by John G. Turner
Particularly if arriving in May from an already oppressive Gulf Coast summer, one can easily see why Brigham Young and his fellow pioneers adopted Utah as their Zion (at least pending the anticipated return to Jackson County, Missouri).
I'm in the midst of two weeks of digging through archives in Salt Lake City, Provo, and Logan. While the manuscripts take me to the middle of the nineteenth century, being in Utah also encourages me to find opportunities to learn more about contemporary Mormonism as well.
I haven't gotten to everything on my list: the Temple Square Welcome Center, Brigham Young's Lion House, and the Humanitarian Center will all have to wait for next time. There are canyons and wildlife refuges to explore in Utah, after all.
I did, however, accomplish one major item on my Mormonism "to-do list" by finding a Mormon family to take me to church. It was a priceless experience. I could have gone by myself anywhere, but it was easier being escorted. I attended the Priesthood meeting (for the men -- women attend a Relief Society hour), a Sunday school lesson, and sacrament meeting. Three hours altogether. Most wards begin with the sacrament meeting, but it's left up to the individual ward.
Overall, I was surprised at both the commonalities with Protestantism and the differences. Much of the discussion on topics such as prayer and Jesus would have resonated with most Protestant Christians. There was discussion of the Mormon understanding of the Godhead -- Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as two distinct personages (with bodies). The Sunday school lesson was on the Book of Mormon (the entire church rotates through the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants). It mostly sailed over my head. Zarahemla!
The sacrament meeting was noteworthy first of all for the boisterous children present. It featured an older couple who had recently completed a two-year mission outreach to Hispanic families in the area. I was surprised that the sacrament itself featured bread and water (rather than, say, grape juice). The closing hymn seemed very appropriate: "Families Can Be Together Forever."
There were several other highlights, including lunch with two of the Juvenile Instructor guys at BYU. See that blog's recent discussion of Randall's The Fire Spreads. I also sat in on a BYU Book of Mormon class.
A few miscellaneous thoughts:
- As poor as I would be at observing the hot beverage portion of the Word of Wisdom, I find it a troubling sign of declension that Starbucks has made it to Logan, Utah. Still, quite a few establishments advertise "cocoa."
- The affordability and quality of the cafeteria in the Church Office Building (that also houses the church archives) alone would be a major impetus to researching Mormon History. After hours of looking at microfilm, though, it is a shame there's no coffee available at least for gentiles.
- Hearing about the intolerance that most Mormons have encountered from evangelicals makes me wince. I met one man who served a mission in Alabama, definitely hostile territory. Even if you believe certain groups of people are going to hell, a more winsome approach would go further to rescue them from it.
- I learned that movers cringe when discovering a Mormon family's Emergency Food Storage is part of their load.
Getting to spend two weeks in the heart of Mormondom is a reminder of how much there is for us to learn about religion in America that we can't learn through books alone. Regardless of the faith tradition, there are opportunities to visit historical sites, worship services, and other concrete manifestations of those traditions. Not to mention just talking with folks! Iwish I seized those opportunities more often.
Anyone desperate to learn about the dwindling Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is welcome at our church in Alabama any Sunday.