Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

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During the past week, the Bloggernacle (a loose term for the Mormon blogosphere, and by extension, the online Mormon community in general) has been all abuzz about several new articles on the Church’s official website dealing with the topic of polygamy. Most Mormons have had the unpleasant experience of hastily explaining to intrigued or confrontational outsiders that polygamy happened a long time ago, and we don’t do it anymore, possibly followed by the assurance that the purpose of polygamy back then was to care for destitute widows and orphans.

As with most aspects of Mormon history (well, really most aspects of history in general), the truth is something more complicated. Here’s the Cliff Notes version, in case you’re not familiar with the Mormon church, or grew up like me, in a family and church community where these sorts of things were hushed up:

Joseph Smith married over thirty women. Most of these marriages were contracted without the knowledge and/or consent of his first wife, Emma. Several of the marriages were to teenage girls; the youngest was fourteen. Some of the women were married to other men at the time. The women were typically promised salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him. The whole thing happened in secret, as Joseph was simultaneously denying the practice publicly , and even preaching sermons against it.

Releasing these essays is certainly a step in the right direction. Sticky historical points ought to be acknowledged and talked about. The justificatory tone of the essays, as well as their glossing over of the worst bits, is somewhat disappointing. While there is plenty of discussion of the alleged nobility of Joseph Smith’s motives, there is relatively little about the women involved, many of whom entered into polygamy with him at great personal and social cost to themselves. In fact, most of their names are not even mentioned, which seems to me to be the ultimate insult–they made an incredible sacrifice for polygamy, and we honor their sacrifice by forgetting their names. On the bright side, at least now we are acknowledging their existence, which is a positive step. Church manuals focused on the early Mormon prophets up till now have often erased their polygamous wives from their biographies, sometimes choosing to include only the first wife, and mentioning successive wives only if they were married after the first wife had died. Perhaps this can be the beginning of remembering these women as well.

Bizarrely, the lds.org’s general section on Joseph Smith actually also includes a few paragraphs on his family life, but there is mention of only one unnamed wife (presumably Emma), and no discussion of the heartbreak and humiliation she experienced as he secretly married dozens of other women, many of them her friends, employees, and tenants. The article simply states rosily,

 

One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life.

. . .

Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives.”

Hagiography at its finest. A more complete, balanced, and factual approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and its devastating effects on Emma and their marriage (as well as a great many other fascinating insights into his life and character) can be found in Richard Bushman’s excellent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. If you would like to know more about the extraordinary and courageous women who married Joseph Smith, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog recently did a beautiful, well-researched series called Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith. And while I can’t necessarily endorse the scholarship or impartiality of the new LDS.org articles, they can be found at the following links: Main article on Polygamy; Kirtland Period; Utah Period; The End of Polygamy.

I honor my many pioneer ancestors who accepted and lived polygamy out of the goodness and faith of their hearts. I am deeply sympathetic to the women who lived in loneliness because of it. I’m happy for those relative few who because of polygamy were able to break out of traditional 19th century norms for women and become doctors and other professionals while their sister wives were home minding the children (and only hope that the sister wives were also happy with the arrangement). All their stories should be told, and I’m glad we’re no longer hiding them away as if they were a shameful secret.

I’m not in a position to judge or even know about what all of the early women of Mormonism felt about polygamy. It is clear from the historical record that many of them were devoted to the principle of it, and some even found happiness in its practice, although others reported lives of loneliness, neglect, and conflict. Where polygamy really gets sticky for me is in its modern application, and with that I have some experience and firsthand knowledge. Mormons are quick to say that we no longer practice polygamy. However, when Mormons are sealed (married) in the Temple, it is intended to be for this life and for eternity. We tend to take “happily ever after” quite literally, at least for men. If a man gets a divorce or is widowed and decides to remarry, he remains “sealed” to the first wife, as well as being sealed to the second. The expectation, both implied and frequently stated in Mormon conversations, is that he will have multiple wives in heaven. “Eternal polygamy” is also invoked as a “solution” for women who never marry in this life. In a church that presently adulates “traditional” monogamous marriage, every unmarried Mormon woman I know has been told not to worry, because she will be added to the wives of a righteous man after she dies. Not surprisingly, not one of them has ever said that this assurance assuages any of their worries; on the contrary, it’s an additional source of pain.

