Come on in, the water’s fine

October 4, 2016

A number of years ago, a Mormon guy told me I was “the worst kind of anti-Mormon there is.” Why? Because I pretended to be reasonable, fair, and well-intentioned (apparently, I’m none of those things) in an effort to tear the LDS church down, one member at a time. He continued, “You’re basically someone standing in a pool full of sharks saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine!'”

At the time that really bothered me because I have never intended to draw anyone out of the LDS church. Looking back on the heartache I went through when I went through my “crisis of faith,” I think my main concern was that I wanted someone–anyone, really–to understand what I was going through and why, and to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just “looking for excuses to leave.” Really, I wanted validation, and of course, that kind of validation is impossible to obtain from believing church members. Predictably, I received quite a lot of negative responses, and the only validation I got was from people who had been through the experience before me.

I didn’t watch LDS general conference this last weekend, but I see that a lot of people are talking about a talk from M. Russell Ballard wherein he discussed the safety and spiritual benefit of staying in the church compared to the lack of these things “the world” offers. I don’t have the transcript of the talk, so I’ll just quote from the Deseret News summary:

To these members, Elder Ballard asked, like Peter, “To whom shall [you] go?” The decision to leave the Church can have a long-term impact that can’t be seen at the moment.

He said, “If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”

Elder Ballard urged members, “Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.”

Before making the spiritually perilous choice to leave, Elder Ballard encouraged members “to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth.”

The organization, doctrine and teachings found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found in no other place, Elder Ballard said.

Accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging, as it has always been. Elder Ballard said, “Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace.” Not every hiker needs to stop, and there is nothing wrong with doing so if circumstances require a break. The danger comes when someone decides to leave the trail entirely.

If I had read that back when I was going through the turmoil of collapsing faith, I probably would have been hurt and angry. Indeed, back at that time I wrote a parable about those who were telling me I had to “get with the program” and go back to church, despite what I knew:

There once was a boy who lived all his life with a cardboard box over his head. His parents taught him that he should never take the box off, for doing so was dangerous and foolish. The box protected him from the scary world outside of it.

On the inside of the box, he could make out some letters, and he could see the outlines of the box around him. His world was brown cardboard. His parents taught him to study the inside of the box carefully, for in it it was all the wisdom he needed to navigate life. Inside the box was security and safety. Inside the box was reality.

Some of his friends told him that they had taken off the box and life was much better, but he didn’t believe them. His parents made sure he stayed away from these people, who clearly wanted only to hurt their boy.

But as he grew older, he found that he kept bumping into sharp and painful objects that he couldn’t see because of the box. His parents told him that those things weren’t real, that he was safest and happiest inside the box. But each day brought more injury as he seemed to constantly run into painful things.

“Just take the box off so you can see where you’re going,” said his friends.

“No! You can’t! You’ll hurt yourself, and you might even die!” warned his parents.

After too many painful days, he made up his mind to see what was out there on the other side of the box. The light hurt his eyes briefly, but after a moment, he could see colors and trees and sky. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.

He looked around and saw his friends, who smiled at him and welcomed him to a better world. And then he saw them. His parents and friends came groping toward him, boxes on their heads.

He called out to them, “Take the boxes off! You’ll see that there’s so much more out here! Trust me!”

But his parents told him sadly, “We have failed as parents. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, and now you’ve rejected us and everything we hold dear. Please, son. Put the box back on, for us. You’ll see that we know what’s best.”

“But Mom, Dad. It’s so beautiful out here, and the world is full of possibilities. Can’t you just lift the box, if only for a moment? You’ll see that I’m telling you the truth.”

His parents turned sadly and told their friends, “We have lost our son. Let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens when you take off the box.”

And they groped their way slowly away from the shining sun.

But these days, the pain has long passed, and I don’t worry about what people say about me. I don’t often think about the differences in my life after leaving the church, but it strikes me that, as I wrote in the parable, I have a much broader perspective about life and my place in it.

As a church member, I always viewed life as “us” (members of the church) and “them” (the world outside the safe environs of God’s kingdom). I was taught all my life that life outside the church was rudderless, morality-free, and scary. If I didn’t have the church, what would become of me? I still shake my head at those who have told me that, without the gospel in their lives, they are sure they would be drug addicts or sex addicts or in prison, or something. Maybe we were taught that who we are deep inside–the natural man–is evil, an enemy to God. I certainly internalized that.

I will say that leaving the church left me feeling pretty vulnerable, without what I call the superstructure of the church, its practices and worldview, through which to frame and experience life. But this ended up being a good thing. I was forced to dig deep inside and figure out who I am and what I believe (hint: what I found isn’t evil or an enemy to God). I was forced to deal with people as people, not as members and non-members. It never occurred to me until I left the church that I had put up walls between myself and non-members; it wasn’t that I was shutting them out, but I always saw my relationships with them in terms of their possible interest in the church. (How crazy is it that for about 2 years, I found myself thinking “that guy would really benefit from joining the church”?)

And I’ve discussed elsewhere my battle with depression (and a suicide attempt) in the wake of my faith crisis, but even that turned out to be a real “blessing,” if I’m allowed to use that word. As a church member, I had spent my whole life telling myself how happy I was because of the church. Happiness was keeping the commandments, and I was keeping the commandments. Therefore, I was happy, end of story. But I learned subsequently that I’d been clinically depressed for many years, but it was impossible to admit that because I was so focused on telling myself how happy I was.

So, yes, it’s been an interesting journey, one filled equally with pain and joy, but I wouldn’t trade it for what Elder Ballard is offering. Not a chance. Mormonism works for some people, I get that. But, unfortunately, it’s a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, and nothing fits everyone properly. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the foundational claims of the church do not hold up to minimal scrutiny.)

