History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
The Happy Valley Syndrome
In the first of the two New Testament letters attributed to the apostle Peter, there appears a description of the Church of Christ that has presented a challenge to believers in all generations and provides a text for my inquiry into certain traits of the present Mormon generation: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called ye out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).
The phrase “a peculiar people” appears in both Old and New Testaments but with somewhat different connotations. In Deuteronomy (14:2; 26:18) it is found in context with Hebraic law and ritual, and the implication is that the chosen people should be visibly distinctive and apart from other nations. In Peter, on the other hand, as in Titus 2:4, the peculiarity is a quality of relationship with the world—a relationship which recalls other scriptural passages such as “light on a hill” and “salt of the earth” (D&C 86:11; 101:16; 115:5). To be “in the world but not of the world” meant both physical and psychological segregation to ancient Israel; it meant a ministry of light among nations in darkness to the disciples of the Lord.
That the preoccupations of some Latter-day Saints today suggest an Old Testament rather than a New Testament concept of “a peculiar people” is my present thesis and concern.
The “Happy Valley Syndrome” is that collection of traits which tends to make some of us Mormons isolated and odd—cloistering together against the tribulations of the world outside and [p.42] identifying exaltation with verbal affirmations and habitual, group-reinforced forms of righteousness.1 I do not mean here to associate the syndrome with any particular person, living or dead. One or more of the symptoms are present in many Latter-day Saints, and my hope is that if self-examination leads to recognition, the temptation to repent will not be resisted.
Let us pause here to define terms. One dictionary explains that a syndrome is “a group of signs or symptoms that appears together and characterize a particular abnormality.” My own definition of “Happy Valley” is the cultural enclave within which many Latter-day Saints believe that security exists and may be expected to continue to exist as long as firm resistance is maintained against impinging forces from the outside world.
Three signs or symptoms collectively characterize this Happy Valley Syndrome for Latter-day Saints. They are (1) a marginal awareness of past reality, (2) a myopic perspective on present reality, and (3) a mechanical approach to divine reality. A concept of spiritual security focused on formalized abstractions and ritualized actions builds barriers between Syndrome-Saints and the world in which they live, the historic influences and processes that shaped it, and the God in whose hands is its destiny—and theirs.
By minimal awareness of past reality, I mean that many Latter-day Saints have little or no sense of history. My belief that studying the past is helpful in relating to the present and the future reflects more than professional bias, but I will not undertake its systematic validation here. I will simply observe that no historical understanding or perspective is involved in the way many of us relate religious beliefs to the current business of living. A narrow illustration is the genealogist who collects names without attention to the context within which the bearers of the names lived. A broader and more serious manifestation is the way we appeal to a past that never was. History is alleged to “prove” many things that history almost certainly does not prove. For example, most of the “reasons,” based on a priori generalizations, about “why Rome fell” are allegations for which there is little or no real support.
I am particularly concerned about our loss of a sense of history as far as our church is concerned. Many of us seem to be unaware of the long, dynamic historical process which has brought us to the [p.43] present day. We cherish mythologized memories about certain locations—the sacred grove, the Kirtland temple, the red brick store and the temple in Nauvoo, and Winter Quarters. But we sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” with its conclusion that for all who made it to the valley or died on the way, “all is well, all is well,” as though that is where our history ends. The great scholarly writings about Mormon history, of which Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958) is a path-breaking example, are not widely read by the people for whom LDS historians write them. The processes of change and development traced in B. H. Roberts’s great Comprehensive History of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930) and more recently and succinctly in James B. Allen’s and Glen B. Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976) are unknown to many Mormons. Today’s church is assumed to be what the pioneers brought with them in 1847, costumed differently and communicating by satellite.
