families, against all the ills that torment man. Bruce and I do this rather ineptly, but we do it and we keep doing it. One battle call after another.

For Family Home Evening, we watched a scene from the film, and I talked not just about our duties in our family, but about the missionaries Bruce and I get to see in their brand new suits several Wednesdays a month as they arrive at the MTC. We know that those suits will become torn and probably unwearable over the next two years, and those shiny shoes will be gradually shredded by miles of walking. We also know that most (though not all) of these missionaries will become courageous beyond what they had imagined, and that they will learn to focus on the real core of the gospel. No longer will the religion they preach be divided into various activities aimed at getting a “Young Woman of Recognition” or a merit badge or an Eagle Scout certificate; they are called to help set other men and women free. Newly ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood, the young men will be asked to bless others. They will, as one of our missionaries put it, be “broken” by the Lord. Regardless of why they chose to serve a mission—to please their parents, to appease a girlfriend, to have an adventure, or to truly become disciples, their mission will provide a daunting battle ground—and offer a life change. One of our elders said in a recent letter: “I have absolutely no control of my surroundings and life here. This is all so new and really forces me to rely on the Lord, which I still do not think I have done fully yet. I am not quite sure how to just let myself be carried by him. I find myself trying to carry myself and I get very exhausted and sometimes discouraged. The Lord has broken me before, and I will be broken again (in a good way). ”

With that, I turn to the words of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, as scripted by Michael Shaara:

This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.

This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.

America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here is the place to build a home.

But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me.


  1. Beautiful stuff, Margaret. Thanks for this.

  2. I’m glad we can always rely on you to give us such a unique and inspiring insight.


  3. Wow. I really needed to read this today. Thanks.

  4. Nice parallel, Margaret. Chamberlain was the best of what we hope our “citizen” soldiers should be, and a great example to our missionaries; volunterring from a rather ordinary life and agreeing to do extraordinary things requiring great courage.

    Thank you for this.

  5. Two thoughts. First, I need to watch Gettysburg again.

    Second, I need to deal with the largely negative feelings I have with what the missionary program often does to its missionaries and their families. I was a faithfully obedient missionary, a zone leader or district leader 18 months of my mission, and I have since served as a ward missionary in two different wards as well as a ward mission leader, among other callings. I have nothing against missionary work. I feel it’s wonderful and necessary and awesome to be a part of.

    But we people sure have a way of screwing it up. To this day I feel that the mission created a lot of internal conflicts for me that I’m still dealing with, over 4 years later. Not good conflicts. Not faith-promoting conflicts. Bad, how-do-you-see-God-in-this-crap conflicts. I also feel it certainly didn’t help my relationships with my family members. I mean, come on. Logically, people – if you can only write letters ONCE a week, IF the 6 hours of free time you get allows, how on earth can you maintain a good relationship, especially with non-member family members? It’s very difficult. At best, I had to concede some relationships to an “on-hold” status until I could get back home and return to being a normal person. It took several years to get to know some of my siblings again.

    My mission didn’t teach me how to trust in the Lord nearly as much as it taught me how to be stressed, how to feel alone, how to feel like crap if I wasn’t baptizing, to always question my general “worthiness” over the stupidest things, and to follow people, not trust God. It wasn’t until I stopped listening to the pressure from the assistants and zone leaders to get people in the water that I finally connected with God again. And I began to see success as a missionary. Too bad it took me almost 20 months to figure it out.

    I’m sorry that I don’t feel the same sort of hope and cheery comfort over seeing missionaries enter the MTC. I generally say a small prayer that their experiences will be different from mine. Hopefully they mostly are.

    I’ve been very active in educating others about my experiences. I took my two younger brothers aside before they left on their missions and told them all my worst, painfully horrible experiences that I had (that still sometimes give me nightmares), along with the few good ones. I told them to not buy into the leadership = validation or the obedience = worthiness = baptisms crap. I told them to listen to themselves and the Lord above everyone else, even over their mission presidents. I told them that it’s going to really really suck at times (maybe even most of the time), you’re rarely going to feel guided, and THAT’S OK. That’s how it is. The Lord just expects you to do your best. Don’t try to read meaning into everything. Don’t buy into all this “you’re special and chosen” crap, either. Just work. And make sure you trust in the right things. Oh, and I told them that this idea that it’s the “best two years of your life” is the dumbest idea ever, and possibly one of the most dangerous. If you want to say, “the best two years so far,” then that is ok, as long as you recognize that the next two will be even better and the next two after that will be even better and so on. And even then, you may not have enough control over the situation to make it the “best” of anything. I told them that for some missionaries it’s hard, with little reward all the way through. You’ve got to realize this going in.

