Restoring the Paths to Dwell In – Part II

Mormon EnigmaThe first time I remember, it happened – of course – because I was searching for things on the internet. If I remember correctly, it even happened because I was researching for a Sunday School lesson. I read about Gallatin Missouri during the Mormon War. Our people burned how many shops and homes? I thought it all happened the other way around. Who were the Danites? And did Parley P. Pratt really behave that way at the Battle of Crooked River?

This was followed quickly on by various accounts of the September Six. Then I listened to Michael Quinn’s heartbreaking post-excommunication account at Sunstone – his autobiographical narrative coupled with his continuing testimony of the Book of Mormon. I can also vividly remember reading Margaret Toscano, whose story broke my heart yet again.

And of course once you get into it, it’s a deluge. There’s this endless litany of prophetic mortality and fallibility together with the institutional and human errors of our history and the spiritual casualties that are strung throughout this dispensation from Thomas B. Marsh until today. Consumed gluttonously all at once, the Restoration took on a sickly, yellow light.

The most difficult for me was probably reading Mormon Enigma. The emphasis in the early Mormon literature I’d read up to that point was always on Joseph (this is true even of some of the other Emma biographies!). So I was thrilled to be reading about Emma herself. But I wasn’t prepared for her mistreatment, misalignment, and intimate anguish.

That said, Mormon Enigma was also a critical and very positive turning point in my faith. It’s where all of my inchoate ideas and understandings of what a prophet actually was came together for me, where I found a deeper faith in the Restoration – a faith in an unavoidably mortal enterprise that is indistinguishably wrapped up in a heavenly one. In trying to articulate what happened, I find myself short on specifics. I don’t know how to explain what happened, which means I don’t really know how it happened or how to advise others to faithfully embrace our history – especially not in a blog post. But in narrating my experience, I know that this was one of the most significant moments – when I realized the profundity of seeing the Restoration not as a polished, angelic enterprise, but as what it is – a mortal and divine partnership, a union of Heaven with Earth.

While saying exactly what happened in this shift is difficult, highlighting its practical upshot is easy. As Emma put it, there are lots of things I can’t reconcile with my understanding of God’s plan, but none of that detracts from the love of God I’ve felt in my life.[1] To borrow a phrase from Emma’s husband, while reading this book my conversion experience to the whole of our History “seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.” Since then, reading books like Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet has become spiritually and not just intellectually delightful (to say nothing of books of Rough Stone Rolling). There are intellectual and cultural reasons to exult in the Church’s greater historical transparency and the maturing of Mormon history (and on a more recent and general level, the growth of Mormon Studies). But just as real are the resulting spiritual reasons and possibilities for a more informed faith.

Another similar shift happened when I realized that this newfound faith didn’t simply apply to our history in this dispensation – I began to experience that same Heaven & Earth partnership in my experience in the Church today. It characterizes my personal experience, embedded in a ward of Saints whose diversity is deeper than ethnicity. Two experiences served as particular catalysts for me here.

One was reading Eugene England’s article “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” His overall message both resonated with and helped to shape my experience at the ward level.

The second was a particularly enjoyable conversation I was privileged to have with Jan Shipps. She posited a cultural and ethnographic shift in late 20th century Mormonism from a “People” to a “Protestant-style Institution.”[2] She knows a lot more than I do, but it seemed clear to me in our conversation that her views had more to do with her experiences in Cache Valley in the sixties and her own gut reading of things than it did with sociological or historical data. I tried to counter with various doctrinal and institutional evidences that our peoplehood was still central to our Church. But what mattered to me was how directly her (perhaps overzealously stated) thesis clashed with my own experience in Mormonism. When fate sits me down next to a Latter-day Saint on an airplane, I can’t help but feel an instant bond of kinship. The dozen or so wards I’ve lived in since marriage replay this experience in very concrete and practical ways, greatly easing the significant transition that a cross-city or cross-state or cross-globe move entails. The kinship I feel grows out of my understanding of our covenants, but also the concrete ways that we organize ourselves.

Neither England’s essay nor my conversation with Shipps were about gaining new information. Both were about making more determinate things I already knew and changing the way I put those things together. Most importantly, they were shifts in the way I experience our religion. Both pull a sort of “Hurrah for Israel!” out of me, whether I’m enjoying the fruit or helping to muck the stalls of the Restoration.

[1] This is a hackjob on the actual quotation, but alas, my books are presently on a barge somewhere between the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic, and Amazon just ain’t helping me. If anyone else knows the quote & citation, let me know.

[2] I think her overall point was largely similar to Ben Huff’s recent post addressing the shift from a colorful Mountain West Mormonism to a diverse, world-wide Church lacking a common familial-cultural-historical bond. I wrote a post critical of her and other similar takes on this point here.

15 comments for “Restoring the Paths to Dwell In – Part II

  1. Eugene England’s essay, which I got in a print copy from Sunstone well before it was widely available online, was critical in helping me redefine my relationship to the church and my expectations of it as I went through my own crisis of faith in my early 20s.
    “I found a deeper faith in the Restoration – a faith in an unavoidably mortal enterprise that is indistinguishably wrapped up in a heavenly one.” Amen and amen.

