Here is my recent Sunstone talk; much of it will already be familiar to longtime Keepa readers.
Pillars of My Faith
Ardis E. Parshall
Sunstone, Friday, 5 August 2011
Weber State College, Ogden, Utah
Once in a while the subject of earliest memories comes up. I always say that my earliest memory was of cuddling next to my mother on the couch as she read to me and my little brother; I remember looking up at her face and noticing how her eyes moved from side to side as she read.
That is an early memory, and I wish it were my earliest. An even earlier memory, though, from when I couldn’t have been more than three years old, is of playing with my next-door neighbor as our mothers visited in the living room. We were using his crayons; instead of coloring on paper, we were rubbing the flat side of crayons against white cotton string. When my mother called me to go home, I ran out with her, two small pieces of broken, peeled crayon – one blue, one purple – hidden in my hand. I don’t think I could possibly have understood the concept of theft, but I do remember knowing I was being naughty, at least, because of the distressed shrieks of the little boy who objected to my taking his crayons.
I eventually did learn about stealing and about other things that good children didn’t do. I also learned about repentance – but I couldn’t repent of stealing those crayons according to the rules taught in Primary, because I couldn’t give them back to the little boy (I no longer had them) and I couldn’t tell him I was sorry (we lived in a different town by then). As silly as it seems, that fragmentary memory stayed with me. I was convinced that I was a bad girl, and that when bad things happened to me it wasn’t because others were bad but because I was bad and deserved whatever came.
Finally, when I was about 11, I had learned enough about repentance to know there was more to it than returning stolen crayons and apologizing. I decided to confess to God all the bad things I had ever done, and ask him to forgive me. I prepared for that prayer for several days, and when the deadline that I had set for myself came, I made the longest, most sincere prayer of my life – not excluding the 40 years since then. I confessed to God every bad thing I could ever remember doing, beginning with the theft of those cursed crayons, told him how sorry I was, promised I would not do those things again, and asked him if he could forgive me. I was suddenly awash in a feeling of pure joy and love and holiness – something I have never since felt in quite the same way. And although I haven’t been able to sustain the feeling, the knowledge and the power of that moment is something that I cannot forget. That became the first “pillar of my faith” – I knew there was a God, and that he knew me and loved me.
I was about 15 when the prisoners of war came home from Vietnam. Now, I have a tendency toward hero worship anyway, and after I heard a former POW speak, I sought out opportunities to hear as many as I could. Then-Colonel Jay Hess, an LDS man from Utah, spoke on a college campus near where we lived in Missouri, and I was mesmerized by his stories of his experiences, and how he had maintained his sanity and his faith under those conditions. He spoke in the morning, and I unexpectedly found myself in line just behind him in the cafeteria at lunch time. I wanted to tell him how moved I was, but I was as tongue-tied a teenager as you’ve ever met, and I didn’t dare say anything.
As the line progressed, Col. Hess reached the soda fountain. It was a typical American display, with three or four kinds of soda, and lemonade and milk and water – perfectly ordinary and unremarkable. But he looked over his shoulder with a grin on his face, and said directly to me, “So many choices!”
I’ve never had a bigger lump in my throat. Here was a man who had endured years of such tight control that his only choices were his mental and spiritual reactions to what was done to him – and now he was positively rejoicing at the blessing of choosing between Pepsi and Sprite.
That is another moment that has stayed with me and forms a “pillar of my faith” – the God-given right of choice. I recognize that that choice is not unlimited: not every choice is available to me at every moment. But at times when I have felt trapped by a deadend job, or by remaining single when there is nothing I would rather be than a wife and mother, or by the limits of income or education, or anything else, remembering that there are always choices has often been enough to pull me out of the mire again. Something as simple as having the choice to cross the street at a different intersection from my habitual path has been enough to give me the courage to change career paths. There are no deadends. I have “so many choices.”