    As a result of my conversations with them, they were much more prepared than I was and they returned a lot less damaged. In fact, I’ve had a lot of discussions with my brothers since coming back, and I don’t think they have any of the negative feelings I have. And they both served as assistants. The cool kind. Haha.

    Sorry for the life story, I just think that this perspective is much more grounded in reality and gives the proper context to the often espoused missionaries-are-God’s-angelic-soldiers view. We’re all God’s soldiers. Even after the mission. And heck, even before.

  6. Wonderful, Margaret – as always.

  7. Mark–you raise some very important points. As my parents (who presided over a mission) have said, “A mission is hard in a way you can never really describe to anyone else.” It sounds like you’re continuing to fight the battles, since you have realized that your trust must not be in the arm of flesh but in God, and since you understand that your “worthiness” will not be evaluated by a list of what you do or don’t do, but by who you have become–with the Savior cloaking and healing every taint or wound you sustain as a mortal. It sounds like you’ve given excellent counsel to your brothers. I don’t see a mission as an end in itself. I’m on the battlefield for my Lord, as the Spiritual goes, as I learn how to get along with my companion (the one I’m sealed to) and how to deal with my children and all of their inconvenient needs. I like what you say about who we are–before and after a mission.

  8. Thank you, Mark.

  9. Thanks Margaret. I’m going to watch the film. I read the book many years ago on which the film was based, but I’ve got to see the film.

    Mark, I’m going to forward your thoughts to my son serving a mission right now. Very important points about where to put your focus.

  10. Mark B. graciously corrected my Civil War details. The name of the hill was Little ROUND top. As I had assumed, Chamberlain’s speech was scripted–but what a great speech, and Jeff Daniels delivers it beautifully.

    I believe in fiction and film as effective ways of teaching not just the historical events but the humanity of our past. (Remember the little lady who started the big war–Harriet Beecher Stowe?) I love the fact that my son’s history teacher uses film as a way to involve his students. He couldn’t show _Glory_ because it’s rated R, but he showed a snippet of Morgan Freeman discussing the 54th Infantry. I intend to watch _Glory_ with my son sometime soon. It’s a great film. It’s one my father saw on an airplane. He then called us all together and said, “I know it’s rated R, but I want all of you to see it. It is a GREAT film.” I agree. I was even persuaded that Matthew Broderick could act. I am still moved to tears by the final scene–and I’ve seen the film five or six times.

    But as for historical fact vs. carefully crafted fiction–I believe that some of our greatest truths are told with complexity and depth by our greatest liars: our fiction writers.

  11. P.S. on that mission thing–
    This is the second time this week I’ve heard about how awful a mission often is, or that it’s simply not what it’s cracked up to be. Carol Lynn Person would call that synchronicity.

    I suppose we fictionalize missions into easy cliches like “the best two years” etc., but I can’t put away my wonder at the Mormon “coming of age.” Missions can be Hell. No doubt about it. But I think parenthood is the real battle, and you don’t get released unless you die or go AWOL. I’ve been tempted by that AWOL idea, but I keep coming back to this huge, ever expanding calling,trying to find a new way to be a better mother; a new path towards communication with my teens and olders; a new way to let them know I believe in them and do not hold them hostage to my own agenda; a new way to believe in my own ability to love without condition. “I want you to be a missionary–but if not…” “I want you to love the faith your father and I have raised you in–but if not…” I will always be around, cheering for you and praying for you–even if you stop believing in prayer.

    Sometimes it’s the bugle call (or something like it)which summons me to a hill, and sometimes it’s the haunting sense that something is wrong with one of my children. It is a very slow war–often with myself more than anyone else. And it doesn’t end with them getting married. After they’re married, I continue my watch, answer the phone, listen sometimes to the weeping, “This is so hard…” and simply say, “I know.”

    Not what it’s cracked up to be, and yet infinitely more when seen in those fleeting, transcendant moments when the light shines just right.

  12. Whatever Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain actually said to the 20th Maine is, as Margaret says, not important–at least not for any of the purposes of this blog post. And Shaara gives to Chamberlain words that are stirring, that teach true principles that stretch well beyond the events of July 2, 1863.

    It’s rather like the words “spoken” by Henry V on the eve of St. Crispin’s day, in the English camp at Agincourt. Surely that uncouth royal never said (if for no other reason than that English in the 15th century wasn’t the same as it was two centuries later):

    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
    For he today that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother. Be he ne’er so vile
    This day shall gentle his condition.

    But Shakespeare had him speak truth (I will dispute your calling fiction writers “liars” Margaret!) that the archers at Agincourt understood as well as their brothers who bore arms in Shakespeare’s day, or today.

