To Build a Fence


To Build a Fence

a public service message from

The Institute for Marital Concerns

Brigham Young Chapter

As all you RM gospel scholars know, Brigham Young once said:

    I will give each of the young men in Israel, who have arrived at an age to marry, a mission to go straightway and get married to a good sister, fence a city lot, lay out a garden and orchard and make a home.  This is the mission that I give to all young men in Israel.

This presents us with a distinct problem, if we 1) do not want to get married, 2) don’t want to get married, or 3) would really rather not get married.  If this sounds like you, then rest assured that we at the IMC are here to help you get out of what, at first glance, seems like a direct commandment from a prophet of God to get married.

Living in the post-Clinton era as we do, we have the right to demand strict word definitions and to nit-pick on how they fit together.  Being exactly the sort of “Young Man in Israel” that Brigham Young was speaking both to and about, it is necessary to build excuses for ourselves.  But a bad excuse is self-damnation and really good excuses are hard to come by in this dispensation of the fullness of times, so in order to stall for time, we need to demand some definitions while we strive to understand the “deeper” meaning of this prophetic utterance.

To the neophyte, defining “straightway” may seem our best starting point, but like any bomb, picking the wrong wire (or in this case, word) can make the whole thing go off in your face.  Be warned:  “Straightway” is such a potent word that it may, in fact, actually be impossible to completely disarm.  In cases like this, where the obvious is not the ideal, it is wise to open the abstract mind, allowing fresh, clean and clear thoughts to fall in from above like so many bird droppings.  In the case of this phrase (“go straightway and get married”), the best place to start is probably “get.”  To those unfamiliar with the fine art of advanced word refinement, or clarification, “get” may not seem so great, but as every wise word clarificator knows, “get” is the word clarificator’s best friend.  For one thing, it is of that rare tribe of word that is safe to look up in the dictionary!  Dozens upon dozens of wildly disparate definitions for the choosing!  “Get” can make a sentence mean anything you please!  “Go straightway and succeed in coming or going married!”  “Go straightway and achieve as a result of military activity married!”  “Go straightway and be subjected to married!”  (Oops, bad example . . . .)

But before we get too happy about discovering “get” just where it could have best been found, let’s look at a larger portion of Brother Brigham’s sticky speech:

I will give each of the young men in Israel, who have arrived at an age to marry, a mission to go straightway and get married to a good sister, fence a city lot, lay out a garden and orchard and make a home.

All right, clarificators, here we go!  First of all, why do we need to refine this statement?  Because it is presenting us with a mission–or, in other words, it’s handing out (heaven help us) responsibility; and if there is one thing we don’t need (or at least want), it’s responsibility!  Brigham couldn’t have meant for us to have moreresponsibility!  We’ve had enough of that!  We’re RMs! Are you with me?  ARE YOU WITH ME?!?!

BUT WAIT–who is he giving this mission to?

. . . each of the young men in Israel, who have arrived at an age to marry . . .

Ah ha!  There’s an out right there!  Who’s to say what “an age to marry” is?  Or whether we have “arrived” at such an age?  I don’t know, but I’m sure that doesn’t include me!

But that’s too easy, and not completely satisfactory.  Here’s why: I can’t go around saying “I haven’t “˜arrived at an age to marry’ yet” all of my life.  Also, unless I can point to what I am doing to obey President Young rather than my reasons (however valid) for not obeying him, then the focus will remain on what I’m not doing and no amount of pious explication is likely to save me from the judgmental frowns of others.  So let’s look once again at this quote of Brother Brigham’s, and this time, let’s pay Close Attention to the commas:

[The mission is] to go straightway and get married to a good sister, fence a city lot, lay out a garden and orchard and make a home.

It doesn’t take a prophet to realize that President Young has offered us young men in Israel who’ve arrived at an age to marry three options:

1  Go straightway and get married to a good sister

2  Fence a city lot

3  Lay out a garden and orchard and make a home

The first option is what we kinda wanna avoid and the third is an awful lot of hard work.  Therefore, the only option I can see left for us (short of apostasy) is to fence a city lot.  If we can get oh, say, six thousand of us young men in Israel together some Saturday afternoon, we should be able to fence a city lot in no time!  And then we can go home knowing we have been faithful in following the commands of the prophets!  A major plus of this plan is that we will be able to carry around a Polaroid of our fenced city lot–our pride and joy–to show anyone who may ask us why the only ring we’re wearing is our well-worn CTR.

