To me, a satisfying faith requires a theology that answers the ultimate questions of life. I can embrace Latter-day Saint teachings with enthusiasm because they 1) promote an on-going quest for knowledge from many sources and a seeking of truth wherever it can be found, 2) depict a high ultimate state for humankind and encourage individual effort to optimize our mortal lives, 3) welcome expansion and adaptation where necessary, 4) promote personal encounters with deity, and 5) blend a respect for authority with the need for individuals to receive their own witness from the Holy Ghost.
There is no monopoly on revelation within the Church: it is available for women and men alike, for children and for mature people. Latter-day Saints often express their faith in simple language, but I find that heartfelt experiences usually lie behind their words. Fortunately people who receive inspiration and recognize little—and big– miracles in their daily walk feel a responsibility to testify of God’s hand in their lives.
Religion needs to influence our lives on several planes: spiritual, mental, and social, with attention also to our physical well being. Adherence to religious beliefs should lift people beyond their selfish pursuits to unite in reaching higher common goals.
I was pleased this year when leaders acknowledged humanitarian outreach as part of the basic mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints along with spreading the gospel, perfecting the saints, and redeeming the dead. No great fanfare was made of this addition, just a statement of its natural inclusion in the restored religion of Jesus Christ. In such a way, Church leaders have responded to inspiration and committed resources to meet world needs beyond their own membership. My own part has been to join my husband and several friends in incorporating a non-profit Women’s Research Institute. Its aim is to support significant research affecting the lives of women and families. At its core is a program called “Peaceabilities,” a plan prepared by two noted women psychologists to motivate children to select peaceful ways of negotiating differences rather than reacting violently. Such an approach to peace over violence suggests Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah: “because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth, . . . the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53: 9-10).
As a young adult, I became convinced that a person can be happily settled in a place or organization if he or she has meaningful work to do, compatible and stimulating companions, and a cause to serve. Religious faith often provides those components. This was true for me as my parents moved us from Oregon to Utah, as I went to graduate school in Massachusetts, then as I married and lived in Colorado, California, West Africa, Washington, and back in Utah.
Living on a plantation in Africa for two and a half years, our family carried our religious practices with us. Holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, my husband Barnard was given authorization to conduct church meetings in our home. We held sacrament meetings in our living room with Barnard blessing and passing the emblems of the Lord’s supper. We parents and our two young children gave talks each Sunday. There was much to learn from creating a miniature church in the home. In addition to private services we opened our doors to neighborhood children on Sunday mornings. Barnard taught the life of Christ to older children who came to join in what they called “Silver’s mass.” I directed stories and songs for the younger children, all in French. We remember this period of religious life in the hinterland as abundant in benefits. It was a period of learning and serving. On a more profound level during that African experience, we knew that our lives were directed and that many times we were saved from danger through divine intervention.
Bolstered by these experiences, Barnard and I have since served a proselyting mission in Côte d’Ivoire and Zaire, worked in the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission, and are now teaching inmates at the Utah State Prison. It is rewarding to reach across ethnic and cultural differences and study together, seeing how the gospel of Jesus Christ and the uplifting philosophy of the Latter-day Saints can change lives.
Currently I help direct the Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team (MWHIT), a group of scholars from around the country who promote high quality research on Mormon women’s history. We sponsor panels at conferences. We offer an award for the best undergraduate paper in the BYU history department on this topic and are considering a prize for the best published essay to be given at the Mormon History Association (MHA) annually. We maintain an informal database of work in progress and have hosted community events where authors have presented major new works on Mormon women. At our annual breakfast in May about eighty researchers in women’s history, both amateurs and professional, informally discuss their projects with great enthusiasm.
This volunteer work, I believe, nicely represents the Mormon ethic applied to the quest for knowledge. It means doing something of our own free will to bring to pass righteousness, in this case honoring women and their life contributions. It involves connections with the historic past which Latter-day Saints respect. It bridges from individual choice and effort to generous sharing of results with families and the community of believers. Finally all concerned are rewarded by stimulating association with fellow researchers. Since we gather for breakfast, we also fulfill the Mormon custom of serving refreshments at most major events.
A satisfying religion must also permit debating issues that are not easily handled. Early on my student friends and I were concerned with the meshing of science and religion. We tussled with the effect of the principle of evolution on scriptural accounts of creation. We looked at theories of the origins of the universe. Later civil rights became a priority, when we had to justify or reject the Church position before 1978 on blacks and the priesthood. Protests during the 1975 International Women’s Year caused re-evaluation of the place of women in the Church. Questions concerning Latter-day Saint history have long engaged serious thinkers. Political correctness and attitudes toward same-sex marriage challenge traditional religious positions now.
In my philosophy of religion, God honors our agency and encourages us to work though such issues. We can study, debate, clarify our viewpoints, and thereby increase our understanding. We do not have to condemn or boycott. Patience usually brings progress. Divine promptings nudge both Church leaders and individual members toward better methods and motives. We believe that leaders in this lay church are called of God, not because they are perfect, but because they will respond to inspiration and move toward better results than we could ever reach as unguided mortals.
I hope it is clear that I feel privileged to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of its rational theology and its acknowledgment of divine power coming to humankind through personal inspiration as well as through priesthood authority and ordinances. I admire its people, its traditions, its history, and its possibilities. The gospel of Jesus Christ poses paradoxes that require continual study and probing. As taught by the Latter-day Saints, this gospel also ultimately brings reassurance and purpose beyond any other way of life I have encountered.
Cherry Bushman Silver earned a PhD in English literature from Harvard University and is currently a research historian, annotating forty-five years of diaries written by Emmeline B. Wells (1828–1921), Latter-day Saint editor and woman’s leader.