Maxwell Institute Podcast #148: The Weight of Legacy, with Kate Holbrook
Kate Holbrook, PhD (1972–2022) was a leading voice in the study of Latter-day Saint
women and Latter-day Saint foodways. As managing historian of women’s history at
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints history department, she wrote, studied,
and interpreted history full-time. Her major research interests were religion, gender,
and food. Her primary professional activity was to discover, encourage, and celebrate
women’s flourishing in the scholarly and spiritual realms.
A popular public speaker, Kate was voted Harvard College’s Teaching Fellow of the
Year for her work as head teaching fellow in a course that enrolled nearly six hundred
students, and she co-edited Global Values 101: A Short Course (Beacon Press, 2006),
based on that class. In 2012, Kate co-organized a conference entitled “Women and the
LDS Church: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” She and her co-organizer,
Matthew Bowman, edited a collection of essays that sprang from this conference
entitled Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Kate has
also published essays and book chapters about Latter-day Saint women and
housework, Nation of Islam Muslims, Latter-day Saints and food, religion and
sexuality, and religious hunting rituals.
Kate grew up at the feet of the Rocky Mountains and returned there in 2006, to live
among the historic sites, cultural currents, and food environments where her
scholarship had its roots. She earned a BA in English and Russian literature from
Brigham Young University, an MTS from Harvard Divinity School, and a PhD in
Religious Studies from Boston University. For her dissertation work on Latter-day Saint
and Nation of Islam foodways, she was the first recipient of the Eccles Fellowship in
Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. She was proud wife (to Samuel Brown) and
mother (to Amelia, Lucia, and Persephone Holbrook-Brown).
Kate and her family developed this endowment together. It was Kate’s wish as she
departed mortality that these funds serve to help the women of the Church to flourish
in their scholarly and spiritual lives. Kate herself benefited from a similar gift (from
Ruth Silver of Denver, Colorado) early in her scholarly career, when she and Sam had
minimal financial resources, and she needed time and money to devote to the study of
women and religion. She hoped that such giving would become more and more
common over time.
Hi friends, I wish you all we’re hearing this podcast under different circumstances. Kate Holbrook, the speaker you will listen to, passed away from cancer on August 20, 2022. Kate Holbrook was a member of the Maxwell Institute’s advisory board, and editor to the short theological introductions to the Doctrine and Covenants series, and an editor for the forthcoming volume Every Needful Thing. The Maxwell Institute owes much to Dr. Holbrook’s work and influence. We are releasing her 2020 Neal A. Maxwell lecture so that you can get a sense of what she represented and the bright light she radiated. You can see her speak on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel by searching for The Weight of Legacy Maxwell Institute, which is the name of her address you will hear. The introduction from Dr. Melissa Inouye, which you will hear and also be able to see on the YouTube channel, is especially valuable for those who want to get a sense of Kate’s life and work. Finally, there’s been a scholarship created in Kate’s name, which you can learn about and donate to at kateholbrook.org/scholarship. Enjoy the episode and tell the people you love how you feel about them.
Melissa Inouye: It’s a pleasure to be here for this premiere of the annual Neal A. Maxwell lecture. We’re so pleased to be sharing this lecture with you via internet broadcast. Dr. Holbrook is here in the chat with us and she will be able to respond to your questions during and after her presentation. I first encountered Kate Holbrook the way many of you have, by hearing her speak. It was 23 years ago, I was a freshman at Harvard and I heard her give a talk in sacrament meeting in the Longfellow Park chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an uncommonly good talk, it was like a revelation! So it was possible for a sacrament talk to be smart, surprising, and to feel short. I have been looking up to Kate ever since. Dr. Holbrook is a managing historian at the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She holds a Ph.D. from Boston University. When writing her dissertation she was the first recipient of the Eccles fellowship in Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. She was voted Harvard college’s Teaching Fellow of the year for her work as head Teaching Fellow in a course that enrolled nearly 600 students, and she coedited Global Values 101, a short course based on that class. She holds a BA in English and Russian Literature from Brigham Young University. Dr. Holbrook has co authored three books, Women in Mormonism, The First 50 years of Relief Society, and At The Pulpit. You can find her numerous podcasts, presentations, interviews, book chapters, and blog posts on her website, kateholbrook.org. You can find her food blog, The Away Cafe at theawaycafe.com, a fabulous collection of great read recipes and witty commentary. I asked colleagues at the Church History Department about their impressions of Kate. Matt Grow, Managing Director of the Department said, “Kate is a real model of a disciple scholar. I’ve been impressed over time at how thin the line between the intellectual and the spiritual is for Kate. She approaches intellectual questions with a spiritual focus and spiritual questions with an intellectual focus.” David Golding said, “Kate was not satisfied with the surface level or the mainstream argument and instead unearths great insight from the quotidian and the familiar.” And yet, Jenny Reader points out, “Kate has an uncanny sense of vision.” Amber Taylor, currently working with Kate to write A History of The Young Woman Organization, said