It's been many years since I attended a Sunstone Symposium. Having such a goldmine of information within such close driving distance, only to let the opportunity pass by, year after year, is almost as bad as living within 20-60 minutes travel time of eight world class ski resorts, for seventeen years, and only trying to learn to ski once...oops...I must confess to being guilty on that account as well. This Winter I'll have to do something to rectify the latter overlooked opportunities, (yeah, yeah, I say that every year, but this time I mean it).
I recall reading a column by Robert Kirby, some time back, where he referred to those involved with Sunstone as "The Stoners". Excellent analogy. In high school, there is no group subjected to more suspicion and scrutiny as those dubbed "The Stoners". However, once you get to know these kids, you soon realize just how laid back and innocuous they actually are. When there are problems around the campus, you're much more likely to find the culprits spending their time after school with such wholesome seeming activities as football and wrestling.
Sunstone attracts a crowd that is predominantly liberal, in both the theological, as well as the political, senses of that word. A wide spectrum of perspectives on Mormonism are represented, from those totally devoted, who haven't missed a sacrament meeting or a tithing check in 20 years, and whose beliefs are 100% in line with the official teachings of the church, to those who consider the church a destructive fraud, and every stage of belief or doubt in between.
Sunstone also attracts the the attention, and sometimes the ire, of church headquarters. (link) (link) BYU faculty, proceed with extreme caution. Once in a Salt Lake restaurant, I overheard some guy ask his friend, "Sunstone, isn't that some kind of apostasy group?" Sadly, he is hardly the only person in this valley holding such a perception.
Rather than considering Sunstone as a thorn in their side, like the folks at 47 East South Temple do, two smaller churches in the Joseph Smith Restoration Movement used this year's symposium as an opportunity for outreach. The Community of Christ was the subject of quite a few presentations, and sponsored a hospitality suite. One of the Hedrekite splits (the one that accepts the revelations of both Fetting and Draves) also sent one of their apostles for a session that was an overt effort at proselytization.
As someone with a strong interest in the study of Mormon breakaway groups, this symposium was a rich source for details. I had the good fortune of meeting Steven Shields, author of the definitive work on this matter, Divergent Paths of the Restoration, and asked his opinion of the online war of words between Christopher Warren and Gilbert Clark, alias Davied Israel (link). I was curious as to whether I was correct in assuming that Clark was behind an anonymous attack site against Warren, (link), and whether any of the accusations had any merit. Shields pointed out how Warren lost his wife to Clark's rag-tag group, located in Canebeds, Az, (near Colorado City), and said that that investigators in Sweden had looked into Chris Warren, but found no cause for action. Like is generally the case when there is a dispute, the truth is to be found somewhere in between.
One thing that was been puzzling me for a while is why, except for a fledgling following of the Community of Christ (the last time I attended a Sunday service at their SLC chapel, I was one of only ten people in attendance), non-Brighamite Mormon schisms have no presence in Utah. While it is true that most people who are unhappy in the LDS Church eventually come to renounce Joseph Smith and Mormonism entirely, enough dissatisfied Mormons are turning to Mormon Fundamentalism that polygamous groups in Utah, if not thriving, are at least getting enough new blood to keep them very much alive.
The consensus of opinions I received was that people cling to what is familiar, and they find groups that recently separated less foreign than those which have had 166 years to develop their own unique culture.
Matthew Phillip Gill, who left the LDS church, released "The Book of Jereneck", and started his own church (link) was the subject of an interesting presentation. One rather angry seeming man in the audience, who in another session's Q&A asked rhetorically, "What good has polygamy ever done anyone?", got up in this one and made a lame joke poking fun at Gill and his book. For some reason, it did get some laughter. Why this guy would be bothered about somebody in England circulating a book, posting youtube videos, and holding religious meetings, I don't quite get.
By far the session I got the most out of contained three papers on the progress and current state of The House of Aaron (link) and the followers of Ross Wesley Lebarron and Fred Collier.
