Writing the Hard History

Kathryn Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project's Production of _The Fading Flower_. Photo by Naoma Wilkinson.

I have written two LDS History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom) the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith’s family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people’s faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.
The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down… I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God’s reality and love and show the Church’s leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case.

I had one actor who had gone inactive until he was in Friends of God and then decided to go on a full time mission as a result of being in the play and the Spirit he felt in being part of it. The plays opened up conversations with less active, former member, and non-member friends. I had numerous people come up to me (sometimes in tears) telling me how the play addressed issues they had been struggling with for a long time and that it had answered their prayers. I had people who came with thoughtful, faithful, spiritual experiences and we rejoiced together and were edified together. Both sets of casts, especially, felt spiritual uplift and a sense of mission with each play, even to the point where we had spiritual experiences in feeling presences and angels assisting and participating with us in our work. I won’t go into too much detail there, for its sacred ground for me, but I felt spiritual assistance in bringing those plays to their fulfillment. Again and again, I felt why the Lord had spurred me on in these projects.

However, there was one instance where I doubted myself on this front. The Fading Flower was accepted as part of BYU’s “Writers/Dramatugs/Actors Workshop,” which workshops new plays before producing a staged reading of the piece (I was excited about this since I wasn’t even a BYU student). The play, which deals with some pretty heavy historical realities, especially regarding the practice of polygamy in the 19th century by the LDS Church, hit a couple of the students pretty hard.

One of the students was a wonderful, intelligent, young woman and a feminist who strongly disliked my portrayal of Emma which, fortunately, we fixed to her satisfaction, for I have always been a strong proponent of Emma (I consider myself a kind of feminist myself, by the way). The practice of polygamy in any fashion was something that worked against this young woman’s feminist tendencies, so it was bound to be an uncomfortable topic for her, but she was smart, knowledgeable, and I wasn’t afraid that anything presented was going to take her out for good.

The experience of the other young woman was much harder for me to bear, though. She was a recent Hispanic convert of a couple of years, and had been taught a pretty simplistic version of the Gospel. She had sacrificed a lot, going against her family’s Catholic traditions and moving from Texas to go to BYU and be close to the Church. Her experiences at BYU ruffled her, as she confronted (at least from her perspective) intolerance, judgmentalism, and even some thinly veiled racism. Then there came this play of mine, presenting Joseph Smith as a polygamist (plus other hard facts), all information that she had never encountered before.

Her and I exchanged some long e-mails about the subject, and I did my best to give the context of the issues involved. A good friendship came out of it. However, some time later she later informed me that she had left the Church. She made it sound that it was due to a lot of the other issues she was specifically encountering in the weird culture that is BYU, but I had the feeling that my play certainly hadn’t helped.

I had written the play because of a vivid and prophetic dream I had that spurred me. I felt good throughout the process of writing it and when it was actually performed I, the cast, and many audience members told me the spiritual experiences they had surrounding it. But why then should I even write a play that could inadvertently damage some one’s fledgling faith?

I struggled with that question, but the more I thought and prayed about it, the more convinced I was performing the work the Lord had guided me in. There was a deeper problem at work here… we do not prepare the Saints for the information that is bound to fall in their laps.

It is not my fault that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. I did not create that fact. If you believe him, not even Joseph Smith is at fault for that fact. He was doing as the Lord directed. Yet in the Church we often build up this veil of secrecy, of enforced ignorance. Many of us frown on those who would discuss the less than savory elements of the Gospel and its history.

And it doesn’t only extend to Church History. The Book of Mormon, the Old and New Testaments have own fair share of faith challenging stories. I read a talk once where Elder Jeffrey R. Holland commented on how it said something about the Lord that he put Laban’s death by the hand Nephi within the first eight pages of the Book of Mormon. God wasn’t going to coddle us, he wanted us to face the facts and realize that discipleship in His Kingdom had a price. I look at the graphic and often disturbing stories in the Standard Works and realize that religion– real religion that hasn’t been watered down– is often a hard lesson in the rough nature of truth.

