I’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t just Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (which was opened on the living room coffee table with a pen resting on top). There was a pile of anti-Mormon literature in various stages of being read sitting around the room. At first I didn’t know how to react – it was the gigantic pink elephant in the room that I tried hard to pretend wasn’t there. But eventually I couldn’t ignore it, so I – a young and very perplexed missionary – asked Bro. Kimball, “Why are you reading all of this anti-Mormon literature?”
I had recently gotten into Mormon history. My MTC teacher had fired my soul with Madsen-style stories of Joseph Smith, but once in the mission field I realized that I knew next to nothing of Church History. I’d just asked my parents to send me a copy of the CES Church History Manual (I didn’t know of another resource to ask for, and it was large and looked scholarly to me). A zealous new convert to the world of Church History, I was thrilled to attend Stanley Kimball’s fireside on Church History in the area. I was even more thrilled with the dinner invitation we received.
“Well, let me show you,” he said. We walked downstairs and he showed me the bookshelves, the shelves above the washer and dryer, the stacks of books here and there. It looked like (and probably was) every issue of Dialogue and BYU Studies that had ever been printed, together with lots of history books and the largest library of anti-Mormon literature I’d ever seen.
That’s when he told me about “mind service.” (“What’s that?” “Oh, you know – we’re supposed to serve God with all our might, mind, and strength. Most people forget about the mind part.”) I asked him if he were refuting anti-Mormon lies. (I didn’t know the word “apologist” at that point, but I had something like that concept in my mind right alongside concepts like “hero.”) He chuckled and said something about being more interested in learning the facts of history. Well, I’d read enough anti-Mormon literature since getting into the mission field that even my rather uneducated self could see how shady its claims and scholarship was, so I challenged him on the point.
Stanley was very nonchalant in his response, stating that not all anti-Mormon literature was the same, and that the Tanners and others had been prodigious at stealing copies of things out of the Church archives and publishing what the Church didn’t make available to scholars. “Some of them are painstaking about accurately disclosing material from the archives – there’s great stuff in here. It’s just their conclusions and the narrative they tell that you’ve got to be careful about.”
I was dumbfounded. There really wasn’t anything in my world at that point that allowed me to directly assimilate not simply the things he was saying, but the casual manner in which he was saying it. That was perhaps what made the most significant impression on me. How nonchalant he was about it. He wasn’t filled with righteous indignation over the Tanners – but rather a sort of personal and professional curiosity. Nor was he hurt and scandalized by or condemning of the Church’s policies regarding the archives.
“How many people know about this stuff?” “You mean, how many people really know the ins and outs of our history?” “Sure.” “Well, if you want to talk about people who really know it – not many. Perhaps one or two hundred.” “What about our Church leaders – they know about it all, right?” “Oh, well, some of them know more than others. They’re not historians you know. But some of us keep pestering them about stuff, trying to encourage them to quit showing pictures of Joseph reading off of Gold Plates and that sort of thing.”
That was it. Well, no, in my few treasured discussions with Stanley there was a lot more, but for what I’m trying to say now – that was it. That was the iconoclastic moment where my paradigms and categories shattered. I certainly didn’t do anything like abandon my orthodox ideas and zeal, and Stanley wasn’t encouraging me to do so. “Look, you don’t really need to worry about any of this now – right now you should be like I was at your age, faithfully engaged in being a missionary. Plenty of time to sift through and come to know the real ins and outs of Church History later.” I largely tried to follow that advice.
But Mormon history was no longer a story about good guys verses bad guys. I knew there was a much more complex reality, and that the relationship of the Church to its own history was in a period of transition. These two facts were captured in moments like the one when Stanley showed us a new Church History video that he had just been sent a copy of in the mail that day. He was like a little kid, all excited. He fast-forwarded to the part where they interviewed him. I watched him candidly relate the fact that many of our Mormon Battalion heroes, after the rigors of the long trail and finally settling into Southern California, often got themselves into trouble drinking, smoking and carousing. “Huh,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to keep that part in there. I mean, they didn’t keep everything I said, but that’s a lot more than I expected.”
What I want to emphasize here is that in Bro. Kimball I found a timely role model for exploring the wilds of both Mormon history and theology. The specifics that he modeled – openness, candor, faith, resilience, independence, generosity, intellectual rigor, a deep love of the Restoration – might be less important than the simple fact that as my understanding began to irrevocably shift, I had a model. To be honest, among the most difficult things in my life has been the lack of role models. But at various critical junctions I’ve found faithful women and men whose circumstances, if different than my own were nonetheless similar enough to teach invaluable lessons. They have been an important and intimate blessing in my life and an essential part of my salvation.
With regard to doubt, perhaps the most important role they have played has been helping me to see that the options which the world arrays before me as defaults are not always the only or best options to pursue.