Boyd K. Packer

July 6, 2015

As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).

So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”

I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.

My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.

The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.

The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.

And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.

At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.

It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.

I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.

In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


The Divide in Nauvoo

April 1, 2015

I can’t recommend enough this blog post from my friend Roger Launius:

Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

One quote stood out to me:

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

Growing up, I heard the tales of murderous mobs attacking the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and it never occurred to me that there was anything to the story beyond religious bigotry and hatred. But there is always another side to every story, and as Roger explains, the “mobs” and their supporters adopted their own myth of patriotically standing up for liberty against despotism. It’s a common human thought process: you protect yourself by seeing the divide between you and your enemies in the starkest terms possible. That way, you don’t have to listen to their concerns, let alone consider those concerns legitimate in any way.

But in doing so, you don’t learn from history, and you tend to repeat it. I’m reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides have so successfully dehumanized and delegitimized the other that the conflict seems destined to continue in an endless cycle of repeated history.


Recommend to Be Required for Conference Attendance

April 1, 2015

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced today that, beginning with next week’s April general conference, no one will be admitted into a conference session without a special, single-use, conference recommend.

“We wanted to make conference an even more special experience,” explained church spokesperson Dale Overtsen. “When members realize they need to be spiritually prepared and worthy to attend these sacred gatherings, they tend to understand that these are not ‘just another meeting.’ ”

The construction of the Conference Center, completed in 2000, has made it possible for many more church members to attend conference sessions. As with all things, Overtsen explained, “perhaps familiarity and availability have made conference seem like something routine and mundane. The Brethren feel the new recommend policy will go a long way towards reversing this perception.”

As in years past, members wishing to attend must have a valid ticket for a specific session. This April, members wishing to secure tickets must meet with their bishop and stake president to assess worthiness and ensure willingness to adhere to church standards while in attendance. Members traveling from other locations can obtain a recommend from a special kiosk just south of the Salt Lake Temple, where there will be bishops and stake presidents specially set apart for temporary recommend duty.

When asked what questions are asked for the recommend, Overtsen declined to provide specifics but said, “Generally speaking, we want to make sure that members are dressed appropriately and covenant to maintain a reverent, spiritual atmosphere inside the Conference Center.”

Overtsen suggested that the recommend questions might be compared to Brigham Young University’s Honor Code, in which students agree to maintain dress and grooming standards and follow the church’s teachings and commandments. “We haven’t seen a lot of flip-flops or facial hair at conference,” Overtsen said, “but it happens. And we certainly want to avoid any unseemly displays or outbursts in what should otherwise be a very reverent and spirit-filled meeting.”

Asked if the recommend requirement reflects the church’s concern with rumors that an organized group of dissenters plans to oppose the sustaining of church leaders, Overtsen was emphatic: “We don’t change our policies because some loud-mouths, probably in flip-flops and beards, think they can get attention by publicly opposing the Lord’s anointed. This has nothing do with that at all. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of such a plan until you mentioned it just now.”

Overtsen said he was “confident” that there would be no trouble at the conference this year, “other than those so-called Christian yay-hoos outside the gates. Inside, everyone will be facing the same way, as always.”

 


Why I Don’t “Move On”

March 31, 2015

I sometimes think I suffer from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related to my 40 years of activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For many years I had vivid nightmares in which I was a missionary again; in the dreams I knew I had a life and a family, but I was back in the mission and I couldn’t go home. I would wake up sweating and shaking, so relieved it was just a dream. These dreams finally faded away after I spent 5 weeks writing down everything I could remember about my missionary experience (this was the raw material that formed the basis of my book, Heaven Up Here).

As I noted in the last post, I watched part of “Going Clear” on HBO on Sunday night and the rest on my lunch hour yesterday. I can’t quite describe the feelings it has dredged up, sort of a horrified, outraged sorrow that I can’t shake. It took me a long time to get to sleep last night, even though I took my night-time medication at the usual time.

Why did it affect me like this? Because I know what it is to be used and manipulated and controlled. The worst thing about it is that I allowed it to happen to me. I let other people tell me I was no good and that the only way I could hope to be better was to dedicate myself entirely to the program they prescribed for me. I gave up my life to follow someone else’s script for me. I tried so hard to be what I was supposed to be that I almost scrubbed away every trace of who I really am inside.

It’s been 9 years since I acknowledged to myself that I knew Mormonism wasn’t right or true or good or whatever you want to call it. Mormons keep telling me I should be “over” it. I should leave it alone, stop being so negative, stop obsessing, whatever. It’s not healthy for me to continue thinking about it. I need to forgive and forget and “move on.”

Fuck that.

