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Church History, and Resilience to Challenge

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 14, 2014

A March 2013 New York Times tells about the studies of two child psychologists who report that people “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.” The article tells how researchers asked young test subjects 20 questions about what they knew about their families – Did they know where their parents met? Did they know the story of their birth? – and then conducted psychological tests, including a follow-up two months later immediately after the terror attacks of September 11 had inflicted the same trauma on all their subjects.

Their study strongly suggested that those who knew the most about their own family background were more resilient in facing life’s challenges, and felt more strongly in control of their own lives even in the face of something, like September 11, over which they obviously had no control. According to the psychologists, that ability to cope comes from the “sense of being part of a larger family.”

Their work also identified three kinds of “family narratives”:

Ascending family narrative: “When we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked [and succeeded].”

Descending family narrative: “We used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

Oscillating family narrative: “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. … but no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”

Yesterday James Goldberg – he of the Armenian Exodus exhibit and Dutch potatoes video on history.lds.org – pointed out this article to several colleagues and got us thinking about how this idea could apply to the telling of Church history. The idea has intrigued me ever since, to the point where I lay awake much of the night thinking about it.

Church history certainly has been and is told as an ascending narrative: “Line upon line, precept on precept”; “the Church is growing by leaps and bounds”; “look at how temples are multiplying”; “we were a persecuted minority in the 19th century, and look at our success today” – these are all themes of a constantly upward-trending Church history. This is the history of enthusiastic Conference statistical reports, 24th of July celebrations, and many manuals and other official sources.

But Church history has also been told as a descending narrative: “Mormon women used to have this, this and this; now all that has been taken away”; “we used to have really interesting lessons/magazines; now look what Correlation has done to us”; “Joseph Smith may have been a prophet, but nobody since then has had the same gift” – these are all themes of a history fallen from an idyllic, probably mythic past. It’s what we always hear from the disaffected, and occasionally from those of us who are not disaffected (are we “affected Mormons”?) but who sometimes feel dissatisfied about this or that.

Do we have an oscillating Church history, too? I think so, and it’s what I like to think we – me, guest posters, and Keepa’ninnies – do here: We certainly celebrate the positive points of Church history (faithful people, expressions of faith, delightful cultural bits) but we also recognize some of the darker facets of Mormon history (racism, violence, insularity). A lot of what we do seems analogous to what people like to know about their own family history: What was the Church like when Mom and Dad were teenagers? Tell me again about when Uncle Frank went to war. Where were our adventures when we first moved to this new place? Let’s look at the family photo album!

Does knowing something about our Church’s history make us better able to cope with hard times – whether “hard times” means a personal crisis like loss of a job or a death in the family, or whether it means a wavering of faith? Does it give us a sense of being “part of something larger,” as the psychologists reported about their study of families? And if so, how does that help us be more resilient? Do we feel more in control of life or faith by knowing something of Church history?

Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on anything related to how knowledge of of Church history – and especially the kind of narrative we tell – might relate to resilience and well-being.



11 Comments »

  1. Great post and timely questions, Ardis. I’ve come to appreciate greatly Leonard Arrington’s take on history: “We may not always be edified by the actions of past men and women [and he includes Church leaders at every level here, as well as the rank and file], but we are warmed by their humanity.”

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 14, 2014 @ 8:41 am

  2. Here is how I’ve come to view many pieces of church history. When my wife was younger, she kept a journal religiously. While at BYU, she wrote the details of her love life, relationships, the trips to Squaw Peak, etc. Later, as she read over her journals, she realized how often immature those things were, was embarrassed to think our kids would read them, so she got rid of them. She would never lie about those flings and romances, but they weren’t experiences she felt our children needed to know about. It’s one thing to say “I dated a lot when I was younger.” It’s quite another to admit to a lot of other things that one regrets doing. Anyway, I see much of what we have now as that same sort of redaction. It’s all there. If one wants to take the time to research it, it is available. However, it’s unwieldy to produce thousands and thousands of bits of information, explain all of them in context, sift through the perceptions. A hundred years from now, are we really going to still be talking about polygamy as it existed in the early days of the church? I hope not. I don’t expect us to disclaim our history. But, I don’t think we need to re-hash it day in and day out and never move on to modern day revelation and counsel. I think our kids are more resilient and well off not knowing the each and every transgression or struggle of their parents. We need to disclose enough so they have a sense that we, as their parents, understand the challenges facing them. But I don’t think disclosing every misstep to be a productive use of time.

    Comment by IDIAT — February 14, 2014 @ 8:54 am

  3. Thanks, Gary. Now that you (and Leonard) point it out, I do think that what I respond to most often is the humanity, or maybe the spark of divinity within humanity, of a story of the past. That’s certainly why I enjoy the Old Testament narrative better than some other scripture, even though the Old Testament may be the most removed, least doctrinally applicable scripture available. With Mormon history, that’s true whether the story is a positive or negative one.

