This weekend at the University of Utah was the Sunstone Symposium, an annual multi-day conference geared toward Mormon and Mormon-related intellectualism. The bulk of the crowd consists of liberal and/or “fringe” Mormons. There are also many ex-Mormons who retain an interest in Mormonism, and then there are those who belong to groups (or have come out of groups) that also trace their lineage, in some way or another, to Joseph Smith. (Many of these people call themselves “Mormon” but are not members of the mainstream LDS Church headquartered in Salt Lake City, UT. While I believe they have every right to use the term “Mormon,” I make a distinction here purely for convenience’s sake—because nothing says convenience quite like a lengthy parenthetical aside.)
My first time attending Sunstone was two years ago. I couldn’t go last year because I was in Nauvoo, but this year afforded me another opportunity to be a part of the Sunstone extravaganza. Of course, I’ve gone through some big changes since I last attended. This year, I went as an ex-Mormon. As such, I was interested in far fewer sessions. I don’t really need to attend a session on how doubt can be a healthy thing and has its place within the LDS Church when I myself am no longer a part of the LDS Church and no longer feel a need to come to terms with how much (or how little) I doubt. But the theme of this year’s symposium was “Many Mormonisms and the Mormon Movement.” There was a conscious effort to bring a wider range of “Mormon” voices to the conference, and that resulted in many polygamous sects being represented (sometimes for good and sometimes for ill). My interest in polygamy has increased much over the last while (though I have no interest in practicing polygamy myself, I assure you), so I ended up attending only one Sunstone session that was not polygamy-based. The very first session I attended this year featured a panel of women who currently live in polygamist families. Edith Barlow and Elsie Blackmore are the 13th and 25th wife, respectively, of Winston Blackmore. Also on the panel were Elise Barlow, Hanna Blackmore, and Dollie Blackmore, three of Winston’s 145 biological children. (That’s not a typo. He has 145 biological children.) They spoke highly of their experiences within a polygamous family and culture and of the joy that it brings them. They were articulate and funny. I very much appreciated and enjoyed hearing from them, and I felt nothing but good will toward them. Then, as a kind of afterthought, I remembered some of the ideas that weren’t being expressed but are pretty much guaranteed to be a part of their polygamous culture—unhealthy ideas and attitudes about different races, for example. That made me sad.
Brady Williams, of TLC’s My Five Wives, was also at Sunstone. (So were his wives, but they didn’t want to be on the stage, having “had enough of the spotlight,” according to Brady.) He argued in defense of “progressive polygamy,” which he deemed “feminism’s strangest bedfellow.” His family left the Apostolic United Brethren years ago and now practices polygamy for reasons that have nothing to do with religious beliefs. It is simply the structure of the family they have created together, that they love, and that they want to keep intact (as they should). Brady defends a view that is very forward-thinking, wherein a marriage system can remain closed but accommodate any variety and number of parties to that marriage: a man and five women, two men and a woman, five women and two men, three women without a man at all, etc. The key is that each party to the marriage has an equal say as to whom the marriage will include, and each party’s voice must be heard. That’s an oversimplified retelling of his view, but it was certainly interesting. I see no blatant logical or ethical flaws in his position, though I question how emotionally healthy it would be for at least most people to have more than one (concurrent) spouse.
Most of the sessions I attended were not friendly toward polygamy. Most presenters spoke of it as inherently damaging and problematic, with several of them being former members of polygamist groups. What fascinated me above all else was hearing these former members of fundamentalist Mormon sects describe mentalities that are oh-so-familiar to me because of my LDS background and upbringing. These are mentalities that I have long abandoned, and yet examining them within the framework of systems that I believe are clearly morally corrupt and/or psychologically unhealthy made it all the more obvious to me that these ways of thinking—no matter who adopts them—are just plain batshit crazy (to use the phrase I most want to use, if I may be so frank). Here is just a sample of the kinds of thinking I heard: Persecution is “proof” that you belong to the one true church, because that’s who Satan would want to target and hinder the progression of. If you find yourself seriously doubting or questioning what a church leader has taught or something that you read in the scriptures, Satan is putting those thoughts into your head. Because of his grasp on the world at large, Satan is also the author and perpetrator of laws that go against God’s will, prevent the building up of God’s kingdom on the earth, and otherwise corrupt society—which, in this case, includes anti-polygamy laws and child labor laws. Stories that reflect poorly on church leadership (past or present) are lies made up by those outside of the church who are intent on destroying it and thwarting God’s work. These are shaming, paranoia-inducing, critical-thinking-discouraging, coercive, manipulative, and otherwise controlling mentalities—and every single one of them is very familiar to me as someone who was born and raised in the LDS Church.
On Sunday, Community of Christ held “Sunstone Sunday” to finish off the Sunstone weekend. Community of Christ is one of the sponsors of the Sunstone Symposium, so a special announcement is made inviting people to attend our church services the day after the official symposium concludes. We had a ton of visitors, which was cool. I met some new people, and they all seemed great. Community of Christ seems to attract the cream of the crop, I have to admit. But not all of the guests were new to Community of Christ. Lachlan Mackay, my boss during my time in Nauvoo, came out for Sunstone and taught our Sunday School class. He explored the question of how it is that, given Mormonism’s militant beginnings, the RLDS Church / Community of Christ could nevertheless develop into a “peace church.” Then, during the worship service, Toronto-based John Hamer delivered the sermon. Hamer’s theme, taken from Luke 12:13–21, was “Be Rich Toward God.” It was an awesome service all around.
And now for some photos from my Sunstone adventures:
This is probably my very favorite souvenir of Sunstone 2016, the work of a gentleman by the name of Matt Page. (He also dressed as Brigham Young and was a popular photo-op among Sunstone guests.)
Many people aren't aware that Brigham Young's son regularly performed in drag. This is a cardboard cutout of a photo of him in character. And no, this isn't a joke.
Lately, I've been thinking of taking up that quaint old habit of reading books again. I got this from the discount / clearance / bargain bin table at Sunstone and feel eager to read it.
Brady Williams and his wives are bookended by Mica McGriggs (moderator) and Lindsay Hansen Park (one of the top people at Sunstone but also famous for her Year of Polygamy podcast series, which is well worth listening to ... though it might make you both sick and sad).
A could-be-better photo of D. Michael Quinn and John Nielsen, who presented at a session entitled "Who Holds the Keys?: FLDS Perspectives on Authority." Did you know that, in the FLDS community, the Celestial Kingdom is divided into three levels reserved for those whose marriages consist of 3 wives, 5 wives, and 7+ wives, respectively? That was new to me! Apparently, it all ties back to Freemasonry and Brigham Young, like so much of polygamist culture and belief does (though not the actual polygamy part, funny enough).
Being goofy in my souvenir Infants on Thrones t-shirt. Now that I've left the LDS Church behind, Infants on Thrones is the only podcast I listen to with great regularity. It's irreverent, often hilarious, and features among its pantheon of hosts none other than the aforementioned John Hamer.
Lach Mackay and I pose with Emma Smith and Joseph Smith III at the Salt Lake City Community of Christ on Sunday, July 31st. I got somewhere between zero and two photos with Lach while working in Nauvoo, but I'm not sure any of them were just the two of us. This was as close as I could get. For whatever reason, cardboard cut-outs are all the rage lately.