This is a guest post from Joel, Nate’s younger brother:
I was recently told of an episode in my family history. My great great great grandparents were members of the LDS Church from the time of Nauvoo. The father of the family died in Nauvoo. The mother took their four children to Winter Quarters, where she also died. On her deathbed, the mother made her children promise to go West with the Saints rather than return to their relatives in the East. All four orphans went West across the plains, and they helped build settlements, married, and had children. Their descendants spread across the the Mormon corridor. Their posterity grew, and years later on Pioneer Day, they held family reunions where they re-enacted that key moment at Winter Quarters, when the mother made her children promise to go West.
There are many similar pioneer stories. This one hits on a lot of common pioneer story themes. There is death on the plains. There is the choice between the easy path back East to a life of ease and luxury, and the hard path out West building new settlements in the wilderness. And woven throughout the story is the idea that these four young orphans, by choosing to follow God’s path, created a lasting legacy of thousands of faithful Mormon descendants, eternally grateful for their sacrifice.
In this story, the relatives back East don’t have names. We don’t hear much about them. Were they grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins? What did they think when they found out their grandchildren, nieces and nephews, recently orphaned, would be travelling on to the Salt Lake valley with this strange religion their parents had joined, rather than returning home to be raised by their blood relatives? Did they even get a chance to try to convince their orphaned relatives to return to them? When the family was baptised and followed after Joseph Smith, did they know they would never see them again? None of this is discussed or contemplated.
By going West, the four orphans put in motion a series of events that led to a large extended family of Mormons, with their numerous talents and contributions – civic, religious, and social – extending over generations. But what might they have done had they returned East? Where would they have ended up? What sacrifices would they have made? Might they have been swept up in the Civil War, a war the Saints sat out? What kind of posterity would they have had? Would their descendants include civic or religious leaders? Would those hypothetical descendants hold family reunions, celebrating their Civil War hero ancestors, chuckling about the bullet they dodged by not following those crazy polygamists out West to Utah?
This story illustrates one of the central paradoxes of Mormonism. Joseph Smith claimed to have restored the sealing power, to bind families together for eternity, to seal on earth and have it sealed in heaven. And yet, once you begin to exercise that sealing power, you also begin to cut families apart. Those relatives who don’t convert to Mormonism, or who choose to stay in the East, or who are unworthy, are ultimately left out. New families are created in their place, bound together through sealings and covenants, shared rituals and beliefs.
Mormonism seeks to resolve this paradox through posthumous sealings. No doubt a modern-day genealogist has unearthed the names of those nameless Gentile relatives and grafted them back into the family tree. They are not forgotten. But the pain of separation is felt in this life, the promise of reconciliation left to the next. And that possibility of reunion is little comfort to the left-behind nonbeliever.
The literal gathering to Zion of the early Church forced family separations. These days, mixed-faith families can remain in close proximity. Yet emotional separation and familial realignment remains a strong component of Mormon life and culture. Family activities, rites of passage such as baptism and ordination, church callings, and more serve to strengthen and re-affirm all-Mormon family units. But they also draw lines that leave out the non-believers, and bring with them time commitments for members that leave little time for maintaining and nurturing these family relationships. In perhaps the most visible and hurtful act of exclusion, only worthy family and friends are invited to temple weddings, where new couples solemnise their intention to create a new family unit.
Non believers sometimes react defensively, offended at being labeled unworthy, and may lash out at family members joining a church that to them seems obviously false and even fanatical. With each side seeking to rescue the other, it’s no wonder that family relationships become strained. Those mixed-faith families who succeed in maintaining their relationships often do so through compromise, moderating their own beliefs, choosing understanding and empathy over dogma.
Despite their complications, we still hold up these pioneer stories as faithful examples. It is self evident that minor children whose parents have died should choose their adopted church family over their Gentile blood family. We should likewise be willing to sacrifice our present earthly family for the promise of a future faithful family, if necessary. Like Naomi, we are to join the people of God, even if it means leaving family behind.
Jesus promised to divide families, to turn fathers against sons, and mothers against daughters. His disciples had to choose him over their fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. The breaking of familial bonds, among the strongest human connections, is the type of sacrifice that creates intense loyalty and commitment. It is generational commitment. Old families and loyalties fall away, and new ones are forged. We celebrate these new families, and the sacrifices that were made to start them. But perhaps we should temper our celebration with a greater awareness of the pain, the rejection, and the rupture of family that preceded the forming of new families, eternal bonds, and Zion communities.
 In some pioneer stories, the Gentile family members play a more prominent role, such as the parents who kick their son or daughter out of the house and cut them off for joining the Mormons. The angry, hard hearted father and the tearful mother are adversities the young convert must overcome in choosing to join the Saints, no matter the cost.
- Do you agree that emotional separation and familial realignment between believing and non-believing family members remain a strong component of Mormon life?
- Is this separation fundamental to LDS doctrine? Is the separation of son from father and daughter from mother an inescapable component of the gospel, or are there ways to live lovingly together even with extreme differences in belief?
- How do you keep or repair family connections strained by differences in belief?
