To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here: My friend and co-worker, Cal Grondahl, says there’s “grizzly bear” truth and “teddy bear” truth in Mormon history. Whether it’s the Prophet Joseph Smith, polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brigham Young, temple ceremonies, etc., one can either grab a teddy bear or a grizzly bear when wanting answers.
For a long time, teddy bear truth, which is designed to comfort people, was more prevalent than grizzly bear truth. But that’s changing now. The biggest reason is Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency; another is the LDS Church’s commendable efforts to make its appeal more diverse, with campaigns directed to single adults and families of color. But with more openness, and a Mormon who may occupy the White House in 2013, teddy bear answers on tough questions won’t cut it anymore.
The unfortunate remarks of a BYU professor that blacks not receiving the priesthood was in reality a “blessing,” or that the Lord was waiting to provide the priesthood, is an example of teddy bear truth, the lighter, happy version, that is promulgated. The grizzly bear truth is that trouble with violence in Missouri way back in the 1830s was the genesis of the Mormon policy discriminating against blacks. The church later piggybacked the old canard that Ham’s race was cursed doctrine to justify the ban, and so on.
Baptism for the dead is another doctrine, that while not discriminatory or objectional in my opinion, suffers from the teddy bear truth syndrome. It’s easy to say to the world that we baptize the dead, your non-Mormon ancestors, because we want them to have a chance to accept the Gospel. There’s no pressure, they can say no.
The grizzly bear truth, though, is that faithful Mormons believe that these dead spirits are eagerly waiting for faithful Mormons to do proxy baptisms for them. We believe that these people will confront us after death if we’re not valiantly helping them while on earth. (Try explaining that to Anne Frank’s relatives!) After they’re baptized, there are more ordinances to be done in proxy. Another grizzly bear truth is that the practice of baptism for the dead was preceded by the mostly forgotten LDS practice of “adoption,” which involved sealing multiple families and persons on earth into an eternal family headed by a prominent priesthood holder. There was competition to get persons into your family because of the idea that the larger one’s “adopted family,” the greater one’s glory eternally. The summer 2011 issue of the “Journal of Mormon History” devotes more than 115 pages on early Mormon adoption theology in fascinating articles by Samuel M. Brown and Jonathan A. Stapley.
Trying to explain elements of the last paragraph is not easy, but rarely is grizzly bear truth easy to explain. It will be a challenge in this century for the LDS Church and its members to make the transition from teddy bear truth to grizzly bear truth and make hard-to-understand doctrines easier to comprehend.