We have been laughing at Grandpa Tony for years.
Shortly after he joined the LDS Church, he was called upon by the bishop to say the closing prayer in sacrament meeting. After the rest hymn, where he had apparently been resting, his wife nudged him to wake him up from dozing. He stood up, walked to the pulpit and promptly ended the meeting.
When my wife tells this story, we don’t know whether his ending the meeting before its time was funnier or if the addition of the not-ready-for-Primary expletive he used that carried over the microphone when the bishop told him the meeting wasn’t over.
When family life gets difficult and borders on unbearable, someone pulls out this story, dusts it off and lightens the moment. Somehow lighter hearts make it easier for us to deal with the day-to-day. A spoonful of levity has helped a whole lot of medicine go down.
These aren’t just happy tales or legends for my Mormon family. When finishing a recollection, no one in my family smiles and says, “Oh, how cute.” They are rough, unsophisticated and are glue that holds us together through disagreements, discord and sometimes death. Often my dealing-with-family batteries have been recharged by a retold family moment or a brand new horrifying one. They bring us together even when it's difficult to be in the same room together.
Humor then becomes the bridge that spans the yawning chasm between us.
The ability to laugh gives my family the ability to rise above any situation, even if it is only for long enough to catch our collective breath. Humor straightens the clutter of our minds and cleans the whiteboard. In a sense, humor is less the use of jokes and more the mastering of the art of living, even in the kind of “dire circumstances” mentioned by Victor L. Frankl in “Man’s Search For Meaning.” And Mormons know dire.
Humor wafts into the leadership of the LDS Church from the collection of Saints where it is bottled, polished and presented anew. Because the hierarchy of the LDS Church is selected from the general membership, good humor was bound to infiltrate.
Elder J. Golden Kimball (1853-1938) of the Seventy has been regarded as the resident funny guy of the church. In the years since his death, "Uncle Golden" has achieved celebrated character status among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comparable to way to the relationship Will Rogers had to the American public in “Only in Oklahoma: Rogers Statue Unveiling Filled U.S. Capitol.” Kimball’s brand of folksy observational humor is still cherished by many in the church, but his was hardly the first.
Humor through hardship was often achieved with plain tongue in cheek by Joseph Smith Jr. The prophet responded to both friend and foe in the lean years in Illinois: "My general invitation is, let all that will, come, and partake of the poverty of Nauvoo freely,” he said in response J.C. Bennett in the early days of the church.
This self-deprecation but never effacing or brittle sentiment continued in both substance and style with President David O. McKay and his comment in the April 1962 general conference: “A dog's got to have a few fleas or he wouldn't know he was a dog.”
Mormon leaders often use subtle amusement to reflect on adversity, which can be then lightened — with humor.
Adversity is at the root of Mormonism. We are proud of our ancestors who overcame misfortune. Even when confronted with harsh conditions, Brigham Young encouraged his people to “make the devil mad” by eliminating the sad countenance (Brigham Young Journal of Discourses, 4:299).
Mormons do not get together to “solemn-a-cate” (a Grandpa Tony word). In fact, many gatherings can be identified as being uniquely Mormon because of two things: plenty of food and laughter.
General authorities of the LDS Church have always encouraged members to be joyful. When dealing with suffering Elder Kimball teased, “When I was sick, I read (a positive attitude book) from lid to lid, and I went trotting around, saying: ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ Every morning when I got up I was worse and worse” (General conference, April 1926).
After recovering from surgery on his vocal cords, President Spencer W. Kimball said in an Arizona conference, "I went away to the East and while I was there I fell among thieves and cutthroats. They cut my throat and stole my voice” (BYU Studies, “Spencer W. Kimball).
Even in Mormon funerals, humor is the binding that keeps the book of a life together, with laughter through tears being common. At the last LDS funeral I attended, the officers of our military folded the flag and presented it to the widow. After marching to their vehicle, through an undiscovered open window they casually confirmed in the reverberating and reverent silence that the widow of the decorated deceased was “hot.” The Mormon widow, who was my friend, was not beyond a smile.
Levity in Mormonland can be the great equalizer, can create a learning situation out of painful moments and can lighten hearts weighted with weariness. My Mormon family has grown to include my neighborhood and my local ward. My community is now over 14 million strong, and sometimes a lesson in cheerfulness helps me affirm my faith in humanity.
President Brigham Young stated soberly, “Study … and you will be able to control your minds. And when you come to meeting, bring your minds with you” (Journal of Discources, 8:125).
Having and maintaining a sense of humor in church participation is becoming mandatory for my Mormon family. Humor will get me through Sunday when the primary sings to the congregation and mothers wave back to their waving children.
I remember my own mother in a lovely inflexible woolen suit lifting both hands above her head to lead the congregation in the opening hymn while her family seated below bowed their heads. To this day we are grateful today that she always insisted on wearing a full slip.
Davison Cheney humorously blogs davisoncheney.blogspot.com.