My play The Fading Flower is based on my research about the family of Joseph Smith, years after his martyrdom, especially centering on Emma Smith and her youngest son David Hyrum Smith. Joseph’s widow Emma strived to protect her sons and daughter from the principles which had caused her so much pain in her personal life with Joseph… the principle of polygamy and the “Brighamites” who practiced it. I made a lot of this issue of Emma’s protectiveness. Emma did not want to expose her children to the things and people that had caused her so much struggle. Essentially she wanted to protect them from the truth.

This, in the end, is the cause for the grief and downfall of Emma’s family. It’s Emma’s tragic flaw, this unwillingness to confront the full truth. It’s particularly catastrophic to her youngest son David Hyrum Smith, who not only loses his faith when he confronts the truth about his father’s polygamy, but also loses his sanity and spends the rest of his days in an insane asylum. Near the end of the play, I have David’s adopted sister Julia say, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end. David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one.”

I certainly believe that people still need to learn “line upon line, precept upon precept,” and that we should get “milk before meat.” But I’m saying it now, as I’ve said it before, our enemies are not going to be kind to us in this regard. In this age of easy information, they’re going to shove that meat down our throats and hope that we choke on it. And I have seen just that, time and time again. We’re still feeding the full fledged adults milk, and I’m nervous about the day when they meet some one who has information to give them (without the context) and that our friends and neighbors, and sibling and children, our spouses and parents, they’re going to choke and their faith is going to die.

We often really don’t trust the Lord when He said, “The Truth will make you free.” We take that as some kind of statement about general, esoteric truth, not really applying to the nitty gritty of history and theology and science and anthropology. Yet the Lord makes it painfully clear that if we take that evasive, luke warm track, we are deluding ourselves:

I give you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness….And, verily I say unto you, that it is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion. Amen (Doctrine and Covenants 93: 19, 53).

To know “what you worship”… that’s a pretty big deal. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Yet these are not what many people of faith are being led to. They are told to cover up, not to seek too deep into the mysteries… yet Joseph Smith responds to this kind of reasoning with some unequivocal sayings:

The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity–thou must commune with God (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137).

That communion with God doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t come without some struggle. All the experience I have to base this on are my own, but I know that every experience with the Divine I have had has come like Jacob wrestling with the angel… the Lord tries me, tests me. He forces me into a corner, sometimes making me struggle with conflict, even doubt. But after that tempest, the lights emerge from the darkness and enlightenment comes.

I won’t lie. In writing the about hard questions in Mormon History, I have often had to shed my cherished cultural assumptions like snake sheds his outer skin. Underneath, however, I find scales of armor that have been tempered into a true strength and resilience. I know the history, I know the doctrine, I know the context. I’m no longer afraid.

8 thoughts on “Writing the Hard History”

  1. Thank you for that great post. I love Julia’s line: “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end. David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one.”

    This beautifully states the reason Mormons need to deal constructively with the darker side of our history. In the 21st century, the whitewashed, fantasy history we’ve created is easily challenged.

  2. And the reason why art is important here is that it can do all this with charity and understanding and by showing multiple perspectives. After all, there is a whitewashed (or perhaps charcoal gray-washed), fantasy version of Mormonism that is pushed as a counter narrative by the doubters of Mormonism.

  3. The quote by Pilot “What is truth?” comes to mind. Interesting enough, Jesus doesn’t give an answer according to the New Testament author. It is in that question that I think this otherwise good post falls short. I know plenty of people who learn the “nasty bits” of history from the start and still fall away from the Church. That is because there is not “one history” to point to or “one set of historians” who are doing the writing. No matter how much history is told and written during what time of the learning process, that is no guide how a person will react.

    That isn’t to say history and theology shouldn’t be discussed as early as possible. I came from a very open family when it came to learning and therefore much of the “hard” lessons were already taught or read about during my formative years. However, personality and closeness to the spirit are far more determinate to what information will do to a person than the information itself.

  4. I think the attempt to discover a meaning in those things and to explore honest viewpoints can be the very essence of both honest inquiry and charity.

