Essays on Contemporary Mormon ThoughtThe Wilderness of Faith:
Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought
Edited by John Sillito

The Wilderness of Faith brings together the observations of some of contemporary Mormonism’s most provocative thinkers. The fifteen contributors explore challenges to faith in a period of change and growth and seek to balance the conflicting demands of conformity and individuality. They attempt to make contemporary life meaningful without discarding the past.

Among the selections are the following essays: “The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience” by Lavina Fielding Anderson; “How Much Tolerance Can We Tolerate?” By Arthur R. Bassett; “Enlarging the Mormon Vision of Christian Ethics” by L. Jackson Newell; “The Ghost of the Pioneer Woman” by Linda Sillitoe; “The Phenomenon of the Closet Doubter” by D. Jeff Burton; “A Christian by Yearning” by Levi S. Peterson; and “Another Kind of Faith” by Irene M. Bates.

“Drawing upon their Mormon traditions and amplifying them in terms of contemporary realities, the contributors to this book address some of the most central concerns of our time regardless of one’s religious heritage. Some of the essays are very personal, exploring questions ranging from the loss of a child to the exercise of personal, spiritual gifts. Others examine developments within Mormon culture from the impact of bureaucracy to Mormonism’s relationship to the larger society.” —John Sillito

about the editor: John Sillito, a graduate of the University of Utah, is Assistant Professor of Libraries at Weber State University. Previously he served as an archivist at the Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is co-editor of Letters from Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and two of their three children.

title page
The Wilderness of Faith:
Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought
Edited by John Sillito
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page
For B. F. Cummings III
Cover illustration: March 21 by Marilyn Miller, 1988, serigraph
Cover design: Julie Easton
∞ Printed on acid free paper
© 1991 by Signature Books, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Wilderness of faith: essays on contemporary Mormon thought / edited by John Sillito. p. cm.
1. Mormon Church—Doctrines. 2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Doctrines.
I. Sillito, John R.
BX8637.W65 1990 289.3’32–dc20 90-20514
ISBN 1-56085-009-4

Introduction [see below]
01 – Restoring the Church: Zion in the Nineteenth and Twenty-first Centuries
02 – The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience
03 – The Two Churches of Mormonism
04 – The Better for My Foes: The Role of Opposition
05 – How Much Tolerance Can We Tolerate?
06 – Some Reflections on the Mormon Identity Crisis
07 – The Ghost of the Pioneer Woman
08 – The Phenomenon of the Closet Doubter
09 – Woman As Healer in the Modern Church
10 – At Home at Sea: Confessions of a Cultural Mormon
11 – Another Kind of Faith
12 – A Christian by Yearning
13 – Respite for a Heritic: Jesus Christ and the Language of Desire
14 – Enlarging the Mormon vision of Christian Ethics
15 – “In Jeopardy Every Hour”
Epilogue: “The Power of Faith”

Editor’s Introduction

[p.vii]The autonomy of conscience must be asserted. It is not a fragment of divinity, an outpost of God or anything foreign to the nature of the individual himself. It is the implement of free agency, and exists in its own right.… A well structured conscience acts independently even when it assents and agrees.

In the growth of the mind, the most precious growth is that of conscience, the decision-making structure of our being. Eternal progress is … the continuous process of expanding capacity to make moral judgments.
— B. F. Cummings III (The Eternal Individual Self [Salt Lake City, 1968], 123-24)

I first encountered the teachings of Benjamin F. Cummings as a young convert to Mormonism, when he was my Sunday school teacher in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Ward. I didn’t realize then that this elderly and gentle man was a noted linguist, teacher, and philosopher—that knowledge came later. And while his views on Mormon theology were far more advanced than my own, I learned two important lessons from him: the necessity of always seeking for additional insight and the legitimacy of questioning from within the fold.

This collection of essays is concerned with the demands of faith in a period of great change. The majority were written during the decade of the 1980s, a time when Mormons seemed particularly [p.viii] challenged to make sense of their faith in the light of developments within and without the church. The contributors represent some of the most thoughtful and perceptive of a particularly talented generation of Mormon thinkers. Drawing upon their traditions and amplifying them in terms of contemporary realities, the contributors to this book address many of the most central concerns of our time. Some of the essays are very personal, exploring questions ranging from the loss of a child to the exercise of personal spiritual gifts. Others examine developments within Mormon culture from the impact of bureaucracy to Mormonism’s relationship to the larger society.

All the essays are written from within the Mormon world view which, as Ed Firmage notes, recognizes that “a religious community must also respect individuals even as it preserves core beliefs of the community.” Central to these essays is the concept articulated by Lavina Fielding Anderson of “mature obedience.” As Anderson observes, such obedience is “motivated by love not fear. It has to be deeply rooted in a testimony of the redemptive sacrifice of the Savior … It is not an exchange of responsibilities and duties but the interplay, complexity, and richness of an ongoing intimate powerful relationship.”

Also central is the notion that contemporary Mormonism needs a loyal opposition within its ranks. As Elouise Bell observes: “The concept of valued opposition is not, I fear, very well understood in Mormon culture. And without it we cause ourselves and others needless grief and may actually hinder what we would advance.”

Unfortunately, Bell is right and one goal of this book is to make better known the value of such a loyal opposition in the church. Too often we see such individuals as unthinking critics or dissenters who seek only to tear down. Dissent is not a bad word nor a negative concept. Indeed I think the opposite is true. I have long admired Norman Thomas, the Presbyterian minister who became the leader of the Socialist party and its six-time candidate for president. In his book Great Dissenters (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), he wrote: “The secret of a good life is to have the right loyalties and to hold them in the right scale of values. The value of dissent and dissenters is to make us reappraise those values with supreme concern for the truth” (13).

[p.ix] Of course dissent per se is not necessarily a virtue. But neither is conformity, complacency, or apathy. We live in a society of conservatism and affluence that fosters a generally suspicious view of dissenters within our ranks be that the church or the body politic. At the same time those of us who are committed to questioning and dialogue must have tolerance for the views of others. Too often I forget something Frank C. Robertson, the Mormon western writer, wrote in his autobiography A Ram in the Thicket (New York: Hastings House, 1959). Quoting his “preacher grandfather” who cautioned that “orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy is your doxy,” Robertson observed that before we criticize others for their opinions we should remember that “where there is no heresy, there is no liberty” (272).

In the 1960s we used to say, “If you aren’t part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.” The essays in this book are meant to advance solutions, not make problems. I like to think they represent the views of the very best of today’s loyal opposition—though not everyone whose work is included here might accept that label. On balance, these essayists—writing from various realms of commitment—embody the autonomy of conscience and the capacity to make moral judgements that B. F. Cummings so eloquently advocated.

I appreciate the following publications for permission to reproduce, sometimes in different form, the selections contained herein: to Sunstone for the essays of Arthur R. Bassett, Irene M. Bates, Elouise M. Bell, D. Jeff Burton, Richard J. Cummings, Edwin B. Firmage, Scott G. Kenney, L. Jackson Newell, Levi S. Peterson, and Donlu D. Thayer; and to Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought for the essays of Lavina Fielding Anderson, Betina Lindsey, and Susan B. Taber. Two essays—”Two Churches of Mormonism,” by Ron Molen, and “The Ghost of the Pioneer Woman,” by Linda Sillitoe—are published here for the first time. In addition, I appreciate the support of the staff of Signature Books whose diligent work has guaranteed that the essays contained in this book will be made available to a wider audience.[p.1]