Writing the Hard History

I have posted this elsewhere in the past, but with the publication of The Fading Flower by Zarahemla Books recently, and that play being more readily available now, I wanted to drag this post back into the light:

I have written two Mormon History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom) the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith’s family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people’s faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.

The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down… I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God’s reality and love and show the Church’s leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case.

I had one actor who had gone inactive until he was in Friends of God and then decided to go on a full time mission as a result of being in the play and the Spirit he felt in being part of it. The plays opened up conversations with less active, former member, and non-member friends. I had numerous people come up to me (sometimes in tears) telling me how the play addressed issues they had been struggling with for a long time and that it had answered their prayers. I had people who came with thoughtful, faithful, spiritual experiences and we rejoiced together and were edified together. Both sets of casts, especially, felt spiritual uplift and a sense of mission with each play, even to the point where we had spiritual experiences in feeling presences and angels assisting and participating with us in our work. I won’t go into too much detail there, for its sacred ground for me, but I felt spiritual assistance in bringing those plays to their fulfillment. Again and again, I felt why the Lord had spurred me on in these projects.

However, there was one instance where I doubted myself on this front. The Fading Flower was accepted as part of BYU’s “Writers/Dramatugs/Actors Workshop,” which workshops new plays before producing a staged reading of the piece (I was excited about this since I wasn’t even a BYU student). The play, which deals with some pretty heavy historical realities, especially regarding the practice of polygamy in the 19th century by the LDS Church, hit a couple of the students pretty hard.

One of the students was a wonderful, intelligent, young woman and a feminist who strongly disliked my portrayal of Emma which, fortunately, we fixed to her satisfaction, for I have always been a strong proponent of Emma (I consider myself a feminist myself, by the way). The practice of polygamy in any fashion was something that worked against this young woman’s feminist tendencies, so it was bound to be an uncomfortable topic for her, but she was smart, knowledgeable, and I wasn’t afraid that anything presented was going to take her out for good.

The experience of the other young woman was much harder for me to bear, though. She was a recent Hispanic convert of a couple of years, and had been taught a pretty simplistic version of the Gospel. She had sacrificed a lot, going against her family’s Catholic traditions and moving from Texas to go to BYU and be close to the Church. Her experiences at BYU ruffled her, as she confronted (at least from her perspective) intolerance, judgmentalism, and even some thinly veiled racism. Then there came this play of mine, presenting Joseph Smith as a polygamist (plus other hard facts), all information that she had never encountered before.

Her and I exchanged some long e-mails about the subject, and I did my best to give the context of the issues involved. A good friendship came out of it. However, some time later she later informed me that she had left the Church. She made it sound that it was due to a lot of the other issues she was specifically encountering in the weird culture that is BYU, but I had the feeling that my play certainly hadn’t helped.

I had written the play because of a vivid and prophetic dream I had that spurred me. I felt good throughout the process of writing it and when it was actually performed I, the cast, and many audience members told me the spiritual experiences they had surrounding it. But why then should I even write a play that could inadvertently damage some one’s fledgling faith?

I struggled with that question, but the more I thought and prayed about it, the more convinced I was performing the work the Lord had guided me in. There was a deeper problem at work here… we do not prepare the Saints for the information that is bound to fall in their laps.

It is not my fault that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. I did not create that fact. If you believe him, not even Joseph Smith is at fault for that fact. He was doing as the Lord directed. Yet in the Church we often build up this veil of secrecy, of enforced ignorance. Many of us frown on those who would discuss the less than savory elements of the Gospel and its history.

And it doesn’t only extend to Church History. The Book of Mormon, the Old and New Testaments have own fair share of faith challenging stories. I read a talk once where Elder Jeffrey R. Holland commented on how it said something about the Lord that he put Laban’s death by the hand Nephi within the first eight pages of the Book of Mormon. God wasn’t going to coddle us, he wanted us to face the facts and realize that discipleship in His Kingdom had a price. I look at the graphic and often disturbing stories in the Standard Works and realize that religion– real religion that hasn’t been watered down– is often a hard lesson in the rough nature of truth.

