Wherever people talk about Mormonism, you always hear about the fundamentalist Mormons: the polygamists. On the LDS-interest Internet there’s tons of discussion of modern-day polygamy usually in a hand-wringing what should be done about them kind of way. Naturally, I was glad when I finally got the opportunity to meet some real-life fundamentalist Mormons, and listen to their perspective.
I was at the Sunstone Symposium, and merely attending the panel by/about the polygamist community was already interesting. Then blogger Bored in Vernal told me she was thinking of attending the Sunday services of the Apostolic United Brethren. Personally considering that I haven’t been to church since I graduated from BYU seventeen years ago it would never have occurred to me to request an invitation to any kind of church services, let alone a polygamist church service. However, when a friend of mine is planning such and adventure and is fishing around for a companion, I am so. totally. there.
Meanwhile, the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) invited all of the participants in the Sunstone Symposium to their Sunday services. Since my brother was practically part of the C of C delegation, I was personally invited. And by a stroke of good fortune, the C of C services were scheduled for Sunday morning, and the AUB services for the afternoon so I could attend both!
Me, my brother John, and BiV at Sunstone
The homogeneity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well-known. You can walk into any LDS church in the world and expect to get practically the same church service you’d get in any other. Right down to the floor plan and dcor of the building. At the same time, the CoJCoL-dS (by far the largest branch of Mormonism) encourages its members to think of it as the only real branch of Mormonism. So while it was strange for me to see the traditions of my childhood again after so many years the memory/nostalgia factor wasn’t the most striking part of the experience. The striking part was to see these childhood traditions interpreted differently. Both services had a familiar-yet-strange quality, like visiting a couple of parallel universes that I’d never even imagined could exist.
In some ways the three traditions fit into a kind of spectrum with the C of C on the far liberal/cosmopolitan end, the AUB on the super conservative/rustic end, and the CoJCoL-dS is somewhere in-between. But the branch points separating the three traditions happened about a century ago, and all three have evolved in all different directions.
The AUB church was a large building that kind of reminded me of a CoJCoL-dS Stake Center. It had a gymnasium (a.k.a. Cultural Hall) with a stage at one end, like every church I attended growing up. However, instead of holding services in a separate chapel, the sacrament meeting was held right there in the gymnasium. This was probably because they’d be hard pressed to build a chapel big enough to fit all those people. There were about a thousand people in attendance, sitting in the folding chairs that filled the gymnasium as well as in a balcony that ran along the right-hand side wall.
BiV and I were lucky that the lady who invited us had saved us seats and was watching out for us when we arrived, otherwise we would have gotten lost in the crowd. (We’d meant to arrive early, but failed because the building is off the beaten path, and a little tricky to find. I was quite hesitant to ask for directions, but BiV had no trouble pulling over and asking passer-bys if they knew how to get to the AUB church. The first one she asked a clean-cut LDS-looking guy gravely shook his head and responded No, no I don’t. The second group was a couple of girls on horseback who cheerfully replied Sure, it’s right over that way!)
The dcor of the AUB meeting was pretty spartan. The podium was set up on the stage, and the priesthood council a bunch of old guys in suits sat in a semi-circle behind it, with nothing more than the black stage curtains behind them as a backdrop. The only adornments were a floral arrangement in front of the podium, a picture of Jesus on the wall to the right of the stage, and an American flag on the wall to the left.
The C of C, by contrast, had a beautiful, tiny chapel. Regarding the size, keep in mind that the C of C is the branch of Mormonism that didn’t make the trek west to Utah, so their chapel in Salt Lake City was a bit of an outpost in enemy territory, whereas the AUB church I attended was very likely their flagship congregation. The C of C chapel had a beautiful, abstract stained-glass window behind the podium as well as a tile mosaic in the same design.
The sacrament provided one of the most interesting illustrations of how a single tradition can be expressed in different ways. In both services, the priests at the head of the congregation blessed and passed the bread and then blessed and passed the water/wine, reciting the same Mormon sacrament prayers that I remember from my youth. The C of C used wine (or grape juice) because their tradition had split off before the change to water. They served it in individual cups (like the CoJCoL-dS), but they served it on elegant steel (or silver?) sacrament trays. The AUB served the sacrament water in communal cups, and continued passing the bread and water around until the last of it was consumed.
Drinking the sacrament water down to the last drops in the communal cup is one of the details of AUB practice that Troy Bowles told me about, years ago. Ultimately, I didn’t regret that I was ineligible to take the AUB sacrament. Of course I didn’t take the C of C sacrament either, despite the fact that they allow visitors to take it. The thing is that the sacrament is about communing with God by symbolically eating Him, and as much as I like the C of C folks I just can’t get behind that.
