The Real Elder Price
The "Real" Elder Price, Part 1: The Missionary Training Center
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of essays that examines the real world of Mormon missionaries and the real Elder Price. Read the author's Introduction.
The Book of Mormon Musical opens with a scene of Jesus, Mormon, and Moroni on Hill Cumorah in upstate New York. It is a brief and campy depiction of a Mormon theophany, something which appears absurd and laughable to many: the idea that gods and angels would be personally involved in burying gold scriptures. In many ways, it plays on a central Mormon tenet—not just the belief in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith as translator and restorer, but the belief in continuing revelation. Such revelation not only makes seers of farm boys, but suggests that Jesus Christ and other Heavenly beings are present even in the most unlikely places, and that every human being can be spiritually enlarged beyond any border which mortal paradigms impose.
Mormonism itself demands a generous imagination. We Mormons are urged to imagine one another's potential with limitless generosity, daring to believe that the most lowly, uncomely, unrefined person is potentially as glorious as any divine being represented with ultra-watt lighting on a Broadway stage. The Mormon imagination is telescopic, inviting us to see far into the distance, beyond time; to look into the Heavens and imagine that—even in the presence of such mind-boggling creativity as the stars and planets manifest—we humans and our incomprehensible future are God's "work and glory" (Moses 1:39).
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So, these divine beings in upstate New York do make a central statement about Mormonism and imagination. If viewed cynically, the suggestion that anyone might actually believe that gods and angels would behave so unexpectedly (or behave at all) appears simply naïve. Taken representationally, the scene implies (accurately) that we Mormons are accustomed to dealing with the unexpected, that we allow ourselves to be surprised by grace in many ways and places, that we don't "just believe," as one of the show's songs states, but that as we grow in love, we behave as love itself does. And love (says Paul) "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7-8). It's not so much a habit of "making stuff up again" (as another show song claims) as it is a willingness to nurture glorious "what if's." Love persuades us to view ourselves and our brothers and sisters—comprising everyone—in the light of eternal prospects, granting the potential for individual and communal progress. This progress doesn't end. We Mormons don't believe in an either/or (Heaven or Hell) judgment immediately after death. We believe that as God's children, we may continue to learn and grow even after our earthly lives end. The only thing that prevents growth is a personal option for stasis.
Margaret Blair Young is the president of the Association for Mormon Letters and has published eight books—six novels and two short story collections. Three of the novels were co-authored with Darius Gray and give the history (documented) of Black Latter-day Saints. She and Gray made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, which is currently under contract with the Documentary Channel and showing nationally. She has written six encyclopedia articles and other scholarly papers on Blacks in the western United States, and particularly Black Mormons. She teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.