The conversion process is a great vehicle for storytelling: the immersion into new ideas, a person feeling his life changing, the moment when he sees the world in a whole new way. But what about when the conversion doesn’t happen? What if the person appreciates being exposed to new ideas, but doesn’t change? What if the person changes because of being pushed into a situation where there really is no other choice? Can those situations also make for an interesting story? Two recent publications show they can.
A review of Dan Harrington’s Who’s at the Door? has to begin with a major spoiler alert about the ending—so be forewarned—but it’s the ending that makes this a book worth reading. Harrington spent three years hanging out with LDS missionaries, taking all the discussions, attending church frequently, etc. The whole thing seems to be headed to a finish of Harrington wearing white in a baptismal font; instead, he ultimately decides not to join up.
In a world where writing about Mormons is too often starkly divided into apologist and “anti-” camps, Harrington’s contribution is that he’s willing to give the missionaries the benefit of the doubt, but he’s not going to cut the church any slack, either. He provides the perspective of an investigator who is respectful of the missionaries and appreciative of the church and its role in the lives of its members, yet in the end is just not willing to join.
Harrington is at his best when discussing how learning from the missionaries is similar to Catholic catechism classes with a nun named Sister Ruth he attended as a child. “Like the elders, Sister Ruth didn’t just tell me about God,” he writes, “... she provided concrete answers about God and his teachings.” In both cases, “I wanted so much to believe, but I didn’t want to jump into anything, either.”
Wilford Woodruff wasn’t looking to make any changes either when it came to the practice of polygamy—but his story turns out differently. Woodruff was originally so staunch in his defense of plural marriage that, in 1880, the future president of the LDS Church received a revelation in the wilderness predicting an imminent apocalypse that would wipe out a specific list of Mormon persecutors, including the U.S. president, the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress. As late as 1888, when church attorneys advised him to renounce polygamy, Woodruff wrote he “would see the whole nation damned first (emphasis in the original).”
While it’s one thing to rail against the powers that be, it’s quite another when those powers take the deed to Temple Square, appeals to the Supreme Court fail, and you’ve spent years in hiding and can’t carry on the faith in any meaningful way. In 1890, Woodruff, now holding the position of prophet, capable of receiving revelation for the entire church, issued a manifesto ending plural marriage.
In The Whirlpool offers a view of Woodruff’s journey during that time through letters he wrote to William Atkin, whose remote southern Utah property Woodruff had used as a hideout. The letters, written while Woodruff was still on the run, provide vivid descriptions about how “we are still in the whirlpool” with “men waiting for me on every side.” But what makes this book worthwhile are the chapters written by Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the church's history department and historians Thomas G. Alexander and Jan Shipps, who provide a fuller account of what Woodruff was going through at the time.
The result of Woodruff’s manifesto was that the church thrived as it began a long march toward trying to be part of the American mainstream that continues today. The forced “conversion” may have been the best thing to ever have happened to the church as a temporal organization.
“People are usually interested in outcomes, not journeys,” Harrington writes in his memoir, but Who’s at the Door and In the Whirlpool demonstrate the journey can be just as interesting to read about as the destination.
WHO'S AT THE DOOR? A MEMOIR OF ME AND THE MISSIONARIES
By Dan Harrington
Cedar Fort, 2010
176 pages, $12.99 paperback
IN THE WHIRLPOOL: THE PRE-MANIFESTO LETTERS OF PRESIDENT WILFORD WOODRUFF TO THE WILLIAM ATKIN FAMILY, 1885-1890
Edited by Reid L. Neilson with contributions by Thomas G. Alexander and Jan Shipps
The Arthur H. Clark Company, University of Oklahoma Press, 2011
240 pages, $29.95 hardback