Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Levi S. Peterson
A verse may find him who a sermon flies.
[p.43]With degrees from Brigham Young University (B.A. and M.A.) and the University of Utah (Ph.D.), Levi S. Peterson teaches at Weber State University where he is a professor of English. He has served as director of the school’s Honors Program and chair of the English department. His articles and stories have appeared in such publications as Western American Literature, Utah Historical Quarterly, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Journal of Mormon History, Ascent, Sunstone, and on National Public Radio. His books include Canyons of Grace, Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Short Stories (editor, with introductory essay and a story), The Backslider, Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian, Night Soil, and most recently Aspen Marooney.
Levi holds honors as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award in Arts and Letters from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. He also has received numerous awards for his work, including the David W. and Beatrice C. Evans Biography Award, a Best Book Award for 1988 from the Mormon History Association, awards from the Utah Arts Council, and a first prize in the short story category from the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature at Brigham Young University.
[p.44]He’s a big man with a mustache and an easy, genuine laugh. He greets me in his office at Weber State University, and the first item I notice in the small space is a coffee maker. A cross of cholla cactus and yarn hangs on one wall, and on another is a photograph of a small white house in winter in a southern Utah setting. The back wall is solid books—Levi’s own Aspen Marooney and other titles mixed in with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Plato’s Republic, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. Levi sits beneath a large set of bull horns mounted on the wall. He wears a blue shirt, red-and-blue tie, and khaki pants. He pronounces the word “ward” with a broad Utah “a.”
When were you born?
On December 13, 1933. So I’m sixty-three right now.
Where were you born?
In Snowflake, Arizona. It’s about as far north as Flagstaff, but it’s a full 100 miles east of Flagstaff. So north-central Arizona is about where you are—toward the center of the state. A little toward the east side of the state. But it’s on the Colorado Plateau, and the terrain there has a lot in common with southern Utah rather than the Sonoran Desert where Phoenix is. That was foreign country to me. I lived in Mesa my senior year in high school and didn’t like it at all. I felt like a foreigner in the desert down there.
The red rock is what’s in your blood?
The country around Kanab—there’s a fair similarity with Snowflake in that. Junipers and canyons and rocks.
Snowflake was a Mormon colony like St. Johns and some of those others?
Even more so. In fact, Snowflake really was the key Mormon settlement of northern Arizona, and the first stake president in northern Arizona, Jesse N. Smith, kept his headquarters there. As far as I was concerned in growing up, I was in the center. I had no concept of being far away from anything that was important.
[p.45]Your active Mormon roots go way back?
Absolutely, you bet. My ancestors on both sides—my father’s side and my mother’s side—were pioneers, pre-railroad pioneers. My grandparents from Sweden came by wagon before the railroad. And my mother, both her father’s and mother’s ancestors go back to Joseph Smith’s time. In the gathering on the Iowa prairie between 1846 and when the Saints moved out to Salt Lake Valley in 1847, I had twelve ancestors there. Three of them died. The other nine made it. Five more crossed the plains by wagon before the coming of the railroad in 1869. So I had a lot of ancestors—grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who were active.
Maybe that’s something of a record.
Well, there’s a lot of them there.
Snowflake was 99 percent Mormon, wasn’t it?
Oh, yes, largely Mormon. There were some non-Mormons. There were some railroad section hands whom we called Mexicans. They were Hispanics, spoke Spanish, and they were Catholic. And most people were church attenders. There was a liberal dosage of Jack Mormons. The word Jack Mormon to me didn’t mean anti-Mormon. It was just somebody who didn’t obey the commandments, who didn’t go to church, and who smoked and told profane stories at the post office, and things like that. I had plenty of disapproval of them because my mother was Bishop Savage’s daughter. My Grandfather Savage was bishop of Woodruff, Arizona, for twenty-seven years. And being his daughter, she conveyed very strong sentiments about people who wouldn’t go to church. A bottle of beer was terrible. I remember empty beer bottles in the street and looking upon them as instruments of the devil.
Clearly, you were very active as a youngster?
Both your parents were active?
