The Cross on the Tombstone

 

To reach B.H. Roberts’s grave in the Centerville City Cemetery you have to pass through those areas of southern Davis County where Utah still feels very much like the small town it was when Roberts settled here as a youth. Grass runs up to the asphalt of the road, the homes are as frequently generations-old brick cubes as they are modern miniature mansions, and every few lots even those give way to the rows of a garden or orchard, tended still by hand. There are few buildings higher than two floors, and the mountains loom only a stone’s throw behind. At night the deer edge warily into the flower beds.

The graveyard likewise draws you back to the near borders of frontier Mormonism. There are rows upon rows of McKays and Bensons and Pratts, and other families formed through plural marriage whose children still bring their dead here, and rarely must come far. Roberts’s grave is at the top of the cemetery, on a gentle rise, next to that of his first wife Sarah Louisa Smith and near his second, Celia Dibble. There is a budded cross graven on his tombstone. [1]

The cross and the presence of Sarah and Celia at the tomb of one of Mormonism’s more venerated intellectual leaders speak to the necessary capaciousness a historical perspective brings to Mormonism. The ghosts of Sarah and Celia ensure plural marriage remains undead. Roberts’s own commitment to the cross, marked upon his stone, reminds us of a Mormonism far less evangelical but more Protestant than you might recognize today: a Mormonism which, like Roberts himself, defended simultaneously Mormonism’s need to engage rigorously with philosophy and scholarship and the divinity of plural marriage. Neither seem much in vogue today. But that Mormonism still lives here at his tomb.

To the Greeks, to be perfect was to be timeless, to be the same, to never change.  But one of the mysteries of Christianity is that it exists in the tumult of history Jesus entered into, and one of the mysteries of Mormonism is that restoration is process rather than event. Both are a thing in time; a river, moving, coiling, collecting itself and darting forward in switchbacks and eddies, sometimes even reversing upon itself, and not a pool, complete and calm, with only the occasional wind ruffling the waters.

Below Roberts on the hillside of the cemetery lies a child, a girl, Zeesha Tawnee Kolohe Baldree, who died of leukemia at eight years old in February 2006. She was born in Hawai’i, and bore a diverse congregation of names: one native to that island, one derived from the Persian, and two from the British Isles. Like Roberts she was buried a Latter-day Saint. Like his third wife, she wanted a job in medicine. [2] She lived in Oregon when she died, though her family had old, old Mormon roots in Centerville. Her name and her birthplace, her hopes and her gravesite bear as much witness to Mormonism’s capaciousness as do Roberts’s life and death. [3]

Between Roberts and Baldree lies a wide expanse of Mormonism, in time, in identity, in space, but the word Mormon encompasses both and all of those who walked, and walk, between them. Reconciliation across divide is what atonement means and what the Trinity is. The Doctrine and Covenants states that the church is both true and living, and one modifier is dependent upon the other.

Notes

[1] Roberts was generally in favor of the cross; he advocated for the construction of one on Salt Lake City’s Ensign Peak during World War I. Michael Reed, Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2012), 87.

[2] Roberts’s third wife, the divorcee Dr. Margaret Curtis Shipp, did not outlive him and is buried in Salt Lake City.

[3] Baldree’s obituary is here.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    “the necessary capaciousness a historical perspective brings to Mormonism”

    Yes, this. Thanks for this beautiful reminder of how big Mormonism is when you take a step back.

  2. I mean, wow. Thanks Matt. Tell me – how can the Church today engage the “divinity of plural marriage”? What does that look like? Where does that engagement go?

  3. Maebridge says:

    Paragraph 4 is everything. Thank you so much for this. Beautiful.

  4. Nice reflection Matt. Thank you.

  5. Good stuff. Thanks. Damn correlation.
    As for plural marriage (Steve Evans at 1:58pm), I can’t even imagine a start on the “plural marriage is required” of later 19th century teaching, but as a divine institution permitted and approved (gives me the shudders, personally and privately, but . . .) one obvious direction that many have already called out is to celebrate diversity, to contradict the Proclamation (on the Family) and challenge the notion that one-man/one-women is the only possible or approved pattern.

  6. Jason Ford says:

    Written like a poem. Well done.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Beautiful.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

  9. Angela C says:

    I love the idea of a budding cross. So much for the idea that the cross is a dead symbol. Beautifully written!

  10. John Harrison says:

    I grew up across the street from BH Robert’s stone house. We knew that the (now defunct) 7-Eleven on main street was where his second wife’s house was.

    The cemetery (“Well this is a hell of a place to bury such a damn fine man!”) was partially in my ward growing up. Two of my grandparents and two of my wife’s grandparents are buried there.

    Lots of memories… Centerville has changed in some ways (the doughnuts are not as good), not so much in others.

  11. Hey, such a great piece. I love these windows in a history that in theory I know is mine, but in practice I still know so little. It does help to make my own spiritual practice an unfolding and not an event.

  12. Not a Cougar says:

    Possible threadjacking warning. Does anyone think it possible that there could be a softening of the Church’s stand on crosses in the next 50 years (I personally doubt it)? Having served my mission in the Philippines and grown up in Central Texas, I remember well feeling like I had to defend our position as Christians who reject the universal symbol of Christianity, and, of course trying to do so tactfully. I honestly wouldn’t mind at all if we started incorporating crosses into the Church especially if it removed a stumbling block for others to join and reinforced to others that we are a Christian church.

  13. Great piece, Matt. To Not a Cougar, I’m with you: I really love the symbol of the cross. The simple crossing of two lines reminds me of “reconciliation across the divide” as Matt has said here.

  14. Andrew Hardwick says:

    The cross was anathema to early Christians who were mainly Jews There is no reason to venerate it today

  15. Jason K. says:

    You don’t read much Paul, do you, Andrew? He calls it a “scandal,” not an object for veneration, but it’s utterly central to his thought.

  16. Paragraph 4 needs to be etched somewhere. No lots of places. If we could let that be a calling card to our religion we just might get somewhere. I am writing it down and keeping it. Then I am buying a cross to wear.

  17. Not a Cougar says:

    Andrew, so were pigs. The fact that an object has had different meanings down through time doesn’t seem to me to be a good argument for or against that object. The fact that the swastika had positive connotations before Nazi Germany coopted it doesn’t make me want to start sporting a swastika. I’m certainly not advocating incorporating Catholic or Orthodox rites into the Church (nor do many, if not most, Protestant denominations). I simply think there would be value added in letting the cross back into Church ornamentation (couldn’t think of a better word).

  18. This is a lovely piece. In this same cemetery is my husband’s great-great-great grandfather William Capener, who worked on the church and built one of those homes of which you speak so beautifully. Buried with him are two of his wives. He also sparked my husband’s first master’s thesis as he traveled through the Mormonisms a bit before finally resting with the Utah Saints in Centerville. The first time we visited, there were no flowers since they are more of ancestors instead of relatives to most now. We remedied that.

  19. Lovely. I also grew up in the area and love it still. Thank you.