that Kate is like both rock and water. “She is constant and firm, but also has a humility that allows her to learn and adapt. These two aspects of her character give her an uncommon and remarkable ability to face and balance difficult questions.” I also asked Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who has interacted with Kate as an academic mentor, and a member of Kate’s local congregation. She says, “Kate Holbrook is a soft spoken revolutionary, she makes things happen.” Strikingly, all of these comments portray Kate as a person of seeming contradictions. Someone who blurs the usual boundaries. She’s a spiritual intellectual, a visionary focused on the quotidian, both rock and water, a soft spoken revolutionary. For a person who writes books and does podcasts for a living, and who blogs for fun, Kate is also a surprisingly private person, an introvert. I wanted to find a way to get inside her head and understand what makes her tick. True to the theme of blurred boundaries, getting inside Kate’s head also means getting inside her gastrointestinal tract. For example, in the notes for her double chocolate bundt cake recipe, Kate described a late night insight about chocolate cake, the way some Latter-day prophets describe receiving divine revelation. She says, “One night, I was getting ready for bed, the thought came to me that I should check the amount of cocoa powder in my favorite 9×13 chocolate cake and the amount of flour in my favorite bundt cake, not chocolate. And if I were to do these two things, I would know how to make the perfect chocolate cake. When you take baking and chocolate cake as seriously as I do, you don’t ignore that kind of a thought. I looked up the recipes, opened a new email to myself, and typed the ingredients the way I thought they should be. So I made this cake, which was delicious. But afterwards, I couldn’t get this line out of my head. When you take baking and chocolate cake as seriously as I do,” “How seriously?” I asked Kate. “How often do you think about chocolate cake?” Now before I give Kate’s answer, I would like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on how often you think about chocolate cake, not eating it, or while you’re seeing it in a shop, but thinking about it. Is it A: maybe when it’s someone’s birthday, B: once a month, C: once a week, or D: once a day? Kate responded, “On average, every day. Some days I skip, but some days I think about it multiple times.” So clearly if she was thinking about baking chocolate cake every day on average, the way to understand Kate is to understand her recipes. So I’m going to take you on a little gastronomical tour of Kate’s mind and heart. We’re going to start with a cocktail, non-alcoholic of course, then move on to the main single course, then onto a sauce, then finish with dessert. I made all these recipes and they’re all very tasty. The cocktail recipe is from Kate’s doctoral dissertation, in which Kate argues in part that while most people think about Latter-day Saint dietary practices as a form of separation and boundary maintenance, in reality, American Latter-day Saint food culture was also striving for acceptance and inclusion. Kate built on Armand Mauss’s argument in the seminal book, The Angel and the Beehive, which in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints goes through periods of assimilation in which it seeks to be mainstream, followed by periods of retrenchment in which emphasizes peculiarity and countercultural difference. Kate’s insight from Latter-day Saint food culture is that both processes, assimilation and retrenchment, are present simultaneously. Alongside observing the Word of Wisdom, which is a long list of extensions from mainstream food culture, Latter-day Saints also use their food waste to seek acceptance. As evidence in her dissertation, Kate cited this recipe from Rhubarb Ice Cocktail from Winifred Jardiance’s, Mormon Country Cooking. It explains that this recipe both found a use for excess garden rhubarb and not to the saint’s frugality, and also in its name, rhubarb ice cocktail, revealed aspirations toward broader cultural assimilation. She writes, “Where the recipes authored,” that she said Jardine, “…where Jardine could have named it refreshing rhubarb delight, or some other designation appropriate at the time. Instead, she called it a cocktail. Latter-day Saints did not drink alcoholic cocktails. This concoction was one in name only, and its name was aspirational. Cocktails were sophisticated, they signify status.” Here’s another recipe from Kate’s time at Harvard Divinity School and early married years, a southwestern torte. Here are her notes on this recipe. “This meal was inexpensive of prime importance, provided leftovers, and was a nod to my Utah culinary roots while I lived in New England. I was still learning to put together full meals so I often only made a main dish without side dishes, which meant the main dish had to be filling and exciting.” When she and her family moved to Utah, she said she was drowning in lovely inexpensive produce. She wanted to learn to can, to understand what she was writing about in her dissertation, and she was looking for something that would be extra exciting for her little girls and babies to eat. Finally, here’s a recipe that represents her now, in a family with teenagers and two parents with demanding careers. She prescribes chocolate chip, oatmeal cookie bars as a way to attract family members to a common space, the kitchen, for conversation despite all our individual responsibilities and trying to get them to linger after FHE. Here at the bottom of this recipe, we find a note that gives us insight into another one of Kate’s contradictions, her intimidating perfectionism and warm acceptance of others’ efforts. She writes, “I defy you to find a more delicious incarnation of this dessert. But before you test me on this, you have to follow the recipe. One fellow disregarded the long whipping of butter and sugar. He did not add the eggs one at a time. The bars he made were substandard. And it was