President Hinckley and Mormon Memory

In Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero considers the decline of religious knowledge in America, much of which relates to the failure of institutions (family, school, church, university) to maintain a “chain of memory” that transmits religious knowledge from one generation to the next. President Hinckley helped Mormonism avoid this failure. Mormon memory is alive and well.

Remembering Who We Are
In his book, Prothero references the work of a French scholar commenting on the state of belief in Europe:

The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger has written eloquently about the loss of faith in Europe as a sort of amnesia. The rise of secularism in Europe, she contends, is rooted not so much in doubt as in forgetting. Religion is a “chain of memory,” she argues, and Europeans have broken the chain.

Prothero notes that the same process is at work in the United States: “Catholics have forgotten the words of the Baltimore Catechism their parents and grandparents once knew by heart. … Methodists have forgotten what distinguishes them from Baptists.”

Mormons have escaped this progressive loss of identity. LDS kids still memorize the Articles of Faith in Primary. In seminary classes, LDS high school students get a daily dose of Mormon scripture and doctrine. LDS missions provide a shared set of formative church experiences for many young men and some young women. All of this, plus the adult regimen of two classes a week on top of the regular Sunday worship service, explains why Mormons — unlike most American Christians, according to Prothero — know what they believe and how the LDS Church differs from other denominations.

Remembering Where We Came From
In the Mormon case, there is also a sense of history, heritage, and place that reinforces the doctrinal knowledge that is the primary ingredient in Protestant identity. This is where President Hinckley made a significant but generally unnoticed contribution, as summarized by Jan Shipps in her recent commentary on the passing of President Hinckley:

President Hinckley was also primarily responsible for the move away from the monographic narrative history of Mormonism to what is often called the public history dimension of the LDS past. He was church president when many historic sites were built or cleaned up, refurbished, and reopened to the public. These sites are important as a means of permitting non-Mormons to comprehend Mormonism’s fundamental story. But they have also become crucially important pilgrimage places where converts and young Mormons may go to enter experientially into the Mormon past.

President Hinckley also supported the expansion of the Museum of Church History and Art and the building up of the Family History Library and its enormous genealogical collection which is open to the public not simply in Salt Lake City, but in electronic format all across the world.

President Hinckley was responsible not just for the spread of temples around the globe but also the acquisition and restoration of LDS historical sites — for beefing up our “public history,” as Shipps called it. [See my earlier post on LDS historical sites.] These sites are, in a sense, a physical manifestation of Mormon identity that roots the doctrines and practices of the Church in 2008 with two centuries of the LDS story. And almost all Latter-day Saints, whether they read history books or not, visit a few of these sites from time to time. I stressed the word story above because it emphasizes another component of the identity problem that other denominations face. Prothero again: “But religious literacy is not just the accumulation of facts. … Religious literacy, in short, is both doctrinal and narrative; it is conveyed through creeds and catechisms, yes, but also through creation accounts and stories of the last days.” And, for Mormons, stories and sites about the early LDS Church, the migration to the Salt Lake Valley, the colonization of the Mountain West, and the new globalization of the Church. Nice sites. Great stories.

A Walk Around Temple Square
A mental walk around the perimeter of Temple Square is another way to illustrate President Hinckley’s contribution to making the historical component of Mormon identity so visible to all Latter-day Saints. Across the street on the west is the Museum of Church History and Art. On the north is the Conference Center, the halls of which are filled with LDS art depicting scenes from the scriptures and from LDS history. On the east is the LDS campus which includes the Joseph Smith theater, featuring Church-produced films showing dramatic retellings of events from the scriptures and LDS history.

All of this development happened under the leadership of President Hinckley. Perhaps he will be remembered as the President who brought the Mormon story to the people in a way that every Latter-day Saint and many visitors can remember and appreciate the story of who we are.

21 comments for “President Hinckley and Mormon Memory

  1. I have read and heard some lovely tributes to President Hinckley this week. Thank you for yours.

    A logical continuation of your walk around Temple Square includes looking south to some of the new development to keep downtown Salt Lake City a vibrant and viable community. Taking care of the temporal aspects of the church is not a minor part of church leadership. Overseeing construction and maintenance of facilities, welfare and charities, business holdings, missionary expenses, etc., is a major part of the calling.