You see, the life I had before was the life Elder Ballard and his fellows had prescribed for me. I was following their script, not mine. And it didn’t work. But rather than rebel against it, I had just denied who I was and tried to become the character in the play they had written for me. But who I was slowly faded into the background, and I sometimes wonder if there would have been anything left that was “me” had I stayed on that path.

While I was going through the turmoil of those days, I found an excellent therapist in Utah who understood what I was going through. She told me something that changed my life: “You have to get to the point where living a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.” This was completely opposite of what I had been taught all my life: put everyone else first, not least the church and God; subordinate your will to God and His prophets. Authenticity means being true to yourself, but the gospel is about denying yourself.

So, to whom shall we go when we leave the church? Does it matter? We go where our heart, our brain, our conscience takes us, and we find a happy and authentic life. Elder Ballard seems to be suggesting, as my mother would about people breaking the Sabbath, that people who leave only “look happy” but aren’t really happy.

But we are. I am, anyway.

So, yes, come on in, the water’s fine!


Oh, Inverted Y

June 6, 2016

I’ve been ill, so things have slowed down on the story, but it’s coming. In the meantime, as with many of you, recent events at Brigham Young University have left me wondering how to express my unhappiness at my alma mater. I decided on something simple: the Oval Y logo inverted. If you attended BYU and want to express your support for academic freedom, unlinking the honor code from criminal investigations, and ending the practice of expelling those who go through a faith change, the inverted Y is not a bad way to do it. I’m kind of hoping it catches on.

oval_y_blue

I have mixed emotions about BYU. Having spent 7 years there as an undergrad and grad student, I have wonderful memories of good friends, students and professors, and great experiences at “The Y.” I have close family members who are employed by BYU or who attend the university, and I love them and wish them the best.

Some might say that speaking out about these issues shows disloyalty, but I think a loyal alumnus helps the university become that much better by encouraging positive change and growth.

So, if you would like to spread this graphic around as a sign of solidarity, feel free.

Thanks.


The Incidental Prophet – Chapter 2

April 7, 2016

The mountain was all I had expected it to be: the wind was blowing in intermittent but powerful gusts as I stood on the bare rock–at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, Nebo rises up far above the timberline. Buttoning my coat against the cold, I looked out on Utah Valley to the north, the smoking stacks of the massive new steel mill reflected in the green-tinged lake to the west.

Every time we had driven past Geneva Steel, my dad had grinned proudly and said, “That’s what progress looks like, son.” I thought it just smelled bad and covered the valley with a rust-colored blanket of smoke. Built during the war to be close to Utah’s coal mines but out of range of Japanese or German bombers, Geneva had brought industry to what had previously been a sleepy Utah valley that had been home to a small college and not much else.

To the south lay Juab Valley, at its center Nephi, a small town named after a Book of Mormon prophet known for cutting off a drunken man’s head and stealing the brass plates on which the books of the Old Testament were written. Quiet and only sparsely populated, Nephi was probably what Provo had been before the steel mill arrived, though I wasn’t sure because I was too young to notice then. But it did seem like the perfect place to hide for someone who had just chopped off a fellow’s head and stolen his scriptures.

I kept looking back and forth at the two valleys, and I thought, Here at the summit I am master of both worlds: the rural, slow-paced past, and the exciting, albeit murky and smoke-filled, future.

“Wake up!” Mom opened the door.

“Aw, Mom, it’s not time for church yet,” I muttered, wiping the crumbs from the corners of my eyes (Dad always called it “eyebread,” for some reason, and it made him laugh).

“The bishop just called.” I hadn’t heard the phone ring. “He wants you to come in early and talk about your baptism.”

I would be turning 8 in 2 weeks, and as every Mormon knows, turning 8 is a big deal. According to the scriptures revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, at 8 you become “accountable” for your sins, and thus you need baptism to wash away your transgressions. From that point onward, you had to watch yourself, and repent whenever you fell short. Otherwise, you’d have to answer for those sins at the judgment day.

I never told anyone, but the thought of having even one unrepented sin scared me to death. We would sing in sacrament meetings on Sunday about Jesus, “for me, a sinner, He suffered, He bled and died.” Even though we didn’t have crosses in our churches and homes, I could picture in my mind Jesus in agony on the cross, gazing down on me as if disappointed that I hadn’t taken advantage of his sacrifice for my sins.

Mom seemed to take extra care that morning scrubbing my face, and even behind my ears, straightening my clip-on bowtie, and combing my hair into a brylcreemed slick.

The church was a new red-brick building just around the corner from our house, but I always took the shortcut past the chicken coop in our backyard and around the crab-apple tree by the fence.

I walked into the quiet church–priesthood meeting had ended, and the men had gone home to fetch their families for Sunday School–and sat down on a padded bench in the hallway outside the bishop’s office. A little lightbulb labeled “Bishop in counsel” glowed orange, so I knew not to knock on the door.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and Sister Henry came out, wiping tears from her eyes, as the bishop patted her shoulder and said, “We’ll talk again.”

Was I going to come out in tears? I hadn’t given it much thought, but suddenly I was terrified at the prospect of having to confess all my sins to this man who I knew had been called as a Judge in Israel. Could I even remember them all? If I missed even one, the bishop would know. That was his job.

I could see Jesus in my mind, shaking his head sadly at me.

“Come in, young man!” the bishop said, beaming. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

“You’ve got an important date coming up, haven’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir,” I said trying not to look as frightened as I was.

“I’m sure you know all about baptism and what happens, right?”

