Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, professor at Harvard University, and founding member of Exponent II. In 1986 she contributed her essay “Lusterware” to the Philip A. Barlow-edited collection, A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Canon Press), from which the following is excerpted. Lusterware, the metaphor at the heart of this essay, refers to nineteenth-century ceramic ware that had gold or platinum film applied to it, giving it the appearance of being real. But one fall from a shelf, or a too-close inspection revealed such a dish as not containing the true metal.
A number of years ago I read a letter from a young woman who had recently discovered some lusterware on her own shelf. “I used to think of the Church as one-hundred percent true,” she wrote, “But now I realize it is probably ten percent human and only ninety percent divine.” I gasped, wanting to write back immediately, “If you find any earthly institution that is ten percent divine, embrace it with all your heart!” Actually ten percent is probably too high an estimate. Jesus spoke of grains of salt and bits of leaven, and he told his disciples that “the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (Matthew 13:44). Thus a small speck of divinity—the salt in the earth, the leaven in the lump of dough, the treasure hidden in the field—gives value and life to the whole. Now the question is, where in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do we go to find the leaven? To the bishop? To the prophet? To the lesson manuals? Do we find it in the Relief Society? In sacrament meeting? And if we fail to discover it in any of these places shall we declare the lump worthless? Jesus’ answer was clear. The leaven must be found within one’s own heart or not at all: “. . . the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
Many years ago a blunt bishop countered one of my earnest complaints with a statement I have never forgotten: “The Church is a good place to practice the Christian virtues of forgiveness, mercy, and love unfeigned.” That was a revelation to me. The Church was not a place that exemplified Christian virtues so much as a place that required them. I suppose I had always thought of it as a nice cushion, a source of warmth and comfort if ever things got tough (which they seldom had in my life). It hadn’t occurred to me that the Church could make things tough . . .
Two or three years ago I attended a small unofficial women’s conference in Nauvoo. The ostensible purpose was to celebrate the founding of the Relief Society, but the real agenda was to come to terms with the position of women in the contemporary Church. The participants came from many places . . . [with] the only common bond being some connection with the three organizers, all of whom remained maddeningly opaque as to their motives. I cannot describe what happened to me during those three days. Let me just say that after emptying myself of any hope for peace and change in the Church I heard the voice of the Lord on the banks of the Mississippi River. It was a voice of gladness, telling me that the gospel had indeed been restored. It was a voice of truth, assuring me that my concerns were just, that much was still amiss in the Church. It was the voice of mercy, giving me the courage to continue my uneasy dialogue between doubt and faith. . . .
The temptations of skepticism are real. Sweeping up the lusterware, we sometimes forget to polish and cherish the silver, not knowing that the power of discernment is one of the gifts of the Spirit, that the ability to discover counterfeit wares also gives us the power to recognize the genuine.