The idea of an intimately caring, personal, and concerned God that we are raised with as Mormons is an idea that I always liked. Although there have been times when I have not liked my particular set of circumstances, the answered prayers, the feelings of love and encouragement, the guidance, and especially the non-stop nudging to do better have simply welded this notion of God in my mind so that I can’t even remember the last time I entertained the notion of there being no God. I don’t know if that’s deemed properly intellectual, but my outlook is thoroughly based on the myriad of ways that I experience God daily.
My academic path has thus been a deeply spiritual journey of relying on God’s guidance and trying to follow His will. I was not a stellar undergraduate but felt that I should pursue history, which I’m sure that most of my professors would have told me was very much a leap of faith. But I kept at it, encouraged by continual promptings. I remember having a conversation with my wife’s aunt (not LDS but very religious) while I was anxiously awaiting word back from graduate schools about my applications. “You know it’s all in God’s hands,” she told me. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I responded. “God has had a tendency to want to build my character.”
I got that one right; it was many more years before I was accepted into a PhD program. I got a master’s in history in the meantime but then found myself in Sacramento for three years still trying to get in, while any rational explanation for what I was doing was wearing thin. In fact, I got into a program the second year but had a strong feeling that it was not the “right” program and turned them down (a pretty grueling experience that really upset my mother). The next year I felt that it was okay to accept their offer and then had the profound experience of seeing the way that things had come together for me at that time: the right adviser (she’d just moved over from another school), the right sub-program (they had just created it), and a number of other factors. One of the most important things has been my wife’s professional development during our time in Sacramento. Her teaching job in Sacramento allowed her to get her current job that pays well and allows her to work from home (with some travel). This is something we really didn’t plan at all but her job has been really helpful for our family and she is able to do really neat things in education. We’re not sure where this all will lead but I now understand Pres. Packer’s statements about how the spirit will lead you when you are only able to see a step or two ahead and how at times we must take steps in the dark.
I’ve also felt strongly prompted in the things I study. I always loved history and found myself interested in the cultural background of the Restoration. That is, how did God prepare the world for the Restoration? Thus I was always interested in finding visionary or radical thinkers in the centuries preceding Mormonism who taught Mormon-looking ideas. Yet I soon found this curiosity to be a challenge when I found ideas that I thought to be distinctly Mormon close enough to Joseph Smith’s environment to have influenced him. Finding such items made me uncomfortable and I knew that Mormon opponents would use such things to argue against the visionary nature of the Prophet’s teachings. At the time I didn’t see the irony that, as I was actively looking for such parallels, I should not have been so surprised to find some.
While I was sorting through this paradox that I had put myself in, a good friend of mine lost his faith in the Church and wanted to talk about it in a very assertive way. Most conversations quickly turned to the latest he had heard. I would try to parry his remarks with pieces of apologia that I had heard but I soon found that all he had to do was to express doubt about these “proofs” to make me quite uncomfortable. Were the proofs really watertight? I had gotten far enough along in my graduate work to know that most claims of scholars were open for debate. How helpful was it to rely on human wisdom? Not very, I was finding. How could I resolve these concerns? I could devote my life to studying areas of debate like biblical studies or Mesoamerica, but that wasn’t really my interest. And besides, if I really approached the topic in an open-minded way, how did I know that the data would bear out my beliefs? As I was stewing over this, I felt God interject and say that I could ask Him, but I hadn’t found that to be the weapon of choice when contending with my friend.
In time I realized that there was no way to look at the data concerning Mormonism’s validity objectively. Everyone would take certain presuppositions to the data and weigh and highlight the data accordingly. It became very clear to me that ultimately one either chose to believe or chose not to. Certainly there were considerable amounts of striking issues in Mormonism’s favor, but the data could not resolve every concern. I decided to take God’s advice and rely on Him. As I did, I quickly found I had no need to fight with my friend over anything and he soon found me a rather unperturbed sparing partner giving a lot of “so what” responses to his latest barbs.
This realization also helped to resolve my concern over parallels. I didn’t need to prove or worry about Mormonism’s validity. Whatever means God used to facilitate the Restoration was fine. Believers who saw a providential history of God preparing the way for the Restoration and critics who saw environmental parallels as undercutting these claims were actually talking about the same thing, I decided. One saw God’s hand; one didn’t. But they were talking about the same process: how Mormonism came about. Again, I felt no need to try to get the facts to compel one viewpoint or another. We choose what we believe.
So now I very much enjoy my work of looking at how the larger society was prepared to accept Mormonism, or what was the cultural background out of which Mormonism developed. To me, it is the same question and I know that God prepared the way for me to study this topic under ideal circumstances (my personal failings being the one setback, but God keeps working with me).
Stephen Fleming received his BA in history at BYU and his Masters at California State University, Stanislaus. He is currently working on his PhD in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. He has published in BYU Studies, Mormon Historical Studies, New Jersey History, Religion and American Culture, Church History, and Max Weber Studies. His wife, Lee, is the senior school development coach for the New Tech Network. Together they have four children.
Posted June 2010