My daughter is getting married on Saturday, so needless to say my focus is on family this week. I will get back to the story early next week. Thanks for your patience.
At the end of the school year, I was excited that the youth of our stake–all the congregations in the towns of Spring Lake, Payson, and Santaquin–would be holding a three-day campout in Nephi Canyon, some 20 miles to the south.
I had a great time at the camp, and although I knew everyone from school, it was nice to spend time doing something completely unrelated to academics. We went for long hikes, learned how to make lanyards out of leather strips, and had huge bonfires every night, where everyone sang and put on skits and jokes. It was wonderful. A few older kids got in trouble for pairing up and going off to kiss and who knows what else, but in all, it was wonderful.
The last night, we were told to dress in our Sunday best, as this would be a special “fireside.” It would be a testimony meeting, and we would all have the chance to share how the Spirit had witnessed to us of the truth.
Jim was terrified. “I can’t go up there and bear testimony. It would be like lying.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
That evening, one after another a long line of teens stood to express how much they had been touched by the Spirit. Even the kids who had been caught kissing the day before were brought to tears as they shared their most sacred encounters with the Holy Ghost.
Why didn’t I feel anything? Was I just not open to the Spirit? Was I not trying hard enough? Or was I just the only honest one there?
No, they must have felt something, or they wouldn’t say it, would they? Maybe it was just that people like me and Grandma didn’t work that way; we didn’t expect that kind of thing, didn’t need it. We just did our duty, and it was fine.
I wasn’t going to get up and bear testimony, but soon there were just Jim and me left, the only ones who hadn’t. I sat there quietly, trying to ignore the pressure to get up and say something. Finally, Brother Kelsch, our Aaronic Priesthood leader stood and said, “I would be very disappointed if some of my boys didn’t stand and bear testimony.” He stared at me, motioning me with his thumb to get up.
I guess he was looking at Jim, too, who slowly rose to his feet.
“I don’t really know what to say,” Jim said in a shaky voice. “I …”
Suddenly Jim was sobbing, his shoulders shaking. “I know the church is true!” he managed to get out. “I have a testimony!”
He collapsed into sobs, and Brother Kelsch put his arm around him to comfort him.
Now it was just me, and it seemed like everyone was staring at me, waiting for me to make a move.
I stood up.
What was I going to say?
“Uh, I’m grateful for the opportunity to stand here,” I said, knowing that wasn’t true.
I wanted to tell everyone I had a testimony from the Spirit, but the words wouldn’t come. I was starting to panic.
Then I saw Grandma’s face in my mind, and I was calm.
“I know that when I keep the commandments and do what’s right, I am blessed.” There, that wasn’t so hard. “I learned a long time ago that Heavenly Father just wants us to do our best, and I feel good when I do my best.”
Brother Kelsch looked a little disappointed.
“That’s how I know the church is true,” I said. “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought saying I knew it was true meant I had borne my testimony. I didn’t feel bad, and I didn’t feel like it was a lie. So maybe I did have a kind of a testimony. Could you have one without feeling some kind of spiritual sign? Maybe so.
The following summer, Dad took me aside one day and told me that I was now old enough to do real work. I’d been working on the farm all my life, so I didn’t understand what he meant.
“I’ve worked hard every day of my life,” I said. “What more do you want me to do?”
“Son,” he said, his eyes filled with a clarity I’d never seen before, “Working on this little farm is all well and good, but it’s time for you to work on the ranch with your Uncle Bob.”
“But I don’t want to leave!” I protested.
“It’s just for the summer,” he said. “Grandma could use the company, and you are old enough for that kind of work.”
The day after school ended, Mom helped me pack an old suitcase, and I loaded it into the back of the truck. She kissed me and hugged me goodbye, saying, “Remember who you are. Do your duty, and all will be well.”
It took two full days to drive to the ranch, as the old truck couldn’t keep up with the traffic on the highway that stretched north through the cities and small towns of northern Utah. Dad pointed out that, for pretty much every Mormon settlement along the Wasatch Mountains, the mountains were on the east, and water (Utah Lake, the Jordan River, and the Great Salt Lake) was to the west. We both laughed when he said, “Heavenly Father just wanted to make it hard for people to get lost.”