I chose to serve a mission as a young woman, and was called to the Switzerland Geneva Mission, serving mostly in France. Some of my experiences as a missionary were extraordinarily good, and some still serve as touchstones for my faith today. For instance, I learned that there is a real power in being called of God and being set apart to serve in a particular calling. I learned that almost by accident the week I came home, when I interpreted for the missionaries and a French family who had come to Las Vegas as tourists, and were baptized before they went home. I realized with a shock that I was only an interpreter during those sessions, that I had lost something with my own release as a missionary – I realized that without being consciously aware of it, as a missionary teaching in France I always knew what an investigator needed, even when it was contrary to the usual plan. I recalled teaching a discussion out of order, in one case, without prior planning, to a woman whose mother died during the next week and who had needed to hear that out-of-order lesson. I recalled another woman belligerently challenging me to tell her she couldn’t smoke during our discussion; I told her that we were in her home and she set the rules there. She stubbed out her cigarette then, and never again smoked in our presence. But immediately after being released from my mission, that gift of discernment went away. In my callings since then, I have tried to be more conscious of the power that comes with being set apart, and have benefitted from insights I think I otherwise would have missed.
Another experience, while I was still in the MTC, reinforced my belief that God knows his children individually. Because I already had the language when I entered the MTC, I was put to work immediately memorizing the discussions. For two months I had virtually nothing to do on most days other than pace the halls reciting aloud to myself. I went through the Joseph Smith story of the First Vision dozens of times. I realized that I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t been familiar with that story. I loved that story, every detail of it, but I began to wonder what it was like to hear it for the first time. I wondered what my future investigators would think. I wondered, had I heard the story for the first time as an adult, how would I have responded? Would I believe it? Would I find it ridiculous? I really wanted to know.
Then one day, as I was reciting the story for what must have been the hundredth time, something extraordinary happened. I can’t describe it other than to say that I heard the story for the first time. I realized that it was my voice saying the words, and I knew it was my lips moving, but I heard those words without knowing what was coming next, without any sense of having heard it before. I heard it for the first time, and I believed.
Overall, though, my mission was not a successful one. It was not the best 18 months of my life; it was, in fact, the low point of my life, and if I could live my life again, knowing what I know now, I would not have gone on a mission, at least not then.
A small part of the difficulty was the physical conditions under which I served. I was always sleep deprived. For months on end it seemed that my feet were never dry, that we were walking in the rain all the time, and my shoes fell apart before they ever dried out. In one apartment, the bed I had to sleep in was rotten with mildew. In another apartment there were no beds at all and I slept on the bare floor. I had early companions who allowed me no participation at all, even to the point of denying me any voice in what food we bought.
My real difficulties as a missionary, though, began four months into my mission, when one president was released and a new one arrived. My new mission president didn’t like me. I know this, because the very first words he spoke to me in our very first interview were, “I don’t like you.” And for the rest of my mission, he did everything in his power to make me understand how much he didn’t like me.
I will tell you now, whether you believe it or not, that I was a good missionary. I worked hard, I obeyed the rules, the numbers I turned in were good, and were honest. Except for my time with one companion, who was as stubborn as an ox and couldn’t be made to get up and move for love nor money, I spent all my time doing and being what a missionary should do and be.
But nothing I ever could do was satisfactory to President. He berated me for everything. He questioned my numbers. He told me that I was a bad missionary, and that if I crossed him one more time – I never could figure out how I crossed him even once – he would send me home. He wrote to my stake president and bishop and told them I was a bad missionary on the verge of being sent home. He transferred me every month or two so that I could seldom follow through with investigators. This was in the days before mission expenses were equalized, so in addition to the usual living expenses, I had to buy a long-distance train ticket nearly every month, pay to have my bicycle shipped, and buy two monthly bus passes – one for the city I was in at the beginning of the month, and one for the city I was transferred to mid-month (passes had our photos riveted to them and couldn’t be exchanged with other transferring missionaries). Under those conditions it was impossible to live on the allotted amount, and every month when I reported my expenditures, President chastised me for being a poor steward of the Lord’s funds. Today I have enough of a backbone that if anyone treated me the way President did, I could stand up to him and put him in his place. As a missionary, though, conditioned to obedience and respect for authority, I had no defense.
The worst experience with President came vicariously. I had gotten sick – possibly as a result of going through part of a winter in the Alps, in a city that had hosted the Winter Olympics, with no heat in the apartment and no blankets – President told me it was my own fault if I was cold; I should have brought blankets with me from home. I knew better than to ask President to let me see a doctor. My companion was concerned enough, though, that when she had an interview, she told President what was wrong with me. When she told me about it later, her shock was evident: President had laughed, and made a crude sexual joke about women’s bodies, and told her that mission insurance would not cover a visit to the doctor.
