The year of the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Joseph Smith was gunned down by an angry mob in Missouri; apparently they didn’t much appreciate his ideas about plural marriage in part because some of his would-be “wives” were already married. Smith was, by all accounts, an exceptionally magnetic and good-looking guy so it was sort of like if Brad Pitt came to town and put out a shingle that said “wives needed.” Otherwise sensible ladies might have been compelled to shove a few belongings into a purse and yell, “catch ya later!”
Smith was killed in June of that year, just a few months before Jesus missed his October cutoff date. How abreast Smith was of the prevalent messiah deadlines is unclear, but it’s a safe assumption that he was at least in tune with the popular anticipation and died believing Christ’s return was eminent because much of his church’s theology hinges on this point.
After the service, we break into smaller groups for further discussion. The men stay in the main chapel for their meeting, some of the women gather to go over charitable duties, and the rest of us are invited to join study groups. It’s a beginner’s class for me, and down a long hall to a back room with rows of plastic school chairs and a teacher expecting twins soon; she has a hard time getting close enough to the chalk board to write.
I am given a copy of a thin book called “Gospel Principles,” comprised of 47 short chapters designed to introduce the faith to newcomers. Today we discuss the chapter called “Signs of the Second Coming.” It outlines all the usual stuff like war and pestilence.
Flipping through the booklet, I notice photos of regular people doing boring, everyday stuff peppered with over-the-top illustrations of Jesus and intergalactic cloud bursts. The artwork perfectly captures Mormon’s dualism: earth-bound responsibilities side-by-side with celestial fantasies.
Only a single hint of something exotic occurs the entire day. It’s during the service at the blessing of a newborn. In a frilly bonnet and ruffled dress, she looks like a doll. Her father carries her to the altar and a group of men gathers, each putting a hand to the baby. Together, they wish only good things for this precious life, but something about the sight of a fortress of men surrounding a tiny girl sends a tingle up my spine—whether for being creepy or just odd, I’m not sure. I’m reminded that men in this denomination are considered priests during their human incarnations and that beyond this life they hope for a powerful promotion.
For a second, it’s like the diaphanous drape flutters open and I get a quick glimpse of the quirky ceremonies that supposedly take place in the hidden chambers and back rooms of Mormon temples everywhere. From what I surmise, believers act out momentous occasions; they might pantomime death, make believe meeting God, and pretend to travel through the afterlife. These rituals are the elaborate secret handshakes in a cosmic clubhouse. The baby remains motionless for the duration, then the men return to their seats and the curtain closes and everything is normal again.
Smith encouraged people to make up their own minds. In his writings, he instructs anyone who is unsure about a topic to plant a seed of a question in their hearts and observe the answer that grows. This would seem an invitation to any divergent opinions that may arise, even a change as radical as ditching a central principle of the faith. Smith must have understood that faith isn’t something one can set like concrete. The history of Christianity, especially on these soils, is an endless series of modifications to create practices more meaningful or palatable to contemporary tastes. Over and over again people have taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t.