The most striking difference, however, was the gender roles. At the C of C, one of the two priests that blessed the sacrament was a woman. It hit me that even though I heard those two prayers so many times I practically had them memorized it was the first time in my life I’d heard one recited by a woman. At the AUB, the women weren’t even allowed to pass the sacrament along to the next person in the row. The rows of chairs were set up so that the priesthood holders could reach each person in the row and hand them the sacrament individually.
The AUB goes one step further than the CoJCoL-dS in terms of having random people from the congregation speak. At the CoJCoL-dS, at least you’re called in advance of the meeting so that you can prepare something. At the AUB, they called on people from the congregation in real time (including the guy who finds out that day that he’s to be presiding over the meetings, announcing the speakers, etc.). So we heard a lot of people start with a few nervous remarks about how they weren’t expecting to get called on, and as you might expect some were better than others at extemporaneous speaking.
It appeared that the musical number, at least, was prepared. A man sang a song that I could swear I’ve heard performed by mainstream LDS a song about an immigrant pioneer, crossing the plains and praying that his shoes will hold out for another mile, ending with girls in pioneer dresses singing Come, Come Ye Saints in the background. BiV was visibly moved.
Personally, I found the song touching, but even under normal circumstances I’m far from being in tune with the spirit, and there I was doubly at a disadvantage because I was neurotically obsessing over the building’s obvious lack of appropriate fire exits. There was one little door leading out of the front right-hand side of the gymnasium (which the moms used to take unruly toddlers out to the foyer, just like they do in the CoJCoL-dS), and there were a couple more doors along the right-hand wall, but that was it. The left-hand side of the gym had nothing but barred windows. So, all meeting long I was basically going Wow, this meeting is fascinating. But if this building catches fire, we’re all going to die. That’s interesting how they do things here. Boy, do I hope this building doesn’t catch fire! Etc.
One thing I noticed (in spite of my worry over the fire exit thing) was that only one person closed her remarks with In the name of Jesus Christ, amen. That must be just a CoJCoL-dS thing that everyone always ends their remarks with In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
The C of C service was far more professional, hence (perversely) less memorable. The part I found really memorable was the C of C Sunday School session I attended just before their sacrament meeting. Unlike the CoJCoL-dS, the C of C folks actually learned and discussed new things! The were discussing their latest scripture D & C 163, which is a text that shows a kind of courageous moral leadership that, frankly, I’m surprised to see coming from any kind of church.
One of the first things I noticed at the AUB service (after noticing how amazingly crowded it was, given the lack of fire exits), was that many of the people were dressed as pioneers. Some of the ladies wore pioneer dresses and bonnets, and some of the men wore suspenders and bandanas. Isn’t that fascinating that they’ve retained these sorts of old-fashioned customs, like the Amish, I (naively) thought to myself.
Gradually, I realized that they were just dressed up in costume because it was the first Sunday after their church-wide youth pioneer activity. From what they said, about 700 people (including youth and adult supervisors) from Utah, Arizona, Montana, and Mexico had done a Mormon handcart re-enactment trek going out of Martin’s Cove (which I think is an operation run by the CoJCoL-dS, interestingly enough).
Some of the speakers talked about how the activity made them that much more grateful to their pioneer ancestors who had bravely crossed the wilderness so that they could be there in Utah. It struck me that the ancestors they were talking about were my ancestors as well. So as much as I felt like an outsider visiting a strange, alien world I wasn’t entirely an outsider. That said, I’m not significantly more grateful to my Mormon pioneer ancestors than I am to any of my other ancestors that did amazing things to survive and reproduce so that I would exist today.
The Spirit of God
The funniest coincidence was that in both services they had the congregation stand and sing the hymn The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning:
The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
The angels are coming to visit the earth.
We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven:
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given,
Henceforth and forever: amen and amen!
Now there’s a Restoration (Mormon/LDS) hymn if there ever was one!
I stood up and sang the four main verses with both congregations, morning and afternoon. I hadn’t sung (or even heard) the song for seventeen years, but I only needed a couple of beginning-of-line promptings to remember it.
Being an atheist, I obviously don’t agree with the lyrics. But I felt very connected with my LDS heritage that day, and I still retain some emotional attachment to the song’s underlying sentiment: the importance of the Restoration. So I was willing to stand beside my various distant cousins and sing about it with them.
The C of C being a pacifist church had changed armies to angels in the chorus, so I sang it their way at their church. It’s a bit of an improvement, I think. I’m not a fan of angels, but I guess it’s a little better than armies.
