Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tipping Point or Tripping Point

I feel like I have just spent a week in liberal Mormon heaven. Last Saturday I attended Sunstone. It was full of interesting people with interesting ideas. Sunday my Gospel Principals class had a very engaging discussion about how to serve others. Sunday night I heard Richard Bushman speak at a fireside, and yesterday I attended a book signing and address by the authors of the just-released Massacre at Mountain Meadows. For a Mormonism junkie dweeb it doesn’t get much better.

Meeting and listening to Richard Bushman was probably the highlight of the lot. I have read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) and a few other Bushman books, and think highly of his work. I am aware of his credentials and talent, but I was taken aback by how good he is from the pulpit. It was not so much his presentation – he is no fire-eating orator. It’s more his understanding of his audience, where they are now, and where he can take them.

I think he knows very well going into these types of events whom he is addressing and what he hopes to achieve. I have been reading On the Road with Joseph Smith, Bushman’s account of the rollout of RSR, in which he details his feelings and approach to addressing many such forums. As such, I was very keen to see how he would “work” the crowd.

The setting was my sister’s stake in Sandy, Utah. Not exactly a hotbed of liberal Mormon thought. One of the first things Bushman did was announce that after making his prepared remarks, he would take questions and that nothing was off limits. Anybody could ask anything they liked. To some that may not seems like a big deal, but when was the last time you heard someone say that to a Mormon congregation from the pulpit?

Bushman was super smooth in how he introduced the congregation to tricky historical problems without seeming to do so. He was very respectful and deferential. He even used an Elder Packer quote about Emma Smith. He seems a master of working change from within. He matter of factly discusses topics that are traditionally more fit for Sunstone than a meeting house. Maybe I am reading more into this than is warranted but I think he cleverly builds credibility with the congregation by saying the right things and quoting the right people before he casually mentions something like Joseph marrying a 14-year-old.

His remarks focused on the humanness of Joseph Smith, the esteem in which he holds Emma Smith, and the practice of polygamy. When he was done the audience took him at his word and peppered him with the type of question that doesn’t usually get asked in Sunday School. Someone wanted to know why Joseph married women who were already betrothed. Bushman said it was Joseph’s way of linking his eternal family to others. Another wanted to know his feelings about the FLDS church in light of the Joseph polygamous experience. Bushman said that while he in no way condoned any type of abuse or pedophilia, he felt we should be very sympathetic to the FLDS. He said that their troubles gave us a glimpse of the troubles early Mormons faced. I asked him why Emma let her boys believe that their father had not practiced polygamy? Hadn’t she done a great disservice in allowing them to proclaim wrongly in public that their father never practiced polygamy? He said that Emma was ashamed of the practice of polygamy and that if you read her words carefully, you’ll notice they are carefully worded to leave herself some wiggle room.

When he was done taking questions, the meeting ended and several people lined up to shake his hand and have books signed. When my turn came, I asked him if he thought that RSR had gotten too far out in front of where Mormons are willing to see their prophet. He said that he had written that book according to how he saw things and that although some members did not want this information, many did. He said that he thought the Church was at a tipping point in term of a candid appraisal and discussion of its history. I was struck by this. A tipping point to me suggests that we may soon experience a much more open approach to church history. Not just a gradual change but a wide and thorough change that will become the rule rather than the exception.

The presentation by the authors of Massacre at Mountain Meadows was very interesting. I sat about 4 feet from the authors (a small room at Benchmark Books with a lot of people). They seemed to have very different personalities and they emphasized very different things in their presentations (they each spoke about 10 minutes). Richard Turley talked a lot about the research process and methodology. Ron Walker focused more on the narrative and Glen Leonard zeroed in on how the event might have been avoided had a few individuals stood their ground when their priesthood and militia leaders pushed for their acquiescence. When they were done speaking, Curt Bench, the bookstore proprietor, talked about how extraordinary and unprecedented the book was and the openness with which the church facilitated the project. He strongly expressed his feeling that we are entering a new phase of openness and candor. He said he had never seen anything like this before. Curt has been dealing books and Mormon document since before Mark Hoffman and has spent his career following Church goings-on. I don’t think he is one given to hyperbole.