I have no answers. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate this subject being brought up. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. Sometimes, to me, it seems ‘The Family’ is actually under attack by the very church that touts it’s importance.
You, like your brother, have been raised in Mormonville and therefore see things very differently from others that are converts to the church in others places in the world. I myself was a convert to the church in my early teens and although my parents were very much against it in the early days, which resulted in many arguments, they did in time,many years,they have come to see that the church as a good thing for me, even if it is not for them.
I am in the UK and a friend of Nate’s and although there are those that see leaving the church as being the worst thing their child could do, I don’t see it that way. We cannot be condemned for what we do not know or indeed what we do not understand. Therefore my extended family will not be condemned for what they do not know. We should be more concerned about our own salvation and stop judging others for their choices, that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, just accept them.
I in turn have children who were born into the church but have decided to leave the church and although i stand firm in what i know to be true, they are now all adults and i see it has their choice. However, coming to church does not a good Mormon make, but it is a start.
looking4truth, thank you for your thoughts. I feel it’s a little strong to say the church “attacks” families. But I do see that the theology, the cultural practices, and the current gospel teachings often have the affect of driving part-member families further apart.
Beverley, thank you for sharing your experience. I am glad to hear that your parents have softened towards you and hopefully you have a good relationship with them now. Did you go through any similar transition towards your parents that may have helped you reconcile with them, or was it all about them changing their views?
I think it is up to the individuals and families to fight to preserve their relationships. The church can sometimes divide, but it doesn’t have to, especially if everyone is more committed to maintaining relationships rather than being right. Respecting agency is key.
I think we like stories to tell each other and use as lessons and place meaning on them. I love your family story, thanks for sharing.
If the story is about the gospel, then Joseph Smith restoring selling keys can provide a framework for good stories within that vision. I doubt all generations afterwards were amazing and great and had no family problems or issues (except you and Nate, of course). I doubt the relatives back east just sat in luxury and had no stories to tell either.
But if the backdrop is about the gospel or the church, the family back east doesn’t fit in, and is left out. That doesn’t mean God cares less about them and who they become.
The paradox you mention is interesting to me. We want to seal some people with a great message of hope and love. And kinda ignore the rest that w can’t figure out and leave it to God to work out.
But dividing families seems so accepted for the cause of goodness and happiness. Like Nephi and family sneaking out in the middle of the night. Theread are some dark and loathsome family we just don’t want to mix with.
Or so we say in stories.
My guess is that how we all get sealed together in the next life will look very different than we talk about now. Whether we stay back east, or go west, there can be inspirational stories to honor our ancestors that did great things. While saints were building up the west, good things were happening back east too.
An important conversation,one I wish I’d been privy to thirty years ago. I then felt my primary purpose was to fulfil my then four callings, and support my husband in his two. Raising babies and working also, what got dropped was our service and support of my husband’s non-member parents. I deeply regret that, and now realise that serving them would have been a far more significant activity than that of fulfilling both ward and stake missionary activities.They were enemies of our church service, but I now understand why. Our children no longer have testimonies, and I understand now that I must prioritise my connection to them above all else.
Did Jesus promise division, or prophecy that it would happen?
When I chose to follow my Savior, I chose to do so even if that meant losing my parents, siblings, children, or spouse. Not all are prepared to choose Him over earthly familes, but in doing so, we can align ourselves with an eternal family worthy of EVERY sacrifice. As our earthly families make the same choice…that is when the sealing power takes effect.
I guess I am going to find out on a personal basis the answers to Nate’s 3 questions pretty soon. My daughter is engaged to marry a really nice guy who is “unaffiliated” with any religious group. She is an 8th generation Mormon on one line and back 6 generations has all 64 Utah pioneer ancestors.
Her fiance has attended one LDS meeting and it did nothing for him. The people were nice. But people can be nice at frat parties.
Does the LDS church only want to have a few extremely zealous and busy members distinctly separated from the messy rest of society? Or does it want to have a bigger tent that would include some of our relatives with more exceptions and problems?
What do we have to offer for less valiant believers and non-believers? Community, service (both ways), refuge, help raising children, entertainment?
Being nowhere near the Mormon Corridor, I mainly see it tearing up families when people join and their kids marriages are considered “exclusive to Mormons.” For the life of me I don’t know why in the US they don’t allow a civil marriage and then a temple sealing a few days later. That simple change would be nearly as effective as the missionary surge in moving work long.
My parents are both converts and temple marriages has absolutely made the family relationships on both sides, “us and them”.
I think it was part me teaching them about the church in small ways, part them seeing me live it and part that as a family we suffered a significant death, which made everyone look for answers as the why? You can never answer the why, but you can come to some sort of acceptance in time.
A Happy Hubby,
Take heart. I feel that eventually, with the spread of gay marriage and the government’s enforcement of it, the Church will have no choice but to get out of the marriage business altogether, and members in the United States will have to get married civilly first, just like members elsewhere. (In other words, the United States is the only country which “counts” sealings as marriages.)
FWIW, I say this as a full supporter of gay marriage.