My play The Fading Flower is based on my research about the family of Joseph Smith, years after his martyrdom, especially centering on Emma Smith and her youngest son David Hyrum Smith. Joseph’s widow Emma strived to protect her sons and daughter from the principles which had caused her so much pain in her personal life with Joseph… the principle of polygamy and the “Brighamites” who practiced it. I made a lot of this issue of Emma’s protectiveness. Emma did not want to expose her children to the things and people that had caused her so much struggle. Essentially she wanted to protect them from the truth.

This, in the end, is the cause for the grief and downfall of Emma’s family. It’s Emma’s tragic flaw, this unwillingness to confront the full truth. It’s particularly catastrophic to her youngest son David Hyrum Smith, who not only loses his faith when he confronts the truth about his father’s polygamy, but also loses his sanity and spends the rest of his days in an insane asylum. Near the end of the play, I have David’s adopted sister Julia say, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end. David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one.”

I certainly believe that people still need to learn “line upon line, precept upon precept,” and that we should get “milk before meat.” But I’m saying it now, as I’ve said it before, our enemies are not going to be kind to us in this regard. In this age of easy information, they’re going to shove that meat down our throats and hope that we choke on it. And I have seen just that, time and time again. We’re still feeding the full fledged adults milk, and I’m nervous about the day when they meet some one who has information to give them (without the context) and that our friends and neighbors, and siblings and children, our spouses and parents, they’re going to choke and their faith is going to die.

We often really don’t trust the Lord when He said, “The Truth will make you free.” We take that as some kind of statement about general, esoteric truth, not really applying to the nitty gritty of history and theology and science and anthropology. Yet the Lord makes it painfully clear that if we take that evasive, luke warm track, we are deluding ourselves:

I give you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness….And, verily I say unto you, that it is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion. Amen (Doctrine and Covenants 93: 19, 53).

To know “what you worship”… that’s a pretty big deal. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Yet these are not what many people of faith are being led to. They are told to cover up, not to seek too deep into the mysteries… yet Joseph Smith responds to this kind of reasoning with some unequivocal sayings:

The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137).

That communion with God doesn’t come cheap, and it doesn’t come without some struggle. All the experience I have to base this on are my own, but I know that every experience with the Divine I have had has come like Jacob wrestling with the angel… the Lord tries me, tests me. He forces me into a corner, sometimes making me struggle with conflict, even doubt. But after that tempest, the lights emerge from the darkness and enlightenment comes.

I won’t lie. In writing about the hard questions in Mormon History, I have often had to shed my cherished cultural assumptions like a snake sheds his outer skin. Underneath, however, I find scales of armor that have been tempered into a true strength and resilience. I know the history, I know the doctrine, I know the context. I’m no longer afraid.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
This entry was posted in On-stage, The Past through Literature, The Writer's Desk. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Writing the Hard History

  1. Megan says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said about history. I especially like James Goldberg’s post about the differences in how we talk about Peter and Joseph Smith (http://mormonmidrashim.blogspot.com/2009/08/myth-of-joseph-smith.html).

    On the other hand, I kind of disagree with the closing sentiments. The heart of the gospel, I firmly feel, is in those “plain and precious truths.” The stuff that’s taught in Nursery to toddler — I am a child of God. He loves me. He gave me a body to come to earth, so I could grow up to be like Him. I should be kind to others.

    These, to me, are great mysteries that I can spend a lifetime pondering. Knowing where Kolob is wouldn’t make me a better person or help me grow spiritually. Simple things — singing hymns, playing with children, helping someone move — those all make me feel closer to my Heavenly Father and give me faith I’m doing what’s right, even in the face of history that I can’t always explain.

  2. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Megan, certainly those plain and precious truths are at the heart of the Gospel. There are definitely “weightier matters of the law”– love, mercy, justice, kindness– those should never be lost sight of and should never be de-emphasized.

