Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Milk, Misspellings, and Other Reasons

As we discussed Lesson #24 in Gospel Doctrine class, I couldn't help but be annoyed by the same narrative I always hear about individuals who leave the Church. It didn't help that the historical examples--Thomas Marsh's cream incident and the misspelling of Symonds (Simonds) Ryder's (Rider) name--are fairly poor choices. As explained over at By Common Consent,

Thomas B. Marsh
Excommunicated in 1839
Rebaptized in 1857
Marsh was loyal to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in the crises of 1837, which saw the collapse of the church in Kirtland, and Marsh led efforts to expel potential troublemakers (Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers) from their leadership roles in the church in Missouri. However, just a few months later, during the events of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, Marsh did voluntarily leave the faith, (along with fellow apostle Orson Hyde who soon returned). As Marsh explained in his October 24, 1838, affidavit, he left because he was alarmed that his fellow coreligionists had formed mobs, expelled all the non-Mormons from Daviess County, stolen their property, and burned their homes and towns to the ground. 

Although the Mormons at the time were steeped in Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8), where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000, the danger in escalating the violence — in fighting mobs with mobs and in answering pillaging with pillaging — was extreme. The Mormons were as hopelessly outnumbered as Gideon. As much as the Saints eventually suffered after their defeat, even worse results were quite possible. The massacre at Haun’s Mill might just as easily have been replicated en masse at Far West, and the trial of Joseph Smith and other leaders may well have been a court martial and summary execution, (however illegal).

Whether or not one agrees with Marsh’s conviction that the acts committed by the Saints in northwestern Missouri were immoral and impious, I think we can at least agree that this seed of his apostasy from the faith was no small thing. Rather, it was a big thing.

Even the Church's Revelations in Context recognizes the part violence played in Marsh's decision:

[Marsh] was among several Latter-day Saints who became disturbed by the increasingly violent relationship between Church members and their Missouri neighbors. Also contributing to his deepening dissatisfaction was the infamous “cream strippings” incident, which occurred in August or September 1838, involving Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lucinda Harris, wife of George W. Harris.

In regards to Symonds Ryder, Cheryl Bruno points out,

Perhaps the misspelling was a bother to Ryder, but this one incident was hardly the sole reason for Ryder's departure. For one thing, spelling was more fluid in the 19th century and earlier. An attempt at standardized spelling in the U.S. did not begin until the appearance of Webster's “American Dictionary of the English Language” in 1828, and for at least a half century many words continued to be vociferously debated. American census-takers varied quite a bit in their reporting of people's names, showing that they were not asking people "How is that spelled?" but rather writing the name as they thought it should appear.
The headstone of Symonds Ryder

For example, it was spelled "Simonds" in the 1830 census, "Symonds" in 1840, and "Symands" in 1870. But in an 1868 letter to A.S. Hayden, Ryder recalled that papers by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon revealed "the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Joseph Smith the prophet." The shock over consecration as well as the influence of the disillusioned Ezra Booth[1] (it must be remembered that Ryder did not leave until Booth returned from his mission in September of 1831, a couple months after the misspelling) were major contributors to Ryder's apostasy.

Of course, these details do not justify apostasy or the actions that followed. For example, Joseph Smith remembered hearing mob members during the March 1832 tar-and-feathering calling out on several occasions, "'Simonds, Simonds' (meaning I supposed Simonds Rider)." While Ryder never returned to the Church, Marsh eventually did. But both of these departures were far from inconsequential in their reasoning. It was much more than milk strippings and misspelled names (even if both these reasons are still taught from the pulpit in General Conference).

With most of this running through my head and pulled up on my iPod, I finally raised my hand. I explained that I recognized the lesson was for our personal application; a way to protect ourselves individually from minor offenses. However, in response to "don't take offense," I suggested that we make an attempt to not be offensive. While those offending often "don't even realize it" (as one class member put it), perhaps we should practice a little self-awareness and "realize it." Instead of seeing all those who leave as lazy, shallow apostates, perhaps we should step down from our smug self-righteousness and see if we had any part in their leaving. While the choice ultimately lies with them, I certainly would hate to know someone left in part because I was a jerk. The members of the Church should create a culture of love, forgiveness, and peace. We must extend forgiveness and love towards those who offend us, while doing (and seeking) the same for (and from) those we offend. Instead of justifying our anger toward offenders or our insensitivity toward the offended, perhaps a little compassion all around is in order. By doing so, we can keep the Church as true as the gospel.

1. Though Booth was initially converted due to a witnessed healing in the spring of 1831, the impact of other healings and supernatural occurrences began to diminish. He also saw Joseph Smith as an authoritarian who lacked the "sobriety, prudence and stability" of a true prophet and instead engaged in "a spirit of lightness and levity, a temper easily irritated, and an habitual proneness to jesting and joking" (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Random House, 2005, 170). 

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