Perhaps I am reading too much into these experiences, or maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear. But it seems that two very keen observers of Mormonism see a shift to and perhaps a widening of candor and openness in the Church. Are they up in the night? I hope not.


The Faithful Dissident said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Sanford. Since I'm a looong way from Sandy, UT, I probably never would have heard about this otherwise. Nice to get the perspective of someone who was there.

First question: the Church let Bushman talk from the pulpit about RSR?? In a Church meetinghouse? With Boyd K. Packer in the same state? Wow. :)

Second question: do you think most of the people in attendace had read RSR and knew what it was about? How was RSR originally received by the general Mormon membership in conservative UT?

I like what he said about the FLDS. I have to admit that I wasn't tolerant of the FLDS and I was glad that the compund was raided (maybe not that all the children were taken away, but I was glad that they finally went in). But I feel the same sort of intolerance towards the early Mormons and their practice/cover-up/lying about polygamy. To me, it's not as black and white about us being right and the FLDS being wrong. I think there are some similarities that many Mormons don't want to acknowledge.

Sanford said...

Yes, Bushman did speak from the pulpit of an LDS meeting house but I should point out that it was a fireside as opposed to a sacrament meeting.

Do I think most people had read the book? I don't know -- I kind of doubt it. I just don’t think most Mormons read academic related books. Because it was a fireside, attendance was optional so I assume that those who chose to come were more likely to be aware of Bushman and have read the book than the average member but who knows. I attended with several family members and of those attending only my father had read the book besides me. My brother (a Bishop) has read it and my brother-in-law (in a Stake Presidency) is reading it, and my nephew says it is next on his list but most the rest of my very active extended family has not read it. They are all active solid non-liberal Mormons and seem to have their needs met without the assistance of RSR or other similar works. In my ward, I know of a few people who have read RSR but I think the vast majority have not.

I loaned RSR to the ward gospel doctrine teacher about 6 months ago thinking that it would be of interest to him since he is teaching the Book of Mormon course. I got it back from him in order to have Bushman sign it and he told me that it looked interesting but that he hadn’t read it. I find that hard to understand. I am so fascinated by Joseph Smith that I puzzle over other member’s seeming lack of interest or least failure to take the steps to try and deepen their understanding of and gain context about the prophet that they testify of so regularly. I am not saying you have to read RSR to profess a testimony, but don’t Mormons want to learn more about the prophet that is such a big part of their lives? I know this must sound high handed but I just don’t get the lack of interest.

As for how the book is received in Utah – I think that reception has been very positive. Bushman has very strong church and academic credentials and I have not heard any negative comments about him or his book. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the book itself is so well and done and so interesting. Even if people haven’t read the book I think that they have a generally positive opinion of it and for those who have read, the reviews generally fall somewhere between glowing and ecstatic.

Mormon Heretic said...


I too attended Sunstone (for the first time) and found it quite interesting. I wish I had known about Richard Bushman and the MMM authors--I'd have driven to Sandy (I work there now.)

I think most mormons are oblivious to RSR. My mother in law started reading it, and said she didn't like all the nitty gritty detail Bushman goes into. When I found out she had it, I asked if I could borrow it. It filled in many gaps of church history that I just didn't understand. I loved it. After I finished, my father in law read it.

If I were to estimate, I would expect that about 10% of Utah mormons are even aware of it. I think the church prefers to keep it that way. I hope there is more openness for the church in the future too.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I thought it was only us non-UT, non-American Mormons who hadn't heard of RSR. Now I don't feel so bad. :) Actually, I do remember seeing it in a bookstore when it was new. Although I thought it would probably be interesting, I think I shrugged it off because I had a hard time believing that anyone would write such a long book that would be fair to Joseph Smith. At the time, I didn't realize the author was a practising Mormon. I think that many members fear any non-official books or materials about anything to do with the Church because they don't believe it can be objective. And even when it is, which I think Bushman managed to do beautifully, I don't think they want to know. They're afraid to "go there."

