Dispatches from Zion

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.


Anonymous said…

Did you get a chance to see the new video on Joseph Smith and the "First Vision?" The Mormon Church shows this video at its movie theatre in the Church Office building, which is right across from Temple Square. Also, they show another video called, "Legacy," which portrays the struggle the Mormons faced in crossing the plains to Salt Lake. That video is shown in the visitor center at Temple Square. Also, make sure to visit the Conference Center. It is extremely impressive.
John G. Turner said…
I didn't see the new video but will next time. It's a struggle to decide between such opportunities and the archives during the week! I have visited the Conference Center previously -- it is impressive. I want to see the renovated tabernacle.
Anonymous said…
John, it was good to finally meet you. Thanks for the positive review of your experience in Mormondom.
Anonymous said…
John, the pleasure was all ours (speaking on behalf of the Juvenile Instructor and the state of Utah). I'm glad to hear your stay behind the Zion curtain was enjoyable. My gentile friends in Salt Lake tell me there's a couple of great coffee houses. I'll point you to them next time.

And as unfair and inappropriate evangelical treatment of Mormon missionaries has been (and often is), the youthful Mormon Elders are hardly free of blame in antagonizing other Christians. Next time you're in Utah, I'll take you to one of the old-time wards, where 90 year olds still bear testimony of polygamy.

Again, it was great to meet you in person. Thanks for your thoughts on the experience.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, John, for your report. Very interesting.

I'll admit that I will probably never "get" Mormonism, but I do appreciate that Mormons themselves seem to get it. The same can't be said for many of us Protestants (for example, our constant debates over what constitutes evangelicalism or our widely divergent theologies of church life vis-a-vis the individual, etc.). Mormons seem to have a depth to their self-identify and purpose, and that shouldn't go unappreciated.

Incidentally, while you were in Utah, I was leading an 8th grade class trip to DC and saw two uniformed Mormon missionaries having smoothies at a Hardee's in Virginia. You gotta love America!
Anonymous said…
Oh, I forgot to mention that the thing I get least about Mormonism is the prohibition of coffee. I mean, I'm not even spiritual enough to give that up for Lent.
Anonymous said…
Any thoughts on the collecting of geneology? Did you notice any huge numbers of people doing research on their families? If so, were they Mormon (not that you can tell by just looking)?

I remember some time back a Jewish group sueing for their records to be removed due to baptism of the dead (by proxy, of course)
Phil said…
With your excursions outside of the archives, John, I wonder if there's another research project there--an ethnographic project perhaps? Could be interesting.
Unknown said…
John, it was good to meet you at the archives. Too bad I didn't catch on to who you were earlier in the week, we could have had lunch! Next time...
John G. Turner said…
Jared, Good to meet you briefly. Lunch next time.

Phil, I've got my hands full to overflowing with Brigham.

Kara, there were a few people at the church archives doing family history research, but there's a larger family history library, at which I believe most of that action takes place.

I believe the flap over the baptism of the dead and Jews related to Holocaust survivors whose names were submitted for baptism by church members. I am not intimately famiiar with the controversy, but my understanding is that the church now discourages the submission of such names, unless by immediate descendents. Perhaps someone can clarify that for us.
Anonymous said…
John, I spent a week at the Presby USA archives while researching my dissertation some years ago. I only wish it had included a weekend so I could have repaid your willingness to visit our church with my willingness to see what yours is like. Enjoyed this blog post and look forward to more.

Manlius, interesting point.

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