What “Going Clear” reminded me of is that there are organizations and people out there who do real damage to people. Scientology is a good example, and I applaud people like Paul Haggis and Mike Rinder for having the courage to speak out and continue to fight the good fight. Mormonism is–to me, anyway–not nearly as extreme as Scientology, but it too is a controlling, manipulative organization that hurts people. It hurt me, but more importantly, it’s still hurting other people. A lot of them. I think of the pain that one of my cousins went through when he told his family he didn’t believe in Mormonism. He felt, rightly, that he was being condemned and ostracized simply for expressing his beliefs. Family and friends and church leaders told him to shut up and keep his thoughts to himself, just as family and friends insisted that Paul Haggis destroy his letter of resignation from Scientology and “leave quietly.” That happened to me, too. I was told over and over that it was OK to believe whatever I wanted, as long as I never told anyone else about it.

I think of the families who have been broken up, the lives destroyed, because the LDS church cannot tolerate or respect those who lose faith. The church teaches that people like me and my cousin are apostates who are bitter and evil. Our loved ones grieve over us because we are supposed to be lost and angry, kicking against the pricks. I’ve been told I have stolen my family’s exaltation, broken my wife and children’s hearts, rejected God and Jesus and everything that is good in this life. Even when someone in the LDS church has tried to understand and maintain a relationship, there’s always been a wide gulf between us, and it’s extremely awkward.

Obviously, it’s not all on them. But I have made a concerted effort not to make religion a point of division with my family and friends. I don’t talk about my beliefs or why I hold them with those around me. Even when I’m asked, I only share things if I think there is a possibility for a good conversation and a positive outcome. In short, in my personal relationships, I follow a strict “live and let live” philosophy where religion is concerned, and I never bring it up.

That brings me to my blog. Despite my best efforts to stop thinking about Mormonism, it is part of just about every day of my life. Just three days ago, the missionaries dropped by unannounced to try to get me to “commit” to attending church on Sunday. The LDS church inserts itself into my life all the time. My well-meaning LDS friends and relatives send me stuff all the time. My mom tells me every week about the wonderful experiences she has at church. One of my children attends an LDS-owned university.

So, I write about Mormonism as it comes up. And because it comes up all the time, I tend to write about it more often than not. Because of that, I have had a steady stream of commenters who tell me how wrong it is for me to write about Mormonism, how I will never “heal” as long as I can’t just forgive the LDS church, walk away from it, and “leave it alone.” They are, they tell me, simply concerned with my mental and emotional well-being.

No, they are not. They are protecting their church from perceived harm. They know what the church is and what it does to people, but they have decided that the organization is far more important than the well-being of anyone who is harmed by it. As long as they get what they want from the church, to hell with everyone else.

And that’s why I still care about Mormonism and what it does to people. As long as it continues to hurt people, I will continue to speak out.


Going Clear

March 30, 2015

I watched most of the HBO documentary “Going Clear” last night and then watched the last bit on my lunch hour. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the film talks with former high-ranking Scientologists about their experiences in Scientology. It has really affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. Most of all, it helped me understand perhaps a little better how controlling organizations work and why we allow them to exert control over ourselves. I wrote down some of the quotes that resonated with me, probably because I see how these things have applied in my own life.

You get this phobia inducement that if I leave, it’s all going to go down the tubes. When you’re in the organization, all the good that happens to you is because of Scientology, and everything that isn’t good is your fault.

How many times have I heard that, if I was having problems, they were a result of me not trying hard enough or not having enough faith or not being humble enough?

You begin to believe that you need the organization to survive, to have any hope of a decent life.

Your future, your eternity, all depends on you going up the Bridge. It’s scary. It’s kinda like Christianity with hell. If they don’t have the Bridge, they can’t go free. They don’t believe they can get it anywhere else.

What happens is that you no longer trust yourself to live your life authentically. You adopt someone else’s script for your life. “You take on a kind of a matrix of thought that is not your own.”

A lot of controlling organizations have a sort of “milk before meat” approach, where you have to prove your worthiness over time before you can be trusted with the deeper truths, the bigger covenants and commitments.

I finally get to OT 3, and they give me the secret materials, which I’ve been hearing about all this time. They’re hand-written by [L. Ron] Hubbard. You have to keep them in a locked briefcase, be very cautious, because if this gets out, it’s dangerous to people. It could actually do them harm if they are not adequately prepared. And I read it, and it doesn’t make any sense. … This garbled story that didn’t make sense. I remember for one fleeting second thinking maybe it’s an insanity test–maybe if you believe this, they kick you out. Maybe that’s it. That, of course, is not the case. They talk about the fact, you know, that the earth was at such-and-such trillions of years ago, and this guy, this space guy … galactic overlord, this was a prison planet, and people being caught and captured and being brought to planet Earth … and then put them in volcanoes and then blow them up with A-bombs … Whoa! I studied geography in school. Those volcanoes didn’t exist 75 million years ago. … And we have these lost souls all over us, and we have to get rid of them, and I’m going, What the f*** are you talking about? I’m down for the self-help stuff, I’m down for, OK, I can be clear, I can get rid of the negative emotions, but what the f*** is this?