Yesterday was not the same as today, and today is not what tomorrow will be. Yet most of us are unfamiliar with the fact that almost revolutionary institutional changes followed the decision to abandon polygamy and political isolationism.2 I mention this not to encourage the accumulation of historical trivia for quiz programs but because awareness of the possibilities for change is essential to relating constructively to the processes of change. The Ninth Article of Faith suggests that change will be the essence of this dispensation, as new truth is added to that which has previously been available to the Saints. Yet when we use authorities to establish points of doctrine and to define policies, we quote with no regard for the historical context or particular relevance of the sources used. Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and Book of Mormon prophet Alma are as authoritative for formulating decisions on current church curricula—or American politics—as quotations from church presidents John Taylor or Lorenzo Snow or statements from the prophets of our own day.
Furthermore, we seem to resist the idea of institutional change in the church, even though the past is full of it and we readily accommodate it when it occurs. Who among today’s Latter-day Saints knows that fast day was observed on Thursday during most of the nineteenth century? Among those who are old enough to remember when the sacrament was administered in Sunday school, who knows that the ordinance was not part of the early format of that teaching institution?[p.44] Who knows that elders were once ordained at such tender ages as thirteen and fourteen? Now that all but two of the quorums of seventies have disappeared, who is aware that membership in the First Quorum of the Seventy was once restricted to seventies and that some of them, like B. H. Roberts, took seriously the affirmation in Doctrine and Covenants 107:26 that the quorum was equal in authority to the Council of the Twelve Apostles?
These kinds of institutional changes, some of them quite significant, continue to go on all around us. For example, the churchwide and worldwide implications of the 1978 revelation on blacks and the priesthood are immeasurable.
To the extent we cling to the perception that the Restoration consists of a package of revealed and uncontexted principles, policies, and practices, given to the prophet Joseph Smith and meant to be preserved intact until the Millennium, we may occasionally be startled, even upset, by changes, but we can have no influence upon their nature, direction, or tempo.
Let me share an incident which illustrates how institutional change can take place in this church. A generation ago, when our daughters were in the children’s Primary and young adult Mutual Improvement Association stages, the Polls and another couple became concerned about the promotion system being used between the two auxiliaries. At that time the Aaronic Priesthood analogy was being followed, with the girls going into MIA one at a time, on their twelfth birthday. This seemed to weaken the impact of both the last year in Primary and the first in MIA. If a divine purpose was being served by following the boys’ pattern, then obviously we ought to adjust, but it did not appear to us that this was so. We respectfully raised the question with the general boards of the two auxiliaries, and soon we were on a committee appointed by them and were conducting a churchwide survey. Within a few months the policy was changed, girls began to be promoted at the end of the program year, and the Polls and their friends were rewarded with certificates naming them honorary members of the two general boards. (After about twenty-five years the one-at-a-time promotion policy was reinstated. I do not know whether this change should be attributed to providential intervention, cumulative experience, other parental activism, or church correlation.)
I mention this only to illustrate an important, incontrovertible point. Some of the changes that have made the church a more [p.45] efficient and effective influence in the lives of its members have been responsive to grassroots input like this. If individual members feel that their only responsibility is to relate passively and obediently to whatever the institutional status quo requires, they overlook the free agency factor in the principle of common consent. Or they exercise it—as many of us do—by griping to peers or engaging in passive resistance, both of which are indirect ways of producing change.
While censuring these negative activities in a thoughtful address on “Criticism,” Apostle Dallin H. Oaks recently endorsed the private communication of concerns and suggestions about church policies and programs to those who are in a position to act upon them. “Our Father in Heaven has not compelled us to think the same way on every subject or procedure. As we seek to accomplish our life’s purposes, we will inevitably have differences with those around us—including some of those we sustain as our leaders. The question is not whether we have such differences, but how we manage them.… By following these procedures, Church members can work for correction of a leader or for change in a policy” (Ensign 18 [Feb. 1987]: 72).
The Mormon church today is in important ways a product of its history, and the church fifty years from now, whether or not the Millennium has come, will be in part a product of what happens in this generation. Surely awareness of what, where, when, how, and why past changes have occurred will not disqualify us from constructive involvement in today’s dynamic church. It may even make us more profitable servants.