My mother, whom I hadn’t told about my troubles, sent me to a doctor within days of my coming home, but the damage had already been done. Serving a mission, under that man, had cost me the ability to have children. I never dated – not even once – after I returned from my mission. The kind of man I wanted would want a family, so I believed that the kind of man I wanted would not want me. I finally realized that that was not necessarily true, and that President wasn’t completely responsible for robbing me of husband and children, but all during the years when marriage was most possible, I suffered from that warped thinking and pulled away from the slightest interest shown in me.
I had a hard time – an impossible time – as a missionary understanding why God had called a man like that as my mission president. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t understand why God had abandoned me. I began to doubt early experiences, and to question whether there really was a God, and whether there was any legitimacy in the gospel. Maybe it was all a fraud, and maybe I was perpetuating a hoax by trying to bring new fools into the Church. There were times when I even questioned my sanity.
What saved me, I think, was that old mantra from my brief encounter with the former prisoner of war – “So many choices.” I felt as trapped as I thought Col. Hess must have been, and I tried to think what he would have done. I made myself find and make choices – even the most minor gave me something to hang onto. When our district visited another city and decided to go back to the train station early “because there was nothing else to do,” I chose to notice little things that the others overlooked: a face carved in stone high on the side of a building; a fountain; a clock made of flowers; a memorial listing the town’s World War I dead.
Choosing to see what others missed somehow let me choose to see other things clearly. I thought back to the experiences I had had that had led me to believe in God, and in his concern for me. I knew there was a God, and nothing that President could do to me could invalidate that knowledge. I could no longer feel the emotions I felt upon hearing the Joseph Smith story for the first time, but I knew that something extraordinary had happened to me then, and no harsh words from President could erase what had happened. There were other things that I knew, irrespective of this inexplicable situation.
I couldn’t completely reconcile my problems as a missionary, nor for several years after I came home. But eventually I came to understand – something that might seem obvious, but which I had to learn through great effort – that God may call a man to serve, that the Church might appoint him a particular role, but it was up to the man himself to fill his calling. That man had “so many choices,” just as I had. If he chose to fill his calling unworthily, it was his fault, not the fault of God, or of the Church. It’s a sad pillar, perhaps, but is still a pillar of my faith: A man can and should and may be called of God, but it’s up to him, and him alone, whether he lives up to that calling. The same is true for me – I choose to do all I can to fill my role, or I choose otherwise.
Six months after returning from my mission, I moved to Provo and fell into the habit of calling my parents every few days for a short chat. One evening my father was bubbling over with excitement about a discovery he had made. My father, who was a convert to the Church, had always been interested in his family history, although he had never researched it. From the time he was a child, he had saved family photographs, and his collection included pictures back to Civil War days, nearly all of which he had carefully identified in the 1930s and ‘40s while there were still older people around who knew who was in the pictures.
Dad had become a photographer himself, and in order to preserve his original photos, he had made copies of all the most interesting ones and carefully stored the originals. I grew up with my own copies of ancestral photographs, playing with them as if they were flash cards, learning their names and faces. There was one pair of photographs, though, that Dad couldn’t tell me about. He knew they were the parents of so-and-so, but he had no idea what their names were.
That evening when I called, though, Dad told me that for the first time in years, he had pulled out his original photographs, including this pair of mysterious ancestors. He had discovered, to his surprise, that the names of this couple were in fact written on the back of their pictures, and he told me with great pleasure that they were John Saunders and his wife, Nancy Gage Saunders. Who knew how those inscriptions had been overlooked for so long? But there they were, and there was Dad on the phone, sounding as though he had just won the lottery.
He was so pleased that I decided to see if I could learn something about this couple by going to the genealogical library. I knew there was one on the fourth floor of the BYU library, although I had never used it, so off I went one evening after work.
I was so green then that I didn’t even know that the genealogical library had a separate catalog from the regular BYU library catalog. I was also so afraid of looking like I didn’t belong there that I didn’t dare ask anybody for help. So I bluffed. I walked in, trying to look as if I knew what I was doing.
