Some Kinda Mormon

One woman's obsession with the Church of Latter-day Saints


| Utne Reader July / August 2007



When the Mormons were expelled from the United States 150 years ago, they escaped into the desert, wandering with their handcarts across its landscape. It was theirs to set up any way they wished, where the men could marry as many women as they fancied and listen to whichever mouth of God pleased them. Today the West teems with Mormons. And although their Utah theocracy failed with the U.S. government, they still have a hold over the West that transcends religion, political boundaries, and natural landscapes. Out there, Mormonism is a very real thing.

Mormonism is very real for me, too. You might even say I'm obsessed. I'm always reading obscure Mormon historical texts and traveling to Mormon historical sites. I have a dozen or so Books of Mormon I've picked up at thrift stores and used bookstores. I especially like copies with dedications: 'John, I couldn't think of anything that means more to me than this book. Take care of it and learn all you can. Your friend, Russell.'

I'm not Mormon, but my entire extended family is, thanks to my great-aunt Ruth, who married one of my grandfather's brothers and spread her beliefs within the Pemberton clan. My grandfather, however, held firm to his Quaker roots, and my branch of the family resisted the influence. Indeed, we razzed the whole religion. Mormonism, with its belief that people could get married in the afterlife, provided many jokes. Even my grandmother, an upstanding woman of old-fashioned morals, still makes fun of the way Aunt Ruth seemed almost elated by the death of her husband. 'Oh, I'm so jealous,' she told my grandmother at the funeral, 'Now Wendell gets to see Richard and his family.' Richard was their son, and he was killed in a sledding accident as a boy. According to my great-aunt, Richard's glorified body went on to adulthood and he married a glorified-bodied young woman and they had plenty of heavenly children. 'Oh, brother' is what my grandmother would always say, rolling her eyes.

But the more we blew them off, the more curious I got. Why did I have to take my own church upbringing so seriously if someone else's was so laughable? Why would anyone want to be a Mormon?

The books I read about the Church of Latter-day Saints were those my parents or grandparents gave me. They had titles like Mormonism and Other Modern-Day Cults and Secret Rituals of the Mormon Church Revealed. As we understood it, Mormons were only masquerading as Christians, and their God was not the same as ours. So even when they prayed the same prayers, and talked about Jesus, we knew they were still going to hell.

My parents were part of the hippie-Christian movement: devout California beach bums who gave up pot and let Jesus get them high. The first church they attended was a tent on a beach where it was de rigueur to show up barefoot and halter-topped. By the time I was born, the congregation had moved to a high school auditorium. There, my dad played guitar onstage and my mom held me in one arm so she could lift her other one closer to God.