A LITTLE FAMILY HISTORY
In 8th grade, I became aware of a shelf of books I’d not previously encountered in our library masquerading as a house in Houston, Texas. One particularly large tome by Juanita Brooks entitled The Mountain Meadows Massacre caught my attention. I started into it and a few days later, my mom saw me lounging around the house reading. “You know you’re related to him, right?” I was stunned. She went back upstairs to grab a red volume, simply titled “Fullmer Genealogy.” We took the next few hours connecting John Doyle Lee to Howard Clay Fullmer, my great-grandfather whose viewing I attended five years prior. Several inches thick, the genealogy was an OG version of FamilySearch.org, with life stories, photos, journal entries, census records, etc.
While interesting to see ancestors of mine come to life, I was more than a little disturbed by such a direct connection to someone responsible for so much death. Even more so, as I waded through Lee’s last confession and other histories written about the massacre. Denied officially, the connections and communications with church headquarters (including Prophet Brigham Young) about how to deal with the incoming settlers from Missouri seemed more than tenuous to me. Add to that Lee’s 19 wives, I wasn’t sure how this new historical information would impact my budding testimony. This was the subject of more than a few family discussions before I shelved the whole issue and resolved to deal with it later.
A couple years later, I attended Youth Conference for the first time. In the history of our Stake, it is still the most memorable Youth Conference. We went camping in Sam Houston Stake Park, divided into “tribes” and had a weekend packed full of team and faith building activities. That weekend I had my first emotional experience with The Book of Mormon, reading it organically by moonlight at 3 am outside my tent. I felt the presence of God in that moment in such a personal way as I’d never done before. That feeling– indescribable and defying all logic –drove my intellectual study of the scriptures deeper.
It was time to take John D. Lee off the shelf and decide how his history would impact mine*. I reread his personal history, Juanita Brooks’ books, and other commentaries. I dug into polygamy — the supposed doctrine and subsequent culture. I found personal journals of wives left at Lee’s Ferry with vials of oil and instructions on healing and blessing while Lee was not at home. Our dinner table conversations — the stuff of legends for anyone who’s been around my family — attempted to reconcile history with religion with doctrine. The next several years were formative, to say the least. Looking back, this is when the foundation for my current world view was mapped, lain, and fortified.
Recently, more than a few friends and acquaintances have asked me the title question of this post. In one form or another, I’ve recounted the above story and the information below. After a text this morning from an incredibly stalwart friend and a Provo YSA testimony meeting, I’ve decided to “go public” with my own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on the Gospel, Mormonism, and the interplay between agency and faith. These things are incredibly personal and meant to edify the reader, nothing more nothing less. Take it or leave it. I will probably not respond publicly to comments, but if you have my number and would like to chat about this feel free to call anytime.
Before I set off to attend BYU, my dad gave me the most useful piece of advice (after “don’t get married freshman year!” of course): learn to separate your testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the Church, the School, and the Culture. For our purposes today, we’ll lump The School in with The Culture.
What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
All religions, schools of thought, philosophies, etc. start off with a set of facts that believers or followers deem to be true. Closely related are principles, when applied to these facts impact the believer’s life in some positive or negative way. It’s important that we tease out the difference between the two here, as identical principles are found across all religions. Those of you who’ve read this blog in its entirety will be familiar with a story from Taiwan, where a Tibetan Buddhist and I team taught an Atheist about faith. Faith, said the Tibetan, is the principle where by emulating someone better than you can bring good into your life. The facts (doctrine) is what differs between the Tibetan and the Mormon: the Tibetan believes the perfect example is the Dalai Lama, the Mormon believes the perfect example is Jesus Christ. That doesn’t change the nature of faith — just the object to which the principle is applied.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, then, becomes a series of facts (doctrine) that includes Christ as center of a plan where redemption (principle) is possible. This includes but is not limited to the fact that God is a creative being of the same type as human, engaged in a paternal/maternal relationship with us. Communication with this deity is possible through prayer and scripture (words of prophets written down over the ages). A set of defined ordinances is necessary to officially claim and maintain our redeemed status. While deity gives us rules to follow, our ability to choose is paramount to this plan, and speaks to our origins as co-eternal intelligence.