Okay, everybody seems to be using microfilms, and getting them from those cabinets over there. So in order to cover my ignorance, I opened a random drawer and drew out a random microfilm. There. Now nobody would know I didn’t know how to figure out which microfilm I needed.
Next I walked over to a microfilm reader and saw that there was a diagram showing how to thread the film. Good. I could fiddle with putting my film on the machine while I looked around at what everybody else was doing to figure out how you did this genealogy stuff. Fiddle … fiddle … fiddle … there, the film was on.
I cranked the machine handle, like everybody else was doing. They would crank for a moment, then look down at the screen, then crank some more, and look down again. So I cranked a while, then looked down like they did. And there on the screen I read these words:
“John Saunders, a farmer of Yates County, married Nancy Gage, daughter of Amasa Gage of Gorham, Ontario County.”
The film I had taken out of the drawer was a collection of New York county histories; the random page where I had stopped cranking was from a history of Yates County, where my family had lived for six generations.
That’s all it took to hook me on genealogy. For the next two years or so, I went to the library every day after work, and on Saturdays, and on the two Sundays each month that the library was then open. During odd moments during the work day, I typed up the materials I had found and written out by hand the night before. Every morning before work, I filed and indexed the documents I had typed the day before. It was never again as easy as it was that first day, but I quickly learned how to do research the normal way.
I began to have odd experiences, the kind that all genealogists recognize and that all non-genealogists laugh at. Books fell off of shelves and fell open to pages that showed where a missing family member had moved. I’d transpose figures on microfilm call numbers, and the film I picked up by mistake would turn out to be records of my family. A man who had gotten an internet subscription for Christmas but who was not in the slightest interested in family history, searched his family name, found a query I had posted, and went up stairs to get the family Bible with the only record ever made of four children who had died young.
I made a field trip to New York one fall, staying with friends in Rochester and taking regional buses out to the small towns where I needed to do research. One night I got back to Rochester after dark, and somehow got off the bus in the wrong place. I discovered later that I was even on the wrong side of the river, in a part of town that I would have hesitated to enter in daylight. Yet I wasn’t at all afraid – I felt surrounded by those whose lives I was researching, and had a definite sense that until I had done for them what they needed me to do, they were there to protect me.
I wonder if anyone who is not a genealogist comes to know in the same way that we all do, that life goes on after death, that human souls remain as individual personalities beyond death, and that there is a practical, necessary, and authentic need for the work we do in temples. I have now spent the greater part of my life being surrounded in a real yet undefinable way, by the evidence that life continues.
In the late 1990s, I made the switch from family history to church history, working as a researcher-for-hire for established historians, writing my own history, and more recently blogging the kinds of stories and materials about our past that most interest me. I’ve come at this work through an unorthodox past – I regret that I have no formal training in history – but I seem to have been preparing for this work my whole life.
It was the old assurance that I had “so many choices,” for instance, that gave me the courage to leave work that I hated, but which provided a steady income, and choose to do something I love, despite a precarious financial state. Just as in the past God had seemed to bless me with grace that was tailor-made for my needs at those particular moments, I reached the point where I couldn’t bear to return to my old work for even one more day, and found that conditions had been so arranged for me to step into this new career: my clerical skills, the sleuthing techniques I had learned as a family historian, and kind friends who were willing to give me a chance to prove myself all came together at the right time.
I had learned in the past that God knows and cares for his children individually, not only as a mass; that, combined with my conviction that life goes on beyond death, seems to have created in me a love for individuals of the past. I have made something of a specialty of uncovering stories from the lives of Latter-day Saints of the past whom you have never heard of, but whose lives were as inspirational, as dramatic, as interesting as any of the more famous people we have heard of, over and over, throughout our church experience. I have felt driven to uncover and to tell the stories of our past as individuals really lived it, without regard to politics or agendas, even church-driven agendas.
Nothing I have ever learned about Church history has had the power to shake my faith in either the love of God or the divinity of the Church I am a part of. I learned the hard way that men may or may not live up to their callings without invalidating the call – so when I investigate instances of violence in the Mormon past, or racial issues or gender inequality, I can separate the actions of individuals – even those with high office – from the divinity of the cause to which they are attached. When I learn that I was taught a simplified version of history, and that the reality is far more complex and even contradictory, I think back to what I first learned about repentance as a small Primary child, and the far more complex reality of repentance that I understood a little later.
