I’m Mormon because of the faith of my mothers and fathers. Five generations of it, starting with Marianne and Michael, who joined the Church in 1851.
Shortly after, they answered a call to gather. They left their loved ones in the Italian Alps and traveled by coach and rail and steamer to London and then to Ellis Island, where an official changed their surname. Further, by rail and river to Florence, Nebraska. There, they joined the Ellsworth handcart company and walked across the plains, over the mountains into the Salt Lake Valley.
The trek took most of a year, and Michael and Marianne buried an infant son on the way. My firstborn has his name. In Utah, they manufactured charcoal and cultivated silk, working off the debt we all owe to the Church’s Perpetual Emigration Fund. They never learned English, but they handed down the values that drove their journey.
Today I teach English to multilingual students (among others), and I think—I hope—that I feel Marianne’s pleasure. Her devotion and that of my parents and their other forebears have taught me that human endeavor is sacred and family ties bring joy.
I’m Mormon, or should I say I’m here, because of polygamy. My distant grandmother, Jane, was the seventh of eleven wives. Her husband, Milo, fathered 56 children. I find this shocking. But Jane was widowed early in her journey from England to Utah; when she married Milo, she must have been grateful for the protection and care of a new family. I both wonder at their sacrifice, and pity them unfairly, as though I understand it. Those poor women, I say. I hand my husband the broken vacuum cleaner. He smiles: those poor men.
It’s natural for me to see devotion as a pathway of rigor and bravery and meaning. “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary for life and salvation,” taught Joseph Smith, who gave everything for Mormon faith. Those words thrill me, and why not? Don’t we love what we would die for? Don’t we hope to more perfectly live for it?
That hope helps me view problems in Mormon history—persistent, ambiguous, discouraging—as reflective of imperfect people trying, yet sometimes failing, to do God’s will. It is the same with patriarchy and insularity, which I find equally troubling—yet also softening, even diminishing, in a process I trust will continue.
My view improves as I consider the wonder and triumph in Mormon history—persistent, affirming, encouraging—and reflective of covenant people trying to do God’s will. These qualities have their echo in so many forgiving, affectionate Mormon people who wrap themselves in faith, love, duty, integrity, good humor, altruism, compassion, and desire.
I have found that negotiating faith and doubt requires a painstaking self-honesty. The Book of Mormon missionary Amulek captures some of my feeling. “I said I never had known much … of the ways of the Lord … but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power … Nevertheless, I did harden my heart … I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.”
Like Amulek, I have at times resisted faith. Yet as I’ve chosen to turn toward Christ, to believe and accept him, his response recalls the promise to Isaiah: “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer. Thou shalt cry, and He shall say, Here I am.”
Thus I’m convinced that knowledge involves the heart as well as the mind, and above all involves the dignity of choice. I believe God’s touch in my life is real and personal and powerful, that he knows my name and desires my company, as he does of all who walk the earth. But I also believe it is up to me and my faith to recognize this, to search for and respond to him; and that he will respect my choice to do so or not.
I’m Mormon because of the Book of Mormon. I don’t yet know if this book is what many have claimed it to be—factual, historical record? Fantastic, inspiring collection of stories? Something of both?
But working closely with literature has helped me live with ambiguity and navigate tensions between factuality and truth. It has helped me see that extracting meaning and understanding from text is arduous, worthwhile, and fascinating.
So if I have trouble accepting the book as exactly what it claims to be, I find joy in discovering—again and again—that the Book of Mormon does what it claims to do.
And that is to bring me to Christ, in ways so tender I can hardly express them. “Come unto Christ and be perfected in him … by his grace,” teaches Moroni. As a small person with great need, I rely on that grace every day as I try to bridge the gap between what I am and what I long to be.
I’m Mormon because of the simplicity and beauty and spiritual sustenance of the weekly sacrament.
I’m Mormon because it has blessed my family—strengthened our bonds, taught us forgiveness, increased our reach, given us laughter, and brightened our hope.
I’m Mormon because of story. The story is that of a crucial journey from a fallen, even desperate state to one of reconciliation, of joy and knowledge, transcendence and peace—a journey both daily and eternal, a journey infused with divine love. This is a story not unique to Mormons, but a story of humanity—captured and reflected in the world’s most compelling and beautiful literature. Mormon faith provides a pathway for the reality of this story.
I’m Mormon because it’s a quest. Every day, a devout Mormon prayerfully asks: how should I direct my energies on this day? How shall I manage this uncertainty? How might I achieve success in this good endeavor? How may I be of help to my fellow travelers? To engage these questions over a lifetime seems to me a sacred privilege. Indeed, Mormonism was founded on the answer to a heartfelt question.
I’m also Mormon because they’ll have me, despite my resistance, my pride, my kicks, my doubts, my shortfalls, and my need. Like Christ, whose “arm is stretched out still,” Mormons take all comers. They understand we are all God’s imperfect children, relying on grace, trying to make our way in a perilous world. They’ll help if they can. They’ll smile as they do.
Heidi Beus Naylor grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and an MFA from Boise State University, where she teaches writing and literature. Her fiction and features have appeared in The Washington Post, The Jewish Journal, Portland, The Idaho Review, Sunstone, New Letters, and other magazines. She holds a current fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Heidi and her husband, Patrick Naylor, are the parents of three sons.
Posted May 2013