“You see, Brother XYZ,” we might say, “while you were off getting married to a good sister, I did the thing most wouldn’t.  I built a fence.”  That should shut them up.

And hey!  It almost sounds heroic!

22 thoughts on “To Build a Fence”

  1. .

    (what follows is the “real” post to accompany the above example)

    This is the first essay in an open-ended series (“Marital Matters”), three of which I completed (the other two were on how to stop being so picky and just get married already, and the writing of love poetry). This was back in 1999 (when I was single and such things were on my mind). This particular portion of “Marital Matters” was later appropriated by myself and currently serves as the prologue to my novel Byuck (whose unpublished status will be relevant to tomorrow’s discussion).

    “Marital Matters” (meaning the set of three essays) was a success. I performed it for small groups and could get them rollin’ in the aisles. Which had more or less been my goal.

    As part of a written work, however, as part of my novel, it worked in other ways as well.

    It offended people.

    One acquaintance of mine read it in the presence of his mother and when she looked over his shoulder and read the first couple paragraphs, she immediately instructed him to throw that trash out.

    As we noted in the comments to Kent’s post on Elna Baker, humor is not an easy road to travel in LDS culture. The sheer quantity of angry letters Eric D. Snider (not all are Mormon-specific of course) gets is evidence of that.

    As Kent wrote in a comment to the comments on his Elna Baker post, “It is also probably one of the most frequent issues with comedy — comedians poke fun at people and ideas. They are often offensive.”

    Why? Because humor, to work, must be unexpected. And tackling subjects considered taboo is one of the most likely-to-be-successful ways to get a laugh. And to piss people off (if you’ll pardon my French).

    I think I can safely say that there is nothing in “To Build a Fence” that should be offensive. Yes, I joke about wresting the prophets words and yes I make light of Marriage etc etc, but how can anyone take offense to this? Especially people who’ve only read a few words?

    I have a theory that, in Mormon culture, we have developed a hypersensitivity — a persecution complex — a belief that people are out to offend us with jokes, and thus we choose to be offended.

    I’m not going to speculate on the origins of this belief, but I have told enough jokes in my life to be fairly certain there’s something to this theory of Intending to Be Offended.

    But why should we assume someone is out to get us? Why shouldn’t we let joke-tellers (and story-tellers in general) remain innocent until they prove themselves guilty?

    Back to Elna Baker, I’m not surprised she hasn’t aimed her work at an LDS audience (as far as I know; I’ll ask her when I interview her in October). First of course it’s a much smaller audience, but secondly, a great story like that shown on her blog would not go over well with the typical Mormon audience. It doesn’t matter how compelling your true story is, if you have to say the word “vagina” then it’s not worth telling. It’s like playing UpWords with my parents and not being able to dispose of my X because spelling “SEX” could offend them.

    How does this make sense? And how does this align with the Mormon worldview as suggested by Articles of Faith 9, 11 and 13? What have we got against being funny?

    Leonard Arrington:

    In other words, the Prophet [Joseph Smith] recognized as unhealthy the mind that lacked balance, perspective, and humor. In the society of his day there were many earnest people who habitually looked on the serious side of things that had no serious side, who regarded humor as incompatible with religion. It was common for these descendants of the Puritans to see displays of humor as a mark of insincerity. For humor suggested that nothing really mattered and that life was basically comic. To be overly humorous, they thought, was to be cynical toward life. But Joseph Smith saw humor and religion as quite reconcilable. As he saw it, once one acknowledges that there is something beyond laughter–a core of life that is solemn, serious, and tender–there is still plenty of room for jesting. At least, that is the way he was–“a jolly good fellow” as one contemporary described him.

    So let’s lighten up. And encourage others to as well.


    I got yet AMV-sponsored Family Home Evening lesson right here, folks. In addition to what you’ve already read, an official FHE lesson and some thoughts from the late but still beloved James E Faust.

    But your first assignment is to tell us a good Mormon joke (or humorous tale), right here, right now.

    We promise we won’t get offended.

  2. Why? Because humor, to work, must be unexpected.

    AND have truth at its core. If it’s not true, it’s not funny.

    It’s the truth laid out bare and not dressed up in the glamour of the Relief Society/Priesthood manual approved by CES.

