Primitive church

Times & Seasons used to post, from time to time, something “From the archives”. I revisited a post I published eight years ago, updated a few items, and thought it would still be worthwhile to read. My question to you: what are your memories of the “Primitive church”, if you ever had the privilege of experiencing it?

The missionaries found me when I was 17. That was back in 1964 in Antwerp, Belgium. I read Joseph Smith’s history and Moroni’s promise. I knew it was true. Immediately, fully.

I went to the local branch. A tiny branch in a regular rowhouse that the Church had purchased a few years before. I got to know the handful of members, my new family.

There were only two Melchizedek priesthood holders, one was the branch president and the other the district president. Both converts from the 1950s. They did not get along at all. The district president was a military man with the Handbook in his eyes. The branch president was a simple workman, forbearing and reassuring. He had a peculiar realistic faith. He told us quietly he had decided not go to the temple and be sealed to his wife because he did not want to spend eternity with her, but he was willing to put up with her for mortality, which he considered an already reasonable sacrifice. His wife would then punch him and grin: “Just wait and see!” In church he would chew some mint, to counter the tobacco smell. But he cared for his little flock in his own paternal way. We loved him dearly. And he effectively stopped the district president from holding church courts after sacrament meeting. Because taking the sacrament with the left hand, quarreling in public, or speaking evil of the district president were causes for on the spot church discipline. The branch president would tell him to get lost.

The refiner’s fire burned with a broken thermostat. The heat was up all the way. Our branch counted some twenty (semi)active members – mostly elderly sisters with colorful personalities.  But so many converts had come and gone, so many came and went. Yearly the membership records had been expanding and continued to expand, to a couple of hundred names, but for years our average attendance remained around twenty. There were plenty of reasons to give up – family pressure, social pressure, burnout, and all manner of troubles with bizarre and volatile converts baptized by eager missionaries.

But, oh, the excitement for those who kept the faith. We feasted on Church history and pure plain doctrine. The First Vision, the visit of Moroni, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the return of John the Baptist, of Peter, James and John; the martyrdom of the prophet, the exodus from Nauvoo, the founding of that paradise in Deseret – each of those breathtaking episodes filled us with awe, again and again. Glad tidings of great joy! Religion was now so crystal-clear for those who had wandered in the darkness of the Great Apostasy: we knew the dispensations of time, the restoration, the plan of salvation, the ordinances, the work for the dead, the degrees of glory. Everything fell into place. Everything related to the Church was perfect for me. Arnold Friberg’s prints now decorated my bedroom, much to the dismay of my dad, a professional art historian, who now was sure he had lost his son for good, religiously and culturally.

Other electrifying doctrines were talked about, without restriction, as if no end would come to the unfolding of truth: “As man is, God once was…”, eternal progression, mother in heaven, the King Follet discourse … We got the first edition of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. Wow, look at this entry: Catholic Church – See Church of the Devil. We knew that equation already, but it was heartwarming to see it in print, also considering the persecution from the Belgian Catholic establishment we were under (an establishment quite different from the Catholic Church in the U.S.). Little did we know that Mormon Doctrine’s first edition had been disapproved by the Brethern. We knew where we stood and who the enemy was. We were not just another denomination, Christian or not, we were the Only True Church. And the rest were abominations in the eyes of the Lord — though thanks to us all their members could be saved.

Our enthusiasm made us always sing very loudly. Perhaps also to encourage the little, crumbling harmonium with two squeaking pedals to pump the air and the left pedal faltering regularly. One Sunday we had high visitors from Utah: two sisters of the Primary General Presidency, passing through with the mission president. I overheard the one say to the other, with a disturbed look on her face: “They sing so noisily”. True, we were singing even more loudly than usual, to demonstrate to our visitors our unflagging commitment to the Church. Under the vigorous foot of sister Janssens even the left pedal of the harmonium squeaked better than ever.

A highlight of that period was a visit by a member of the Twelve – Elder Mark E. Petersen, who gave a stirring talk about the Great Apostasy, with a sparkling depiction of the atrocities by the popes in Rome. My mother, a committed Catholic whom I had finally convinced to come to a Mormon event, was so upset that for months I was forbidden to set foot again in that cult. I cried my heart out so much I missed my branch.

