I’m still winding my way through The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (HarperCollins, 2021) by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. We read history, of course, not just to learn what happened in the past and why, but because it helps us understand what is happening in the present and why. For an LDS reader looking at the Middle Ages, it is religious beliefs and practices that are often instructive, along with the role of the medieval church as an institution.
The accounts that come down to us of various miracles, visions, and dreams are particularly interesting. At a remove of a thousand years or more, it’s much easier to bracket the actual content of those accounts, take a step back, and ask, “What’s really going on here?” Here’s a paragraph from page 108 that points us in the right direction (emphasis added):
Stories about saints and miracles, or hagiographies, offer useful windows into the worlds of their composition. They describe a natural landscape upon which the supernatural operated, the boundaries within which men and women lived their lives right alongside the divine. As such, these types of stories reveal not only localized religious belief and practice, of course, but also provided a canvas upon which medieval people painted their hopes and fears about all aspects of life. These were acts of rhetorical persuasion.
Consider Alfred the peasant, who dreams about his dead mother in purgatory pleading with him to drop more coins in the offerings box at the local chapel and say more prayers on her behalf so she can escape her painful confinement and go hang out in the Good Place. What the authors are saying is that this dream doesn’t really teach us anything about purgatory or the spirit world; it teaches us about what Alfred (and other peasants similarly situated) believes, namely that the dead continue to live as spirits, that they can be happy or suffer various pains in that state, and that our actions after they die can affect whether they are happy or are suffering. The suggestion is that dreams and visions and revelations and miracles are mirrors into our own beliefs and concerns, not windows into another world.
What if we take this “it’s a mirror, not a window” approach to modern LDS visions, revelations, miracles, and beliefs? There’s a lot of material to work with. Here are a few examples.
Joseph’s 1836 vision of his dead brother. It was canonized and added to the LDS Pearl of Great Price in 1976, then moved to the D&C as section 137 in 1981. In the text, Joseph speaking in the first person, relates seeing living family members in “the celestial kingdom of God,” as well as his deceased brother Alvin. The final verse of the short text notes, “And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” As a mirror rather than a window, this text certainly shows Joseph’s ongoing anguish over the death of his older brother Alvin in 1823 and also the deaths of at least two children born to Emma, as well as concern for their place in the hereafter. Joseph’s recognition of his brother Alvin also reflects his belief (shared by all modern LDS, it seems) that spirits in the hereafter will look just like we do now and everyone will recognize each other. Would you recognize the 21-year-old version of your grandfather or great-grandmother?
Priesthood blessings heal the sick, maybe. Sick or injured members of the Church or those going in for a medical procedure often request a priesthood blessing. In the 19th century, this was often viewed in contrast to or as an alternative to medical treatment from a doctor, which was actually a reasonable view to take given how iffy medical treatment was in the 19th century. Nowadays the LDS position, and the approach of almost all members, is (apart from the current mess over vaccines) very pro-medicine. Blessings are seen as adding a little extra to what the doctors can do. Maybe God will make the surgeon a little better at her job that day. Maybe the Spirit will physically strengthen the patient for a better outcome or a quicker recovery. Maybe the sick person will simply be granted the peace of mind to endure their illness with grace and patience. To be honest, it’s not terribly clear in many cases what exactly a blessing is supposed to do. I’ll bet some members just get a blessing to cover their bets, or to keep the wife happy, or so that if they die on the operating table family members won’t spend the next twenty years saying, “If only he had gotten that blessing the bishop offered to give him before going in for that appendectomy.”
Looking into the mirror, I think we can add an observation or two. First, everyone seems to feel blessings can’t do any harm. That might seem obvious, but if a fair percentage of hospital blessings told patients it was their time to go, so just give up and die peacefully, patients and family members might think twice about requesting a blessing. Second, since blessings are all given verbally, somehow the counsel and advice part of the blessing plays a significant role. That is, those receiving a blessing are often more comforted by the particular words of blessing and comfort than in the general sense that the blessing itself is going to (supernaturally) improve their health or medical outcome. Third, no one is keeping score. If someone gets a blessing and dies, few family members hold it against the priesthood man who gave the blessing or hold it against God. It is just such a strange mix of the pragmatic (we take full advantage of the best medical care that is available) and the superstitious (believing the blessing will actually have a real-world effect). And let’s be honest: there is a real-world effect at least in the sense that those receiving blessings often take great comfort from them. If mirror analysis of priesthood blessings shows Mormons as pragmatic, mutually supportive, and superstitious — well, that seems fairly accurate. Could be worse.
Patriarchal blessings. I’ll jump right to the conclusion here. I think what patriarchal blessings tell us isn’t our lineage or our bright future if we are righteous and check all the Mormon boxes — but that LDS parents are very concerned about the welfare of their children and often deeply worried that when young Josh or Megan head off to college they’ll go wild and crazy, leaving Mormonism behind. Getting a patriarchal blessing for that teenager is just one more Mormon device to keep that soon-to-be young adult in the Church and doing Churchy things. Seminary and missions and even Trek all scratch the same itch. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are kids out there whose parents aren’t particularly invested in their success. There are kids out there who don’t have anyone rooting for them except a social worker and one or two teachers at school. Mormons tend to care a lot about their kids and want them to succeed in distinctly Mormon ways.
I’m sure there are plenty of other examples that could be cited. I am fairly confident that thinking like a mirror rather than a window can lead to some rather surprising insights. What does the whole food storage program (1970s and 1980s) tell us about Mormons? That we’re a little nutty. That we took (still take?) the whole end of the world thing very seriously, serious enough to put a few hundred or a few thousand dollars into barrels of wheat and other non-perishables that sit in the garage for twenty years or more. Most Mormons are just one inspiring sermon away from becoming dedicated Doomsday Preppers. There are tens of thousands of LDS walking the streets who expect to see with their natural eyes Jesus return to the earth (because their patriarchal blessing tells them so).
I’m sure readers can think of other examples, probably better examples. Mormons are surprisingly un-self-aware. This kind of reflective analysis — “What does X tell us about *us*, as opposed to anything else?” — seems like a way to make us more self-aware.