The idea of eternal polygamy is obviously painful for single Mormon women. However, I can report from personal experience that it’s extremely disturbing to a married Mormon women as well to picture my husband eventually taking other wives. It’s not exactly the “happily ever after” I had in mind when I fell in love and promised my husband I’d be faithful to him forever. I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, so I’ll just say that it’s extremely important that the Mormon church has decided, however stumblingly and however late, to start being more open about polygamy. It is a painful topic that has been talked and prayed and wept over in female spaces within the Mormon Church during all the time that I have been a member.

In fact, my impetus for writing this blog post was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today, entitled A Personal History of Polygamy. “Somehow polygamy comes up,” says the author. “(Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?)” It’s a great series of snapshots showing the uneasy place polygamy occupies in the collective psyche of Mormon women. Her experience mirrors my own. We cope as best we can, with uneasy laughter and secret dread. We don’t tend to talk about it in mixed company, because at best we’ll be met with incomprehension, and at worst we’ll be served up misogynist platitudes by male authority figures. And I become more and more convinced that this constant specter of polygamy, which permeates even our most intimate relationships and holiest ordinances, is a microcosm of what it means to be a woman in the Mormon Church.

Weirdly, as I write this, I find myself falling more and more into the first person present. I’ve removed myself for the moment, and maybe forever, from the Mormon Church, but this conversation is so familiar, and so central to spiritual questions with which I have wrestled all my life, that I can pick it up in a heartbeat. I eventually discarded my belief in the divine origin of polygamy, but it took me many years, and a lot of anguished questions.

Thankfully, my daughter won’t have to deal with this particular brand of institutionalized sexism, or the resultant cognitive dissonance; that’s one of the reasons I’ve left. Even if she decides to go back to the Mormon Church sometime–and I’ll support her in it if she does, as I will in any religious choice she makes–she won’t have grown up with her parents, seminary teachers, bishops, and everyone she knows and trusts unconditionally justifying the polygamy of the early Mormon prophets as divinely mandated, and telling her she will, or at least might, have to be a polygamous wife herself someday. For the sake of all the other little girls growing up Mormon (and grown-up women like me, who really could use some closure), I hope that these new essays are the beginning of an increasingly honest and open discussion about polygamy in the Mormon Church, both past and present.

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Missing General Conference

Barely a day goes by when I don’t consciously think about how glad I am that we don’t attend the Mormon church anymore. Still, there are some things I miss. You can’t grow up in a faith without absorbing parts of it into your soul, and certainly into your memories and routines. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t tuned in to General Conference, the twice-yearly weekend where Mormons get together all over the world to listen to the words of the leaders of the Church, as spoken from Salt Lake City.

Of course, nothing was stopping me from tuning in this weekend–the meetings live-stream over the internet (even the male-only Priesthood session, which leaders began streaming just last year as a sort of compromise after Kate Kelly and the Ordain Women movement asked unsuccessfully to be admitted). But for the past few years, listening to General Conference has been more of a painful reminder to me of the many things in my childhood religion that I find troubling than the peaceful, soul-renewing weekend it is for many of my Mormon friends.

So I was relieved to leave it all behind and have a weekend full of nice, positive family activities. On Saturday I took the children to the library in the morning, and then Tony and I spent the afternoon in our usual haunt at the Drunken Monkey Cafe while they had their Irish dance class. Sunday morning we went to church at the Unitarian Universalist congregation that has opened their hearts to us. Axa and Raj sang the opening musical prelude, and it was beautiful.

After lunch, we drove down to the Rollins College Fine Arts Museum for a family art activity.

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We talked about how art can sometimes make us think or see the world differently by juxtaposing multiple things that don’t intuitively fit together. They had all sorts of magazines out, and we were supposed to cut them up and make a surreal collage. So I made this:

Collage

It was a lovely weekend. But it was harder than I expected to see all the social media posts leading up to and during Conference. To try not to gauge from the memes and blog chatter whether Conference was much the same as it always had been, or if somehow while my back was turned it might miraculously have changed into a place where I would feel comfortable again.

I suppose it’s natural to wish sometimes that you could go back and take the blue pill instead of the red one. In my memory, Conference is breakfast at Grandma’s, beautiful music, and a renewing affirmation of my comfortable, secure, vibrant faith. It can’t be that for me right now, and if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that it will never again be what it was. How could it, when I’ve changed so much? When the shape of all the old, familiar things looks so different from where I stand now?

