Why Church Matters Part 2: It Binds Us To Our Past

In my first year of marriage, my wife five months pregnant with our first baby, we took a trip to California, camping inside Yosemite National Park. I love national parks for a lot of reasons, but for one I enjoy the nightly park ranger presentations. I still remember this one in particular. The ranger described how the Native Americans indigenous to the park still return every year to celebrate, remember and perhaps preserve their history, heritage and connection to the park. My memory is vague and the story is complicated but the idea of remembering and preserving stuck with me.

As an American with European ancestry, what does this mean for me, it’s complicated. Our continent’s history was born out of a kind of violence. We wiped out its previous history and re-imagined a new one. Those of us whose ancestry goes back to near the country’s founding, hardly connect with a past that goes back into Europe at all. We are Americans, never-mind the original inhabitants with a far longer claim to this continent than mine.  And it’s a country whose history and identity continues to evolve as we grow more globally integrated, welcoming, in succession and through nature’s accidents and global tragedies, Irish refugees from the potato famine, Chinese immigrants to meet labor demands and as a consequence of war and political strife, from Vietnam as a consequence of the war and its after-affects, and so on.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses this complexity in her novel Pigs in Heaven about a mother who is given a young Cherokee baby that she adopts even though it is illegal to do so.  The novel describes her struggle to preserve her connection to her child as the Cherokee nation tries to reclaim the child they feel was taken from them. It’s story that describes the tension between an America that tries to reinvent and a culture desperately trying to preserve.

The story of heritage is all over literature and art. As a freshman in college taking freshman English, we read a short story about African American heritage and then given the assignment to write a personal essay on it. In my essay I compared my genealogy of slave owners to the narrator’s genealogy of slaves. Ironically, I didn’t believe I actually had a slave owner heritage at the time, I just thought it would make a more provocative interesting essay to discuss it, but I do have direct ancestors from Alabama that owned slaves.

But how is this relevant to religion?  I talked about this before, but I believe personal and family history is important.

I grew up in Yuma, mostly isolated from the rest of my family, hardly venturing out of it, raised by parents who had little means or desire to connect with the broader world. This was all pre-internet, so I was both physically and virtually isolated and as a result I’ve always struggled connecting with my personal history. But my parents were also deeply, viscerally Mormon. Mormon DNA ran in their blood. My parents were 100% home and visiting teachers, never missed a Sunday meeting, arriving, in fact, 30 minutes early, sitting in the same seat every week. They knew their family history pretty well, at least superficially and especially as it was connected to Mormonism. My mom’s great grandfather, Daniel Stark, his wife and children,  endured the longest religious sea voyage in history, heading around South America in a ship rather than walking across the plains.

Or my father’s great-great-grandfather, Theodore Turley an early convert of Parley Pratt whose first wife,  Frances Amelia Kimberly,  buried in Winters Quarters, Nebraska with other Mormons in that early part of church’s history.

My parents were deeply Mormon because of this heritage and this deep connection to the church was passed down to me. Just as I’m deeply American I’m also deeply Mormon. It’s my heritage, those roots from my past are deeply embedded within me. Their sacrifices and commitments have enriched and blessed my life today.

In his book, The Mormon People: Making of an American Faith, Matthew Bowman put it this way:

The story of Mormonism is not merely the story of these believers and their ancestors, but the story of America itself. Mormonism has been called the most American of all religions, and this is true in a deeply paradoxical way. While Mormonism’s struggles with the nation throw into sharp relief what Americans believe about themselves, its aspirations and ideals no less reflect the dreams of the republic itself.

Bowman, Matthew (2012-01-24). The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Kindle Locations 71-74). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is true in the way it was founded, that an obscure, uneducated farm boy in a country where possibilities were endless. Anyone with a good idea and a willingness to work, had the potential to succeed, no matter their circumstances. Within this context, Joseph Smith, a young man, inspired and chosen, brought forth new scripture, declared America the land of promise, its indigenous population chosen, and connecting them and all of us back to Jerusalem and Christ.

But Mormonism has always been more than Joseph Smith. Again Bowman:

“His triumph sprang in part from the force and creativity of his religious imagination, his unswerving faith in his own capacities as a conduit for divine revelation, and his will to see his dreams made reality. But it grew also from the vision and dedication of those who chose to follow him: those who accepted and interpreted his ideas, who built in wood and stone the cities he saw in vision, and who, most of all, embodied in a holy community the divine experiences he craved.

But Mormonism was as much the construction of Joseph Smith’s followers as of Smith himself. It was a sacramental community bound together through ritual, priesthood, and ordinance, and his people became the society of which Joseph had dreamed: a firm rock in an unreliable world, a faithful community that itself became, in a way, the salvation its followers sought.”

Bowman, Matthew (2012-01-24). The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Kindle Locations 270-273). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Mormonism is more than a 14 year old boy’s vision in a grove of trees. It’s more than the Book of Mormon. Mormonism has always been about the hundreds, then thousands and now millions of people worldwide who have felt compelled to join it and felt inspired to build it and then because and through this commitment and sacrifice pass it down to the next generation.

And it’s why Mormonism today means something different than Mormonism meant when it was founded in 1830. And it will mean something different tomorrow than what it’s meant today. It’s different but it’s the same. We are linked through these generations to a common purpose, theology and doctrine, but one that continues to evolve and change.

Adam Miller gets to the heart of this here:

In the second case, the past can teach us tangentially about the molten moment that is the present—the original moment that is ceaselessly irrupting at our feet—but the point of origin is not something that happened back then, it’s something that’s still happening here and now. The origin that irrupted in the past and made it matter is the same origin that is irrupting now.

If this second case holds, then the past matters but it’s not decisive. The past matters, if it matters, because it registers some connection to the point of origin.

But that origin isn’t fixed in the past, it floats along with us in the present. And our fate is not determined by the past but by the present.

I know people who have left the church because of problematic Mormon history. We have had our share of sins, problems and difficulties, from Mountain Meadows Massacrepolygamy, race, our treatment of LGBTQ, etc. We are far from unique in this. America, itself has had our share of sins and difficulties, war, inequality, racism, slavery. In many ways, Mormons have responded to and have been influenced by the broader historical context within America and the world. But I think being Mormon means taking responsibility, to the extent we can, for these problems and mistakes and then going forward resolved to do better, appreciatively standing on the shoulder of giants while repenting for the mistakes and failures of our parents – expecting, as will be inevitable – our children will have to do the same for us.

Religion matters, I think because the rituals, scripture, lessons and institution binds us to the legacy of our past. The institutional history embeds itself into our religious practice. But our past does not have to bind down. It can lift us up as we face our present and prepare for our future.

I’ll let Adam Miller have the last word, from his latest book Future Mormon:

I have three children, a girl and two boys. Our worlds overlap but, already, these worlds are not the same. Their worlds, the worlds that they will grow to fill, are already taking leave of mine. Their futures are already wedged into our present. This is both heartening and frightening. So much of our world deserves to be left. So much of it deserves to be scrapped and recycled. But, too, this scares me. I worry that a lot of what has mattered most to me in this world—Mormonism in particular—may be largely unintelligible to them in theirs. This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.