As an academic historian (in training), when I write about the dead for work or for the Juvenile Instructor, I don methodological goggles, like naturalism, skepticism, how-will-this-affect-my-careerism, and any-color-but-rose-ism. When finished, however, I remove those goggles, storing them safely on my utility belt for future use. Today, in this time of thanksgiving, I approach the blog and the dead we study with a set of lenses I normally use only in private or at church.
My saints didn’t wear halos—mostly because, absent a stronger revelatory basis, this Mormon doesn’t believe in them. Many of my saints were what their descendants call an “angel mother” or an “angel father,” which is apt enough as long as “angel” refers not to prissy nineteenth-century wimps but to beings whose typical introduction is, of necessity, “Fear Not.” Though lacking wings, my saints were known to wear smiles, hand-me-downs, feet braces, crosses, nametags, and homespun. There were instances when they did not wear shoes. Many wore scars. Perhaps most universally, they wore dust and mud: from a desert God told them to blossom; from roads connecting scattered saints, the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned; from fields when preaching without purse or scrip meant sleeping without bed or breakfast; from fields where they scratched out food; from fields where God told them to thrust in their sickle and do the cleaning later; from homes God told them to make holy. My saints didn’t wear halos: they’d have gotten in the way.
My saints didn’t just go marching in. They also marched out—to work, to preach, to war, to hoe the peas, to visit the neighbor, to vote; out when the entertainment turned bawdy; out when food ran scarce. Of course, “marching” might be touch dramatic, but for conversation let’s use it to cover the trudging, shuffling, sloshing, plodding, pedaling, limping, occasional running, sometimes crawling, wheel-chair-rolling, and other locomoting inherent in (semi-)ambulatory sainthood. They marched down to Post Offices to send word, down to meetings to receive instructions, and down to creeks to baptize and be baptized. They marched away from parents who rejected them with their new faith; away from money in all kinds of situations; away from spouses when the prophet called—with “away” pointing to a mission or to children with an absent missionary father. They marched across continents and oceans to bind themselves to God and to their families in holy temples. They marched back to less-than-eternal arrangements. In many cases they marched pregnant or nursing; in some cases they didn’t “march” at all, but laid flat on their backs with broken bodies, growing holy and standing as witnesses of God all the same. On occasion they marched right up to angry, obnoxious, or violent people and said words of peace or defiance or something they hadn’t thought of before they got there. Frequently, they marched back: back to say, “I’m sorry”; back to try again; back because that’s where the problems were; back because forward was no good leaving someone behind. They sometimes marched around egos, swamps, and stubborn animals; more often they marched around and around and around a town, a home, a ward, a branch to always arrive seemingly no further along. Most of all, however, they marched through. The way home is often in that direction, and there they went.
I give thanks to Father for the missionaries who brought my family the gospel and the church, for their families who gave it to them, for my family and fellow-saints who kept it in the intervening decades and then gave it to me, for my family and fellow-saints who keep it now. Oh how I hope to be in their number, when my saints go marching—at long last—in.
Only one footnote this time: almost all of the above come from the experiences of missionaries and church members in eastern Texas and southern Louisiana. Some describe non-Mormon saints, particularly Catholic priests and nuns. Most could have just as easily come from “Latter-day Saint Lives” and “Friends and Visitors to the Saints” in the Topical Guide at Ardis Parshall’s Keepapitchinin.org. “When the Saints Go Marching In” is an American spiritual turned jazz number turned folk song (see Wikipedia).