Now, hang on tight. I propose not much outside the above paragraph really constitutes doctrine. Sure, there are details within each of those sentences we are not taking time to discuss (like how do we perform these ordinances and how to do we guarantee authoritative chain of custody, what happens to those who don’t choose redemption, what is the nature of God, what is the role of the Holy Ghost, etc), but the big picture is just that simple. In fact, I might even argue those details are completely subject to geography and time. Take the Word of Wisdom, for example. Doctrine at the heart of it is just that God created your physical body, knows what it needs to function at a level capable of receiving clear revelation. Each dispensation has had its own version of the Word of Wisdom, varying with meat slaughtering and curing practices of the time or region. That makes our current revelation an application, not doctrine:
Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.
This is where The Church comes in….
What is and why do we need a Church organization?
The Church is a body of fallible, human beings. Period. The doctrine we agreed on above states JESUS CHRIST as the only perfect being to ever walk the earth, the only being worthy of and capable of making our faith productive for salvation. For this reason, in my family, the phrases “I believe in the Church” “the Church is true” “I have faith in my Bishop” etc. are never uttered. This is why a Preach My Gospel, Lesson Three section title says “Faith in Jesus Christ” not just faith is what should be taught to investigators.
Even the organization of the Church is subject to time and geography. Adam and Eve’s posterity were in family groups. Jacob saw the advent of 12 tribes, with specialized tasks and responsibilities. In Moses time, people were first divided into groups of 50. Christ organized 12 Apostles on two different continents. Now we have Area 70s, Stakes, Wards, etc…. This makes the Church organization a principle, not doctrine. The doctrine (fact) is that God needs his people to be organized and keep records for ordinances performed. That’s it. What this organization looks like from dispensation to dispensation has and can vary widely.
That being said, let’s reiterate a point: this organization is populated with imperfect, less than all-knowing, struggling human beings. God even knows He’s dealing with human beings, and often chastises them for not keeping records as He instructed. If this is something God knows and points out to us repeatedly through scripture, why do we have such a hard time accepting it?
A friend of mine pointed out a few months ago this strange juxtaposition: The Catholics teach the Infallibility Doctrine, but no one believes it. Mormons don’t teach it, but everyone believes it.
Bookmark this point. We’ll return to it at the end of this post*. As for why we need a Church…. it’s a vehicle. A method by which God can reach all of His children, teach them the facts they need to know in order to claim redemption, and receive the ordinances necessary. Originally, families were the organization of choice. Oral and written tradition would carry the knowledge Adam and Eve gained in the Garden of Eden to their children, etc. But agency stepped in and whole generations grew up devoid of this knowledge. Another vehicle was made available — covenants with the efficacy of familial bonds.
Now, the Prophet sits at the head of his particular dispensation as a key holder. This does not mean he sits at the head of the Church, nor that he’s better than anybody else. He holds an office with specific responsibilities for directing ordinances across the world. That includes what someone needs to know before entering a covenant, and how to keep from breaking it. As we’ve seen, time and geography are constantly impacting us and a Prophet can help provide clarity on application of doctrine (principles). He cannot change the facts of the Gospel, however. Prophets ancient and modern have been able to see visions, or glean more detail about the logistics behind elements of doctrine. Unfortunately, in their exuberance these fallible human beings have declared some things as doctrine that weren’t actually, and vice versa.
At the end of the day, God provides a system of checks and balances between The Holy Ghost, scripture (words of ancient prophets), and the living prophet. When these three things agree, you can move forward with confidence. If one disagrees, it’s time to reexamine all three. Is this a true prompting from The Holy Ghost? Are the scriptures being understood in their original context or are we proof texting? Is man holding the office of Prophet speaking prophetically or personally? Some of these answers may not come immediately, maybe even decades later. This is where emulation of Christ becomes key in maintaining even sanity, honestly. But before we dig into that*, let’s take a look at The Culture.
Mormonism, Platitudes, and Other Fallacies
Sorry if this is a shock to anyone’s system… but there is nothing doctrinal about green jello, funeral potatoes, knee-length skirts, white shirts and ties, calling hierarchy, marital status as a litmus test for righteousness, anti-intellectualism, endless Sunday meetings, councils and committees for every decision, women not being in the Sunday School presidency, men not being in the Primary Presidency, missionaries not swimming because Satan controls the water, top hats…… the list goes on. Some cultural quirks are, in fact, anti-doctrine and more than a few forefathers are rolling in their graves over our perpetuation of these fallacies.
I took a bit of an extremist view these last few years and declared there was no doctrinal need to study the life of a prophet. Absolutely, the words God instructed him to write down to document God’s dealings with the people of the time should be treated as scripture. Everything else, though? Throw it out. Personal choices like running for president or opening a bank, warm-fuzzy stories from his childhood, home teaching war stories (President Monson! :D), are immaterial. They have absolutely no bearing on the carrying out of saving ordinances. While they might serve as a modern allegory or faith promoting story… they aren’t doctrine and should NOT be treated as such. Certainly wrapped up in this category are publications, speeches, opinions, etc. held prior to or given outside his prophetic calling and prophetic duties (ETB….. lookin’ at you!).
