Come, Come Ye Hoosier Saints: The Mormons of Montgomery County
Though one might not notice it, Crawfordsville is a fairly diverse community when it comes to religion. The city boasts thriving Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic congregations in addition to countless churches that sprinkle the city and the surrounding farmlands. Just like many communities, Crawfordsville is also home to a small population of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons. Having visited Mormon Utah this summer, I was interested in seeing how the faith expresses itself in this little hamlet in west-central Indiana. Though small in number, the Latter-day Saint (LDS) community in Crawfordsville is a vibrant one that counts among its own two Wabash professors: Dr. Martin Madsen of the Physics Department and Dr. Eric Freeze of the English Department.
When I entered into Dr. Madsen’s office on the third floor of Goodrich Hall, I looked around for evidences of his faith. On one shelf I noticed a copy or two of the Book of Mormon, a book he has read countless times. Also, on one of his walls there is a picture of the statue of Christ located in the North Visitor Center at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Dr. Madsen grew up LDS in southeastern Michigan as a distinct minority in his community, and it was during his high school years that he truly claimed his faith as his own. Praying about the veracity of the Book of Mormon at age 14, Dr. Madsen believes that the Holy Spirit confirmed the book’s inspiration by providing him with a “sense of peace.” Several years later, he decided to serve as a missionary for two years in Venezuela, where he underwent a journey of self-discovery. While the professor says that he did not particularly enjoy certain aspects of his mission, he learned the important lesson that “when you put your life in the Lord’s hands, different things can happen than you expected.” His faith strengthened, and remained strong during his college years. Indeed, Dr. Madsen said while he was courting his girlfriend (now wife), he racked up expensive phone bills because they would read the Book of Mormon together over a long-distance telephone line. Even today they read it nightly.
Dr. Madsen and his wife were married in a LDS temple right outside of Washington, D.C. Only active members who are recommended by their local bishop can attend rites performed in temples, and while participants cannot reveal what goes on in the ceremonies, I’ve been jokingly assured that nothing nefarious happens there. Instead, according to Dr. Madsen, there is an atmosphere of absolute peace. When he is at the temple, he gets the opportunity to experience tranquility and be able to meditate and catch on to the Holy Spirit’s “quiet promptings.” Worship in the temple provides Dr. Madsen with an opportunity to connect with God in the place where, according to BYU theologian Dr. Truman G. Madsen, “heaven meets earth.”
Dr. Eric Freeze, like Dr. Madsen, is a cradle Mormon. He was born into a Canadian LDS family, served a two year mission in southern France, and graduated from Brigham Young University. He bares a strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, which he has read at least twenty times. Concerning that book, the English professor says: “I really believe that it has truth in it and that it brings people close to God.” His testimony of the book is based upon prayer and feelings which he believes are the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Being a writer, it might be assumed that Dr. Freeze’s faith – an essential element of his identity – would influence his writing. It absolutely does, but not in the way that one might expect. Dr. Freeze attempts to normalize Latter-day Saints in his fiction. Some of his creative writings do include LDS characters. However, their “Mormon-ness” is not their defining characteristic. Instead, it is incidental. While certain aspects of the culture might evidence itself, his writing does not make Mormonism a central focus of the work. Instead of being didactic or faith-building, Dr. Freeze’s fiction, when Mormonism does make an entrance, utilizes the faith as a normal characteristic amongst many others.
As I was discussing LDS theology with Dr. Freeze, I asked him for thoughts of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS Church. He acknowledged that Smith, like all humans, had his flaws. However, do the sins of Joseph necessarily disapprove his status as a prophet? A great difference between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity, according to Dr. Freeze, is the amount of distance between the present time and the time of the establishment of the faiths. It has been approximately 2,000 years since Christ walked the earth, while only less than 200 years separate us from the time of Joseph Smith. Since relatively little time has passed since the early 19th century, there are many existing narratives concerning Smith and his followers that are contradictory. Some of these reflect poorly on the prophet, while others are hagiographic in nature. For humans, it is easier to believe in ancient things where the narratives are cohesive and positive. Dr. Freeze then posed that I found to be a pertinent question to the discussion: Were Christ present on earth today, would Christians believe Him? Unfortunately, he thinks, the answer would negative.
