Art by Chad Danger Lindsay
Shivering and disoriented, I stared blankly into my car windows. Piles of snow blackened by car exhaust surrounded the parking lot, and the air was stale with smog. I was terrified. My wife and I had been married just under eighteen months. We were still trying to figure this grown-up thing out. We had bills. We had rent! Finally, the chill reminded me that I needed to dump the box I was clutching into the back seat, drive home, and break the news that Deseret Book had just fired me.
I was raised Mormon™. It was instilled in me from the beginning. I figured Mormonism was just what everybody did: like going to school, or playing kickball, or racing home to watch He-Man. A friend once asked me, “When do you think we’ll have a Mormon President?” Shocked, I replied, “Wasn’t George Washington a Mormon?” (Take a moment to let that sink in.)
But I hadn’t even read the Book of Mormon by the time I left on my mission. I was that dumb kid in Sunday School who, when the teacher said, “Let’s open our scriptures to Helaman,” started thumbing from the front of the quad thinking, “I don’t remember Helaman, so that’s gotta be one of those loser Old Testament books no one ever reads.”
But once I had appended black name tag to white shirt, I cracked open A Marvelous Work and a Wonder and read about how Professor Charles Anthon—a non-Mormon!—pronounced Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon’s “Reformed Egyptian” characters correct (“more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian”!). Completely flabbergasted, I turned to an amused elder and said, “We gotta tell people about this!” I was sure that if anyone heard these stories, they would have no choice but to convert.
I was ignorance coupled with certitude. After a few missionaries made me look foolish during a gospel debate, I decided I’d had enough and began reading anything I could get my hands on.
But what had started as insecurity sparked by vanity soon morphed into genuine curiosity. I fell in love with Mormon history and theology. I joined the Deseret Book Club. Each successive transfer got dicier and dicier as my clothes were replaced with pulp. When my mission ended, I shipped home boxes and boxes of books, and I was only barely able to drag my luggage to the plane. After spending a month catching up on a few dozen movies I’d missed, I got a job at the Church-owned Cottonwood Mall Deseret Book.
At first, I was in heaven: Mormon books as far as the eye could see. But I soon realized that Deseret Book wasn’t the place to go for academic titles. And during my four years there, I watched tomes slowly get pushed aside for trinkets, inspirational music, and, well, junk. The Angel Moroni Christmas tree topper stands out. Ditto the rows and rows of paintings of a very modern Jesus: Caucasian but tanned, buff but gentle. Fabio in a robe. It was a frustrating place to be as a young returned missionary interested in Mormon studies.
Still, I loved working there. I had great friends in my co-workers. It’s where I met my wife. I could order books that wouldn’t normally be stocked and display them proudly on the two shelves I was granted for promotional space. At first, a lot of that space was dedicated to FARMS, Hugh Nibley, scripture studies, and apologetics. But then customers started asking for a book we didn’t carry, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.
Piqued, I read it and confronted a new reality: Joseph Smith had over thirty wives while he was living—some of them already married to other men. This was not my grandfather’s prophet: the one who was only sealed to women after his death for spiritually vague reasons. I’d read anti-Mormonism, real anti-Mormonism—Ed Decker, Sandra Tanner, Walter Martin—and this author, Todd Compton, seemed reasonable. In Sacred Loneliness wasn’t trying to sell anyone on Joseph being a prophet, and it wasn’t written to tell anyone to leave the Church. It struck me as nothing more or less than an attempt to get at the truth. It was, in short, real history. And I was hooked.
But the FARMS Review of Books didn’t see it that way. I was left scratching my head after reading a few of its critical “reviews.” I thought FARMers just took down the absurd anti-Mormon silliness—Evangelical hypocrisy that wouldn’t apply the impossible standards they had for Mormonism to their own faith—but here they were, reacting to Compton as if he were practically Bill McKeever. What struck me most was the thinly-veiled contempt that ran beneath the reviews’ surface. While Compton’s book felt sincere, these reviews felt like agenda-driven propaganda.
In Sacred Loneliness led me into the world of new Mormon history—books that contained insights and details I’d never encountered before. And these made the LDS story more complete, more honest. This history wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; it was Mormonism to me. I loved it and I wanted to defend it.
So, I gave a paper at a Sunstone Symposium unimaginatively titled, “Why I No Longer Trust FARMS Review of Books.” It was brimming with the naiveté of an optimist—at one point I swear I asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” But, in retrospect, it wasn’t half-bad. I argued that the FARMS critique of Mormon historians wasn’t peer scholarship, but a judgment of the faithfulness and orthodoxy of those who might take a different view of the Mormon story. I admired these new Mormon historians and I wanted to be one of them someday. I took it all very personally.
