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?