  3. Going off in another direction…

    I’m surprised, Theric, that you didn’t do more with the potential ambiguity of “an age to marry.”

    Our model here could be the phrase, “arrived at the years of accountability.” Elsewhere, this is defined as 8 years of age. However, it’s widely acknowledged that for some people, “years of accountability” must be otherwise defined.

    Taking this as a model for marriage, “arrived at an age to marry” should be taken as incorporating an element of readiness to marry which (understandably) may vary from case to case, and in some cases (such as those males not attracted to females, or perhaps those chronically lacking the sense of responsibility necessary to support a family) may not arrive in this life at all.

  4. Okay. After I posted that, my brain kept spinning in (ahem) perhaps unfortunate directions…

    I wonder about the potential for a (humorous) story about a single Mormon guy who puts out that he’s gay basically in order to get more of a “pass” on his chronic avoidance of marriage. He could still date, of course, because he’s “looking for the girl that he could be happy with.” Any evidence of interest in a physical relationship would, of course, be viewed tolerantly and in a positive light by his prospective dates… In the meantime, being gay could give him points for sensitivity, spiritual resilience (in maintaining his activity in the Church despite the trial of his condition), etc.

    I’m sure this has been done in a mainstream setting, but so far as I know, not in a Mormon setting. And frankly, even though I’m the one suggesting it, the story would quite likely make me ill–because at heart it’s another sleazy-guy story. And I really REALLY would hope that we’d get some serious literature dealing with homosexuals who nonetheless strive to be active in the Church before we get spoofs on the idea (like this one). But I also think it could be really fun.

    Okay. I’ve purged that idea. I can get back to my research on strategies for improving graduation rates in alternative high schools…

  5. All right Th. Here’s a joke–you know I love corny Mormon jokes– I hope, as a fan of comic book heroes, you won’t be offended.

    “Recently atop the new 60 story building being constructed in down town Salt lake City the following was overheard:

    ‘Hey Mac, come over here to the edge with me; what’s your name?’

    ‘I’m Ralph, who are you?’

    ‘Well, Ralph, I’m Jeff, sent here by the prophet to bring good news, are you a member of the priesthood, Ralph?’

    ‘Yea, sure, Melchizedek in fact, Why Jeff?’

    ‘Well, Ralph, do you recall how Jesus walked on water? Well, the prophet has been given the keys to walk on air and extends it to all the priesthood. Here, watch this.’

    Jeff steps off the ledge and walks out about ten feet and stands there in mid air.

    ‘Wow!’ says Ralph, ‘Do you mean I can do that?’

    ‘Certainly,’ replies Jeff, ‘Just make a leap of faith.’

    Ralph takes a step from the ledge and plunges screaming to the pavement 60 floors below. Jeff walks back to the building and calls to another worker, ‘Hey, Mac, come over here.’

    Meanwhile on the street a passerby notices the occasional rain of bodies and approaches an apparently unconcerned worker nearby,

    ‘Say, didn’t you see several workers falling from above?’

    ‘Oh yea, it’s just Superman screwing around with the Mormons again.’ ”

    And here’s my new personal favorite that will probably end up on my own blog very soon:

    “The LDS 6 P’s for perfection: prophets…presidency…patriarchs…priesthoods

  6. And I really REALLY would hope that we’d get some serious literature dealing with homosexuals who nonetheless strive to be active in the Church before we get spoofs on the idea (like this one).

    I have a character like that. I’ve written a good portion of his story.

    I don’t know if I have the guts to publish it.

  7. I should like to apply for the position of fence builder with the Institute of Marital Concerns. Where should I send my CV?

    okay, here is my Mormon joke:

    “Why do you always take two Mormons fishing with you? Because if you only take one, he will drink all of your beer.”

  8. .

    Re JL #7: Brilliant. Just as good as anything I wrote.

    It’s curious, being removed from a work by ten years. MM hardly even feels like something I would write.

    Here’s a riddle that needs a good punchline:

    What’s the difference between secret and sacred?

  9. It occurs to me that the above joke could be taken as tasteless by some. If that is the case, I apologize. My brain has just never had the ability to censor itself with respect to Mormondom. I suppose that is why I spent so much time in the Standards office while I was at BYU – SIGH!

  10. .

    I had heard that one before, but it wasn’t about Mormons. I think it actually works better with Mormons….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s