Let us turn now to the second symptom of the Happy Valley Syndrome—myopic perspective on present reality. There is some evidence that what some Latter-day Saints profess as the gospel is detached from the real world in which we live, move, and have our being. Preoccupied with what we have defined as the business of salvation, we are uninterested and uninformed about the problems of the world beyond the valley and apathetic in the discharge of our civic responsibilities.
This is not an appeal to emulate the violence of much social protest but rather a challenge to make our Christian commitment a significant conditioning factor as we define—just for ourselves, not for the church—positions on the crucial issues of today. As we take our stands on law and order, urban decay, education, national defense, [p.46] and public revenue priorities, it seems to me that gospel principles ought to be distinctively and conspicuously present in the way we reach conclusions and then act upon them. Instead, many of us pick up our opinions from the Rotary Club, the union hall, or the evening news, or we parrot the opinions of ecclesiastical or secular leaders whose status or general philosophy appeals to us.
Let me illustrate this problem with an experiment I once did in two large classes in American history. As part of each weekly quiz I asked opinion questions about current affairs, partly to get an idea of what the students were thinking and partly to provoke more thinking. Usually the opinion questions were identical for both classes; this time, however, there was a difference. The first group was asked: “What is your opinion of the statement, ‘There is enough good in the United Nations to justify its existence’?” With five choices, about 16 percent strongly agreed, 45 percent agreed, 20 percent had no opinion, and almost 20 percent chose the negative options. The second group was asked: “What is your opinion of this statement by David O. McKay, ‘There is enough good in the United Nations to justify its existence’?” You can predict the outcome. This time approximately 35 percent strongly agreed, another 45 percent agreed, only 10 percent were undecided, and the negatives had dwindled to about 7 percent.
My concern was not about whether there was or was not “good in the United Nations” but about the tendency among us to let authority figures make up our minds for us. On gospel topics deferring to authority is safe—and usually sound—policy, but the merits or demerits of the United Nations are not yet elements of gospel doctrine or church policy. They are matters about which we are entirely free to exercise our free agency. I recommend that we all make a greater effort to define our own relationships, as believing and practicing Latter-day Saints, to the institutions and issues of the secular world that will profoundly affect us and our children.
Another aspect of this second symptom is that, apart from certain church practices which might almost be regarded as eccentricities, most Mormons relate to the problems of the world in about the same fashion as their Gentile contemporaries of comparable economic and social status. In community service, the Latter-day Saint may be the one who does not serve coffee at the PTA board meeting or the one who can’t come to a board meeting because she has a conflicting Relief Society meeting. But how, as a PTA board member, [p.47] does she relate to problems in a discernibly different way? Does the leaven of the gospel give her a “peculiar” perspective on school curriculum, boundaries, or bussing?
Sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists—Mormons among them—have discovered that BYU students break traffic rules and get into sexual mischief in ways not so different from their non-Mormon contemporaries as differences in dogma would seem to require. Before the 1978 revelation on priesthood eligibility, one of our sociologists undertook to measure Mormon attitudes on racial differences. The best he could establish on the basis of sound survey techniques was that we were just about as bigoted as everybody else; the priesthood policy had not made us more bigoted.3
Nonetheless, another classroom discussion—this in a small, upper division honors course—revealed that racial bias was surely present. We were discussing a Supreme Court decision on “open housing.” I set up a hypothetical case, based on the fact that the Poll house in Provo’s Oak Hills neighborhood was on the market. “Suppose that Geneva Steel should bring in a black scientist for their by-products lab, and he heard that my house was for sale and offered to buy it. Should I sell it to him?” We talked about it at length, in just about the same terms as anybody else in the American middle class would talk about it then. What would the neighbors think? What would happen to real estate values? What about racial intermingling and the possibility that the scientist’s son might marry the girl next door? Some of these bright young people thought that I should sell, and some that I shouldn’t. Then I suggested a change in the hypothetical situation. “Let’s say that the owner of the house is not Richard Poll, but Jesus. Would he sell?” Of course the discussion quickly fell apart, for there was no argument when the case was put in these terms.
