By Pete Wosnik
Last fall I took a class from Dr. Philip Barlow at USU called Religion, Evil, and Human Suffering. This was really big class, not in terms of the amount of students who took it, but rather in its subject matter as well as its breadth. Mormonism was only allotted a few precious class hours, but the class gave me an added appreciation for Mormon theological contributions to the larger world. Something I quickly learned in the course was that all religious traditions have grappled with the problems of pain, suffering, and evil; indeed, most religions are born in such conditions.
The class operated under this basic assumption that religions germinate in the depths of human suffering. Almost every major monotheistic tradition can be traced back to some sort of hardship. The most prominent examples, of course, would be Judaism and Christianity. Judaism’s story probably begins long after the book of Genesis, and most likely with the oral history behind the text of Exodus where we find a people fettered in slavery. In the Hebrew narrative, out of such suffering came divine intervention and liberation from bondage. Christianity, like its predecessor, also began in suffering. Many would argue that Christianity began at the cross. Like many radicals and messianic figures before and after him, Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Roman government. To his followers, Jesus was a beloved teacher and a bringer of truth, yet he was tortured and killed. Considering the beginnings of other religions, this assumption seems to be a reasonable one.
Mormonism, too, one could argue, follows this paradigm. Some of Dr. Barlow’s latest contributions to Mormon history seem influenced by the “suffering thesis.” In his article (from the last issue of the JMH), To Mend A Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project, Barlow argues that Joseph Smith inherited a fractured reality that he spent his life trying to mend. Smith sought an “at/one/ment” for the relationships and institutions that he saw that had splintered. Barlow quotes Ralph Waldo Emmerson, as saying that the time in which Smith lived was “the age of severance.” Through this lens, in what he calls his “humpty Dumpty thesis,” Barlow looks at concepts of authority, restoration, and polygamy. In my estimation, Barlow offers a fresh perspective on the beginnings of Mormonism.
In additional to Smith’s experiences, the early Mormon people suffered as well. Almost immediately after Mormonism was established, it was met with intense opposition and even violence. Some scholars maintain that Mormonism has been one of the most persecuted of American religions. By the time the largest factions of saints (those following Brigham Young) reached what would be Utah, those saints had endured a great deal and those first years settling the Salt Lake Valley marked, for what would be for many, more hard years to come. My astute friend, Chase Kirkham, wrote his Master’s thesis on this subject at Utah State entitled: “’Worlds Without End:’ The Cosmological Theodicy of Brigham Young.” Kirkham’s work looks at Brigham Young’s theological teachings as being a kind of theodicy that attempted to reconcile the saints apparent suffering and hardships with a just and loving God: “In order to justify an omnipotent God’s allowance of Mormon suffering and persecution, Young framed God and the human experience within a cosmology. He taught that humans exist with the express purpose of accumulating light and truth. This accumulation would continue after death throughout eternity. Young taught that an ineluctable factor in this progression was suffering and for this reason. Young condoned God’s allowance of Mormon hardship.” Kirkham, does a good job showing how Young’s theological teaching had practical implications in the lives of the saints as well.
I could provide more examples and parallels between suffering and religious development within Mormonism, but I thought this would give just a few examples of what for me has been a very interesting and insightful avenue of thought.