Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens
[Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain]
— Friedrich Schiller, The Maid of Orléans
The vicarious temple ordinances performed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormons”) are back in the news. This time, it is because someone has reportedly sealed Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson. (Hemings was a slave owned by Jefferson. She bore children that have Jefferson DNA. )
As usually happens with such things, the media and the blogosphere are a-bubble. Some are well-intentioned expressions of concern, others are ill-informed, and some seem to just want to pile on and make the Church look bad, or use this as an opportunity to push their own reforming agenda on the Church.
The unspoken assumption seems to be that the Church can be “shamed” or at least “public-pressured” into “doing the right thing.” In this case, the right thing would presumably be not performing vicarious sealing of slaves to former masters. (The more hostile want temple work vastly curtailed or stopped altogether, but we’ll leave them to one side—it isn’t going to happen.)
This is not, however, simply one more case of “Mormon institutional insensitivity” to go with performing temple rites for Holocaust victims (despite what some have suggested). LDS policy forbids performing Holocaust victims’ temple rites. The people who did so had to circumvent fairly significant warnings and technological obstacles to do so. (Those obstacles have since been increased even further.)
Likewise, it has never been LDS policy to seek out female slaves and seal them to their former masters and/or rapists.
Now, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of not sealing slaves to masters. The idea is obscene. I don’t know any sensible person that would endorse it. And that, unfortunately, is precisely the problem—I said sensible person.
Let me explain.
No sensible person
I’ve been in the Church for nearly forty years, in two languages, on both sides of North America, in Europe, and a few other places. I have never heard, been taught, or read that we ought to be sealing slaves to former masters. Never. At all. There is no “slave and master record extraction program.”
I also don’t know anyone else who has heard such things taught, likely for the simple reason that it never has been. I do know of one case, however, in which a member announced that her family wanted to seal Jefferson to Hemings. Despite the ward family history representative pointing out (with some heat) that this was contrary to Church policy, the member persisted in thinking this was a good idea. I don’t know if she succeeded, but apparently someone of a similar bent did.
Now, be honest: we’ve all met this person in any reasonably large group or organization, especially if the group is a voluntary association. He or she is part of the human condition—the one who does or says something that makes everyone else cringe and wonder, “What was he thinking?” And, some people do this more spectacularly—or more frequently—than others.
If you haven’t met him, please write and tell me—I might just move to your area.
Or, you might be him.
I was once complaining to my father (with less charity than I ought to have had) about one particular specimen. He told me a story.
You see, my great-grandfather owned a farm in the foothills of Alberta. Every summer, Dad would go there to work. One of his jobs was herding sheep. This summer activity gave him a slightly different twist on Jesus’ label of us as his sheep.
The sheep my Dad tended seemed determined to conspire in their own deaths. They were always getting lost, stuck, and according to him would have followed each other off a cliff if given half the chance.
So, he told me, whenever he now hears Jesus’ command to “Feed my sheep,” he thinks back to the herd he had on the farm, and hears an admonition to, among other things, “Look after the dummies.”
I don’t know if that’s what Jesus intended, but it’s a sort of “liken it unto ourselves” perspective that I’ve found useful.
In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that these people are stupid, or intellectually challenged—they can be bright or dim, just like anyone else can.
But, sometimes we just seem to have blinders on our common sense. We have difficulty understanding how others will see things, and we tend to charge on blithely regardless. We should simply count ourselves lucky if our own areas of dumbness aren’t presently on public display, causing unintended harm to the Church we love, and offense where none was intended.
And so, this is the big problem with the expectation of some in the media and blogosphere: they seem to think that if the Church would just teach and train members better, things like sealing Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson would be stopped. (Others quickly decide that nothing can be done, and the whole temple project should be shut down—which, I repeat, is never going to happen.)
But, the problem is not that Church leaders and members don’t care about such things—almost all care very much, since doing such things contravenes policy and doctrine.
The problem is that these things are done by a very small percentage of Mormons. And, they are the percentage who are least likely to listen when told they aren’t supposed to do something—as the case I mention above illustrates. Tell them not to do it, and some people just dig in their heels. Maybe you or I have even done something similar when we were convinced we were right about something.
When in this mindset, you and I are also the least likely to, say, read angry blogs about the matter, and decide we need to change our behavior. Sometimes, people just don’t get it.
The Body of Christ
One could speculate about the psychology or psychiatry involved, but that’s not the issue.
What is important is that as members of the Church, we’re not to reject or cast people out when they do something like this and make everyone else look bad. People are not clueless or insensitive just in matters of temple work—sadly, someone among us will struggle in just about any area of their lives. We all do. If you haven’t had the experience of putting your foot in your mouth, or doing something you thought was a good idea, only to have it blow up in your face—well, you just aren’t paying attention.
But, if people with these types of troubles cannot be loved, accepted despite their faults, and welcomed in the Church of Jesus Christ, where can they be? Where can we be? Where can I?
