According to Arrington and Bitton, “most individual responses of modern Mormons involve a kind of tie with the past” . History is central to the Latter-day Saint faith. Stories from Latter-day Saint history reverberate out from their local settings and have a global impact in the lives of many, for both good and ill. How and/or why does this happen?
January 27th 2010 was the Holocaust Memorial Day for the UK, and with my family we attended a small service in Ilford, England at Valentines Park. Readings, prayers, poetry and experiences were shared. Moreover, the youth in our ward had their own Holocaust memorial were we discussed aspects of that tragedy and the meaning that it might have for us today. Participating in this type of memorialising has often made me feel uncomfortable; I feel that I am an outsider to a form of suffering that (part of me) wants to claim as my own.
Positioning oneself in relation to this kind of ‘tribal’ suffering is not an uncommon experience. For example, Hirsch argues that ‘Post-memory’ is a concept that can help thinkers understand the ways in which seminal experiences, specifically those that are traumatic and painful, are transmitted through subsequent generations in a way that re-creates memories in those later generations. As an example Hirsch looks at Holocaust memory and how these events have been a source of mystery and pain for some survivor’s children, a prominent example of the type of literature that such experiences of post-memory produce is ‘Maus’ by Art Spieglman.
These ideas might be important for Latter-day Saints because they provide a possible way of explaining a deeply connection with many of the events of the restoration (but particularly the suffering of the Saints). These feelings can be evocked in a number of ways, they are often linked with images and/or stories. Avard Fairbank’s statue of the couple over a small grave is one such example which resonates with me. It might also explain the emphasis the Church has placed upon its pioneer heritage; for if people are able to connect with this history their conversion becomes one of community (both contemporary and historical) as well as spiritual.
The negative side to this dynamic is that once those connections are made they provide a particular emotional/spiritual relationship that is often based upon ‘truth’. If someone finds out that the Auschwitz was really just a holiday camp then perhaps we would understand their feeling betrayed. Is it possible therefore that this process of post-memory is a part of a wider dynamic that binds people to the Church and its heritage but which also rests upon a certain historical veracity.
Another question this raises pertains to whether such experiences can be accessible to people outside of the blood lines of such early pioneers, is it accessible for non-Americans?
Are such experiences even common to Americans (specifically Mountain Saints)?
I sense that they are accessible, but that this is done in contradictory or conflicting ways. A Scottish lady once described her first visit to Nauvoo to me. She vividly depicted the buildings and experiences she had seen there. This lady walked away from Nauvoo across the river toward Winter Quarters and her heart broke; she wept as she trod her way up the hill, surprised at her own emotion. Later, while discussing this with a sibling, the sister said “Of course you felt that way, These are our People!”
I am not sure why such connections happen and yet I sense that they are important in establishing our communities. However I also sense that traversing the boundaries that divide us can also create fractures in the way we relate to and negotiate these experiences. Moreover I believe that creating these connections also means that they are able to be betrayed. I wonder whether people struggle to connect with Latter-Day Saint history in the same way I have struggled to form a legitimate association with the Holocaust?
1. Leonard J. Arrington & Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 334.
2. Marianne Hirsch “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” Yale Journal of Criticism (Spring 2001).