I was re-writing an introductory bio for Eric Samuelsen this week for the Mormon Drama anthology Saints on Stage that I’m spear heading for Zarahemla Books. While reviewing some of my old research, I rediscovered an essay Samuelsen wrote called “Saturday’s Warrior Recalled on a Sunday Morning” (which can be found in the “Stage” issue of Irreantum, Volume 8, Number 2, 2006). In the article Eric discusses his early response to the play, when it was still in its early days. Eric was a Freshman in college when he first saw Saturday’s Warrior and his response at the time was emphatically negative. Then he writes about the more nuanced approach which he holds now (which is only slightly negative, with an admiring twist). It’s a very persuasive, well written response to the play. And, in many ways, I agree with a lot of it. However, Saturday’s Warrior is a part of my childhood, a very positive part of it, and I wanted to provide a counterpoint to Eric’s very well delivered point. Although, I hope you don’t mind, this personal essay will be as much about the place I have in the culture that created Saturday’s Warrior, as much as Saturday’s Warrior itself. Therefore, I will spend an inordinate amount of time on the cultural and personal aspects that Saturday’s Warrior had in my life.
Of course I understand what’s wrong with Saturday’s Warrior. On an aesthetic level the play can come across as campy and naïve. On a religious level it is also theologically speculative, if not downright suspect. Culturally, it unconsciously displays what a lot of people consider to be the foibles of Mormon culture, rather than its strengths. And, musically, I know there are a lot of people who aren’t fans of Lex de Azevedo’s soft rock 1970’s score. There’s a lot to pick apart, especially considering that it was playwright Doug Stewart’s freshman writing effort as a young college student. As a playwright, as a Mormon interested in theology, as a member of the culture the play depicts (born and raised in Provo, UT), and as an appreciator (although not a skilled practitioner) of music, there’s a lot of red flags that could be raised for me with Saturday’s Warrior. However, in the end, that’s not how it’s unraveled for me. The older I get the more I find that I actually admire the play more and more, and that it has a lot of personally powerful implications for me. And a lot of that has to do with my specific family and cultural heritage. That’s really the clincher, I guess. Saturday’s Warrior is not only presenting a general Mormon culture, it is presenting my specific Mormon culture, the one I grew up in.
My evolving views about the Church are very different than the views I held when I was younger. I am more frank in my assessment of the flaws and shortcomings I find in Church History and Church government. As I get older, I am increasingly intellectual, leftist (well, centrist, but in Utah I would be considered leftist), and a feminist to boot. All of those misunderstood and misconstrued labels are red flags in Mormon culture, especially Utah Mormon culture. One family member of mine, after seeing one of my plays that dealt frankly with polygamy, was sure that I was going to go apostate.
Despite all of this, I actually feel even stronger in my faith in the Church and its priesthood, in my belief in the reality of modern prophets, in my belief in the literal reality of the Book of Mormon as a divine record, in my belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and in my belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the Messiah and in my belief that he literally performed those miracles attributed to him, including the Resurrection.
My beliefs have evolved because of my faith in the Gospel and its principles, not in spite of them. The deeper I search, the more I am compelled to change myself to fit myself closer to the God I personally find in the scriptures and Church History. And, frankly, from trends, statements, and signals I see from the Church (i.e. a more welcoming attitude towards frank analysis of the Church’s history, the “And I’m a Mormon” campaign, the fact that the refreshing Pres. Uchtdorf and Pres. Eyring are BOTH in the First Presidency, its strong recent advocacy of Church Welfare, the Church’s recent compassionate stance on illegal immigration, etc.), those facts make me think that the Church is starting to inch more towards a more moderated stance itself, rather than the extreme Right of politics and culture it used to be in. Despite the existence of people like Glen Beck, this is not the same Church of yesteryear. Like Joseph Smith’s King Follett sermon, line upon line, here a little and there a little, we have progressed.
