I Walk Imperfectly

Honest, Thoughtful Sunday School

Tue 13 December 2016 |

About four years ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School lesson on the topic of apostasy. This was a couple years before I had done my deep dive into church history and started being Mormon on my own terms, but also a few years after I had read about Joseph Smith's polygamy and polyandry in Rough Stone Rolling. I had a gnawing unease over the discrepancy between the church's version of history and the scholarly version. And I was often disappointed to hear lessons more focused on serving the institution than loving one another. In the midst of that cognitive dissonance came the lesson from the D&C/Church History manual on apostasy. It featured a story about Thomas B. Marsh, an early LDS apostle, and his wife who had an arrangement to share a milk cow with another Mormon woman. According to the story, one of the women was skimming more than her share of cream from the milk, and the resulting dispute escalated through home teachers, the bishop, and the president of the church until finally the Marshes left the church entirely.

I had heard the story before, and didn't doubt its historical facts, but I was bothered by the judgmental attitude expressed by the lesson and the class members' comments. They repeated the familiar claim that only people whose faith was weak or insincere would leave the church after "being offended". As those comments were being shared, I thought about a couple lines from the hymn Lord, I Would Follow Thee:

Who am I to judge another, when I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can't see.

I wish that I'd had the courage to speak up that day, share those lines, and ask people to have a bit more humility and charity for the Marshes. There was no way we could know how deep their faith was before the incident, or how hurtful other church members had been to them, or how much they had agonized while deciding whether to stay. But I didn't say anything. I didn't want to rock the boat by contradicting the official Sunday School manual. I didn't want to be seen as antagonistic or less than completely faithful. Instead I fumed silently in my chair. Though I didn't take any immediate action in response to the experience, it weighed on me. I was disappointed that the church had failed to live up to the standards of charity and humility that it had taught me. And I resented that my social standing within the church would be threatened if I called it out for not meeting those standards.

Over the next weeks and months, the memory of that incident faded. But in 2015, as I was in the midst of my dive into the uncorrelated church history, it came roaring back. I learned about the Danites, a Mormon vigilante group that burned non-Mormon settlements in Missouri and threatened to kill Mormon dissenters. I learned how Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon tolerated and even encouraged these Danites. I learned how Thomas B. Marsh had argued against the violence while still an insider, and left the church after his pleas were ignored and the violence escalated. Marsh had far weightier reasons to leave the church than milk strippings.

This was a disturbing revelation. Before, I had just been disappointed in the uncharitable way the church told Marsh's story. But now that disappointment was combined with anger over the church also omitting any mention of the facts that would tarnish its own reputation or show Marsh in a more positive light. I was particularly galled that this had happened in an "apostasy" lesson designed to reinforce members' loyalty and obedience to the church. Not only had it maligned Marsh's name, but had done it in a dishonest and self-serving way that damaged countless relationships by encouraging members to assume the worst about their friends and family members who leave the church.

Thankfully, anger fades. The roaring blaze ignited by learning these facts has now cooled to just a glowing ember. And now I can see that there are additional lessons to be learned from the Marsh story. I learn that when a group of people feels threatened they may forget their commitment to their core values and do horrible things, as happened with the Danites and their abettors. And I learn that it's important to stand up to these unfortunate group tendencies, even when it comes at great personal cost. These lessons are incredibly relevant today. Humanity still has far too many people eager to commit violence in the name of their tribe, and too few people willing to say "This is not right."

So now I wonder, are these lessons welcome in Sunday School? I suspect that answer varies depending on the ward and the instructor. But assuming those lessons are welcome, how could I, as a student, help pull the lesson in this more honest and thoughtful direction? If I could go back in time and talk to my past self before going into that Thomas B. Marsh lesson, what would I say? A few thoughts come to mind:

  1. I'd have to be prepared. I'd have to know what was taught in the manual, know what relevant facts had been left out of the manual, and spend time pondering on the spiritual lessons that could be gleaned from telling the whole story.
  2. I'd have to be sincere. I would not gain people's trust if I went into the lesson to drop truth bombs that make the church look bad. But I might retain their trust, despite sharing uncomfortable and disturbing facts, if done to teach uplifting and deeply held truths.
  3. I'd have to be vulnerable. I'd have to be willing to risk class members doubling down on the correlated version of the story, or people accusing me of being led astray by anti-Mormon literature, or bishops and instructors telling me that my comments weren't welcome in Sunday School anymore.

In 2017, LDS Gospel Doctrine class will once again focus on the D&C and church history. It will use the same 1999 manual that was used last time. But now there are many more members aware of the troubling facts that the manual leaves out. There are now official church essays that share some of those facts. Importantly for me, I am now aware that there is a real problem.

I am no longer willing to sit on my hands when I see false or harmful teachings promoted at church. So I'm faced with deciding whether to use the exit, or use my voice. Stopping attendance would mean being estranged, to some degree, from my believing family and friends, and from the traditions with which I was raised. But choosing engagement implies an incredible amount of preparation and vulnerability that I doubt I can sustain every week.

There are 46 lessons in the D&C/Church History manual. I would like to produce an addendum for each lesson that does the following:

  1. Provides more background on the people, places, and events surrounding the lesson.
  2. Corrects omissions or misstatements in the lesson, and acknowledges ambiguity when sources conflict or are inconclusive.
  3. Emphasizes one or two spiritual truths that can be learned by studying both the flattering and unflattering sides of the story.
  4. Suggests wording for in-class comments that share these spiritual truths.
  5. Lists trustworthy resources that readers can consult for a deeper dive. This includes books, journal articles, and websites that are more concerned with presenting facts than viewpoints.

These resources will be targeted at people who want to positively engage with their Gospel Doctrine classes in a grown up way. They're for people who have had their fill of milk, and crave meat. Within this group are people with varying levels of knowledge of the issues. I'd like the resources to be addressed both to my four-years-ago self who didn't know about the Danites, and my current self who does.

These addenda should be linkable, skimmable, Googleable, shareable, copy/paste-able, and revisable. This is the main reason to create something new instead of just using the unofficial Mormon Sunday School resources; those are primarily in the form of podcasts and Word docs that are not friendly to readers trying to skim the content or search bots trying to index it.

Each addendum should be completed roughly two weeks before its accompanying lesson is scheduled to be taught. This should give ample time to incorporate feedback from the community, and for thoughtful instructors to consider how to use the resources in their lessons.

I hope to find others willing to help carry the load. If you would like to help, please reach out to me on Facebook.