Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Family history: we're different.

I'm starting to realize that my perspective on Mormonism is a rather unusual one. I think this is largely because my LDS extended family is not typical.

Already the fact that I was raised as a fourth-generation "mission field Mormon" is a little bit unusual. So my family has a strong Mormon tradition without having an "inter-mountain west" tradition.

My dad was a convert, so I'm talking about my mom's family here. My mom's dad was born and raised in Utah and came from pioneer stock tracing back to Nauvoo, etc., but in some ways he was like an import or infusion of official history into a clan that was strongly centered in Illinois. My mother's mother's family all lived together in the same area long enough to ensure that our oral tradition has always centered around my great-grandfather: my mother's mother's father Grandpa G, who converted to the LDS church in the 1920's.

Grandpa G was something of a Joseph Smith figure. I don't mean that in any of the negative ways that will immediately jump to the minds of my exmo friends (womanizer, shiftless charlatan, etc.). Rather I mean that Grandpa G came from humble, rural beginnings yet had enormous ambition and enormous confidence.

Reading Grandma and Grandpa G's memoirs, they essentially tell the following story:

They were born and raised as hillbillies in the back woods of southern Illinois. They had a limited education and limited opportunities, and they were surrounded by limited people who had no ambition and no concept of how big the world might be outside their tiny, petty town. (I know that sounds bad, but that's basically the portrait they paint.) But Grandpa G was different. He had the capacity to make something of himself.

(Grandma G too, but apparently to a lesser degree, at least according to the memoir.)

So they moved out of the back hills and into civilization -- to a town not far from Chicago -- where Grandpa G found a good job.

Mormonism gave Grandpa G the opportunity to become a leader. The LDS church had almost no presence in their new town at the time, so Grandma and Grandpa G built up a branch essentially from zero. Salt Lake sent missionaries and other support, but this was a distant enough outpost that our dominant and charismatic Grandpa G largely had free reign to run things as he saw fit for decades while the LDS church in his area grew. (Many people were introduced to the church through the huge regular neighborhood fried-chicken-and-corn-on-the-cob dinners they used to throw at their house, according to the memoir.)

My mother wrote a charming memoir herself about what it was like to attend her grandfather's branch back in the fifties, and maybe she'll let me run it here sometime.

Now there is a stereotype within Mormonism that Mormon men are a bunch of yes-men who are totally incapable of standing up for themselves because they have to submit 100% to the church hierarchy which micromanages their lives right down to which church roles they fulfill, which meetings they attend with whom and at what time, which friends they must visit, etc. People say that the LDS church needs to subjugate women because that's the reward that is offered to men: the man gets to be the president of his own family, and in exchange he must hand his balls over to the next guy up in the church hierarchy. You may object to this characterization, but it's pretty clearly a common view.

Grandpa G was no cowering yes-man. My mom used to joke that her grandpa was John Wayne. So some of the most dramatic stories in our family's oral tradition center around the power struggle as Salt Lake tried to reign Grandpa G in a bit.

The church leadership demands strict obedience and must be in control over the local leaders, but they apparently worked out something of a truce with Grandpa G since they didn't want to alienate him too much. He was too good at running things and at attracting new members. So to some degree Salt Lake was willing to work around the fact that Grandpa G wasn't about to hand his balls to the next guy up the ladder. No way, no how.

The LDS ethic has an interesting blend of "do as you're told" and "do it yourself." I think that because of my extended family's stories and traditions, I was raised on an extra heavy dose of "do it yourself." I grew up surrounded by the message: "We're different. We're special. We're not limited -- we can do anything. Anything at all. Just step aside and watch us do it."

I'm not going to say that this is a good message or a bad message. However, I will say that I think this may be part of the reason why so many of the members of our extended family of my generation (my siblings and cousins) have left the church.

An organization needs a few take-charge strong-willed free spirits to keep it lively and kicking. So even a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy can find a way to accommodate a certain number of them. But only so many...


bluestocking said...

An organization needs a few take-charge strong-willed free spirits to keep it lively and kicking. So even a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy can find a way to accommodate a certain number of them. But only so many...

but don't you think there were more "take-charge strong-willed free spirits" 30 years ago (if you're old enough to remember that far back) and that they flourished the further you were from SLC?

I think this has to do with the church's attempts to downplay its eccentric beliefs. When it celebrated its eccentric doctrines, it was better able to tolerate (if not downright encourage) eccentricity in its members.

C. L. Hanson said...

That's very possible.

I kind of remember 30 years ago, but not very well... (I'm 34 ;^))

I have to admit that I've seen this stereotype about Mormon men being pushovers more in relation to people from Utah, and didn't hear it much growing up out in the "mission field".

Anonymous said...

Some of your description of your extended family reminds me of other Mormon families I knew in Minnesota. They were long-time mission field Mormons as well, and they had a more liberal view of Mormonism. Sometimes their views were dissenting from what got handed down from SLC, and there was often dissatisfaction with the leadership there. I'd never seen anything like it anywhere else I'd lived.

I used to hear some of the old guard Minnesota Mormons say that their families never went with the Saints to Utah, but settled in Minnesota after the Nauvoo period and then rejoined later. Have you ever heard that? I've often wondered if that's true, and they were part of some splinter group that went to Minnesota and rejoined. Or if that was just some myth they liked to believe, because it gave them a separate identity.

Anyway, you sound like you have an interesting family. If you and your brother are any indication, you must be a pretty accomplished bunch.

Anonymous said...

"An organization needs a few take-charge strong-willed free spirits to keep it lively and kicking."

Well, I tried to keep Mormonism lively and kicking but apparently my style was a little too colorful for them and they tried to kick me out. I refused to go, delaying instead my departure until it could be done on my terms. It sort of suits me to have the last word.

Your family history is fascinating, made all the more so by so many family members who've left the church and yet still have a genuine interest in it. Your brother comes to mind. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hi Mak,

I've never heard any stories of Mormons moving to Minnesota during the Nauvoo period and then rejoining, so I don't have any info on it. But really, my extended family isn't from Minnesota -- my immediate family moved there when I was in fourth grade.

Hi Tom!!!

I think I'm a little too colorful for them as well ;^) although they haven't tried to kick me out... yet...

Hellmut said...

Great family history, Chanson. You should repost it on Main Street Plaza.

I would love to learn more about your grandparents.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Hellmut!!!

It's a very old post -- from the days before MSP existed -- otherwise I would have posted it there in the first place. I'd repost it to MSP, but I've linked to it enough times that I think all our readers have already read it. ;^)

I'll think of writing some more stuff about my family background for MSP.