Perhaps someday Conference (and the Mormon Church) will be something else equally precious and valuable to me, but for now it’s something that can only exist for me in a memory of who I used to be. Like an old lover or an ended friendship, nothing will ever quite fill the hole.

And that’s OK. The hole doesn’t really need filling now, because the whole of who I am is bigger than what I had thought. Still, the hole is there, and sometimes I can feel it.

It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song . . .

Guest Blog at The Exponent

I was invited to blog this week at The Exponent, a Mormon blog focused on women’s issues. They’re currently in the midst of a two-week focus on international voices. So if you’re interested in similarities and differences between Mormon congregations in various countries, you might want to pop in and have a read. My article is here.

Endings and Beginnings

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What do you think about the new theme? Since my blog is my home on the web, I like to rearrange the furniture once in a while. I hope you enjoy the clearer text, cleaner layout, and larger header photos. I only have a few up so far, but I’ll be adding more headers into the rotation–at least one for every place we’ve ever lived, and maybe one for every place we’ve ever visited.

In other news, the weather is hot, the kids are enjoying going to the pool several times a week, and we’ve decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from the Mormon church. I won’t bore you with all the details, since the story would take at least a dozen blog posts, if not a book, to convey. Suffice it to say that despite the many years and many hours we’ve invested in the Church over the course of our lives, it currently doesn’t feel like a place where we want to raise our children. I do want to say that we love our ward and everyone in it, and our decision to leave has nothing to do with any type of personal conflict.

We have a number of concerns, but the most serious–and the ones that finally prompted us to leave–have to do with Mormon teachings and social norms about gender roles. You may have heard in the news about the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly, a prominent Mormon advocate for the ordination of women to what is now an all-male Mormon priesthood, in which nearly every male over 12 but no females of any age are presently included. Although her excommunication is not in itself the reason we are leaving, it is somewhat indicative of the general climate in the Church right now, and certainly influenced the timing of our decision. We may come back some day, but for now what our family needs is to take a step back from all the difficult and haunting aspects of our childhood faith.

Obviously, this is not a decision we’ve made lightly. We are saddened by the distress our leaving might cause our families and other Mormon friends. However, we’d love to maintain our relationships with all of them (you). I’m not at all open to reconsidering our decision, but I am very open to answering any questions you might have, so long as they are respectfully phrased.

We like having a church community, so for the past several weeks we’ve been attending our local Unitarian Universalist church. We’ve felt very welcomed there, and really enjoy going every Sunday. The openness to different faith traditions is refreshing, and I’ve loved learning a whole new set of hymns. Every day reconfirms to us that we have made the right decision, and we’re so grateful we had the courage to do it, even though it was hard.

Another Poem

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I have another poem up at Times and Seasons, this time about Eve and the Fall. Literary Worship: Eve.

The clear expression of mixed feelings

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Here’s a rare thing–a secret about myself that I have not yet disclosed on this blog. I am a poet.

I fell in love with poetry as a little girl. I loved the images it made in my head, and the startling flashes of insight it gave me. But most of all, I loved the sound of the words in my mouth. Memorizing poetry became a habit, and a weapon against my recurring insomnia. I don’t know that I ever made it to the end of Paul Revere’s Ride without falling asleep.

At a used book sale once, my resourceful homeschooling parents picked up a copy of Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. It’s a high school textbook, full of the minutiae the boring English teacher tries to cram into his students at the beginning of the movie Dead Poets’ Society. You know, all the facts and terms and analysis that are supposed to kill people’s love of literature. Only they didn’t kill mine. They woke it up. I could not get enough of synecdoche, dactyls, and onomatopoeia. I read and loved the poetry section of that book to death. I was fascinated not only by the poetry itself, but by all the elements that made it up–the nuances of sound and image and meaning that turned common words into art.