The old truck rattled and wheezed its way along. It seemed like all morning we had been passed by angry motorists, some who yelled angry swear words at us, especially when the truck struggled over the Point of the Mountain, the narrow pass between Utah Valley and the Salt Lake Valley. “Never mind,” Dad said. “We may not be fast, but we’ll get there.” I wasn’t so sure.
We stopped for lunch in Salt Lake, where we got hot bread with jam at a bakery downtown and ate it in the shade of a poplar tree on Temple Square, just south of the gray granite temple. It felt a little disrespectful to be eating on the grounds of the holy temple, but Dad said Heavenly Father wouldn’t mind.
A few hours later we had left the familiar mountain valleys. After the sun set, Dad pulled the truck off the side of the road under a Russian olive tree somewhere north of Pocatello, where the land spread out wide and flat in the Snake River Valley.
“We’re on an Indian reservation,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see some Indians.”
That sounded pretty exciting to me, but also a little scary. “They won’t come after us, will they?” I asked.
“You’ve seen too many movies,” he said. “The people here are wonderful. Kind and generous, even though the white men haven’t been very good to them.”
We built a good-sized fire and ate the sandwiches Mom had packed for us.
I think Dad and I talked more that evening than we ever had before. He told me about growing up on the ranch, how his father had taught him to work hard, and how he hoped he had done right by me.
I looked up to my father, but I had never told him until that night.
“I’m proud of you, son,” he said, his voice quavering in a way I hadn’t heard before. I’m not sure I ever heard him say that again, either.
It was beginning to get cold, so we spread out our bedrolls and lay down. As we stared up at the bright stars, I asked him, “Do you think God really does notice us? I mean, there’s so much out there, and we’re so small.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I expect he does, but I wouldn’t know.”
“Has he ever answered your prayers?” I asked, looking over at him.
His face relaxed, and he said, “I think so. Not like a burning bush kind of thing or anything like that, but just … well … things have a way of working out. I often can look back and see how something I prayed for came about in ways I didn’t expect.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, like being sent to Utah to work on the farm,” he said. “That was the last I wanted to do, and it took me a while to forgive your grandma. But I never would have met your mother if I hadn’t gone, and if anyone has been an answer to my prayers, she has. … And then there’s you and Ellen. See what I mean?”
I guess I did.
In the morning, we stopped by the Fort Hall trading post, where Dad bought me some penny candy and some tea to take to Grandma (an old Scottish habit). The man behind the store counter was a real, honest-to-goodness Indian with long braids hanging out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. I stared at him with what must have been very wide eyes.
“What’s the matter, son?” the man said, putting our purchases in a paper bag.
“It’s just–I’ve never met a Lamanite before!” I said, using the Mormon term for Indian.
“A what?” he said, looking genuinely puzzled.
My dad laughed. “Never mind, Henry, he’s just excited to see an Indian for the first time.” Dad had stopped at the post many times before and knew the man by name.
“Whatever you say, John,” the man laughed too.
We drove for what seemed like many hours through mostly flat, dusty potato fields until the land rose toward the forested mountains, and the old truck struggled up the grade. The trees were beautiful, and I wondered why people didn’t live up here instead of in the rather ugly valley below.
“You can’t grow potatoes up here,” Dad said. “Too many trees.”
After a brief stop to eat lunch and let the radiator cool off, we wound our way across the mountains and down into a green valley north of the mountains. Dad kept the truck in low gear all the way down because he said he didn’t trust the brakes. That didn’t sound very reassuring, but we made it to the bottom of the grade safely.
“Have you thought of your plans for the future?” Dad asked out of nowhere.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it much. I’m only 14, after all.”
“Yeah, there’s time,” he said. “Still, you’d do well on the ranch, I’d say.”
If there was one thing I didn’t want to do, it was that, but I wasn’t going to tell him so. “Well, Mom thinks I should go into banking. She says I have a head for figures.”
“Of course you do,” he replied. “Why do you think Mom has given you homework every summer since before you started school? You’re way ahead of other boys your age, especially in math.”
“I guess I’m good at it,” I said, “But I don’t know if that’s what I want to do. It can be pretty boring.”
