By Richard H. Cracroft
Even more than most mortals, Latter-day Saints depend on stories to give meaning to their existence. We ground our faith in stories–the story of the Plan of Salvation, the story of Jesus and the redemption of humankind, the story of Lehi and company, the story of Joseph Smith and the sacred grove, the story of the trek–and we fix our belief in the stories of our own conversions, our missions, our ministries. Stories are vital to establishing who we are and to understanding our places in the Great Plan. As pundit Neil Postman points out, “If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore” (“Learning by Story,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1989, p. 122).
In LDS literature we “tell the gospel story” again and again to a world for whom that story is new and novel. But I have wished for a long time for stories that portray the real lives of Latter-day Saints righteously lived and enjoyed, despite (or perhaps because of) inevitable adversity. And although fiction thrives on tension and conflict, I weary of, and become impatient with, the all-too-numerous stories about angst-ridden, backsliding, miserable-because-sin-never-was-happiness lives. I long, instead, for a little celebration of what we have. I long to read stories about faithful Latter-day Saints confronting life’s ups and downs like many of the Saints in my ward. I long to read thoughtful and intelligent stories full of bedrock Mormon truth, insight, and wisdom. I long for stories about devoted Saints working their way Mormonly through the cycles of youth turning into age, of happiness and pleasure, grief and sorrow, hope and disappointment, all within the framework of sustained faith and eye-single-to-God obedience. I long for stories of lives well lived by good (not perfect, because these stories should be true) men and good women who try hard to walk the holy walk, exercise faith, serve the Lord and their fellow beings, and endure to the end.
Now comes just such a story–Donald S. Smurthwaite’s Fine Old High Priests (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999; 140 pp.; $14.95). Here, at last, is a little gem of a book that will hearten every seasoned or fledgling Saint. Marcus Hathaway, the 71-year-old narrator, keeps a nightlong vigil at the bedside of his lifelong friend, Sam Nicholson, who is comatose and dying of cancer.
Marcus chuckles to his dearest friend, golf partner, neighbor, former bishop, and relative by marriage of their children,
Who called this meeting anyway? A couple of old high priests like us, with all this time and no meetings to go to. We used to look at all those old men when we were younger. . . We never thought we’d be like them, we thought we’d always be young and then be changed in the twinkling of an eye. But it happened to us, didn’t it? Now we’re old high priests too. That’s what has become of us. (5)
An inveterate storyteller with the Mormon propensity for seeing Meaning and Truth lurking on every golf link and tucked into every Relief Society casserole, Marcus admits to his friend, who always liked his stories, that “I try to see stories in much of what I do” (105). He passes the long night recollecting stories he has promised he will put into a book which will tell about Sam, “who is my friend[,] and what he taught me” (110). They are quiet stories about human goodness, told lyrically by a good, wise, and witty man who is a thoroughgoing lover of God, Mormonism, and Life. The result is one of the best books we’ve had–a lovely, sentimental book, mellow with wisdom and seasoned joy, grounded in acceptance, humility, optimism, and faith, and resonant with insight both human and divine. It is a book about the wonderful process of becoming “fine old high priests,” a state which, Marcus tells us, “happens gradually and may take a lifetime or more. . . . Many men grow old, and many are high priests. It is the fine part that is difficult to attain” (125).
Fine Old High Priests is a welcome breath of fresh air in Mormon literature, a heartwarming book that is not only “uplifting, of good report, and praiseworthy,” but hopeful and promising, announcing as it does the arrival among the Latter-day Saints of a literature that bespeaks the kind of spiritual self-confidence and maturity our religion fosters in its faithful adherents. The book gently suggests what we all know to be so–Mormonism, consistently lived and regularly applied, blesses and transforms brother or sister Saints into “fine old high priests” or “fine old sisters.” Read this book and rejoice with me at the dawning of a brighter day.
Another important new book, which treats how we deal with that part of everyone’s story called Death, is Mourning with Those Who Mourn, edited by Steven C. Walker and Jane D. Brady (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999; 198 pp.; $17.95). Subtitled “Latter-day Saints Share Experiences and Perspectives on Grieving,” this book contains 14 essays that offer a variety of thoughtful perspectives on Mormon mourning. As the editors point out, Latter-day Saints “are so certain . . . of eventual eternities that the present reality of death can blindside us. We do not know how to grieve. Not expecting to mourn, we have not trained ourselves in the process” (ix). The essays are personal, heartfelt expressions, “recollected in tranquility,” about how the writers handled their grief at the death of a child, a parent, or a grandparent. Collectively, these well-crafted essays form, as Walker and Brady describe it, “something of a hand- book of constructive ways to mourn, of helpful means of finding comfort . . . , a kaleidoscope of views on different kinds of death, creating a rich spectrum of possibilities for how you might best deal with death in your life” (x). I commend these essays to those who have undergone recent (or long-ago) loss. The edi-tors write that “there is in death something miraculous, something enlivening that those who have experienced want to share” (xi). This book touches the mystery, inevitability, and wonder of Death as few others have. Mourning with Those Who Mourn will be a comforting gift to all who mourn.
Mormon history tells another kind of story that touches us very closely. For Leonard J. Arrington, who died last February, writing the Mormon story was a sacred task. As he explains in his “memoir,” Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998; 249 pp.; $29.95), published shortly before his death, he saw telling the Mormon story as a commission from God. He recounts how he was called as the first non–General Authority LDS Church historian and how he gathered a band of able and devoted LDS historians to launch what would become known as “The Arrington Spring” of LDS Church history. The spring bloomed, then faded as he and his associates encountered the inevitable conflict that arises when religious historians undertake “to inform readers of both naturalistic explanations and divine influences” on the history of a church led by prophets, seers, and revelators who focus not on naturalistic explication of history but on the divine direction and providential purpose of that church. The dilemma was resolved by establishing at BYU the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, with Arrington as its founding director.
In Leonard Arrington, the Latter-day Saints have enjoyed a wise and faithful historian who could keep the poles in balance and tell the Mormon saga with an honesty and vision commensurate to its greatness. From his landmark book, The Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints (1958) to his Brigham Young: American Moses (1985), and in the nearly two dozen works in between and since, Arrington influenced an entire generation of historians. He insisted that LDS historians should write with “the Latter-day Saint ideals of professional competence, sincere truth-seeking, and unquestioned integrity, trustworthiness, and dedication,” to produce historical scholarship “accompanied by firm convictions of the truth of Mormonism” (237). In Adventures of a Church Historian, readers become acquainted with the deeply spiritual, loving, generous, and gentle man who was Leonard Arrington. He describes what he termed his spiritual “peak experience,” after which, he writes, “I knew that God expected me to carry out a research program of his peoples’ history and to make available that material to others” (28–29). This “holy, never-to-be-forgotten encounter” remained with him and shaped his incomparable life’s work (28–29).
Typically and movingly, he fuses spiritual and historical perspectives in the chapter entitled “The Long-Promised Day,” in which he presents what may be the fullest account we will have of the 1978 revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball that all worthy males, including those of African descent, might be ordained to the priesthood.
A remarkable historian, Leonard J. Arrington spent his life peering intently and perceptively at the Mormon experience through lenses made of faith in God, in the Restored Church, and in God’s anointed servants. The honest stories he told and urged others to tell will continue to make possible the fulfillment of the words on that prophetic banner across that long-ago street in Preston, England: “Truth Will Prevail.”
Richard H. Cracroft, professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature, has taught American, Western, and LDS literature at BYU since 1963.