From time to time I’ve made oblique references on the blog to a Gospel Discussion Group my wife and I were a part of in the mid-90s here in the Chicago area. I remember that as an idyllic time, and I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you more about it.
The Group (which didn’t really have a name; we just called it “Gospel Discussion Group,” hereafter “Group”) was organized by Jon and Colleen Thomas in the fall of 1990, and held its first meeting in January of 1991. It lasted about five or six years, and started to wind down in 1996-97. Originally it was strictly a City of Chicago affair, but when Jon and Colleen moved out to the suburbs, later followed by a couple of other group members, the geography of the Group broadened, and that is when my wife and I joined.
On October 15, 1990, Jon and Colleen sent a sort of prospectus letter to a number of carefully selected families (i.e,., families they thought might be open to such an invitation) in thier ward. The letter read in part as follows:
This is not a chain letter. This is not an announcement. This is not an advertisement. In fact, we’re not really sure what to call this–maybe a feeler. We would like to find out whether there are church members in the area who are interested in participating in a monthly or bimonthhly gospel discussion group. It would most likely involve getting together for an hour or two on Sunday night (baby sitting could be worked out if enough are interested).
The kind of group we envision is one in which committed Latter-day Saints can discuss and pursue gospel topics/issues that can’t be covered in depth during our church meetings. It would most likely involve reading passages of scripture or articles dealing with Church history, theology, and contemporary religious experience. Articles could be drawn from magazines and journals such as BYU Studies, The Ensign, Sunstone, Dialogue, Chirstianity Today and Bible Review. This would not be a forum for discussing “every wind of doctrine” or esoteric religious interests; but a diversity of topics and perspectives would be encouraged.
Jon and Colleen organized the Group for basically three reasons. First, there were lots of really thoughtful, informed articles on Mormon history, doctrine and culture being published in a variety of LDS-related magazines, journals and books, which they thought ward members interested in a more scholarly approach to gospel study might be interested in. Second, they wanted to create an intimate environment to discuss with friends what they were reading related to all things Mormon. Third, they wanted to provide a forum to help members who were or might be troubled by difficult or challenging things about the Church.
Their initial thought was that they would need a minimum of ten positive responsese to make the Group a worthwhile thing to pursue; they actually got 15, so the Group was on. On January 6, 1991, they sent out a letter announcing the first meeting, which would be held on January 27th at 7:00 p.m.
My recollection of the way the Group worked is as follows: we met the fourth Sunday of every month, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The venue rotated among the houses of Group members. Every meeting had a moderator, which also rotated. The moderator would pick a subject in advance, and provide Group members with two articles or book chapters (occasionally three) on that topic, but ideally from different perspectives. If the moderator needed help coming up with articles to read, Jon would help select some from his extensive library. We would start with prayer, maybe sing a hymn (I don’t quite remember), and then the moderator would introduce that evening’s subject and the readings and give an overview. Then he or she would lead a discussion of the readings. My sense was that these discussions were always animated and productive; I scarcely can recall any dead time at all. Everyone was thoroughly engaged. (And yes, of course there were refreshments after; we are after all Mormons, are we not?)
We didn’t just discuss Gospel topics; often the conversation would veer to issues of the day, or favorite movies, books and music. In that sense it was like any good book group.
Although bringing in invited speakers (a la Miller-Eccles) was the exception, not the rule, occasionally we would do that. Examples included Stephen Ricks (on the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Gordon Allred (both before my time there). The one I remember was a local RLDS pastor, whom we hosted at my house. That was a fantastic evening, as we got to compare and contrast elements of practice between our two traditions. (That was when I learned that the RLDS [now CoC] tithe only after basic living expenses, and that they even have a little form you fill out.)
These evenings were filled with much laughter, good will, and sometimes profound insights, and we formed strong and long-lasting friendships from within that Group.
As of January 1995 the Group had studied and discussed some 78 articles or book chapters. Listing all of those here would be impracticable; instead, I’ll list every tenth title or so (a tithe, if you will) just to give you a taste of some of the things we studied:
Abunuwara, E. (1981). Nothing Holy: A Different Perspective of Israel. Dialogue, 22. 93-101.
Berry, W. (1987). Men and Women in Search of Common Ground. Sunstone, 11. 8-12.
Clark, H.G. (1955). Millions of Meetings, 18-35.
Hatch, O.G. Civic Virtue: Wellspring of Liberty. National Forum, 34-38.
Kimball, S.W. (1976). Absolute Truth. Ensign. September, 3-8.
Nibley, H. (1991). How to Get Rich. In H. Nibley, Approaching Zion (pp. 178-201). Salt Lake City, UT, Deseret Book.
Peterson, G.B. (1987).Priesthood and Latter-day Saint Women: Eight Contemproary Definitions. In M. U. Beecher and L.F. Anderson (Eds.), Sisters in Spirit. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, R.P. (1986).Science: A Part of or Apart from Mormonism? Dialogue, 19, 106-113.
Wood, G.S. The Intellectual Origins of the American Constitution. National Forum. 5-8, 13.
Why did the Group peter out? Mainly from people moving. Also, at some point Jon was called as a bishop and the time commitment just became too much. For many years we would talk about gearing it up again, but the inertia was strong and it just never happened.
Still, I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for the few years I was able to be a part of the Group. It’s an experience I wish many of our young people could have, which would, I hope, as it did for me, lead them to a richer and more textured faith.