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Mormons are storytellers. They love a good tale of faith amid persecution, divine intervention, mysterious assistance, proselytizing prowess and Mormon ingenuity.
Such stories told and retold among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reflect the faith's emphasis on missionary work, genealogical research, temple work, admiration for church leaders, conversion and the day-to-day delights and sorrows of membership, says William A. Wilson, a renowned folklorist in the Intermountain West. They also are used as cautionary yarns for those who might stray from church practices.
Wilson has been collecting Mormon and other legends since 1962 after he returned from an LDS mission to Finland and enrolled at Indiana University's folklore program. In 1985, he helped create an archive at Brigham Young University, now the largest collection of Mormon folklore in the world. It now houses more than 50,000 stories, collected each year by students in one of the university's three undergraduate and one graduate class.
The big question is, of course, are the stories true?
Many obviously aren't (Steve Martin isn't Mormon). Others probably aren't. And a few? Well ...
"Folklorists don't collect stories based on whether something is true or false. What is important is why," says Kristi Young, curator of the Wilson archives. "Knowing where, when and by whom a story is told can help you understand what the story means to that person."
Wilson once heard a man in his LDS congregation tell the loaf-of-bread miracle (see accompanying story) as if it just happened. Wilson had heard the same narrative described as happening on three different continents, five countries, and a number of states. In some versions, the missionary's wife baked the bread, in others, his mother, and sometimes she gave the bread to a stranger. The bread was variously wrapped in a linen napkin, a dish towel, a patterned cloth, a scarf or a newspaper.
"I cannot disprove the story. I hope it is true," Wilson said in a 1994 speech at BYU-Idaho (then Ricks College). "It would support my conviction that God really does come to the aid of missionaries in danger. Obviously, the story did not make itself up; something happened to send it on its way."
It would be foolish for Mormons to dismiss such stories as false, he said, "but equally foolish to accept them uncritically, and especially to make them the anchors of their faith."
Two LDS missionaries call on a Protestant minister who tells them, "Gentlemen, I have here a glass of poison. If you will drink this poison and remain alive, I will join your church, not only myself but my entire congregation." But, he adds, "If you won't drink this poison, well, then I'll conclude that you are false ministers of the gospel, because surely your Lord won't let you perish." This puts the missionaries a bind, so they go off in a corner to discuss it. Finally, they return to the minister, "Tell you what," they say, "you drink the poison, and we'll raise you from the dead."
Two women missionaries knock on a door. The man answering seems nervous and eager for them to leave. Later, the missionaries see a photograph of this man in the newspaper. Turns out, he has been arrested in the murders of several young women, all about the same age as these missionaries. The two women go to police, who allow them to talk to the suspect. They ask him why he didn't harm them. He replies that he wasn't about to do anything to them with those three huge guys standing behind them. The implication is that the missionaries were saved by the "three Nephites" (ancient disciples who, according to Mormon scripture, still roam the Earth).
Mormonism's famous swearin' elder from the early 1900s, J. Golden Kimball, is rattling off a long list of people named to church positions in a conference in Utah County. He can tell the congregants are just raising their hands -- offering their sustaining votes -- without listening. Finally, he says, "How many of you are in favor of moving Mount Nebo into Utah Lake?" Again, the voting is unanimous. Some local LDS leaders still repeat this legend before reading a long list of sustainings.
A couple pick up an old man hitchhiking along a deserted highway. After they travel for a bit, the stranger leans forward and tells the couple to get their year's supply of food storage. The couple turn around. The back seat is empty. They pull off the road in shock. A police officer stops to see what is wrong. He tells the couple that they are the eighth, ninth, whatever person to tell him the same story that day.
Two LDS elders stray a few miles from their area -- a ground-rule no-no for missionaries -- to attend a baseball game. But their hard-working mission president, taking some time off, catches the same game on TV. The camera pans the crowd and stops on the two off-base missionaries. When they return to their apartment that night, they find their mission president there. In his hands are two tickets for their flight home.
A woman comes home from an LDS temple and finds her little girl sopping wet. The mother asks what happened. The child replies that she fell into a ditch. As she began to float away, a woman, clad in white, pulled the girl out and brought her home. She told the child her name and left. The name of the mystery hero: the same as the woman the mother had performed vicarious ordinances for in the temple.
A pioneer woman puts a loaf of bread on a dish towel and takes it to the windowsill to cool. When she comes back, the bread and towel are gone. Months later, her husband returns from his mission. As the woman unpacks his bags, she finds the towel. She quizzes her husband, who tells her about this day he had nothing to eat. A passer-by gave him the bread wrapped in this dish towel.
In their infamous raid on Pearl Harbor, Japanese warplanes plan to target the Hawaiian LDS Temple as well. But during the entire attack, a thick cloud shrouds the edifice. At one point, a pilot, who later joins the church, attempts to drop a bomb on the hidden temple anyway. His equipment malfunctions. The bomb won't release.
In this well-worn missionary retread, a couple of Mormon elders are spreading the word door-to-door in a bad neighborhood. A gang surrounds them. The missionaries hop into their car and speed away. The thugs look on, stunned. Once the two elders are safely away, their car dies. The two pop the hood and find there is no engine.
The story goes that funnyman Steve Martin was spotted on either David Letterman or Jay Leno wearing a Mormon CTR (Choose the Right) ring. In some versions, the comedian even discusses his conversion to the LDS faith with the talk-show host.
Another well-traveled tale: Accidents often happen on the freeways by the Washington, D.C., and San Diego temples because distracted drivers come around a bend and are so taken by the beautiful buildings that they don't watch the road.
In another war yarn, a soldier is shot in the chest but suffers no wound because the bullet hits The Book of Mormon he is packing in his breast pocket.
The Force runs strong in this one: Yoda, green sage of the "Star Wars" saga, modeled after former LDS prophet Spencer W. Kimball he was.
Source » William A. Wilson Folklore Archives, Brigham Young University