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The “Almost” Mormon

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.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: book of mormon, boston globe, converting to mormonism, flunking sainthood, helen whitney filmmaker, jana riess, jane barnes, jane barnes falling in love with joseph smith, joseph smith, pbs documentary the mormons, the church of jesus christ of latter-day saints


  1. Most Christian I meet, never take their faith so seriously and deeply. They passively join the church of their parents, or have an emotional “conversion” at a revival meeting. I absolutely agree that if Miss Barnes disagrees so profoundly with the tenets of the LDS faith, then absolutely it’s not for her. Far too many people just stuff their doubts and jump in with both feet. I say bravo, to anyone who follows the harder but honest path

  2. Just to clarify, and I’m sorry if this did not come through in the review, I would say that the authors does NOT disagree with the tenets of the LDS faith. It was Mormon culture that made conversion difficult or even impossible, not belief.

    And that should give Mormons pause.

  3. I think the “Mormon culture” issues are way overblown. I find that those who criticise it tend to overplay the problem. It is as though their legitimacy is derived from their “other-ness” within the Mormon group.

    Citing politics as reason for not joining the faith is a canard. Mitt Romney is not God, and despite what I hear from self-identified and outspoken progressive Mormons, the balance of the membership that I know agrees with me.

    We should think critically about our culture. But we should also be careful not to portray the church as a bunch of Glenn Becks, with very few critically minded Jana Reisses.

  4. It strikes me that all the love and marriage analogies here miss the mark (they may or may not permeate the book, but they drench the review).

    It is not Joseph that any of us LDS should ‘fall in love with’, but Christ.  Christ should be the bridegroom.  It is the church collectively and we individually (of both genders) that should be the brides.  In my view, missing that misses the point.

    Then again, we often make that a point easy to miss.  I often think we could benefit from a bit of the ‘hearts on fire’ imagry of Rumi or of St. John of the Cross in the Mormon experience.

  5. I am the author of “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith.” I can’t thank Jana Reiss enough for her perceptive and intelligent review. She picked up on so many of the points I hoped people would notice. I even appreciate her questioning my historical grasp of Joseph’s polygamy. She makes me want to dig deeper and think harder about his intentions.

    I am jumping in to correct a small but important point. I was unable to finally join the Church because of the super centrality of Christ not because of Mormon culture. In my opinion, when Joseph takes Christ out of the Bible, a scripture which has been declared closed for 1800 years, he challenges Christianity at its core. Once the Bible is opened, once Christ is set free, he is delivered into the democracy of inquiring minds. He has to be redefined. He might still be the supernatural son of God, but he could also be the sort of teacher featured in the Unitarian Church. Christ might be a brother, another man (as Joseph suggests in the King Follett Sermon), a pilgrim of the sort Bob Dylan met in his hotel room in 1978. I think Joseph sensed the problem of where Christ would get his new authority in his life outside the Bible. Not long after he published the Book of Mormon, Joseph began Doctrines & Covenants, scripture dictated to him by Christ which lays out the rules and practices of the new Christian Church. The D&C was a way of building Christ back up as God’s son. But the world had changed. It is still possible to receive and write scripture, but once the Bible is opened, I have new authority. I have the authority to say that I see Christ as a teacher not a savior. Yet when I investigated, the missionaries put Christ’s divinity and centrality to me as a necessary part of the belief I must have to become a convert.

  6. Jane - How cool is it for you to comment on this article!  I was curious about the last sentence and was hoping you could expand on your meaning.  The absolute core to “mormonism” is Christ’s divinity, Him being the son of God, and him being the Saviour of the world.  There really wouldn’t be a reason to convert to the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until one believes these things about Christ.

  7. The missionaries were correct in putting Christ’s divinity and centrality as the focal point of the faith.  As I see it, that is what many people miss when they think of Mormonism.  It is indeed the supernal sacrifice and the resulting atonement that underpin all that Joseph Smith said or did. Christ, a perfect and divine Son of God, is indeed unquestionably the central focus despite others’ hang ups with, e.g., continuing revelation, additional scripture, the trinity, or temple rites. None of the rest of it matters without having Christ as the cornerstone of all that we do or believe as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  8. ‘The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it’ ( Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 121).