Once I’d been reading for awhile, I started writing. It made sense in my family. My grandma wrote poetry. My dad wrote poetry. So I wrote poetry. I’ve always been a little shy of other people reading it, though. So mostly my poems sit in folders in my closet or on my computer, and in my head, where I keep them filed shyly next to Millay, Neruda, and Shakespeare.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I decided I would start posting some of my religious poetry on Times & Seasons. Mostly because I’ve been a slacker permablogger there lately, except when I get in a bad mood and decide to write something controversial, and then end up having an emotional breakdown over the resulting disagreeable comments. People don’t tend to complain about poetry, or even to disagree with it. Because disagreeing with a poem is like disagreeing with a painting.

So if you’re not a regular reader at Times & Seasons, feel free to pop over and check out some of my poetry. For each poem, I’ve written an accompanying post, not to explain the poem really, but to talk about the context and some of the issues in the poem itself. Although as always, it’s just another illustration of the fact that it takes ten times as many words in prose to say far less than one poem.

I’ve posted three so far, and intend to continue the series for awhile, until I get bored, or someone actually does complain, or I run out of poetry.

Bread of Life

Living Waters

The Lost Sheep

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think.

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The Red Tent, Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, The Mists of Avalon, and A Song for Arbonne

Yes, more book reviews! Here are a few incisive feminist retellings from the Bible, Arthurian legend, and the Age of Chivalry. As well as a funny and heart-wrenching memoir about being single in the Mormon Church.

The Red TentThe Red Tent by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The core of this book is one of those disturbing and troublesome stories in the Bible that we don’t tend to talk about much–like the time Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law got pregnant and he wanted to burn her alive, but then it turned out that he was the one who had impregnated her. Or the time Lot hospitably offered to give his virgin daughters to the mob of rapists outside his door. Or the time the nameless female actually is shoved outside to appease the mob of rapists, and ends up being raped to death and then dismembered.

Actually, none of the above stories appear in the Red Tent. It focuses on the story of Dinah, only daughter of Jacob. A Canaanite prince falls in love with her, sleeps with her, and asks her hand in marriage, offering Jacob any bride price he names. Jacob’s sons deceitfully tell the prince that if he and all his household are circumcised, he can marry Dinah. Then, as they are sore and recovering from circumcision, Simeon and Levi go in and slaughter them all, and carry Dinah away with them. One can only imagine what Dinah must have felt about the whole thing, since her point of view is, of course, not mentioned in the Bible, though it gives plenty of airtime to her brothers’ angry protestations about their honor.

Diamant does more than imagine what Dinah must have felt. She writes a novel about it, retelling the story of Jacob and his family from the point of view of the women who appear in it. The Red Tent of the title is the tent where they go to menstruate, to support each other as they give birth, and to pass on their stories to one another and their daughters. I know a lot of women for whom the idea of having a monthly girls-only slumber party and all this stuff about the bond of sisterhood really resonates. I’m not really one of them. I didn’t want a whole gaggle of women around me when I gave birth, singing me songs; I just wanted my husband, and silence.

In fact, this book gave me a lot of feelings, because let’s face it; the Old Testament is pretty horrifying if you read it from the point of view of the women. However, these women are strong and courageous, and do an amazing job of taking care of one another in a world that is extremely misogynist. There’s also some great stuff about the complex religious world the early Israelites inhabited, and especially about their worship of the Queen of Heaven. And it’s always interesting to read a familiar story from a different point of view. So yeah, worth a read if you have the fortitude. Kind of like the Old Testament, I guess.

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir by Nicole Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is everything a memoir should be–funny, poignant, and devastatingly, intensely personal. I enjoyed it on two very different levels. First of all, it’s a much-needed look at the big heartaches and little indignities of being single in a church that is very focused on marriage. I have many single Mormon (and formerly Mormon) friends who have told me stories very similar to the ones Nicole tells.

On another level, even as a happily married woman with two children, I related to Nicole’s search for identity in a church whose idea of female identity can feel so prescribed and constricting as to be almost suffocating. Her attempts to see (and live) beyond the paradigm she had grown up with ring very true to me. Most anyone who has ever struggled to live in a way that feels individually authentic will enjoy this book.

 

The Mists of Avalon (Avalon, #1)The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brilliant re-imagining of the Arthurian legends is a seminal masterpiece. From a literary standpoint, I’m afraid it can’t quite match T.H. White’s inimitable The Once and Future King (and Arthurian purists will certainly take exception to her liberal rearrangements of the hallowed stories; Atlantis, anyone?). Still, for sheer originality I think it takes the cake. Bradley takes the familiar stories and turns them on their heads, casting Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) as the heroine rather than the villain, and telling everything from the point of view of the women.