When the LDS Archives became embroiled in a dispute with Utah State University over the Leonard Arrington Papers, I took that personally, too. I saw Arrington as something of a hero, and after reading Lavina Fielding Anderson’s “Doves and Serpents,” chronicling Arrington’s rocky tenure at Church Archives, I was ashamed. I did not understand why anyone would feel threatened by Mormon history, whatever it contained. In my view, the Church wasn’t united as much through its theology as its past. It was the story of Us.
In a fit of righteous anger, I wrote a blistering letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, decrying what I saw as the Church’s efforts to suppress access to honest history. In retrospect, I let my enthusiasm and passion get the better of me. The Church, I’m sure, believed it had rightful claim on the documents that ended up at Utah State, and didn’t deserve anyone’s finger, much less mine, pointing accusations. But my outrage ran deep.
At the time, I was the night supervisor at the bookstore. And though I was me—outspoken, opinionated, and without the filter I’ve worked so hard to cultivate over the last decade—I had never received any formal warnings. I hadn’t even been in trouble, much less caused any kind of ruckus.
The letter was printed on a Saturday, and that night my boss asked me to come in early Monday morning for a meeting. For the first and last time, I met someone from Deseret Book human resources. They had my final paycheck printed, they asked for my keys, and they escorted me out the door into the smog-ridden, black-snow-covered parking lot. I was not asked to explain myself or account for any behavior. I did not receive a warning.
I was so convinced I had been fired over my letter to the editor and over my participation in Sunstone that I don’t even remember the reason they actually gave me. It could have been for something else. The store manager was a kind man but non-confrontational. Perhaps he felt he’d had clear conversations with me about some inappropriate behavior and I’d completely missed it. I can’t guess what it might have been but it only seems fair to acknowledge possibilities beyond the purging of a perceived critic.
Over the next week, I pondered the vast employment opportunities for a young student living in a basement apartment. A call center? Another bookstore? Maybe even the prestigious food service industry? Then came an email from the editor of Sunstone magazine. My story was making the rounds and the editor invited me to apply for the managing editor and symposium coordinator position. I was, and remain, grateful beyond words. My wife and I considered it a blessing, and I would not be surprised if we complimented ourselves on our decision to continue paying tithing during my unemployment.
The chance to be thrust into the middle of Mormon studies was thrilling. I was swimming in Mormon history, drinking up any book I could find. I cared so deeply about Mormonism and its past that my tiny apartment was crammed with roughly fifteen hundred books, almost all of them on Mormonism. And it wasn’t enough just to read. I had to listen to the authors, seek out their talks and observations.
The Sunstone office is a fine old house in downtown Salt Lake. We worked on the ground floor, using the cellar and upstairs mostly for storage. The basement could easily have passed for Buffalo Bill’s in The Silence of the Lambs. Amidst the crumbling bricks, cobwebs, decaying wood, and inches of dust lurked boxes and boxes of magazines—hundreds of back issues of Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Journal of Mormon History. Upstairs, in a remodeled, brightly-lit, all-around-less-creepy room, stood filing cabinets filled with audio tapes: recordings of previous Sunstone Symposiums. Both floors thrilled me; they contained more information than I could consume in a lifetime. Whenever I had the chance, I explored both heaven and hell in the Sunstone office, but heaven was cleaner and spider-free, so at first I spent more time going through the tapes.
Soon I had set aside dozens of tapes to entertain me during my commute. One in particular caught my eye. It wasn’t from the large Salt Lake Symposium but the much smaller Pacific Northwest gathering—small enough that it was often held in someone’s home. The tape was a speech given by Linda King Newell, co-author of the much-lauded Emma Smith biography, Mormon Enigma. I had just read the book, was delighted by it, and was anxious to hear what the author had to say about it.
I popped the tape into my car’s cassette player and started driving. When I got home, I went straight inside my apartment and kept right on listening. It was that good. But the joke was on me. Linda Newell’s speech wasn’t on Mormon Enigma, or Emma Smith, or any Mormon history topic. It was on the LDS Church’s decision, made at the highest levels, to forbid her and her co-author, Valeen Tippetts Avery, from ever speaking about the book in public.
The specifics are Linda’s story, not mine. Suffice it to say that her tale was of a Kafka-esque bureaucracy subjecting a devoted member to arbitrary punishment, clueless middle management, and paranoid leaders more concerned with public relations than Christian behavior. These were not the actions of the Church of Christ pastoring a faithful member. They were the actions of a corporation obsessed primarily with its image. The story’s power was only heightened by Linda’s utter lack of vindictiveness. Her calm, almost nervous, composure broke only once, along with her voice, as she recounted her daughter’s refusal to attend church when she looked at the pulpit and knew her mother was not welcome there.
Speaking eight years after the ban, her pain dripped into the microphone, through the cables, into the recorder, and onto the magnetic tape in the cassette. It stayed potent for ten years, almost as if it were waiting for me to wander upstairs and find it.