“What does it mean to be Latter-day Saint in Crawfordsville?” I posed this question to both Dr. Madsen and Dr. Freeze, and I was surprised by the positive enthusiasm in which they answered the question. Dr. Madsen said that it “allows me to stand for what I believe in.” He never feels that it is a particular hardship to be a member of a distinctive minority in his community. Instead, it energizes him to live his faith all the more. He cannot simply follow the crowd like one could in a place such as Utah where Latter-day Saints are the majority. Instead, it is precisely because it is not the norm that he finds it much easier to claim the faith in Crawfordsville. Dr. Freeze gave a very similar answer. Having lived in a city in Canada where Latter-day Saints made up 80% of the population and then having attended Brigham Young University, Dr. Freeze knows all too well what it is like to live in a majority Mormon community. He feels that in such communities there is an unfortunate mixing of what he termed “cultural and gospel elements” through the normalization of the LDS lifestyle into the mainstream culture. However, the situation obviously is much different in Crawfordsville, where there is no opportunity for “group think.” One chooses the faith and its life, which makes it more meaningful. On the whole, living in Crawfordsville has proved to be a boon for the faiths of Drs. Madsen and Freeze.
To gain further understanding of the LDS faith, I made the trek to the Crawfordsville ward (local congregation) off Highway 136. The church is a small, brown brick building that just looks like any other church that has been built in the past 50 years. The interior is likewise reminiscent that of a modern Baptist church, with the pulpit taking prominence in the center of the church and comfortable pews lining the sanctuary horizontally. The attendance on that particular Sunday reasonably filled the sanctuary with families of all ages. There were around one hundred congregants in attendance. The ward’s bishop opened the service (called a Sacrament Meeting) by the reading of various announcements. This was followed by a very traditional opening hymn. After some church business was completed, young men began preparing for the Sacrament, which is comparable to Protestant communion services. Indeed, aesthetically it is similar to the communion practices of Restorationist churches like the Churches of Christ or the Disciples of Christ. The bread is blessed by holders of the Aaronic Priesthood (the lower priesthood held by young men) and is then distributed to the congregants pew by pew. Then, water is blessed and passed around the congregation. The LDS use water instead of wine or grape juice because Joseph Smith claimed that God had specifically instructed the church to use water in the sacrament.
While at most sacrament meetings speakers are chosen from out of the congregation to speak on any given topic, the particular Sunday I visited the Crawfordsville ward was Testimony Sunday. During a testimony meeting, any member – no matter how young – can step up to the pulpit and deliver a testimony of either the LDS Church or of the principles of the faith. For 35 minutes, Latter-day Saints gave their testimonies. Among the major themes were the importance and truthfulness of the Church, the importance of temple work, and the blessings of family. The speakers ranged from grandmothers to nervous little girls to beamingly proud fathers. At this meeting, the devotion of the ward members to their church was on full display.
Following the Sacrament Meeting were Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society meetings. The Sunday School session was quite similar to those found in mainstream Christian churches, focusing on how to apply Scriptural principles to everyday life was paramount. The great difference, naturally, was that the text studied was the Book of Mormon, and the words of the president-prophets of the LDS Church were often referenced. After Sunday School, the men went to priesthood meetings while the women went to a meeting of what is known as the Relief Society. Since my host was a member of the Melchizedek Priesthood, I followed him to his meeting, which consisted of an in-depth discussion of the LDS doctrine of the afterlife. The quality of the dialogue during that 50-minute session would be a pastor’s dream. The level of doctrine discussed was deep, and it was obvious that the members were quite knowledgeable of their scriptures and their church’s doctrine. While there was some minor disagreement over interpretations, there was fundamental agreement over the teachings presented by the church publications.
Perhaps now is an appropriate time to make a crucial point – the LDS are not a homogenous group. When one usually thinks of the LDS Church, one thinks of a highly structured, authoritarian church led by one man and filled with Republicans. The reality is otherwise. While there is a great amount of doctrinal uniformity that is typical of a strongly hierarchical church, there is diversity amongst the members. The ward was filled with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. On one member’s messenger bag I spotted an Obama button – a sight I would expect at a mainline Protestant church more so than at a LDS ward. Just like any other church, it is impossible to paint Mormons with a single brush.
In this article, I have tried to avoid the doctrinal issues that differentiate the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints from mainstream Christian churches. That is intentional, as I wanted to focus on the Saints themselves – not their dogma. The Latter-day Saints of Crawfordsville are a distinct minority who possess strong values and testimonies, and they live them out. While there are most definitely differences that should not be ignored, all people can look at the devotion and stalwartness of the LDS community of Crawfordsville as a positive model for their own lives. As St. James wrote in his epistle, faith without works is dead.