“Yes, sir, you get dressed in white, and you go into a big bathtub, and a priesthood holder says a prayer and then dunks you in the water. After that, you don’t have any more sins.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” he said, stifling a laugh. “It’s a big step, and we are here to make sure you’re ready for it.”

“Oh, I know I’m ready, sir. I want to be washed of my sins.” I didn’t mention how scared I was of having to repent perpetually ever after.

“That’s good!” he said. “And do you know what happens after you get baptized?”

“Uh, you get confirmed, right?” I didn’t quite understand that word, but I knew it meant you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“Well, yes, they do call it a confirmation, but the important part is that the Holy Spirit will begin working in you, and that’s very important.”

“Um, yes, I know,” I spluttered.

“The reason why it’s so important is that it’s the Holy Ghost who tries to keep you out of trouble and helps you repent when you sin. You see, once you have the Holy Ghost with you, you’re never alone, unless you drive him away. Strive to keep him in your heart and your mind, and he’ll help you come safely home to your Heavenly Father.”

It actually made me feel better knowing this. If I just did what I was supposed to do, the Holy Ghost would guide me through life, and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of messing up. I felt forgiven already, and I hadn’t even been baptized yet.

After that, the bishop filled out a form with my name, birth date, parents’ names, and other important stuff, which he said would be sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake and kept forever to show that I had joined the kingdom of God on earth.

That would have scared me to death before, but suddenly I was excited and happy to be taking on this responsibility, and I walked home without even noticing my surroundings.

A few days before the baptism, a bright green convertible, with its top closed, unexpectedly pulled up to our house. It was my uncle Bob all the way from Montana, where he managed the family’s large cattle ranch since my grandfather had died. Bob was wearing an odd, cream-colored suit and matching fedora. His wife, Gloria, climbed out of the passenger’s seat dressed in a red-and-white sundress with matching hat and sunglasses. Her skin looked almost orange and slightly leathery, her hair much blonder than I had remembered. I figured it must have been the weather up there.

“Howdy, young man!” Bob shook my hand vigorously. “Where’s your dad?”

“He’s out plowing the 51 acres,” I said.

“Well, we’ll catch up with him later,” Bob said, already striding towards the front door.

“Will? Is that you?” called a voice from the back seat of the car.

“Grandma!” I yelled, clambering over the seat and throwing my arms around her neck.

“Oh, my wee one, I’m so glad to see ye!” she said amidst hugs and kisses. She’d never completely lost that lilting rural Scottish accent.

Grandma was the best. She made it clear that when she was around, we were her sole focus in life. “Why do you think Heavenly Father gave me such a big lap if not for grandchildren to sit on?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Looking back, she was the one person in my life who never needed me to live up to her expectations. Dad wanted me to be a hard worker, and Mom wanted me to strive for greatness, but Grandma loved me no matter what, and I knew it.

By the time Dad got home, Uncle Bob was reading the Deseret News, his feet on the ottoman, while Aunt Gloria did a crossword puzzle in the corner of the sitting room. Ellen was helping Mom peel potatoes, and I was at the other end of our sitting room, at the table with Grandma, shelling the latest batch of peas from the garden. Grandma pretended not to notice that almost as many peas went into my mouth as into the bowl.

“Whew, you smell almost as bad as you look,” Bob laughed, pointing at my dad.

“That’s what hard work smells like,” my dad said, not really looking up as he walked toward the kitchen.

“I know,” Bob said, pretending to be offended, “but at least you shouldn’t bring it in the house with you.”

Dad wiped his face with his handkerchief and leaned to kiss and hug Grandma.

“I’ve missed you so much, son,” she said, a little teary-eyed. “I wish you weren’t so far away.”

“I know, Mother,” he said, holding her tightly. “Maybe someday we’ll all be close together again. I just don’t think circumstances are right.”

After dinner, Dad and Uncle Bob sat at the table, talking about the ranch.

“Well, I don’t get out there all that often,” Bob said, “but my foreman keeps me abreast of what’s going on.”

“You’ve got to be more involved, or we might lose it,” Dad said, looking a little, well, fierce might be the right word.

The ranch in Montana was always a sort of mystery to me. Dad’s maternal grandfather, Daniel McCurdie, had been a miner in Scotland, when he and his wife had met Mormon missionaries sometime around 1870. At that time, those who joined the Mormon church–officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–were expected to gather to Utah to prepare for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Great-grandfather McCurdie, being a poor man with seven daughters, could not afford to relocate his entire family, so he and his wife, Mary, decided that he would leave for Utah and then send for the rest of the family when he had saved some money. In the meantime, Mary and her daughters moved to Glasgow, where they worked in a lace factory.

Daniel McCurdie was a hard worker, but he was an even harder drinker. Arriving in Utah, he secured work in the Park City Silver mine, and ended up with quite a few shares of what would become a very lucrative enterprise–only to lose them in a drunken poker game. Scraping up whatever money he didn’t drink, Daniel finally began sending money back to Scotland. By this time, the oldest daughter had married outside the Mormon faith and had chosen to stay in Scotland.

It took about 10 years before Mary was finally able to leave with her two youngest daughters–Grandma Grace McCurdie and her younger sister Annie–to cross the ocean to America. Grandma always said she was glad they had to wait, as her sisters had to walk across the plains, whereas she traveled in style in a railroad train.

Once Mary had arrived in Utah, she laid down the law with Daniel: no more drinking (well, not as much, anyway), and they were going to be proper farmers. They spent a couple of years saving up to buy the properties in Spring Lake, a tiny settlement built around a pond that somehow was called a lake, and then they loaded all their possessions in a single wagon and walked the 60 or so miles to their new home.

