Stephen MarshMormon 36 Comments

This post edited to clear up confusion caused by careless and clueless use of language.

Some miracles seem to be reliable.  As a missionary, I found that if people would read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, they would feel the Spirit.  However, some miracles just seem to happen, and it is, perhaps, counterproductive to generalize from those miracles.  Like the dear member who invited us to teach his best friend.  After we had taught a lesson and given him a Book of Mormon and encouraged him to read and pray, the member told him to ignore us — all it had taken the member was a prayer, the Spirit had fallen on him like fire and the rest of the effort was excess.

The friend found that he needed to read and pray.  The same difference is found in 12 step programs.  Some people are instantly and miraculously changed.  Most need to rely on God and work continuously on change in order to succeed in changing.

Some examples are more disquieting.  As a child in Alaska I knew a Native American family who joined the church and then physically became lighter in skin tone.  As a missionary, I had at least two investigators, who upon being taught the word of wisdom (which they already knew about) suddenly lost all desire and all physical craving for tobacco.  As they had made many prior efforts to stop smoking, they were delighted.  Almost every missionary knows that giving up tobacco is not usually that easy for investigators.

Anomalous miracles are interesting to me for several reasons.  One, they are a warning that we need to be careful about how we extrapolate from personal experience.  As they teach in statistics, anecdotal evidence = probably false.  Second, they are so often very “tangible.”  “Real” miracles, so to speak, and they often have great meaning to those who experience them, such as the dear brother my father’s home teaching companion blessed and his whole body tattoos all disappeared.

Third, they should teach us compassion for those who do not receive them.  And of course, we should reflect on Boyd K. Packer’s “therefore, what?!”

Comments 36

  1. Could you please elaborate about the White and Delightsome miracle? I have a really hard time believing that an entire family turned White because they got baptized.

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  3. It is amazing that for some it is a quiet, almost grueling experience to gain a testimony, for others it is bold and miraculous. Do those who pay more dearly for the knowledge value it more? I fall more in the, “behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things for myself” category.

    I am also intrigued by the Alaska Native example. I work with them extensively and have found some wonderful Native. One Yakutat convert related that once he was convinced by the missionaries to pray, he lost all taste for alchohol instantly. This was a dramatic miracle because he had been scourged for some time by alcoholism.

    I sent the following email to Daniel Peterson, but have not yet heard his replay:
    “I thought you would find this interesting. I do a lot of consulting with tribes in Alaska. I have run across 3 distinct stories about a Christ-figure in the region. In two, he is described as a white peacegiver who walked among the people and taught practical skills (ex. harvesting fish) and methods for getting along. He also prophesied of the coming of the whites and the Christian religion. Consequently, the Alaska Tribes were open to Christian missionaries when they arrived. Also, a Tlingit convert tells the story of two hunters seeing a magnificent star and angelic being appearing to them and telling them of a important person born across the waters.

    This doesn’t fit with recent DNA studies, although one of the tribes (I think Tlingit) was thought to migrate from the mainland and reportedly can understand Navajo.”

  4. Stephen, I think this post highlights two very important concepts: 1) that miraculous things that appear to be enexplainable really do happen; 2) that, for most of us, they really do have to be seen as anomalies. Without an understanding of their anomalous nature, it is far too easy to hold ourselves and others to a standard that is impossible for most.

    For example, I wonder sometimes how many members really understand what Oliver’s burning in the bosom and stupor of thought were to him. I know that’s not how I normally experience the Holy Ghost, and I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a true “burning” in my bosom (other than standard indigestion). I wonder if that experience of Oliver’s might be more of an anomaly **for many** than most of us realize – especially most of us who actually do expereince the Spirit that same way. If you read of Oliver’s “canonized” experience, and if it matches your own, it is very easy to assume that all should be able to have the same type of experience.

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    Ray, that is a good point. Sunday we had someone talk about an apostle who had also been his mission president who later, as an apostle, stated that Oliver’s experience was not the normal one. There was an interesting talk about Joseph Smith’s dialog about inspiration flowing as insight, about how he had ignored that on a recent trip in favor of his GPS unit, how the way he had felt impressed to go had no snow, the way he went had a blind snow storm that delayed them seven hours and a number of other things.

