My Thomas Marsh Experience

Edit: This post is in response to the Thomas Marsh discussion here.

I was recently present for the Thomas Marsh lesson in a ward not my own. Being aware of the larger context, that for Marsh, the milk issue was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, I felt compelled to speak up. The problem is always how to do so constructively, especially in a ward where they don’t know you at all. Here’s what I said.

“I’m uncomfortable with this story being used as a paradigmatic example of apostasy. It implies that people who leave the Church do so for nothing more than petty reasons. And certainly, people do sometimes drop their affiliation with the Church for petty reasons.

But I wish we had a better story, one that prepared us for the inevitable time in which someone will do something highly or publicly offensive, in which we’re legitimately wrong. So, Thomas Marsh shouldn’t have been offended, right? How silly and petty, right? What about when someone *is* legitimately offended and wronged in the Church? Are they justified then in breaking fellowship? I much prefer this story, which comes from Deseret Book.

There was a active LDS man, who had studied at Harvard and Cornell to be a clinical psychologist. He ended up working, in the 60’s, on a nationwide panel of 5 people deciding how to deal with sex education in the schools. There was another active LDS guy on the panel as well, so it was 40% active LDS (two of the three men on the panel.)
Well, at General Conference, one of the Fire Presidency gave a talk denouncing the members of this panel as evil and conspiring men, who were leading the nations youth astray. His son stalked out of the room, and said, “I don’t come to General Conference to hear my father get slandered.”

Now, he eventually met with the First Presidency and they cleared up some things. But think about him personally.

I think we’d all generally agree, that if the First Presidency denounced us as evil and conspiring from the pulpit, we might well have legitimate reason to be offended. This wasn’t a minor thing, but public and very personal.

This man, though, did not leave the Church, he did not take offense. He realized that his covenants are not contingent on good or reasonable behavior from others, including the FP.

I much prefer THAT as a story about the potential for apostasy, than one in which we all roll our eyes about what a silly mistake Thomas Marsh made.” The full story can be found here and is well worth a read.

Lots of people turned around to see who was making such a comment. The teacher paused and said, “…Thanks for that comment.” He did later ask me for the title and author.  Such was my experience.  I felt satisfied that my comment had been constructive and edifying.

28 Replies to “My Thomas Marsh Experience”

  1. Not sure I would have had the guts to say that. Well said!

    I read the story on the link you added. That is a really good experience. Carlfred (the guy with two first names all wrapped up in one?) is inspiring.

  2. I made a similar comment in my Sunday School class, though I used the example of a Bishop I had known who got removed and suffered some type of church discipline in regards to his behavior towards the opposite sex. Many ward members were understandably offended.

    I think the more serious approach is nice, because it takes a lesson on silly people who get offended and turns it into one about forgiveness and the atonement. Ultimately that’s what keeps us in the church, whether we’re the sinner of the moment or someone else is.

  3. Nitsav,

    I felt the same way and made a similar comment. If we do not say anything, nothing will change. As you said, the story is problematic not only because of accuracy but because it also fails to really address the issue in a relevant way.

    “It implies that people who leave the Church do so for nothing more than petty reasons”


  4. It implies that people who leave the Church do so for nothing more than petty reasons

    Which is precisely why I didn’t use the story at all when I taught that lesson. I wanted the class to realize that THEY and people just like them, sitting in Sunday School classrooms all over the church that morning, were the only ones in the world at any risk for apostasy. Nobody can hear a story about milk strippings or a misspelled name and think that he himself is in any danger, because we’re all too sure we would never be so silly. So beyond setting the context for apostasy by reviewing in general what was going on in Kirtland, we talked about the points in our own lives and beliefs that could potentially be carried too far and take us out of the church, and how we could guard against that tendency and bring us back from the brink. Although I try it every week, this is the first time I’ve been able to keep the class members talking about their own sins and temptations and tendencies, and not talking safely about “those other people” with whom we have little in common .. like offense over milk strippings and misspelled names.

  5. FWIW, Ardis, I didn’t use the story in my class either. In fact, I rarely use the stories in the manuals. I prefer to simply use the scriptures mentioned in the lesson and then have the class illustrate principles with their own experiences. I think it becomes more personal and practical that way.

