Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ghosts of Ensigns past: January 1971 Edition

A few weeks back I decided that if I didn't feel like paying particular attention to a talk or lesson at church, I might as well try to make my backup activity - playing on my phone - some kind of spiritually uplifting experience. Luckily, through the LDS Gospel Library app the Church has been considerate enough to provide me with enough material to last a lifetime of three-hour blocks. So I turned to the Ensign. But the modern, professional, shiny ones delivered to most LDS homes each month? The one that guys desperately skim when they realize they've scheduled home teaching in twenty minutes? Well, it's okay, but.... meh. I mean, it's doing the best it can, what with the uplifting stories and happy multiracial stock photos and (zzzzz *snore* zzzzzzz........)

Pictured: Uplifting

So anyway, to the past I turned, to the early years of the Ensign. The Embryonic Ensign, flagship publication of a newly correlated church. Similar doctrines, familiar themes, and enough curveballs to be interesting. And with that I resolved to begin a blogging journey of self-discovery and sarcasm, in what could become a recurring series if I feel it's worthwhile. So put on your Time Goggles, trim those sideburns, and if you see your parents avoid eye contact as we travel back to January, 1971.

The very first Ensign. Rather than bore you with all my thoughts, let's hit some highlights.
  • First Presidency Message. The Whos, Whys, and Hows of the new magazine. I like Pres. Tanner's message, addressed to children. Pres. Smith and Lee are a little more hardcore. JFS warns against an intensifying "attack on the basic integrity of the family as the foundation of what is good and noble in life." At least we've been holding off the family's utter disintegration for about 40 years, I guess.
  • Harold B Lee on God's Kingdom being one of order. Do things the right way, do it the Church's way, etc... don't dispute church leaders... pretty standard stuff... an approving quote of an unnamed educator that "A liberal in the Church is simply one who doesn't have a testimony." Well that's something you don't hear nowadays. Umm, moving right along as I picture HBL glowering at me in disapproval...
  • Ooh, this looks interesting: "The Women's Movement: Liberation or Deception?" by...Thomas S. Monson? Hokay, this is getting intense pretty quickly. I'll let you guess where he stands on the issue. Suffice to say it's hard to picture some of these words coming out of the wry, gentle Pres. Monson we know today. It's nothing that any Mormon hasn't heard before, but sometimes phrased in such as way as to offend my delicate liberal faithless modern sensibilities. Whatever works for you, I guess.
  • A lengthy treatise on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Balanced, historical, avoids tying current events to prophesy... Wow, this is pretty good. If we accompany it with sufficiently happy-looking pictures, can we have articles like this in the Ensign again?
  • Leonard Arrington on "The Human Qualities of Joseph Smith". More devotional than historical, but interesting and well-written. Minimum of fluff and doesn't just repeat the rote stories we all know. And hey, bibliography!
  • An article on the ban of cigarette ads on television. Calls tobacco companies the "conspiring men" with the evil designs mentioned in DC 89. That's super cool, the kind of church-sponsored advocacy I can get behind.
  • Public schools! Again, not fluff, but an actual commentary on judging their effectiveness. Written by actual educators! After a semi-alienating start, this issues is growing on me. Later, another article by a professor on far-flung branches of Judaism. Good stuff.
That's all for day. I skipped around a bit and didn't comment on most of the articles, but initial reactions are that I'm probably going to bristle at the direct, uncompromisingly conservative style of Pres. HBL and JFS, but I'm digging the eclectic content of the entire magazine. Either way it's engaging and not as bland as it now tends to be. Unfortunately I cannot judge the saccharinity of the pictures, as, sadly, the app omits them. Until next time, if and whenever I feel like continuing this series.


  1. I gotta read that stuff. Amazing how much you can learn from prophets before our day I guess. Ensign 2012: US involvement in the Middle East? SOPA? Nope, just fluff about people who had a hard day and the gospel made it better.

  2. I think the Church confused the Ensign with the Friend. I have a hunch all the good articles are accidentally going to them, and no adults have had the heart to let the publishers know that they're sending their juvenile stuff to us now. Hence also the current upswing in in how well kids these days understand current affairs.

  3. I think even the Friend should be required to have a bibliography. It's about standards!

  4. I remember the moment when the Friend became too bland for me, and I turned to the New Era. I also remember the moment when I turned to the Ensign, and now, I don't read the Ensign. So as far as my personal interests go, I am with you...but keep in mind that church isn't just for you, and neither is the Ensign. The Gospel is for the weakest of the Saints, and there are spiritual truths in that story about the Gospel helping you through that hard day that actually transcend articles about public education.

    Think about the enormous task put before the writers of Church curriculum (incl. Sunday School manuals/lessons) and the Ensign. The Church is multi-cultural, multi-education-leveled, and with a variety of doctrinal background. I found the Ensign fascinating when I was 15 because I'd never THOUGHT about how charity is born of faith in the Atonement or whatever (now obvious) doctrine is in there. Don't tell me that wasn't true for you once. There are many church members who are doctrinally fifteen years old, or even five or eight. And the Church has a responsibility to nourish them just as much as you: and as I look for the truth behind the simplicity (and saccharine), I am amazed and humbled.

    (Not a chastisement, hopefully, just an offering of a different perspective.)

  5. @ Ma - True 'nuff, and the old Ensigns and Improvement Eras before that were not necessarily ideal - the church nowadays tends to present doctrine in a more inclusive way that's less off-putting than, say, denouncing entire political movements that happen to produce somewhat unorthodox means of approaching faith. So yeah, there's no approach to make everyone happy.

    @Allan: Fact, but we'd have to establish standards for a seventy quoting the prophet retelling a story of a deceased apostle that the apostle lifted from a newspaper article originally.

    @Brett: I was wondering why Matt and Mandy spent so much time on the Eurozone crisis...

  6. I recently listened to a Mormon Matters podcast about the spiritual impacts of Addictions, alcoholics anonymous, and the Lds church's own recovery program. One thing that stood out to me was the praise one participant have to the name withheld articles included in the Ensign. The participant was encouraging institutional steps the church has made in assisting members with addictions but also in giving a space for a voice and representation of Mormons who struggle with weighty things that often seem to challenge the stalwartness of the principle of agency which our faith is particularly invested in and quite good at advancing. It caught my attention because it's definitely a part of the Ensign I have jeered at since it seems like the voice there is often someone who I think is over framing life's difficulties or annoyances as "trials," which sometimes seems unhealthy to me. It was nice to hear this appreciation for the institutional efforts to do something that is intended to be a help to others in similar circumstances and to lift or encourage the faith of others. Anonymity is important, but even while preserving it the church's primary publication has done an interesting job in gradually seeking to expand the imagistic representation of "Mormon"