I spend much of my life in an academic world in which religious belief is a rarity. My fellow historians are generally respectful of religious belief in the past, but most of them see belief in the present as an anachronism, something to be resisted as a barrier to social progress and rational thought. Like them, I value reason and practice a scholarship based on the careful sifting and evaluation of tangible evidence. But I accept another way of gaining knowledge as well. I was born in the LDS church, to believing parents who taught me that I could obtain truth through my spiritual as well as my physical senses. I learned to pray as a child. I learned that the Holy Ghost would send comfort and testify to me of truth, and I experienced that comfort and answers to my prayers from a young age. At my baptism, my mother gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon and promised me that, if I read it and prayed about it, I would receive a testimony of its truth. I followed those steps, and I did receive an unmistakable spiritual witness, as well as a taste of the fruit of the tree in Lehi’s dream—a joyful sense of God’s love for me. That early experience was the foundation of my present faith and has been spiritually confirmed many times since. I am grateful for it and for parents who prepared me to receive it. I feel comfortable saying “I know” the church is true, that God lives and loves me, that Jesus Christ is the son of God and my savior, that the Book of Mormon is true, because I find that the model laid out in Alma 32 conforms to my experience in testing those truths. I have felt “the word . . . swell [my soul].” I have felt my “understanding . . . enlightened” and my “mind . . . expand.” My “knowledge is perfect in that thing” and my “faith is dormant” (Alma 32:34).
A year or so ago, I was asked to speak to a group of very bright students, recipients of BYU’s highest academic scholarship. I include here what I said to those students, because it recapitulates two important themes in my life: my ongoing pursuit of truth through both study and faith, and my efforts to resolve the tension between my academic and home life, a tension particularly pressing in a church which puts great emphasis on women’s primary calling in the family.
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A particular scripture lodged itself in my mind as I thought about what to say tonight: “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” I started with the positive part of the scripture. Let me backtrack a little. Here’s what Nephi says first: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise.” You see, wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. “And they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.” And then we come back to the part of the verse I began with: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” Perhaps the most important thing that I took away from my years as a student at BYU was a firm understanding that I had to continually pair my growth in secular knowledge with spiritual knowledge, not just at BYU, but throughout my life. Without both, I would never achieve wisdom or find the path that my Heavenly Father had marked out for me. Let me illustrate this point with examples from my own life.
I entered BYU in the fall of 1981, convinced that BYU had made some kind of mistake in giving me the Spencer W. Kimball scholarship and that, as soon as they discovered their error, they would take it back and give it to someone else. To my relief, they never did. I majored in English and graduated in 1985. A year before graduating, I married my husband, Mike, a fellow Kimball scholar whom I had met at Freshman Honors Conference. While Mike finished his own Chemistry degree, I enrolled in BYU’s Kennedy Center, pursuing a master’s degree in American Studies and starting my drift toward history. Both as an undergraduate and in my master’s program, I had several mentors who urged me to think about getting a PhD. I smiled, thanked them, and inwardly dismissed the suggestion. I intended to begin a family, soon. By the time Mike graduated, two years after our marriage, I was finished with my MA coursework and seven months along. Our first child, Katie, was born in June of that year. Two months after Katie’s birth, we moved to Stanford, where Mike went to medical school. While he studied, I ran the household, did part-time editing work while Katie and then Jonathan napped, and chipped away at my master’s thesis, which I completed just under the wire in 1989.
The next year, we were off to Philadelphia, where Mike did his three-year pediatrics residency at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Those were difficult years. Mike was on call every third night. I was pregnant with our third child, Annie, and Young Women’s president. During that time, I had two experiences that were pivotal to my choice to get a PhD. One was a conversation I had with my stake Young Women’s president. She had just become an empty nester, and had spent the past year trying to find something worthwhile to do with her time. It had been a very frustrating process for her. Though she had a BA, she had never held a job. Each place she applied to gave her the same unhelpful response: she needed more work experience. She was a bright, capable woman, with leadership skills honed through church callings. But that kind of experience didn’t seem to count. She finally settled on doing volunteer work in a local library. It gave her a place to contribute, but she was still frustrated at not being able to use the full range of her talents. I was shaken by this conversation. Over and over again, I put myself in her shoes, imagining how I would feel if, when my children were grown, I was considered unqualified to contribute to the world outside my home.
