Johnny Townsend’s Mormons in life and imagination!

Have you ever wondered what spirit prison would be like?

Mormons believe that when people die, their spirits go to either “spirit paradise” or “spirit prison” to await Judgment Day. They also believe that missionaries from spirit prison can teach the gospel to spirits in spirit prison (who can be baptized for dead — perhaps allowing them access to the nicer accommodations in spirit paradise). But this doctrine opens up more questions than answers. For example “Why wouldn’t someone accept the Gospel once they’re dead and can see that it is true?” or “What’s the point of the ‘Earthly test’ if you can change your answer after death?”

These questions have plenty of answers, to be sure, but they can’t have any definitive answers, because the Prophets, Seers, and Revelators (who are authorized to pronounce on Mormon Theology) don’t “emphasize” (i.e. ever talk in public about) such doctrines. At least not since that embarrassing “Quakers on the moon” prophetic speculation a century or so ago.

Yet Mormon lore is loaded with amusing scenarios that could fire the imagination! What about those other planets full of people who supposedly share the same Heavenly Father with our planet? Or what about “the Three Nephites”? Do they get lonely when their families grow old and die? Considering all of the potential, I often wonder why Mormon lit doesn’t have more speculative/fantasy fiction. Perhaps taking the doctrine too seriously is an impediment to letting your imagination run wild — it causes the critics to worry too hard about whether you got it “right”. And the trouble with that is that you’re never going to get it “right”. Even the play Saturday’s Warrior — as saccharine and faith-promoting and fun to perform as it was — drew complaints from the CoJCoL-dS leaders for promoting a wrong, wrong, wrong picture of what the “pre-existence” is like. Not that they’re much help in describing the “right” picture or anything, but — whatever your Mormon-lore speculation may be — you’ll have no difficulty finding Mormons who will explain to you that it’s wrong.

That’s one of the reasons why I found Johnny Townsend’s new book Mormon Fairy Tales so much fun!! Without fretting about what the theology is supposed to be if it were pinned down, Townsend takes you on a voyage to explore the rich-but-undertapped imagination of Mormonism. I loved his portrait of spirit prison! He really nailed it — not in an official doctrine sort of way, but in a sort of “if you know Mormonism, you know this is what it must be like” way — and what a prison it is!

But flights of fairy-tale fantasy aren’t the only strength of Townsend’s work. He also captures the feelings and personalities of a variety of people on the fringes, fitting their lives into Mormonism and Mormonism into their lives.

Johnny Townsend has written at least ten books of Mormon stories. So far, I’ve read only two (Mormon Fairy Tales and The Circumcision of God), but I’m planning to read the rest — and you should too, if you’d like a fun and interesting new perspective on Mormons in life and imagination!


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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13 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    Chanson, what exactly is there in the “spirit world” that would automatically make it obvious to everyone that the LDS “Restored Gospel” is true?

  2. chanson says:

    Seth — Glad you asked! See, I always pictured it a little like that South Park movie where the spirits are asking “Hey, I was a faithful XYZ — why aren’t I in heaven?” and the MC explains, “No, the correct answer was Mormon.” 😉

    Or — like in Townsend’s story — it seems it would be obvious which answer was right (based on how things work in the afterlife and who’s running the spirit prison). But it’s true there’s no official, doctrinal word on whether it will/would be obvious or not.

  3. Seth R. says:

    Imagine this scenario though:

    You’re an atheist, and you die. And wake up (or whatever) as a spirit. Think the movie Ghost or something if you like. So here you are, and you’re a spirit.

    So that pretty much kills the assumption you had that “when you die, nothing happens.” So you’re rethinking that.

    But really, what else has been proven at this point? Here you are. But where is God? And even if there is some powerful being out there, why should you do anything about him, or care?

    Yeah, there’s some Mormon guys over there – thinking they’re totally right – as usual.

    But what does that prove? All you really know is that you are now a spirit.

    The end.

  4. chanson says:

    Right, but that’s essentially my point: that’s one possible scenario among many possible scenarios, and official Mormon sources won’t tell you whether your proposed scenario is more accurate than Townsend’s (or whether they’re both totally wrong, etc.). Maybe you should write an amusing story set in your version of spirit prison! 😀

  5. Chino Blanco says:

    Edit: Not sure why, but late last night, this subject reminded me of this annoying ditty.

  6. Seth R., I tend to agree with you. I don’t think the facts of premortality or postmortality in of themselves necessarily prove there’s a God. It just proves that humans exist in a “spiritual” state before and after earth life, which could theoretically happen without a God just as readily as earth life itself could happen without a God.

  7. Parker says:

    Am I reading this right: “premortality and postmortality prove that humans exist in a ‘spiritual state’ before and after earth life.” Is that a serious comment, or another illustration of how stories are invented to account for things we neither see, know or experience, but hope for, or at least some do?

  8. Daniel says:

    Someone once told Brian Evenson that he should write a story about the Three Nephites, but make it, like, really dark.

    Evenson said, “Ugh,” and passed on the idea.


  9. chanson says:

    Parker — I think their point is that — if you die and then suddenly wake up as a ghost — then you’d probably conclude that the atheists are wrong (and that the people who believe in re-incarnation are probably wrong), but you wouldn’t necessarily conclude that it’s the Mormons who are right. Unless some Mormon spirit cops come by and lock you away in “spirit prison”. 😉

  10. Parker says:

    Chanson, I think I understand now. It is modeled here on earth, this probationary state that has probation within probation, or degrees of probationary glory, so to speak. It is like Brandon Davies at BYU, who is in one Kingdom, and his former teammates are in another. They can visit with him in his kingdom, but he can’t play with them in theirs. And he gets to spend the time lamenting the fact that he didn’t endure to the end, and that constitutes Mormon spirit prison hell.

  11. Chino Blanco says:

    This post is a nice fit with the latest “…and I’m an exmo” video that I’ve just embedded in our sidebar along with the question: How exactly do the Mormon gods plan to prevent me from hanging out with my family in the afterlife? Celestial restraining order?

  12. Seth R. says:

    My general sense of the Mormon afterlife is that it’s largely self-inflicted.

  1. September 3, 2011

    […] include absolute morality, perfection, sin and punishment, the pre-existence and reward/punishment, spirit prison, the Plan of Salvation, capitalization, folklore, divine mysteries, values, favorite guns, where […]

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