When I finally read RSR for myself, it was actually because of a non-member friend of mine in Norway who is fascinated by the Church and had bought the book on Amazon. I found it ironic that a non-member should take such great interest in it, so I decided I needed to read it for myself. I was surprised at just how little I knew about my own Church, my religion, and its history. I admit, after reading certain parts it's been a struggle to love my religion the same way I used to. It definitely feels different now. Perhaps a little spark is gone now that I'm not so "innocent" anymore (heck, a few years ago I thought Emma was Joseph's only wife!). But at the same time, I feel like I'm looking at my religion in colour now, whereas before it was black and white. I don't regret for a minute that I read RSR and hey, spiritual challenges are good for us, right? :) Bushman certainly gives us plenty to think about.

RSR changed me because now I want to read anything I can get my hands on. I don't feel "scared" anymore about discovering what kind of skeletons are in the Mormon closet. I'm ready to confront them and do my best to deal with them. Unfortunately, some Mormons want us to keep those skeletons buried and hidden in that closet. Personally, I can't stand "clutter." :)

Fifthgen said...

Sanford: I agree that there seems to be a real shift in how the Church is dealing with information about its history. I think Church leaders are smart, and probably recognize that they do not have much choice in this regard.

That said, I do not see RSR and MMM in quite the same vein. To me RSR seems like a scholarly work that could have been undertaken 20 or 30 years ago, had there been a Richard Bushman (i.e., someone with his interest and skills) around to do it. I see MMM much more as a reaction to the fact that information about Church history is increasingly available, without much control on access, and we (the Church) better join the debate if we want our voice and perspective heard.

You are much better informed than I about this stuff. What do you think about that?

Anonymous said...

I agree that the majority of the LDS faithful are not interested in reading books like RSR and MMM. The idea that an author who is not sactioned officially by the general authorities has or can write truth is too hard to for most to swollow. I have encountered that same mentality with many different subjects. I am a member who is now in UT but began my Mormon journey on the east coast. The real question is not 'will the church open up?' but 'why don't more of us want to know about the history?' This reminds me of what Elder David Ferrel(former Mid Atlantic states Area Authority) "The dumbing down of our LDS youth has become a problem that we may not be able to fix." This was said during his time as the President of Southern Virginia University. After many complaints regarding the 'heavy' work load and non LDS subject matter. He became concerned over the lack of academic expectation on the part of both the students and the parents entering into the college. I know this is far from Sunstone and the topic at hand however when you don't understand your own history or theology how can you claim that you are more righteous than others (ie other faiths)? Thanks for the info I will have something to mull over this week.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"When you don't understand your own history or theology how can you claim that you are more righteous than others (ie other faiths)?"

Excellent, excellent point, Marlo!

We had this long discussion on my blog a while back about prayer and towards the end we got talking about certain troubling aspects about Church history and the lack of desire of many members to learn about it, some going as far as to say that we shouldn't because it's dangerous. I told a story from my youth about conversations I had with a Baptist friend and how foolish I felt years later because I was so ignorant about certain aspects of my own religion, while he actually knew things that I didn't. I never want that to happen to me again.

The Faithful Dissident said...


Just wanted to share an excerpt from a seminar with Bushman called "Joseph Smith and his Critics." I'm sure most of us can probably identify with what he's talking about.

pb said...

"When you don't understand your own history or theology how can you claim that you are more righteous than others (ie other faiths)?"

Question: Why do you want to claim that you are more righteous than others?

The Faithful Dissident said...

I don't think that he means that we should be thinking that we're better or more righteous people than others. But when it comes to the Gospel, Mormons believe they have the "fullness" of it, led by living prophets, and therefore perhaps do feel that their religion is more "righteous" or "correct" than others. I struggle to believe and proclaim this myself, but it's how many Mormons think.

There was a recent study done in the US asking people whether they thought their religion was the only path back to salvation. The ones who answered an overwhelming "yes" were Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. Makes us sound pretty open and humble, eh? :)

But actually, I think that the question was a bit unfair to a Mormon because the answer is not a black and white yes or no. When the doctrine of baptism for the dead comes into the picture, it totally changes the story. Unfortunately, though, temple work can't be figured into such a cut and dry survey. A Mormon could easily answer yes or no and both can in a way be right.

pb said...

