Suffer the Children portrays a religious society trapped within a mythical reality of their own making. I had in mind two sets of children who suffered.
In this writing I spend time with those children of the Fancher-Baker Wagon Train who were murdered as well as those who survived the massacre at Mountain Meadows in 1857 and who were eventually returned to relatives in Arkansas.
The second set of children in the novel are the grown up children who suffered at the hands of persecutors and who later perpetrated, endorsed or passively accepted – in both Missouri, Illinois and Utah Territory – atrocity as something approved by God.
Mormonism has always been a performance-based religious organization that believes and teaches unreasonable notions about itself. When that happens one may lose one’s self inside that make-believe world that is totally based on assumption. In such an assumed reality one’s role often becomes more challenging particularly if one has been given authority and responsibilities within the earthly kingdom.
Resistance to the demands made by fellow actors within this pretended performance can be extremely difficult, even terrifying. In nineteenth-century Utah Territory one had to perform within that perceptual reality or endure relentless coercion to conform or perish. Easy entry and exit into a culture and its imagined reality according to desire and inclination was rare. “Let’s-pretend” devolved into rigid and inflexibly literalist religious fundamentalism. Rules and conditions had to be met.
Human beings were mentally stampeded to believe that not only was the scenario real, but the threats were also real. Those who threatened enjoyed implied power that only existed so long as believers accepted the notion that their leaders had the backing and moral power of a pretended supernatural reality.
Inside the pretended drama, belonging and participation was validated mostly by the lead actors’ opinions. Harmony with the leaders was of paramount importance. It is only in such a venue that theologically-based threats appear even in most fundamentalist religions today remain legitimate.
Another way of describing fundamentalist legitimacy is that it lies mostly with the unconscious acceptance of a notion that there IS a God who would empower some mortals to eternally course or impede the spiritual progress of other mortals in pursuit of what’s best for the imaginary kingdom.
In the reality portrayed in this writing, when threatened physical sanctions were translated into actual actions carried out by authoritative enforcers, the Mormon leadership enforced discipline by its “club rules” with violence. Social ostracism, shunning, and actual dis-enrollment in the earthly club, i.e. excommunication. These were genuine spiritual fears of many Saints.
“The adults around us hooked our attention and put information into our minds through repetition. That is the way we learned everything we know. By using our attention we learned a whole reality, a whole dream. We learned how to behave in society: what to believe and what not to believe; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable; what is good and what is bad; what is beautiful and what is ugly; what is right and what is wrong.”
“… It was not your choice to speak English. You didn’t choose your religion or your moral values — they were already there before you were born. We never had the opportunity to choose what to believe or what not to believe. We never chose even the smallest of these agreements. We didn’t even choose our own name. As children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs, but we agreed with the information that was passed to us from the dream of the planet via other humans. The only way to store information is by agreement. The outside dream may hook our attention, but if we don’t agree, we don’t store that information. As soon as we agree, we believe it, and this is called faith.”
“To have faith is to believe unconditionally. That’s how we learn as children. Children believe everything adults say. We agree with them, and our faith is so strong that the belief system controls our whole dream of life. We didn’t choose these beliefs, and we may have rebelled against them, but we were not strong enough to win the rebellion. The result is surrender to the beliefs with our agreement. I call this process the domestication of humans.” – Ruiz, Don Miguel. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
In today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints one can watch live broadcasts of general conference sessions. General Authority talks appear rehearsed and are offered up in a particularly mild and gently persuasive manner. They tend to come across as the quiet counsel one might receive in the presence of a special person who lives in close connection to the Divine.
Such a contemporary performance flies in the face of the historical style and manner of 19th-century Mormon preaching. Such preaching varied little from the standard evangelizing liturgy utilized all along the early American frontier. Sermons were usually and literally shouted from pulpits and outdoor platforms; laced mostly with religious rhetoric, not gentle counsel. Fire and brimstone was the bread and butter of religious persuaders. Mormonism was no exception. Given the absence of microphones and amplifiers, they literally bellowed at their audiences.
Even a casual reading from the Journal of Discourses reveals thickly rhetorical speechifying. They all did it: Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Jedidiah Grant, Parley Pratt and others. Case in point is a challenge I make to Latter Day Saints who read this novel: Try to imagine the fiery blood atonement sermons of Brigham Young, Heber Kimball and especially Jedidiah Grant as they might be given today in LDS General Conference.
If one is an emotional captive inside an imagined reality and willing to pretend that such a murderous God is real – or as most Mormons express – “I know that God Lives!”- Believers do not necessarily live a serene religious life of gentle journeys through meetings, hymns and communion. Rather, life becomes an agony of quiet desperation in fear of a Divine Tyrant and His tattletale angels keeping silent notes. It can be a perceptual life monitored by mortal authoritarians and co-believers poised to act on apostasy.
19th-century Mormonism as established by the preaching and works of Joseph Smith and extended by Brigham Young and his successors was then and remains today a faith obligated to please a God who keeps score. Thomas Paine spoke of this authoritarian circumstance and its fragile extension that hovers always in the atmosphere of fundamentalist/literalist religions.
“Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.
No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons.
It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it. It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing.
Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.” – Paine, Thomas, Age of Reason
Brigham Young himself agreed with Thomas Paine.
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way.
Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.
Obedience + Worthiness = Spirituality, which pleases God who rewards with blessings.
Ask any true believing Mormon and you will get some form of the above equation as a description of what constitutes the spiritual human interaction with God. In tragic circumstances such assumptions can lead to good people committing terribly evil and immoral acts by virtue of an unconscious conspiracy to consider a myth the truth.
That conspiracy includes an unconscious willingness to believe that murder of the innocent is approved by an invisible but revelatory Jesus the Christ who is not necessarily thought of as the gentle Prince of Peace, rather as a divine and judgmental Master and Commander.
The history of the Mountain Meadows event demonstrates how the local Mormon membership tragically assumed – based on the exhortations of others from higher up – that Jesus wanted them to what they did; that in fact within the priesthood rituals and other religious moments that were performed as the drama played out, the Iron County Mormon patriarchy and its foot soldiers assumed that Prince of Peace would sanctify their actions as a consequence of their fealty and obedience.