And for many people, when the big reveal comes, it’s not only a bit underwhelming but a little, well, silly. But by that point, you’re in, and it doesn’t really matter. You’re willing even to take physical and emotional abuse:

Initially , you’re like, “This is absurd. This is nuts.” And then you kinda settle in and go, “Well, obviously, I need to deal with something that I’m not facing. So perhaps this is–they’re doing this to make me better.”

After all, everyone else seems to be happy, and you don’t want to seem like the one loser who doesn’t get it. So you tell everyone else you’re happy, too, even if you’re miserable.

All Scientologists are full of shit. You know, they lie. “Aw, I’m doing great! You gotta get on seven.” You know, and they’re f***ing–“I’ve got a f***ing migraine right now, and I’ve never felt so shitty!” You know, that’s the f***ing life.

You become quite adept at rationalizing even the worst things, and you blame yourself for not “getting it,” for not seeing the good and the blessings everyone else sees.

Those years of introspection eventually led me to sincerely considering that I was so bad that I couldn’t confront how bad I was. I didn’t know it at the time, but a depression set in that was with me for years, and the worst thing that was LRH kept ordering me to more auditing. I had to find swords that were stuck in me–hypothetical swords, imaginary swords that were causing all this pain. This auditing went on and on. It wasn’t doing any good. I should have been left alone. But everything that I took offense with, I rationalized almost immediately. I had to. I could not continue in this game of Scientology without explaining away what he was doing. It got to be a way of believing, and every one of us got into that. [L. Ron Hubbard] was the master who did it to us, and we took it on and then we did it to ourselves. And I learned from it, that I would never ever again, you know, go–do the bidding of a tyrant.

“We took it on and we did it to ourselves.” That made my stomach hurt and had me close to tears.

Some people even rationalize dishonesty (or “theocratic ethics,” in another context):

Because Scientology is perceived and conceived by Scientologists as being the salvation for mankind, you can have people that lie with a very straight face if they believe that what they are doing is protecting the Church of Scientology.

And the pain and shame of coming out are devastating.

It’s such a hard thing when you do wake up. You go, “Oh, my God.” Because you have this wave of regrets. I just started to think that maybe my entire life has been a lie. … You just don’t see it happening to you. You justify so much. [T]hey prey on people, suggesting that, you know, you should be able to think for yourself and then tell you exactly how you have to think, or get out. And if you get out, there will be consequences.

In the end, however, we are the ones who do it to ourselves, and that’s what is most devastating to me.

We lock up a portion of our own mind. We willingly put cuffs on. We willingly avoid things that could cause us pain, if we just looked. If we can just believe something, then we don’t have to really think for ourselves, do we? And so I can’t damn these people who aren’t coming out, or who are hiding once they come out because they’re ashamed. You know, I feel the same shame.


More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

March 20, 2015
I mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding William Law’s alleged shooting attempt against Joseph Smith in 1844. This same friend, who is an active member of the LDS church, sent me some further information, so I thought I would share it here.
The Stoddard tale is an interesting bit of folklore. As has been noted, there are two versions of the story: the spurious Sarah Stoddard journal and an affidavit sworn by Charles Stoddard’s granddaughter and great-grandaughter in 1949 (included in Mark L. McConkie’s compilation, Remembering Joseph). [The affidavit can be read here.]

So, the story as told in the Deseret News seems to be derived from the one from this affidavit, which was made some 30 years after the story’s origin (if my friend is correct that the story dates from after 1918).

If you subtract the gun play, Charles Stoddard’s story has certain similarities to Dennison Lott Harris’s story, which was recounted in an article called “Conspiracy of Nauvoo” that appeared in the April 1884 issue of The Contributor (the New Era of its day). The author of the piece, Horace Cummings, said that he heard Harris relate the story in 1883 and was so impressed by it that he wrote it down afterward in his journal. Later, after learning that The Contributor was offering a prize for a Christmas story, he “extended [his] journal account somewhat and wrote [the] article in competition for the prize.”