  6. Except, as I would note, Thomas Marsh at the end of his life told the same story for the same lesson. He embraced it as his personal narrative, which changes a lot about how we deal with the story.

    “His son stalked out of the room, and said … “

    I’d love to hear this story with names ….

  7. As I reflect on the Thomas B. Marsh story and how so many people think that no one would leave the church over something so petty, I am reminded of a friend in Philadelphia who went inactive because the bishop did not stop to shake his hand as the bishop was walking into priesthood opening exercises. The funny (strange, unusual, bizarre, fill in your favorite here) thing was that I was standing next to him at the time and the bishop didn’t shake my hand either. The bishop just walked in and up to the stand. He didn’t stop to shake anyone’s hand. Was that the only reason this brother went inactive? Probably not. But I don’t know everything that was going on in his life or his mind at the time.

    Parallells to TBM? The milk may not have been the real reason he went apostate, but at this late date we may never know. He may certainly have taken offense over the milk strippings. It is possible for people to use a single incident as a fulcrum to justify making great movements in their lives that they have contemplated for some time, such as going inactive or becoming apostate.

  8. Stephen M.

    Do you have an example or a reference of where Thomas Marsh himself used the story?

    That would certainly make a big difference in how the story is relayed.

  9. Thanks for the link to the Carlfred pdf. Wonderful.

    I especially like how his suppositions of behind the scenes actions related to his California callings were not as he supposed. A cautionary tale on reading motives into occurrances.

  10. I agree that the danger of reducing Marsh’s apostasy to something so petty is that we tend to separate ourselves from it. That is we believe we are immune from such silly things so consequently we do not have to worry about it. Thus we can all sit back, state all is well in Zion, and have a good chuckle at the spiritually and emotionally immature.
    Unfortunately it is at the moment when we believe ourselves to be immune that we are most vulnerable to fail. It has been shown time and time again through social psychology experiments that most if not all people are capable of great failures of moral/ethical judgments. Human nature leads us to think we all live in Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The reality is we do not.
    A great book detailing the aforemention studies and their implications is The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo. Dr. Zimbardo was the creator of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. He discusses the experiment also shares his investigation and analysis about the Abu Ghraib disaster as an agent for the defense. It is a great book which looks into the failures of humans to recognize what travesties they are capable of doing. Whether that be torture ar something more mundane as in personal apostasy to their beliefs.

  11. Floyd, FWIW, the Sunday I was called as EQP, I received a phone call from
    someone as soon as I got home. He proceeded to lay into me because I hadn’t shaken his hand. He didn’t care that I hadn’t shaken anyone’s hand.

  12. Chris H.,
    It also happens to be a clear sign that you are from Satan:

    D&C 129: 4-5, 7-8
    4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.
    5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.

  13. Oh, crap. Good thing I am not in anyway claiming to be an angel. Hey, section 129 does not account for swine flu.

    I am pretty sure that where I live the Nirvana blasting from the car stereo with the Obama sticker on the bumper is sufficient sign to most that I am from Satan (that I am also EQP and teach at BYU-Idaho probably just adds confusion to the situation).

    Back on topic: I think the Marsh story is helpful,no matter how we tell it, if we use it to help ourselves stay true to the gospel. We miss the point if we use it (or similar stories) to dismiss the reasons that others have followed Marsh’s path.

  14. Every cow in the world is offended that you refer to the Marsh story as a “milk” story. Because cows save the best for last, and the “strippings” are the cream.

    That stuff that comes first, skim milk basically, is only good for pigs and women who think their bodies at 40 should be shaped as they were at 14. And skim milk isn’t worth fighting about, much less losing your church membership.

    Cream, on the other hand, might be.

  15. I need more information on The Watchers. I’m writing a book of fiction about early Adamic times and feel like I need to include the Watchers, but it is difficult finding a clear definition of them.

    Any help would be appreciated.


  16. TT –

    You really need the next couple of verses as well –

    6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—
    7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.
    8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.

    Wouldn’t that make Chris H. a “just man made perfect”?

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