The first time I remember, it happened – of course – because I was searching for things on the internet. If I remember correctly, it even happened because I was researching for a Sunday School lesson. I read about Gallatin Missouri during the Mormon War. Our people burned how many shops and homes? I thought it all happened the other way around. Who were the Danites? And did Parley P. Pratt really behave that way at the Battle of Crooked River?
This was followed quickly on by various accounts of the September Six. Then I listened to Michael Quinn’s heartbreaking post-excommunication account at Sunstone – his autobiographical narrative coupled with his continuing testimony of the Book of Mormon. I can also vividly remember reading Margaret Toscano, whose story broke my heart yet again.
And of course once you get into it, it’s a deluge. There’s this endless litany of prophetic mortality and fallibility together with the institutional and human errors of our history and the spiritual casualties that are strung throughout this dispensation from Thomas B. Marsh until today. Consumed gluttonously all at once, the Restoration took on a sickly, yellow light.
The most difficult for me was probably reading Mormon Enigma. The emphasis in the early Mormon literature I’d read up to that point was always on Joseph (this is true even of some of the other Emma biographies!). So I was thrilled to be reading about Emma herself. But I wasn’t prepared for her mistreatment, misalignment, and intimate anguish.
That said, Mormon Enigma was also a critical and very positive turning point in my faith. It’s where all of my inchoate ideas and understandings of what a prophet actually was came together for me, where I found a deeper faith in the Restoration – a faith in an unavoidably mortal enterprise that is indistinguishably wrapped up in a heavenly one. In trying to articulate what happened, I find myself short on specifics. I don’t know how to explain what happened, which means I don’t really know how it happened or how to advise others to faithfully embrace our history – especially not in a blog post. But in narrating my experience, I know that this was one of the most significant moments – when I realized the profundity of seeing the Restoration not as a polished, angelic enterprise, but as what it is – a mortal and divine partnership, a union of Heaven with Earth.
While saying exactly what happened in this shift is difficult, highlighting its practical upshot is easy. As Emma put it, there are lots of things I can’t reconcile with my understanding of God’s plan, but none of that detracts from the love of God I’ve felt in my life. To borrow a phrase from Emma’s husband, while reading this book my conversion experience to the whole of our History “seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart.” Since then, reading books like Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet has become spiritually and not just intellectually delightful (to say nothing of books of Rough Stone Rolling). There are intellectual and cultural reasons to exult in the Church’s greater historical transparency and the maturing of Mormon history (and on a more recent and general level, the growth of Mormon Studies). But just as real are the resulting spiritual reasons and possibilities for a more informed faith.
Another similar shift happened when I realized that this newfound faith didn’t simply apply to our history in this dispensation – I began to experience that same Heaven & Earth partnership in my experience in the Church today. It characterizes my personal experience, embedded in a ward of Saints whose diversity is deeper than ethnicity. Two experiences served as particular catalysts for me here.
One was reading Eugene England’s article “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” His overall message both resonated with and helped to shape my experience at the ward level.
The second was a particularly enjoyable conversation I was privileged to have with Jan Shipps. She posited a cultural and ethnographic shift in late 20th century Mormonism from a “People” to a “Protestant-style Institution.” She knows a lot more than I do, but it seemed clear to me in our conversation that her views had more to do with her experiences in Cache Valley in the sixties and her own gut reading of things than it did with sociological or historical data. I tried to counter with various doctrinal and institutional evidences that our peoplehood was still central to our Church. But what mattered to me was how directly her (perhaps overzealously stated) thesis clashed with my own experience in Mormonism. When fate sits me down next to a Latter-day Saint on an airplane, I can’t help but feel an instant bond of kinship. The dozen or so wards I’ve lived in since marriage replay this experience in very concrete and practical ways, greatly easing the significant transition that a cross-city or cross-state or cross-globe move entails. The kinship I feel grows out of my understanding of our covenants, but also the concrete ways that we organize ourselves.
Neither England’s essay nor my conversation with Shipps were about gaining new information. Both were about making more determinate things I already knew and changing the way I put those things together. Most importantly, they were shifts in the way I experience our religion. Both pull a sort of “Hurrah for Israel!” out of me, whether I’m enjoying the fruit or helping to muck the stalls of the Restoration.
 This is a hackjob on the actual quotation, but alas, my books are presently on a barge somewhere between the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic, and Amazon just ain’t helping me. If anyone else knows the quote & citation, let me know.