Inside Mormonism: The Home Teachers Come Over

In “An Agnostic Grace” I wrote:

Religion is the “everything else” category in our existence in human societies and as individuals after parceling out the things people understand fairly well about human life—just as “natural philosophy” used to be the “everything else” category after parceling out as natural sciences the things people were beginning to understand fairly well about the natural world.

Thus, it is important to understand religion. One reason is the project of constructing effective religions that do not require belief in the supernatural that I talked about in “Godless Religion.” Another reason is the project of understanding make things better for those who are poor or struggling without expanding government that I address in “No Tax Increase Without Recompense,” “Yes, There is an Alternative to Austerity Versus Spending: Reinvigorate America’s Nonprofits,” and “Why You Should Care about Other People’s Children as Much as Your Own.”

In addition to organizations labeling themselves as religions, I think 12-step programs that organize people to help one another in fighting addiction are a very important model to study. But my knowledge of 12-step programs is limited to what I have read and fictional portrayals. So let me focus for now religion, and specifically Mormonism, which I know well. 

Because of its distinctive features, Mormonism has a lot to teach in these regards. In particular, Mormonism organizes its members to provide many services to one another in ways that are not mediated by the market–something that could be emulated by community organizers if they focused on getting the bottom half of the population in income to help one another–with a sprinkling of help from volunteers from the richer half of the population with key skills–rather than pressuring for more help from the government.

I pursued this investigation previously in “How Conservative Mormon America Avoided the Fate of Conservative White America” and “The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists.” In this post, I want to talk about home teaching. 

This past week, I have been visiting my Dad, who lives in Provo, Utah. (If you type Edward Kimball into the search box at my sidebar without quotations you can see more about my Dad. And unlike me, he has his own Wikipedia page.) On March 1, the home teachers came over.  Home Teaching is a microcosm of Mormonism. First, it is part of the emphasis on a lay ministry, in which every Mormon willing to do so is asked to take on a church service role or “calling.” Second, home teaching is an important part of the effort in Mormonism to take care of every Mormon. Home Teaching teaches the home teachers that no one is “riffraff.” Third, home-teaching illustrates the structural legacies of sexism that litter Mormonism’s structure and practices. (See “Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?”) There is a parallel “Visiting Teaching” program in which women visit and teach on another, but home teachers teach the whole family, thus treating things as if men have things to say that everyone should hear, but woman have things that mainly other women should hear.

Home teachers and visiting teachers work in pairs–just as Mormon missionaries do. This makes possible an apprenticeship system for home teachers, although often both home teachers are experienced. All willing and well-behaved adult Mormons–plus male teenagers at least 14 years old–are asked to serve as either a home teacher or visiting teacher. Since about half of Mormons in a typical congregation are marginal members of the Mormon Church who do not always attend church meetings and are not willing to be home teachers or visiting teachers, each pair of home teachers usually has about four families to visit, and each pair of visiting teachers has about four women to visit each month. Getting all of this home teaching and visiting teaching done within the month is a tall order; most home teachers and visiting teachers fall short of the goal and feel some guilt about that. 

(Although I consider myself a Unitarian-Universalist, the Mormon Church officially considers me an “inactive” Mormon. I have specifically asked not to have any home teachers, and am grateful that this wish is respected. Some years ago, our family received regular letters from someone who was called as our home teacher, which did not bother us too much.) 

  Mount Timpanogos as viewed from my Dad’s deck

Mount Timpanogos as viewed from my Dad’s deck

When the two home teachers arrived at my Dad’s house, my sister Sarah and brother-in-law Kevin greeted them at the door. Then everyone, including me, gathered in my Dad’s study, which has a picture window looking out on Mount Timpanogos. We had a very pleasant chat about things going on in our lives and in the home teachers’ lives. That kind of chat is actually one of the most important parts of home teaching; if a family is having troubles, then the home teachers will try to help themselves or call on additional resources of the Mormon Church if needed–volunteer time in abundance and money from the Church’s Welfare Program if necessary. After that chat it was time for the lesson: one I really liked. The home teachers gave us each paper copies of a document labelde “Lesson of the Bees” by Elder Russell Ballard. I am using my copy of that document to give the account that follows. 

We read out loud in turn. The first two paragraph went like this:

Honey bees, by instinct spend their life pollinating, gathering nectar and condensing that nectar into honey. It is estimated that to produce just one pound of honey, the average hive of over 20,000 bees must collectively visit millions of flowers and travel the equivalent of two times around the world. Over its short lifetime of just a few weeks to four months a single honeybee’s contribuition of honey to its hive is a mere one-twelfth of one teaspoon. Yet the small contribution is vital to the hive of the honey bees. They rely on each other. The lesson of the bees is profound: When many people each do something small, together they accomplish something large. 

Then the current president of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, was quoted as saying (amont other things) “Often small acts of service are all that are required to lift and bless one another; a question concerning a person’s family, quick words of encouragement, a sincere compliment, a small note of thanks, a brief telephone call.”

There was then a quotation within a quotation of a Mormon hymn, “Have I Done Any Good”:

Have I done any good in the world today? Have I helped any one in need? Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad? If not I have failed indeed. Has anyone’s burden been lighter today because I was willing to share? Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way? When they needed my help was I there? 
There are chances for work all around just now, opportunities right in our way. Do not let them pass by, saying “Sometime I’ll try,” but go and do something today. ‘Tis noble of man to work and to give: love’s labor has merit alone. Only he who does something helps others to live. To God each good work will be known.   

When I was young, instead of “Only he who does something helps others to live. To God each good work will be known” it went “Only he who does something is worthy to live. The world has no use for the drone.” This was amended because it was felt to be too harsh. (The biology is bad, too, but I doubt that played any role in the amendment. And notice that there has been no amendment to the gender-biased language.) The amendment came too late for me: I still feel in my bones "Only he who does something is worthy to live. The world has no use for the drone.“

The last paragraph of the document simply repeated the message of the first paragraph. But before that what was evidently a talk by Mormon apostle Russell Ballard talked about the significiance of the symbol of the beehive for Mormonism:  

The Beehive was a symbol of harmony, cooperation and work for the early pioneers of the Church. Brigham Young used the symbol to inspire early Church members to work together to transform the barren Salt Lake Valley into a beautiful and thriving community. The Beehive symbol was imprinted on the doors of the Salt Lake Temple and the Beehive House, Brigham Young’s Official residence, was adorned and named after a beehive sculpture atop the house. 

To this day, Utah is known as "the Beehive state” and a beehive is at the center of Utah’s state seal:

To me, the beehive is a fitting symbol of efforts to make the world a better place, even for those who, like me, do not believe in the supernatural. Saving the world takes the efforts of many, many people. It cannot be done alone. And beyond the goal of saving the world is the goal I talk about in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” of bringing to pass “that day, that fine day, when God and Heaven do exist."