Oh, yes. My father, in fact, was counselor in the stake presidency from the time of his marriage to my mother until 1939—fifteen years—and about four years before he died. My father was quite a bit [p.46]older than my mother. Nineteen years older. In fact, he had been her teacher in the local academy. But he had six children when his first wife died. And then my mother had two daughters and divorced her husband. Later they married and had five sons together. So there were thirteen total children between them. I’m the last of the bunch. My half-brothers and -sisters were basically adults before I was born. I knew they were my brothers and sisters. Many of their children of course are my close peers, and I grew up with them. Even though they were my nephews and nieces, they were also brothers and sisters to me. I had a very close relationship with most of them, and still have a very cordial relation with them when we get together. I come from a very large family now. I have innumerable relatives. The vast majority are faithful Latter-day Saints, and they’re scattered all over the West, but the largest number still congregate in Arizona. A fair number still in northern Arizona, but I suppose the majority of them now are in the Phoenix-Mesa area.
You stayed in Snowflake how long?
I left at age eighteen to go to college. In reality, I left a year earlier. My mother took me to Mesa. She needed to finish her college, so I did a year at Mesa High School. I felt like an alien there. Then went to BYU. I hadn’t even turned eighteen when I arrived at BYU in the fall of 1951. I spent four more summers at home, but basically I’ve lived in Utah most of my adult life. I had a three-year period out to go on a mission. I went to the French mission serving in Switzerland and Belgium from 1954 to 1957. And my wife and I went over to Berkeley one year between a master’s degree at BYU and a Ph.D. program at the University of Utah. So we had that one year in California, but otherwise I’ve been in Utah for my higher education. Immediately upon graduating with a doctorate in English out of the U in 1965, I came here to Weber State College. And I’ve been here—it’s been my only employer these thirty-two years.
Yes, and pleasant. I’ve not regretted that. I’ve never had any reason to regret coming to Weber State. It’s been a good place to be, in fact. Pleasant and reasonably good support for my writing and my scholarly activities.
[p.47]You are the writer-in-residence up there pretty much, aren’t you?
Well, I do a lot of writing, but my colleague, Gordon Allred, publishes quite a bit. He’s more acceptable to the mainline Mormon reader. He publishes with Bookcraft and Deseret Book.
At some point in your life, from what I’ve gathered, you became less active. How old were you? How did that happen?
My first three years at college, before I went on a mission, were a period of perturbation for me as I … I really grew into a mood of doubt in that period. And I suppose I would’ve been well advised not to go on a mission, but the doubt hadn’t quite jelled, so I did go on a mission. But I hadn’t been out, I suppose, a month, and it struck me this was pretty poor business. There were a lot of reasons why I doubted, but I had no fervor at all for feeling like I had something all these people needed. And they very obviously didn’t want it. That was evident from the first knock on a door. I sheltered myself from the difficult situation I was in by being a junior companion for seven months—up in Switzerland, which is a nice place to be even in the winter. In the summer of 1955, I’d been out about seven months, I was made a senior companion. I learned French fairly fast, and I think I spoke it quite well. I’d had a year of it at BYU, and I went down to Belgium and became a senior companion. It seemed to me that it was a question of dishonesty now that I was senior companion and could no longer retire and just be an observer as junior companion, which I had been for seven months. I made quite a concerted effort to come home the summer of 1955. I didn’t get any encouragement anywhere and finally decided not to. The mission president conversed frantically with me a number of times, trying to persuade me to stay. I finally did stay. I went to a psychiatrist very briefly in Belgium who said, “My advice to you, Mr. Peterson, is to stay here. You’re not hurting anybody. You know that?” He said, “You might even do somebody some good; nobody’s going to believe you that doesn’t need it.” And so I finally decided on the basis of that—given that I saw nowhere to go when I got home, nobody who would welcome me—I just stuck it out. I never bore a testimony. I never told anybody I believed it. I just said this is the doctrine. And, yes, a number of people were converted and baptized, either directly or after I’d left. That was a difficult period of time, and I came back still angry at having stayed out. And in retrospect, I [p.48]grant it was probably the best thing to do. I can still get angry feelings about it if I really think hard. But I came back with a kind of vow to myself that I was never again going to do anything in the Mormon line that I did not personally want to do, and I wasn’t going to pay a penny of tithing. And I’ve paid only ten dollars, and that was one year I decided to make my mother feel better if I could tell her I was a partial tithe-payer. So that’s how much I’ve paid since 1954 when I went on my mission. Anyway, I married a gentile—Althea. She’s still a gentile. I met her at BYU. She’s one of that 3 percent of gentiles who went to BYU. I was very lucky to find her. She adapts totally to Mormons. Her roommates were Mormons. She’s just turned sideways to the wind all these years, the gusts of conversion. You know, there’ve been innumerable attempts to convert her, and she just deals with them graciously and tactfully.