    But there are aspects of the Gospel, if we ignore them in our writing, in our discussions, in our study, that will come back to bite us, if we aren’t prepared for them. I’m not talking about Kolob, or how many angels can dance on the head of a needle. I’m not talking trivia. I’m talking about the things that can effect testimonies if they’re not dealt with and simply shuffled off and then ignored. The nature of God, our Heavenly Mother, the nature of the sealing power and how it relates to our understanding of what marriage is and isn’t, the weighty matters of Church History and the scriptures, race and gender in the Church, the possible fallibility of even the most noble of endeavors– if we don’t address these things in our art and our lives, we’ll be caught unprepared like those unready for the thief in the night. We need to be “wise as serpents” and “harmless as doves.”

  3. Mahonri Stewart says:

    By the way, Megan, I echo your appreciation for James Goldberg’s thoughts on his blog. That was an excellent post.

  4. Mark Penny says:

    The truth will set you free, but it won’t sweep up the bricks afterward.

  5. Mark Stewart says:

    I think President Hinckley set the tone to allow the tough truths to be discussed more comfortably. Reigning in those who were going after the historians, opening up the archives and so forth laid the groundwork. Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling” I think is the other engine driving a change- his unflinching-ness was an important turning point due to his credibility from within and without.

    The main question has always been is what is the right forum. I remember when Eugene England was teaching our Gospel Doctrine class and came up with a lesson about the progression of God. I was a pre-missionary at the time and remember challenging him during the class on the speculative nature of what he was teaching (though I found the lesson a lot of fun and very interesting). We continued to discuss it for a while after the class- it wasn’t a negative thing, and we had a good discussion about it.

    The correlation of the church really has killed that old style Gospel Doctrine class where there was a sizable ability to chew over the meat, for good or ill. I think the church needs an officially blessed venue- maybe an ‘advanced’ non-correlated Gospel Doctrine track. Funnily enough, Mitt did this- he was getting complaints about a liberal type Gospel Doctrine teacher- instead of pulling the teacher he set up a 2nd Gospel Doctrine class with a more orthodox teacher…

  6. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Mark,
    There’s been some rumblings as to possible changes to the lesson manuals (Elder Marlin Jensen has mentioned this as well), venues of discussion, and other things from the Church to help make things more open intellectually in the Church. I think that is a very good sign. There’s been some mass apostasy in some areas (especially in Europe) over some of these issues, especially with the advent of the internet, and the Church has been taking these issues very seriously. They have been, in my opinion, making some very wise decisions.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      This is an aspect of our culture that I struggle with. We recently had a gospel doctrine class where the broad consensus was that the end of Alma teaches us that executing the unpatriotic is core gospel, using the Rosenbergs as an example.

      Without going into political arguments, let me say that I found myself in a deep (apparent) minority about exactly what Alma teaches us about what the conditions, restrictions, and broad general rules are for execution carried out by government. I wanted to argue the text (I read it very differently), but didn’t feel that such an argument would be either welcome or useful. The end result was a ruined day and a bit of a grudge that I’m still trying to banish from my heart.

      So if I can’t discuss it in Gospel Doctrine class (my preference, btw, though it puts a lot of pressure on the teacher to be both knowledgeable and a good referee), where can I discuss it? Right now it seems like books, plays, and films combine with forums like this to enable the discussion outside of church meetings that seem increasingly devoted to basic affirmation rather than vigorous inquiry.

      So leaving Kolob out of it, where are we to have these kinds of interpretive discussions of history and doctrine if not at the university or in forums for discussing story (essay, tale, or history) about that history?

      I happily accept the need for affirmation, but what are our avenues for exploration and inquiry if not in the stories we tell? If we drive that to dark hallways and back alleys, we make the idea of inquiry dirty and wrong, and that’s not what I understand about studying it out in heart and mind.

  7. Mahonri Stewart says:

    “I happily accept the need for affirmation, but what are our avenues for exploration and inquiry if not in the stories we tell? If we drive that to dark hallways and back alleys, we make the idea of inquiry dirty and wrong, and that’s not what I understand about studying it out in heart and mind.”

    Amen, Scott! Inquiry is what brought the Restoration about in the first place. It can be a force of great good and self inspection. It doesn’t always need to be identified with apostates and malcontents. It’s often one of the best qualities of our best prophets, thinkers, writers and artists… ask and ye shall receive, and all that.

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