Despite their properties not all adjoining each other, Daniel and Mary managed to provide for their large family, and eventually they built the small, two-bedroom clapboard home where we now lived.

Grandma was the last of the daughters to marry, her sister Annie having died of something referred to as “summer complaint.” She met Grandpa Murdock when she was working at the small community store just west of the lake, and he was passing through on his way from St. George heading north to homestead in Montana.

He was quite taken with her, and he immediately made up a story about needing to rest his horses for a couple of days. They were inseparable while he was in town, and when he left, he kissed her on her cheek and said, “I’ll be back for you in the spring.” She blushed deep red, but she hoped he had meant it. True to his word, he had returned in April and asked for her hand. They married in the Salt Lake temple and honeymooned during the trip to Montana.

Grandma said that growing up on a small farm had not quite prepared her for living on a large cattle ranch, and she did not enjoy the harsh Montana winters at all. But Grandpa Murdock was not only a skilled rancher but an astute businessman, and soon he was the owner of the largest ranch in western Montana.

Dad was the firstborn, and Bob came a couple of years later. A younger sister, Ellen, lived only a few months, which broke Grandma’s heart. Dad said his father pushed him hard, telling him that he needed to be strong and driven to someday take over the ranch. Bob, on the other hand, never showed much interest in the ranch, but always had some pipe dream about exploring the world or becoming a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

Dad worked hard on the ranch, but then Great-grandpa McCurdie died unexpectedly back in Utah. For some reason, when Grandma Murdock returned from the funeral, she encouraged Dad to leave Montana and take over the small farm and pastures in Spring Lake. I think he might have been disappointed, as if he was being put out to pasture literally, but he loved his mother, and once he got the old truck out of the barn and had it running, he packed a few bags and drove down to Utah to take care of his grandmother’s farm.

He may have thought it was just a temporary move, but the first time he walked into the tiny adobe church the settlers had built, he saw Moira, the daughter of Irish immigrants who lived a half-mile or so north of the lake. Theirs was a brief courtship, and soon they were married, and she moved into his grandmother’s house to set up household.

Even then, he always told Moira he was going to take her to Montana someday to live on the ranch, where they would have a better, more prosperous life. Somehow, even after Great-grandmother McCurdie died, they stayed put. Then I was born, and two years later, Ellen came along, named, of course, after Dad’s sister.

Then one day Dad received a phone call from Grandma Murdock, saying that there had been an accident, and Grandpa had been killed while driving in fence posts. After that, I don’t know much about what happened, as no one ever talked about it. All I knew is that, despite everything, Dad stayed on the farm in Utah, and Bob began running the ranch. It didn’t much matter to me, as I didn’t think I’d like living up there in the cold. We had spent a Christmas up there once, and we couldn’t even go outside the whole time because the winds just howled, and the snow blew horizontally like someone shooting cornflakes at your face. I hated it there, but being with Grandma made it bearable.

And now we were all together for my baptism. I tried to explain to Grandma how excited I was, and I told her all about the Holy Ghost and how it would keep me from doing bad things.

“Oh, hold on there,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ll make mistakes like everyone else does. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be just fine.”

Somehow that sounded less comforting than the bishop’s explanation.

“Who’s going to baptize the boy?” Uncle Bob asked casually. Why did they always refer to me as “the boy”?

“What do you mean?” Dad said suspiciously.

“Well, it’s not like you’re all that strong in the gospel,” Bob said, clearing his throat. I wondered what he was talking about.

“He’s my boy, and I’m going to baptize him,” Dad said, his jaw tight. “I hold the priesthood, and it’s my right.”

“Of course it is!” Bob said, a strange smile on his face. “No one is saying otherwise. I’m just wondering if he might do better with a more prominent priesthood line.”

“Just because you got ordained a high priest by an apostle, it doesn’t mean you’re better than me, not by a damn site!” Dad said hotly. “I was ordained to the priesthood by our father, and he was as good as any one of those old men in Salt Lake.”

“Quentin, I’ll not have you disparaging the Brethren,” Mom said in a voice I’d never heard before. “The boy will be baptized by his father, and that’s the end of it.”

“Why don’t we ask the boy?” Gloria said, looking up from her crossword.

“My father is baptizing me,” I said firmly, glaring at her and then at Uncle Bob.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Bob said, turning back to the paper. “Hmmm. They say the church might hit a million members this year. That’s something, huh?”

That Saturday afternoon, Dad and I left off our chores early. Dad took a second bath that day, and he came out of his bedroom shaved and neatly groomed and dressed.

“It’s your turn, Will,” Mom said, pulling me by the arm into the bathroom. I don’t think I was ever scrubbed that hard before or since, but eventually, I emerged pink and a little raw, dressed in a starched white shirt, creased dark slacks, and a real tie that Dad taught me how to tie.

As we walked past the crab-apple tree toward the church, I thought this was the last time I’d see that tree the same way. When I came back, I would be accountable, and I would do my best to stay away from sin.


The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

April 6, 2016

I’ve had some ideas in my head about writing a novel, and I thought I’d put it out here, first. So, I hope you enjoy what is essentially a running rough draft.

The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

I speak with God. As His servant and mouthpiece, I reveal His will to the world. Millions of people around the globe look to me as a prophet, seer, and revelator. But mostly I’m just full of crap. Twenty years ago I was called as an apostle, a “special witness of Jesus Christ,” and I still don’t know what that means, exactly. I haven’t had any special witness of anything, unless you count my glaring awareness of my weaknesses. It really tears me apart sometimes.

