Belonging is a big part of our validation as people. Our groupings give us a sense of security. They may even be the foundation of our economic and emotional wellbeing.
Part of belonging to a group is believing that the association is valuable, so when people leave, it can be difficult for those that stay, to reconcile their departure.
President Uchtdorf in his October 2013 conference address tried to encourage some understanding and empathy for those that leave. He stated:
“The search for truth has led millions of people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, there are some who leave the Church they once loved. One might ask, “If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?” Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. It is not that simple…Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.
In this Church that honours personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers; we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honour their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.”
President Uchtdorf tried to dispel the notion that ‘leaving’ wasn’t synonymous with being offended or sinning, this perception is still widely prevalent. This is understandable. As humans when we believe that we are ‘right’, we have to explain someone else’s differing opinion as ‘wrong’ (at least on some level), or it would undermine our belief. Even if someone we love and respect chooses a different path, we have to conclude either that they are either mistaken or that we are. Even though we might act generously in allowing them their ‘journey’…. we secretly hope they will have a realisation or intervention that will bring them back to our way of thinking. In this way, we remain loyal to the Church and subtly relegate leave takers as the victims of deception or worse – villains of the faith, denying their previous spiritual witnesses.
We reinforce this narrative through cautionary tales of woe. Our favourite is the story of President Thomas B. Marsh’s apostasy. According to George Smith who replaced Marsh as an apostle, Elizabeth Marsh argued with her neighbour Lucinda Harris over milk stripping’s they had agreed to share, and a church court to settle the matter escalated all the way to the First Presidency. Brother Marsh got offended at the treatment of his wife, left the Church and attacked the leaders.
The story of Thomas B. Marsh is fantastic! It has all the ingredients of a tragic opera; A man with high office of importance, two wives with a business scheme, subterfuge, accusation, denial, court scenes, disputed judgement, a spectacular fall from grace and an act of revenge. Not to mention the moral: Something as simple as cream can destroy lives; we must be on guard that we don’t fall prey to such trivialities. And like all good operas, the audience can feel magnanimous that as observers, they would never succumb to such folly, and equally self-righteous that they know others who have succumbed. – It reinforces our deepest prejudices.
The problem is, this story, like President Uchtdorf cautioned ‘is not that simple’. And a fuller retelling might change our perspective entirely:
Thomas and Elizabeth Marsh joined the church in 1830 and were some of its earliest and most devoted members. Thomas was selected as an original Apostle in April 1835 and as the eldest in the quorum, was given seniority which he took very seriously. The Marshes went to Missouri to further the establishment of the church, and President Marsh was instrumental in helping bring stability when the church in Kirtland devolved into turmoil.
As saints gathered to Far West, President Marsh was the voice of reason as tensions arose between an influx of members and established locals. On the 17th of June 1838 amid this civic strain, Sidney Rigdon preached a sermon condemning dissenters. A group of Saints formed a covert military group naming themselves ‘Danites’ and took it upon themselves to protect the church by whatever means necessary. Thomas B. Marsh as President of the Twelve Apostles voiced his concerns about the Gadianton type secret organisation but was dismissed by Joseph and Sidney. Violence soon erupted. When the nearby town of Gallatin was set alight by the ‘Danites’ and the looted goods brought to the Bishops storehouse, President Marsh’s integrity did not allow him to remain silent. He and fellow apostle Orson Hyde resigned from the Quorum and filed a legal affidavit with Richmond law enforcement, on the 24th of October 1838. It must have been an excruciating decision for him to stand against his friends, but as Chief Apostle and special witness of Christ he felt he had to denounce the crimes, some of his people were perpetrating.
Elizabeth and Thomas Marsh remained in Missouri and had a tough life. It is unclear how much Brother Marsh had to do with the Saints but in 1854 Elizabeth died, and in his destitution, he greatly desired to be reunited with them. His inquiries about being welcome in Utah caused no small stir. He was a former Apostle, and many knew his connection to the Saints’ tribulation in Missouri. If he was to reunite how would the brethren explain his absence and welcome him back? In April 1856 conference, George Smith pre-empted his return and told the now infamous story about the milk stripping’s incident. This story became the dominant narrative about Thomas B. Marsh.
It seems too, that Brother Marsh tacitly accepted this story being told about him (maybe it lessened the blame he felt, and he desperately needed the Church). He wrote of his reconciliation with Brother Harris to the First Presidency in May 1857, and he journeyed to Utah and apologised publically in a large Sabbath meeting in September of that year; he even wrote an autobiography in 1864 shortly before his death, confessing his rebellion. But curiously, not a mention of the milk stripping incident.
Curious too that we have no evidence to substantiate George Smith’s account of that event and certainly not the severity he ascribed to it. No Church court minutes for Elizabeth Marsh, no testimony from the Harris’s, no journal entries from any other person present in Far West at the time, no newspaper articles, and no letters or correspondence about it. The Milk Stripping story does not satisfy the Law of Witnesses.
But maybe that doesn’t matter. The stories power is in its ability to obscure the violence at Far West and offer those who stay an opportunity to explain those that leave- an explanation we use today for the same reasons; If we can point to President Marsh being un-righteously offended, we can make a similar case for those who leave. We can relegate them to the deceived, the sinning, the villain. We can preserve our world view as we reconcile the regrettable departure of others.
However, as President Uchtdorf hinted, there may be larger issues of integrity that underpin peoples ‘struggle in separating themselves from the church’. We know from their affidavit that this was certainly the case for Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Hyde. We may need to consider this is also the condition of our friends and family that leave.
One of the ironies of the milk stripping fable is that it maligns Thomas B. Marsh as a villain when he might be one of our greatest unsung heroes; who else is willing to act for Christ even against their friends? And one of the tragedies of the ongoing misrepresentation of this narrative is that we continue to ascribe to people we have once dearly loved, the worst of motives.
The milk stripping’s fiasco, therefore, serves as a cautionary tale that we can easily trivialise, demonise and misrepresent personal acts of integrity, all to preserve our particular group security.
Maybe it is time to inject some increased accuracy into the retelling of Thomas B. Marsh’s life, and into our relationships with those that depart.
It might make us a more Christlike people!