Yet, despite all of this, I am still very fond of Utah culture proper, despite its faults and ugly sides. Currently, I’m a school teacher at a charter school that attracts underprivileged and troubled youth. In that capacity, I’m finding the family and culture I grew up in, despite their flaws, are infinitely preferable to the broken families, fractured cultures and continual personal heart break my students endure every day of their lives. The kind of environment I lived in “Happy Valley” gave me a better chance in life than these kids are getting where I teach in the “ghettos” (as my students like to call where I personally live) of East Mesa, Arizona. And I have the Church and, yes, in many ways its culture to thank for that advantage. And it is in the context of that blessed Mormon culture that I first encountered Saturday’s Warrior.
Here is the culture that I’m talking about. Here is the scenario of my childhood environment (in lavish detail, for prime effect):
I was born and chiefly raised in the Heartland of Utah Mormon culture—Provo, Utah—the home of Brigham Young University and the Missionary Training Center. With the exception of one of my grandfathers, who was a convert, nearly all of my family lines trace back to Mormon pioneer ancestry (a number of which were polygamists). That includes my great-great-grandfather Alvin Franklin Stewart, who lived in Nauvoo (and was sealed to his first wife in the Nauvoo Temple), was a bodyguard on an occasion for Joseph Smith, and saw Brigham Young literally take on the mantle of Joseph Smith when Brigham and the Twelve were vying Sidney Rigdon for the leadership of the Church after Joseph’s martyrdom.
I am number 10 of 11 children. Yes, all of us from one sanctified set of parents. That means my mother went through 99 months of pregnancy, or 8.25 years (she claims that she really enjoyed being pregnant, which considering these statistics, was a very fortunate thing for her). My Mom actually wanted 12 children, being a fan of the original Cheaper by the Dozen and Ma and Pa Kettle stories when she was a little girl. So she missed her goal by one, chiefly because the doctors told her it would have been life threatening for her to continue. Most of my siblings have some sort of scriptural names (or variations thereon), except for my oldest brother George, who is named after my father (and who subsequently named his son George). Although mine is, by far, the most distinct (I do have a brother named Jared, by the way, although my middle name is not Moriancumer). All of us are active in the Church, while all those who are married are married in the temple. All of my brothers went on LDS missions, as well as a good many of my sisters.
My parents, despite the severe struggles in their early marriage, believed that divorce wasn’t an option, so they pioneered on. Despite their polar opposite personalities, they have proven (at least to themselves) that any two people, no matter how different, can make a marriage work if they’re both committed and faithful to each other. They have been married nearly 48 years. My mother was a housewife who crusaded for natural medicine and moral causes at PTA meetings, while my father served as Provo’s mayor, one of his most notable and controversial actions being when he closed the City Pool on Sundays. Although he is now technically retired, my father was a pragmatic, organized, business man, before his passionate stints in city politics. He is an ardent supporter of the Brethren. My mother is a more visionary sort, receiving dreams and revelations which she is startlingly open about, and which are actually quite inspiring, and which traits some of us have inherited. Both of my parents have dedicated their lives, their family, and now their retirement to the Church (having served three senior missions together, including a stint as a mission president in Argentina).
Throughout my childhood, my family didn’t drink caffeinated sodas (although I rebelled for a time in Jr. High and occasionally drank Dr. Pepper); we generally didn’t watch commercial TV on Sundays (except once, when my father let me watch the Super Bowl when Steve Young was playing); we weren’t allowed to watch R-rated movies (nor many PG-13 movies); and we ate lots of Jell-O with our meals (my personal favorite being green Jell-O with cottage cheese and bananas). Oh, and you didn’t say “holy cow” around my Mom in those days. It was tantamount to swearing. Short of being a blood descendent of Parley P. Pratt or Hyrum Smith, you don’t get closer to being a genetic Mormon than being a member of my family. Some people think families like mine are a stereotype of Mormons and that we don’t actually exist. Well, like or unlike Big Foot, we did, in fact, exist.