I’ve never been able to make a total, clean break. I just don’t have the motivation to do it. I’ve always worn garments. In the hot summer I don’t. It doesn’t bother me not to, but if the weather is comfortable for it I wear them. And I went many years—far longer than you’d expect after becoming intellectually independent—saying my prayers. Well, I personally don’t believe in prayer. I don’t think the architect of the universe is going to alter the gears for individual prayer. And yet I’d been so conditioned to get down on my knees at night. It was like breathing to me to do it. Gave it up, but only slowly. And when I got back from my mission, I never failed to look up a ward any time I moved. After I got married, for three or four years I was fairly alienated. We’d go to church not too often. Actually, the year at Berkeley was better, being out of Utah. I had more motivation. I was a scout leader over there. I was fairly active as an explorer leader. But all through the U of U period—the four years at the U—I was an infrequent attender. Up here, I started attending because we had a little girl, our only child, Karrin. Althea said: “You know, your relatives are going to make her life impossible if we don’t at least do the external things, Mormon things, with her.” So she was blessed. I blessed her, and she was baptized, and I did that too, and she grew up a Mormon. And she’s really liberal, but she’s still in it. I mean, she’s still attached. She had me bless her little boy. She’s married to a gentile, and I blessed her baby here a year and one-half ago, which was quite an adventure getting permission to do that from my bishop.
[p.49]But you got it.
I got it.
You weren’t married in the temple. But you got your endowments, so this must have been after your mission or before?
Before my mission, well before my mission. Missionaries get their endowments. For a while when Karrin was little, both Althea and I went to church quite a bit to give her a model. Even Althea did, and she doesn’t particularly like going to church. She’s not Mormon, but she did. When Karrin got to be about twelve, she lost interest in going to church. We went through a period of four or five years where we did a lot of sports-like things on Sunday. And hunting season. She wanted to hunt. She took the hunter safety course. But when she got into junior high, she fell in with Mormon kids, and she kind of had a conversion and she started on her own to go to seminary and to church. Althea and I were in support of that. When she no longer wanted me to do things with her on Sunday, I started going to church on my own. For quite a few years—fifteen maybe—if I’m in town and I don’t have anything interfering, I go to a sacrament meeting on Sunday. And I sleep. That’s not a joke. I make a joke out of it and people laugh, but I sleep with almost total reliability. Once the sacrament’s been passed, I’ll sleep through two-thirds and sometimes the entirety of the sermons. And I go away refreshed. Much spiritually rejuvenated by having been to church. People ask me why I go, and I say, “Well, this is a place you can sleep knowing no one will rob or murder you.” But there has to be an explanation for why I like to go to church, because I do like to go to church. Obviously, I can’t stand dull sermons, but if I can sleep through most of them, I don’t mind waking up to listen to part of the sermon. And that’s just about right—my sense of proportion.
I think I know what you’re talking about here, because there is this soothing kind of Mormon liturgy, the way things are phrased, that flows over you. I’ve noticed this in funerals. When I go to a Mormon funeral, I become very comfortable and sleep could come very easily. I think it feels womblike and safe and warm.