In the story, Harris and his friend, Robert Scott, attend secret meetings at William Law’s house as spies for Joseph Smith. There are three meetings. Before the third meeting, Joseph warns them not to enter into any secret oaths. Then, as the account has it, “after a pause of some moments, he added: ‘Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do, I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men; you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.'” Sure enough, at the meeting, everyone is required to swear an oath dedicating themselves to Joseph Smith’s destruction. Everyone takes the oath but the two boys. The enraged mob clamors for their blood: they must take the oath or be killed. When they refuse again, the Law brothers and Austin Cowles frog-march them down to the cellar to slit their throats. Then, at the last moment, someone in the crowd yells—”as if by Divine interposition”—to halt the proceedings. The boys are reluctantly given a reprieve. They will be allowed to leave but must never speak of what they have seen or they will be killed on sight. Joseph, meanwhile, fearing for the boys’ safety, concealed himself along the river bank with one of his bodyguards, just out of sight of Law’s men. There’s a joyful reunion and the boys relate everything they had seen and heard to the grateful Prophet. Cummings’s article closes with the declaration that it “is a true recital of events that actually transpired.” This affirmation is somewhat undercut, however, by the postscript: “That which is elevating and ennobling in its tendency is necessarily true.”

So, it’s a nice story, but even the originator seems to take it with a grain of salt.

So according to Mormon folklore, the Law-Higbee-Foster et al. conspiracy against Joseph Smith was discovered by one or more courageous youths. Contemporary records, however, tell a different story. On 24 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal the following remarks made by the Prophet:

“I have been informed by two gentleman that a conspiricy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith his family and all the Smith family & the heads of the Church. One of the gentleman will give his name to the public & the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath & make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows: (Chancy Higby Dr Foster, Mr Jackson, Wm. & Wilson Law). And the lies that Higby has hatched up as a foundation to work upon is, he says that I had mens heads Cut off in Missouri & that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill & put out of the way. I wont sware out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them. They would not scare of an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it. Their is honor among enemies. I am willing to do any thing for the good of the people. I will give the names of one of the gentleman who have divulged the plot. His name is Eaton. He will sware to it. He is a bold fellow. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive 2 weeks not over two months any how. As concerning the Character of these men I will say nothing about it now but If I hear any thing more from them on this subject I will tell what I know about them.”

Joseph’s informants were M.G. Eaton and Abiathar Williams (see Times and Seasons, 15 May 1844, 541)—not Charles Stoddard, Dennison Harris, or Robert Scott. But I suppose, if the folklore is elevating and ennobling in its tendency, then it is necessarily true ;)

So, even in the 1880s they understood that some truths are not very useful, but some untruths can be uplifting.

What I wonder is how the story came to be appropriated by the Stoddard family, when the original, which seems pretty obviously made up, doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Stoddard or his family.  But it seems fairly common for family histories to insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into important events based on proximity. In other words, the Stoddards were in Nauvoo during the time of Joseph Smith’s murder, so surely they had a part in defending the prophet.

Several years ago, I read a biography of Frederick G. Williams called After One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. It was written by a woman named Nancy Williams, who was a Williams by marriage only. She devotes an entire chapter to the Williamses’ likely involvement in the War of 1812, describing battles and ships and heroism. Only there is absolutely no evdience that anyone in the Williams family took part in that war. True, they lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which was near the Great Lakes, and William Wheeler Williams, Frederick’s father, had been involved in shipping on the lakes at one time. But there’s nothing to suggest he or anyone else in the family fought in the war, let alone served with heroic distinction. Basically, then, Mrs. Williams decided that, because he was near the action, William must have been involved. I think that’s the same thing that has happened with the Stoddard family. Maybe Charles was part of the Whistling and Whittling Brigade, or maybe he knew Joseph Smith or William Law personally Who knows?

P.S. For what it’s worth, here is an excerpt from a letter William Law wrote to Isaac Hill on 20 July 1844:

. . . My family and myself are all well, and have enjoyed good health and peace since we left Nauvoo, although the events which have transpired Since, were very shocking to my feeling/s\ yet, as they \(J&H)/ brought it upon themselves, and I used my influence to prevent any outrage Even from the Commencement of the Excitement, believing that the Civil Law had power to Expose iniquity, and punish the wicked I say Consequently, I look on Calmly, and while the wicked slay the wicked, I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of inocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken Sudden vengeance.
I am as ever—
Respectfully Yours,
Wm. Law.

(William Law letter to Isaac Hill, 20 July 1844, MS 3473, CHL)

This sounds more like the William Law known from his actual words and actions. While I find his apparent satisfaction with the “vengeance” of God to be more than a little distasteful, he isn’t the foul-mouthed drunkard of the Stoddard and Harris accounts. You would think that, after everything that happened, if William Law had really conspired to kill Joseph Smith, he would have been just a little more proud of his accomplishment. What I find revealing is that Law basically left Mormonism and the Mormons alone after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Although he had plenty of opportunities to “expose” and denounce the LDS church later, he never spoke publicly about it until some 40 years later, when he was interviewed about his involvement with the Latter-day Saint movement.  You can read what he said in “Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.” [Please note that my link is not an endorsement of Maze Ministry. I’m only linking to it because it’s the complete text.]

 


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