Among the mormons.
The Mormons have been opposed and ridiculed, even downright persecuted ever since they came into existence through the visionary power of their founder Joseph Smith in the first half of the 19th Century. I will guess that the constant heat from the outside world against their identity will tend to generate a strong unity in the congregation. This Sunday I went to a 3 hour long event in their church with Tommy and Anja, Mormon friends of mine.
The first hour was spent with a men’s group that was occupied with studying the biography of the founder Joseph Smith. I was immediately taken by the general atmosphere in the big gym like meeting room. We were about twenty men. The mood was one of a quiet and gentle joy. There were mild laughter and happy smiles. Obviously Joseph Smith was a big ideal for them. The dress code was quite distinct: Almost everybody wore a white shirt complete with tie and Sunday shoes. The discussion went like this: Some people thought Joseph Smith was immortal. (Gentle laughter to this somewhat absurd position, JS was a great soul and prophet but not immortal.) He would go out of the way to help people. One kid he passed on the road was stuck in the mud. JS not only helped him out, but also wiped the mud off his shoes. JS was always in a cheerful and optimistic disposition, and this is how the brethren were advised to be too. Was it advisable to reprimand brethren going wrong? (It was.) Mostly the participants were middle-aged or elderly, but some were also in their twenties.
After an hour we were joined by women and children (maybe 15 to 20) and we had Sunday school for grown ups. The leader was a woman in the thirties with a somewhat firmer way of behaving than the men. The subject was this time missionary activities. Again the focus was on history, i.e. the first twenty years. However it was equivocally stated that the missionary activities in the Mormon movement was “an unstoppable rolling stone.” This slightly alarming statement was tempered by the fact that not many in this branch had been baptized recently. The last one was a participant with a big smile that had been baptized in a waterfall attached to a rope! This information set me thinking. The church I had entered represented main stream Mormonism. The focus here was obviously a deep interest in their historical roots. The Mormons have a rich and interesting cultural and religious history with their own holy books, their own psalm book and a rather complicated development with many offshoots and versions. I talked with one man that was studying the role of Africans. Apparently they were not allowed to be elders before 1972. He was also deeply interested in India. I got the feeling that many participants here were interested in discussions covering a wide area. Using terms from Nietzsche I would say the mood was Apollonian. Without having studied this yet, I will guess that many of the offshoot congregations are of a more Dionysian kind, complete with visionary charismatic leaders.
So what we have here is a bookish quiet and gentle gang interested in and nourished by their fascinating history. There are not so many newcomers, but the members are taken very good care of. I especially observed that the children were treated in a very warm and affectionate manner. This was made obvious with the mass that was taking place in the last hour. There was the Lord’s Supper with the Eucharist offered in a very simple manner: Bread and water was shared with the congregation sitting on the benches. Then it was a long section where the children sang and read small statements. This happens once a year. The theme was on the family that has a very central place in Mormon life. Apparently the family is a spiritual and immortal existence already grounded in our prelife, our spiritual life before birth. Therefore the family unit must be treated with the utmost care. Although a beautiful idea, this concept left me with too many questions.
Meeting the Mormons was a fascinating experience. I found it easy to sympathize with them, and I liked the “nerdish” atmosphere with gentle and joyful studies. However it is not natural for me to have my religious truths read out of books I haven’t written myself. To say it with William Blake: “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s” So I guess I’ll keep on living my life as independently religious. However, I will not hesitate to count some of these people among my friends.
Geir November 2009