A disturbing trend surfaced in the last year or so in which parents wrote letters to their young adult children explaining that if they did not stay active in the church, they would be cut from the inheritance. These letters were shared in various Mormon internet groups. At roughly the same time, LDS Philanthropies published a video featuring a father who said that if his sons continued to follow church teachings, they would keep their inheritance, but otherwise, he would simply donate his money to LDS Philanthropies. The video was subsequently removed due to backlash. It’s an interesting parenting trend, some might say alarming.
First of all, my own view on inheritances is that nobody should count on it. If you are living so close to the edge that the inheritance will make or break you, maybe you should be focusing on more sustainable sources of income. Furthermore, it is the right of any individual to donate their earthly goods as they see fit. And yet, it is unsavory to imagine parents using their inheritance as a bribe to control their children. It also seems like a recipe for hypocrisy, if one’s children are encouraged to pretend to be living one way for the benefit of the parents, but in reality feel differently. Do some parents really only love their children if those children do as the parents wish? That doesn’t feel like love. That’s something more like a dynasty than a family.
A while back, I finished watching The Tudors, the Showtime series about the reign of Henry VIII, the notorious wife killing monarch. The theme of his entire kingship was his insecurity without a male heir. His father won the crown in battle, overthrowing his cousin, and then Henry VII’s first son Arthur died before becoming king, leaving his second son in the position of power. Henry VIII was obsessed with having both an heir and a spare. All that mattered was preserving the Tudor dynasty, and to achieve that goal (or when they failed to produce the desired male heir) he dispatched wife after wife, divorcing or executing them. For all that effort, his only son died soon after his father, leaving the Tudor dynasty to his daughters in an era in which women did not usually inherit crowns. Throughout his reign, he used the threat of bastardizing or disinheriting his daughters as a tool to manipulate and control them when he didn’t like their views or felt they were going to act contrary to his will after his death.
Henry VIII’s story illustrates the difference between a dynasty and a family. A family, at least as we talk about it at church, is a group of related people who love and rely on one another; a dynasty is about power and inheritance, obligation and control. Our temple rites use the symbolism and language of the monarchy, putting each person in a position of thinking of him or herself as a future king or queen, someone with progeny reaching into the eternities. When these ties are bonds of love and service, they are a beautiful expression of Christian charity, a proving ground to learn and practice our skills of empathy, service, and patience. When we instead use this language toward self-aggrandizement or to view our children as an object, a blessing we receive for our righteousness, there is a temptation to try to manipulate them, shame them or push the filial bonds to the breaking point with fear-motivated, self-serving acts of control. Even if this is done under the guise of keeping a child on the strait and narrow path, when we act out of our own feelings of insecurity about our legacy, that’s self-serving. It isn’t love. That’s a dynasty, not a family.
Several years ago we visited the Capuchin catacombs in Sicily. It’s an odd and somewhat gruesome tourist attraction. The catacombs display the corpses of hundreds, possibly thousands of people, their faces turned to face onlookers to remind them that they too will die. According to our guide, the intent of many of these individuals was to provide their children with a stark reminder that the grave would come soon enough for them too. Scaring your kids straight from beyond the grave. Apparently, Catholic guilt knows no bounds. But Catholics don’t corner the market on parental guilt and a desire to control the choices of offspring. Anyone who has had a child knows the temptation to take the reins when we see them heading in the wrong direction.
One of the interesting observations Richard Bushman makes about Joseph Smith in Rough Stone Rolling is that Joseph lusted for kin, not necessarily for sexual liaisons. He wished to join himself with others in the church through the sealing process. He had a vision of one large network of believers. One reason Bushman argues this is that Joseph’s additional marriages were not necessarily fruitful. He didn’t seem to be amassing a large pool of offspring as a crowning achievement.
Brigham Young’s vision of polygamy took a decided turn toward the dynastic. He even boasted that he didn’t know the names of all of his wives. He viewed the blessings of the endowment being the Abrahamic blessing of having progeny as numerous as the sands of the sea, and if you ceased to have progeny, you were damned. Celestial glory meant increase, and increase didn’t mean progress so much as more children. The term “believing blood” was coined to refer to the offspring from prominent polygamous dynasties. Those with so-called believing blood were considered somehow superior to others, either genetically or through their faithful upbringing.
One corporate training I went through years ago talked about the failure of leadership when leaders rely on control to get results. As soon as the controlling leader is gone, so is the compliance. Resentment is also a common byproduct of this kind of leadership. You get the illusion of the result you wanted, but the minute you are gone, the relieved underlings immediately go about doing what they wanted to do anyway. The only true leadership is to explain a rationale, influence, persuade, listen, and collaborate with those in your charge, seeing them as rational actors in their own right and helping to promote their best instincts.
What motivates parents to try to control their children through the use of inheritance funds? The Doctrine & Covenants puts it this way:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (D&C 121: 39-44)
The ending “that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” isn’t referring to one’s faithfulness to the gospel, but to the loyalty one feels toward the other person. We can reprove betimes with “sharpness” (which in the context of the era meant “clarity” rather than “harshness” as the word is more typically used now), only so long as we make it clear through our subsequent actions that our love is stronger than the cords of death, that our love is not conditional, that our love is unbreakable; in terms of family relationships, this means that we love our child regardless of our ability to control their actions either during our lifetime or after.
This is really important because it’s the whole point of the gospel. We can’t love the law more than we love our own children. We can’t love our legacy more than our children. Both of these are really just examples of loving ourselves–our reputation or our importance to future generations–more than we love our children. In addition to not being able to take your money with you when you die, you also can’t dictate the choices of your offspring.
The only influence we have is that which comes through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned.