Of Persecution, Polygamy, and Youth Treks

This guest post comes to us from Greg Nelson. Greg lives in Allen, Texas, with his wife and three kids, and has business degrees from both BYU and BYU-Idaho.

“In many ways, I feel about the Church the same way I feel about my family…I and my siblings might go on for hours about what’s wrong with the family, but let an outsider say one negative thing and my claws will come out.  I fight it and complain about it, and it’s so deeply woven into my identity that I can’t imagine who I would be without it.” –Lynnette

This behavior is everywhere, but especially in our young missionaries. Just about every one of them returns home with a newfound loyalty and commitment to the church, developed at least in part by the refiner’s fire of outside criticism and persecution. With each slammed door, skins thicken and commitment swells. To be sure, some develop a loyalty because they’ve actually seen how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transform and bless lives. But I submit that a significant number return home so certain of their testimonies simply by virtue of having that  testimony challenged and questioned day in and day out. We as a people relish these missionary experiences. They strengthen our resolve.  An example would be Elder Holland’s April 2014 General Conference talk, which describes in disturbing detail how two sister missionaries had food spit and thrown at them simply because they were Mormon.

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with pulling our heartstrings a little to rally the troops. I’m hesitant, however, to so casually blur the line between feelings of persecution and feelings of the Holy Ghost confirming truth. We would be wise to remember Howard W. Hunter’s warning:

“Let me offer a word of caution. … I think if we are not careful … we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself.”1

We’re masters at refashioning emotional moments to build testimony. We even dress up our youth in pioneer clothes and send them off on mini-treks so they can experience firsthand the sacrifice of being forced across the plains. Forget that most Mormon pioneers actually sang and danced their way to Zion in the summer sun, and rode unscathed in covered wagons. Instead, we epitomize the less than 10% that pulled handcarts and suffered from poor preparation and a hint of overzealousness. One recent Salt Lake Tribune reporter rode along with a mini-trek family in 2008, and recounted that around their last campfire, their “pa” told the kids:

“I know the spirit has been with you this week. The emotions – that’s not your mind playing tricks on you. That’s the spirit of God touching  our hearts.”2

While we can’t say it wasn’t the spirit touching their hearts, we can note that the leaders toed the line enough to narrate to those youth just what it was that they experienced. And these pioneer trials were purposely engineered to arrive at this culminating spiritual experience.

How far is too far when creating or recreating persecution in order to build faith and commitment? Even considering the idea of intentional, self-inflicted persecution opens up a can of worms. Take polygamy, for example, which many find extremely distasteful. In the Gospel Topics essay at lds.org, we’re told:

“Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition, willing to endure ostracism for their principles.”

To what extent was this the main purpose all along: to build loyalty and commitment by virtue of coming under attack for such a perverse practice? Some historians even think this was on Joseph’s mind when he introduced the doctrine. Laurence Moore of the American Historical Review says:

“It clearly identifie[d] individuals as members of a distinct religious community; leaving the group and blending into the world become psychologically and socially difficult…When a group practice also draws persecution from the world, group solidarity increases.”3

Whether or not this was going through Joseph’s head, the practice certainly had that effect. Mary Jane Tanner, an early plural wife, told a family member in 1882 “Aunt Cornelia says why do I defend polygamy so strongly I tell her because she attacks it.” Don’t we all hold on tighter simply because we’re under attack? Don’t the claws come out instinctively?

Armand Mauss explains how religious followers react predictably to outside criticism:

“…the more they sacrifice, the more dependent they will become upon the rewards offered by their religion. The more ‘costly’ such products, in terms of member sacrifice, investment, and stigmatization, the more ‘valuable’ they become.” 4

The stigma doesn’t have to come from the outside, either. During the Mormon Reformation of the late 1850s, church leaders may have gone a little overboard in their calls for unity and unquestioned obedience. Religious author Steven Taysom interprets the fiery rhetoric as more than an internal purging:

“The Mormon Reformation should not be interpreted primarily as a response to an organic spiritual crisis. Rather, it was the intentional creation of a crisis by church leaders in an attempt to reinvigorate Mormon communal and religious identity at a time when the Mormons were between periods of major crisis with the outside world. … The Mormon Reformation stands as a synthetic crisis implemented by LDS leaders to reinvigorate reliance on LDS church leaders among rank-and-file Mormons at a time when external crises were absent…The catechism was an important tool of surveillance that served to inflict guilt and induce confession — a cathartic act that bound the individual Mormons to their leaders.” 5

While we may not consciously manufacture our own crises in the modern church, it’s still interesting to look at the possibilities.

Obsession with Sex

I’ve pointed out before that a good argument can be made that our seeming over-emphasis on sexual purity has the opposite effect on our youth, and might actually feed the monster of immorality. (See my post at Doves and Serpents here, and some actual stats here.) If the church doesn’t talk about troubling history because it’s not uplifting, or because they don’t want people to go looking for it, why can’t we take the same approach to pornography? Is it possible that we purposely create a nearly impossibly strict sexual culture so that an all-consuming adolescent struggle becomes the source of a more committed membership? Stigmatizing natural tendencies leads to guilt, which leads to confession and ultimately dependence. As one blogger opines, it’s not about the sin itself; “it’s about having a boogie man to rally against.”

The Public Fight Against Same-Sex Marriage

As our leaders increasingly engage the topic of same-sex marriage over the pulpit, LDS internet circles flare up in heated discussion. I know some hardliners who take to the interwebs with renewed zeal not so much because their leaders inspire them with eternal truths, but because their more liberal friends challenge them. Again, the claws come out pretty quickly.

All this attention serves as publicity, for better or worse. Mauss explains:

“Faced with assimilation, Mormons have felt the need since the sixties to reach ever more deeply into their bag of cultural peculiarities to find either symbolic or actual traits that will help them mark their subcultural boundaries and thus their very identity as a special people.”  6

It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve intentionally “perculiarized” ourselves. Referring to the national outrage over polygamy, B.H. Roberts wrote:

“…[I] see nothing amiss in referring to it as possessed of a certain publicity value to the whole work of God.  And I know of no single thing in the New Dispensation that has done so much to keep that dispensation and its major message before the world as this same principle of plural marriage and the practice of it by the church.”  7

Ordain Women Slap Down

If the church wanted to bloody the battlefield a bit and sound a war cry to rally the core, they certainly executed well recently (though I’m not sure whose blood is ultimately being spilled.) What feels like a kick in the gut to many, feels like empowerment and emboldens loyalty for others. Salt Lake knows this, no doubt.

Again, Mauss sees a purpose in the heightened tension:

“Religious movements are considered successful to the extent that they avoid the assimilative embrace of the surrounding society and maintain a degree of tension with it…Differences with the surrounding society over women’s equality and gay marriage will play into that tension calculus but will not, of themselves, be determinant.”8

This all reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, the 2004 thriller nominated for an Academy Award.




The year appears to be 1897, and the setting a completely isolated Pennsylvania village, surrounded by woods infested by nameless creatures referred to as “those we don’t speak of.” From time to time, the adults in the village dress up as monsters and stalk through the town while everyone, especially the youth, hide in fear. The occasional attacks serve to remind the young villagers how dangerous it would be to ever leave the comfort and safety of the community and venture into the woods. In the end, it is revealed that the village was actually founded in the 1970s as a refuge for a group of grief-stricken parents fed up with the harmful realities of the modern world. They accordingly purchased land and created a new life. Their kids know nothing of the conspiracy; the only mechanism keeping them from knowing the truth is fear of what might exist in the woods, reinforced by the frightening visits from “those we don’t speak of.”  The community couldn’t be sustained without the occasional crisis of fear, though entirely fabricated.



And so I ask, can a committed LDS membership be sustained without the natural tribalism forced by a modern crisis? While sacrifice and persecution can be the wind in our sails, the thought of strategically inducing persecution and criticism troubles me.  Trauma bonding may be a valuable team building experience, but dressing up intentional persecution with a missionary tag, or a civil rights lawsuit, is a bit much.

I wouldn’t say this is what the church is consciously doing. But who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?


  1. The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 184 [?]
  2. http://www.sltrib.com/lds/ci_10275733 [?]
  3. American Historical Review 87 (April 1982): 390-423 [?]
  4. The Angel and the Beehive, 10 [?]
  5. Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries (Indiana Univ. Press, 2011), 171, 180 [?]
  6. The Angel and the Beehive, 77, 99 [?]
  7. A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 6 vols. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1930, 6:227-28. [?]
  8. The Angel and Beehive, 8, and Interview for Times and Seasons: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/04/12-more-questions-for-armand-mauss-part-1/ [?]


  1. Loved the post, Greg. The natural tribalism sure makes sense, though I hope that we can grow and prosper as a church without it.

  2. This is something I am feeling anxious about as my youngest heads off to FSY for a week this summer…
    I really hope they’ll avoid overplaying the dangerous world etc. card, and that they won’t conflate emotion and the spirit.

  3. This is a phenomenon I’ve been trying to articulate since my own youth! Absolutely brilliant. I think a bit of tribalism is OK for identity purposes, but only until the point where we start conflating it with spirituality. That’s when we’re worshiping culture instead of God – something that I was taught to do in my wards growing up. So the question is, how do we maintain healthy levels of tribalism (if there is such a thing- maybe I should say cultural identity?) in a global, expanding church when the real hallmarks of discipleship aren’t outward, measurable things?

  4. Really interesting post, Greg. I really like your concluding speculation. I would guess that Church leaders aren’t cynical enough to think of themselves as manufacturing any crisis to rally the faithful. Rather, I wonder if it isn’t a strategy they fell into by trial and error. They found that when they paint everything as “us against the wicked world” and find particular points of disagreement to emphasize, members exhibit more commitment to the Church. But of course that’s only my wild speculation. 🙂

  5. Greg,
    This is a very interesting post. I think tribalism and a persecuted mentality are part of the latter day saint experience.

    I wonder how much of this comes directly from leaders and how much is from members projecting their own fears unto a leader’s words.

    For decades church leaders have warned about vague evil forces that threaten our families. Since the church’s involvement in prop 8, these shadowy forces have become personified as many members see advocates for same sex marriage as the real threat to the family.

    We can contrast the words and actions of people who are “following the prophet” with what little (if anything) the prophet has said about this topic.

  6. All good points.

    Pepper S. – I share your question about healthy levels of tribalism. The line is just not easily defined.

    Ziff – you’re right. Subconsciously or not, they strike the sensitive chords to illicit a reaction. And the “us vs the world” approach has always worked – athletes use it all the time to pump themselves up.

    Earl – “We can contrast the words and actions of people who are “following the prophet” with what little (if anything) the prophet has said about this topic.” Great point. I do think, however, that the GAs give their tacit approval of such cultural phenomenon by not openly putting them to rest and instead create programs and materials that leverage their power. In the end, they’re in a much better position to enact meaningful change. A few more Uchtdorf’s might help with the culture, but as you said, tribalism itself and the persecution mentality might just simply be a part of the LDS experience.

  7. the victimhood complex is a pet peeve of mine – when I lived in a fairly heavy LDS community the city considered changing 4th of July celebrations from Sunday to Saturday July 3rd to accommodate us. The community put up a fuss and most members I knew felt persecuted for not being able to change it. Or the one time someone tagged a church building they were up in arms to persecute them for hate crimes – meanwhile when anyone else tried to claim “hate crime” they grumbled that there’s no such thing and fought tooth and nail against an anti-discrimination city statute.

    I don’t think it helped that recently in a Regional PH Leadership Conference Elder Bednar told all the Bishoprics that soon a day will come where it will take courage to claim your Mormonism publicly.


  8. “I know some hardliners who take to the interwebs with renewed zeal not so much because their leaders inspire them with eternal truths, but because their more liberal friends challenge them.”

    This really struck me. I’ve thought a little before about trying to separate the tangled mess of emotion and Spiritual witness that comes out of growing up in the church, where some of my strongest “spiritual” experiences were from emotionally manipulative seminary tactics, like listening to my teacher pound nails into a board while playing a song about the crucifixion. I’m having to learn from scratch as an adult what the Spirit feels like when it testifies of truth, and it’s much, much harder than I ever thought it would be. Anyway, you’ve raised a really interesting point here wondering how many of our actions are motivated by actual inspiration and how many are motivated by tribalism.

    “Elder Bednar told all the Bishoprics that soon a day will come where it will take courage to claim your Mormonism publicly.”

    The frustrating thing about that it is that it is exactly as true as we make it. Will we deliberately alienate ourselves from our neighbors in order to be peculiar? Or will we put in the hard work necessary to make it so that the things that make us peculiar are compassion, Christlike service, honesty, and spirituality–traits no one need be ashamed of?

  9. “The frustrating thing about that it is that it is exactly as true as we make it.”
    Amen to that one.


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