In keeping with Tim’s Me & the Mormons series, I thought I would chronicle some of my encounters with Evangelicals and other Gentiles over the years. But before getting into that, I wanted to give some background for the Mormons out there. (None of them will know where I am coming from if they don’t know something about my background.) Mormonism is a religion of family activity and each family practices their own brand, especially the older Mormon families. To get where another Mormon was coming from, I had to know something about how active they were, and how deep they were in the culture. So for the benefit of Mormon readers, and those interested in Mormonism, these are the people that made me the Mormon I was.
I grew up in what I would call an old-school Mormon family with an intellectual bent. I was raised in the mission field, in Kansas. My mom was a fifth-generation Mormon, my Dad was a first. They met when my dad was 12 and my mom was 10. My mom’s family contains a healthy mix of every wave of Mormon plains-crossing immigrants since the church began. My only relatives on my mom’s side that weren’t newly converted immigrants from Europe, were the ones that were baptized in Nauvoo in the 1840s. (before Joseph Smith’s murder triggered the migration to Utah and the western territories).
Many relatives on her side were amazingly devoted to the church. I recognize that this may only have been how they were portrayed in the dozens of accounts of their lives in my mom’s book of remembrance, but most of them had the hard evidence to prove it. My great-grandfather– one of the 26 children in a polygamist family– was a respected professor at Utah State University, a World War I vet. He was a missionary in New York in the 1950s. He married his wife’s sister when she died. For nearly 10 years straight, until his death at 85, he did over 80 endowment sessions a month in the Salt Lake Temple–he spent 50 hours a week watching the temple ceremony.
My mom’s dad was the bishop of the ward in Helena Montana. He was psychiatric social worker, nominally pro-choice since the 1950s. He was a professor’s kid. He was a founding subscriber to Dialogue magazine and Sunstone. He supervised the construction of the LDS chapel in Helena in the 1960s. My dad said that he had a reputation for being tough on the young men as a bishop but was a well-loved empathetic leader. After he moved from Helena, he worked for LDS social services in Salt Lake for over 30 years. He was an intellectual Mormon, and my probably my dad’s greatest spiritual influence. My dad was a political conservative, but with the same questioning intellectual attitude. They would spend hours during our vacations to Utah talking about conference talks, news, doctrinal issues and church-wide policy.
My grandmother was a no-nonsense woman who grew up in a small Uinta town in a house without running water. She was an Allred, part of a sprawling family of offspring of some of the original polygamists. Her parents were not really active in the Church, but Mormon to the core. She was an avid reader and independent thinker– a tough, pioneer-style Mormon who once cooked 30 turkeys nearly by herself with homemade outdoor ovens for a church youth conference. She was, like many Mormons, extremely family oriented. Under her impetus, her daughter has published a family newsletter every month for the last 35 years documenting the lives of all of her dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All of her children are active members, they all married later-generation Mormons in the temple. Among her 22 grandchildren, only small minority are inactive members.
About ten years ago, during an idle conversation, I asked my dad what was the most amazing thing he had ever heard. He thought for a bit and said it was this story about God visiting a boy that he heard as a kid. He was converted to Mormonism by the two tracting missionaries that knocked on his door when he was 9 years old. (My dad later found out that his grandmother had actually been a member of the church. She grew up in a sod house on a homestead near an Indian reservation in eastern Montana.) My dad eventually converted his entire family to the church. In one way or another, the church gave him nearly everything he has, physically, spiritually, or otherwise– and he has a lot more than most men.
At 14, he moved out of his house to be a live-in hand at the former bishop’s ranch. At 15, he had to take over its operation when the bishop had a stroke. It could probably said in eastern circles that his heroes have always been either cowboys or religious figures. His mentor and employer talked him out of joining the marines with his buddy during Vietnam. Instead, he served a mission in Bolivia–he was living in a nearby town when Che Guevara was assassinated there in 1967. He was married shortly after returning. He says he married my mom because she cleaned the 40 fish he left in her sink after a college fishing trip, but it’s likely that he has loved her since their first date at the ward boy-scout dance when mom was 12. He worked his way through the first years at BYU as a smokejumper for the forest service, but eventually joined the Army to be a clinical psychologist.