  2. I think that President Hinckley was the instrumental in bringing the temple to the people. The most notaceible example is the building of all the smaller temples so that saints that would never have had the opportunity to go will now have that opportunity. Also, the open houses made our temples more \”public\” than ever in all the communities they have been in. People who are not members still cannot go into the temple, but many have had the opportunity to at least see the interior and find that it\’s a house of worship, not a scary place. A third, less noticeable thing was access to the Salt Lake City temple. In the past, it was closed off to the public, but then a few years ago, the gates were opened an people could go up and touch the temple. I asked about this and the missionaries said that the directive had come from President Hinckley. Touching something makes it seem more \’real\’ to someone. Through his efforts more LDS and Non LDS have been able to interact with the temple, not just read or hear about it from people who live far away.

  3. I too honor the historical works done under the leadership of President Hinckley. I have loved visiting these kinds of places my whole life.
    I do, however wonder about some of the other ideas of this post. I think the “chain of memory” of Europe is the Bible, it’s Cathedrals, abbeys, schools, churches. I don’t see loss of memory due to their lack of historical sites.

    I know Southern Baptists know they are not Methodists,or Mormons as due Catholics.

    Most Mormons will never visit these Mormon sites, or even be in America, but they will be pubic sites.

    Most Mormons know nothing of their Church’s history between 1890-1990

  4. Thanks, Bob. I certainly wanted to have mine. *grin*

    Dave, this was an interesting tribute. Thanks. As to “Remembering Where We Came From”:

    Some members make a point of lamenting what they see as the Church’s moving away from its roots and trying to recast itself as part of Protestantism. I always wonder if they have been listening to the same Prophet as I have over the last 13 years. Of course, Pres. Hinckley was pretty clear about some statements that used to be taught openly not being taught openly any more, but he simultaneously focused continually on helping us remember our past – especially the dedication and determination and “faith of of our fathers”. Just because he emphasized those areas of commonality that allow us to work with others in ways not possible before doesn’t mean he denied our roots in any way. Of all the prophets I have known over the years, Pres. Hinckley walked within the present while being grounded in the past better than any of the others. His talk about the inspiration behind the re-building of the Nauvoo temple was one of the most moving in this regard that I have ever heard.

  5. Thanks Dave. This post certainly caught my attention. I was not aware that Prothero relies on Hervieu-Leger, so this book is definitely on my list.

    Ray, there\’s no question that Pres. Hinckley\’s use of history was selective, since all memory is selective. We choose what we want to emphasize and what we want to deemphasize in our public narrations of the past. But I\’m grateful that Pres. Hinckley found great value in the past and I\’m afraid that I did not fully appreciate that aspect of his work until now. I have too often focused on his efforts to convince people to \”forget\” the more controversial aspects of our past (e.g., the Priesthood Ban, Mountain Meadows, polygamy), but it is also true that Pres. Hinckley did a tremendous work in bringing other aspects of our past more concretely into the present, therefore helping us to \”remember\” them. And since our identity as a people is so firmly rooted in how we interpet and use the past, this is certainly a good thing, as Dave notes.

  6. Ray,

    I think those lamenting the Church’s move away from its roots and recasting as Protestantism are referring to the Church’s THEOLOGY not to its HISTORY. Sure we’re anchoring ourselves to the images and icons of the Early LDS History. But we’re also moving our THEOLOGY decidedly closer to the Methodist camp.

  7. Jason, I understand that. I personally don’t think it’s valid. I think Pres. Hinckley has focused on what is “official doctrine” – at least as much as it is possible to define that in a non-creedal church. He has stated honestly in multiple cases that “we” (the Church as an institution) don’t teach as foundational fact many of the things that were stated by previous prophets – but he never stated that we teach that those things are “wrong” (at least to my knowledge). It simply says we don’t teach them institutionally. Personally, I like that approach and have wished for decades that earlier prophets and apostles had said the same thing.

    I think many people have over-reacted to what he didn’t actually say.

  8. I open myself to challenge on this: I believe also, “The Church” and “Mormonism’, are different things(?). I think in history(?), this have been used as a tool. In the 1890s, The “Church” stopped it’s practice and teaching of Polygamy, but “Mormonism” (though it’s Priesthood), did not. But maybe this does not belong in Dave’s post. Sorry for a thread jack,

  9. I’m watching the funeral, and Elder Tingey’s talk on the footprints Pres. Hinckley left was very moving. The words of the song Pres. Hinckley wrote (“What Is This Thing Called Death”) are beautiful.