Yes, I think that’s good. And see, I don’t fight it. I just go to sleep. I recognize connections with my parents. Going to church is what I was conditioned to do as a child, and there’s some sense of doing what they [p.50]want me to do, and some of the same effect as if I were still able to sit by them. As I say, I have no problem with that. I’ll do whatever I’ll do but I won’t do more than that. I’ve been a home teacher the entire thirty-two years that I’ve lived in this town and in this same ward, the Thirty-third Ward, and I’m a reasonably conscientious one. The vast majority of months I get my home teaching done, which consists of just visiting. I don’t pretend to give a lesson. My latest companion I really like—because he’s very reliable and willing to go—is the ward records clerk—I don’t know just what they call him. He runs the ward computer and does the counting of who’s there, etc. When he first joined me five years ago as my companion, he wanted to know if we should pray in his car to be ready to go on our first outing. I said, I don’t mind, but you’ll have to do it. I don’t even remember whether he did, but if he did it that one time he never did it again. And when we arrived, he said, “Should we give a little lesson in here?” I said, “I don’t mind if you do, but you’re going to have to do it; I haven’t given a lesson in the fifteen years I’ve been meeting this family.” I’ve had the same four families for probably twenty years, and once in a while a group leader will want to change me, and I’ll just say to them, “Look, you’d be well advised to leave me there, because three of those families are rank Jack Mormons and it took me five years to get in with them, and you’d just better leave it alone.” And they have. They’ve left me with those; the other family is a very active family but our chemistry mixes very well. I get along with that couple and have pleasant times with them. So this present partner’s got enough sense and tact to just go with the flow, and we go in and have good long talks. Sometimes we’ll stay an hour at some of the places, just conversing. I’m willing to do that. And when they get in a real pinch at the high priest group—I teach a lesson maybe once every three months—I’m not a high priest, but they crowded me out of the elders quorum because I was getting old. And I was still an elder, because I’m not worthy to be ordained a high priest. They don’t know that. They’ve got me on the records as a high priest.
They’re going to know it now.
Well, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. All I know is off my latest record sheet it still calls me a high priest, so I just got ordained. Maybe it was a computer that did it.
[p.51]Clearly at some point in your life you had some kind of conflict with the church. What were those conflicts, and are they still there today?
I regard myself as a liberal Mormon, and I define liberal as one who wants to see things change. There are a lot of things about Mormonism that I’d like to see changed. That’s as good a reason as any to stay in it. For example, its attitude toward historical truth; it doesn’t have to try to re-edit itself into a history it never had. It could survive without doing that. So I feel pretty strongly on that. Its treatment of women—though you’ve got to admit that most men and women accept it fervently and they will condition their daughters to accept it. But it strikes me that women are kept unnecessarily in an inferior role, and they don’t need to be. The church would survive, probably flourish, if they change their attitude. I think they ought to have a different attitude toward homosexuals, alternate lifestyles. I think the church ought to have a much less serious attitude towards sexual sin. I think it’s okay to define some moral standards and say that premarital sex isn’t good and extramarital sex isn’t good. And yet I think the church would be well advised not to make as much of it as it does. Deal with the sinner much more gently, and I think they’d probably have no more sin than they’ve got anyway—since they’ve got plenty of it. The big thing that I’m against is this requirement that if you’re called, by damn, you’ve got to do it. Even if it isn’t to your taste, even if it’s inconvenient, you’ve got to accept every call. I think that’s a very bad attitude. I’m against it. I say what little I can against it any time I can. So, yes, there are things, a lot of things, I’d like to see changed.
What about the doctrine? What about the basic bedrock tenets of Mormonism? Joseph Smith and the gold plates?
If you’re a deep doubter that God is personal, all that’s irrelevant— this other stuff you’re talking about. I’m not an atheist in any sense. I think I’m a very reverential person. I find a lot of reverence in me, but as to describe God as just merciful, so concerned with human beings that he prescribes what they eat and wear, etc., etc.—no, I don’t. Intellectually, I simply am a doubter.
I like being attached to a community of believers, and I like being attached to Mormonism because it has its own history that comes out of the American West and out of the American frontier. If it’s no better than Methodism or Presbyterianism, it’s certainly no worse, and it’s [p.52]no crazier. Anybody who points out the lunacies of Mormonism, just let them identify their religion, and I’ll point out their lunacies. Human beings have their lunacies no matter which organization they’re in, and you just hope there’s some good people who try to rectify them in each organization. See, unlike anti-Mormons, who somehow think if you can stamp out this wicked thing called Mormonism, then you’re going to have this wonderful thing called born-again Christianity, which is just as loaded with irrationalities and craziness as the thing they’re trying to stamp out. I’m not anti-Mormon. I’d like to see Mormonism flourish. It’s got a wonderful history.
