My mother was a Presbyterian and a pretty darn good one. In fact, I’m sure she was one of the best, meaning that she knew the doctrine better than most. That’s probably because she came from a long line of Presbyterians, many of whom were ordained ministers. Mother was an educator. She loved the Bible. She loved telling stories from the Bible. She loved talking about the doctrines of salvation. She studied. She learned. She taught others. She taught me.
Mother got a degree in education back when most women did not go to college. She would have received her Master’s degree in education but never defended her thesis. She was too busy teaching school and raising a family. Her journal is filled with stories of discussing the doctrines of the gospel with her ministers and professors in college. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and was never satisfied when her questions weren’t answered. That frustrated her.
She loved teaching so much that she took a job as the Director of Christian Education at a large local church. She had to quit after two months because one of my sisters got real sick with Meningitis. She started teaching in the California public school system after my sister recovered. Because she loved the Bible so much she used to share Bible stories with the children in her classes. Can you imagine that happening in the California public school system today?
My Southern heritage
My family is from the South, mainly South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and later, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. I’m a California boy, my parents having arrived in the Golden state a few years before I was born. I feel out of place in California. Life is too hurried here. Everyone is always going places and neighbors keep to themselves. Every time I visit the South I feel like I’ve come home. I feel relaxed and peaceful. I know it is the land of many of my ancestors.
Religion in the South is different than it is in California and especially than it is in Utah. It’s a different sort of cultural heritage. There is much more of a focus on neighborly kindness, social friendliness and Christian service. Teachings of the Savior, His grace, His mercy and His absolute love and acceptance of the sinner are everywhere. You can visit one Christian Church after another in the South and mostly hear the same focus, based of course, strictly on the Bible.
There are not a lot of surprises in what is taught in the local congregations there. The history of the early Christian church is common knowledge. The doctrines of salvation as taught from the Bible are fairly straightforward. Nobody is coming up with any new twist about what you are supposed to do to get into heaven. Salvation is a matter of believing the Bible, accepting Christ and living a Christian life. It is reliable, unchanging and produces good results in the faithful.
Along came the Mormons
Mother joined the Mormon Church for several reasons. She had a young family. She loved the focus on the family and the example of others who were influential in her life, especially the school principal. He was fair and had no problems working with her when she had family emergencies. The little girl in her class that got up in sharing time and told the class about dressing in white and being baptized at age eight intrigued her. She wanted to know more.
It didn’t take mother long to come to the conclusion that she wanted to be baptized. She took her whole family to church and we sat in the back. Everybody was so friendly. Dad had to work. But when she heard about family history and genealogy she felt something special. Here was something new that she hadn’t heard about growing up as a Presbyterian. When she was taught about the temple she knew that she had found what she had been looking for in college.
Her immediate understanding and acceptance of the purpose of the Temple tells you something about the spiritual level my Mother was on at that time in her life. She made sure we were all sealed together as a family in the Temple exactly one year after we were baptized. She even took a year off from school, a Sabbatical, to start researching her family history and collecting names and dates from everyone she could contact back in the South. She was hooked.
Difficulties of remaining faithful
Mother was so enamored with and consumed by doing family history research that it became a full-time passion. She quit teaching school and spent every waking moment writing letters to relatives, recording her research on those long legal-size family group sheets and pedigree charts and dragging her kids down to the National Archives. I still remember the day I found one of our ancestors on the microfilm reader. Mother was ecstatic and overjoyed. I think I was too.
While I was on my mission, mother found another passion that distracted her from her family history work. Because of her love of history and teaching, she took classes and graduated from the local Institute of Religion. She took it seriously. I still have some of her doctrinal papers that she wrote and am just amazed at the depth of her understanding. However, the Spirit of Elijah was strong. She knew that her family history work wasn’t completed. There was so much to do.
She wanted to move to Utah so badly so she could be closer to the church archives that she and dad sold me their house and off they went. Unfortunately, she wasn’t prepared for the cultural shock. While she loved the doctrine and understood it better than most she just could not get used to the authoritative hierarchy of the church. It was so foreign to her. No matter how many times I tried to explain the Priesthood, she always said it was just the men’s club of the Church.
A bad taste for Utah Mormons
I know this is going to be offensive to some who read this, but it’s just the way it is so I’m going to lay it all out there. Mother was shocked by her encounter with Utah Mormons. They were nothing like California Mormons. For so many, the Church was just a social organization. It was just something they grew up with and took for granted. So many of them had no clue about the rich history or the deep, complex and powerful doctrines of the Restoration. It just sickened her.
Because of her obvious knowledge of the gospel, Mother was called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher. Of course, she wanted to discuss the doctrines that she had studied and learned so well. When she brought some of these things up in class, all she got were blank stares as if she had horns growing out of her head. When she tried to teach some of the history that you don’t normally get in Gospel Doctrine, she was released. That hurt. What she tried to teach was true.
Of course I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you what really happened. I may have even confused some of the basic facts of the story. But I do know how it affected my mother. She was never the same. She could no longer participate in a church that would not encourage a full and open discussion of the history and where most of the members did not understand the doctrines. After ten years in Utah, mother and dad returned to California and lived out their lives in Hemet, never returning to church.
Summary and conclusion
Having served in many Priesthood leadership positions over the years I think I can appreciate what happened. Mother was so far above everyone else in her knowledge and understanding of doctrine and history that she intimidated and overwhelmed everyone who heard her teach. It wasn’t that what she was trying to teach wasn’t true, it’s just that sometimes it wasn’t exactly stuff that was found in the Gospel Doctrine manual. Do you see the problem?
When her bishops tried to help her understand the problem, she became furious and enraged. I mean that literally. She felt so resentful that some hick cowboy would tell her to tone it down that she would tear up her temple recommend, throw it at him and storm out. Of course she knew so much more than this old farmer would ever know. What was he talking about, “a different kind of knowledge?” To the end of her days, I’m not sure that she ever got it.
Here’s the point: It’s not a knowledge of the facts about the history of the church that saves us. It’s not even our ability to intellectually understand and explain the doctrines of salvation. It’s a knowledge of our standing with the Lord that gives us the gift of peace in this life and hope for the life to come. If we can’t say that we know we have been forgiven of our sins and that we are clean before the Lord, then we are missing something very fundamental to our salvation.
Obviously, I am not my mother. My experience in the Church has been completely different because I am a man. I love my mother. I am so glad I was born to this amazing woman. I would not have had it any other way. She taught me so much, especially the importance of seeking and obtaining knowledge. I owe so much of who I am to this brilliant woman who so richly and deeply blessed my life. But I am still coming to grips with what happened to her.
Mother died a few years ago. She raised a wonderful family. Her four daughters are just as incredible as she was. Her two sons are a little messed up but that’s a different story. Mother didn’t quite fit into the Mormon church, or at least the Utah version of the Mormon church. Of course I shouldn’t be calling it that. It is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That means we should be focusing on Jesus Christ and the gospel of love that he taught.
I love this church. It has been good to me. I still have a long ways to go before I understand and accomplish all the things I came here to do. I wonder if maybe I have it a little easier because I am a man and what is expected of me is fairly clear and obvious. But what happens to a woman who embraces the restored gospel as taught in this Church with all her heart and tries to share her passion for the knowledge she has gained? Is that the normal role of women in our church?