Every time I speak, millions hang on my every word, and they expect me to tell them what God has in store for them. I do my best, but I rarely feel inspired, and the words are always mine, not those of an unseen deity. But it doesn’t seem to matter much. No matter what I say, within hours someone has posted it on Twitter or Facebook, often superimposed on a beautiful picture with a flowing script. I cringe every time I see that, especially at my name so carefully placed at the end of the quote. It doesn’t help that every April and October, I’m on television around the world for what we Mormons call “general conference.” I have to be extremely careful, as everything I say ends up recorded and printed. Once I ad-libbed at the beginning of a general conference talk, and soon I was quoted everywhere: “Life is good.” – President William C. Murdock. How profound! How embarrassing!

When I enter a room, everyone stands and remains standing until I take my seat, and sometimes they keep standing until I tell them to sit. More often than not, they’re liable to break into a chorus of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still makes me more than a little uncomfortable, though I’ve trained myself to stop blushing when it happens.

It wasn’t always like this. My dad, who valued hard work and perseverance more than anything, never thought much of me, or so it seemed. Growing up on a farm in Spring Lake, Utah, where Dad grew hard red winter wheat and raised cattle on several acres of pasture, I thought I would end up farming all my life, but my mother had other ideas. Maybe it was sort of a good-cop-bad-cop thing, but as critical as my dad was of everything I did, my mom regularly reminded me that, at least according to her, I was destined for something important.

“Right now, he’s destined to bring the eggs in from the henhouse,” my dad chuckled. “I don’t know why the hell you have to fill his head with nonsense, Moira. He don’t have much of a head for anything, far as I can tell, so why set him up for a big fall?”

“Oh, hush, Quentin, and mind your language,” Mom said, folding me into her arms. “Will, you go on out and get the eggs, and then you get back to your homework.”

Even at age 7, I thought getting the eggs was a little beneath me. My sister Ellen, who was 5, was certainly capable of gathering a few eggs, but Mom was teaching her things girls needed to know, like sewing on a button or making Dad’s breakfast (it was always the same: Cream of Wheat, in a glass, with milk and pepper). And at that point, I didn’t understand why I still had homework in July, long after school had adjourned for the summer.

It was 1947, and for most people, things were finally starting to return to normal after the rationing and deprivations of wartime. We really hadn’t noticed the war much because, like a lot of our neighbors, we lived mostly off what the farm produced–eggs, milk, bread, beef, pork, and lamb. Mom had a huge vegetable garden out in front of the house. When it was our water turn, Dad would put the dam in the ditch that went along the side of the gravel road and open the gate to flood our front yard. We usually made boats out of newspaper and floated them around the yard.

“Won’t the garden drown?” asked Ellen, her freckled face looking genuinely concerned.

“No, dummy,” I said disgustedly. “The plants like the water. They need it.” Don’t girls know anything?

I liked watering days because they usually meant we didn’t have to weed for a couple of days until the mud dried enough. This day, however, it was time to harvest the peas, so Mom helped us put on our galoshes, and Ellen and I waded into the mud, each carrying a large wicker basket.

It was harder work than it seemed, as you had to pick the pods that were ready but take care not to disturb the smaller ones that we would come back for in a week or so. And of course, you had to avoid the geese, who were clearly not afraid of a little mud. Ellen was terrified of them, as we never knew when they would suddenly charge at us, wings flapping, neck stretching out straight, and squawking loudly with their beaks wide open. Mom always said it was worth putting up with their unpleasant temperament to have something nice to eat for the holidays. Whenever the geese came close to Ellen, I brushed them away with my basket.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” I said, though truthfully I was almost as afraid of them as she was.

We picked for a good hour until our baskets were full and our fingers were stained with green. “Let’s go, it’s almost dinnertime,” I said, and headed for the front door. On our farm, dinner was the big meal we ate at noon, while supper was the evening meal. At school they called it “lunch,” though I never understood why.

Then I heard Ellen sobbing behind me. I turned and saw that her rain boots were stuck fast in the mud. Her face was red–her blonde hair made it stand out all the more–and she was trying her hardest to hold back the tears, though they streamed out anyway.

I set my basket down on the lawn and went back to get her. “Now, you wait here while I get your basket over to the lawn.”

“Don’t leave me here!” she blubbered.

“It’s only for a second,” I said, laughing. “It’s not like I can set it down in the mud, silly.”

After depositing her basket on the lawn, I trudged back through the mud, turned around in front of her, and said, “Come on, I’ll carry you.”

I squatted down, and she climbed on my back, putting her arms around my neck.

“Not so tight! You’re choking me!” I sputtered, but she had me in a death-grip.

I pulled hard, and her feet popped out of the boots, one after the other.

“There! You’re out!” I said, as she gripped my neck even harder and then let out a sigh of relief as I carried her across the lawn.

We retrieved our baskets, and as we came to the porch, I could see Mom’s round face and pinned-back brown hair through the screen door. She opened the door and looked down at Ellen’s grass-stained socks. “Ellen! What have you done with your boots?”

Ellen started crying again, so I said, “It’s OK, Mom. They got stuck in the mud. I’ll go get them.”

Mom muttered something about teaching Ellen to wash socks, and I went back to the garden for the boots. The sun was shining warm on my face, and there was just enough breeze to deliver the delicate fragrance of alfalfa, which grew in the pasture across the street. I looked up at Mount Nebo, which rose up directly behind the neighbor’s horses, who were lazily nibbling on the purple and green alfalfa.

As long as I could remember, the mountain had seemed to call to me. I often pestered my dad to take me on a hike to the top, but he always begged off, “Not ’til you’re older, son.”

Someday I would be old enough, and the mountain would be mine.