    Michelle, the event about the newly baptized members was unique. Enough that people drove by the house (which was my first exposure, being driven by the house to see where the people lived who had been involved in the miracle). I found it very anomalous.

    What got me started was a side bar link we had here to a guy who had gone from gay to straight.

  6. “As a child in Alaska I knew…”

    Oh–the things that I thought I knew as a child.

    “which was my first exposure…”

    So your first exposure to the family was after the event? You never actually saw a before and after?

  7. “Yeah, that whole “turned white” thing seems crazy to me. Is that a miracle? Is that a blessing?” I’m with Michelle G. on this one. As someone who is naturally light skinned, I spend substantial amounts of time each year trying to make the reverse miracle happen, to little avail.

  8. I was just a kid in grade school. It struck me as an anomaly then, it does now.

    I appreciate everyone who feels I should have engaged in a post-graduate level investigation and been prepared for cross-examination about forty-five years later about an event that struck me as strange, but that wasn’t really a part of my life, but, alas, I was not prepared then.

  9. The reason the Tligits may be able to understand some Navajo is because the Navajos speak a form of Athabaskan, spoken throughout Alaska. Yeah, the Navajos migrated south, so the similarities in the two languaes is not a surprise.

    Also, while I’m bursting bubbles, the natives could have had Jesus stories because the Alaskan natives were proseletized very very early (1794) by Russian priests, that’s 200+ years ago.

    Turning white? You never saw it? Just passed it on? OK, then. Does this mean you think the word “delightsome” is spiritually linked with the word “white?” Good to know.

  10. I am Black, and I emphatically do NOT think that turning white would be any kind of blessing whatsoever. Is having white skin such a privilege, such a compliment, such an important issue to God that He would magically remove melanin, pigmentation, kinks and curls to show how wonderful the LDS Church is? Sorry! Not buying it.

  11. #11 & #12 – Again, that’s not what Stephen is saying in the post. He’s saying much more what you are saying – that an anomaly (especially a miraculous anomaly) shouldn’t be extrapolated and held up as the norm.

  12. Does this mean you think the word “delightsome” is spiritually linked with the word “white?” Good to know.

    No. Gee, the people lived about a mile and a half away from my house, on the other side of the elementary school. There were only four wards in Anchorage at the time.

    Agnes, I saw the people and saw their house. I knew other native members at the time, they were normal. I think of the event as an unexplained anomaly that doesn’t fit with the way I understand theology. I kind of agree with God and Paul, that there is neither black nor white, bond nor free, male or female in God (that is, that as far as God is concerned, those types of status do not grant any virtue or merit or demerit).

    I’m glad Ray understand that I am using this as an example of an event that does not bear extrapolation, but is instead an example of something that should not be extrapolated from.

  13. Pingback: Anomalies and Miracles « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  14. The only reason Steve would bother mentioning people turning white when they became Mormon in this context is because he sees it as associated with “miracles” and “the spirit,” the subject of this post. Not convinced. White and delightsome. Still alive and well.

  15. “Anomalies and Miracles,” right? Plus, dear Brother Steve, after months of reading you here in the Blogosphere, I really thought better of you.

  16. In order for me to believe this occurrence–much less consider it a miracle–I would like to know the answers to some important questions:

    1. How long after they joined the Church did this happen? Immediately? A few days? A few weeks? A few months?
    2. Did anyone see and hear the family actually testify that this had happened to them?
    3. Did they go from dark skin and hair to light skin, fair hair, and blue eyes?
    4. Is it possible that soon after they were baptized the family moved and another one moved into the house, thus leading everyone to believe it was the same family and a “miracle” had occurred?

  17. Brenda, I can’t speak for all Mormons, but the “turning white” thing is not, is not a Mormon belief. Pay no attention to the poster. Please.

  18. I think it’s clear that Stephen doesn’t personally believe that turning white is a miracle that should happen and definitely not that can be extrapolated to happen in general cases (or be “expected” to happen).

    I just wonder if things like this, whether hearsay, unsubstantiated, or legitimate, happen in other religions. It’s just rather unfortunate coincidence that such a story just *happens* to be related to the church. I mean, we have hearsay of other anomalous events happening in other churches that just tend to ‘cater’ to the folklores and cultural blips of those cultures…so that would be interesting to wonder.

    …maybe we should just stick with virgin mary statues crying blood.

  19. Agnes, to call someone like Stephen racist because he clearly identified an experience that he can’t understand as an ANOMALY is reprehensible. There is NOTHING in Stephen’s account in this post nor in anything he has ever written of which I am aware that justifies your conclusion. His own words in his response are clear and unambiguous:

    “I think of the event as an unexplained anomaly that doesn’t fit with the way I understand theology.”

    Please, be very careful throwing around charges of racism toward someone who has taken great pains in his writing to make it clear that he is baffled by this event and attaches NO theological standard to it. I’ve helped raise black sons; I know racism from direct experience – direct contact with it aimed at me and my children; Stephen is not racist.

  20. Blackness is not an illness that requires a cure. It is not a lesser state of being, and has no deleterious effect that must be removes as one would lift a taint. I am no leper, sirs. I require no miracle to cleanse my skin.

  21. I realize the post mentioned only one Native American family, but this episode has implications for anyone who is *not* white. Why would God turn someone White if it were *not* the preferred state of being? Does the LDS church believe that being white is a prize? The whiter the skin, the better person one is? White skin is some kind of reward? Sorry– this really upsets me.

  22. Brenda, Stephen made NO suggestion that a skin change was a “cure”. He made no reference to “deleterious effects” or any “taint”. He never typed the word “cleanse”.

    Everyone, all I am asking is that Stephen’s words be evaluated by what they actually said – NOT by a quick and emotional assumption about what they said. Stephen mentioned this family explicitly because he doesn’t understand it – because it doesn’t fit his understanding of theology. He knew them; he spoke with them; they are real people – but he doesn’t understand what happened or why it happened. He called it an ANOMALY – something that defies explanation.

    PLEASE, don’t read into it more than what he put into it. When his words are read solely for what they say, he actually is arguing the same point as Agnes and Brenda – that this family should NOT be used to perpetuate previous, incorrect folk doctrine.

  23. Agnes,

    I am glad that you have some background in this. There is really no bubble to burst because the information was based on oral traditions that are difficult or impossible to verify. The things that I find interesting are:

    * The claim is that the Tlingits (I believe) migrated North into SE Alaska rather than the other way around. Their language is fundamentally different than their neighbors, the Haida’s. This information comes from speaking with members of the tribe.

    * I believe the Christ figure predates the coming of Russian missionaries. They were given the message that they should prepare for coming of a church that would only have a portion of the truth. The people reciting the traditions were not LDS.

    * The LDS convert said that some of the SE Indians were Lamanites and the northern tribes migrated from Asia. This was obviously his opinion. It raises interesting questions that probably cannot be answered with the limited information and knowledge we have.

    The numerous problems with an oral tradition make any verification impossible.

    I am with John Naisbitt who said that one of the most liberating leadership principles is “I don’t have to be right”.

  24. Agnes and Brenda,

    I am going to re-post here a comment I made on the FMH thread about MLK Day. It struck me that I should do so, just to make the point that I am not coming to Stephen’s post as some old white guy who just doesn’t get it. I hope somehow it helps both of you understand a little better where I am coming from here in this thread. Please pardon the length. It doesn’t say it all, but I hope it says enough:
    My desire to celebrate MLK Day is influenced by my years living in the Deep South. I am going to relate an experience I had not too many years ago that illustrates just how far we still have to go. If some of you are offended by racial pejoratives, please forgive my use of the word in its entirety, but I think sometimes we dilute the atrocity of things that need to be confronted in their full ugliness when we soften them to avoid offense. Some things truly are deeply offensive and should be preserved as such.

    In the months immediately following our move, I worked with a man who was a good man. He would help a friend in need anytime and anyway possible. He was fun-loving and happy, with a great sense of humor. I really liked working with him, and I really liked him. I considered him to be a friend.

    One day, while we were working, we heard some music gradually coming closer. It was “mainstream” rock music, nothing distinctive in and of itself. As soon as my friend heard it he turned to me and said:

    I’m not racist or anything. It’s just that these niggers are such . . . (searching for the right word) . . . “niggers”.

    I’ve never forgotten my shock at hearing him say that, and I hope I never do. I remember the exact words now as if it was said yesterday. It hit me like a punch in the gut, and I am ashamed to this day that I just stood there in shock and horror and didn’t respond as he walked away and returned to his work. The irony of his statement never crossed his mind; he was oblivious – totally and completely oblivious – to his deeply ingrained racism.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was a flawed man, but he was a great man – the exact description I often use when I speak of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They were deeply flawed but deeply great. Having read King’s words, I have no problem calling him a prophet – especially when our own Bible Dictionary defines a “prophet” at the most basic level as one who speaks through the working of the Holy Ghost. I believe MLK, Jr. fits that description without reservation.

    I have a dream, as well – that my own black sons will see the day when I won’t have to intercede at school and shield them from a racist teacher and assistant principal (who are totally oblivious to their blatant racism) – that my own black grandchildren will experience that same freedom. I have little hope that I will see the total elimination of racism, but I pray it will be the exception instead of the rule – and, as much as we want to deny it, it still is the rule in too many parts of this country.

    Hopefully, the inauguration of a black man as the President of the United States the day after MLK Day will help speed the process.

  25. Ray–I’m not sure why you’re so bent on proving your non-racism to me. I’m not sure anyone called either you or the blog author a racist, or what your anecdotes are supposed to prove. Here’s a hint: it can sound even more patronizing for a non-prrson of color to hear, “I’m not racist! No siree Bob! I’m married to/friends with/sleeping with/adopted parent to…”–Do you see where that kind of language is alienating and “other”-izing?

    And that’s the whole problem with the original post. Anomaly or not ( though, obviously, the Book of Mormon hints at it,and at least one of your 20th century prophets seems to have also experienced it) this story was related to show this was an obscure *miracle*. Miracles are usually something *wonderful* and *good* that happens to a person or people– something special. In fact, that example was immediately followed by the story of someone quitting *bad* things cold turkey. And another story about a tattoo removal. And a refernce to someone who was gay (an obviously less desrirable state in Mormonism) turning straight. All of these examples were meant to show something being FIXED, or something returning to a good and God-sanctioned condition.

  26. Brenda, I’m afraid you are missing entirely the point I have been trying to make – and the implicit charge of racism in Agnes’ comments. (Btw, how else can I show that I’m not racist other than provide examples of my actions among various races? If I interact regularly and lovingly with those of other races, I can’t use that fact to show that I’m not racist? What’s my alternative – that I have NO friends and family of color, so that proves I’m not racist? Damned if I do; damned if I don’t. Read the body of my comments across the Bloggernacle; I’m not racist. Accept that or not; it is what it is – and there was a very clear implication of racism in Agnes’ comments.)

    Stephen said he knew these people. He said he personally heard of the unexplainable event from them and others in the town. Your insistence that it couldn’t have happened and anyone who believes it did happen is perpetuating a dangerous and damaging myth can only mean you don’t believe him – that he is mistaken in his statement. Either he is lying, or he has been deceived or he was confused and those around him were confused.

    I’m just saying I will take Stephen’s word on what he intended by the example – AND to say that I believe he is an honest man who is not making up a story or passing along a legend. I am saying I believe him – that he DID know these people – that they (and others who knew them) DID claim that this happened – that it is unexplainable and should NOT be used to justify extrapolations.

    Finally, Stephen was talking about miraculous (unexplainable) changes, and he used a real example from his childhood. What would you prefer he do – ignore such a relevant example because it might offend someone? Isn’t that exactly what many people accuse the Church of doing when it doesn’t include every little historical detail in the Sunday School manuals – as if omitting something equates to lying? If Stephen had not used this example, would he be a liar – because he “hid” or “covered up” an experience in order to avoid offense?