I would even argue the number of wives falls into this category. Joseph gave us a pattern by which polygamous marriages could be entered into, which seems to pass all the checks and balances laid out in other areas of scripture:
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified;
This one line preserves the agency of all parties involved. If any coercion was involved, that’s between the man and God… and heaven help that man! >.< But I digress….
12 Angry Men teaches us the importance of self-awareness and a level of honesty about our inherent bias that is often painful. However, the freedom this strict scrutiny provides is priceless. It allows me to maintain a healthy relationship with my Heavenly Father, faith in Jesus Christ, hope for the future, and peace about the past even though I’m the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of a polygamous murderer. I sorted that out in high school through an incredible amount of study, discussion, and prayer. This is a journey I recommend to anyone and everyone — separate the bare bones doctrine of Jesus Christ from everything else and solidify your testimony of that first:
Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
Take everything else with a huge bucket of salt and ask: this this cultural in nature or stemming from some organizational quirk? Is this a person holding an office of some authority acting according to his or her office or “reading into” the situation some personal interpretation? Does this actually impact my ability to communicate with God? Does it impact my personal salvation?
WHAT IF IT’S NOT ACTUALLY TRUE?
I posed this question to my Seminary students last year. To my delight and relief, they arrived at the same conclusion I did. If I die tomorrow and it turns out the Atheists were right…. there’s nothing but a huge void and complete nothingness, my life is not wasted. My application of a universal principle to something good (faith in Jesus Christ) motivated me to be kind, inclusive, self-less, charitable, and constantly seeking improvement for myself and society. Further, if you decide The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not for you, that’s okay. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in personal revelation and agency, I have to respect your decision. But please respect my decision to be here, to believe this, and to share it with others.
*ONE MORE THING
My conclusions about John D. Lee serve for me (and by extension, a suggestion to anyone reading this) as a model for reconciling what is with what should be. Lee lived long before I did. I wasn’t there to witness the facts. I only have individual accounts and hindsight analysis to base an opinion on, which is inherently incorrect. There’s no way to divine the intentions of his superiors or his intentions towards his subordinates. Furthermore, that’s not my job. It’s God’s.
I’ve encountered people, cultural traditions, school policies, and even highly publicized and divisive church policies that I don’t agree with. Even daily human actions are so counter-gospel they make me cringe (what other culture do you know of that says we should be serious about marriage because it’s for ETERNITY then encourages people to marry WITHIN six months of knowing each other?!). So how do I stomach remaining a member of a church with such a sordid past and questionable current practices?
The answer? Forgive them. Move on. Give the final judgement back to God, to whom it truly belongs. This is the only way to maintain even a base level of sanity within any organization, especially a religious one where feelings and deep seated traditions are often the center point of worship. This is where the rubber meets the road — where you can immediately sort between those living their religion and those who aren’t. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still practicing this myself. And I thank God every day I have Christ as an example to gravitate to when even the apparently most solid foundations around me begin to waver. Matthew 18 is a prime example — Christ tells us exactly how to deal with people who offend us. How often do we practice it? It’s certainly much easier to sound off on social media and completely lose the opportunity to “gain a brother.”
That being said… Christ was no push over. If he saw something wrong, he pointed it out, no matter what authority the wrong do-ers claimed. There is plenty of room for questions, agitation, and full reversal of opinions in this church. Just be honest with yourself and God about your research, study, prayer, and intentions. Be prepared to wait it out, and trust Christ when he said the Atonement covers everything… even blessings denied you because of the ignorance of others. Blacks joining the church through the Jim Crow era are my personal heroes. They didn’t leave the church. They didn’t kick against the pricks. They were faithful in capacities allowed and held on until the fallible, human leaders were made aware of their wrongs.
I took a Pearl of Great Price class this last Summer and learned something new. There is a unifying theme to the Pearl of Great Price… from Moses, through Abraham, even across Joseph Smith Matthew. Each and every story within those books addresses two things: 1) the way things really are vs. the way things seem 2) being offended is a choice. It was humbling and instructive. And proved to me that I’m still here because I have things to work on. Prayer, earnest scripture study, participation in saving ordinances are all tools God has given me in order to help me. To lose focus on the doctrine will be detrimental to me and my eternal status.