Monday, August 27, 2007

Seeking by study and by faith in Nauvoo.

We visited Nauvoo last weekend. Being only half a day's drive away and having Grandparents (free lodging and food) left us with little reason not to do it eventually. Last weekend we had the time, and we availed ourselves.

We saw the LDS sites Saturday. Sunday we drove down to see Carthage (also run by the LDS church). Monday we saw a few LDS sites in the morning before taking the Community of Christ tour in the afternoon. At the LDS sites we saw the blacksmith shop, the family living center (demonstrations on how they made bread, rope, rugs, baskets, etc.), the Heber C. Kimball Home, the Wilford Woodruff home, the Brigham Young home, and the Sarah Granger home. We also saw a play put on by the performing missionaries at the visitor's center and went on a wagon ride around old Nauvoo. The LDS sites are open on a walk-in basis, which gives a lot of freedom to the visitor to be flexible with what he wants to see. The Community of Christ sites (with the exception of the Red Brick Store) are open only as part of a tour of the whole area. The tour starts off in the visitors center, goes to see the graves of Joseph, Hyrum, and Emma Smith, then to the Smith Homestead, then to the Nauvoo House, then the Mansion House, and ends at the Red Brick Store.

Dave had a good post over at T&S about what goes into the management of historical sites. It's worth reading and leads one to appreciate the complexity of that job and the relative competence with which it is done. Right now, though, I'm more intrigued by the differences in historical presentation between the two latter-day saint tradition churches in Nauvoo.

First the LDS sites. The one difference between the LDS sites in Nauvoo and other church history sites I've seen is that this time the missionaries made no effort to get us to fill out referral cards. I heard at least two missionaries specifically say that the Nauvoo Mission is a mission more to "strengthen the members" than to proselyte. I wonder if this is a recent change in emphasis. Other than that, it was pretty much what you see at most Church history sites: a tour, a story, and a testimony. There was more emotion, more sentimentality, more personal connection, and more passion. In the blacksmith shop and the family living center, however, there was less spiritual emphasis and more of a focus on hands-on experience and getting an idea of what life was like in the 19th Century. The Visitor's Center was similar to most LDS Visitor's Center's I've seen. There was a big information desk with lots of pamphlets, a diorama of Nauvoo, a few theaters, some art exhibits, and a huge copy of the Christus right in the center of the room. It was also full of loud families with lots of kids. There was no souvenir shop, nothing for sale. Altogether, it was a pleasant, fun, family-oriented building.

The first difference I noticed when we entered the Community of Christ visitor's center is that it was much quieter. Acoustic arrangements of some of the early Mormon hymns were played in the background. It made for a more reverent atmosphere (though this might have been because we were the only ones there). A young bearded man greeted us, told us when the tours would begin, and invited us to have a look around. First we had a look at the small gift shop. I was surprised to find some real historical titles. I expected some fun little story books, but instead, they had Bushman's and Donna Hill's Joseph Smith biographies, Dan Vogel's and Grant Palmer's books, a two volume set of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, and lots of other serious academic studies. In the main room, there was an original sunstone and moonstone. They also had the southeast cornerstone from the temple on display. The cornerstone was fashioned as a stone box, inside of which was placed a time capsule of sorts containing a copy of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, some periodicals, some coins, other memorabilia. Most surprising to me was that they had an original first edition Book of Mormon on display and it was only behind a regular glass display door, not like the sealed glass case that houses an original first edition at the LDS-run Grandin Printing Press in Palmyra. In keeping with the academic orientation of the books at the gift shop, the Community of Christ tour was very historical, very fact-oriented, not at all emotional, sentimental, or spiritual. Our guide was knowledgeable enough to answer specific questions about names and dates by citing historical authorities. There was no testifying. We were not invited to learn more about the spiritual or doctrinal message of the Community of Christ.

On the one hand, I really appreciated a break from the sentimentality and seeming emotional manipulation that you sometimes get from the LDS tour guides. I appreciated being able to get good authoritative answers to specific historical questions, answers that I could look up and verify. I enjoyed hearing more about the surrounding economic and social context of the events described to create a fuller picture combined with the spiritual context. I was glad to learn more about the Smith family that stayed in Nauvoo. I liked the relaxed nature of a tour without a proselyting goal. We were treated very politely and respectfully.

But I missed some of the passion and personality that you get from the senior couples at the LDS sites. I missed hearing about why this is important to the person speaking. I missed the spiritual conviction that we felt at Carthage. This sense of missing something became most poignant in the upper room of the Red Brick Store. Sitting in the room where endowments and sealings were first introduced, I wanted hear about it. But the endowment and sealing ordinances, the most complex and interesting and the most exalting of the ordinances revealed by Joseph Smith, were reduced to a footnote, almost an afterthought; no more notable than the muslin covering on the desk where Joseph would record his purchases. It was here especially that I felt that something important had been lost along with all the sentimentality and emotional gushing.

Emotions are a funny thing. They are so easily confused with the promptings of the Spirit that they are often mistaken for them, and sometimes missionaries, both the proselyting and the tour guide kinds, try to invite the spirit by tugging at the emotions. Usually, it doesn't work, and usually it leaves someone feeling awkward and uncomfortable. (Remember, the Spirit is called the Comforter). By contrast, the Spirit is supposed to edify. I've seen too many people mistake a rush of emotion for a spiritual manifestation of some kind, putting their faith in it, only to have it come up shallow later on and conclude that the spirit is all a farse and the gospel isn't true. It's for these reasons that I wish we could purge ourselves from sentimentality and emotional manipulation.

I'm also reminded that, according to Joseph Smith's prayer at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, were should not seek spiritual experiences alone; we are also supposed to seek learning as well---not just by faith, but "by study, and also by faith." I don't expect a tour guide to present the tour with the knowledge of a professional historian. It would be long, boring, and irrelevant to most of the patrons. But a tour guide is a teacher and a teacher ought to know his material more deeply than he teaches it. Truth, according to the revelations, is not just an abstract spiritual experience, but is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were. Truth, especially historical truth, is inherently fact-based. It is true that often we can do no better than approximations and guesses, but our guesses ought to be as good as we can get, as faithful to the historical record as we can be. Joseph Smith, taking a cue from Paul, warned the early saints to avoid zeal without knowledge (see Nibley's discussion of Joseph's warning).

The Community of Christ tours seemed to have a better handle on this kind of fact based history. But on the other hand, as Paul says, "knowledge", unchecked by charity, "puffeth up". Spiritual things cannot always find expression in the language of the knowledgeable. The omission of endowments from the Red Brick Store left me feeling like I had missed out. The LDS missionaries were less knowledgeable, but more personal; less accurate, but more memorable; less academic, but more passionate. Something was gained, and something was lost.

So my question is this: does a re-orientation towards a more historically accurate approach necessarily lead to a loss of conviction? Or is it possible to be both knowledgeable and spiritual? Is there something that the LDS site missionaries and the Community of Christ tour staff could learn from each other? How can we both improve our presentation of history?

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