At the AUB, they had the exact same hymn books I remember from my childhood before the new ones we got in the 80’s. I checked the copyright date on the hymn book I was reading: 1972. I was born in 1971. These were clearly old, used hymn books from the CoJCoL-dS (that were kind of falling apart), so for all I know they may have had a copy in that room that I’d handled in my childhood.
As soon as the AUB service ended, the lady who was sitting next to me turned to me and introduced herself. It turned out that she and the lady in the row in front of us were in the same family as the lady who’d gone to Sunstone and had invited us. I remember asking them So you’re all sister-wives, married to the same man? (one of the members of the priesthood council, on the stage). As they smilingly agreed, I had this vague impression of being the police officer in the movie Fargo, you know, when she’s asking those two girls for details about the guys she was tracking down (if you don’t know what scene I’m talking about, don’t worry about it).
I explained to her that I was visiting the AUB church because I wanted to learn more about my Mormon heritage. Then I told her that, in fact, my great-great-great-great aunt was one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. I figure I was either motivated by a pathological desire to fit in under any circumstances or I’m secretly proud of my strange Mormon-history claim-to-fame and figured that if anyone would be impressed by it, it would be the polygamists.
The lady just looked at me quizzically, though, as if she wasn’t sure why I was telling her this. So I laughed and said, Of course, that’s just a silly little thing, to which she replied, No, no it’s great, it’s wonderful.
Then the lady went on to explain that she was, herself, a convert. She’d been raised a protestant Christian (I think Baptist), and had been converted after meeting with the missionaries.
This intrigued me. So, the AUB has their own missionaries? I asked.
No, she explained. She’d been converted by the regular Mormon missionaries the familiar pairs of clean-cut guys on bikes. Once converted to Mormonism, she did some reading and concluded that polygamy was an essential doctrine, and from there ended up in the AUB. Then (I think) one of the other ladies said that she was a convert as well.
Now, I have to make it clear that for all my getting in touch with my Mormon heritage, I really don’t agree with the Mormon fundamentalists, and I don’t find their beliefs to be reasonable or beneficial. As a feminist, I don’t think that the polygamist lifestyle is empowering for women or that it is even remotely a good idea. However, I have to conclude that at least some of the women in polygamy are consenting adults who are there by choice. Inasmuch as there is abuse within the polygamist community (coerced/underage marriages, etc.), it is easier to separate abusive situations from consensual situations if you don’t categorically declare them all outlaws. Having a legal paper trail to document their marriages would help those women who want to get out of polygamy to have legal recourse, and those women who don’t want to get out of polygamy would be better off if they felt like they could call on civil authorities (for whatever reason) without the worry that their family would be a priori broken up and punished. So I support some sort of decriminalization and legal recognition of the polygamous unions. I feel that women who have range of options would be unlikely to choose such a lifestyle, however part of seeing women as full-fledged adults is recognizing that they are competent to sign their own contracts, even if others disapprove of their choices.
The polygamist ladies then invited me and BiV to have dinner with their family. I wish I could have gone because I think it would have been interesting to get to know them better in a more casual setting. Unfortunately, I’d already made plans to have dinner with my sister it was my last night in Utah, and my only opportunity of the trip to see her and meet her new boyfriend (now fiance).
As for fellowshipping with the C of C, we’d been hanging out with them all week at Sunstone. Apostle Andrew Bolton in particular had impressed me with his lecture on the history of the Community of Christ as a peace church. My friend Robert Raleigh (editor of In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions) attended the C of C Sunday morning service (and luncheon) with me and my brother, and he also found it to be quite a trip.
So, which one is the true church?
Driving back from the AUB service, BiV and I talked about these three branches of Mormonism, and their competing claims to be the true heirs of the Restoration. The CoJCoL-dS has the argument of numbers. As few as they are, the other branches are a lot smaller, and it seems unlikely that an omnipotent God (assuming you believe in one, which I don’t) would choose a tiny handful of people to have the truth, especially if you believe in prophecies about filling the Earth and bringing everyone the gospel.
On the other hand, you can make a pretty strong argument that the CoJCoL-dS is in a state of apostasy (by its own definition of what it means for the church to be in a state of apostasy). The AUB has preserved the principle of celestial polygamy which the Mormon prophets Brigham Young and John Taylor claimed was an eternal principle that would not be taken from the Earth. But the fundamentalists’ belief that we’re currently in a time of confusion doesn’t quite seem to jibe with Joseph Smith’s exuberant, millennialist prophecies, either. The spirit of the Restoration was that the heavens have been opened, and the saints no longer need to rely solely on ancient books but rather will continuously receive direct guidance that is relevant to the current day. The branch that best embodies that tradition is the C of C.
I’m not tempted to go back to belief in God and religion. But I was glad to have the opportunity to enlarge my view of my family traditions.