    IDIAT, no doubt we can overdo the tell-all aspect of any history, whether personal or church. That’s often how I respond to posts on other blogs that seem to be little more than invitations to gripe about this or that part of Church culture — $50 worth of attention to a $1 problem. On the other hand, including some of the dark as well as the light in a narrative seems necessary and good: Think about the positive response to Elder Holland’s frank discussion of mental illness. The researchers in the New York Times piece mentioned “downs” in family narratives like “Dad lost his job,” but I didn’t see any suggestion that families also needed to go so far into the details that children were told that Dad lost his job for the third time because he was usually late, constantly spilled soda on important documents, and mistreated the secretary. I hope (using your examples) that we do include plural marriage as one facet of our narrative — but not to the point of fixation, where other history is overlooked — and that a personal narrative would include not only “I dated a lot” but also “I learned from dating experiences that weren’t always great — here’s one example.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 14, 2014 @ 9:15 am

  4. I’m with Gary rather than IDIAT. It is about the humanity and reality of life with all its depths of meaning. I have my mom’s diary from her teen years. It is hilarious! It is important to me to know that my mom was a real, 15-year-old girl. She was boy-crazy and liked to climb trees. She talks about her church experiences like singing in a choir whem President McKay dedicated a new chapel. You have no idea how that makes me love her more! Do I need to rehash all her silly or serious mistakes? Absolutely not! But I have a need to know them. And I have a treasure in her own writing. It makes her and me more human and allows for increased love and understanding.

    Going through her college scraps of papers, I found out that she was an announcer at KBYU – a woman disk jockey (before the term was invented) announcing songs and giving commentary on them and perspective from a “Co-ed’s View!” I still need to write something up about that.

    We need to know more not less about each other and our history. Of course we proceed with caution and respect about sensitive matters. But even they have their proper expression and understanding. I would never destroy a journal or diary! (Although I did somehow obtain a small, wooden box of what appeared to be private communication between my mom and dad. As they are both still living, I gave it back to my mom after only a glimpse of one item that gave me indication of what it was. But you bet I’d like to have that when they are gone. If not, I still know that they loved each other at least enough to get me here.)

    Comment by Grant — February 14, 2014 @ 9:25 am

  5. Grant – less you think the kinds of things in wife’s journal were moral transgressions, let me clarify that they weren’t. Yes, there was plenty of other fun and wonderful things, and I think she could have redacted some of the very personal things, but she opted to get rid of those 2 or 3 years at BYU. She still has her high school journals. She actually didn’t do it until about 4 years ago, some 25 years since she had been at BYU. Our kids had never expressed an interest in reading her journals, (that could have changed had she died and probably will change when she dies) so I think she figured they weren’t that important. That, combined with the perceived effort to redact narratives of those Squaw Peak episodes in the early 80′s, made it simpler to just get rid of them. It is fascinating to read about the lives of our family members, especially our parents. But I still don’t think we need to know every sordid detail. A guy once wrote Dear Abby and said he stumbled some pictures of his mother in her early marriage when she and her husband were into group sex. Mother had long abandoned the practice, but he was upset over the whole thing. Of course he shouldn’t judge his mother for things she did. She had never brought it up, and I assume never intended for him to know. There are some things that are just private and no one’s — not even your children’s — business to know. But alas – the devil is always in the details, and who decides what details to disclose.

    Comment by IDIAT — February 14, 2014 @ 10:06 am

  6. As far as how we tell Church history, the thing I’ve been thinking about most is how to tell hard stories in a way that encourages humbling identification rather than disassociation with our relatives-in-the-faith who made still-painful mistakes.

    Let’s take the experience of European members during WWII. Some members fought the Nazis; some collaborated in various ways.

    One temptation is to run away from the collaborators by ignoring them. For example, including Helmuth Huebner in our narratives but forgetting the branch president who excommunicated him.

    Another temptation is to run away from the collaborators by demonizing them. “Once there was a bad Church leader who has nothing to do with you. Be ashamed of him, and be ashamed that your faith ever tolerated him.”

    What’s difficult is to ask people to take some ownership of the “bad guys” of the past. It’s hard to say something like: “Here’s a stake president who saw the Nazi endorsement of genealogy and failed to see how horribly different it was from God’s interest in genealogy. Are we sometimes guilty in our own ways of buying into worldly ideologies wholesale because of a surface similarity of their parts to a gospel truth?”

    One of the most difficult and ultimately spiritually important experiences I’ve had in the past year came while researching members during and after WWII. I was studying one of the good guys–a member who had been active in the resistance and born powerful testimony of the gospel–and happened to find a photo he’d taken shortly after the war.