his fault. We ate them anyway. But the experience was the cubic zirconia version of the diamond we love. Don’t feel you have to wait until the weekend to whip this up. In fact, just go do it right now.” Substandard? It was his fault? Cubic zirconia? This implacably critical judgment, what normal people can tell the difference between cubic zirconia and diamond anyway, is followed by a blanket encouragement for everyone to whip this up! I.e. do it quickly! Everything will be fine! No need to prepare! Just do it! How do these two voices spring from the same mind? Like the Latter-day Saint cook she describes in her dissertation, the seemingly mutually exclusive processes of critical thinking and optimistic generosity are both alive, simultaneously within Kate Holbrook. There is room for both. Spencer Fluhman, director of the Maxwell Institute says, “I find Kate Holbrook’s generosity infectious. She notices the great work around her and I’m routinely inspired by the way she commends other’s vital contributions. She rightly sees scholarship as a communal endeavor and knowledge as a public trust.” Now it’s time for me to stop talking about Kate and let Kate start talking but let me just conclude with this, Kate has a mind and a heart, her personality, encompassing a range of qualities that most of us are used to seeing as in opposition to each other, being smart and being spiritual, seeing grand visions and seeing humble details, standing firm and going with the flow, being quiet and changing the world, being public and being private, having impeccable standards and generously encouraging others. Kate, by being Kate, helps us to realize we don’t have to do only one thing, or only be one way. There are many possible ways to be in the world and with each other as a critical mind, a feeling heart, a hopeful soul, a hungry body. Kate’s example teaches us that by developing complexity and capacity in ourselves, and in the modes we inhabit, we can be equal to the challenges of a complex, trying world. For instance, what would Kate do if she were stranded on a desert island? Trying to think like Kate, I realized that desert can sit dessert. Of course! Life would give her lemons and she would make lemon bundt cake. Ladies and gentlemen, Kate Holbrook.
Kate Holbrook: Melissa, thank you for the best introduction I have ever heard and certainly have ever received. I’m really touched and it was flowing with generosity and intelligence. Thank you. Elizabeth Hail Hammond’s research and writing vastly improved outcomes for heart transplant patients. In fact, she was one of the pathologists who developed the heart transplant grading system for the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation. But when she first began publishing her research in 1989, transplant experts around the world thought she was crazy and they weren’t shy in their disparagement. Hammond, now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah School of Medicine, was convinced that antibodies were causing a form of heart transplant rejection. For those of you who have forgotten biology, antibodies are proteins that circulate in the blood as part of the immune system. Their job is to identify intruders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, bind to them then bind to other entities in the blood that will neutralize the intruders. I’ll repeat that one more time just in case scientific terms stir up in any of you and initial sense of panic. Antibodies are proteins that circulate in the blood as part of the immune system. Their job is to identify intruders, bind to them, then bind to other entities in the blood that will neutralize the intruders. Now one interesting characteristic of antibodies is that they are shaped like the letter Y, which makes them an apt way to honor our BYU venue tonight. We’ll come back to Dr. Hammond but let’s shift for a moment to discussing one of the broad implications of her story, that of legacy. We in this audience can become haunted by questions of legacy and reputation. Our worry over it can seriously impede our scholarship as well as the disciple aspect of our attempt to be disciple scholars. Worries about our reputations not only threaten the quality of our scholarship, those worries can lead us to be consumed by jealousies, poor colleagues, and inadequate mentors. When other people say something to undermine our credibility, whether what they say has any truth in it or not, it can make us feel crazy. As a scholar, I have been tempted and tormented by these feelings myself. I have seen scholars whose work I particularly admire, suffer the same. And I’ve definitely seen this suffering in scholars whose work in character I do not admire. Although the Academy is an effective place to foster these bad feelings and behaviors, you and I have seen them elsewhere. politics, business, the arts. I offer this talk as an invitation to consider those aspects of legacy that we can control and how to make the most of those, and then be free from worry over all that we cannot control. When Dr. Hammond was first introducing her research, the other heart transplant experts focused exclusively on immune cells as relevant to heart transplant success. Dr. Hammond wasn’t a mad scientist conceiving her theories in some cave of the research wilderness. At least 10 years earlier, some general researchers had identified antibodies as playing an important role in transplant success, but the heart transplant detractors ignored those earlier results. Despite the public disparagement, Dr. Hammond continued with her research, which to their great credit, both the University of Utah and Intermountain Medicine continued to support. She continued because she knew that her results were accurate, and that this work was important to make heart transplant surgeries a viable and less risky treatment option. Consider the ramifications of that. She reported that her ability to focus on others, on the value of the information to patients and their doctors, “…helped to drive me onward in the face of public rejection of my ideas.”