The Mists of Avalon portrays an early medieval Britain still in love with its fading Roman past, and torn by the conflict between the traditional Pagan religion and its usurping Christian competitor.

It’s very long and very depressing (no happy endings here, but then, the gradual decay of everything we hold dear is fairly authentically Arthurian). But you will never see Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, or Morgan le Fay the same way again. Feminist in concept, this books is enough to make you long for the good old days of matriarchal, goddess-worshiping Britain–even if they never existed.

Do be aware that if Pagan sex rituals are a no-go for you, you might not like this book.

A Song for ArbonneA Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorites of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, which is saying a lot, since he’s one of my favorite fantasy authors. Arbonne is similar to his other works in its intricate plotting and character development, vivid scenery, and masterful re-imagining of a historical time-period (in this case, Provence in the time of the troubadours).

Religion is always an interesting theme in Kay’s novels, and this was no exception. One of the major themes of the book was the stark difference between a society that worshiped both a female and male divinity, and one that completely rejects the female divine.

Highly recommended.

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Heavenly Mother Artistic Contest

Heavenly Mother is, of course, near and dear to my heart, so I was excited to hear about a new art and poetry contest being held in Her honor. From the contest’s webpage:

This contest celebrates the wondrous doctrine of the Restoration that we have a Heavenly Mother that oversees our spiritual development, in addition to a Heavenly Father. The first Relief Society President, Eliza R. Snow, famously penned in the LDS Hymn “O, My Father” the truth that we have “a mother there.” But while in heaven, it is important to remember that our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother are yet present to us now. They bestow upon us their love, gifts, inspiration, and grace, to help us along our earthly journey. As Sister Chieko Okazaki noted, our Father and Mother shower us with love and mercy. And as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland noted, our “heavenly parents are reaching across… streams and mountains and deserts, anxious to hold [us] close.”

While I am looking forward to seeing the winning contest entries, in the meantime I also enjoyed perusing the contest’s website, which includes a lovely collection of poetry about Heavenly Mother, dating from the mid-19th century up to the present. There’s even a poem written by me, which you can find here.

The God Who Weeps, River of Stars, Mirrors of the Unseen, and Project Conversion

You know your life is boring when every other blog post is a book review. Fortunately, my literary life is wildly interesting, and I’m happy to share it with you. I usually reserve five-star ratings for practically perfect books, but sometimes I give them out to books I love, in spite of their flaws. Your mileage may vary, but if you feel the same, we might be long-lost kindred spirits.

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of LifeThe God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl L. Givens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The God Who Weeps tops the list of my favorite books about my faith. I found this both a thought-provoking and a faith-provoking book. Terryl and Fiona Givens have distilled some of the most powerful core doctrines of the Mormon faith into a slim volume brimming with hope, philosophy, and divine compassion.

Basing their premise on Enoch’s moving description of his encounter with a weeping God, they describe the ultimate power in the universe in startlingly personal terms, as a being who not only loves us, but knows us intimately and weeps for us and with us.

One of the things I loved best was the broad range of sources from literature, poetry, philosophy, and Christian history that the Givens invoked as powerful and moving illustrations. I would have liked to hear more discussion of the male/female duality of God, although they at least brought it up in their chapter on the Hymn of the Pearl.

This is the first book I would recommend for non-Mormons curious about the Mormon conception of God and the meaning of life. I would also recommend it for those like me, who grew up Mormon and are working to re-engage their childhood faith in a way that feels authentic.

River of StarsRiver of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading and loving Under Heaven, I was a little afraid to read this one, for fear that it would not be as good. And it’s true, it took me a little longer to get into it, if for no other reason than that the fifteen-year-old bandit was not as likeable of a protagonist to me as the cultured and courageous (if eccentric) Shen Tai of the earlier novel.

However, after a few chapters I was pulled into the story and soon utterly enamored. It is rare for a book to move me to tears, and yet both of these novels have done so. I love the broad historical sweep, the sense of the interplay between fate and chance and individual decisions. Kay writes as a bemused historian, a philosopher, and an intimate biographer. His version of fantasy is simply to plunge us into a world where the invisible forces of the spirit world in which his historically inspired characters believe are as real to us as they are to them. The effect is subtle, but powerful. One of his great strengths is the ability to paint even a minor character in a few vivid strokes that bring him or her completely to life.