  13. More synchronicity, Mark! Bruce is preparing a paper on Henry V and just had me read his abstract. Btw, my former colleague, John S. Harris, called the brotherhood of war “Masculinism” which he juxtaposed with feminism. (He did not like feminism.) He quotes the St. Crispin’s Day speech in his explanation of what comprises Masculinism.

    Finally, Mark B, I am a fiction writer. I know for sure that fiction writers are liars. But then again, how can you trust what I say?

  14. Margaret, the movie was based on the novel “The Killer Angels”, by Michael Shaara. I understand Shaara used only the words Chamberlain himself wrote during or after the War. So if the words were “scripted”, it was done by Chamberlain in his own writings.

  15. Love that movie, especially Chamberlain’s speech. That was the first movie I saw with Jeff Daniels, and I was surprised to later see him in “Dumb and Dumber” and other less-serious roles. I love the Gettysburg movie soundtrack as well.

  16. I do want to read _The Killer Angels_, Bob. I’ll give Bruce a subtle hint.

    As one who has taken words which someone really used and then invested them into a fictionalized version of their character, I know the kinds of liberties we fictionalizers take. It matters in the film that Chamberlain is addressing soldiers who want to leave the battlefield–and who had thought they signed up for only two years, not three. It matters that the rhetoric of a rhetorician (no doubt trained in Shakespeare–perhaps even the St. Crispin’s day speech, Aristotle, etc.) actually persuades all but six of the would-be runaway soldiers to fight by his side. It matters that Chamberlain, who has been told he can shoot the prisoners if he wants to, decides to give an oration which begins with his assurance that bullets will not be involved. (A definite parallel to parenthood, though there are times…) I’d guess that nobody recorded the actual words Chamberlain said on that day, just as nobody recorded Henry V’s various speeches. But move the words into a stirring context, give them to a good actor, and they are lifted from the page into something capable of moving hearers not only to tears but to battle. Translate that to “Called to Serve” sung by 2,000 missionaries. Words, music, rhythm, community–all of it comes together to inspire us to (as Lincoln would say) finding “our better angels.”

  17. #16: There are three parts to this book/movie topic: The Writing of the book (I believe ’67 Pulitzer Prize winner?, my favorite part). The Book itself. The movie, ( hated in the South having been produced by Ted Turner, staring Martin Sheen As Gen. Lee!)
    Chamberlain did see Men as ‘Angels’. In the book and movie, his dying friend sees them as “Killer Angels.

  18. Yet Another John says:

    Joshua Chamberlain, in my mind, is one of the greatest men the Civil War produced. As was mentioned earlier, he was an educated man before he enlisted, and I believe he had a sense of history and the importance of his actions (not unlike well-prepared missionaries).
    At a reunion of Civil War vets at Gettysburg more than 25 years after the battle, Chamberlain delivered a speech that I think will resonate with many Latter-Day Saints:
    In great deeds something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision shall pass into their souls.
    There have been a few places I have been where it seems that for actually being there, the spirit is stronger, more able to touch us if we are prepared to receive it. Martin’s Cove and Carthage Jail comes to mind. Chamberlain touched on this as he spoke that day in Gettysburg.

  19. WOW! Thank you so much for sharing that, YAJ. Beautiful. On a day when the governor of Illinois is ripe for impeachment and manages to get expletives into just about every sentence, it is so refreshing to see a past governor (as you know, Chamberlain governed Maine after the Civil War) speak so beautifully and profoundly. Would that we could always be led by men with nuanced thought and refined sensibilities. Chamberlain serves as a wonderful example.

  20. With regard to Mark’s experience and reaction to Margaret’s post, there is one significant difference between the usual mission leadership set-up and the military leadership of field commanders like Chamberlain and Henry V. Speeches attributed to them owe part of their power to the fact that the officers in question were going into battle along side their men (as shown with great dramatic effect in films like Gettysburg and any good adaptation of Henry V). The all too common mission leadership approach is for the assistants and/or mission presidents to show up and berate the missionairies for lack of faith/baptisms and then head off in their comfortable cars to their luxurious (in contrast to most missionary digs) mission home residences. Rare is the assistant or mission president who actually hits the doors, street meetings, appointments or whatever with the front line missionairies. I suspect this management approach may often yield the kind of negative experience Mark describes.

