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Beacon Street Diary blog

Down the Memory Hole

In June, I spent the longest day of the year in Salt Lake City. More specifically I passed all those daylight hours in the bowels of a hotel, in and out of a conference I was attending, trying to look purposeful while searching for food or a way to fill a few hours between sessions. The view of the mountains from my hotel room window was wonderful, changing color and outline over the course of the day from sunrise to sunset, but other than that the hotel could have been anywhere. I could have been down the street for all I knew.

In other ways, though, Salt Lake City was a revelation. As a historian of American religion, I always get a thrill experiencing Big Places up close, following the same horizon line that Brigham Young might have contemplated, imagining what the valley looked like to people bringing their belongings on pushcarts across the Great Plains. I also love to visit other people's archives, and thanks to a generous and hospitable colleague, I was treated to a backstage tour of the LDS holdings. The tour was all that I imagined and more: not just the collection, lovingly and carefully arranged and preserved, or the climate control, which took up two whole floors and looked like the engine room of the starship Enterprise. What stuck with me, and what I ended up quietly envying, was the obvious, deeply-rooted love for history.

Being a Latter Day Saint is a full-time occupation, and to an outsider it can seem like a long list of volunteer opportunities and obligations. The shy young maidens who led me on a tour of Brigham Young's house started off by telling me that they were missionaries, one from Salt Lake and the other from South Africa. The same was true of the flocks of young men in short-sleeved white shirts and black ties, hurrying around the Temple Square. Outside of the tourists like me, probably most of the people I saw were serving as unpaid volunteers.

They do it because of history, as my historian friend explained. I'm certainly no expert on LDS doctrine, but the more he talked I could understand the impact of Mormonism as a faith built on stories — of Joseph Smith's revelations in upstate New York, the prehistory of North America and the epic clash between the Nephites and Lamanites, and the violent persecution that drove the Saints from Ohio and Missouri across the Plains to Utah. But the story is even bigger than that. Those early saints believed they were re-enacting biblical history; they were latter-day Israelites escaping from Egypt and journeying to Canaan, the land of milk and honey. In other words, being a Mormon isn't simply agreeing to a set of doctrines or going on a church mission, it's living into a story.

The opening chapter in a recent book on Mormonism is entitled "Mormon Envy", an eye-catching phrase but also a telling one. Quite honestly, all during my tour of the LDS archives I kept thinking of all the history being forgotten or discarded in Congregational churches. In that sense they're not all that much different from most American Protestants, but certainly for them the loss is pretty considerable, and worth a special thought or two.

Why do we so often find eighteenth-century Congregational church records stored in the pastor's closet or crammed into a cubbyhole under the organ? Why do so many of these documents turn up on eBay, destined for some private collection somewhere or, even worse, a waste basket? The problem goes beyond the people who don't know the difference between a Pilgrim and Puritan, or the surprise of some parishioners who discover that those Puritans were their spiritual ancestors. It's the quick dismissal of the past as boring or benighted, the snide comments about "how we've progressed" beyond our founders. And it's the toe-tapping pastor hoping to get on to truly important church business once we're done rooting through those closets and cubbyholes.

Where does this lack of energy come from? Did the UCC merger cut so many Congregational churches off from their history — or is the problem wider and deeper? It's certainly not just one denomination's predicament, or even an issue just affecting church people.

Lately I've been re-reading George Orwell's 1984, not for any exalted intellectual reason but because I needed to grab some reading material before a long trip on the Boston subway system. The actual year 1984 ended up a lot more prosaic than Orwell predicted, but the substance of his critique is eerily accurate. Winston Smith's job, as you'll remember, was literally re-writing history, throwing old unwanted documents down the "memory hole" next to his desk in the Ministry of Truth. At the heart of his transformation was his dawning conviction that the past was real and that refusing to forget it was the ultimate act of rebellion. Perhaps the recovery of history in Congregational and UCC churches is the awareness that history not only matters — it's a dangerous business. It's where we appeal for justice and find hope for change. It's essential and critical, and if we're not careful, it will disappear, like the yellowed clippings of yesterday's news from Winston Smith's desk, into the memory hole.

-Peggy Bendroth

 


image of researchers at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City courtesy of FamilySearch.org

 

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