As a fifth-generation Latter-day Saint, I am Mormon through and through. Yet others, with similar ancestry, have broken their chains of believers and chosen to reject the faith of their fathers. Why not me? The answer begins with the respect I had for my parents. Their faith was expressed and taught to their children by their way of life, not by persistent pedagogy. The basic pattern of Mormon life, which they wholly exemplified, was all-encompassing, invigorating, and sustaining. It was also sometimes challenging as I became more widely exposed to competing life styles. The “Mormon way,” however, never failed me through those questioning years and has since proved its worth as a satisfying and rewarding way of life.
But I am not just a cultural Mormon. Mormonism has offered me more than a mode of living or a specific value system. Within its theology are intellectual and spiritual perplexities that beckon the inquiring mind and spirit. Intellectually it offers the seeker a new system of religious truths, many of which challenge conventional Christian dogma and thus create endless paths of inquiry and study. For the religious purist who brooks no human lapses in those who lead the faith, Mormon history also offers challenges. It is at this point, as I learned early on, that for understanding and commitment, the serious inquirer must heed Pope’s injunction: “A little learning is a dangerous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:/ There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/ And drinking largely sobers us again.” My professional study of LDS history and the development of Mormonism as a religion has proven that the more one studies in these religious realms, the more intellectually consistent and spiritually energizing they become. What often appear as human frailties or misjudgments have understandable explanations when viewed in a broad historical context. And the Mormon focus on the importance of eternal marriage, well ordered families, moral living, continuing revelation, and priesthood authority, as well as world-wide proselytizing, has eternal consequences often ridiculed and clearly not understood within the liberal and generally skeptical milieu in which these are taught and lived by practicing Mormons. Agency is the watchword of mortality and faith is a liberating choice. Through my faith in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ I have found meaning and purpose in this life and hope and anticipation for the next. Instead of demanding answers now, I look forward to experiencing the complete unfolding of God’s plan for His children. A random, purposeless universe is anathema to me.
When I was fourteen, my grandfather, a patriarch, gave me a patriarchal blessing. I was told that I would never doubt Joseph Smith’s first vision, given to him also at the age of fourteen, in which he learned the nature of the Godhead, the reality of Satan, and the imminence of a new gospel dispensation, which he in time was designated to inaugurate. The reality of that vision is the foundation of Mormonism, and despite both inconsequential and serious questionings over my lifetime, I have never doubted that reality. It is the substance of my faith. God works through his human creatures to effect his purposes, and, despite our weaknesses, we are the stewards of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of the strength of its truth and the enduring faith of its followers, of which I am one, it will persist, despite its adversaries. “By seeing the blessings of the temple rolling on, and the kingdom increasing and spreading from sea to sea,” Joseph Smith told the women of the Church in 1842, who had suffered much at the hands of their adversaries, “we will rejoice that we were not overcome by these foolish things.” This I believe, and I can testify that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored and that prophets once again stand at the head of His church. How grateful I am that my progenitors were “in the right place at the right time,” as one early convert wrote, to hear the message of the gospel by the missionaries. How grateful I am for my own”conversion” to the Church that came from years of “drinking deep” into the Pierian spring of Mormonism.
Carol Cornwall Madsen (Ph.D., University of Utah, 1986) is Professor Emeritus of History at Brigham Young University and retired Senior Research Historian in BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History. Her primary areas of teaching, research, and writing are U.S., Utah, and Mormon women’s history. She is also the former associate director of the Women’s Research Institute at BYU.
She is the author of more than fifty articles on Utah and LDS women’s history (six of them award-winning), the co-editor of two compilations of talks from the BYU Women’s Conferences (As Women of Faith and A Heritage of Faith) and of New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century, and the author of In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo; Journey to Zion: Voices from the Mormon Trail; Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896; Sisters and Little Saints: One Hundred Years of Primary; and An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B. Wells, 1870-1920 (which won three best book awards). She was a historical consultant and participant on seven historical productions for PBS and KJZZ-TV (e.g., Trail of Hope, An American Prophet, Women Vote in the West, and The Joseph Smith Papers). For her lifetime achievement, Professor Madsen was inducted as a Fellow by the Utah State Historical Society, and she served as the president of the Mormon History Association from 1989-1990. She is currently working on a second biography of Emmeline B. Wells (the fifth general president of the Relief Society), focusing this time on President Wells’s private and church life. She is also co-editing a documentary history of the Relief Society, covering the years 1842 through 1892.
Professor Madsen is married to the Salt Lake City attorney Gordon A. Madsen, who is also Senior Editor of the Legal Papers portion of the Joseph Smith Papers Project sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are the parents of six children and the grandparents of twelve grandchildren. She has worked in all the auxiliaries of the Church—but mainly in the Relief Society, as stake leader, ward president, and teacher. She has directed several ward choirs, is a former member of the Church’s hosting committee (assigned to visitors from the Middle East), and currently teaches eight-year-olds in the Primary. With her husband, she guides Church history tours in the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.
Posted August 2010