I don't doubt that many mormons do believe that their religion is more righteous or correct than others, and even that it is the only way to "salvation" or god, but I just wonder if many mormons have thought about why they have this belief and what it serves.

Also, understanding one's own theology is not sufficient to conclude that one's own theology is superior to others. One would have to, in addition, understand other theologies before a comparison could be made. And, in the case of eastern religions, which are not grounded in theology but rather in practice, one would have to practice the religion until one experienced a complete shift in consciousness before even being able to claim an understanding of the religion. Then a comparison could perhaps be made. But by that time it doesn't seem likely that the desire to do so would exist.

The Faithful Dissident said...

That's a good point, PB, but how is it humanly possible to study all the world's theologies and actually practise all religions in order to come to the conclusion of which one is right or better? I could say there are certain religions that I think are "better" than Mormonism (i.e. focus more on peace, equality, service), but I'm not sure that they're more "right" than Mormonism.

I suppose Mormons believe that Joseph Smith sort of did the searching for them so that they don't have to. He wondered which church was true, got a crystal clear answer, and re-organized the ONLY true church in the eyes of God. So why waste your time on other religions?

I'm not saying that's how I feel personally, it's just my impression after being a Mormon my whole life. I actually think there's huge merit in studying other religions, which unfortunately probably the vast majority of Mormons don't do. It's hard to really understand your own and what you stand for unless you study others. That's been my personal experience.

Anonymous said...

"Also, understanding one's own theology is not sufficient to conclude that one's own theology is superior to others. One would have to, in addition, understand other theologies before a comparison could be made." I agree.
The sympathetic understanding of other religions is a goal that people of all faiths and philosphies should strive for. As a person who did not grow up in the church and until recently lived in a very religously diverse place, I have found that trying to understand other faiths has helped me to explain my own. I did not intend to pick on Mormons. I find the same mentality in Catholics, Muslims,etc...
We have been taught that there is truth everywhere and we have but to look for it and pray about what we are studying.

pb said...

True, there's not enough time in one life for a person to study and truly understand all religions, and I don't think its necessary to do so in order to progress spiritually. But it would be necessary if the goal is to make a truly informed claim about superiority or rightness. The bigger issue to me is about WHY many religions feel so compelled to claim that they are superior or more right? marlo is right that this is by no means an exclusively mormon phenomenon. What if instead the view of adherents to any particular faith was that the faith resonates with them, given the context of their lives, and provides them with concrete means for spiritual progression? Does a religion need to do more? Does it in addition need to claim a monopoly on the truth to the exclusion of all others? And if so, then why?

The Faithful Dissident said...

I suppose maybe it has something to do with the belief that many people hold that there can only be one Truth, one God, one Path to Eternal Salvation. As much as I'd like to say that everyone who practises their religion with faith and sincerity will be received by God, I have a hard time believing this. That doesn't mean that I don't see any worth in their different religions. And the only reason why I can remain in the LDS Church is because the "Mormon God," if you want to call him that, is a fair and just God. While most other Christian faiths -- if not all of them -- consider souls to be lost if they hadn't found Christ in this life, we believe that everyone will get their fair shot. I just cannot believe that it could be any other way.

But I also have big problems with the "Mormon Monopoly." I don't get why some Mormons feel the need to rub it in people's faces that we believe we're the only true church. In the end, we're all on this earth together and while we can believe, we can't proove that our church is true. Some people never give up trying, but I think it's a waste of time. Missionary work, in the form of inviting and teaching, is fine with me. But when Mormons feel the need to cut down other religions in order to raise their own up a notch, it's so counter-productive. And since we believe they'll all be given their fair shot to hear the Gospel in its entirety and accept it ot reject it, what's the point of forcing it down their throrats now?

If anything, other religions have more reason to do so if they believe that this life is their one and only chance to save a soul.

pb said...

Do you believe that there have been and are enlightened beings who have brought the divine into their lives, here on earth? If so, is it your belief that all of these beings are mormon? Must mahatma gandhi convert to mormonism before he'll be accepted by god? If so, why would god have been present with him when he was here on earth?