I had read most of the troubling historical details from Church history, and though they jarred me at times, none of them ever disturbed me as much as the story I heard from Linda: a faithful, devoted member who spent years of her life and thousands of dollars of her own money to write a story no one else had bothered to tell. For her candidness, her honesty, her time, and her talent, she was told to keep her mouth shut or face dire discipline. As someone whose only goal was to become a Mormon historian, that story troubled me beyond words.
Linda’s speaking ban started in 1984 when I was eight years old. She spoke at the Symposium session I listened to in 1992 when I was a sophomore in high school. I found the tape and listened to it in 2002. In other words, it was old news. But I wanted—no—I needed to discuss it. Long-time Sunstoners would invariably say with maddening calm, “Oh yes, I remember that.” Their own outrage, if it ever existed, had ebbed away with time. Some staunch LDS friends, already suspicious of my involvement with Sunstone, would repeat ad nauseam that I had “only heard one side of the story.” My response then and now is, “How convenient.” My wife, ever supportive, agreed to listen to it with me. She was mildly intrigued but could not comprehend how Linda’s speech had transformed me. I was alone with my hurt and confusion.
And that was only the beginning. During my early months at Sunstone, more stories punctured my bubble—some just as old, some newer—of historians being punished or swept aside because they followed the evidence and their conscience. Alongside those old issues of Sunstone were volumes from the Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance. Now there’s some delightful reading.
But I continued my foray into Mormon history. I edited and introduced the well-received journals of Anthon Lund under the title Danish Apostle. I presented at Sunstone Symposiums and Mormon History Association meetings. I sat on panels with historians I admired such as Dean May and John Sillito. I copyedited for journals and interacted with a truly lovely community of Saints. I had, in short, achieved my dream of becoming a Mormon historian at a young age, and felt that I had a long, meaningful career ahead of me.
I always felt right at home at Mormon studies’ conferences, but at church I began to feel acutely, miserably out of place. Linda’s story had dealt a terrible blow to my trust in Church leaders, and with that, my trust in everything they were preaching. My infuriatingly Gen-X need to be understood, my sense of not being wanted for who I am, consumed me. My talents were as an historian and a skeptic. That’s what I had to offer to Mormonism, and I was certain Mormonism was replying, “No thanks, we’d prefer affirmation and no questions.”
I eventually walked away. I sold my books. I quit Sunstone and found a more lucrative job that I came to loathe. On the side, I penned screenplays, staying positive but constantly aware of the long, Powerball-like odds of breaking into Hollywood. When the Church’s support of Proposition 8 in California hit the news, I was so shocked and broken-hearted that I sat down and furiously pecked out a resignation letter for me, my wife (who had joined me for the journey out of the Church), and our two children.
B ut then, a funny thing happened during my self-imposed banishment. Mormonism changed—at least, from my narrow perspective it did. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not overnight. But I noticed that with the democratizing influence of the Internet, the silly dichotomy of “faithful vs. Sunstoner” was slowly eroding. While I’m quite certain the dichotomy had been very real, I’m also quite certain it had been magnified in my own head, a symptom of my desperation to be understood.
The Church began to embrace its history more openly, developing the Joseph Smith Papers project. In Sacred Loneliness, once a pariah of Deseret Book’s shelves, is now seen as a responsible, scholarly approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamous doings, and has been cited by the Church as such. A recent Brigham Young biography by a non-Mormon scholar, which openly and matter-of-factly discusses Young’s racism, profanity, sanction of violence, and misogyny was widely celebrated by most in the Mormon studies community.
Even FARMS no longer exists. Their most vitriolic reviewers have largely been relegated to venting their self-righteous anger in venues like Facebook alongside moms playing FarmVille and countless Grumpy Cat memes. Indeed, it seems like fewer hands are being wrung in angst over what to make of this or that historical detail. Professionally trained historians are emerging who are less worried about who Joseph Smith slept with than about what the Mormon past has to tell us about who we are today. Mitt Romney even ran for President, twice, and the Church weathered it with (mostly) grace and maturity.
It’s in this post-polemical world (both in practice and in my perception) that I happily rejoin the ranks of those who have something to say about the Restoration. My friends at Signature Books recently put out a call for a fact checker and acquisitions editor, and I count myself most fortunate to fill those shoes.
Breaking the shackles of tying my identity with acceptance of my place in Mormonism has been remarkably liberating. Frustration, sadness, and anger dissipate, replaced with curiosity and a yearning to understand rather than be understood. The Mormon story is a microcosm of that peculiar American marriage of individualism and community. It speaks to us in moving ways that continue to unfold.
The inversion this winter has been worse than ever in Salt Lake. The haze is so thick that, looking out of the window of my new office, I can’t even see the Church Office Building. But the gloom can’t get me down; things seem altogether too bright and exciting.