By John Hatch
Although I had attended and even presented at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium a few times, my first real immersion in the Sunstone experience came in 2002: the year I coordinated my first symposium. Dan Wotherspoon had hired me in December 2001 as the managing editor of the magazine and the symposium coordinator. It had been a thrilling six-month ride, but that first symposium was not at all what I had expected.
The early months of planning and organizing the Symposium were a dream come true for this greenhorn. I got to chat up people whose names I’d read on the covers of books and in the bylines of articles. After months of hard work, late nights, and missed paychecks (when donations were sparse), the Symposium finally arrived and I was expecting a veritable orgy of academia and deep introspection. Instead, I got a wizard.
No kidding. At one point during the symposium, a bookseller came running out of the book room shouting, “Thief! Stop him!” A man holding a twig was walking toward the hotel exit at a good clip, a book tucked under his arm. I stopped him and asked what was going on. He explained that he needed this book to make his magic wand (the twig) work, and if he didn’t get this book home, the world would come to an end at midnight (it’s always midnight, isn’t it?). I laughed and told him to put the book back. That did not have the desired effect: the wizard was furious. He started screaming that I had no idea what would happen if he didn’t get this book home. We eventually got him to chill out, return the book, and leave, but it was exhausting. An hour later I found the twig/wand resting on a book table. Poor guy had gotten so worked up he’d left it behind. I picked it up, snapped it in two, and felt much better.
Most Sunstone symposium goers were not wand carriers doing a bad Harry Potter impersonation, but some of them were clearly wounded people, nursing old injuries inflicted, at least from their perspective, by Mormonism years ago. Others had what can only be called very unique takes on life and spirituality. Still others had narrowly specific pet issues—Emanuel Swedenborg or Thomas Ferguson’s research, for example—that they insisted were the key to understanding Mormonism. And the most charitable way to describe a handful of them is that they were just plain weird.
That may seem like a strange way to remember the symposium I coordinated and worked so hard on for three years. There were big speakers (we got Martin Luther King III), inspiring sessions, brilliant academics, generous press coverage, and incredible hallway conversations. But what stands out to me was the nature of Sunstone’s community. When Dan hired me (after my own little run-in with the Church), he said that Sunstone is for the cast-offs, quoting Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He chuckled when he said it, but it resonated with what I saw.
It took me a little while, but I came to understand that some of the more . . . colorful . . . symposium attendees simply had no other community within Mormonism. Not only did they feel horribly out of place at church, I suspect they felt horribly out of place nearly everywhere they went. It is a feeling I’m familiar with. Sunstone was a safe haven where they could finally feel at home. And what’s more, Sunstone was a place where they could contribute. Everyone has gifts to offer, and Mormonism, with its rigid structure and deep-seated obsession with right and wrong behavior, can be dismissive of those who don’t bring exactly what the culture expects to the table. At Sunstone, nearly all people and their gifts were welcome.
However, such an environment does not contribute to long-term, booming growth. Dan and I had the same conversations at Sunstone that Elbert Peck and his staff were doubtless having ten years before, and that I’m sure are continuing ten years later. How do we get young people involved? How do we reach more people? How can we raise more money? As far as I can tell, the Sunstone community often limps along, doing the best it can on limited funds, trying to appease everyone and therefore appeasing no one. Sunstone is a hodgepodge of special interests with wildly different needs. To put a twist on Will Rogers’s famous quote: I am not a member of an organized group of Mormon scholars: I am a Sunstoner.
Planning a symposium as a white heterosexual male in such a diverse community brought every form of criticism I could possibly have imagined. I heard it all: We didn’t have enough sessions about women. About gays. About history. About theology. Why were our sessions so negative towards God’s restored church on the earth? Why were our sessions so positive toward the nefarious institution that is Mormonism? It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “If you host X session” or “if you invite person Y to speak, I’m through with Sunstone!”
But perhaps the biggest complaint of all was: “Why is Sunstone just the same stuff over and over?”
That was a frustrating one. The other complaints we could brush off—Sunstone was always meant to appeal to a broad swath, and if we did what everyone told us to do, attendance would have plummeted and Sunstone would have withered and died. But the old “it’s just the same stuff” complaint was infuriating in part because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. We worked tirelessly to invite new people, to expand the discussion, to get BYU people contributing, even to get Church representatives involved. But the people who whined that Sunstone was all the same were often the same people who would not participate because of their preconceived (and usually mistaken) notions about what Sunstone was.
I believe that this recycling of discussion over the past forty years is not a failure of Sunstone, but a shortcoming of institutional Mormonism. People move through Sunstone as they make peace with difficult issues or, in some cases, decide Mormonism isn’t for them. Then a new generation comes along and stumbles right into the same issues again. As well meaning as the Church might be, it does not sponsor its own place for frank discussion of these constantly resurfacing issues. Until that happens, there will always be a space for Sunstone.
There is one main reason I remain so emotionally defensive of Sunstone—even with something of a chip on my shoulder. We are witnessing an unprecedented emergence of scholarship and thoughtfulness on and within Mormonism. University presses across the country are publishing books on Mormon studies and colleges continue to host programs on the Latter Day Saint movement. Today’s young scholars (many of whom blog in addition to publishing their excellent academic work) write and speak about what they want to, pushing the conversation forward. But they stand on the shoulders of giants, and some of those giants were savaged, beaten, and bludgeoned by the Church and their fellow Saints. I watched it happen.
Today’s scholars have the luxury of doing Mormon studies because, for forty years, Sunstone and like institutions pushed for it. I am as thrilled as anyone at the Joseph Smith Papers project and the flowering of publications by academic presses. But it is worth remembering (and some already seem to be forgetting): these wonderful events were not born in a vacuum, and they absolutely were not inevitable. They happened because people came before and made sacrifices. Some of them chose to focus on Mormon scholarship even though it was not the en vogue thing to do. Others lost jobs at Church-owned institutions. Some lost their very membership, saw their names dragged through the mud, and felt the foundation of their identities upturned. Unfortunately some of today’s young scholars act as if dealing with polygamy or altered revelations or the Book of Abraham or frontier violence or Book of Mormon anachronisms is blasé. Believe me, there was a time when writing on such issues could get you excommunicated.
If you attend an academic conference and speak without fear of reprisal on any topic of your choosing, thank Sunstone. And as Mormonism continues to meet the challenges of new generations, of digital and social media, Sunstone will be there to push the conversation forward. We are all incredibly fortunate to have it.