Mormon Radicals and Kinship, Part I: Genealogy

By Tristan Call and Katy Savage

Where I began:

I grew up not caring much about genealogy, maybe bucking the uniquely Mormon distinction of being the only Christian cult with a real tradition of ancestor worship. As a kid, it seemed to me that old people were pretty dull anyway, and long-dead old people, even if they were the source of my last name and my easily-sunburned skin pigment, were even more so.

It may have started with apathy, but as I got older I took it further: for most of my adolescence, I was actually against family. Not just dead family, or even boring family, for that matter. I was even against family that was a lot of fun, family that took care of me when I was sick. I was against it because family seemed like an excuse to not care about strangers, and keep your concern, empathy, and impulse for sharing neatly packaged up in a single-family home with soundproofed walls and very, very good fences.

So when I say I have started to believe in ancestors, I hope that your eyebrows twitch and you feel yourself getting ready to catch me, triumphantly, in a contradiction. But, this year, my twenty-third, I have started getting really, really into genealogy.

Before I mislead too much, I should clarify that this doesn’t mean I’m spending my nights out at the family history library or updating my grandmother’s Personal Ancestral File with its outrageous claims to direct descent from every royal throne in Europe. But I don’t mean something totally different either, and ultimately it’s coming around much closer to traditional genealogy than I ever expected:

In the Spring of 2008, I started working on a history of student activism at BYU, collecting journal entries and old emails and files tucked away in boxes in professors’ offices, and after a few weeks I found my grand prize: the complete archive of VOICE, the feminist club that launched at BYU in 1991 by posting thousands of fliers around Provo informing the males of the city that due to recent sexual assaults men were not allowed to walk unaccompanied on BYU campus between 10 PM and 6 PM. The idea had begun like this: the BYU Daily Universe had printed an editorial after a rape attempt on Maeser Hill that began, “Women: Don’t Walk Alone At Night”. Some feminist students suggested different advice: “Men, Don’t Try to Bash in Women’s Heads With Rocks”. Realizing that their version was better, they decided to launch an anti-violence campaign that, within weeks, was in hundreds of newspapers nationwide, on the Montel Williams show, Rush Limbaugh, every BYU newspaper and magazine, and, finally, on the to-do list of BYU administrators. The archive that I found detailed their activities for the next 10 years, surviving the firing of several of their club’s advisors, official probations, banning several of the club’s activities, and eventually fading as their core of activists graduated and no professors were willing to sign their accreditation applications for fear of losing their jobs.

As I read that archive, it became clear that it had been painstakingly compiled, hundreds and hundreds of pages, for someone to come along and find it one day in the future. And as I read their diaries, and their stories of surviving sexual violence, leading Take Back the Night marches of hundreds of people through the midnight streets of Provo, fighting the BYU bureaucracy that tried to corral them into private discussions and quiet advocacy, I started to feel a powerful sense of sisterhood with the women that had struggled at BYU a decade before I arrived there. They were hosting those same underground discussions on gay rights and radical eco-feminist Mormonism that me and my friends would organize a decade later, and it is a damn shame that it took this long for me to learn about them.

Where I think this can take us:

Genealogy has (almost) always been a pillar of Mormon theology. Because most Mormons understand themselves as part of infinitely-long lineages stretching from earliest ancestor to never-ending eventual descendants, genealogy is the concept that most concretely places Mormons in reality, answering the questions “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” And the ritual practices that reinforce genealogical identity –temple work that includes proxy baptisms, proxy marriages, sealings, and (in some cases) actual contact with dead ancestors– require Mormons to spend a lot of time researching who their ancestors were, when and how they lived, and what blessings, liabilities, and obligations come along with being materially and historically situated as descendants of particular people.

Because Mormon genealogy is most often explained through an appeal to Malachi 4:6 –that same “he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers”– laying claim to one’s family traditions is explicitly a conversion experience, one that can happen quickly, through some form of direct visitation, or gradually, through reading about them in journals and historical records and discovering an appreciation for their lives. At the same time, though, genealogy allows a sense of deep, enduring continuity. That continuity is crucial when it seems like everything else is in flux. When Mormons begin to radicalize , they often start voting for different candidates, reading different publications, trusting different religious leaders, following different rules, and getting concerned family letters about how ‘we don’t even know who you are anymore.’ Under those stresses, Mormons feel that they have to either ‘remain Mormon’ (maintaining obedience to traditional power and re-enforcing rigid distinctions between “members” and “non-members”) or they have to ‘leave the church’ (a highly ceremonialized departure narrative emphasizing loss and exile from a larger, unified, and disapproving body of the faithful).

Through genealogical thinking, some Mormons pioneer a third option. Researching church history, they uncover moments in their religious lineage when Mormons of conscience did oppose war, violate national borders, denounce capitalist alienation, defend political autonomy, or hold land communally (this was basically true during all of the nineteenth century). In my case, helping work out the Mormon Worker’s plans to create an organic urban farm in northern Utah coincided with the discovery that some of the very same pieces of land we were considering settling on had been homesteaded by my great-grandparents. As the early Mormon and the Mormon Worker versions of homesteading meet, I face the deeply satisfying possibility of being connected to my lineage through common projects and (mutual?) respect, and not just through blood. While our version of genealogy may be different from what Mormons tend to first think of, we still hold deep beliefs in the interconnectedness of our moral behavior and that of our ancestors and descendants. Radical Mormons rehabilitate and ‘socialize’ what had previously been just an individualized doctrine of repentance and atonement by applying restorative justice to our entire lineage, spiritual or literal. Framing our desires for revolution as a dedication to communal repentance and genealogy makes the otherwise daunting task of remaining among ‘our people’ and working for justice within the belly of empire seem both obligatory and touchingly personal.

As I’ve gone through this process myself (and here I’m thinking particularly of my sisters in VOICE) I have started to understand that my ancestors aren’t just those people whose genetics I share, but the people who tried to do what I try to do, and the people that have the same fears and hopes for justice that keep me awake today. And, let’s not fool ourselves: most of those ancestors failed. We grow up hearing stories of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Joseph Smith or Harriet Tubman or Jesus as if they won, but if that’s true (and in some cases, I hope it is), we still can’t get around the fact that they were murdered and imprisoned and beaten by police and expelled and shamed and, by and large, society trundled on. But winning isn’t what genealogy is about for me anymore. It’s about sharing the same pain that our sisters did before us, and fighting the battles that they began. I’m beginning to believe that it’s about learning from them, and sometimes I feel silly for saying it but I don’t know how it could be better described than trying to “turn the hearts of the children to their fathers.”