As she continued with her research, Dr. Hammond learned that even in the absence of immune cells, a patient’s risk of dying was nine times higher when antibodies were present. Other groups eventually began to recognize and publish similar findings. At last, 22 years after her first publication on antibodies and heart transplants, the International Cardiology Community accepted and came to depend upon her results. Public disparagement is a potent dissuader. Dr. Hammond had to make the faith in her mind and heart stronger than the fear. She had to believe that God would direct her as she worked with honesty, and with diligence. Her desire to help patients and their families had to be stronger than her desire to be accepted. When we are consumed with what our legacy says about us, we invite torment into our lives. When legacy matters to us because of what we can do for others, we invite God, purpose, and meaningful achievement into our lives. I hope that many of you have enjoyed the terrific conversations with Terryl Givens recordings, co-sponsored by Faith Matters and Neal Maxwell Institute’s in which Terryl interviewed Latter-day Saints about the intersections of their intellectual work and their faith. As an intriguing way into the interviews, Terryl frequently asked guests what they thought would be printed in their obituaries, or what they would wish to see there. My husband Samuel Brown, is a medical researcher and intensive care physician and a Professor of Medical Ethics, who also writes books exploring Joseph Smith’s theological contributions. Sam responded that he most wanted his obituary to report, “He died defending his family from a grizzly bear attack with his bare hands.” When Terryl pushed Sam for more, Sam added, “Professionally, I think I would like to be known as a figure who forced us to reconsider how we deliver intensive care during a life threatening illness.” Sam’s words revealed his yearning to be self-sacrificing and brave, his desire to be remembered, his desire to be funny, and it’s focused on helping other people. One of church members favorite contemporary artists, Brian Kershisnik spoke more in his answer about character than he did about art. “I aspire actually more to being. I hope that I am to be a good human being rather than an artist. Obviously, you’re talking to me here because of my profession. But I derive a lot of power in my art, from a search to deepen myself as a human. I hope that shows up in my obituary.” The writer Margaret Blair Young realized as she achieved her professional dreams, that her covenants and doing God’s will became increasingly important measures for her moving forward. “When I finally became a published writer,” she acknowledged, “I realized it wasn’t that big of a deal. That was when I started taking my covenants very, very seriously, and asked God for something that would matter, that maybe I could use my talents, but it wouldn’t just be so I could have a byline. The name I most want to be called by is disciple.” Margaret’s past collaborator and friend, Darius Gray, has dedicated himself to providing resources such as the Genesis group, to black church members, and to preserving and sharing their history for the benefit of white members and others as well. Darius managed to convey charity, gratitude, humility, and faith in a few well chosen words for his obituary. “To those whom I’ve loved, I love you still. To those who have loved me, thank you. See you soon.” Most of the responses, including many I haven’t mentioned and including my own, revealed discomfort with the topic of legacy. As Latter-day Saints, we know we’re not supposed to aspire to fame or glory. But still we do want our lives and our work to have mattered. As Brian acknowledged, “Obviously, you’re talking to me here because of my profession.” My own response was, “I’ve written some books in Latter-day Saint women’s history that I feel have been good contributions. I think they’ll be remembered generally through favorite recipes that have come from me. I’ve decided that’s maybe in some ways, a richer and more lasting visceral experience that people will have of my having been on this earth.” While I told Terryl I thought recipes would be part of my legacy, I certainly hope all of the writing I have done and the mentoring will have meant something. I don’t spend most of the days of my life on writing history, and not care about it, I care immensely. But with my answer, I was trying to convey two things. First, all that we can’t control about our legacies and second, the importance of work that is less public, less celebrated, and also exceedingly meaningful.
