I gave a talk similar to this yesterday.
My family left Bellevue twenty-three years ago. I now have a son who attends the same middle school that I did, when I didn’t imagine I would ever return. Every morning we drive up 148th just past my old neighborhood and then turn left on Main. We drive by the Bellevue Stake Center where [our first counselor in our bishopric]’s mom was my primary president and his dad taught me to play the clarinet. If you turn in, you will find that the back lot is bounded by a fence covered in grape vines.
I was born in 1976, the same year that President Kimball spoke with some measure of pride in General Conference about the “garden fever” that had infected many of the Saints. The church leaders of this period were raised when the Mormon culture region had primarily an agriculture-based economy (the farm-raised missionary remains legendary). Still, there is clearly more than a fear that the children of Zion be deprived home-canned peaches in President Kimball’s words. He taught the importance of the entire family learning the “eternal law of the harvest.” The garden was a place to battle the pernicious evils of the age and a place to nurture the relationships within burgeoning families. Having a garden and planting trees was a religious obligation and beyond the fence at the back of the church is a wide section of undeveloped land. We hauled in sand and sawdust and we filled it with raised-bed gardens. Then we tended them.
This was the Cold War. We stared at the horrifying potential of our standoff with Soviet Communism. The same year that he praised our gardens, President Kimball chastised us:
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
But the Cold War was more than the possibility of annihilation. We were in a contest that pitted the Scottish enlightenment economics of David Hume and Adam Smith against the communism of Marx, Stalin and Mao. Our frontier theocratic communitarianism was a distant memory; we easily located the resonances between the radical freedom entailed by Joseph Smith’s revelation, and the American way. The freedom of humanity, what many have come to call “agency,” was in peril and our economy was the battlefront.
In 1981, the year after our temple was dedicated, the possible massive MX Missile installation in Utah originally proposed by the Carter administration stumbled. The First Presidency broke their self-imposed silence on political matters and actively opposed the project, successfully defeating it. [n1] Deseret was to blossom as a rose not as a cannon. It seems perhaps odd that the Church’s response to one of the greatest evils of the twentieth century was to put away our arms and to plant tomatoes, carrots and peas.
President Romney delivered his “Self-Reliance” sermon when I was six years old, a year after the MX Missile episode, and two years after the change to the consolidated block schedule. The basic thesis is that the Adam’s curse—that we must labor in sadness for our bread—is still in effect. We must learn as President Kimball said, the eternal law of the harvest. The 1914 Relief Society lesson on gardening anticipated his sentiment: “Those who eat without labor are the sick ones of this earth.”
The popularity of the term “self-reliance” goes back to 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson published his book of the same title. Emerson was a strident individualist, and to embody his philosophy, one must be true to their own heart and mind, independent of popular opinion and social pressure. A commonly quoted phrase from the book is that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I imagine that Emmerson thought Mormonism was just such a thing.
When early church leaders did speak of “self-reliance” it was not unalloyed. For example, in 1927 Apostle Orson F. Whitney spoke in General Conference, stating: “Self-reliance is a good thing, if not carried too far. But self-assurance, self-sufficiency, self-conceit, is a bad thing. There is no such thing as absolute independence. We depend, upon one another, and all are dependent upon God.” [n2]
Everything changed in a few short years with the worldwide economic collapse. People who had been accustomed to plenty suffered without the basic necessities. Hunger was a reality for many people, including our own. Governments scrambled to aid the suffering. Church leaders viewed some of the government assistance programs with skepticism and even hostility. Particularly, many leaders spoke out against the “dole”—the idea of a handout. President J. Rueben Clark worked together with Relief Society President Amy Lyman to establish a church-wide welfare program that emphasized thrift and labor. But the church’s efforts were vastly insufficient to meet the massive needs of the time and as a consequence, “self reliance” became a staple topic of church leaders for the next fifty years.
The dole was an addictive drug. It destroyed character, ruined judgment, and reduced the agency of the receiver by breaking the law of the harvest. This was exacerbated in the Cold War when any handout was potentially the seed of communist oppression. This is the context for President Romney’s sermon on “self-reliance.” He remembered the depression, and then felt the constant threat of Soviet slavery. His example of the “gullible gulls” who became dependent on artificial sources of food for substance, and then starved when left to their natural devices are vivid examples of the threats Romney lived with and through.
I need no convincing of the reality of such dangers. After the velvet revolution I saw for myself the batteries of communist housing and the endemic despair. It is not difficult to find examples of communities broken in part by eating without labor. However I am more keenly aware of the ways in which I live off the dole. I imagine some people do read this sermon and try to transpose it onto today’s political landscape, but I’m not interested in that at all. Aspects of it make sense only within its Cold War context.
But President Romney did indicate that more dangerous than government economic policy was the policy in our homes and families. “We fear many parents in the Church are making ‘gullible gulls’ out of their children with their permissiveness and their doling out of family resources.” I suspect that even within the highly regulated and nurturing structures of the missions there are currently not a few eighteen-year-olds coming to a reality of their lack of self-reliance.
President Romney also warned against church members becoming emotionally dependent on their church leaders. And here is the root of our greatest peril. We feed ourselves on convenient, sweet and often empty sentimentalism. We seek out pre-packed spirituality that conforms to Technicolor aesthetics. But the days, weeks, and years of crisis come quickly, when cheap sweetness cannot sustain. Whether it be the overwhelming burdens of young motherhood or the loneliness of life expectations unrealized; whether it be an early and unexpected cancer, or the attenuated existence of Alzheimer’s; whether it be unemployment, depression, abuse, or a path that leads those we love away, we must all eventually walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And in those moments even our greatest heroes have cried out to God, begging him to make himself known. Are our gardens sufficient to sustain us when no angel appears in response?
Fortunately, we should never be truly alone. As President Romney said: “We are all self-reliant in some areas and dependent in others. Therefore, each of us should strive to help others in areas where we have strengths. At the same time, pride should not prevent us from graciously accepting the helping hand of another when we have a real need.” Pope Benedict XVI situated correctly, I believe, “the temptation to ostentatious self-sufficiency,” in its New Testement context. He argued that the Pharisees lost their view of God entirely in this mindset, looking only to themselves and believing that what they did was right and was enough to sustain themselves. The Greeks, held “the arrogant presumption of autonomy that leads man to put on the airs of divinity, to claim to be his own god, in order to possess life totally and to draw from it every last drop of what it has to offer.” [n3] Ultimately, as Elder Whitney said, a focus on self-reliance alone is to deny Zion and to deny Christ.
We must toil together beyond the grape-vined fence. We have today to labor together in our garden, that we may be the children of our Father which is in heaven. Please forgive me my sickly plot. This is my prayer.
- Jacob W. Olmstead, “The Mormon Hierarchy and the MX,” Journal of Mormon History 33, no. 3 (2007), 1-30.
- Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, October 1927, p.147
- Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (Bloomsbury 2007), pp. 62, 98; I thank my friend John Fowles for bringing this to my attention.