On the Humanity of Saints

If you know a story about Mary Fielding Smith, odds are it’s one of these four: she blessed an ox that was about to die on the pioneer trail; when, on another occasion, a search party had been unable to find her lost cattle, she prayed and was told the cattle’s exact location; when Captain Cornelius Lott gave her a hard time about attempting the trek as a widow, she swore she’d beat him to the Valley, which she did; or, later, she insisted on paying her tithing because she would not be deprived of the blessings.

While these stories have the benefit of being more or less true—on Lavina Fielding Anderson’s search of primary sources, they seem to agree that Mary asked her brother and another elder to bless the ox—the fact that they represent the sum of what we as a people generally know about her ought to give us pause. [1] To say that she was more complicated is obvious, and complicating details aren’t hard to find: letters between her and Hyrum indicating some disagreement over her tactics as a step-parent, as well as other evidence suggesting that her marriages to Hyrum and, later, to Heber C. Kimball as a plural wife left her feeling lonely and not altogether satisfied. [2] I share these details not to point out with gleeful cynicism that Mary Fielding Smith wasn’t all she’s been made out to be, but rather to reflect on what it means for us as Latter-day Saints to honor our forebears.

In addition to offering a Mormon take on Advent and Easter, the Mormon Lectionary Project also incorporates the practice in liturgical Christianity of honoring saints with feast days. Inspired by Brigham Young’s vision of a Mormonism that embraces all truth, we’re using this method to honor people both in and outside of Mormondom.

Some Mormons might object to the idea of feast days because such celebrations seem to risk honoring people more than God—an objection bound up in the perception that some Catholics pray more to Mary and the saints than they do to God (misunderstanding the idea of intercession). We thus risk idolatry, or so the thinking goes.

And yet, like Scylla and Charybdis, idolatry hems us in on both sides, for revealing the less flattering sides of Mary Fielding Smith (or Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or any of our current leaders) seems like an act of bad faith. Sometimes, notwithstanding President Uchtdorf’s recent conference talk, it seems hard to be a good Mormon while admitting that our leaders make mistakes.

So how do we properly honor our forebears? After all, modern scripture teaches that we cannot be saved without them, and the turning of our hearts to our mothers and fathers is a mark of the last days.

I believe that the Lord himself gives us the answer in the revealed name of the Church, which affirms that we are all saints—all of us, with our own peculiar compounds of strengths and faults (and those pesky aspects of ourselves that manage to be both at once). We best honor the saints who went before—not to mention those who lead us now—by acknowledging that they are more or less like us: an uneasy stew of great gifts and confused folly. As the Psalmist reminds us, we were all created a little lower than the angels, and yet God is mindful of us. We ought to honor each other honestly, by looking as best we can at the full person. If honesty means being forthcoming about weaknesses, it also means robustly acknowledging the good in people and their actions.

This means believing Ammon when he insists, “Behold, I am a man, and am thy servant,” even though King Lamoni found his service so remarkable as to declare, “Now I surely know that this is the Great Spirit.” It means honoring Moses for his prophetic leadership while also seeing ourselves in his verbal misstep at Meribah. [3] It means honoring the missionary diligence of Paul, even though he behaved badly toward Peter at Antioch. It means weeping with Jesus, who, even as the Resurrection and the Life, very humanly and poignantly felt the loss of his friend Lazarus.

Today, then, let us honor Mary Fielding Smith as a woman of powerful faith and pioneer grit, but let us also honor her as a woman who struggled to find the right way of raising her step-children, as a wife who longed for deeper relationships with her husbands, and as a mother who must have worried beyond the veil as her son Joseph F. became a street urchin after her death. Above all, let us honor her as a human being—a Saint—who, like all of us, had to work through these complications one day at a time, not always succeeding, but carrying on nevertheless.