    The photo shows a few women with their heads shaved being marched down the street with crowds of children taunting them. These women weren’t victims of the Nazi regime: they were collaborators who were persecuted and publicly shamed after the war. And this good, courageous brother took a photo of his son taunting them.

    That picture broke my heart. It was particularly difficult to see because I’d just learned the story of another faithful member, whose mother had been involved with a German soldier–for love or privilege, I don’t know–during the war. The good guys had branded her when the war was done. She’d worn that scar for the rest of her life.

    The war is still recent enough I don’t feel comfortable telling that story with names. But I don’t want to run away from it either. It’s a story that has given me a broken heart and a contrite spirit; one that has reminded me of the depth of our need for healing and redemption.

    I want to learn to tell Church history in a way that helps others have that kind of encounter. Where we hold the weight of the past instead of running from it one way or another, and then turn to the Christ who somehow carries our sins.

    Comment by James Goldberg — February 14, 2014 @ 10:31 am

  7. When my grandmother died, my mother went through her diaries and prepared an edition to distribute to family members. My mother decided to redact some information from the diaries: accounts of marital discord, an early marriage that ended a few weeks later, etc. It’s fairly obvious when this occurs in the diaries. My mother believed her mother would’ve wanted this done. I’m very reluctant to second-guess my mother, but I wonder about this. Her mother didn’t edit these entries out of her diary–they were important to her. Plus, the fact that some entries are missing merely serves, I believe, to endow them with “special” significance and draws one’s attention to them even more than may be the case if one knew what they were. More seriously, I believe, they effectively distort the past and my grandmother’s personal history. Are all details of the past equally important? No. But it would be nice to be in a position to be able to make a truly informed decision.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — February 14, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  8. My own personal experiences with the church during my lifetime have shown me that there are constant ups and downs. There are the times when my efforts are appreciated. There are times when I have be asked to do something, not given any resources, and then scolded for not ‘doing it the way they do in Idaho.” (Why was it always Idaho? No idea.) I have learned that it is not ‘murmuring’ to tell a leader what you need to do the task you are supposed to do. I have learned that if I am called to serve certain people (say, the children of the branch), then I must advocate for them, even if it means nagging the branch president and making him uncomfortable. In my lifetime I have seen programs come and go. I have been in pilot programs that never went churchwide because they were disasters. If I can see these ups and downs within my lifetime, within a few years, even within weeks or days, then I am forced to conclude that humanity is just really fallible. God will forgive whom he will forgive, but I am required to forgive all men, and sometimes they are lining up to give me the opportunity. But all these messy, mistake prone mortals are still precious to God, and I try to remember that.

    Comment by LauraN — February 14, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

  9. I was showing the full time missionary sisters in our ward last night my favorite family photo collage, which includes pictures of my Dad and his family, my Mom and her family, my wife’s grandparents returning from Canada to Idaho in 1914 by covered wagon, Edward Arthur Smith, and a few others. I told them these were some of the really important people in my family, and it reminds me of how much they mean to me. But behind every one of those photos there are stories of hardship, difficulty, illness, and heartbreak. I know those stories by heart, and they give me the strength to go on when the difficulties get tough.

    One of the pictures is of my grandmother as a teenager. In it she is wearing some kind of dress that looks almost like a sailor’s uniform, and is holding the family’s pet goat, and smiling a beautiful carefree smile. It is such a contrast to the often grim look she had due to difficult circumstances in her later life, when I knew her best. I always loved her, but life had taught her to worry and fight against the difficulties. The teenage picture of her reminds me of who she was behind that often grim and determined countenance that I usually experienced, and who on occasion could still be that fun-loving and carefree girl.

    I like the oscillating narrative model described here. Life does throw us curves that we can’t hit out of the park, and challenges our better natures. We tend to live our lives in fits and starts, never in a single linear progression. At least I haven’t, and most people I know.

    An example I have used with my son who struggles with depression is the story of George Albert Smith, who was basically bedridden by anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy for a couple of years in his thirties, but bounced back, and knowing his limits, went on to become the president of the Church. My goal is to instill some hope in my son that he can overcome most of the worse things about his depression, even though he will still struggle with it probably for the rest of his life.

    I love family history and church history for the same reasons: If Joseph F. Smith can overcome his youthful anger and obstinacy, to become the kind and loving patriarch of his large family, then there is hope for me that I can become a better person in this life. And the more I know about family and the people in church history, the better I will understand them and be able to learn from them.

    Thanks for an insightful and great post. Nice things to think about this Friday afternoon.

    Comment by kevinf — February 14, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

  10. Maybe to be more brief, I should have just linked to this that I saw on Facebook today, and say that it applies to church history as well as family.

    Comment by kevinf — February 14, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  11. Agreed, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 14, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

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