He was called to the bishopbric shortly after we moved to Manhattan, Kansas after his residency at Walter Reed in 1976 and his assignment to Fort Riley. He was called to be the bishop two years later– when I was nine. The first bishop I knew in Kansas- the man my dad replaced, was a spiritual giant, and later became the patriarch of our stake. He was told by an apostle that he would be the patriarch when he was 25 years old, the premonition was fulfilled 40 years later. He served a two year mission after he was married with a child. He was a devoted scout leader, his wife was saintly.
Our ward in Manhattan grew quickly from a branch in the early 1970s. It split into two wards in the late 70s, my dad was the first bishop in one of the newly-split wards. He was a natural bishop– faithful, intelligent, understanding, and kind. He was called to be the stake president when the stake in Salina was formed in the late 80s. Apostle Dallin Oakes ordained him, and stayed at our house when he flew out to make the calling.
He was stake president for a decade. The stake covered half the state. He drove hundreds of hours a year to meetings in other towns each Sunday. I drove with him quite often. We’d make a six hour drive, I’d watch him speak and hang out at the church for six hours during his other meetings, and we’d drive back. He worked a lot of hours in his psychology practice and these trips were often the only time I got to see him on Sundays.
After about five or six years of teaching seminary, he was set-apart as a mission president by Apostle Robert Hales and sent to Guatemala for three years– with my mom in tow. They managed and took care of 180 missionaries and 13 branches of the Church scattered across the northern half of the country. It was the time of their lives–building the kingdom, criss-crossing the jungles and mountains as eternal companions. Their missionaries loved them. At a mission reunion a couple of years ago, I saw hundreds of former missionaries stand around them for hours trying to get a few minutes to talk with them about their budding adult lives.
My mom’s faith has been unwavering since birth. She was a brilliant student, the valedictorian of her high school class and has a degree in English literature from BYU. Her life’s desire was to raise a large, strong, family that knew and lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And she did– she had seven children of her own–six boys and one girl (I am the second oldest)–born in the covenant. All the boys were all eagle scouts. All seven of the boys served missions–four were married in the temple, including me. She has served in nearly every capacity that a woman can in the ward or the stake. She was a seminary teacher for years, in relief society presidencies and primary presidencies, and young womens’ presidencies on a stake and ward level. After her kids were grown, she worked for the church as a secretary for the LDS institute director at KSU.
We weren’t fanatics, we were just dyed-in-the-wool. Mormonism was the water we swam in at home. My parents didn’t do any preaching at home. (I don’t either one of them even knew how to preach at all, really.) Their religion was–and is–calm, love-centered, personal, and intelligently measured. The truth of the Gospel was never a question, it was the fabric of their existence.
Our bookshelves at home were filled with books on Mormon subjects– mixed in with plenty of literature, psychology, and history. We were all good students and intellectually independent. We learned as much about Mormonism reading at home as we did in church. We would have frequent debates and discussions about Mormon doctrine, church history, politics. We talked about that sort of thing like many secular families talk about sports–as a pastime as well as a devotion.
I learned what the priesthood was by watching my Dad. When he acted in the Church, I could tell a pretty dramatic difference in him. When he was not performing a calling, he was an extremely down-to-earth guy, on some level he never stopped being a Montana ranch kid. He didn’t take himself very seriously–he always introduced himself by his first name, never with a Church title. when he was speaking in Church, or performing church work, there was always some magic there. His voice and countenance would change. He gave detailed and complex readings of scripture, and applied them in interesting ways. At home, he was self-effacing, he wanted us to do what what right on our own, not just follow his lead.
In my mind, my mom and dad were the embodiment of righteous judges in Isreal. They were devoted to Jesus and what he taught, at the deepest levels, people could feel it when they met him. Their marriage seemed to be made of eternity. They had no insecurities about the faith that made it happen. They allowed free and animated debate of almost any issue. They were extremely tolerant of outside ideas, culture, and politics. They were scrupulously fair and honest. At home, with us, they seemed entirely authentic, and demanded no respect that they did not earn. They expected that we do the right thing because we thought it was right– and if we disagreed, they were willing to listen to our arguments. The didn’t see visions or speak in tongues, but would routinely invoke the Holy Spirit through genuine caring, love, and unconditional acceptance.
So I left childhood as strong a believer in Mormonism as the true Gospel of Jesus Christ as you could meet. Other religious traditions seemed obviously corrupt, not because they were not well-meaning or loved by God–but because they were just products of the vagaries of politics, not divine restoration. And God did seem “dead” to most other nominal Christians I met. I hardly ever met anybody whose religion came close to what religion was in my life. I was happy to put Mormonism head-to-head against anything.