Historian Laurel Ulrich has been honored with the Bancroft Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, and many other honors for her attention to women doing less celebrated work, and for exceptional high standards, and thinking behind that focus. “The real drama is in the humdrum.” She both wrote and proved throughout her career. Laurel is famous for the saying, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” As you may know, she used these words at the beginning of an essay about women whom historians had ignored. There are obvious reasons why historians have not celebrated these women. They have seldom led countries or troops into battle. They haven’t, like Henry the XIII, beheaded their marriage partners in an effort to get an air of their same sex. They weren’t delegates to the Constitutional Convention. For much of the field’s history, historians were interested primarily in power, drama, and influence. At its heart, history is an attempt to figure out what happened. But in doing so, we also define what mattered. As scholars and as disciples, it’s crucial for us to remember this because while the histories we research and share send messages about what matters, we often leave out contributions that really mattered. A general authority, Jay Devon Cornish, observed that parents and Sunday school teachers have a much deeper impact on people than do the more well known and celebrated general church leaders. Those parents and teachers make it into memoirs and magazines, do we also include them in our peer reviewed work? Having met her only once, my brother in law still remembers how my grandma made him feel loved, welcome, and comforted, when she met him the night before my wedding. She did so for many others, including me who lived with her. Have I adequately preserved this work of hers? If I can’t find the right scholarly model to do so, maybe I need to develop one myself. The way we interact with children also teaches what is worthy of recognition in the way we perk up over certain topics and praise other people. When a dad is impressed by a story of someone sacrificing for some common good, children learn that the way to impress dad is to do something good for humanity. When a mother is impressed by the phrasing in a child’s writing, the child learns that writing well is the way to impress mom. We all want people to be aware of our effort. We want to be interviewed for podcasts, mentioned on the news, the recipients of awards. Not all of our desire to matter is bad. We want our lives to have mattered in God’s eyes too. We want to be useful. But if we serve only to gain approval, we are missing out. Acting out of love for others is a more pure, effective, and satisfying motivation. Changing that motivation can be as simple as thinking about it. If we catch ourselves thinking about how something will make us look, we can switch our thoughts to focus on how our actions will benefit someone else. As scholars, parents and mentors then, we are caretakers of others’ legacies. Our words strongly influence the meaning people attribute to other’s lives. And a second way legacy impacts us regards our own reputations. Church culture conveys mixed messages about what to strive for here. We’re not supposed to want recognition and that message comes through when people receive callings. We say things such as no one was more surprised than I, or I spent a sleepless night on my knees. At the same time, we admire church members who have prominent callings, or professional success. When led to think about our reputations as Terryl asked us to do, most of us admit that we care about how we are remembered. Since the quality of our work influences what other people say about us, it makes sense to think about the legacy we are creating through our work. What is the nature of it? Do we put more of our energy into building? Or tearing down? Do we write for the exclusive few who have the expertise to disseminate an important high level understanding more broadly? Or do we write for the exclusive few so we can feel exclusive? Do we write to translate wisdom from the arcane details of our specialty? Or do we write to maintain our scholarly reputations? We do have to signal that we know what we’re talking about. Although I actually think we don’t have to signal it quite as robustly as we often do.