    Recognizing complexity in a thing is required before deeper inquiry can occur. Far from damaging my faith, such explorations force me to consider its underpinnings more directly and to not only feel a thing, but to know why.

    I find that complexity reassuring, even (and perhaps especially) when it reveals error, misstep, overreach, misunderstanding, misapplication, or simple doubt in the minds of people honestly attempting to find and assess truth as it really is.

    Faith is a contact sport–or at least it should be once you’ve learned the basic rules and are ready to step off the practice field and into the game(to mix my metaphors in a poke…).

  5. Good post, good responses.

    A while back it occurred to me that if we believe the prophecy about all hidden things being revealed in the last days, this suggests that the effort to hide some truths related to Mormon history is ultimately doomed. Wise or unwise, the choice of leaving those stories untold is simply not on the table. That being the case, I think we have a solemn responsibility to make sure that the stories are not told only by those who lack a believing perspective. But then, that’s a position that will surprise no one, given the subject matter of my novel…

  6. This is beautiful, Mahonri. And I agree–we can’t whitewash the truth. If we honestly believe that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God, then we have to look at what else was true about him and determine to learn something from it. Joseph Smith himself said “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

    I get the sense that Joseph Smith’s own prophetic calling was a bit of a stumbling block for him, and he really didn’t blame people (well, except for those who had received a sure witness) for stumbling when they encountered his plentiful imperfections. But how hopeful is that for those of us who are acutely aware of our own imperfections? Frankly, I think it’s a gorgeous, miraculous, hopeful, infinitely merciful thing that God shapes men like Joseph Smith into prophets. It encourages me to be kinder and more compassionate with myself and with other people–and to really see the potential we all have to be something great. Even in our fundamental weakness. And to see how we really are kind of wretchedly pathetic without the Atonement. 🙂

    I haven’t sampled as widely as I should from Mormon theatre, but of what I have sampled, “Fading Flower” quite possibly impacted me more than any other play. I thought it was well-written, especially the David Hyrum character–who was heart-breakingly sympathetic. It was hard, hard to watch. And it challenged my testimony of Joseph Smith. I was preparing to go through the temple at the time that I saw it, and it did give me a lot to think about–“Wait, I’m pretty committed to this Mormonism thing, but eternal covenants…hmmm, am I _that_ committed?” But I knew that I knew it was right, and while I’ll never understand polygamy (and I don’t need to, either–seeing as I would be right readily excommunicated if I started down that path in any significant way–thank heavens), I needed to think about it. I needed to think about how committed I really was. And I needed to think about why I was committed.

    It came down to whether or not I really believed that God’s will and understanding were higher than my will and understanding. And if I believed in the experiences I’ve had. Well, and whether I believed in prophets. Turns out I do. But it’s not rational. Except that it is. I can’t help thinking of that line from James Goldberg’s “Prodigal Son,” when the son says to his girlfriend, “I don’t think you understand how much the Book of Mormon is God’s middle finger to people like my father.” In other words, to people who pride themselves on being rational, thinking beings. It is challenging–that faith is something we experience and feel but ultimately can’t reason out. And yet, when you receive a witness from the Spirit, there is nothing more purely rational than that light you feel illuminating your being. Experiences like that unify the mind and the heart in a way that is eternally true–and in a way that reminds me how much of a disservice Western philosophy has done us by suggesting that thoughts and feelings are a conflicting dichotomy.

    And I think you’re right, Mahonri, that God plans it that way–he doesn’t coddle us. Do you have faith or don’t you? If everything were explained to us, then faith wouldn’t be possible, and we wouldn’t have to humble ourselves, recognizing our complete dependence on God. And we wouldn’t learn one of the most important laws of the universe–that there are things that are true that we can not see. I have a feeling that when we are exalted and learning to create as God creates that faith will be a very important natural law in that creation process.

    Anyway, I go on too long. But “Fading Flower” is certainly an important contribution to Mormon letters, precisely because it sparks these kinds of thoughts and discussions.

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