The stories we hear and are surrounded by frame our world, influence our outlook and understanding. They affect our sense of who we are, and our place in the world. They can broaden our horizons, or keep us to a narrow focus. What do the stories we find in our lesson manuals and church magazines say about us, say about the things that are considered to be important?

One much discussed topic is the results now being seen of a whitewashed or faith-promoting church history; something the Gospel Topics essays on are now attempting to address, in some cases rather more successfully than others. They seek to broaden the telling of the bigger stories.

In her recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune/Huffington Post Peggy Fletcher Stack quotes historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as saying:

“People may be comforted in the short run by platitudes, but I don’t think that leads to growth or to effective action. The answer isn’t to replace simplistic stories with footnoted essays. It is to tell better, more complete, stories, stories that are true, that touch issues people really care about.”

A contrast to views expressed by historian Kathleen Flake, quoted in the same article as saying:

“No religion I know of would want to turn its founding stories into history, at least as history is understood today in a scientific sense. Faith is not about fact; nor about fiction, for that matter. It’s certainly not a question of sophistication, at all, but of religious sense.”

It isn’t just the bigger stories that influence our lives, but the smaller stories as well. I don’t always appreciate the religious messages they sometimes seem to be sending. I commented on a story I recalled from a YW manual on Mormon Heretic’s recent post:

“I recall a grim story in one manual growing up specifically about a mother for whom bringing to term a baby would mean death, and how she wrote a diary for that baby knowing she would die. Not sure what the point of that was in a YW manual. It seemed to me to rather romanticise the very sad situation.”

I’ve also been on record a few times in the comments on various posts, saying that I think we take the wrong lessons from the stories we tell about the privations endured by the saints in the Martin and Willie handcart companies; that we use it as an example of sacrifice in a way that paints all sacrifice as good and necessary. I don’t regard that as a good thing.

I’ve expressed similar concerns for some of the stories that find their way into the Friend and the New Era magazines, which influence our children and youth. My daughter was particularly appalled some years ago by the story of a girl who gave up her ice skating class in order to attend early morning seminary. As though early morning seminary was the only way to study scripture and thus more important than developing a talent.

In his recent post over at T&S, Wilfried Decoo expresses concern about the stories missionaries choose to tell about their mission experiences via social media and video.

I was particularly heartened, in the brief research I carried out in connection with my earlier post on the European Sister’s Meeting. Elder Ballard mentioned his great-grandmother handcart pioneer Margaret McNeill. I was especially heartened by the following recorded in an online biography of Margaret McNeill:

“We were planning to go to Utah with the handcart company, but Franklin D. Richards counseled my father not to go in that company, for which we were afterwards thankful because of the great suffering and privations, and cold weather which these people were subject to. There were many of the company who were frozen that year on the plains.”

Her family opted to remain behind, and joined a later handcart company. Did they have an easy journey? No. She walked all the way, often carrying her brother. She once found herself standing in a nest of snakes whilst searching for a missing cow. But, it was a better journey than it would have been otherwise. Why was I heartened? Because choosing to wait was a sensible choice, and those who did so were faithful members, whose stories we rarely, if ever, hear, whilst the experiences of the Willie and Martin companies are romanticised, and celebrated in music as recently as last year.

I’ve also been somewhat heartened by the new youth curriculum materials, which encourage more discussion of the lesson subject matter. The articles they link to are not always so nuanced however, and the presentation will depend very much on the teacher.

I tend to side with Ulrich, that we need to tell better, more complete stories.

Wilfried’s remarks in the comments on his post about the wider responsibilities missionaries should recognise towards families of converts, a subject he covered more broadly in this earlier post, reminded me of my husband’s experience. Very often we hear stories of converts who have had to turn away from their family when they join the church, and the sacrifice they make to do so. We see these stories as examples of great faith. And the telling of them feeds expectations perhaps, that this is just the way things are. But do things really need to be that way? Would we do better to have more nuance in the stories we tell, and the stories we hear?

My husband was a convert to the church shortly before he turned 20, the age at which a person is considered an adult, in Japan. He was a student in Britain at the time. We met for the first time a few weeks later. Upon completing his university degree, my husband wished to serve a mission. Something his family was dead set against. And understandably so. My husband had spent his teenage years in the British education system, when his father was sent here by his employers. However, this was a posting of only a few years, at the end of which he was recalled to Japan. In order not to interrupt his children’s education, my father-in-law applied for a further overseas posting, which would mean his employers would continue to fund the children’s education in Britain. Accordingly he and his wife spent the next several years in Saudi Arabia, which must have been particularly hard on my mother-in-law, whilst my husband and brothers were able to continue their education undisrupted. My husband’s maternal grandfather had had a hand in the job interviews he had attended, and my husband was due to begin work in a large Japanese engineering company as a graduate trainee. He consulted with family about his desire to serve a mission, including his maternal grandfather. The answer he got was an emphatic no. My husband had no desire to go against his family, and his Bishop was perhaps unusual in being of the opinion that it was wholly impractical for Japanese men to be required to serve a mission anyway. For the next three years he completed his graduate training, and had prayerfully decided to set to work on his family history. He was able to get a lot of information from his maternal grandfather, in addition to writing to the various relevant municipal offices requesting copies of family records. Copies he still has today. By the end of those three years, he had been able to complete his direct line family history for 4 generations, including having temple work done for those deceased ancestors; his ward members had been happy to help him with the temple ordinances. He had also been able to save enough money to fund a mission himself, with enough left over to return to university for his Masters degree afterwards. So again, he approached his family about serving a mission. This time, although not exactly delighted, particularly since a job for life with a good company was very much a thing in Japan at the time, they gave their permission, his maternal grandfather commenting, that he supposed my husband was still young enough to start again afterwards. My husband was 24 when he left to serve a mission. I am grateful that my husband was able to work with his family, that we have a good relationship with them. He was further blessed by having been able to obtain copies of family history records that would no longer be readily available, and his experience working in a Japanese engineering company is proving beneficial now.

I like this story. It’s true, and it goes against expected patterns in so many ways, where there often seems to be a sense of hurry in approaching the next hurdle to be ticked off in life’s journey.

  • Do you see a contradiction in the views put forward by Ulrich and Flake?
  • How or how not?
  • What stories would you choose to tell and why?


Edit (13/3/15): The Margaret McNeill biography page linked is currently showing as Not Found. A biography including the excerpt quoted can also be seen here.