The second pivotal experience was coming across an article in a BYU alumni magazine about the value of teaching.1 I read it and thought, “This must be what people mean when they say they have found their ‘calling.’” I felt that the article was written just for me—a spiritual sense that teaching at BYU was what the Lord wanted me to do. This was shortly after Pres. Ezra Taft’s Benson’s 1987 talk, “To the Mothers in Zion,” which stated clearly that “a mother’s calling is in the home, not in the marketplace.”2 In that context, getting a PhD didn’t seem to make sense. Mike and I read that talk several times, talked about how we could do for our children the things Pres. Benson discussed. We also prayed about my desire to get a PhD, and we both felt the Spirit’s confirmation that I should apply to PhD programs. We targeted areas of the country that also had good post-doctoral programs for Mike. In 1993, he started his post-doc in pediatric hematology and oncology at Harvard, and I started my PhD program in American History at Brandeis.
We were in Boston for five years. I loved my program; I was enthralled by my study of Indian and English interactions in seventeenth-century New England. Archival research fed my soul, and I was good at it. Katie and Jon had started school, and I found a babysitter for Annie from 9-1 every morning. Because I already had an MA, I could take three rather than four classes per semester, which eased the load. I came home in the afternoon and juggled studying and taking care of the kids until dinner. Mike took over after dinner, cleaning up and getting the kids to bed. It was hectic, but it worked. At one point during graduate school, I got an invitation to have lunch with Clayne Pope, Dean of Family, Home and Social Sciences at BYU, and other LDS graduate students in the Boston area. I told him of my concerns about balancing family and a career and asked if BYU would support a part-time tenure track hire. He said he thought they would. Just after finishing my two years of coursework, I delivered my fourth child, Sam. I took my orals at the end of his first year, made some headway on my dissertation the following year, and got a call from a BYU History Department search committee. They had posted an ad for a colonial historian. Why hadn’t I applied? I had seen the ad, but it was for a full-time, tenure-track historian. After four years of juggling motherhood and graduate school, I had decided I wouldn’t work full-time. Recalling my visit with Dean Pope, I asked if they would consider hiring someone half-time tenure track. They said they would.
I flew out to BYU in the spring of 1997 to give a job talk and a lecture to students, and do interviews. During my years of graduate school, I had begun to question that feeling of being called to BYU, and I was exploring other places to teach. More pertinently, Mike had explored getting a faculty position at the University of Utah Medical School and had been told that there was not, and would never be, a position for him there. For me to teach at BYU, Mike would have to abandon his plans to be an academic physician and enter private practice, making his post-doc, essentially, a five-year detour. Needless to say, I arrived for my interview feeling skeptical.
My visit to BYU was a strange but sweet experience. I had been quite anxious in the weeks leading up to the visit. However, as soon as my plane descended into the Salt Lake airport, calm descended on me. As I drove to Provo, I felt oddly at home. The calm persisted through my lecture, my job talk, and my interviews. I felt a peaceful assurance that I would be offered the job. That night, when I called Mike, he told me that he and Katie had fasted for me that day. His news brought me to tears, because I had so clearly felt the spiritual support they had requested for me. It took several weeks for the actual offer to come through, but—again, uncharacteristically—I was not at all anxious. I knew I would get the job. I knew that the Lord wanted me to accept it. Mike knew it, too, and insisted that we take the job, despite what it would do to his anticipated career. All of my doubts about BYU, about living in Utah, were not resolved, but we felt we could not ignore the strong, clear direction we had received. Mike found work in a private pediatric practice in Orem, and we moved to Provo. Within two years, the University of Utah department chair who had dashed Mike’s hopes decided to take early retirement. The new chair called Mike and offered him a job. He is now the director of pediatric bone marrow transplantation at Primary Children’s, and the clinical director of adult bone marrow transplantation at the University of Utah Medical Center and a scholar with a growing national and international reputation.
That’s my story—or maybe I should say Mike’s and my story—of how I came to teach history at BYU. You may have noticed that the themes of secular and spiritual knowledge intertwine throughout this story. That is not an accident, but a reflection of what is important to me. Because you are sitting here tonight, I assume they are important to you, too. I hope they always will be.