Most of the people I’ve interviewed are not anti-Mormon. They embrace a portion of it. I’ve had a growing feeling that one of the reasons we tend to embrace it and continue to embrace it even in the face of disbelief is because there’s this tribal hold on us that goes way back. I mean, the sacrifice of the ancestors and all of that.
You’re loyal to it. By damn, you’re loyal to it.
You bet. I’ve asked a number of people who don’t believe and who have even denigrated the church why they don’t ask to be excommunicated. And when we finally get down to it, it has to do with some very deep psychological ties to the past.
Sure, I wouldn’t want to be excommunicated.
If I were the president of the Mormon church, what would you tell me? What would you say to me if I were sitting here now and said, Brother Peterson …
I’d say, for hell sakes, reinstate Lavina.
Lavina Fielding Anderson?
Yes. It seems like I ought to ask for something bigger, shouldn’t I?
I focus on Lavina just because she’s my friend and I did a paper on her, read it at the Sunstone symposium and all. But it all seems so ironic that she really believes, and she’s excommunicated. And it hurts. I look at it and I think how ironic that I’m glad to be in and don’t want to be excommunicated. But somebody like her who really believes and is excommunicated. No, I think what has happened to her is the essence of what’s wrong with Mormonism. Its fear of history, its [p.53]fear of women. Maybe that would be the right thing to say to the president of the church—get yourself square with history and you’d get yourself square with the women if you’d reinstate Lavina. That’s what I’d say.
In your book The Backslider, guilt and shame cause terrible problems. You have a wonderful feel for that guilt and shame. Why does Mormonism seem to generate those feelings in some of us?
I feel that Mormonism is a very stern religion. Some of my good friends think that The Backslider isn’t even a Mormon book; it doesn’t describe Mormons. It describes some crazies, you see, who don’t belong to Mormonism. I think Richard Cracroft, a very good, close friend of mine, just feels that the people I’m talking about in The Backslider aren’t typical Mormons. I’m not addressing typical Mormons with that book. And I can’t argue with him, but I do see people in my ward who seem very happy, very complacent, and maybe guilt’s not a problem with them. But I know an awful lot of Mormons for whom guilt is a problem. And yes, I was addressing among other things the tendency of Mormons to make an excessive demand on themselves and on human nature. If Christianity has any genius, it’s in its acceptance of atoning sacrifice, for heck sakes. If there’s anything that’s positive about Christianity that would be it—that you’ve got a safety valve for human guilt in this atoning sacrifice of the deity. It seems to me that Mormons would blithely ignore that.
I suppose the roots of The Backslider lie a long way back. In my adulthood, but my young adulthood, I became aware of blood atonement in the Mormon background. Nothing I knew about as a child at all. I was shocked by those sermons that you read of Brigham Young and Jedediah Grant in the early publications. And the history of blood atonement which was almost always more a theory and a possibility than an actuality. It was as if everybody—particularly those leaders— was toying with the idea. Then maybe the Mountain Meadows Massacre drove Brigham Young back from it, if nothing else brought him to reality about what could be happening. But it resonated with something in my childhood—a sense—and I will pin it on my mother without the slightest bit of personal blame. But something I grew up wondering about is that my mother extolled the mercy of God, and yet I could see in her a profound doubt that she was saved. I saw in my [p.54]mother fear of damnation. I saw in my mother a guilt that hadn’t been purged. And she’s a terribly good person. I mean, anything you want to name by way of a Mormon virtue, my mother had it. And it just weighed on me quite early. Why is Mother afraid of God when she’s, as far as I can tell, doing everything God demands? But into her old age, my mother could be brought around to doubting her salvation— if you asked her the right questions. You know, if you said to her, “Is God merciful and forgiving?” “Oh, you bet.” She’d go off into a good positive line. But if you asked her about her own sins and led in that direction, pretty soon you could get her pondering whether she really is going to be saved, if she’s going to be in the highest heaven.