Over the years, I've attended a few of the Saturday morning services The House of Aaron holds in Taylorsville, and I have some contact information to visit their main base of operation, a communal living arrangement known as Eskdale, Ut., out in the west desert, with dairy farming as their main source of income. One of these days I've got to go out there and see it for myself. One of these days...
Normally isolated religious communities, holding all material possessions in common, attract some substantial suspicion and criticism. With The House of Aaron, however, you won't really find any of it with a google search. No blogs or "support forums" put up by disgruntled ex-members, or any of that. The Utah Attorney General's Office's "Primer on Polygamy" once accused this group of being secretive and polygamous, but they deny holding polygamous beliefs and I've seen no evidence that they are lying. The current version of the primer (link) no longer has any mention of them.
The House of Aaron today has embraced Messianic Judaism and denies having any connection to Mormonism, though telltale signs from the past can be found. Like their revelatory book starting with chapter 139. The LDS Doctrine and Covenants ends at chapter 138.
I've met both Lebarron (while he was still alive) and Collier. Those discussions focused on their ideas, leaving me to wonder if either of them had (or ever had) any followers. The presentations at the symposium were primarily written to address this and other practical, rather than ideological, matters.
Glenn Beck was the focus of some derisive material from Steven Colbert, recorded from the Comedy Central channel, and played during the lunch break. I caught some of it, but didn't find it all that funny. That's not to say that I'm all that fond of Beck. In actuality, I'm just as put off by him as these liberals. The difference is that I am put off by him for an entirely different set of reasons.
After seeing the lunchtime laughter at Bro. Beck's expense, I was expecting Saturday's panel discussion about him to be a hatchet job. To my surprise, two of the four panelists were articulate conservatives, speaking favorably for the man. When one stated his view that Beck contributes positively to American civic discourse, there were a considerable number of groans heard from the audience. One of the presenters who was critical of Beck started to describe the demographics of the Tea Party Movement, "Over 55, driven more by ideology then reality, this reminds us a lot of...". At this point the speaker paused, and I couldn't help myself. "Sunstone!"
Having personally rejected the all-or-nothing, either the Church is true or it is not, approach, the Sunstone crowd is about the only group that I really fit into in terms of my religious philosophy, (though more often than not on a Sunday morning these days you will find me in attendance at my neighborhood ward house). Rather disconcerting, considering that when it comes to political and social activism, many of "the stoners" would seek to obstruct everything I stand for, just as I would do likewise.
A few people remembered me.
A long term member of the board of the Sunstone Foundation, J. Frederick "Toby" Pingree was my bishop in a Northern California singles ward, waaaaaay back in the late 1980's. He's been about the only priesthood leader, in all my time in the church, who has ever thought that I could be trusted with a calling involving leadership. He is, without a doubt, the most unique return mission president I've ever met.
Anne Wilde still recognizes me, from my days of searching, in vain, for a place for myself in Mormon Fundamentalism. Having been married to the late Ogden Kraut, there is no one who is more knowledgeable about the organized groups and independents, than Anne.
Steve Mayfield was busily engaged as the official photographer of the event. "Hi Steve", "Hi Gary", was about all I could get in, as he buzzed by. When I first came to Utah, I met Steve when he was working for Van Hale in Hale's printing and book selling business, as well as being actively involved in Hale's "Mormon Miscellaneous" efforts. That seems to have been temporary for him, as he was new to the area as well, and was looking for a position in law enforcement. Today I frequently see him in the background on the news, collecting evidence for SLCPD's crime lab. He's always there outside General Conference, with a camera around his neck, as well. Probably on his own time, rather than the city's.
Gathering intelligence is what Steve lives for, to the point where his passion for collecting information once brought some attention that he did not want. Jerald and Sandra Tanner published a booklet, and sold it for many years, accusing Steve of infiltrating anti-Mormon organizations using an assumed name. "Unmasking a Mormon Spy", was the title. He's a wealth of fascinating information, and I'd love to be one of the people he actively shares it with. However, my association with the Sharp Family, which I explained when I started this blog (link), put an abrupt end to any possibility of such a friendship.
Interesting people, interesting topics. My decision to attend this year was time very well spent.