 


More on the Suspension of Relief Society

February 25, 2016

A reader suggested yesterday that in my previous post, Remarkable Transparency, I was overly reliant on a single source for my assertion that the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, some 3 months before Joseph Smith was killed. I responded in the comments, but I figured I had enough to post it on its own. So, here goes. I’ll put the reader’s comments in italics.

I think you are overstating the issue of the closing of the RS slightly with your dependence on Mormon Enigma above other sources. Newell and Avery’s biography and history is still unequalled, to be sure, but on this issue they provide as many sources as they can but have to fill in the rest of the story through context.

I used Newell and Avery because it’s well-known and easily accessible, but I could have cited other historians who have reached the same conclusions they did.

For example, here’s Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s take on it:

The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.” Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].” (The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society, in New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn, p. 160.)

And this is from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I worked on at the Church Office Building, so I know it was vetted and approved by the church: “Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844.”

The reader is correct that there’s not a lot to go on, but suffice it to say that I’m not alone in my reading of the events. No one disputes that the meetings in March 1844 involved Emma’s scathing denunciation of polygamy or that the meetings abruptly ceased after that.

There are no original sources contemporary to March-June detailing anything of why another meeting never occurred. We have statements made long after the fact by leaders in Salt Lake City, but as far as I know nothing contemporary. To me, it seems that who you think made the final decision to not have another meeting shows more about how you view the politics of 1844 Nauvoo than it does about how the actual decision went down.

Indeed, there are no contemporary sources explaining why the meetings stopped.

At that time, the Relief Society usually met during warmer weather months, so the first “season” was from March to September 1842. The 1843 season didn’t begin until June 1843, and most sources suggest the delay was caused by Emma’s health problems through the winter and spring of that year. That the 1844 season began with 4 meetings on the 9th and 16th of March suggests that Emma was planning a full season of Relief Society. But the meetings stopped abruptly after that first week, after Emma had denounced polygamy and announced plans to investigate and root out all such immoral practices in Nauvoo. Coincidence? It’s certainly possible, but Eliza Snow’s statement suggests that Emma “gave it up” over a disagreement in church teachings, and John Taylor’s statement tells us the disagreement was over polygamy. In the absence of contemporary statements, we are free to believe that there was no connection between Emma’s attacks on polygamy and the cessation of the society, but I think that stretches credulity.

There’s three options:

1) Joseph shut it down as a result of Emma’s use of the organization to fight against the growing practice of polygamy. Occurring before the assassination in June, this narrative plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo. Also, it doesn’t require, as the other two routes do, for no further meetings to occur merely because of lack of access to space for such meetings.

For the other two, these options usually assume that, following Emma’s statement that the RS would meet again when a large enough venue was found, the reason for no meetings between March and June is because of the logistics of finding a meeting place for the growing organization. Perhaps this difficulty was made worse through non-overt influence of male Church authorities.

Here is Emma’s statement about finding a larger venue, as my reader mentions:

Prest. E. S. closed her  remarks by say[i]ng she should like to have all  the Society present to geather— she said it was her  intention to present the Officers of the Society for  fellowship— when a place can be obtaind that all  can be present— [blank] Meeting ajou [adjourned] until a suitable place can be obtaind—

My reading of this is that Emma wanted to have all members present so the officers of the Relief Society could be presented (I assume for some kind of sustaining vote). It’s entirely possible that lack of meeting space contributed to the cessation of meetings, but this statement clearly indicates that Emma intended to continue holding Relief Society meetings.

Previously,  the problem of lack of space had been more or less resolved. From the minutes of the Relief Society for 7 July 1843:

“In consequence of having no room sufficiently commodious for the whole Society, it was recommended by the President that the Society be divided for the purpose of meeting, according to the 4 City Wards, and meet by rotation, one Ward at a time, that all might have equal privileges: Accordingly notice was given at the Grove on sunday the 2d of July that the members residing in the first City Ward, would convene at the room occupied as a Masonic Hall, on the friday following, at 2. o,clock.”

My guess is that Emma felt that holding multiple meetings was unworkable going forward, but there is no record of her attempting to find a new venue or hold more meetings after March 16, 1844. This suggests to me that she wasn’t looking to resume the meetings after that.

But I would like to address the idea that, somehow, I’m advocating a narrative that “plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo.” I really don’t know what I am meant to understand from this, as I haven’t said anything about use and abuse of power; rather, I think the reason the church has adopted the “part of the move West” narrative is that the disagreement (to put it mildly) between Joseph and Emma over polygamy doesn’t fit in well with current church representations of their marriage as one of love and single purpose. To quote the church’s own web site, “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.”

2) Brigham shut it down during his power plays after the assassination. Just as Brigham took over access to and assumed spiritual authority for the unfinished Temple and its rituals, so too did Brigham attempt to put down anything threatening to his authority. Knowing of Joseph’s frustrations with the Relief Society he forbade those who followed him from meeting again. We know that he _did_ forbid the Society from arising again for decades through explicit orders to not let the women assemble together until he reformed it in a fashion firmly under his control.

I have no doubt that Brigham opposed the resumption of the Relief Society, but again, my issue is that it had already ceased operating before Brigham was in a position to “shut it down.”

3) Emma shut it down. To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.

Again, the organization had already stopped functioning before her husband’s death.

All three options are unfounded and made without any direct evidence. If you ask me, I’d actually choose the third option, if only because we don’t see Relief Societies in the Reorganized traditions. Brigham’s animosity towards Emma and her use of the RS explains how the RS disappeared among the Brighamites until it was radically reinvented by him decades later. The lack of the RS among the Reorganized tradition seems to me to be very much the decision of an Emma Smith Bidamon who wanted to put all of Nauvoo behind her. It seems like she made a choice herself not to re-institute it or call for it to be reinstated, and to me that decision could easily be pushed back to 1844 after she lost her husband.