Saturday’s Warrior was part of that existence. A story about a very large family who was striving to strictly live their religion and eschew secular values, all the while singing pop ballads and spiritual anthems, with romantic notions about the pre-existence and our individual missions on this earth—well, a story like that was an obvious fit for us. A match made in heaven, you could say.
I remember going to a staged version of the musical when I was young (a girl my brother George was dating was in the cast), which was probably my first exposure to LDS Drama, proper. But even more prominent in my life was that well used VHS copy of the filmed version of the play, complete with the big ‘80s hair and rad choreography. Along with My Turn On Earth, it was a staple in my family’s Sunday entertainment diet. I don’t know how many Sunday afternoons I spent watching movies like those recorded plays or the Living Scriptures animated videos.
Numbers like “We’ve All Got Daddy’s Nose” had optimum effect because nearly all of my siblings and I (and nearly all of our children) do, in fact, have my father’s prominent nose. The song “Pullin’ Together” was our family theme song which we often sang during family home evening or on long trips in the car (yes, we often sang together on car trips).
And, because our family certainly wasn’t perfect, even when we believed we were, there were also those “Jimmy” moments when there was conflict in the family and the cracks in our supposedly perfect unity showed. Rebellion, or weakness, or sin, or heartache, did eventually touch each of our lives in one degree or another. Each of us, including my parents, inevitably showed that we were still fallen characters in need of redemption after all. And yet there is no doubt in my mind, like that iconic Flinders family, that my family wouldn’t “pull together” for each other. That love we had for each other was genuine, it wasn’t fake, or syrupy, or forced, even when things were strained, needlessly dramatic, or one of us felt like the odd duck out. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still that way with us.
Then there are cute little children looking down from the pre-existence yelling, “Don’t forget me!” Well, I think about that one a lot, even still. Remember, I’m number 10, and even more importantly my little sister Naoma, my childhood best friend, is number 11. If my mother hadn’t had as many children as she did, or if my father had been unwilling to support us, those who would have been cut off have a very personal significance to me. Sure, from a Mormon perspective, little Naoma and I could have been assigned to a different family (from a non-Mormon perspective, would we have we even existed?), but her and I feel connected to, even destined for our family. It’s hard to talk about without sounding hokey, but I feel it very deeply. It’s one thing to talk about the intellectual, political, or cultural implications of the “Zero Population” song in the play, but it becomes a whole other scenario when it’s your own place in the family that’s on the line, or the place of a cherished brother or sister, daughter or son. That sounds sentimental, and perhaps even emotionally manipulative, I know, but that’s the reality people like me face. We were either included… or we weren’t.
Does that mean I believe every family should abandon contraception or that every mother needs to have as many children as possible? No, of course, not. For example, my wife has had C-sections in both her pregnancies. She can’t have children any other way, except by C-section at this point. And the more C-sections she has, the less likely she is to live, due to the dangerous risks involved with repeating the procedure. She has too many children, she dies, I become a widower, and my children lose their mother. End of story. So birth control could end up being a matter of life and death for her. Anyone who judges us for only having two children so far clearly hasn’t considered the possible circumstances that has led to that decision.
Also, I believe that, just as some families as meant to be large, some could just as easily meant to be small. My wife comes from a family of three, but in their family I never sense some sort ubiquitous pre-mortal ghost that’s supposed to be there. Their family seems whole, complete. Everyone has their place, and it’s a very beautiful thing. And I can just as easily see scenarios where a family was only supposed to have one child to focus on, or perhaps even no children at all. For my own family, I have often had this vague spiritual sense that Anne and I were going to have a boy and a girl, which we now have. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t have more than two… but I had very distinct impressions about those two, and if they’re all that we’re going to have, that wouldn’t surprise me. A person’s family size could be determined by health, economics (I personally couldn’t raise too many children on my meager Arizona teacher’s salary right now), emotional issues, mental health, or even simply a very personal and prayerful choice on the part of the husband and wife. I don’t think it’s our place to ever judge anyone else’s family circumstances, or lack thereof. That’s a deeply personal issue, even a spiritual issue that is nobody else’s business.