Mormon Lectionary Project

Mary Fielding Smith, 1852

Numbers 20:7-13; Psalm 8John 11:30-37Galatians 2:11-21Alma 18:1-17; D&C 115:3-4

The Collect: Almighty God, who sent thy only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our sorrows and griefs, and who in perfect patience bearest witness to our imperfect strivings: bless us, we pray, with charity to accept the offerings of our fellow saints; and grant that we, like thy servant Mary Fielding Smith, might press courageously forward amidst loneliness and distress until, caught up in the Holy Spirit, we come to dwell with thee in everlasting burnings. Amen.

For the music, we feature (not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last) Maurice Duruflé’s gorgeous setting of the Gregorian hymn “Ubi caritas,” which calls us to the love and charity that alone can bind us as saints together to each other and together to God.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwR_dM-1MlU]

[1] Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On,” Dialogue 14, no. 4 (1981), 99. Read the article here.

[2] For further details, see Anderson and also Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, “To Forsake Thy Father and Mother: Mary Fielding Smith and the Familial Politics of Conversion,” Dialogue 45, no. 3 (2012).  Hendrix-Komoto’s article is available to subscribers only; get your access by subscribing here!

[3] As discussed in Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate thy Performance,” April 2002 General Conference. Yes, I know that there are alternative readings according to which Moses doesn’t goof here.


  1. Beautiful, honest and moving. Thank you.

  2. Great article Jason. Yes, we are given just the good things, but must realize that our ancestors (and relatives) are imperfect just as we are.

  3. As a descendant of Captain Cornelius Lott, who has been one-dimensionally portrayed as a big ol’ meanie bullying the saintly widow of Hyrum Smith, I appreciate the reminder that one or even a handful of well-known stories do not necessarily constitute an entire character.

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a wonderful TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” that reflects on this as well: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

  4. emig: Anderson’s Dialogue article does a great job of recuperating Cornelius Lott.

  5. There is also the tithing story as retold by her son.

  6. You’re right; I’ve updated the OP accordingly. Thanks for the correction.

  7. Excellent stuff, Jason. Idolatry on both sides indeed.

  8. Ubi caritas, the best thing about Maundy Thursday.

  9. Exactly what I needed to read today – in all my imperfection.

  10. So good, Kristine! What a lovely vision of the saints gathered before God’s throne. And you’ve given me a great new site for the old RSS reader, too. Thank you!

  11. Wonderful stuff. Thanks Jason.

  12. The tension between God commanding perfection and presumably realizing we’ll all fail is interesting to me. That we allow ourselves our imperfections, but deny them to our ancestors (actual or spiritual) seems related. It’s like when Adam Miller talks about the gap between our stories and our lives.

  13. Very perceptive comment, John C. I’m advocating that we honor lives more than stories, I suppose.

  14. Of course I say that, but my own practice here is more complicated, because I’m still telling a story about Mary Fielding Smith for a basically didactic purpose. We can’t get away from maps and stories, to use Adam Miller’s language, but I’ll admit to still having a few qualms with this post on that front.

  15. Thanks for this post, Jason.

    Ironically, denying people’s faults denies a universal atonement. That is true as much for one person as another, no matter each person’s standing in life or esteem in our eyes. Our leaders and those we esteem highly are just as fully human as we are, although they might or might not have more or fewer faults than any regular person. They, just like we, are still incomplete, partial and only partly developed. We might not realize what we are doing when we put others on a pedestal and tell only about their virtues while ignoring their vices, but it does violence to the most amazing concept every taught when we do it.

  16. Jason, this is wonderful stuff. Someday I hope a perceptive student of history will write something similar about you.

  17. Jason you are quickly becoming in my mind at least one of the best, most insightful bloggers in the ‘nacle. More of this please.

  18. Thanks, Steve and Mathew. You’re too kind.

  19. They speak the truth, Jason.

  20. Hope you don’t mind me posting the beautiful Latin and the accompanying translation. Also, I have quite an obsession for what I consider the pristine sound of boy/male choirs. Love that you posted one from Choir of King’s College.

    Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
    Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
    Exultemus, et in ipso iucundemur.
    Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
    Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

    Where charity and love are, God is there.
    Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
    Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
    Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
    And may we love each other with a sincere heart.


  21. I don’t mind in the least; thank you! And you’ll find plenty of love for boy choirs around here!

%d bloggers like this: