“It’s More Than a Religion”: Mormonism as Family

John NilssonCulture, Mormons 14 Comments

Story 1

From p. 102 of An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown:

(Brown addressing a group of 75 LDS servicemen during World War II):

Upon assembling, I asked the men present how many of them had been on missions. Fully 50 percent of them raised their hands. I then designated six of them to come up and prepare and administer the sacrament. I appointed another six to sit on the opposite side of the stand and be prepared to speak. I looked at my minister friend, who was sitting on my right hand, and found he had his mouth open with surprise and amazement that I had the audacity to call young men out of a military unit to become suddenly ministers of the gospel.

I then asked what they would like to sing, and almost with one voice they replied, “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” I asked if anyone present had ever led the music, and again over 50 percent of them raised their hands. I selected one of them to take charge of the singing and asked if anyone could play a portable organ. A good percentage of them had had some experience in that field, and I appointed one to play the organ.

We had no books, we had no leaflets or anything else to refer to for the words of the hymn, but those young men sang the four verses of “Come, Come, Ye Saints” without a quiver. [Italics mine]

Story 2

From “Confessions of a Pious Heretic: A Conversation with Sterling M. McMurrin.” 1994 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium:

McMurrin: “Darryl Chase, who was later president of the university in Logan, was earlier director of the Institute of Religion at the University of Arizona. And he told me this story, soon after it happened:

The campus pastors, of which he was one…and the student organizations, were going to have a meeting, to deal with the problem of what should be done about housing for the migrant workers in Arizona. Now this is way back in the 30s… The migrant workers were living in shacks, many of them made of cardboard. I saw them, it was a terrible condition. Now this student organization was going to have a meeting to discuss what should be done. And they were arranging for the program, and they asked Darryl Chase,

‘How many Mormon students will be there?’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘None of them.’

They said, ‘No, you mean to tell me, none of your students will come out, aren’t they interested in the migrant workers?’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘I’ll tell you. They’re not going to come out and talk about it, but if you should decide to build some houses for these migrant workers, they’ll all be there. They’ll be there with their saws and hammers.’

Now that’s one side of Mormonism, you see, that is a source of great strength, that is, the capacity to do things. It’s a marvelous thing what the Church does, there’s no need of my commenting on it, because it’s perfectly obvious to all of us.” [Italics mine]

Story 3

Also from “Confessions of a Pious Heretic”:

McMurrin:“My wife and I, we have a cabin up on Kolob Mountain in southern Utah. We were driving up the mountain, and we came upon an encampment of Boy Scouts. They were hiking up the mountain, they were in their Boy Scout uniforms, and so on. As we drove along, there must have been fifty or sixty of them, one little kid who was a Mexican…he couldn’t have been over twelve or thirteen years old, he walked up to the road and held out his hand and stopped us.

He looked in the car, looked around at both of us, and said, ‘Are you folks members of the Church?’

And Natalie said, ‘Oh yes, we’re members of the Church.’

She said, ‘Are you homesick?’

Oh, he was homesick.

‘Where are you from?’

He was from Sacramento.

It’s kind of silly, but this event with this little kid had quite an impact on me.

Now when Natalie said, ‘We’re members of the Church,’ he said: ‘Good! Good!’

She said, ‘Now, you don’t have to worry because all of the people you see up here are members of the Church.

He said, ‘Oh, good.’

Then he turned around and went back.

Now to me, this really indicates something that is very real and very central and very precious about Mormonism. You see, it’s this sense of belonging to something. To be a member of the Church is like being a member of the family and it’s more than a religion in the ordinary sense. It’s more than the acceptance of religious dogma and religious ritual. And it’s more than simply being a cultural Mormon. Now I’m a cultural Mormon; I don’t believe much of the teaching of the Church on matters of doctrine, but I certainly am as much affected by the existence of the Church as anybody that’s in it.

The strength of Mormonism lies in the fact that it can be a haven for people, as it was for this little Mexican kid. It didn’t matter who we were, if we were members of the Church, then he felt good.” [Italics mine]

Those interested in hearing Sterling’s interview at Sunstone can start here.

He gets choked up as he tells these stories. I’ll admit they brought a tear to my eye too. They express something I’ve felt growing up in the LDS Church that I wonder about. I have had experiences (on a pioneer trek, at Sunstone, on my mission in Germany, etc.) similar to Sterling’s. My convert mother says the first time she stepped into an LDS meetinghouse she felt like it was home. No blinding revelations or ecstatic epiphanies, just a rooted sense of belonging you can’t shake, like a kid brother tagging along at your heels.

Mormon author Levi Peterson describes one day seeing the sun glinting off the Angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple and having the deep, almost primal impression that Mormons are his people, that they are where his lot is cast.

I’m interested in hearing what you all have to say about this. John Hamer has remarked on this site (in passing) that his impressions, reinforced by conversations with Mormon scholar Jan Shipps, are that Mormon ethnic identity is declining. I still feel as ethnically Mormon as I did in my youth. Have you felt like me or Sterling above, bound to Mormonism in some way which eludes words and doctrinal expressions?

Discuss, my friends: [display_podcast]

Comments 14

  1. John,

    A nice post that brought a bit of nostalgia for me. Furthermore, you used stories from two of my favorite Mormons. The last talk I gave in church was centered on some of the teachings from Hugh B. Brown. I do still find myself relating a lot to my Mormon background as is evident in my daily visit to the forum. Although like Sterling McMurrin, I don’t believe in the doctrines, I still have a debt to the church which helped me in my youth to get focused, serve a mission, a put me on the path of education.

    All my wife’s family and most of my friends are LDS, so that helps me maintain a close connection to what’s happening in the church and stay up on my church-related knowledge.

    When I go to SLC, I still enjoy seeing Temple Square, much like Levi Peterson mentioned.

    So, I guess if I have a tribe, I consider myself in the Mormon tribe. Maybe just the hermit on the outskirts, but still my tribe.

  2. Post


    Thanks for your comment, cousin. I think we too often focus in the Church and the Bloggernacle on the teachings of Mormonism to the exclusion of the elements which really draw people in and keep them involved (at one level or another), which are the group aspects, the love of good music (does that come from the Welsh converts who started Motab?), the endless activity for its own sake, educational ambition, and the openness to experience and culture which many members display. These are secular qualities and so they are downplayed, but to our detriment, I fear.

    When I watched “Brigham City” and saw Wilford Brimley play a jack-Mormon good-naturedly bantering with a Mormon secretary about his nicotine habit, I also had one of those twinges of Mormon ethnicity. Here’s one of my own playing a character similar to his own real-life persona and making him look like a decent human being who’s accepted as part of the Mormon family in his small town despite his peccadilloes. Do you think we still have that sense of family today, or do we tend to see “inactives” as the Other, one step removed from the Gentiles and unwashed non-Mormon masses?

  3. John,

    A wonderful post. I have always strongly identified with the feeling of mormon ethnicity and “family”, having grown up both as a member of the church and in an area with a significant mormon population (south-central Idaho). The feeling of belonging is strong for most members, and is still felt strongly by all the active mormons I know. Although, I do find that most active members seem to feel that inactives aren’t quite full members of the family, as you question. More like red-headed step-children; not fully outside of the family but not fully accepted.

    I wonder if Ms. Shipps feels the way she does, that our ethnicity is slipping away, because she sees the church seeking conciliation/assimilation with the greater christian “world”? Or is it just a natural progression of becoming a world-wide church? I know that as I have watched these processes (growth and assimilation) over the past 20 years I have wondered what was going to happen to our uniqueness and sense of “separateness” that contributes greatly to this feeling of family. I also frequently think that as mormons we face quite a dichomoty — we want to feel this sense of uniqueness and ethnicity, but we don’t want the outside world to think of us a unique or separate.

  4. “Do you think we still have that sense of family today, or do we tend to see “inactives” as the Other, one step removed from the Gentiles and unwashed non-Mormon masses?”

    Good question. I think it really has to do with the demographics and attitude of the inactive and the ward. I am still attending church, but if I were to go inactive, I believe that several of my ward would still consider me part of the family. Unfortunately, in my experiences, most inactives are viewed as projects for activation and little else. Some certainly fall into the Wilford Brimley category (the stereotypical cantankerous teddy bear or liberal hippie lady) and others into the their-too-far-gone-but-we’ll-try. Often if the inactive has a history with the ward members, they are likely to be seen as the “crazy uncle/aunt” of the Mormon family and visited from time to time. Occasionally, these inactives will show up to sacrament meetings and leave directly after. If the inactive has had little connection to the ward, they are simply potential reactivation “projects” or sadly written off. I have often been to inactive homes and told that that they would like to have their names removed from the records or no further contact in the church. We, as a “good family,” tend to honor their wishes. Again, this is just from my limited experience.

  5. Great post, John. As someone who has grown up in the Church, I’ve always felt I have a family-like bond with other Church members. I remember one time I was driving in SLC and a hispanic man standing on the side of the road waved me down. He told me he was visiting from Peru, was lost, and needed a ride back to his friend’s apartment where he was staying. Normally I wouldn’t think of taking the risk of picking up a total stranger. I asked him why he was in SLC and he said he was a Mormon. I asked if he had a temple recommend that he could show me, and he did. Any concerns I had about him vanished, and I told him to hop in.

    If that feeling of family is fading, I imagine that might be because an increasing percentage of Mormons are first-generation. I believe 65% is the last number I heard. Back when our “family” was smaller, and we were all more likely than now to have literal family ties as well, that tight-knit sense of community was more prevalent. I think another reason that sense of family might be on the decline is that we feel we are assimilating more into our national cultures, so there is less emphasis on our distinctiveness, which creates that sense of family.

    One thing I’m trying to do better is extend that sense of family to everyone around me, not just Church members. The Church is a good place to start developing a feeling of family with, to develop that genuine feeling that those around us are our brothers and sisters. But I think that effort to see others as our family members should start in the Church, and not end there.

  6. Post


    Very well said about extending the sense of family to those around you. I’m discovering that most of my neighbors are LDS (I live in SLC, but assumed I was one of the few Mormons on my street until recently) but just don’t make it to church. Doing small acts of service for everyone in our immediate environment is a good idea as Christians, regardless of their membership in the tribe.

    I liked your story of helping out the lost Peruvian. I wish I did things like that more.

  7. Nice anecdotes. I admire Brown, McMurrin, and Peterson for their independence and their ability to remain engaged (to varying degrees) with their “family” despite having sometimes contrarian points of view.

    The similarties of real family and community family are indeed very striking. I once heard an inactive, cultural Mormon make the following lament after attending church one Sunday after being away for several months, (paraphrazed):

    “It’s strange, when I compare my personal beliefs and faith against Mormon beliefs/faith, I’m always pleasantely surprised to discover that we’re not that far apart, so much so that I start to feel like I really might be a “Believing Mormon”… until I go to Church, where I find myself saying, ‘Hey, I don’t believe that… and that… and that… and that..’ and I realize the gulf is much wider than I imagined in my daydreams.

    I think we feel the same “closeness” towards estranged relatives — parents, siblings, inlaws — until we see them again at Christmas and realize how wide the gap really is. Still, they will always be family, and all of the wonder, love, and pain that word implies.

  8. Matt, good observations. If there was one thing I could emblazon in the mind of every Mormon, it’s that we don’t need to feel we are “outsiders” or “don’t belong” if our personal views differ from some of the views we hear expressed at Church. I have that same experience almost weekly at Church, but I don’t feel compelled to regard those views as being the official “Mormon doctrine,” even if (and maybe especially if) they are quoted out of a book bearing that title. There is so much more genuine latitude for belief within Mormonism than I think we usually acknowledge. To me, that’s the beauty of it.

  9. I love this topic. I frankly can’t wait for Jan Shipps’ new book, Being Mormon: Latter-day Saints since World War II — I think it promises to be her most important observation on Mormonism. I think Jan’s vantage is informed by a lifetime of watching Mormonism from neutral ground. The comparisons that she sees have to be informed by the contrast of the isolated, provincial culture she encountered in Logan, Utah, in the early 1960s — when everything was entirely about blood and family — with the corporate style of the church today, with its standard plans and correlation. Although these are radically different worlds, there is still incredible continuity. The culture survives amid the corporation.

    Maybe everyone thinks this way, but I feel like I grew up in a liminal moment. I was blessed in a Stake Center in Naperville, Illinois that my grandfather helped build. It was a standard plan structure, but the members still contributed labor. The generation before, my great grandparents were the Aurora Illinois Branch — the branch was the precursor to the Naperville Stake and my great grandfather was branch president for 23 years. The building fund activities were one of the things that locked that branch together as a family. So that was still a living memory when I was born. But, by the time I was baptized in the brand new Morristown, New Jersey Stake Center, the building program was entirely centralized. There was no more soul in that Morristown building than the one we found when we moved to Minnesota. It wasn’t our sweat and blood that made it; it was the corporation.

    That’s my memory of a transition, anyway: the change from family to company.

  10. Post

    This is my favorite post I’ve written so far because of all the thoughtful, sincere commentary I’ve received.

    Waxing nostalgic–I think back to what some may consider a very trivial aspect of the Church and Mormon culture–the stake youth dance. A cultural form with its roots in the dances in Nauvoo and earlier, changed almost beyond recognition in the Jesus Jones, EMF, Depeche Mode-drenched Southern California white kid scene of the early 1990s. And let me tell you, you have not been to a Church dance until you’ve been to a SoCal one…even for those of us who preferred to pester the DJ to play some daring new single and scope out the “wildlife”, there was something undefinable about it.

    As proof, all of my non-Mormon guy friends would submit to the ritual of sitting down with the attending bishop and being told that to qualify for the dance card, For the Strength of Youth golden ticket of entrance, they needed to comport themselves decently and, ahem, remove those earrings, please. They did this on an almost monthly basis throughout high school. Most ended up with Mormon girlfriends. None of the relationships lasted, and not one of these guys was ever interested in the least in Mormon teachings. Today, one is a DJ for the UCLA radio station, another a fledgling author in West Hollywood, yet another is a gourmet chef in Colorado. They all look back fondly on their high school years and their temporary immersion in Mormon culture.

    Most of these guys came out of conservative Protestant backgrounds, and their interlude with Mormon culture was a hiatus before they dropped religion from their lives altogether. I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, why are we in Mormonism so concerned about what we teach when it’s fairly obvious that the outside world (for the most part) could care less? It’s my impression that even most converts today are attracted to Mormonism for the group aspects and lifestyle we’ve all been discussing. There may be a doctrinal hook or two, but I think we all miss the real strengths of Mormonism if we focus on the teachings instead of the activities we are all engaged in, whatever form those might take.

    If I have one question after all of this, it is, is there a doctrine or two which underpins the cultural vitality I’ve witnessed, or is it a sense of shared history, the pioneers and all that? Or just the fact that the Church asks so much of contemporary Mormons in blood, sweat, and treasure that we feel like “we’re all in this together?”

    I will stop now. I could spend a lot of time on this subject if I’m not careful.

  11. “If I have one question after all of this, it is, is there a doctrine or two which underpins the cultural vitality I’ve witnessed, or is it a sense of shared history, the pioneers and all that?”

    I seem to remember a Mormon Stories or Sunstone podcast about Joseph Smith and the grand fundamentals of Mormonism. One of Joseph Smith’s grand fundamentals was “brotherhood” or sociality. And of course, D&C tells us that same sociality we now exist will exist in the next world, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.

    P.S., as a So Cal native, John N is right about So Cal stake dances. They’re off the hizzy.

  12. The question was asked if a particular doctrine supports this feeling of family. I believe there is:

    “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the only True and Living Church on the Earth today.”

    That pretty much sums up the doctrinal basis for Mormons identifying so strongly with each other.

    A similar effect can be seen in faithful Catholics.

  13. Re: Cicero,

    The question was asked if a particular doctrine supports this feeling of family. I believe there is:

    “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the only True and Living Church on the Earth today.”

    That pretty much sums up the doctrinal basis for Mormons identifying so strongly with each other.

    Of course, that doctrine also occasionally gives rise to some very divisive feelings. Mormons’ cohesion can be manifested in self-righteousness, the imposition of demanding social norms, and ostracism of those who don’t “measure up” or conform to community expectations. Mormondom may be a big family, but it’s not a perfect family.

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