Yet I do believe in Saturday’s Warrior’s point that those who choose to have large families need to be included in that show of respect. When I hear those who criticize large families, frankly, it boils my blood. What people are saying is that people like me and my sisters and my brothers weren’t worth having. And I take that as a very personal insult.
Of course once we get into this stream of discussion, we are bound to hit into the rocks of “destiny,” which is played on so strongly in Saturday’s Warrior. It seems as if every relationship in the play is foreordained, from siblings to spouses to mission companions. That idea of destiny; of serendipity; or, in a Mormon context, foreordination (which isn’t exactly the same as destiny), has some complex and not always clear implications in Mormon theology. Mormons strongly believe in the idea of agency, of free will. But we also have these ideas of prophecy, foreordained missions, and pre-mortal relationships that predate our relationships here. Joseph Smith and Alma the Younger both talk about being foreordained to certain callings. There’s a strain between these two ideas of agency and foreordination, a seeming paradox, so this becomes a complex issue for Mormons, even causing emotional and spiritual confusion for many of its members.
Especially when it comes to courtship and marriage, some weird things start happening in regards to these ideas (and I’m talking from a couple of personal, painful experience here). There is an endless litany of possibilities that can come from this kind of thinking: young men start feeling like they’ve had a revelation to marry some girl, and that girl feels obligated; some young woman has a dream which she interprets to be a prophecy; a patriarchal blessing is interpreted in a certain way; a bishop or mission president gives some overbearing counsel that is interpreted as a commandment to marry a certain person; an ironic, unlikely meeting is read as fate; a couple feels the Spirit together at a fireside or doing baptisms for the dead together, so of course that means they should get married; the list goes on and on and on…
And then we start getting paranoid, and it all starts feeling a little fringe, and we start saying that such talk is all bunk and to stay away, stay away, stay away from all such spiritual extremism. We see examples of divorces that were based on just such events, we see people spiritually stalking each other, we see a young man or woman exerting unrighteous dominion, claiming revelation for someone who is not in his or her stewardship (and which should be a personal revelation anyway, not subject to Bishops or boyfriends). We’ve all heard that wise warning to a young woman to avoid any such scenario.
But here’s the unsettling thing… there really are some precedents in Mormonism for this kind of pre-mortal, foreordained relationship. For example, there is a source that claims that Joseph Smith told him that “an angel appeared, and told him he could not get the plates until he was married, and that when he saw the woman that would be his wife, he should know her, and she would know him.” (This requirement by the Angel Moroni for Joseph to marry Emma is corroborated by other sources including Joseph Smith’s close friend and ally Joseph Knight; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p.163-164).
And this process didn’t only apply to Emma, but to a number of Joseph’s plural wives, where Joseph received revelations that they were to be together. At times these revelations were independently confirmed to the plural wives as well, such as when Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner kept having dreams that she was to marry Joseph long before he ever discussed it with her, and then received a visit from an angel when she wanted to be sure Joseph wasn’t deceiving her.
In a different plural relationship with the Kimballs, it was the first wife who received a revelation concerning the matter. Vilate Kimball was shown Sarah Noon in a vision and told that this was the woman her husband Heber C. Kimball was going to marry. Heber C. Kimball prophesied (Heber always seemed to be prophesying things that came true) about Willard Richards’s first wife, saying that he would marry Loretta Richards.