On Sundays, we’d be in church from at least 9 AM till at least 7 PM. Relief Society, Priesthood and Sunday School took from 9 till 12, Sacrament meeting was at 5 PM, but since distances to our homes were too great, quite a few would stay in the little rowhouse on Sunday afternoon, picnicking in the basement, singing hymns and telling faith promoting rumors. Ten hours in church — and never be bored. There was so much to be excited about, the unity of this handful of saints in the middle of Babylon, the talks, testimonies and tears — and the occasional clash between the branch and the district president.

And we would dream about growth: certainly, once the time would come that we would have a stake, and hundreds of priesthood holders, and mature leaders, and we would be a ward with a real church building. I remember how I gave moving talks picturing that future. To endure, we had to cling to that vision.

All that happened almost half a century ago. It was all indiscriminately natural and elating, normal and supernatural. But I don’t think I was a simpleton. During these very years I also obtained my B.A., studying philosophy, history and literature at the Antwerp Jesuit University, then obtained my M.A. at the University of Ghent with a thesis on the first medieval Bible translation in French, and then went on to study post-graduate theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, specializing in early medieval Patrology, which was like a map to understand the Great Apostasy. Those studies helped me grasp even better the stirring audacity of Mormonism, its no-nonsense cosmic vision, its dynamic ability to circumscribe everything into one logic whole, its unique capacity to be both exclusive as Only Truth and inclusive to all mankind, even the dead.

Now, looking back, I think I have been immensely privileged to experience what must have been the Primitive Church during the lifetime of either Paul or Joseph Smith, in a little branch on the outskirts of the Kingdom. A mixture of uncontaminated faith and crude leadership, of delight and turmoil, of persevering against all odds. We had this keen sense of coming out of the darkness to the perfect light, of continuous doctrinal unfolding, of uniqueness. The Primitive Church as found in Acts or D&C, with its fervor and its fights, its faithful and its defectors. The Primitive Church with its daring doctrinal deepening, punctuated by exclamations, like in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews or in Joseph Smith’s discourses.

And over the years I have come to love and respect that district president who, even as little understood and little sustained as he was, kept the faith for half a century in that very same branch until his death in 2003. The branch president died twenty years ago, after some forty years of faithful attendance and service. He never made it to the temple. His wife died only recently, at the age of 98. I am confident his understanding of eternal marriage matured up there and that he was eagerly waiting for her to come. Members who for decades have simply remained active in such branches, without ever doing the heroic things that make Ensign-stories, are the real heroes of our faith. The Lord must have a special welcome for them.

Today I attend a Utah ward. Three hundred people in Sacrament meeting. Rotating schedules with two other wards in the building. The bishopric on the stand, kindly smiling. Even with so many people, the singing is gentle. The routine of releases and callings. Plenty of willing and able hands to serve. In priesthood I’m surrounded by a large group of wise, loving high priests. Friendships abound. This is the Church of which I dreamt almost half a century ago: large, mature, organized.

But should it surprise anyone that my memories of the Primitive Church make my heart glow and my eyes moist?

17 comments for “Primitive church

  1. This post took me back to my missionary days in Mexico. I served in a town towards the east coast of Mexico called Poza Rica. I remember one ward that did not have a chapel but met in a small building where they rented space for their services. The membership was low and there were many less active families but those that attended regularly were strong in the faith and enthusiastic about it. They had problems, too. Conflicts among members, nonmember families who opposed etc. But all that seemed wiped away during Sunday services when they would sing loud (without any accompaniment) and enthusiastically.

    My companion and I were out tracting when we happened upon several members of this ward clearing off a lot. We stopped and helped a bit. This was the lot that had been purchased for their chapel. I remember the conversation during that work was speculating when they would finally have their building. That’s been twenty-five years ago. I hope they have their chapel.

  2. I love this post. I read Joseph Smith’s biography Rough Stone Rolling and learned more about Joseph’s family and the other new members of the church at that time. The thought kept coming too me: “If we had a time machine and we could transport the Smith family and other characters in the Restoration to our time, they would better relate to and have much more in common with the new converts of today (as you describe in your post) than someone like me whose family has been in the church for many generations. Then as now the members of the church do the best it can with the good but imperfect members they have.

  3. Thanks for reposting this. I appreciate being able to read this a second time. It’s especially timely as I recently moved from a small-ish midwestern branch where I had lived for several years to the larger eastern ward where I was baptized. I love my ward, but miss that branch more than I ever thought was possible.