And I have had what seem to be to me extraordinary occurrences that confirm for me that I am on the right track. For instance, I long ago fell in love with a diarist I discovered, a French-speaking Swiss convert who lived in a United Order town I was researching. This man – Ned Desaules – had helped to build the St. George Temple, and was the 17th man to be baptized for the dead in that Temple. I knew from his diary and letters to an aunt that he desperately wanted to do more temple work for his ancestors, but he needed the help of relatives in Switzerland to obtain the data. They had given him every imaginable excuse for not helping him: It costs too much; it takes too long; we sent it to you once and it got lost in the mail; come back and find it yourself. He died in 1904 without ever being able to do work for more than the handful of relatives whose names and dates he knew.
I went to the Family History Library one day, thinking I might be able to identify a few of his family members and have their work done as a tribute to Ned. What I discovered was that 19th century records from his corner of Switzerland were a genealogist’s dream. Every person was always referred to by full name – not only his own name, but with the names of both parents and all four grandparents, and the women were always called by their maiden names. As fast as I could type, I could connect whole families, and before long I had enlisted Institute groups and whole stakes in helping with the temple work for more than 8,000 of Ned’s extended family.
One day when I had reached the records for the 17th century, still adding names to my database at a rate I had never been able to do with American records, I noticed an odd thing. When I sat back and looked at the page on the microfilm reader, it was absolutely illegible. Swiss French is quite different from standard French anyway, but this far back the records were written in a peculiar spiky hand. There were ink blots on the page, and ink had bled through from the other side of the paper. Looked at objectively, I couldn’t make out more than a few fragments here and there on the page. But as I leaned in again, something shifted. As I put my hands to the computer keys, I could read every word – every letter, every number – on the page, and I went on typing into my database. That still happens, every time I work on this project, as I continue to do ten years later: When I look at records with my natural eyes, I can’t read anything; when I settle in and begin to work, I can read everything.
Something related seems to happen when I work on church history itself. I read everything I can put my hands on: diaries, correspondence, newspapers, minutes of meetings, poetry, legal decisions. When I use unpublished material, I transcribe as much as possible into my computer. That has resulted in an extraordinary text-searchable database, and I joke – but with some seriousness – that if anybody comes across me lying in the road, freshly hit by a truck, they should first rescue my laptop and then call 911. It is, perhaps, this habit of transcription that makes it possible for me to connect so many seemingly unrelated elements in Church history – I’ll be typing along, and some peculiar turn of phrase in this document reminds me that I’ve read it before in that document.
Have you ever had the experience on Facebook of discovering that two friends whom you know from completely different spheres actually know each other through a connection that doesn’t include you? This happens continually in the past, too – everything is connected to everything else. That interconnectedness is what gives me confidence in the validity of professionally written Church history – if some record is restricted, or destroyed, or overlooked, other connections help to fill in the gap. That interconnectedness is also how I judge poorly written history – if an argument is too neat, if it doesn’t have the expected ties to other people and other incidents of the past, then I know an author has connected his dots incorrectly and his data was carefully selected to support his argument, not to reveal history as it really was.
It may seem odd to some of you to report that history – well researched, well argued, well written – is a pillar of my faith, but in the past few years it has come to be so. Theology and history are two very different spheres – I recognize that. History can’t prove the truth of encounters with the divine – yet immersing myself deeply in the history of the Church has done nothing to shake my faith, either. Far from it. When I look at the lives of so many faithful Saints of the past, I can see God working in their lives even more clearly than I can see him working in mine. I recognize the impulses that moved men and women to devote themselves to the gospel and pattern their lives after the Savior they followed. I am moved by their lives far more easily than I am moved by holy scripture, and I am motivated more to pattern my life after theirs than I am after the stories of Israelites and Nephites. Where those good people of the past – those in my own lineage, and those in my Mormon heritage – may be is where I want to spend eternity.
So there it is. My life has turned out, so far, very differently from anything I expected when I was young. I have very little idea of what the next 20 or 30 years will bring. The one thing I do expect is that whatever comes next will be built upon the same convictions that have brought me to this point.
Thank you for listening.