LOGAN William "Bert" Wilson tells a tale from the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Two missionaries who are spreading the gospel in an area hostile to Mormons find a house in which to spend the night. Before long, a mob carrying lanterns and pitchforks shows up, marches the elders to a wooded area and puts nooses around their necks.
Just as the mob is ready to string up the missionaries, the lanterns mysteriously go out. The missionaries throw off the nooses and hide in the forest.
Despite almost stepping on them, the mob members do not find them and the missionaries survive to carry on their work.
Then Wilson tells a modern version of the same story. Two missionaries are going door-to-door in a bad neighborhood when gang members with knives and chains accost them.
The elders jump in their car to escape, but the car won't start. They say a quick prayer as the gang members close in, and then they're able to start the car.
After they get away, the missionaries look under the hood to see if they can figure out why the car wouldn't start. To their surprise, they find the car's battery is missing.
Even though the stories may not be historically accurate, they are true in the sense that they describe the values and beliefs of LDS culture, said Wilson, a professor emeritus from Utah State and Brigham Young universities who specializes in folklore. Speaking recently to an estimated 800 people at the Logan LDS Tabernacle, Wilson said such folktales affirm beliefs that people doing the Lord's work receive divine protection.
"It's a rhetorical strategy designed to persuade the audience to accept a certain point of view or to follow a certain course of action," Wilson said.
In another tale, a husband and wife leave their 4-year-old daughter with a baby sitter while they are being baptized for the dead at a temple. (Latter-day Saints perform vicarious baptisms for the dead in their temples with the belief that such ordinances are required for exaltation in heaven after death.) The wife has a bad feeling, and she and her husband rush home to find an ambulance and police car in their driveway. The crying baby sitter tells them their daughter disappeared and her doll was found next to a nearby stream. But the mother notices wet footprints on the stairs, follows them to the girl's bedroom and finds the child asleep in a closet.
The girl says she was pulled from the stream by an elderly lady dressed in white who gave her a note with her name on it. The name on the note is the name of a dead woman for whom her mother had performed a proxy baptism.
Wilson said the story not only fortifies the belief that the Lord will protect the righteous, but it also emphasizes the LDS belief in strong families and inspires members to perform genealogical research.
"It encourages them to persist in the search for their ancestral roots," Wilson said. "It testifies to the validity of temple ordinances. It suggests God is a caring God who will assist them in a time of need."
But not all LDS folklore reinforces positive attitudes, Wilson said. Before a spring general conference in 1970, rumors swirled about blacks selling candy laced with ground glass to LDS children, plotting to blow up a reservoir near Salt Lake City and amassing to storm the temple.
Many Mormons armed themselves, but none of their fears was realized.
Wilson said the rumors demonstrated how commonly held beliefs influence people's lives. Blacks could not become full members of the LDS priesthood until 1978.
"In other words, what's in a culture will also be in its folklore," Wilson said. "It mirrors the culture of people who possess it."
Although the tales of divine intervention are popular, Wilson said they often misrepresent the value that is the heart of Mormonism service to others.
"While it is true that Mormons seek God's help in personal matters, their religion itself is primarily an other-centered religion," he said.
Latter-day Saints should pay more attention to tales of everyday kindness, Wilson said. He said even more pedestrian stories, like one about a financially strapped church member in Finland who bicycled across town to shovel snow from an elderly woman's walkway, guide behavior.
"Every telling of a story, whether supernatural or not, is in some way an exercise in behavior modification," Wilson said.
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Wilson's speech, titled "What's True in Mormon Folklore? The Contribution of Folklore to Mormon Studies," was the 13th annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture. Held in the fall, the Arrington lectures are presented by Utah State University's Special Collections and Archives in conjunction with the Leonard J. Arrington Foundation.
Arrington was a renowned scholar of the American West who donated his personal and historical collection to USU and asked the university to create a lecture series on LDS history. He died in 1999.