When I was in college, a friend introduced me to the work of Wayne Dyer, who taught me some important lessons, including the fact that you can’t control your reputation. Dyer said, “Your reputation is in the hands of others. That’s what the reputation is, you can’t control that. The only thing you can control is your character.” Diane Von Furstenberg said something similar in an interview for the masterclass series, which was fascinating because her career is in clothing design, a field in which reputation is both vulnerable and vital for success. “You can lose everything,” she said. “You can lose your home, your family, your reputation, your wealth, your job, you can lose your parents. You can even lose your health, but you will never lose your character. Your character is something that no one can ever take away.” We do have some control over the quality of our work. We can organize and exert ourselves to do our best work. But after that, I think these two are right. That character is one of the few things we can control. I would add to that insight, that to build character, we can put ourselves in places that invite God into our presence. We invite those places, we inhabit those places, when we act. When we serve, pray, read scripture or attend church, we invite the divine into our lives and souls where God improves our character. For many of us, the hunger to matter, the hunger for our lives to matter, can lead us astray. Some of us seek that meaning through power and money. Since large salaries don’t generally accompany the life of the mind, most of us who have chosen to become scholars have relinquished aspirations about mattering because we have money. But we might channel our disappointment about wealth into sneering at those who are rich. When I was in seventh grade, my geography teacher was exceedingly bitter about money. In fact, his bitterness and discussing the soap opera Days of Our Lives with classmates are my most prominent memories of junior high. One minute, my teacher would be talking about state exports and the next he’d be criticizing again, “the people who live on the hill.” Back then in my hometown, people who lived on the hill tended to have more money. He’s certainly not the only person who, in defense of a fragile sense of self, has said insensitive things about others. But his embarrassing example reminds me not to sneer. Reflect on your own responses to settings that make you feel vulnerable. When you prepare a response to papers for a conference, do you focus more on providing helpful feedback and encouraging the other speakers? Or on making yourself look good? How do you speak about candidates during rank and status meetings? What kinds of comments do you make at faculty meetings? How do you interact with others during campus writing workshops? If you feel that your reputation is always on the line, consider handing that worry over to Jesus. He will protect you while you can focus on the greater good.
I recently heard Elder Bednar suggest that if we’re trying to develop Christ-like qualities for the sole purpose of being seen as good people, our prayers for help might not yield much result. But if we’re trying to develop them on others’ behalf, then God will certainly help us. When I heard him say that, I felt in my heart that it was true. And I remembered Dr. Hammond, that she was able to withstand ignorant criticism of her work because she was motivated by others’s welfare. Elder Bednar’s insight is crucial to understanding the dynamics of righteous legacy. If I pray “Please help me to prepare good talks so that people will know I’m smart.” That’s a weak prayer. If I pray, “Help me to include content in this talk that will provide direction to someone listening and comfort to someone else and help others to feel God’s love.” That’s a better motive. And it’s also a better deal for the divine beings responding to my prayer, because they get to help me and others all at the same time, although I don’t believe they do the math that way.
I read Alma chapter 1 in the Book of Mormon as an indictment of people who are obsessed with reputation. When we meet Nehor, the antagonist in this chapter, some of us might assume we are blameless in comparison with him. We aren’t like him, we might think, because he is physically strong and wears costly apparel. But the same verse that tells us about Nehor’s impressive physical attributes, also mentions that he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart and even began to establish the church after the manner of his preaching. So we don’t get a pass after all. I know that some of us like to imagine the church established after the manner of our preaching. After Nehor became angry with and killed a righteous elderly man during an argument, I assume because he was losing the argument, he had to appear before Alma, the judge. The first thing readers hear Alma mention to Nehor is not the murder, although he certainly cared about that. But he mentions the sin of priestcraft, which Grant Hardy in the beautiful Maxwell Institute edition of The Book of Mormon astutely defines as, “Religious fraud to gain wealth or power.” Alma says that if priestcraft were enforced among the people, it would prove their entire destruction. In other words, Alma taught that if people commonly committed religious fraud to gain wealth or power, it would destroy society. Nehor received a death sentence for having killed another person. And just before what the book calls his ignominious death, Nehor acknowledged that his teachings had been false. But his deathbed repentance didn’t receive enough attention. Or at least it wasn’t enough to undo the destructive precedents he set because priestcraft persisted, because many people as the scripture says, “…loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines, and this they did for the sake of riches and honor.” In response to their teaching, many people left the church and then criticized those who stayed. The righteous, on the other hand, kept the commandments, listened to the word of God, and worked hard. Righteous teachers did not think they were better than the listeners. No one wore extravagant clothing, and they used extra resources to clothe and feed the hungry and tend to those who were sick. Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America offers another thinking model to help us understand legacy in constructive ways. In this model, Berry contrasts the exploiter with the nurturer. Exploiters want to get the most for themselves out of any given resource or relationship, regardless of how their behavior impacts that resource or relationship. Nurturers are primarily concerned with the health of resources, relationships and communities. Various focus was on land, so he described exploiters getting all of the resources they could out of a piece of land, then moving on to another piece once that land was wrecked. In contrast, nurturers built a sustainable relationship between the land and the people who worked it, so both the land and the people stayed healthy. This exploiter, nurturer model also illuminates Nehor’s priestcraft. Nehor was an exploiter. He didn’t care about others’ relationship with God, the health of the church, or anyone’s well being, he cared about his own wealth and power. Alma, on the other hand, devoted himself to people’s well being, their relationships with each other, and the long term health of the church. This exploiter-nurturer pairing relates directly to vanity. And the way we think about legacy. Obsession with being well regarded tempts us to exploitative behavior in our interpersonal relationships, as well as in the way we treat sources in our work. Concerned with nurturing people past and present, on the other hand, leads us to more careful thinking, to honesty, to building concepts and relationships that will sustain others for a long time.