There were a few moments in which Kay seemed overly self-conscious as author and omniscient commentator, momentarily pulling the reader out of the story in disorientation. Still, this is a wonderful, memorable book, and a worthy successor to Under Heaven.

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in IranMirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Travel writing is an interesting genre, which apart from acquainting the reader with a place, gives him or her a rather intimate introduction to the author in a variety of unusual and highly challenging settings. Jason Elliot is a well-read, cultured traveler with an adventurous spirit and an affinity for meaningful cultural exchange. In short, I think he would make an absolutely delightful traveling companion. Not to mention the fact that his prose is so flawlessly elegant that I think I’m developing a serious literary crush.

Mirrors of the Unseen chronicles many months of Eliot’s solo travels through Iran. He is well-versed in Persian art, and his effusive descriptions of architectural wonders can be a bit bewildering without a picture in front of you. He has included some photos, but it’s a little confusing to navigate through all the different places and match them up. However, I enjoyed his liberal quoting of other travelers to the region, especially the colorful observations of Byron.

What I really loved were the accounts of his many encounters with Iranians, from the devious haggling taxi drivers to the many warm-hearted strangers who took him into their homes and made him welcome. Reading this book made Iran and its people real for me, and I’d love to visit Iran myself now. Especially with Jason Eliot (or at least with his book in hand).

If you would like to learn more about Iran than you hear on the nightly news, I highly recommend this fascinating book.

Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One YearProject Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year by Andrew Bowen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First of all, I hate to rain on the feel-good parade, but this guy is in serious need of a copy editor. As in, besides the obvious typos, he’s never even heard of the past perfect tense. Also, I wonder when the year-long personal quest/book deal fad will finally run its course.

That said, this book did have some redeeming qualities. So even though it’s really only a two or 2.5 star book, I’m going to go ahead and cut Andrew Bowen some slack and give him three stars, just for the significant personal achievement of going from closed-minded bigot to advocate for everyone he used to hate in one short year.

This book chronicles how Bowen, a self-described bitter atheist (and former intolerant Christian), lived a different faith every month for a year. In many ways, it’s similar to Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, except that Bowen goes well beyond Christianity, devoting months to faiths as diverse as Buddhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism. He even spends a memorable month meeting with the Mormon missionaries.

I enjoyed reading about his plunge into each faith and don’t doubt his sincerity, but I remain skeptical that a month inside a faith with no plans for long-term commitment is long enough to really understand it. There’s always some hubris involved in these sorts of projects, and Bowen is no exception. He even considers going off and starting his own religion.

Still, if the goal was getting to know some members of each faith and trying to listen and learn respect for other religions, then Bowen has ably accomplished it. There are better introductions to each particular faith than this book, but for an interesting and sincerely-written testimonial of the virtues and unexpected joys of religious toleration, it does quite well.



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Wearing Pants

About a month ago, I wore pants to church for the first time (trousers, that is, for my readers who speak British-inspired forms of English). In case you didn’t know, there’s a soft norm in the Mormon church for women to wear skirts or dresses to Sunday meetings. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s been quite a social media tempest during the past couple of weeks after a group of Mormon feminists asked LDS women to wear pants to church on Sunday, December 16 as a show of solidarity.

Having already recently conducted my own private (and unrelated) “wear pants to church” event, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my thoughts here. I had been contemplating wearing pants to church for awhile and had several reasons for doing it, although when it actually came down to it, the choice to wear pants on that particular Sunday had mostly to do with the fact that I was exhausted from taking care of sick family members and my dress pants were clean and pressed, while my skirt was not.

Turns out, though, I liked wearing pants. They worked a lot better for playing the organ than my knee-length skirts (which tend to ride up as I move my feet around on the pedals) or my long skirts (which I never wear on Sundays when it’s my turn to play because they trip me up on the pedals). I was comfortably warm in the chapel for the first time in many months. I got a chance to wear the nice slacks my mother-in-law bought me last year, and which I don’t really have much occasion to don in my stay-at-home Mormon mom life. Wearing pants also made me more aware of how members or visitors might feel who stand out as different at church, whether it’s because of their clothing, marital status, race, tobacco odor, or whatever other reason.