  21. JWL: The all too common mission leadership approach is for the assistants and/or mission presidents to show up and berate the missionairies for lack of faith/baptisms and then head off in their comfortable cars…

    Hmmm. I truly hope this is not the case. If it is, then something must change. I have only a few experiences with mission presidents–my dad (who I saw teaching an investigator alongside the missionaries) and Pres. Robert Arnold, who is now deceased. But I have heard of Pres. Arnold holding one of the first converts in Patzicia, Guatemala in his arms and giving him comfort after the terrible quake of 1976.

    Assuming that some BCC readers may well become mission presidents, I think your observation is really important, JWL. Should Bruce ever receive such a call, I promise I will re-read your words.

  22. #18: Shelby Foote (Southern writer), said without Joshua Chamberlain, there would not have been a voice about what happened from the North’s view. All the great War Journals writers were from the South.

  23. JWL:

    FWIW that wasn’t the experience in my mission. The APs consistently spent more hours finding and teaching than was the mission average. Even during zone conference week they would usually have more hours tracting than the mission average. Not that what you’re saying doesn’t happen, it just didn’t in my mission.

    Thanks for the wonderful post Margaret.

  24. And for more information on Chamberlain…
    I want this for Christmas. I think I’ll buy it for myself and make Bruce think he bought it for me. It’s so fun to be married to someone nearing sixty, who can be persuaded that he really did buy something he has no memory of.

    by Joshua L. Chamberlain
    “BAYONET! FORWARD” MY CIVIL WAR REMINISCENCES is a compilation of the General’s most substantial Civil War addresses and writings…

  25. I wonder if this gray rainy day has got to JWL. I suppose that the mission president’s home on the hill in Kobe was nicer than the small house down the street from the rice paddy in Sakai. And surely the air was cleaner there–they were upwind of Osaka (and the steel mills of Sakai) after all. (On the other hand, he wouldn’t have been sung to sleep every summer night by the chorus of frogs singing from the rice paddy.)

    But I cannot remember being berated by any leader, President, Assistant, Zone Leader, on my mission. And I certainly hope that my experience is the rule, not the exception.

    Several of the mission presidents here on this side of the river, JWL, have been directly involved in introducing people to the church and in teaching them. Maybe you should consider moving over to the right side of the East River. :-)

  26. #24: I have the 9 tape Box Set of Killer Angels, which I believe won Audio Book of the Year when it was done. VERY will read!
    I also have a Box Set read by Shelby Foote of his writings of the Battle of Gettysburg. Also very nice. I have Foote’s set of three books on the Civil War that took him 20 years to write. He wrote only on a yellow pad with a dip pen, so he would think carefully about very word he wrote. (Two words per dip).

  27. #20 – I have known at least 6 Mission Presidents as they served well enough to state unequivocally that your description doesn’t fit any of them – and they would be baffled by it. I’m certain it does fit some, since they govern themselves, but I personally haven’t met any.

  28. For those who have defended mission presidents Got zu bentchen fardinen a mitzveh. Leben ahf dein kop unt yashir koyech! (That’s especially for Mr. Brooklyn).

    From now on when I watch Gettysburg (a favorite movie) I will always think of Bruce. Now can you get him to grow a Jeff Daniels moustache?

  29. #20: Wasn’t the case with my MP, but was certainly so with the APs. They were also infamous for a) shaking down greenies for anything of value from the States, and b) rummaging through outgoing missionaries’ bags for cool souvenirs, which they would then keep for themselves.

    It wasn’t just one set of APs. It was a chronic problem throughout my two years. I realize my mission was probably an exception, but even now when I meet a former AP (from anywhere) I literally have to resist the urge to spit in his face.

  30. Though this thread is pretty much ended, I wanted to add one more bit of information on Chamberlain–which I didn’t know until two minutes ago:
    He is best remembered for two great events: the action at Little Round Top, on the second day of Gettysburg (2 July 1863), when then-Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine held the extreme left flank of the Union line against a fierce rebel attack, and the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, when Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the formal surrender of weapons and colors (12 April 1865). Always a chivalrous man, Chamberlain had his men salute the defeated Confederates as they marched by, evidence of his admiration of their valor and of Grant’s wish to encourage the rebel armies still in the field to accept the peace.

    That’s a good model for any of us who might want to abuse APs, MPs, and anyone we might have once regarded as working against us. In their own ways, they have almost certainly been brave–perhaps in ways and moments we ourselves have not considered.

  31. Thanks for that, Margaret. Thanks to Google, here is Chamberlain’s account of the salute at Appomattox:

    The momentous meaning of this occasion impressed me deeply. I resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. Well aware of the responsibility assumed, and of the criticisms that would follow, as the sequel proved, nothing of that kind could move me in the least. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?

    Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

    Together with the considerations granted Lee and his men by Grant in the McLean house a few hours earlier, surely this was the Army of the Potomac’s finest hour.

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