The Faithful Dissident said...

"Do you believe that there have been and are enlightened beings who have brought the divine into their lives, here on earth?"

Yes, I believe that very strongly. The best example I can think of is Mother Teresa. I recently read a book containing her personal letters of correspondence over many years and I don't doubt that the manifestations she received were from God -- even though they were received in Catholic fashion. I admit I was skeptical, but we are told that "by their fruits shall ye know them" and who produced better "fruits" than Mother Teresa?
The same can be said about people like Gandhi and anyone who has done good things in their lives. All good and praiseworthy things come from God, right? However, the details are still perplexing to me. You can read my thoughts on the matter here.

"Must mahatma gandhi convert to mormonism before he'll be accepted by god? If so, why would god have been present with him when he was here on earth?"

I absolutely believe that someone like Gandhi or Mother Teresa will be accepted by God, even though they weren't Mormons. Both of them lived a much more upright life than pretty much any Mormon. In that respect, I believe they are way ahead of us on the road to eternal salvation. As a Mormon, I uphold the belief that there is one God and one correct Gospel. I also uphold the belief that God requires certain ordinances for eternal salvation, namely baptism and the temple endowment. Many of us Mormons have easily accomplished that, but are way behind Gandhi and Mother Teresa on the road to perfection. What the next life will be like, we can only speculate on. My personal belief is that someone like Mother Teresa was so righteous, so Christlike, that really the only thing she's missing is the ordinances, which can be done by proxy on her behalf. So just because I'm a Mormon and have done these ordinances for myself doesn't mean that it's a free ticket to eternal salvation. That's only the easy part. The hard part is living it and many, Mormons and non-Mormons, have succeeded at that much better than me.

To answer the second half of your last question, I personally do believe that God is with these people, even if they aren't practising Mormonism. I'm not sure every Mormon would agree with me, but I would hope that most agree that we don't monopolize God's influence and inspirtion on human beings.

That being said, it's still a mystery to me as to why God doesn't simply tell all to go and find the Mormons and convert to Mormonism. Someone like Mother Teresa certainly had a close relationship with God and she would have done anything He asked of her. So why didn't he tell her to become a Mormon?

I have no idea, which is why I did that blog post about it.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Sorry, that link didn't work. Here is the post I was talking about.

pb said...

fd: I read your blog on Mother Theresa. Very very interesting questions. I'll try to respond there when I get some time.

Allie said...

A stalwart (what is that supposed to mean anyway?) in my home ward growing up did not like the book. He works for CES, and I guess there was some statement made by CES discrediting RSR. I'll have to see if I can get my dad over here to fill in more info.

Nice blog, by the way.

In case you missed my reply to your comment on my blog, you can email me at aroberts at xmission dot com with your address and we'll bring a sign by. My Mister says he thinks he might have spoken to your wife the other day when he was out walking?

George and WP said...

Just discovered your blog Sanford and enjoyed reading your post. Glad to know there are others who enjoy parallel readings and Benchmark Books. My life is enriched incredibly by visiting that place and keeping supplied with author signed first editions and such.

I have a very personal interest in RSR and other books because likely my four generations back grandmother gave birth to a daughter fathered by Joseph. At least that was her death bed testimony. Of all the claimants to his genes our family is the only one not to have been eliminated to date by Sorrenson Research in their DNA testing. It does not matter to me if I am other than a historical interest. I love and respect both the Prophet and my Grandfather Windsor Palmer Lyon. He was dealt cruelly with by the Nauvoo Stake President at the time and was excommunicated.

George and WP said...

About 'tipping points' Sanford. You should know that someone or a committee inside the Church Education System (CES), prepared a response to RSR pointing out from their perspective a number of inaccuracies and misinterpretations by Brother Bushman. I was told the document was about 45 pages long. I asked my source for a copy and he said it was for internal CES use only. My relationship with this source is a sound one as I was his bishop and he was mine some years back when I was a young Elder's Quorum President.

Maybe the tipping point is illusory. I certainly hope not. The forthcoming complete works and diaries of Joseph Smith suggests President Hinkley's mantle has fallen upon President Monson.