  4. After an incident* in a branch in my mission (somewhere in Eastern Europe in the mid ’90s – no name given to protect the “innocent”), one of the Sisters in my district said, “I feel just like we’re living in the Doctrine and Covenants!”

    * In one branch (that happened to have one set of Elders and one set of Sisters) things got so bad that everyone was released and one of the Elders was called as Branch President, his companion was made Elders’ Quorum President, one Sister was called as Relief Society President, and her companion was called as the Primary President.

  5. Egee, I just looked on the Meetinghouse Locator on, and there are 6 chapels and 1 Institute listed for the two Stakes in Poza Rica – so I’m assuming that, yes, they got their chapel!

  6. wonderful experiences in Servicemen’s branches with all the learning and loving already shared in other comments plus the addition of the military family life. I have been privileged to meet and serve with modern mormon warriors and their families. Have also experienced a similar situation to *8 when the military families were called to replace in mass the leadership of the local branch when bad feelings and pride pulled the church organization in that area apart. This period of my life was a true learning by doing gospel experience that built my family’s foundation.

  7. Thanks all for the comments to this point. Experiences with the Primitive church can be past or present, and they usually have to do with the first establishment of the church. That’s why, no doubt, new Mormon branches in the former Soviet countries and in many African countries have gone or still go through “Primitive church” experiences. They tell us a lot about how it must have been in early Christianity and also in Joseph Smith’s time.

    Similar are the experiences of seasoned church members who find themselves, for professional or other reasons, all alone or part of small units somewhere in the world.

    The challenges with “primitive” branches also explain why the church is now trying to first build “centers of strength” rather than dispersing missionaries over too large territories. But meanwhile the experiences in small units are among the most challenging and rewarding members can share.

    Hope to hear more of your experiences! Anecdotes welcome.

  8. Wilfried (11) said: “new Mormon branches in the former Soviet countries and in many African countries have gone or still go through ‘Primitive church’ experiences.”

    I served my mission in Russia, where I was older than the Church was. One of the things I always found interesting was the complaints from former branch presidents about how the current branch president did things.

    Branches were so small and Priesthood holders so few that they were always involved pretty intimately in the branch leadership. Furthermore, branches were too small to focus on everything that the usual U.S. ward could focus on: missionary work, home and visiting teaching, how much to break up Sunday School classes, whether to hold Church all three hours, etc. Many things that are already decided for U.S. wards are not for these very small branches on the fringes of the Church, which meant there was a lot more discretion about what to focus on and how to structure things.

    Another thing I remember from my mission was how involved the missionaries were in the running of a branch. And how we were the de facto leaders of the branch. Here were all these men who were old enough to be our fathers, but we had more “Church experience” (for lack of a better term) than them. We were the experts on how the Church is supposed to function. I remember always feeling rather uncomfortable with that, because I was not (and am not) the person who should be looked to for answers. And yet there were times when I had to be.

  9. I know what you mean. I grew up with the same experiences in the eastern US albeit a little less turmoil.

  10. Thank you for this post.
    While my own experiences in the ‘primitive church’ are limited, it does remind my of my sweet little grandma who converted in Liege as a young girl. When attending with her at her ward here in Utah I was sometimes embarassed at how loudly she sang with her warbling voice and questionable pitch. She bore testimony every opportunity she got about what a blessing it was for her family to “come to Zion”. In my young mind, it seemed she said the same thing each time she stood before the congregation.
    I would give anything to have those times back. I am proud now, of her sacrifice and unwavering faith. You’ve painted a picture for me to see what it may have been like for her in her own ‘primitive church’.
    Thank you.

  11. Snyderman (13), thanks for that confirmation from your Russian experience. You also bring up the immense impact missionaries have in such branches. They get much closer to the members than in well-vested wards and can obtain a lot of unique experience from it.

    Siskisses (15), that was a much appreciated supplement to the thread. The city of Liege was the first place in Belgium where the church took root in the 1890s. After World War I it remained a hub for Mormon activity. When was your grandma converted there?

    As you noticed, converts in “primitive” circumstances abroad are often filled with an unextinguishable fire and keep it burning when emigrating to Utah. I think many Utah wards know one or a couple of these old brothers and sisters who, in their foreign accent, always desire to come forward and testify of the same things. Embarrassing to some, but, indeed, we need to learn to see and appreciate their background and deep devotion.

  12. Wilfried (16),She was baptized in 1924 when she was 11 years old. She immigrated to the US in ’52. Her sister still lives there.

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