It seems I’ve discovered my long-lost twin. Actually, Jane Barnes is old enough to be my mom, but her memoir Falling in Love with Joseph Smith feels like it was written by my alter ego. Like me, she felt called to convert to Mormonism. Unlike me, she ultimately decided to give it a pass.
But the story of how she got there is fascinating.
Like me, Barnes was raised in a secular family, though in her case they were nominal Protestants and in mine not even that. Like me, she realized early on that she had a deep interest in religion. Her childhood religiosity totally trumps mine though—at age eight, she used to hail her own cab in Washington, D.C. to take her to church (p. 21). She paid for these holy taxis with her own money. Jeepers.
Like me, Barnes had an unexpected and supernatural attraction to Mormonism, which she was at a loss to explain. Like me, she was gobsmacked to discover when doing family history research that she has some Mormon stories in her own genealogy. And like me, she fell in love with the charismatic and controversial prophet Joseph Smith.
But that’s where our stories diverge. I took the leap of faith and converted to Mormonism at age 23, despite lingering questions and doubts about a number of key issues. Barnes had a strong religious pull to Mormonism; she “felt a very strong religious spirit” at the local ward she attended and came to feel that the Book of Mormon was “a strange work of God’s genius” (p. 163; p. 65).
People have converted for far less. Why was she not able to? She writes:
I reminded myself of all the reasons against sudden conversion: my strongest impulses were the least reliable; I was always a fellow traveler, never a member; I wasn’t sure I was a Christian; my politics were on a crash course with the Mormons. I couldn’t vote for Mitt Romney. There wasn’t room here for a convert who supported gay marriage in this church. (p. 163)
I certainly hope she is wrong about that last sentence, since of course it describes me precisely. As I’ve blogged before, I am Mormon and plan to stay that way, even though my politics may differ from the norm. I am not going anywhere.
That’s a hard position for many non-Mormons to understand. I wanted to applaud when I read Barnes’s frank discussion of the anti-Mormon prejudice she encountered while helping to create the documentary PBS film The Mormons. The assumption that Mormonism was intellectually disrespectable was so widespread among her professional peers that she found herself defending the faith at cocktail parties and even in an argument with her own brother (p. 90).
Since Barnes has been involved in sexual relationships with both men and women, she’s no stranger to prejudice. She thinks that people’s manners when they discover someone is gay are more enlightened than their manners when they discover someone is interested in Mormonism as a potential faith tradition or life choice.
She was stunned to discover that “some people felt they could laugh in my face when I said I’d flipped for Joseph Smith.” Unfortunately, such prejudice even affected the producers at Frontline, who accused the independent filmmakers of having “drunk the Kool-Aid” of Mormonism just because they put together a balanced and non-sensationalistic documentary.
I had a couple of quibbles with Barnes’s take on things (though nothing like the reviewer for the Boston Globe, who seems to have hated the book as "an unsatisfying account of an unstatisfied search").
For example, she sees polygamy not as the early Saints described it (as a restoration of an ancient biblical practice) or as Joseph’s critics today describe it (as the fulfillment of a lascivious and forbidden sexuality), but as “a contemporary preoccupation with personal relationships” (p. 136). The biblical justification for polygamy was, in her view, “window dressing.” I can agree with her take on Joseph as one of the first true moderns, and certainly with her writerly intuition that the metanarrative of the Book of Mormon is more than Smith could have conjured at age twenty-four. But extending this modernism as a justification for plural marriage is not historically sound.
That’s a minor quarrel in an engrossing book. True Believing Mormons (TBMs) won’t be pleased by Barnes’s humanistic view of Joseph Smith as a melancholic, imaginative young man whose desire to impress sometimes outstripped his actual religious calling. On the other hand, fellow humanists will be dismayed with her personal commitment to the would-be prophet, which is irrational and transcendent (p. 70). (Isn’t true love always?) But Barnes’s love affair with Joseph Smith is complicated, not diminishable into sound bytes. I understand it viscerally.
Not every love affair will end in marriage, and not every conversion will end in long-term affiliation. Joseph Smith for Barnes is like that ex-boyfriend or girlfriend you had when you were younger, the one who really “got” you, the one so charismatic and compelling that you just couldn’t stay away.
But you would have been disastrous together if you’d gotten married.