What I am suggesting is that many of us Latter-day Saints do not put the problems of the world in these Christian terms. We relate to them as if the gospel had no relevance. We play some conventional civic role, or we play no role at all. One manifestation of the Happy Valley Syndrome is a belief that if one wishes to remain unspotted from the world, he or she should not get involved in the world’s business. Utah Valley has a higher percentage of active Mormons than any other metropolitan area, yet both political parties have a dearth of strong candidates for public offices, and seats on community service councils sometimes go begging. Whether Jesus, were he here [p.48] today, would be a Republican or a Democrat is something to debate at another time. That he would be moved to action by the plight of many of his Father’s children is, in my view, undeniable.
My appeal is for an enlargement of our sense of responsibility for trying to make this world a better place. Even if we believe it is ultimately a doomed enterprise, we and our children are going to have to live in it, and anything we can do to ameliorate our circumstances would seem to make sense. I have no doubt that such efforts will be accounted unto us for righteousness when the final reckoning is made. And as we become involved, we should constantly ask ourselves, “How, as a believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ, should I relate to this problem?” Generally we are great—active, caring, serving—in dealing with the church members who live in our Happy Valley. I urge a broader concern about those whom the Savior had in mind when he gave us the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Now to the third aspect of the syndrome—its routinizing effect on our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
The Happy Valley Syndrome is characterized by a defining of righteousness in terms of specific acts that can be confidently labeled “righteousness” because they are spelled out in precise commandments, procedures, rituals, and verbal affirmations. We often manifest this quirk in Sunday school, priesthood quorum meetings, and Relief Society discussions on the topic, “What must we do to be saved?” We list about forty-seven items on the board, all of which are specific acts that are to be performed once in a lifetime (like baptism) or periodically (like going to the temple) or monthly (like paying fast offerings) or weekly (like going to meetings on Sunday). Then, sensing that something is missing, we end the list with some nebulous phrase like “Live a good life.” We rarely discuss it, even though this is, in the last analysis, the requirement upon which the efficacy of all the institutionalized, ritualized forms of righteousness depends.
How does our relationship to our Heavenly Father enter into this?
It seems to me that despite a great deal of classroom and pulpit rhetoric about relying on the Spirit and following its prompting, in broad areas of “living a good life” most of us do not really do so.4 In choosing a vocation, a political party, a car, or a mate, if we make it a matter of prayer at all, it is usually after we have made up our minds.[p.49] We then ask for divine confirmation, and usually our prayers are answered; this is the car to buy or the girl to marry. When our need is for understanding about the gospel, its principles or applications, we select the scriptures or consult the General Authorities that we like best. Then we pray about it and our prayer is answered; we were right all the time. We do not, in our prayer posture, express toward our Heavenly Father the sense of dependence which is the real essence of prayer. An acknowledgement of inadequacy, a placing of ourselves humbly in the hands of the Lord, is not our conventional prayer style. No, we pray for support and success for whatever we have already decided is best.
Depending upon God in situations for which the church has not provided neat answers is something all of us could do more. Too many LDS testimonies include facile, glib rejoicing that the Lord is on our side. He does things for us which he does not do for other mortals, because we are his people. Sometimes we read the scriptural promise, “I, the Lord, am bound” to mean that because we are Latter-day Saints, God has to love us more.
One of the hardest things for us to do is worship. We do not know how to feel and express a profound sense of dependence, a sense of the distance—in knowledge and power—between us and our Heavenly Father. It is a wonderful doctrine that we are gods in embryo, with potential to become perfect, even as he is. But to the extent that we feel that prize to be nearly won, we impede worship. To the extent that we think of God in terms of a kindly schoolteacher, a family doctor, an interstellar mailman, or a celestial Santa Claus, we blaspheme.