    Bottom line: I trust Stephen enough to believe that what he said he heard and saw he actually did hear and see. Perhaps, the story got mutated and the people in that area all ended up believing a distortion, but that’s just as hard to accept as an unexplainable anomaly. There are many things that I can’t explain that I accept as possible anyway; rejecting Stephen’s experience simply because it seems illogical or even “bad” creates a standard of judgment I simply can’t accept – since it essentially eliminates faith and the miraculous totally. It is the exact same reasoning people use to reject the resurrection or any kind of angelic visitation. It says, “I only will accept what I can understand and what does not offend me” – and I simply can’t go there.

  27. Ray,

    Miraculous has a lot more connotations than merely “unexplainable” and that’s what Agnes in 15 and Brenda in 26 are really referring to (especially when placed unfortunately aside other examples). One wouldn’t call something one disapproves of (but is just as unexplainable) a “miracle” or “miraculous,” even though denotatively, the word should be flexible enough for both.

    Divorcing this from denigrating comments about the qualities of any individual (because I’m sure that you and Stephen are most certainly not racist even as I’ve read your guys’ articles and comments on here or elsewhere), can you consider what it might seem like to another person when in the same post, you make a defense for accepting the experience in the same way as someone might accept the resurrection or an angelic visit (or, in the opposite: you associate that rejecting such an experience would be like rejecting one of these other things). But when someone accepts the resurrection or an angelic visit as “miraculous,” they decidedly have a positive and accepting bent. This is the issue that is concerning people. It just doesn’t help when the church just happens to have a tradition — however outdated and refuted it may be now — around this kind of thing.

    Rejecting an experience because it seems illogical eliminates faith and the miraculous (and then I guess you’d just have to depend on who you’re asking to see if that’s necessarily a bad thing or not). But rejecting an experience (or the ramifications of an experience — such as the connotations of it being ‘miraculous’) because it seems “bad” should be something I hope every single person on this planet does to even the most sacred things.

  28. AndrewS asked – “I just wonder if things like this, whether hearsay, unsubstantiated, or legitimate, happen in other religions.” Stigmata come to mind. Why would someone pierce the palms of their own hands secretly? To demonstrate their acceptance of Christ and His acceptance of them. Stigmata are perpetuated by Catholic folk doctrines. This seems perpetuated by Mormon folk doctrines that were created to explain statements (now considered racist and incorrect) made by BY and others to justify the priesthood ban and statements in the BOM that were believed to confirm those same notions.

    I can think of 3 possible reasons for this family to become lighter skinned:
    1 – A psychosomatic reaction based on their expectation that lighter skin meant they were part of God’s fold; they somehow caused the change through their belief in this folk doctrine. Or like stigmatics, perhaps they deliberately took measures to make their skin appear lighter.
    2 – Some unknown genetic reason caused the change, and this is the story they created to explain it because it fit their notion of doctrine.
    3 – Environmental factors. The theory has been batted around that BOM peoples became lighter skinned when they became city dwellers (e.g. spent less time outdoors working). Perhaps that same thing happened to this family in their move.

    In the 19th century (when the church was restored), fair skin was considered a sign of breeding and civilization, even among caucasians (partly for the outdoors/indoors, city vs. country thinking). The fairer the skin, the better. Unfortunately, people are reluctant to let go of antiquated notions due to some misguided allegiance to forebears who were themselves often culturally biased and ignorant.

  29. Nineteen year olds can be very mischievous. I would wager someone was pulling the ward’s leg(s) about the Native Americans -> white story. AFter all, if no one saw them until AFTER the miracle was supposed to have happened–(and if a “drive by” was the method of verification), it screams “hoax” to me. It’s quite different from a dime-sized wound in a palm, or a bite out of sandwich resembling Mary kneeling. I mean, people, we’re talking about identifiable body features, coloring, facial structure, etc. Until this family is featured in the Ensign or the family members actually come on this blog to attest to it, I don’t buy it. Besides–why was this not on the ’70s fireside circuit along with all the miraculous stories about garments preventing major chemical burns, saving people from plane crashes, etc.? This would have been CLASSIC–a slide show of the family PRE-baptism followed by the family LIVE singing Janice Kapp Perry songs and crying as they bore their testimony: Heavenly Father keeps his promises! He changed my race! I’m no longer cursed!