  9. It is not often I learn of someone declining to become Mormon because we are too Christian, or speak of Christ too much.  The new scripture, Book of Mormon, does speak of Jesus as being divine and, in some sense, as the Son of God.  So did Joseph Smith.

    What does it mean to be the Son of God?  Does it require Jesus literally to carry God’s genes in his body?  Was a fertilizied (or quasi-fertilized egg) implanted in Mary’s womb?  Could Jesus be the Son of God without God’s literal DNA?  How can human and God DNA mix in a human being?  While some of the early Brethren speculated on those issues, I do not believe that the LDS Church has an official teaching on those issues any more than does the rest of Christianity.

    Could Jesus literally be the Son of God by some other process?  Supernatural adoption in a way different from other human beings?  Why not?  Couldn’t Jesus be a wonderful teacher who is or becomes classified by God as God’s special Son through some sort of supernatural means, or simply by God’s designation to treat Jesus’ teachings that way?

    I personally think that Mormonism is open to many potential interpretations or understandings of what those phrases about Jesus mean.  They may not be mainstream LDS interpretations, they may not fit into current correlated teachings of the Church.  The interpretations may even be wrong.  But I do not see why a Mormon cannot believe those ways, carefully distinguishing his/her own views from the official ones, and otherwise participate fully in the community.

    But, as John Lenon might say, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

  10. I see why Jane never made it to conversion.  You can’t live the way she is described as living in a moral sense and hen claim the spiritual high ground where conversion takes place.  Where is the real intent?  Did Jesus condone all this immoral lifestyle?  Whose will, exactly, is she trying to live?  Certainly, an adherent to certain standards would do better in the spiritual journey.  I find that most who dissociate from god’s laws never really get it anyway.  They always have and always will find fault with the truth.

  11. Joseph wrote:

    “We should think critically about our culture. But we should also be careful not to portray the church as a bunch of Glenn Becks, with very few critically minded Jana Reisses.”

    This may come as a big shock to you, Joseph, but those are not the only two groups of people in the LDS church.  I take it that you think you are in a small group of “critically minded” people which include such as Jana Reisses, and have, of course “progressive” attitudes and politics, which I further take it you believe are superior to all other views.  And I understand that you may not like everything that comes out of Glenn Becks’s mouth.  As a conservative Republican, I don’t either, but the idea the only thinking people, the only “critically minded” people are those who hold “progressive” views is stupid and absurd, and if that is your view, marks you as far more narrow minded than Glenn Beck.   

  12. @ A Jardine:

    You must not have read my whole comment. I agree with your take on church membership. However, I found your response quite presumptuous and rude.

  13. Jane, thanks so much for reading the review and for your gentle correction. It sounds like I have indeed misunderstood something important, and I’m sorry about that. I’m glad that you came on board to set the record straight. Please let me thank you for writing a provocative and fascinating memoir!

    Mormonism definitely lost out when you decided not to convert.

  14. Mitt is a lifetime Mormon cult servant, Sunday teacher , priest.
    Mitt can never separate religion form politics. religions was business life for Mitt.

    President Mitt the priest is middle east age like.
    Mitt doesn’‘t fitt

  15. Jane & Jana: THANK YOU for your book (Jane) and for your review (Jana).  I agree with a previous commenter: HOW COOL IS IT THAT JANE MADE A COMMENT HERE?  WOW!  As a TBM who often is at odds with some of the mainstream trends in LDSaint culture (though not typically the usual ones) I sometimes feel like an inside-outsider (our an outside-insider?).  Jane you strike me (I have not read the book yet) as one who is an earnest seeker remaining authentic to the core, and I honor you for that.  In my personal journey I find that there is more out there (in the universe, for example) than I have the capacity to fully comprehend.  One notion that trumps others, for me is: It is not up to me to define God (or Jesus) but to discover them.  Due to my sacred experiences both within and without the LDSaint context, I am happy to remain a faithful Mormon boy.  And I respect others who sincerely investigate and make different decisions.  Again, THANK YOU JANE & JANA!  And now on to read the book…

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