The prayer for help when we do not know the way, the prayer for help when there may not be an easy way, the prayer in time of real tragedy—these are the hardest for us to muster. Some of us who are content with affirmations of testimony and expressions of formalized thanks while things are going well in Happy Valley are shattered when confronted by adversity for which neat formulas do not provide explanation.
What I am suggesting is that we all carefully examine the nature of our communication with our Heavenly Father. What does happen when we pray? How often do we pray in ways other than the verbal formulations for specific occasions which we learned while growing up?
[p.50] This is not meant to disparage ritual prayers. They have their place in ritual situations. If a Latter-day Saint had attended the 1787 constitutional convention, the delegates would not have had to turn down Benjamin Franklin’s prayer proposal for lack of money to hire a minister. Someone there would have been glad to provide daily prayers without purse or scrip. But if they were as prolix and banal as what we often hear, would they have attracted more divine attention than Franklin’s simple acknowledgement of need?
Years ago I encountered this perceptive aphorism: “The function of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The Happy Valley Syndrome is commonly found among the comfortably religious. It is by no means unique to Mormons, but it is sufficiently prevalent among us to obscure and distort what we see when we look backward—to our past, outward—to the world beyond our valley, and upward—to the Lord, from whence cometh our hope.
Is it desirable for us to escape from Happy Valley? Maybe not. The sequestered life offers a kind of security lost to those who engage the lone and dreary world. A person can move a long way toward the personal goal of exaltation by operating in a Happy Valley context as virtuously as he knows he ought to. Most of us, alas, do not even do that.
By the standards defined by Jesus Christ and all the prophets, even “doing that” is not enough.
Let us, as part of our commitment as Latter-day Saints, face the reality of our past, seeking understanding of the processes by which the unfolding of the divine plan has so far come to pass, so that we can relate constructively to present developments, trends, and possibilities.
Let us seek to apply the gospel of love—the gospel of Jesus Christ—in our relations with all who are our brothers and sisters, including some who are particularly difficult to love because they have such weird beliefs or live in such squalid circumstances or do such obnoxious things.
Let us confront the inadequacy of the pat answers and comfortable procedures of the cloistered life, so that in humility we may reach out to our Heavenly Father for help in developing the spiritual resources, insights, resolution, courage, and strength to live as our religion really requires.
[p.51] It is my conviction that as we seek inspiration and try to live in love, we can find in the restored gospel what we need to be worthy servants—worthy children—of our Heavenly Father. He is available to us through the example and teachings of his Son and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I pray that we may so respond that we will truly be a “peculiar people,” not in the Old Testament sense—isolated and uninvolved—but in the New Testament sense—a leaven in the lump, a light on a hill.[p.53]
1. In his paper, “The Happy Valley Concept,” Leonard J. Arrington noted that Dr. Samuel Johnson used the phrase “Happy Valley” in his philosophical novel Rasselas, or the Prince of Abyssinia (1759). In serial format, Rasselas appeared in The Improvement Era in 1906-1907, and the phrase has been used for some time in Cache Valley, Utah Valley, and other Latter-day Saint communities, as well as applied to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and other academic environments. Johnson’s “Happy Valley” was an ideal community, which his hero finally came to appreciate after seeking a more interesting and exciting lifestyle elsewhere in the world.
3. Armand L. Mauss, “Mormonism and the Negro: Faith, Folklore, and Civil Rights,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Winter 1967): 35-38. The minimal resistance to President Kimball’s 1978 revelation would seem encouraging evidence that earlier racial antipathies were not deeply ingrained in most members of the church.
4. In recent years “following the spirit” has received new emphasis among Latter-day Saints. The dogmatic form in which this emphasis sometimes finds expression—a blend of mystical, emotional, fundamentalist, and authoritarian elements—is discussed in O. Kendall White, Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).