I am blessed to live in “convert land.” Less than 1 percent of the population of my home state, Alabama, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because of the small numbers, my chosen religion exercises little influence over my community’s environment.
Approximately 90 percent of the members in my Mormon ward are converts, and a high proportion of those are relatively recent converts. In most respects, our religious experiences, internal and external to the ward, would have more in common with an LDS congregation in 1840 Nauvoo, Ill., than with an LDS congregation in 2011 Provo, Utah. It is a unique situation.
The environment can often be religiously antagonistic, causing many of the Mormon faith to maintain a defensive posture 24/7. It can range from an unexpected question in the form of a humorous question from a co-worker like, “Do Mormons eat hot dogs?” to depictions of being strange and cultic. These depictions tend to flourish when the general population has never personally known a Mormon, attended a Mormon meeting or read anything favorable relating to the LDS Church.
Or it can be more direct and frontal — even vicious, such as misleading anti-Mormon seminars sponsored by our next-door neighbor’s Protestant church.
I have observed that as Latter-day Saints daily live as Jesus Christ and his modern prophets and apostles have taught us, the antagonism softens over time. We find more favorable commentary in the circulating literature, like the evangelical magazine my educated, financially successful, and I believe well-meaning, banker friend placed in my hand. My friend requested that I give him my “take” on the article after I had an opportunity to read it.
The theme of the article was a common one, a type of “back-handed compliment” as my mama was apt to call such. In a condensed form, the article said that Mormons are all wrong about the history of Christianity and Mormons are all wrong about Christian doctrines. Nevertheless, Mormons on the whole display a high degree of Christian virtue in the way they live their misinformed lives. They are known for their chastity, morality, family solidarity, honesty, industry, health consciousness, humanitarian service, patriotism, educational achievement and evangelism for their cause.
After reading the article, I pondered the response I might provide my banker friend. I thought of how the Savior, who was certainly in the minority, would not allow unbelievers to mischaracterize the testimony of John the Baptist, who bore powerful witness of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Being a contemporary of Christ in mortality, John gave unimpeachable testimony as a living prophet that Christ was the Son of God in the flesh. John had become somewhat of a celebrity, and many unbelievers had personally observed in the wilderness his unsurpassed powerful testimony of the Messiah.
Knowing that many of the unbelievers standing in the multitude before him had gone into the wilderness for the very purpose of hearing a prophet's testimony, Jesus rhetorically asked them, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
A man (of royalty) clothed in soft raiment?” (Matthew 11:7-9).
I felt comfortable that I should respond to my friend by asking him to allow the exemplary lives of the Latter-day Saints to be a living testimony of the truthfulness of their beliefs.
Saying Mormons live Christian lives but don't know anything about true Christian history or true Christian doctrine is like saying members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do not understand musical timing or musical notes, but despite their severe lack of such knowledge, they sing some of the most beautiful music in the world.
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"Please do not be misled my dear friend. ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.’ ” (Matthew 7:20)
For we Mormons who live in the "wilderness," the exemplary lives of our faithful members continue to be the most effective response to anti-Mormon mischaracterizations.
John Enslen is a small-town courtroom lawyer in Alabama who writes about Mormon history. He has been a history consultant for film artist T.C. Christensen and is the author of "The Bible and the Book of Mormon Connecting Links." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.