Is there an underlying self-esteem question about her own life, do you think?
There could be. She had self-doubts and all that, though she was an awfully sturdy woman. When my father died when I was nine, she took over as the bread winner and continued raising her four sons. Just a fine, stalwart human being. But it seemed to me that the sense of unpurged guilt and the doctrine of blood atonement that says that human beings are beyond the pale of Christ’s forgiveness … there are sins that it doesn’t have any effect on; you’ve got to pay for them by letting your own blood. That resonated with something in my childhood and focused on my mother. But not my mother alone. I mean, there’s plenty of others for the evidence. I wrote The Backslider very consciously as against that kind of guilt. And if most Mormons don’t have it, then that’s wonderful. You know, if they don’t need it, the book won’t mean anything to them. But basically all the book adds up to is quit harassing yourself over trifles, and if you’ve got a doctrine of a deity’s own sacrifice to save you, well, rely on it.
Do you think we have no mechanism for purging ourselves of this guilt? Catholics seem to be able to use confession effectively for that. Nonbelievers go to psychiatrists and psychologists. What about going to the bishop and …
Some do. We have evolved a confession system I think in my lifetime. When I was a boy and a very young man, it wasn’t thoroughly in place. I think a lot of young people now get into it. My daughter would tell me of her friends. You know, you trot in to your bishop over maybe things that don’t need to be confessed, but … I think it’s a very [p.55]common experience for Mormons, very active, good Mormons, to feel themselves different from all those others they’re sitting in church with. Even though they don’t know it, the others feel the same way; they feel different. Somehow they’re not measuring up. I do think there’s a perfectionist ethos among Mormons that’s beyond human nature, and you’re bound to feel guilty just because it’s beyond human nature.
What happens to Levi Peterson when he dies?
Well, I have my doubts, but in my essay “A Christian by Yearning,” I say why not buy into it? The hope. You see, you don’t lose anything by it. I suppose intellectually I’m a natural animal. To me, resurrection would be a stunning miracle. It seems to me that most of my fellow Mormons accept it as such an everyday fact that it’s hardly meaningful to them. And, of course, that’s what that essay was about. That was an interesting essay to write. I’d been asked to deliver it at Sunstone’s “Pillars of My Faith” session in the late 1980s sometime.
I’m very close friends with a number of believing Mormons. In fact, I’m in a writing group—have been from the early 1980s. The group first consisted of Bruce and Donna Jorgensen, and Dennis and Valerie Clark, and Linda and John Sillito(e). Bruce and Linda and Dennis and I would produce a piece of writing in turn each month. One of us had the turn, and then the others would come to the house for dinner and then discuss the piece of writing. In time, Linda evolved out of the church and out of the group—became uncomfortable with the group. John Bennion and Karla Bennion joined, and then Gene and Charlotte England joined. So now there’s ten of us—five couples—and we meet once a month and the writer in each of us has a critique every five months. Each of us must have something produced. Usually it’s the five writers, but once in a while one of the spouses will do something. The Sillito(e)s excepted—all the others are like Lavina. They’re inside people and they really believe. They’re not like me. They’re not in there only on their emotional connection; they’re in there on an intellectual connection. You know, they’re liberal Mormons, they really believe. And how am I going to write something that doesn’t get me in trouble with my good friends whom I’m so close to? How am I going to do something with this “Pillars of My Faith” assignment? And it worked out. The audience really liked it. There was long, loud ap-[p.56]plause, and I’ve had lots of compliments on it. But best of all, my close friends, they bought it, and it didn’t drill me out of their fellowship.
Another fact that I probably ought to mention is that the acceptance of my Mormon fiction by Mormons has had a big impact on me. I didn’t start writing Mormon materials thinking that it would somehow help certain Mormons remain Mormon, but that’s what happened. Fairly early, I realized people were coming up to me and saying to me, “What you’ve written makes it easier for me to be a Mormon.” That was rather astonishing to me. I guess it hasn’t been too hard to become a Christian by yearning or a Mormon by yearning, see. What I would desire to be substitutes for what I intellectually believe.