  10. Wonderful post (and, yes, I’m typing this while watching — well, listening to — Pres. Hinckley’s funeral). We focus (and quite rightly) on the rebuilding of the Nauvoo temple, which (and I say this quite respectfully) may yet become the LDS equivalent of Mecca — quick raise of hands: how many of you plan to attend the Nauvoo temple at least once in your lives? My wife and I plan on doing so this year — but his building of temples at Palmyra and Winters Quarters were also key in his efforts to keep ‘Mormon memory’ alive.

    I’m still waiting for the Church to acquire the Kirkland Temple from the Community of Christ, something I fully expected to happen years ago, as the CofC has been shedding or downplaying its Restoration roots on a steady basis. I would not be surprised at all if Pres. Hinckley made efforts to do so. ..bruce..

  11. Mormons have escaped this progressive loss of identity. LDS kids still memorize the Articles of Faith in Primary. In seminary classes, LDS high school students get a daily dose of Mormon scripture and doctrine. LDS missions provide a shared set of formative church experiences for many young men and some young women. All of this, plus the adult regimen of two classes a week on top of the regular Sunday worship service, explains why Mormons — unlike most American Christians, according to Prothero — know what they believe and how the LDS Church differs from other denominations.

    I’ve dealt with lots of teenagers the last year or two, and it’s rather stunning how little most of them know about religious ideas–even those who are putatively Christians. In reading literature with them, I’m struck over and over again that words from two categories are mostly strange to them: agriculture and religion. So many are unlikely to know what such words as “gelding” and “heifer” are, but also unlikely to know what “covet” or “covenant” means. They are also unlikely to “get” references to such standard stories as David and Goliath, or Jonah and the whale, or Pilate and “washing his hands” of an affair.

    It’s spooky, how little young people know about religious history.

    LDS youth, to a great extent, do know the religious concepts and the stories. And I think it makes a measurable difference.

    We–moderns–do seem to be suffering from a vast form of cultural amnesia.

    Though I was aware of it, I hadn’t paused to contemplate how much emphasis the church under President Hinckley’s leadership has put on memory and public history. We order our lives through promising and remembering.

    Thanks for this post. I also wasn’t aware of Prothero’s work, but I’ll look it up. It sounds as though it might be good companion reading to another work I’ve found useful: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers “>Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (which is discussed briefly in the Deseret News article linked above.

  12. #14: To grow up as a “legacy’ Mormon, is to grow up on Jello and story. I think it starts with Joseph Smith. You read his life story, you know his liking of story, I am sure many stories were told around the campfires on the way to Utah (no TV).. I know stories were later told of those campfire days during long winter nights in Idaho. I feel even today, Mormon teenagers get this as part of their upbringing, while most other teenagers miss out. I don’t know if “cultural amnesia.” is correct, If you never had a story to forget.

  13. President Hinckley was obviously very interested in history. I thought it was cool to hear that he had brought home some dirt from his mission country, and that it was put in his grave. President Monson said it fit President Hinckley to do so.

    Passing on traditions, doctrines, theology, etc is up to parents and teachers. This is stuff that happens in FHE and family trips. President Hinckley took his family on many vacations, and he made sure they always stopped at all the historical sites. If we want our children to know things like the articles of faith then we have to teach them in FHE, and be good primary and sunday school teachers ourselves.

  14. Some personal thoughts: I feel President Hinckley (read Jan Shipp again at the being of the post), prepared these historical sites for non- members ( the public), for their understanding of Mormon History. I am not sure he would wanted members to ‘circle the pioneer wagons’ around them as their personal treasures.
    I also agree with the importance job of parents and teachers in passing on the traditions and values of their Culture. But it is also necessary that those traditions and values be as true and correct as possible. Certainly, the Madras does a good job in passing on a Culture, but I don’t think that’s what Mormons are aiming for.

  15. Great points. Though I would suggest that there is something really cool about actually visiting and being at those historical sites.

  16. The sites are intended at least as much for members as for non-members. How else to explain the multi-page, heavily illustrated Ensign articles about the sites?

    On some recent thread, Wilifried mentioned something about church history sites in North America becoming tourist destinations for European saints, too.

  17. Ardis (19), I know that my German relatives and friends love to visit the Church’s historical sites if ever they can make it over here. For those who’ve heard about Palmyra and Nauvoo and Kirtland for decades, it’s pretty cool to actually (and finally) visit those places.


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