Beyond that we have some interesting and sometimes startling statements from later Church leaders, such as this published statement from the third president of the Church John Taylor on August 29, 1859, from the newspaper he edited in New York, The Mormon:
Knowest thou not that eternities ago thy spirit, pure and holy, dwelt in thy Heavenly Father’s bosom and in His presence, and with thy mother, one of the queens of heaven, surrounded by thy brother and sister spirits in the spirit world, among the Gods? … Thou being willing and anxious to imitate them, waiting and desirous to obtain a body, a resurrection, and exaltation also, and having obtained permission, made a covenant with one of thy kindred spirits to be thy guardian angel while in mortality, also with two others, male and female spirits, that thou wouldst come and take a tabernacle through their lineage, and become one of their offspring. You also chose a kindred spirit whom you loved in the spirit world (and who had permission to come to this planet and take a tabernacle)… Leaving thy Father’s and Mother’s bosom and all thy kindred spirits, thou came to earth, took a tabernacle, and imitated the deeds of those who had been exalted before you. At length the time arrived, and thou heard the voice of thy Father saying, go, daughter, to yonder lower world, and take upon thee a tabernacle, and work out thy probation with fear and trembling, and rise to exaltation. But, daughter, remember you go on this condition, that is, you are to forget all things you ever saw, or knew to be transacted in the spirit world; you are not to know or remember anything concerning the same that you have beheld transpire here; but you must go and become one of the most helpless of all beings that I have created, while in your infancy; subject to sickness, pain, tears, mourning, sorrow, and death. But when truth shall touch the cords of your heart, they will vibrate; then intelligence shall illuminate your mind, and shed its luster in your soul, and you shall begin to understand the things you once knew, but which had gone from you. You shall then begin to understand and know the object of your creation. Daughter, go and be faithful as thou hast been in thy first estate… Thou bade Father, Mother, and all farewell, and, along with thy guardian angel, thou came on this terraqueous globe. The spirits thou hast chosen to come and tabernacle through their lineage, and your head having left the spirit world some years previous, thou came a spirit pure and holy. Thou hast obeyed the truth, and thy guardian angel ministers unto thee and watches over thee. Thou hast chosen him you loved in the spirit world to be thy companion.
Then there is this letter correspondence between Orson F. Whitney and Joseph Fielding Smith. Whitney starts off with the query:
Why are we drawn towards certain persons, and they to us, as though we had always known each other? Is it a fact that we always have? Is there something, after all, in that much abused term “affinity” and is this the basis of its claim? At all events, it is just as logical to look back upon fond associations, as it is to look forward to them. We believe that ties formed in this life, will be continued in the life to come; then why not believe that we had similar ties before we came into the world, and that some of them at least, have been resumed in this state of existence?
After meeting someone whom I had never met before on earth, I have wondered why that person‘s face seemed so familiar. More than once, upon bearing a noble sentiment expressed, though unable to recall that I had ever heard it until then, I have found myself in sympathy with it, was thrilled by it, and felt as if I had always known it. The same is true of some strains of music, they are like echoes of eternity. I do not assert pre-acquaintance in all such cases, but as one thought suggests another these queries arise in the mind.
When it comes to the Gospel, I feel more positive. Why did the Savior say: “My sheep know my voice?” Did a sheep ever know the voice of its shepherd if it had never heard that voice before?
Smith responds to Whitney’s stirring letter with the following:
I heartily endorse your sentiments respecting congeniality of spirits. Our knowledge of persons and things before we came here, combined with the divinity awakened within our souls through obedience to the gospel, powerfully affects, in my opinion, all our likes and dislikes, and guides our preferences in the course of this life, provided we give careful heed to the admonitions of the Spirit…
If Christ knew beforehand, so did we. But in coming here, we forgot all, that our agency might be free indeed, to choose good or evil, that we might merit the reward of our own choice and conduct. But by the power of the Spirit, in the redemption of Christ, through obedience, we often catch a spark from the awakened memories of the immortal soul, which lights up our whole being as with the glory of our former home. [Contributor, 1883, Vol 4, pp. 114-115.]