“Hard work isn’t meant to entertain you,” Dad said, looking very serious. “You do what’s best for yourself and your family, and being boring’s got nothing to do with it.”
“What did you want to be when you were my age, Dad?”
“I wanted to run the ranch,” he said.
“Why didn’t you?”
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” he said, giving me a look that let me know he didn’t want to talk about it.
“But you like working on the farm, don’t you?”
“Sure, son, but it’s not exactly a challenge for me. Like you said, it can be pretty boring. But it’s what was meant to be, and I have to do my duty. I don’t complain.”
We rode in silence for another 15 minutes before we saw the big gate marked “Park Silver Ranch.” At some point, the name had changed from the original “Peaceful Springs Ranch” as sort of a family joke referring to Great-grandpa McCurdie losing his shares in a silver mine. Dad said it was a good reminder why the Lord taught us not to drink alcohol or gamble. Either way, the brand was the same: a P looping over a smaller S.
Grandma was waiting up for us when we pulled up to the front of the house. She seemed older and more tired than she had the last time I had seen her, but maybe it was just the dim light. She hugged me tightly and told me how happy she was to see me as she showed me to the small room at the end of the hall that would be mine for the summer.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the baptism went as well as could have been expected, I guess. The water was cold, though not as cold as the lake, and I wasn’t in the font very long. Mom had sewn white pants for me and Dad out of old flour sacks, and after we changed, we went down into the water. I doubted the pants would ever be used again, except maybe when Ellen turned 8.
Before the actual baptism, the bishop said a few words, though I don’t remember much of what he said, and then we sang “I Stand All Amazed,” which no longer filled me with dread. When I came up out of the water, I didn’t feel any different, but then I thought maybe the difference would come when I received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
After we changed back into dry clothes, I sat in a chair at the front of the room, and my Dad, Uncle Bob, and the bishop laid their hands on my wet hair, and I could feel my dad trembling slightly as he pronounced the words that made me a member of the church and authorized me to receive the companionship of the Holy Ghost. When we walked home past the crab-apple tree, I realized I had been wrong: I didn’t feel any different than I had before, but I was determined to keep myself pure and free of sin.
When we got home, Dad changed back into his work clothes and headed out to the pasture north of the lake, where the springs arose that gave the pond its impressive name. The bishop had noticed a fence post was nearly down, so Dad would need to repair it before any of the cattle got out into the neighboring fields or, worse, onto the highway. Dad said it was my special day, so I could stay home and help Mom and Grandma with dinner. Uncle Bob went along with Dad to help, though I don’t know how he was supposed to help since he was still wearing his suit.
It didn’t take us long to get the roast in the oven and the table set, so Grandma suggested we take Uncle Bob’s car and go for a drive. Gloria looked a little irritated, but Mom agreed it might be nice, especially with the top down. We all piled in the car, Ellen and me sitting in the back seat with Mom, the breeze blowing through our hair as we headed up the hill toward the canal road east of town. As we rounded the corner at the north end of the pond, I could see Dad’s old truck out in the pasture, near the fence he was mending. Uncle Bob sat on the rusty tailgate, looking out over the valley through binoculars.
“Well, at least one of my sons knows how to work,” Grandma said a little bitterly.
“He does just fine,” Gloria said, giving her a little glare.
“Never said he didn’t,” Grandma said, looking straight ahead.
On the way back, we passed Brother Ashton’s apple orchard, where the trees were heavy with fruit, which at that point were blushed with red over a dusty green–almost ripe to eat, but not quite.
“Pull over, dear,” Grandma said. Gloria stopped the car. “Wouldn’t those apples make a nice pie?” Grandma said, turning to look at Mom.
“They just might,” Mom said, “but they aren’t ours.”
“Oh, it won’t hurt to pick a few,” Grandma smiled. She turned to me and Ellen and said, “Do you think you two could bring back about a dozen apples? I think a baptism is an occasion for a pie.”
“I don’t know,” Mom said, looking very uncomfortable.
“You wouldn’t deny the newest member of the church a proper celebration, would you?” Grandma chuckled. “Go on, you two. It will be all right.”
We climbed over the seat and out the car door and ran off to pick a few apples. Soon we had our arms full, and we brought them back to the car.
“Perfect!” Grandma said. “Now, let’s go.”