One aspect of nurturing is advocacy, by which I mean supporting a cause or a person. We can be advocates for others, but we also have an advocate, a reliable one. Working on behalf of others makes Jesus Christ, our advocate. When we work on behalf of others, he becomes our advocate. His advocacy is one of the great gifts that a disciple scholar and any disciple can enjoy and it manifests itself in our lives in a number of ways. I’ll briefly mention three. First, the advocacy of Jesus Christ improves the quality of our work and leads our work to find his audience more widely, than we can take it on our own. He can make our work accomplished in the world, but good it has the potential to accomplish. Second, when hurting from a negative review by someone who didn’t understand our work, we can have faith that that work will still find an audience and still influence the collective understanding for good. We can hope for the happy ending that Dr. Hammond received after her years of diligence. When hurting from a negative review that was justified because we missed an important perspective, we can feel grateful for that voice because it helps safeguard the collective understanding from the harm that we did. And we can be grateful because the review, if we let it, will help us to do better work in the future. As our advocate, Jesus Christ can comfort us from the pain of being falsely accused, or publicly wrong. Third, Jesus’ advocacy can guide us toward truth and solid evidence. I believe this is what the diligence of Dr. Hammond allowed Him to do, to bring out truth. We experience this frequently where I work in the church history department. A dose of divine intervention gets the right sources on our desk, or brings a conversation with someone that leads us to frame a sentence differently. Mark Staker, who works in the Historic Sites Division at the church history department, had such an experience when he was working on the renovation of the priesthood restoration site in Pennsylvania. His experience models how to blend scholarly work with the Savior’s advocacy. Mark developed love and admiration for Oliver Cowdery, Emma Smith, and Joseph Smith while he was working on the project. He said, “I wanted the site to reflect in detail everything I could learn about them as individuals, including their personalities, their sacrifices, and their contributions to the restoration. I gave considerable attention to Oliver Cowdery as scribe. He walked all the way from Manchester, New York through the snow and rain to meet Joseph. He arrived with his feet exposed in worn shoes, and his toes slightly injured through the freezing. Right after he arrived in Harmony, he stayed up late into the night with Joseph, as the two talked. Then Oliver took his meager school teacher salary, and made the first payment on Joseph Smith’s property, both as a desire to help and as a sign of his commitment. He then immediately began to work as Joseph’s scribe. Mark thought a lot about what tools Cowdery would have used in this work as scribe. He studied the vast collection of 19th century writing materials at old Sturbridge Village. He looked at inkwells, pen knives, and original quill pens found tucked between the pages of an old financial ledger or in the drawer of an old desk. He also discussed with scholars who carefully studied the original Book of Mormon manuscript, how it had been produced. He learned that Cowdery’s writing grew wider when the tip of his pen became old and flared out. And then his writing narrowed once more after starting with the new quill. Through this research, Mark determined that Cowdery would have used a turkey feather for his quill pens. So Mark looked for turkey feathers to put in the replica of the home where Joseph and Oliver had worked together, but he ran into a problem. He could buy an entire bag of goose feathers for $4. But turkey feathers came from sellers charging 15 or $20 each, and he felt wrong spending that much money on them. So we bought a bag of goose feathers and made over 100 quill pens. Packing up a fistful of the goose quills, he took them along when he drove to harmony to finalize the installation, but he knew the goose quills were wrong. The morning of the opening, Mark arose before sunrise to put finishing touches on the home, including the quill pens. In his words, “I arrived just as the morning light changed the home to a warm rose glow. I was thinking about the feather at that time. I don’t remember if I was praying for a solution, or if I was just lamenting not having one. There on the front stoop was a beautiful 11 inch long feather from the tip of a wild turkey’s wing. I picked it up, pulled out my pen knife, and then had the perfect quilt sitting in Oliver’s inkwell on the table a few minutes later. I left part of the fletching on the pen, so it would be clear what kind of bird had provided it. I’m grateful for that generous turkey. But in my mind, it was God who orchestrated the experience. I think Oliver was pleased that his contributions to the restoration were remembered and celebrated. I could say in my heart, I know what you did. And he could whisper in my mind, I know you know.