Let me pull a few key points out of the experiences I have described to you:
1) To be learned is good. The scriptures make it clear that Heavenly Father values all knowledge, that, in fact, even the most secular subjects have spiritual dimensions. The Lord instructed the prophet Joseph Smith to obtain a knowledge of “all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand,” and then he listed some of those things: “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78-79). I think that you’ll agree with me that this list favors History. You, like me, have been blessed with an outstanding education at BYU. Your education should not stop here. One of the hopes your professors and leaders have for you is that you will be lifelong learners. Keep reading and exploring, broadly and deeply. And while you add to your secular knowledge, do not forget to “hearken unto the counsels of God.” Read the scriptures broadly and deeply. Take notes. Ponder and pray about the meaning of passages not only for God’s ancient people but His modern ones as well.
2) All work—domestic, academic, administrative—can be an offering to God. Just as Heavenly Father values all truth, I believe he values all talents and expects us to use them. I find a remarkable passage that supports this in the book of Exodus. The children of Israel had just finished building the Tabernacle of the Covenant and were ready to offer it to the Lord. Before they did, the Lord spoke to Moses. He told them that, before they could use this holy tabernacle, they must furnish and ornament it, much as we furnish and decorate our modern temples. In answer to God’s command, the children of Israel gathered together, “every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing. . . . and they came, both men and women.” Next, the scripture describes the many offerings presented to the Lord for his tabernacle, by both men and women: some brought beautiful cloth that they had spun, others brought carvings of stone or wood, still others wove or embroidered lovely tapestries. And the scripture makes it clear that God valued all of these offerings, and that he had, in fact, blessed each person with distinct talents and inspired them to use those talents in His service. Listen: “Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work.” (Exodus 35:4-35)
I don’t embroider or weave or carve, but I do research and write and teach. My talents are academic ones. I take joy in them, as I believe my Heavenly Father intends me to. I find support for this belief in Doctrine & Covenants 88:33: “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.” For me, the meaning of that scripture is that using my mind—my intellectual gift—will bring me joy. But I must remember not to merely rejoice in the gift, but also in the “giver of the gift,” and to acknowledge that it came from Him.
3) Not only are our talents gifts from Heavenly Father, but He expects us to use them. We may not always know how to use them, or it may seem that the other demands in our lives prevent us from using them. For a long time, I didn’t see how I could be both a good mother and a good scholar. Our own knowledge may fail us, but the source of wisdom will not. He will lead us down paths we could not have found for ourselves. Mike and I have made choices along the way that hardly seemed rational at the time, decisions that required significant sacrifice of our financial resources and our dearest aspirations. Sometimes it felt like flying blind. When we followed the prompting to come to BYU, Mike gave up a million-dollar research grant with no prospect of ever being able to work in academic medicine again. That was a very painful sacrifice, and Mike must have wondered whether Heavenly Father valued his talents as much as mine. We had no reason to believe that the door that had been so firmly closed to him at the University of Utah Medical School would open again, but it did.
4) Keep your priorities in order. My husband and I have, collectively, spent twenty-two years in college or graduate school. But we’ve spent twenty-five years being married to each other. If our work or education had been our priority, our path would have been very different. In many ways, it might have appeared more rational to outside observers and might have required less personal sacrifice, but I don’t think it would have led us here. And we are very happy to be here. Mike loves what he does; I love what I do; and we love each other and our children and the gospel.
Reflecting on our experience, we feel inclined to marvel. Each door that opened, each experience that came our way is a testimony that Heavenly Father knows who we are. He knows our strengths and weaknesses and has led us down paths that have enriched us and allowed us to serve. He knows each one of you as well. Remember that your gifts come from him, that he wants you to use them in his service, and that, if you continue learning and hearkening unto the counsel of God, he will lead you down paths that will someday fill you with wonder and gratitude.
1 Bruce C. Hafen, “’Linger awhile, thou art so fair’: Thoughts on the Value of Teaching,” BYU Today 1989 (November), 50-56.
2 Benson, “To the Mothers in Zion.”
Jenny Hale Pulsipher is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where her research is focused on American colonial and Native American history. Dr. Pulsipher graduated with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in American studies from BYU, and then earned a Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She is the author of reviews and articles in the American Historical Review, the New England Quarterly, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Early American Literature, the Massachusetts Historical Review, and the William and Mary Quarterly, as well as of Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), which was selected by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title in 2006.
Posted November 2010