All of these statements remind me of Doctrine and Covenants 88:40: “For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own…”
Now I’ve heard a lot of people try to peg these pre-mortal relationship ideas on Doug Stewart, or Nephi Anderson, or whoever, and then dismiss them simply as folk doctrine. Well, it’s fair enough to assert that it’s not hard doctrine, and I don’t think anything short of a solid revelation to the Prophet could establish it as such. However, it is also difficult for me, with the above quotations before me, to dismissively snub the ideas. There is enough evidence from Joseph Smith onward to at least consider these ideas. They’re not full proof, rock hard realities, but they’re ideas we shouldn’t be afraid of either.
Now in saying these things, I don’t want people to think I’m justifying all the weirdness that happens at BYU, Institute Dances, and other places where young Mormons congregate to get married and feel spiritual at the same time. But I do believe in the spiritual “affinity” that Orson F. Whitney discussed, that there just may be cases—as romanticized as they sound—where friends, or family, or even spouses, may have made certain arrangements in the pre-existence to re-connect in mortality. Is that the case with every friendship, with every marriage? I find that doubtful. And could a person use their agency to re-make a certain choice that they made in the pre-existence, but have changed course on since hitting into mortality. I would assume so. Agency still trumps all, or the tragic loss of a third of the host of heaven was in vain. I’m thinking of the recent Ben Affleck film The Adjustment Bureau and how it plays with these ideas of free will, foreordained actions and foreordained relationships in such interesting ways.
Sometimes I think we get scared at the possibilities hidden in our doctrines. We start asking ourselves questions which lead to more questions which lead to more questions…and it becomes daunting and more than a little frightening, especially if we lose a little intellectual certainty in the process. And when we start dealing with ethereal spirituality—spiritual gifts, prophecy, pre-mortality, guardian angels, foreordination, spirits, forgotten covenants—well, that kind of stuff can get down right spooky. In that light, suddenly the Church seems a lot less like a bureaucratic, family oriented, moral, charitable organization, and much more like a mysterious, almost cult-like, fringe group. But, in the end, its far beyond either of those descriptions… I think we need to remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world and when you read the New Testament, the otherworldly stuff that’s going on is pretty intense. The world’s current rules as we understand them simply aren’t enough to explain it all. If all of this stuff we claim to believe is true, then there’s so much more going on that we aren’t accepting. If we take our religion seriously, we have to come to grips with the fact that we’re going to encounter some pretty weird stuff—stuff that the rational and humdrum parts of our personality just might choke on.
I don’t think some people have as big of an issue with Saturday’s Warrior’s sometimes campy nature, or peppy music. I think that what gets under their skin is much more subtle, yet more massive than all that. I think that what some people don’t like about Saturday’s Warrior is that the show actually reveals some rather uncomfortable possibilities in our theology and culture. I think it paints a perfectly defensible view on parts of our theology (despite its airy fairy presentation of the pre-existence) and that particular point of view scares people. I think under its unassuming, corny demeanor the musical asks hard questions about our spiritual obligations, our spiritual relationships, and our spiritual identity. And I think some of those questions fly in the face of certain accepted ideas and are indeed threatening to our current systems of living. We keep clutching to Mammon, even as he is blasted away by the light of new, unexplainable experiences.
My senior year in high school, I brought a date with my family to see a professional, anniversary production of Saturday’s Warrior at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake. I remember thinking how different of an experience it was with an updated script and music, and some professional actors in the roles. Not that I don’t love me some Marvin Payne, but that particular production seemed less about the camp, and more about the message, and by smoothing out the presentation, it became quite an interesting production.
Years later, I showed my wife Anne the old filmed version which had been released on DVD. I was showing it more as a joke than anything, since Anne hadn’t seen it before. However, despite my cynical act of satire, I was caught off guard when I started feeling the Spirit while watching the show. I could still see all the flaws in the production, but something beneath all that started getting to me and profoundly affecting me. I felt like I was missing something before that was starting to dawn on me. I’m not certain that I understand that experience even now, but one thing I know is this: good Theatre forces a person to ask hard questions, questions that ultimately forces a person to question even their own philosophies, assumptions, and character. So, in that moment, even if it was simply a moment, Saturday’s Warrior was very good Theatre.