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    Perhaps I should have left the one story out, it seems to have swallowed up the rest of what I was trying to say. However, I thought it added some nuance to my earlier post on how it is a false doctrine that lighter skin color has any connection to virtue or merit.

    I should have been clearer. As a friend of mine said, when she heard I’d referred to them turning whilte (as in whiter/lighter), “down here they call that bright.” They did not change race (that would have called for capital letters on both ends of the description), they just got lighter. My only memory of them is the father, who looked like a very pale Native American.

    It was ’64, I lived in the cheaper trailer park at 1005 Chugach Drive and was about to start at Willow Crest Elementary (I was born in ’55 if you are curious). The family lived in what was, to me, much nicer accommodations. My contact with them was limited. I don’t have any memory of them from later years (I was in Alaska for four years, from ’64 to ’68).

    But I think the larger point remains valid. Too many events are not ones we can extrapolate from. If an event happens regularly, then it is appropriate to extrapolate from. So does the failure of an event to happen more often (e.g., I find some meaning in the fact that there is not a working 12-step group for gays and that Bill W. decided that meant that some issues were ones to accept rather than try to change).

    I haven’t the slightest idea why what happened happened. That is often the case though.

    Anyway, I’m convinced that not everyone shares the same terms or meanings, or finds the same meanings in a narrative or a fact.

  31. I thought it added some nuance to my earlier post on how it is a false doctrine that lighter skin color has any connection to virtue or merit.

    That, in a nutshell, is all I was trying to say. Stephen has said multiple times that he does not believe skin color has any connection to virtue or merit – to the point of writing a post about it. Despite this continued statement, he has been castigated as perpetuating racist folklore for this post.

    Of course, I understand the initial reaction. Of course, I understand the probability that there is a rational explanation for what happened. What I don’t like (AT ALL) is the insistence that the recitation of an unexplainable event as an ANOMALY equates with implied racism even after repeated attempts to assert otherwise. (and the event still is unexplainable. Multiple possibilities does not equate to “explained”.) It’s one thing to say, “That’s not a good example, since it carries cultural baggage.” I respect that answer completely. It’s another thing totally to say, sarcastically, “How dare you repeat such obviously incorrect and racist folklore! You obviously must believe it,” – while totally missing the central point of the entire post.

    I’m done. Stephen’s comment can speak for itself.

  32. Re 29:

    thanks hawkgrrrl for another example. I had mentioned as an aside tales about virgin mary statues crying tears of blood. I guess Catholic folk doctrines are just what come to all of our minds 🙂

  33. Thanks for the clarification, Stephen. If it was only the father you remember, perhaps he was fairs skinned all along. Some dark skinned people do get lighter when are not exposed constantly to the sun. This kind of thing is not anonmalous; it’s absolutely normal. Maybe this is what happened. I am very, very dark skinned and I still get tan lines in the summer, and my tan cases. Native Americans have a wide variety of skin tones, as do Asians, people of African descent, Hispanics, and of course, Whites.

    Your story could have been worse: you could have claimed that five years after joining, the family left the Church and turned black.

    I do appreciate the clarification. I think this post and the resulting comments show that things happen every day that we find hard to comprehend. Some attribute these things to God, some to nature or science. How we process and share information is critical in being able to see each other as human– not as God’s playthings, not as object lessons, not as inexplicable phenomena. A child hearing President Kimball giving the same exams(and parents/ward members who also believed it) could easily see a fading tan as a miracle.

    I am sorry I got angry. I never called anyone a racist. It is hard to see “a whole family turned white” and “miracle” in the same sentence. This is not the virgin birth or a vanishing tattoo.

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    Brenda, could be. My father-in-law has enough native heritage that every time he gets his haircut, his barber asks him if he is ready to enroll yet. He is pretty pale these days, especially since he doesn’t go out much.

    I think this post and the resulting comments show that things happen every day that we find hard to comprehend. Some attribute these things to God, some to nature or science.

    Very true, and then we extrapolate, which can cause real problems.


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