Or it could be pushed back to March 1844 when her husband shut it down. I don’t see any reason to reject the consensus of most historians, but I can respect your interpretation.

I don’t see anything wrong with how the new book approaches the timeline, apart from their attempts to paint the loss of the Relief Society under Young’s direction as somehow relating to preparations for “crossing the plains”. That is bullshit, pure and simple. Young was afraid of the power Emma had held, hated Emma herself and anything associated with her, and would never be placed in the same position as Joseph of allowing dissent.

Well, yes, that was my point.

In the end, however, my disagreement with the timeline given in the Deseret News is that it doesn’t line up with the cessation of the meetings. Even Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the authors of the new book, accepts elsewhere that the Relief Society ceased as an organization in March 1844: “The Nauvoo society held its last recorded meeting on March 16, 1844, apparently unable to maintain unity of purpose during the factious events preceding the June 1844 martyrdom of Joseph Smith” (Derr, Jill Mulvay and Janath R. Cannon, “Relief Society,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992).

My reader states, “To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.” Again, that just doesn’t line up with the actual dates. Derr has it “preceding” Joseph’s death, but my reader has it “after.” I guess it’s my choice to accept the scholarly consensus here; apparently most historians agree with my view of Nauvoo politics in 1844.

In short, I used Mormon Enigma, but I could have chosen any number of sources that agree with with Newell and Avery, which I have noted here.


Remarkable Transparency

February 24, 2016

Today I woke up thinking how good I feel after having lost some weight and working out regularly, so Mormonism wasn’t on my mind at all. On the way to work, I heard a report from NPR about the prosecution of members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous clan for food stamp fraud. What I found interesting was that the news announcer specifically read out the Jeffs group’s name, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then went on to explain that this group was not related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (she read out the full name here, as well), which she said was more commonly known as “the Mormon church.” I was briefly amused at the effort NPR was making to ensure listeners would not conflate the LDS church with its crazy stepchild, the FLDS church.

Then I got on with my day, until a friend pointed me to an article in the Deseret News (for those who may not know, the Deseret News is owned and operated by the LDS church and is usually a reliable indicator of the church’s public positions). The article in question, LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society,’ announces the publication of a new book about the origins of the church’s Relief Society, which is its organization for adult women (that’s giving it short shrift, but I would imagine most of my readers know what Relief Society is).

According to the article, the new book’s openness with complicated history is

refreshing to Melissa Inouye, a Latter-day Saint who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

“In the first place, it shows that the LDS Church is willing to own its women’s history,” Inouye said. “This history as presented by the documents in the book is rich, complicated, inspirational and often troubling. To bring these documents out via the most mainstream channel of church historical discourse demonstrates Mormonism’s growing maturity as a religious movement. Every religion has a human history. We are becoming more comfortable with ours.”

It’s important to portray that history of humanity because of what it teaches us, said Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the book’s co-authors and a retired senior historian in the Church History Department.

“In this book we’re able to discuss the way that plural marriage was confidential at that moment [in] time and some of the confusion caused by that confidentiality. … The issues are very complex, and I think in this volume we’re able to address them, maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but at least in ways that are transparent and that show you the humanity of these people and the way they understood things differently.”

That has changed the way Derr, also a Mormon, sees her own faith.

“We just see the rich nuances here of human beings interacting, and I think for me that’s been the most instructive things in terms of my expectation for what my church experience will be. I see it will be full of human relationships and ups and downs and people who occasionally offend and ways to reconcile and to move on. That is our history.”

Before I read the article, I was curious as to how the book would treat the suspension of Relief Society in 1844, a subject I have written about before. Fortunately, the article answered my question:

One of the lesser known stories, published before but in stark contrast in the new book, is the schism that developed between Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow, and Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the church’s leader after Smith was shot to death in June 1844.

Emma was known as an “Elect Lady” and the first president of the Relief Society. As she sought to look after her family’s welfare and supported others who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve and wanted to assume church leadership, President Young worked to stabilize the church.

The book’s four co-editors wrote that, “President Young believed that Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage” — including the use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections — “contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.”

“What are relief societies for?” President Young said in March 1845, nine months after Joseph and Hyrum were killed. “To relieve us of our best men. They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum.”

“Brigham feels under siege,” Grow said. “He’s grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

Let me see if I can unpack this a little. According to the authors, the timeline goes something like this:

  1. Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
  2. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
  3. Brigham believes that Emma’s public opposition to plural marriage–and “use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections ‘contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.'”
  4. The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
  5. By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
  6. “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
  7. “As part of [preparations for the move West] they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

To summarize, the article–and apparently, the book’s authors–want us to believe that the suspension took place after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in a time of upheaval when a lot of the church’s activities, including missionary work, were temporarily suspended. Unfortunately, this is not what actually happened. The crucial fact that is omitted is that it wasn’t Brigham Young who suspended the Relief Society. As the article notes, Emma was vehemently opposed to the practice of plural marriage, and she began to use the Relief Society organization to publicly denounce the practice.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll just repost here what I wrote before:

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.

I wrote that post almost 7 years ago. To recap, the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, 3 months before Joseph Smith’s death. At that point, there was no discussion of moving west and no obvious schism between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The Relief Society was suspended because Joseph Smith was unhappy that Emma was using the meetings to “thwart the practice of plural marriage.” My guess is that Joseph understood that too much investigation would reveal the extent of his practice of polygamy, including the awkward fact that both of Emma’s counselors in the Relief Society presidency were intimately involved in polygamy, with Sarah Cleveland having married Joseph Smith and Elizabeth Whitney having given her daughter Sarah to Joseph as a wife.

