Thursday, October 8, 2009

Conference History Notes

Simon Peter and Joseph Smith

Imagine my surprise when Elder Callister used a list of Peter's apparent weaknesses to introduce a talk on Joseph Smith--the same parallel that started this blog's church history series! I think Elder Callister powerfully articulated the counter-productivity of allowing Joseph's imperfections to keep us from enjoying the rich doctrines of the Restoration. I do think, though, that we'd be well-served not simply by overlooking Joseph's faults/failures, but by treating them as a more important part of a dynamic experience of spiritual growth that we can learn from. The stories of Peter's mistakes, after all, are valuable parts of the scripture--they're not something to overlook, but to treasure!
We don't need Joseph Smith to be an example of what's right. We can let him be an example of how to learn and grow--sometimes by being wrong and making significant mistakes--without compromising our belief in him as a prophet.

The Buttercream Gang

President Monson also invoked the church's past by relating a story about Thomas B. Marsh. This story has endured for the last century and a half, I think, because it speaks an important truth about the dangers of anger. That utility has kept alive the story even though it is probably not historically accurate.

Where did the story come from? The first historical reference I've found to it is from George A. Smith in the late 1850s, roughly twenty years after the fact and in a completely different environment from which some of the complexities of the past could be forgotten. Maybe the events George A. Smith describes did take place in some form--although I'd be surprised if a case that caused so much trouble between the leading apostle and the church really got all the way to the First Presidency without anyone writing about it. I think it's just as likely that the Marshes were never involved in a dispute over butter at all--maybe someone else had a butter dispute that George A. Smith later misremembered as involving the Marshes (just as members today sometimes quote lines from inspirational poems thinking that they are in the scriptures, or attribute pieces of wisdom to some anonymous General Authority).

Thomas B. Marsh did leave the church in 1838 and did swear an affidavit--preserved today in Missouri state archives--against Joseph Smith. But considering the context of the times, it seems much more likely that he was concerned about the aggressive military strategy and rhetoric the Mormon community took in the early and middle stages of the "Mormon War." Several thoughtful Mormons correctly predicted that an aggressive defense would prove "disastrous"--rather than protecting the community as intended, it resulted in Governor Boggs' infamous extermination order. Marsh and others who saw this miscalculation tried to escape from a Mormon community they saw as both desperate and doomed. In Marsh's case, swearing an affidavit against Joseph Smith publicly distanced him from the church enough that he could live in peace in the state and enjoy its protection of his constitutional rights. He saw a serious fault in Mormonism, bailed out, and avoided the harsh consequence of being driven from the state...

...but Mormonism didn't die. The Saints lost most of their property to their Missouri persecutors once again and walked across the frozen ground into Iowa and Illinois to think about their future. The Prophet was sent to prison in Liberty, reflected on what had gone wrong, and composed what is probably the most profound letter in Mormon history. Spring came, things changed, the Saints started over again and in a few years the movement was strong enough to face another set of crises.

Cort likes to say that the church is like a great stone rolling down a mountain and from time to time, it hits up against something hard and some pride or errors are knocked off--but the stone keeps rolling, keeps growing smoother, until one day it will be what God wants it to ultimately be.

Sometimes we, like the historical Thomas Marsh, see real problems with the course the church takes or the tenor of church culture and want to break ourselves off from the stone before it collides painfully with the consequences of its own awkwardness. And yet, says Cort, if we do we lose the momentum that comes from being part of a collective gathered by God. We miss the growth that comes through sharing the very pain we have foreseen and wished to avoid.

In 1857, Thomas Marsh sought out and was rebaptized into the church. He realized what he had missed by believing too much in his fears about what could result from a church course that was legimitately dangerous.

Did the pain he suffered from 1838-1857 in some way stand in for the pain he could have learned from had he remained with the Saints? I do not see Marsh as a pathetic figure: I see him as someone whose courage and humility ultimately made up for his mistakes.

And somewhere on the other side of the veil, where he is probably sharing the gospel with the spirits of his ancestors, I imagine Thomas Marsh happy.


  1. I would like to say, since I always feel some strange, probably misplaced, need to clarify anytime I am mentioned in this blog (or anywhere else for that matter) that I am well aware that my image of the stone rolling down the mountain "without hands" is shamelessly stolen from the Bible and hundreds of LDS sources. James definitely captures my feelings when he talks about the small pebbles that fall off, or jump off, in the rolling process. To give an example-and make this comment sufficiently anoying for its length and general pontification-I imagine that many church members in the early 1970s and even further back thought, "Hey, I think all worthy males should be able to hold the priesthood, and shouldn't be held back by the color of their skin." I would say that they were right, and the Church today would say that they are right. Or, let's say that I think that women should be able to hold the priesthood today. Will that be something that is changed in the future? Well, it's certainly possible; Gordon B. Hinkley said on national television that it was possible if God revealed it. Obviously, I don't know and can't say whether women will someday hold the priesthood or not (I'm sure there are many factors to this issue that we are simply not aware of), but if I were to leave the stone/kingdom now because of it I would roll, slowly, alone, and ingloriously until I stuck in a bush far from the botton of the mountain.

  2. I meant "bottom" of the mountain. And pretend that I corrected any other spelling and grammar errors that I am sure that I missed.

  3. Rereading this, I just noticed the parallel at the end to Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus".



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