Mormonism and Suffering

By August 17, 2012

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.

Article filed under Christian History Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. This is almost exactly the basic content of my current doctoral research. Thanks for posting!

    Comment by Adamjpowell — August 17, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  2. This is a really thought-provoking post, Pete. Thank you.

    The thing that immediately strikes me is the emphasis in the traditions you discuss not just on suffering, but on collective or communal suffering. The Israelites suffered enslavement and the wanderings of the Exodus as a people; the Jews to whom Jesus ministered suffered as a nation under Roman occupation, and early Christians suffered as a religious community under legal persecution; and the Mormons suffered as a community through myriad expulsions and finally the hard years of building a community in the desert.

    When I read your examples of Judaism and Christianity as communities born in suffering, I immediately started trying to plug Eastern traditions in as well… what came to mind was Buddhism, in which the Buddha was inspired to seek a different religious truth by witnessing individual suffering. And, to my mind, he came to an understanding of the nature of human life and of the world that places individual suffering at the very heart of human experience and the human religious project.

    So this leads me to wonder… How does the individual’s suffering, apart from the larger community, fit in to Mormon theology and the Mormon experience?

    Comment by Cristine — August 17, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  3. Suffering offers the opportunity and motivation to change so many things are born of suffering. But non-physical suffering is optional, it is caused by clinging to the way we want things to be instead of accepting how things are. As soon as we accept them the non-physical suffering stops!

    Comment by Howard — August 17, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  4. Nice post, Pete. I tried to get at some of these issues in my MA thesis on the memory of persecution, although primarily from a historical/socio-political angle rather than theological or religious studies. Sam Brown’s recent book on the early Mormon conquest of death also addresses these questions both historically and theologically. Check out this post and the comments:

    Comment by David G. — August 17, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  5. This is an interesting thesis. Do you remember what he said about Islam? I can’t think of how Islam began in suffering. Muhammad was an orphan, true, and the early convicts were kicked out of Mecca, but it is hard to say that these events are what gave Islam its soil to sprout from.

    In any case, this is an interesting point on Mormonism.

    Comment by DavidF — August 17, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

  6. Good stuff, Pete, and a lot to think about here. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — August 17, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  7. Very interesting! I’m going to have to go look for Barlow’s article now.

    Comment by Saskia — August 18, 2012 @ 3:20 am

  8. Cristine,

    That is a very interesting question, and one to which I will need to give thought. You also bring up an interesting distinction of their being suffering as a people and suffering of the individual. I think that, in part, an answer may be that suffering of the individual is intrinsic to human experience (we all experience it to one degree or another just by living). Mormon theology allows its believers to reinterpret their own suffering and give added meaning to it. Dave G.’s link that he posted talks about this. Also, Dave G, wrote an article about Parley P. Pratt and martyrology that seems relevant to this conversation. Suffering in the name of God can be seen as holy and commendable.

    David F.,

    David, I thought about mentioning Islam, but I didn’t want to make the thing too long. I am no expert on Islam, but from what I recall learning the society in which Muhammad came from had some serious problems. There had been centuries brutal endemic war. It is clear that Muhammad was searching for unity between rivaling factions. Also, the first years of Islam, were very bloody ones for Muhammad’s followers.

    Thanks everyone else for your comments!

    Comment by Pete Wosnik — August 18, 2012 @ 6:40 pm


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