At the house, I helped Grandma peel the apples, and Mom made a crust. With some butter, cinnamon, and sugar, and some strips of crust criss-crossed over the top, the pie went into the oven. Grandma called us over, and Ellen and I sat on her lap, taking turns reading Stuart Little to her.
About the time we started smelling the heavenly scent of the pie, Dad and Uncle Bob came in the door.
“Smells like apple pie, Mother,” Bob said. “Delicious!”
“Where did you get those apples, Moira?” Dad said, looking suspicious. “We didn’t have any apples this morning.”
“They were a gift from me,” Grandma said, “and I hope you’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.” I had no idea what that meant.
“Where did they come from?” Dad looked me in the eye.
“We picked them from Ashton’s orchard,” I said. “Grandma said it would be all right.”
“Mother, that’s stealing!” Dad said, quickly picking up the telephone and dialing.
Stealing? Did that mean I had already sinned, mere hours after being washed clean?
“Hello, this is John Murdock,” I heard Dad say into the phone. “How much would you charge for a dozen apples from your orchard? … Oh, well, you see, my mother thought it was a good idea for my children to pick some apples out of your orchard, and they got a dozen.”
I was horrified. Was he going to make me confess? Beg forgiveness?
“Well, you may be right, it’s just a few apples, but our family doesn’t take things without paying for them. … Yes, that’s right. I’ll send them over. I’m very sorry this has happened.”
I could feel my heart pounding up into my throat as Dad called me and Ellen over.
“You knew it was wrong to take those apples, didn’t you?” he said, as we stared at the floor.
“Grandma told us to–” Ellen said, but he cut her off.
“But you knew better, didn’t you?”
We both nodded.
He reached into the pocket of his work pants and pulled out a dime. “Brother Ashton reckons you took about 10 cents’ worth of apples, so you are going to go on over there and pay him for what you took.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling my face redden with shame.
“I ought to give you a whipping for this, but you go apologize for what you’ve done, and that will be sufficient.”
We walked slowly down the street, the dime in my hand and a terrible sense of doom gathering around us. By the time I knocked on Brother Ashton’s door, my heart was pounding again.
“Ah, the little hoodlums,” he said, laughing as he opened the screen door. “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
“We’re sorry for taking your apples, sir.” We muttered, as I held out the dime. Ellen was close to tears. I was too, truth be told.
“Well, now let that be a lesson to you,” he said. “And never forget that your father is an honest man.”
“You’re not going to do anything like that again, are you?” he said, looking me squarely in the face.
“No, sir,” we both answered quietly.
“See that you don’t,” he said, closing the door. “And I hope you enjoy the pie.”
We ran home, both of us terribly ashamed, but relieved that the worst of it was over.
That night I poured out my sinful heart in prayer, begging to be forgiven for such a terrible sin. But I felt nothing. I cried myself to sleep, sure that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t been forgiven.
The next day at church, I was called up in front of the congregation so they could raise their hands in fellowship to welcome me into the household of God. Everyone looked so pleased, yet I heard over and over in my head, Thief! Thief! Thief!
After church, Grandma made some lemonade, and we sat out on the front porch.
“How do you know when you’re forgiven?” I asked her.
“What do you have to be forgiven for?” She looked surprised.
“I stole those apples yesterday,” I said, once again feeling the shame rise into my face.
“Oh, that,” she said. “If anyone has to repent for that, it’s me. I’m the one who told you to do it.”
“But I knew it was wrong, and I did it anyway.”
“Did you ask Heavenly Father to forgive you?” she asked.
“Well, there you are. There’s nothing more to it.”
“But I don’t feel forgiven,” I pressed on. “Doesn’t God tell us when He forgives us? Doesn’t He give us some kind of sign?”
“If He does, I’ve never noticed it,” she smiled, taking a sip of her lemonade. “Our job is to do our duty, and when we do wrong, we’re to repent. Do you feel like you’ve sincerely repented?”
“Then you have. Don’t waste your time waiting for signs and miracles. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and things will work out.”
That was pretty much what the bishop had said, so I knew she must be right. Maybe someday a sign would come, but I wasn’t going to worry about it anymore.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
- Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
- 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.'”
- The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
- By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
- “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
- “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.