My biggest reason for wearing pants, though, is that I myself am one of “those” Mormon feminists. I know that on the outside I look like a pretty good Molly Mormon (i.e. stay-at-home-mom with temple marriage and cute kids who pays tithing, wears knee-length skirts and shoulder-covering shirts, doesn’t drink or smoke, makes casseroles for funerals, etc.). But inside I see things a little differently from the majority of conservative Mormons in my ward, and any other ward I’ve ever lived in, for that matter. I love to talk about Heavenly Mother. I voted for Obama. I buy both my daughter and my son baby dolls and building toys. And yes, I would be more than happy to see some changes in my  church with regard to greater gender equality.

No, that doesn’t mean I’m writing letters to the prophet or picketing the church office building to demand that he immediately start ordaining women to the priesthood. What I am doing is listening to other women’s stories about how they feel at church, and telling my own. It means that I’m participating in discussions and thought experiments that analyze cultural and institutional problems and explore possibilities to change things for the better.

Anyway, that’s what I do online. On Sundays I dress up in my modest skirt, roll up my sleeves, and do what I’ve been asked to help my congregation run smoothly. In Sunday School,  I try to modulate my comments to make sure that I don’t say anything offensive to my more conservative brothers and sisters. But I am not accorded the same courtesy, and hear offensive statements from members of my ward all the time at church.

I think it’s mostly out of ignorance, because they’re all nice people. So in some ways, that’s part of what wearing pants meant to me. I wanted them to know I exist, not just as the Molly Mormon who knows all the Sunday School answers and signs up to make meals whenever there’s a need, but as myself, with all my issues and doubts and yes, my feminism. I want them to know who I really am, and that no matter what they’ve heard about stereotypical Mormon feminists, I love my church, and want it to be a place where I can belong even if I think or feel or look a little different from everyone else. I want that for me, and I want it for all the other women (and men) who have felt alienated or judged in a place that should be full of the love of Christ and safe for all of us.

And you know what, the members of my ward really made my day. There were no comments about my clothing choice, and I didn’t even see any stares. As far as I could tell, nobody even noticed I was wearing pants. They smiled at me, and talked to me, and loved me just the same as they always do. That might seem like a small thing, but it meant a lot to me. Because really, wearing pants to church was more about who I am and how I feel than it was about trying to impact anyone else. I needed to stand before my God and my faith community and be honest about who I was. After so many times of going to church and hearing things that make me wonder if there’s even a place there for me, wearing pants felt like a way to ask my question out loud and know from the response if I was really welcome. And what I heard loud and clear from my brothers and sisters at church that day is that they, like the Master they worship, love me for who I am and welcome me with all my doubts and inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. And feminism. And pants.

Tomorrow, Mormon women around the world will be wearing pants to church for many different reasons. Some would like to see small changes in culture and policy. Others hope for more substantive restructuring. Some differ from the traditional Mormon mold in their marital status, professional choices, background, lack of children, etc. Others have experienced abuse at the hands of Priesthood leaders. Some have been absent from church for months or years because they felt alienated or unwelcome, and are coming back out of hope that maybe this time will be different. Others because they are new converts, wear what is traditional to their cultures, can’t afford new clothes,  or just prefer pants. Still others because they want to make sure that the people who dress differently feel welcome too.

Some women will wear pants to church tomorrow because that’s what they always wear. Others have been so dumbfounded by the negative and in some cases violent language used to intimidate and demean those who plan to wear pants, that they have elected to wear pants in solidarity.

I hope, for all these women, that their wards are as kind as mine. I hope they have bishops and relief society presidents and fellow members who can look beyond the pants and see the loving, faithful, conflicted daughter of God. And I hope that they will open their hearts and make her feel welcome in a way she’s never felt welcome before.

I’ll be wearing my pants again tomorrow. And if by some amazing chance there’s another Mormon feminist in my ward, I really hope she wears pants too. If you’re out there, I’d love to meet you, my long-lost sister!

P.S. If you’ve never felt hurt by a perceived inequality in the church and would like to understand where people like me are coming from, I recommend this article from Neylan McBaine, who is the associate creative director for the Church-owned Bonneville Communications, the agency partnered with the Church on Mormon.org and the “I’m A Mormon” campaign.