To qualify for the kind of advocacy that both Mark Staker and Elizabeth Hale Hammond experienced, we have to let it in. Believe in it, pray for it, and let it happen. An additional way we and they qualify is to keep working. The Lord loves effort, as our Prophet told a group of children in Palmyra, New York last year. But perhaps the most important aspect of their qualification was that they were working on behalf of others as nurturers, not exploiters. Before closing, I invite you to consider one additional aspect of legacy that we encounter even when we do good work for the right reasons. And we’ll return to the Book of Mormon to explore this final point. As you have noticed, just because someone is in the scriptures doesn’t mean that she or he did the right thing, or that we should heed their words. Often, we have to figure out for ourselves whether what they have said or done is consistent with other church teachings and with God’s will. This dynamic is particularly obvious in the Hebrew Bible, where men sleep with their sons’ widows and sacrifice their daughters. But it is at work throughout all scripture, which is after all, a human attempt to record and make sense of human experience with the divine. In Alma chapter 26, a missionary Ammon, so exuberantly expresses the joy of having done good work on behalf of others and in partnership with God, that his brother softly accuses him. “Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.” Amman, Aaron, and their fellow missionaries had risked not just physical privations, but their lives in an effort to share information with the Lamanite peoples. As a result, thousands of Lamanites entered more deeply into God’s love, experienced redemption, and exemplified integrity and charity in a way that then inspired and instructed the Nephites. Ammon had good reason to celebrate the legacy of what everyone together had accomplished, the Lamanite peoples, God, and the missionaries. Here is his response to his cautious brother’s worry about boasting, and it’s a model of how we might all think about legacy. “I do not boast in my own strength nor in my own wisdom. But behold, my joy is full. Yea, my heart is brim with joy and I will rejoice in my God, I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God. For in his strength, I can do all things. Yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land for which we will praise his name forever. He has brought our Lamanites siblings into everlasting light, yea into everlasting salvation, and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of His love. Yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.” Ammons’ exaltations are worth our emulation because he focused on others’ well being. And while acknowledging the human effort involved, he’s still described their success as a gift from God. Ammons’ words also teach us that celebrating legacy in humility and gratitude does not require that we grovel. Amman showed us how to feel good about helping others through gratitude, rather than through boasting.
Terryl’s question has led us through a complex conversation. Some of you might be wondering why he even asked that uncomfortable and potentially incriminating question about how we want to be remembered. There are good reasons. The question is a smooth way to move from general to specific in an interview, and it quickly gives audience members a sense of the person they’re listening to. It’s an engaging question. I enjoyed hearing how people like Nyland McBain, Tom Griffith, and Rosalynd Welch answered that question. Listen to their interviews with Terryl if you want to as well. But the question is also beneficial because it invites us to reflect, how better to avoid vanity than to examine our aims and to think through what we hope our lives will mean for others, so we can have a chance to make them mean something worthwhile. Maybe the Holy Ghost is right now inviting you to answer that question yourselves. The legacy of the boy who sought 200 years ago, a quiet space to pray for spiritual direction is not in that boy’s hands. His legacy lies now in our hands. In the ways we respond to the teachings and church structures he left behind. When he was alive, he created a worthy legacy by working for our salvation, and not obsessing over his own reputation. He worked for us to have the forgiveness that was the first thing God offered him in the sacred grove, and the love of God in our lives, and relationships that transcend the threats mortal life puts in their way. He worked as a nurturer with faith, optimism, and strength. I offer my remarks tonight in the spirit of empathy, encouragement, and also warning about times vanity leads us to care more about our own reputation than others’ well being. Instead, our efforts to make our lives matter can be interwoven, like the lattice top crust of an exemplary pie with righteous motivation. Let’s have faith in God’s abundance. Sister Michelle Craig taught at the last General Conference, “There may be times when you find yourself struggling to see how God is working in your life, times when you feel under siege, and the trials of mortality bring you to your knees. Wait, and trust in God and in his timing, because you can trust his heart with all of yours.” God’s abundance is the real antidote to the feelings that haunt us when we want to matter, and shape our professions and sell more books than we actually do. With God in our hearts, we are more than enough.
Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu? Thank you and have a great week.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)