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Monday, January 26, 2015

Then Leave

NOTE: This post was originally part of my essay "As In Enoch's Day, As In Paul's Day: My Support for Female Ordination." These comments were really a somewhat unrelated tangent in that essay, so I excised them from that piece, but felt that they were still important, so I have moved them here as its own post. That is why the footnotes are numbered as they are. Originally published on  11/15/2013.

I feel distance from certain members of the Church I love when I discover there are those who have a rather un-Christian “if you don’t like it, then leave” attitude. There are some who I have seen similarly say, “Well, go join the Community of Christ, their women have the priesthood” (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or RLDS, a separate faction of the Mormon tradition). I’m sure the good people of the Community of Christ would welcome folks like me with loving, open arms. Yet, as I currently am, I can’t join them, not in good conscience.
Joseph Smith III, early RLDS President

I’ve studied Community of Christ/RLDS history, I’ve attended their meetings, and I even wrote a play about the early days of the RLDS Church. The lives of Joseph Smith III, Emma Smith, David Hyrum Smith, and other leaders in their movement are familiar to me.  As much as I admire their faith, inclusiveness, progressive intelligence, and commitment, I can’t join their Church because they have rejected Joseph Smith, Jr.’s later teachings from the body of their Church and practice: the sealing power, The King Follett Sermon,  the ordinances of the temple, proxy baptism and ordinances for and in behalf our deceased ancestors, Heavenly Mother. Rather, they have clung to what I consider to be false, Trinitarian ideals. They have downplayed the First Vision and, to a much lesser extent, even the Book of Mormon (for a good insight into the strengths and shortcomings of the current relationship of the Community of Christ to Joseph Smith, see Community of Christ historian Roger Launius’s essay “Is Joseph Smith Relevant to the Community of Christ?” ).

And despite later retroactive admissions made by Community of Christ historians about Joseph Smith’s polygamy (although those concessions are not always made by their general membership, as evidenced by some of the comments I heard in their Sunday School), I can’t accept the Community of Christ’s earlier denials of the importance of Joseph Smith’s history of polygamy in the Mormon narrative, as complicated, contradicting, heartbreaking, and messy as that scenario was.

Joseph claimed that angels taught him the principle of plural sealing, which we call Eternal Marriage. Whether he understood those principles correctly or deployed those principles correctly, to me, is a matter of debate. The evidence of under aged marriages and elements of unrighteous dominion in implementing those principles, tends to make me believe that there were, indeed, some egregious errors made in sincere zeal and human folly, which I’m willing to accept. Yet the whole Mormon narrative falls apart if Joseph was lying concerning that angel with a flaming sword who commanded him to teach about those unpopular principles.[3] And the Community of Christ’s dismissals concerning that widely documented history, I certainly don’t believe, despite the Community of Christ’s other victories and insights. 

Aesthetically and theologically, the Community of Christ have become more Protestant/Evangelical than Mormon and, if I have certain issues with the current LDS status quo, my issues with the Community of Christ would be manifold. I cannot betray my understanding of the work that Joseph Smith accomplished, and the spiritually confirmed truths I believe he taught, even though I do find the Community of Christ’s ordination of women admirable and appealing (not to mention their lack of institutional, racial prejudice that my own LDS community eventually had to come to terms with in 1978).
 It was those who were historically loyal to Joseph Smith, even when he was unpopular and controversial, who earned my trust in the Mormon Narrative, even when I occasionally disagree with certain positions or actions of theirs that I have found in their histories (just as they often disagreed with each other). Yet they were the ones who braved the storms, faced the mobs, took the bullets, were thrown into prison, and were willing to commit to unpopular teachings, sometimes at the risk or ultimate cost of their lives. John Taylor. Jane Manning James. Lorenzo Snow. Wilford Woodruff.  Brigham Young. Eliza R. Snow. Parley Pratt. Zina Huntington.  Helen Mar Kimball. Mary Elizabeth Lightner. David W. Patten. Elijah Abel.  Heber and Vilate Kimball. These are names that have meaning to me because of the sacrifice and faith they employed while others took the easier path.

My great-great-grandfather Alvin Franklin Stewart joined the Church in the 1840s and moved to its headquarters which were then stationed Nauvoo, Illinois. He was one of the body guards that accompanied Joseph Smith down to Carthage Jail, and he guarded over them on the journey there as they slept. Joseph Smith dismissed Alvin and the other guards to go home before Joseph Smith was gunned down by a mob in that jail. Although Joseph Smith had told those with him that he knew those at Carthage were going to kill him, he probably saved my great-great-grandfather’s life from that mob, and my whole family line, by telling Alvin, and the others who had offered him their protection, even at the risk of their own lives, to go home. Alvin viewed Joseph and Hyrum’s bodies after their assassination, perhaps very aware how easily it could have been him sharing those caskets.

 I literally owe my life, my father’s life, my 10 siblings’ lives, my children’s lives, and the lives of our associated ancestors and relatives, to Joseph Smith’s bravery and willing self-sacrifice in facing that mob without the assistance he could have easily commanded. [4] Instead of clinging to what physical protections that were being offered him by guards like my great-great grandfather (not to mention the Nauvoo Legion), Joseph chose to brave the storm with only a few select individuals[5] and saved the lives of his friends.