Members of the Church who seem to “have it all together,” are much more congenial to us. But, as Paul emphasized, in the Church we really ought to treasure the “uncomely” or “shameful” parts of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:22–27). And, that will be all of us at some point or another. If we’re lucky, it won’t be front-page news.
None of us is perfect, and we’re all going to rub someone wrong at some point. We’re all “sheep,” we all do stupid things, and we’re all dummies who need looking after sometimes. Perhaps the greatest danger is to those who are more highly functional, because they can be tempted into a feeling of superiority, or frustration with the rest of us who don’t measure up to the standards they think people should meet.
We have, then, no grounds for feeling or being unkind or acting superior here. I’m trying to explain how this sort of thing happens, and will likely keep happening occasionally despite all the teaching, training, and policies that get put in place.
The people who will need the message have a problem that just isn’t easily amenable to teaching, training, and policy. If you have to be told that sealing slaves to masters is a bad idea, despite LDS policy and doctrine, you’re not likely to “get it” when you are told. Or, you won’t remember. Or you’ll think your case is an exception.
Sadly, as LDS temple work has become more publicized, the ability of a few to alienate many has just increased.
Besides, the dead are immune to offense or disturbance regardless–or at least I hope so. If the Mormons are right, then the targets of misguided temple work have nothing to worry about—they aren’t bound to Thomas Jefferson or anyone else that they don’t accept with joy. If the Mormons are wrong, then temple work is of no consequence anyway.
Ironically, those who accuse Mormon temple work of trying to “take over” or “speak for” the dead are themselves doing just that. The Mormons are offering an ordinance which the dead must accept for it to be of any validity at all. And, we’d like to do it privately—we don’t do it for worldly attention, praise, or to act triumphalistic.
Are the Mormons so potent or intrusive a force in the hereafter that our faux pas victimize and traumatize those who have gone before? I suspect not—especially in the critics’ view, where LDS ordinances are of no value whatever. It would be a strange kind of hell if the dear departed were forever at risk of being tormented or victimized by whatever random dumb thing some mortal somewhere said or did.
Some of those doing the complaining are, by contrast, getting outraged in behalf of the dead. They’re putting words in the mouths of the dead, and insisting that these people need to be protected. But, protected from what?
As for this world, and any offense caused the living, virtually all the Mormons themselves don’t want this sort of thing going on either. So, why take offense when some few individuals do something forbidden by both policy and doctrine? Those who expect perfection from humans are doomed to disappointment. Let the appropriate Church department know if there’s a problem, but don’t assume bad faith and insensitivity on everyone’s part.
I regret what some few of our disobedient or clueless members did. But, apologies from people about things they didn’t do (and tried to prevent) always strike me as cheap theatre, and altogether too easy. If I offend, I want to apologize. But, I won’t presume to do so on others’ behalf.
So, speaking only for myself, if you’re offended or upset, I can only say:
We get it. We’re not happy about such things either. But, we’re not going to just boot the people responsible. Even if we could identify them, that would be the easy, and comfortable way out. We’re going to keep working with them, because they’re our brothers and sisters too, and need help and love more than almost anyone else. And, I might need it next time around.
I suspect technological barriers will prove the only effective way to decrease these sorts of incidents. The Church seems committed to on-going efforts to improve these strategies. (We must remember the computer programmer’s adage, though—as soon as you make software foolproof, someone goes and invents a smarter fool.)
So, some few will probably still slip through. (The Hemings/Jefferson sealing may be an old entry, though—the problem or loophole might not even exist now. People may be upset over something that happened years ago.)
If you choose to be outraged each time it happens, you are going to spend a lot of time being upset over something you can’t control, caused by a miniscule fraction of LDS members.
If you have a way to keep dummies from occasionally doing silly things, you should let us know—and then market the method, because it would make a killing in industry, government, and PTA meetings.
We’re doing our best to feed the sheep. We know there are people doing dumb things. Can’t be helped. We’re all labeled as “sheep,” which maybe ought to tell us something about our tendencies. But, we trust the Shepherd to get us all—member and non-member, living and dead, dummies all—safely home if we are willing.
 [10 April 2012 edit] – The original article disputed Jefferson’s paternity, based upon Robert F. Turner, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission (Carolina Academic Press, 2011 . This was unwise, and since my footnoted addendum didn’t make this clear enough, I’ve removed the sentence from the main article–I normally try to avoid this after-the-fact revision, but don’t want readers distracted by what is a peripheral (to my argument, not to Jefferson-Hemings scholarship) point. I apologize, but have left the comments below intact.
 We also cannot ignore, I think, the possibility that at least some unauthorized entries in temple databases are the work of those who have malicious intent—they want the Church to look bad. Here again, stopping them entirely is difficult if one wants to maintain a computer system that allows people all over the world to contribute to family history work and research. Such things don’t work well in a climate of suspicion or paranoia.