As a member born-and-raised of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I learned from the time I was a very small child to view human experience as richly meaningful and therefore sacred. I listened to the testimonies of everyday men and women at church on Sundays, to sacred stories passed down from my ancestors, and to my own parents’ careful teaching. When I was seven years old and preparing for baptism, my father and I read the Book of Mormon together every night until we finished the book. Through these experiences, I learned to value reflection and discerning interpretation. I learned to place great faith in the revelatory power of words—both the words of scripture and words carefully rendered from human experience.
I know these early experiences contributed to my formation as a scholar, teacher, and writer. By teaching that “the glory of God is intelligence” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36), Mormonism taught me that it was good to cultivate my mind in the service of others. Consequently, I have made my living as a professional scholar of American literature, culture, and religion.
Although I have sometimes encountered curiosity or misunderstanding about Mormonism in particular, I have never experienced outright hostility towards belief in a university setting. I credit this in part to the opening up of the academy to women and people of color in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. For many communities of color, faith is understood as a central component of community life with unique powers that surpass those of what modern philosophers have called “reason.” In this way, as a Mormon, and especially as a Mormon who studies race and religion in American life, I believe I have benefited tremendously from the exemplary work of writers and scholars of color in the social sciences and humanities.
I am not afraid to say that I believe in a merciful, powerful, compassionate God who is available to all who search. I believe as is taught in 2 Nephi 26: 33: God “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” As a Mormon born before the 1978 lifting of the ban on priesthood for males of African descent, it has been my privilege to witness how Mormonism has opened itself to inspired changes that have led us closer to realizing the dream of Zion as a gathering of the “pure in heart” (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21). I believe this gathering process is still unfolding. I am grateful to belong to a community that has always emphasized hard work and service to others. Struggles for justice and dignity have always spoken powerfully to me as a Mormon and a person of faith.
I believe in prayer, and Mormonism is the language I pray in. Through many life phases and challenges, I have always found comfort—sometimes astonishingly immediate comfort—from prayer. I have never been too proud to kneel and ask for help. Through the practice of prayer I have learned how to listen, how to wait for words, and how to discipline my needs, wants, and words into a shape harmonious with powers that are greater than I. Prayer as a spiritual discipline has harmonized in many ways with the forms of discipline I’ve learned as a writer, teacher, and scholar.
I believe that we are profoundly connected to our ancestors. Mormonism teaches us that our souls do not enter the eternities alone but within a great matrix of belonging that embraces our kindred dead. This is to me among the most beautiful and distinctive doctrines of our tradition. Stories passed down through my maternal grandmother’s ancestral line bear special witness to our ancestors’ immediate presence in our lives. I am grateful to my mother, an expert genealogist, who in the great tradition of Mormonism has searched out the names and stories of our kindred dead. She has been, in her own way, a model of historical inquiry for me. Cultivating a closer, more responsible relationship to the past can bear redemptive effects on the present: this I believe as a Mormon and as a scholar.
I believe in a merciful and powerful God, a Mother and Father in Heaven. It was within Mormonism that I learned to conceive of God as both male and female, Mother and Father. In 1845, Eliza R. Snow, one of our great poets and leaders, once wrote: “In the heavens, are parents single? / No, the thought makes reason stare. / Truth is reason, truth eternal / tells me I’ve a mother there.” This is another distinctively Mormon doctrine that I treasure.
Over the years my need for certainty on doctrinal particulars has melted away, replaced instead by a hopeful, compassionate, future-oriented faith and sense of trust. I believe in a life of courageous and rigorous searching. This searching for me is exemplified within Mormon tradition by the story of Joseph Smith, who took his difficult questions to God in prayer in a grove of trees in upstate New York, and by the stories of our Mormon pioneers whose search for a community of faith led them away from their familiar homes across the American plains towards an uncertain future in a new place. I believe that God neither provides us with nor expects us to have all the answers, but that to live great questions with an open and humble heart is to experience the grace and the presence of God. I consider it a privilege to have learned these lessons within the Mormon tradition.
Joanna Brooks is an associate professor and interim chair of the department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. Born and raised in Orange County, California, she attended Brigham Young University as an Ezra Taft Benson Scholar. She received her Ph.D. in American literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Brooks is a scholar of American literature, religion, and culture. Her first book, American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures (Oxford University Press, 2003) was awarded the Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Prize. Her edition of The Collected Writings of Samson Occom: Literature and Leadership in Eighteenth-Century Native America has been hailed as a “landmark” of early American scholarship. Brooks has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society, and has served in national leadership positions in the Modern Language Association and the American Studies Association. She lives in San Diego, California, with her two children and her husband, David, a professor of American Indian studies.
Posted February 2010