Alvin Franklin Stewart was also at the meeting where Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon were vying for the leadership of the Church after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. Although my great-great-grandfather’s journal (which I’m assuming contained the account) was destroyed in a flood, my family’s oral history says that he claimed that he was one of the individuals who saw the “mantle” of Joseph Smith fall on Brigham Young. For those unaware of that period of Mormon history, that means, if the report is accurate, that he was one of the many people who claimed a vision in which he saw the actual countenance of Joseph Smith come upon Brigham Young, indicating the leadership the Lord wanted the Latter-day Saints to adopt.

Instead of immediately settling into the “promised land” of Utah, my great-grandfather Alvin and great-grandmother Camera Olga Owen Stewart (who were both married by Heber C. Kimball in the Nauvoo Temple), stayed behind in Winter’s Quarters to assist in the transportation of others to Utah.
So when I am confronted with the option of leaving the Church that my forefathers and foremothers sacrificed so much for, and which I owe so much to, even over an issue of conscience, I just can’t bring myself to that possibility. The spiritual witnesses I have experienced in connection to my faith, which are many, have been nothing short of miraculous. So when people on both sides of the divide ask, because of my concerns with gender in the Church, “Why do you even stay then?” I think of the words that Peter gave Jesus when asked, “Will you also go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life.” [6]
I have nowhere else to go but this Church. This is where I have found peace, this is where I have found Christ, and this is where I have found a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who speak to me and listen to me and understand me, despite my imperfections. It is here that I have found Grace beyond my inadequate comprehension. I respect all other sincere faiths, and find much that is good and much that is inspired when I study them, but my beliefs and conscience keep bringing me back here, my Mother Faith. It’s like when Robert Bolt has his protagonist Thomas More say in A Man For All Seasons: “But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not, but that I believe it to be true, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”[7]

Thankfully, a number of the current leaders of the Church have proven to be more charitable and welcoming than some of its members. I can’t sufficiently say how very impressed I was with the frankness, the honesty, and the charity in President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s message for the LDS General Conference this last October. His comments were timely considering much of the persecution I have seen feminists and other intellectuals receive from fellow members of the Church:
One might ask, “If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?”

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.
In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves…

To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here.Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result.
Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?” It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.[8]

It was satisfying to see the Mormon blogosphere light up in joy after this talk. Scholars, feminists, and other religious misfits finally felt some vindication, recognition, and compassion from their religious leaders.  Despite what may have been said by others, with President Uchtdorf there was none of the old distrust against “intellectuals” nor any dismissiveness against “discordant voices.” Instead of sending supposed “apostates” out into the cold, he validated their concerns. He recognized human imperfection in the leadership (“And, to be perfectly frank,” he said, “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine”[9]). He opened his arms to all the supposed black sheep and said, “There is yet a place for you here.”

In his statements, President Uchtdorf completely rejected the cruel and condescending dismissals I’ve seen presented by some members of the Church who do not want to invest the time or mental/spiritual energy required to address the concerns of the questioning or the disaffected, and therefore simply write them off. Instead of taking the shortcut of the cutoff, President Uchtdorf truly believes in Christ’s injunction to leave the 99 and seek after the one. And I’m certain, especially considering the context of what was happening with the Ordain Women movement during last Conference, that the good under-shepherd President Uchtdorf also meant to include the Mormon feminists in his welcoming invitation.


[3] Not only Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages, but also his polyandrous marriages, as well as the New Testament bestowal from Christ to Peter, “Whatsoever ye shall seal on earth, shall be sealed in heaven,” all make me wonder if we truly understand the sealing power, even today. We strive to defend traditional marriage so vehemently in the Church, yet Joseph seemed to be overthrowing the entire concept (at least as an earthly institution) and replacing it with revelations about the sealing power. How far did this sealing power extend? Is it related item for item to what we consider as marriage, or does it go beyond those boundaries? When Christ says that in Matthew 22:30 that in the resurrection we neither marry, nor are given in marriage, yet then also says in Mark 10:8 that men and women, although “ twain” (separated) yet “shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh,” is he referring to a completely different process than what we call “marriage”? Those are obviously very complicated questions, with no easy answers. To address them adequately in this essay would derail the topic at hand, but it’s a question I may explore further in the future.      
[4] Alvin’s son, my great-grandfather and namesake, Mahonri Alma Stewart was born in Utah in 1861. Thus, if Alvin Franklin Stewart had stayed and died at the hands at the same mob that killed Joseph, yes, I literally would not be here (at least not in my current body and form).
[5] John Taylor, and Willard Richards were with Joseph and Hyrum Smith when they died. Taylor and Richards survived, Taylor just barely with grave wounds, and Willard miraculously (and through a fulfilled prophesy) just got a nick under his ear.
[6] John 6:67-68
[7] P. 91, Vintage Books, New York, 1960
[8] “Come, Join With Us,” October Conference 2013, (accessed October 15, 2013).
[9] Ibid.

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