Yet here it is 2016, and the church is still insisting that the suspension was Brigham Young’s doing and was a by-product of the move to the West.

So much for “remarkable transparency.”

Correction: The original version of this post listed Elizabeth Whitney as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which is incorrect.


The Will of the Lord

January 12, 2016

Many Latter-day Saints I know have struggled with the recent “policy change” that labels same-sex couples “apostates” and bars their children from baptism. It strikes them, as it does me, as deliberately splitting families and punishing children for the actions of their parents. Brigham Young used to say something to the effect that good doctrine tastes good, but this policy is about as appetizing as a hair omelet.

Most Mormons I know who have been troubled by the policy have said that it’s just a policy, not doctrine, so they don’t feel obligated to agree with it. Policies are the decisions of organizations, and they are subject to change; doctrine reflects the revealed word of God and, at least in theory, doesn’t change. The three-hour block of meetings on Sunday is policy; the saving ordinance of the sacrament is doctrine. The white-shirt-tie-and-nametag missionary ensemble is church policy; Christ’s injunction to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” is doctrine.

For a lot of Mormons, it’s perfectly acceptable to disagree with a church policy, even publicly. When I was a young boy, most of the Latter-day Saints I knew in Southern California disagreed with the church’s policy against ordaining men of African descent to the priesthood. It was a policy, they said, and it would change. And of course it did. Yes, some church leaders said it was revealed doctrine, but there was no revelation on the matter that anyone could point to.

I think a lot of people feel the same way about this new anti-gay policy: it’s just a decision of men, and it will change, so church members do not feel obligated to support it. One sign of its temporary nature is that, within a week, the church changed a significant aspect of the policy: originally, a child would be excluded from baptism if he or she is “child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship.” The church later changed this to exclude only children who are currently living with a same-sex couple as their primary residence. Of course, that opens a number of other issues, but I digress.

In short, a policy subject to almost-immediate revision is not set in stone, and does not have the authority of revelation.

Then, this past Sunday, President Russell Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church changed everything by equating the policy with revelation. Speaking at BYU-Hawaii, President Nelson spoke about how individuals can learn the mind and will of the Lord through study, fasting, and prayer. He compared the individual quest for answers to the process by which the Lord makes His will known to church leaders:

We sustain 15 men who are ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators. When a thorny problem arises–and they only seem to get thornier each day–these 15 men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord. After fasting, praying, studying, pondering, and counseling with my brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned. And my brethren have the same experience. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively, and then we watch the Lord move upon the president of the church to proclaim the Lord’s will.

This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries, and again with the recent additions to the church’s handbook consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer, and sought further direction and inspiration, and then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process. So is your privilege of receiving personal revelation. My dear brothers and sisters, you have as much access to the mind and will of the Lord, for your own life, as we apostles do for His church. Just as the Lord requires us to seek and ponder, fast and pray, study and wrestle with difficult questions, He requires you to do the same as you seek answers to your own questions.

President Nelson leaves little room for disagreement here: according to him, this new policy was given by revelation and represents the mind and will of the Lord.

Nelson

My initial response was a little snarky in that I said I could see two possible explanations:

  1. God is a muddleheaded douchebag.
  2. These guys don’t know the mind and will of the Lord.

Snark aside, for believing Latter-day Saints, I think President Nelson has drawn a distinct line: either you sustain the policy as the revealed will of the Lord, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground, no excusing it as a matter of policy.

For the record, I am sure these men “wrestled” with this issue, and I want to believe they had the best of intentions. In the end, however, this policy is hurtful and wrong, and anything but compassionate.

Looking back at my life as a believing Mormon, I probably would have accepted President Nelson’s words at face value, put my personal feelings aside, and sustained this policy as the revealed will of the Lord. I suspect a lot of people I know are doing just that. Heaven knows I forced myself to believe, say, and do things I thought were wrong–just  because I believed the church was right, no matter what.

But I also think it would have gnawed at my conscience, despite my best efforts to fall in line. President Monson has often quoted Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to illustrate that one cannot say one thing when your heart says something else:

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. … I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. … It was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, … but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.

In context, however, Twain is writing about the conflict between one’s conscience and what others tell you is right. In this passage, Huck isn’t praying about giving up a vice or sin; rather, he is wrestling over whether he should turn in the runaway slave, Jim. Society, the law, religion–all of these tell him that slavery is right, and helping a slave escape is wrong, but his heart tells him otherwise.

I think I would have forced myself to accept and sustain the policy, but I would have known it was wrong. I’ve felt this way before. The summer before I left on my mission, I worked for a time as a janitor at a dialysis center (this was 1983). I got to know several of the patients fairly well, as they came in regularly. One African-American man I met was what I would call a religious seeker. He told me he was looking for the true church on earth, the kingdom of God, where he knew he was supposed to be. He asked me about Mormonism and what I believed. Then, of course, he asked about the priesthood restrictions that had been rescinded only 5 years earlier. He asked me to explain why, and I couldn’t. No answer I could come up with was adequate. A friend had recently returned from a mission to Jamaica and had said the granting of the priesthood was gradual: first only to the Israelites, then (as of the New Testament) to the Gentiles, and finally to black men. It didn’t sound right to me, especially since the New Testament made it abundantly clear that no one was “unclean” any longer and unworthy of the blessings of the gospel. I did my best to justify a policy I had never agreed with, but it was no use. He knew, and I knew, that it had been wrong.

This morning I am thinking of all those in the church who want to sustain the leaders of the church but recognize that this policy is wrong and harmful. I would imagine there will be some wrestling, fasting, praying, and studying. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad I don’t have to wrestle with this at all.