Growing up Mormon in BritainBy: Hedgehog
Since Hans Mattson interview in the NYT was published there have been numerous discussions taking place. Many commenters lay the blame with Bro. Mattson himself for his predicament, yet have little or no knowledge of his environment. In Bro Mattson I see mirrored every humble, hard-working, diligent, dedicated, obedient and faithful church leader I have had the opportunity to observe here in Britain. To read statements so judgemental, criticising or vilifying him, feels for me, like a stab in the gut. So I appreciated this comment by a fellow Brit over on a post at BCC:
“I refer to what might be called the “Correlation Rule,” which is that if you want to see the Mormonism that SLC would create if it had a relative tabula rasa, look at first world, non-American Mormonism. We have the institutions and the programmes and a cultural ear for Mormonism but because we in Europe are largely the fruit of post-war conversions, we have little inkling of the Mormon intellectual world and have no historical Mormon memory. Our Mormonism is the Mormonism inculcated almost entirely by Correlation.
And we are Elder Mattson as a result. Virtually every English Mormon I know shares his ignorance.”
Picture, if you will, a world away from Utah, away from the US, where the majority of information available about the church is the correlated material published by the church. Where we mostly don’t know what is happening locally in Utah or the US. Where polygamy in early Utah is known about, but mostly not discussed, and the reasons given are care of widows and children, and where we constantly have tell others, that no, we don’t practice polygamy. Where General Authorities descend for stake conference, are mostly benign, but sometimes demand the shaving of beards in a general session of stake conference. Where the culture is one of obedience; trying to run the church right, trying to follow the programs. Where wards are divided as soon as there are the minimum necessary number of Melchizedek Priesthood holders, so that everybody who will has at least one calling, sometimes as many as three. Where leaders are young, and rarely get to attend their Sunday School classes. Where there are full-time CES coordinators pushing the wards to get students enrolled, but your seminary and institute teachers are untrained volunteers relying solely on material provided by CES, and who haven’t grown up living and breathing church history. And in a small village close to the temple nestles as bookshop, your only source for uncorrelated information. Prices are high, because these books are imports, and it isn’t as though there is any competition. And emphasis is on books by and about GA’s. Devout members own a copy of Mormon Doctrine, but no-one’s heard of Richard Bushman, Dialogue or Sunstone. You won’t find anything at all in your local library, and the local Christian bookshop might stock some form of virulent anti-Mormon literature you have been warned to avoid (as a student I once bought what there was; it was laughable rather than dangerous).
My parents joined the church as teens in the 1960s, in the English Midlands. They married and were sealed in the temple. They were, and are, dedicated, hard-working, diligent church members. They did everything they’d been taught: we had family prayers morning and evening; family scripture study daily (we read the entire standard works, Song of Solomon excepting); family home evening every week. They attend(ed) the temple regularly. They did (and still do) their home and visiting teaching, and fulfil(led) their callings diligently. Always paid (and pay) their tithes and offerings. They were not wealthy, far from it, yet I saw them practically empty their meagre savings account back in the day when budget was a separate donation, and the ward had bills to meet. This is my background.
I am my parents’ first child. By the time I was 7 I had 4 younger siblings. I first became aware of the difference of my religion in a family home evening lesson, about the Restoration, which began with the question ‘Why do we walk 3 miles to church and back twice every Sunday instead of going to the church just down the road?’ Good question! We didn’t own a car. It was a long trek. I can’t have been very old. And then there was the tea we kept to serve my grandparents, but didn’t drink ourselves; the Word of Wisdom. When I was 8 I had a wonderful Junior Sunday School teacher, the curriculum was church history. I lapped up those lessons, and repeated them almost verbatim in my exercise book at school on Monday morning, to the alarm of my teacher. It was when I’d written the lesson on the Word of Wisdom that I was sent to the head of year with my exercise book. What did she think he could do about my religion? He was as baffled as I was. Still, that was my first inkling that not everyone was happy about Mormons.
Back before the consolidated program I also attended primary, which some years was on a Tuesday evening, and others on a Saturday. I remember one good primary teacher, and a lesson about Wilford Woodruff being a Marvellous Missionary – I think that was the Targeteer curriculum about the latter-day prophets. It’s those early history lessons in Primary and Junior Sunday School that have stuck with me, and which were never surpassed by later teaching as a youth in YW, Sunday School or Seminary.
The year up until I turned 9 (77/78) I began to be aware of race issues at church. We had black members in our ward. Some of those sons were of the age for the Blazer Boys class in primary; the priesthood preparation lessons. It was a time of dissonance. My parents treated everyone equally, and I couldn’t understand how it was okay to go to a church that didn’t. Sometimes the subject came up in class, and one student mentioned Cain. I hated it. It wasn’t fair. The 1978 revelation was a cause of celebration in our ward.
The school teacher I had at age 10 decided his crusade was to save me from my religion. I think he was surprised to find I had my own copy of the Bible, in addition to the Book of Mormon. I learnt early on to defend my religion.
And throughout we had ward activities: road-shows; a summer fête where we had to dress as pioneers, and a native American missionary complete with feathered head-dress performed a rain dance!
By the time I was 12 I had 6 younger siblings. The YW curriculum leant heavily towards motherhood. I determined I didn’t want children, and whenever the opportunity arose asked for clarification of the church position on birth control. But still, the messages seeped in somehow.
I went away to university in 1987. Because of the proximity to the Hyde Park Chapel, and because there were several member students studying there, the Institute director held a weekly lunch-time discussion group for a couple of years. There I became acquainted with some of the more troubling aspects of church history. The director had clearly taken the opportunity of his position to do some research. I was given a copy of Mormon Enigma to read, though it wasn’t discussed. I heard of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I heard of multiple first vision accounts. Perhaps this was his campaign of inoculation. I don’t know. BYU Studies sat on the shelves of the library (probably the only Institute library in the country). I learnt there were aspects of masonry in the temple; a member who was also a Mason defending Masons against accusations of gadianton robber-like organisations. London seemed to be a special case for Institute. Younger siblings attending elsewhere had a very different experience.
And then in the early 1990s something happened. Whilst I was bogged down in my PhD research, ping-ponging across the globe, independent study groups were apparently banned. That was how we heard it. We knew nothing of symposia or Sunstone. Members who had been getting together to study and talk about doctrine and other church related subjects stopped doing so. From now on, only the correlated programs were the appropriate place for that kind of thing.
I feel for Hans Mattson and all others who find themselves in his position. You can hear his own account here.
- How did you feel when you read about Hans Mattson?
- Do you think it helps to consider differing perspectives?
- How do your experiences differ?