  2. One of the blessings of my missionary experience in Japan was serving under two very different mission presidents. One had been a missionary among the Japanese in Hawaii in the 1930s, and had known my parents when they worked together in the Salt Lake Regional Mission seeking to bring ethnic Japanese in the area into the Church. He had a career in business, and his approach to our work was like retail sales. Some of the missionaries didn’t get along well with him, but he had always treated me well.

    My second mission president was a BYU geography professor who had served during World War II as an interrogator of Japanese POWs in the Pacific Theater, and earned his PhD at UC Berkeley. He was very frank about his political views, and told us that when he was called in to meet the First Presidency to receive his mission call, he thought it was to admonish him over his support of certain student political activities.

    We got to see how much the personalities of each man affected his service in the same calling, even as each was sincerely devoted to the Gospel. There is a lot of US mixed in with the Spirit in church service and leadership.

  3. Reading Adam Miller’s book “Rube Goldberg Machines: essays in Mormon Theology” is becoming one of these critical moments for me. How he explains the difference between truth and knowledge and the necessarily cultural elements of knowledge that do not diminish truth, has helped me feel settled in the midst of that real tension between the gospel being a mortal enterprise and a heavenly manifestation. Chapter 8 (“The Gospel as an Earthen Vessel”) has especially put things in perspective for me. I also strongly recommend chapters 9 (about eternal marriage) and 10 (“The Hermeneutics of Weakness”). I will no doubt return to them often.

  4. Wow, too often I’m in utter shock at how disingenuous and willfully ignorant so many of the writers at Meridian Magazine are. And they’re supposedly well-educated Mormons. They owe their continuation to the old guard Mormons. Over the next twenty, they either won’t survive or will have to go undergo major change as their core readers will soon die off. Thank God for T&S where real critical thinking occurs.

  5. Great post, James! I think you have articulated here one of the most important shifts in perspective for us to make as we confront the humanity and complexity of one another as members and of the church through which God invites us to share in his work. That God calls and allows us to act in his name is a stunning and humbling thing. We certainly do not always measure up to the task. But that is a key element of his plan to redeem us, to help us unfold and fill out our divine potential, both by learning to better measure up to our calling, and by developing the kind of patient love for one another that he shows by inviting us into his work.

    I do think that our bonds as a people have been attenuated to some degree over the past few decades, through some of the processes I discuss in my post, but I completely agree that they remain strong, much more than Shipps’ characterization would suggest, and in some ways the sense of kinship is even stronger the farther one goes from the Mormon Corridor; the fewer of us there are around, the more strongly we need to hold onto one another.

  6. In the meantime, I would hope that correlated materials covering Church history (_Doctrine and Covenants Stories_ immediately comes to mind) should be at least checked against _Rough Stone Rolling_ for accuracy.

  7. Thank you for writing this, James. Both of your points struck home for me, and I love the way you characterize your relationship with the history of the church as similar to your relationship with the experience of belonging to it now.

    Some of the times when I’ve felt the most kinship with other church members have been in tiny branches abroad where there are so few of us that the opportunity to meet together feels like a rare gift, and the sense of all have in common is somehow heightened. Interestingly enough, it’s in those same situations where I feel closest to my pioneer ancestors.

  8. John (#9),

    I seriously doubt that Bushman would want “Rough Stone Rolling” held up as the standard of accuracy in a class on DOCTRINE. RSR is a work of historical scholarship, not theology. In the future it will be viewed as dated, it is the nature of the beast in history. One can inform the other, but history and doctrine are not the same thing. As awkward as some correlated materials are, it is best if we keep the too fields distinct.

  9. I meant as a standard on history. Doctrine and Covenants Stories (and probably other Church-produced, correlation-approved materials I’m not familiar with) gives a rather distorted view of early Church history. Not that a children’s book on Church history and revelation should necessarily go into detail about the Saints burning non-members’ homes in places like Missouri, but over and over again it paints the Saints as innocent victims. RSR would be a much better standard than whatever’s been used to this point.

  10. I think it’s great that the Church is finally starting to come clean with church history. However, it is still not a full and complete confession. It needs to be.

    We as a people need to realize that our history is full of human frailty and human mistakes. Our leaders are not perfect – do you hear that SLC? None are perfect. I grew up around them and knew their children and grandchildren. They are good people but flawed like you and me. So I have a big problem when the brethren say we cannot criticize them when they make mistakes. All need to be held to account. If a bishop is inappropriate with the youth, we need to stand up and call him to account.

    On the other hand, just because people are human it doesn’t mean that the Church was not restored or that the B of M is not the truth. Joseph Smith was a flawed man, but still a prophet. However, it really looks like he hid polygamy because he was hiding his adultery. Why can’t we come to terms with this? Why would he destroy a printing press and seek to escape to the west if he really was practicing a true doctrine? He kept it hidden for a reason.

    Emma Smith – an Enigma? Why? Because she hated polygamy?

  11. When was the exact moment of “doctrinal streamlining”?

    I am currently reading the book on Heber J. Grant from the Francis Gibbons series. The book was published in 1979 by Deseret Book and gives a straightforward treatment of plural marriage, including the shocker that Grant’s parents were only sealed for time, and that Brigham Young sealed Pres. Grant’s mother to Joseph Smith for eternity.

  12. I said streamlining but I meant correlation…it seems like it occurred during the Benson-HWH-Hinckley era as the Church grew larger and more international.

Comments are closed.