Last Sunday night at 5 p.m., I found myself in a place I never expected to be. Not unlike my usual routine, I was at a dining hall table surrounded by my fellow Yalies. It was, nonetheless, a night full of personal firsts. It was my first time in the Timothy Dwight College dining hall, my first time meeting each of the other students who sat around my table, my first time learning about a religion about which I was utterly uneducated. In the private, reserved room upstairs of the Timothy Dwight dining hall, my stark otherness — namely, that I was fundamentally not a part of this group, this family, to which they all belonged — was washed away by smiles and openness, questions and answers.
I sat among a fellow first year, three upperclassmen, two graduate student roommates and a South African student from Quinnipiac University. I felt like a child at the adults’ table, gleaning every bit of tradition and uniqueness I could from the conversation. I knew the routine of their Sunday family dinner was disrupted by my intrusion, but their hospitality was more than abundant. My expectation that they would elaborate on uniquely difficult college experience, as well as my anxiety at being out of place, was quickly dispelled when they began to speak, openly and honestly, about what it means to be Mormon at Yale.
An American Faith
In the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith Jr. prayed about which denomination of his Christian faith to join. After a divine vision, Smith understood his purpose to be the establishment of a new, true Christian Church. Ten years later, he founded the Church of Christ. Built upon the Book of Mormon, which Smith translated himself “by the gift and power of God” from golden plates in a reformed Egyptian language, the new group moved from New York through Ohio and Missouri. The members of Smith’s budding group called themselves both Mormon and Latter-day Saints. With his Book of Mormon under fire from theologians and linguists, Smith took his group to Commerce, Illinois, where escalating tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons culminated in the mob murder of Smith, the self-proclaimed prophet, in 1844. Mormons view the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon as complements of each other: the Book of Mormon providing and correcting omissions and errors from the traditional Christian text.
Brigham Young then took over as the leader of the faith. He took the Mormons to a place that would become the Utah Territory. The controversy around the religion’s acceptance of polygamy and the practice of open marriage rose in the context of both the United States justice system and social acceptance, culminating in church president Wilford Woodruff formally dismantling the practice in 1890.
Around this time, smaller denominations of Mormon fundamentalists began to sprout, and the entirety of the LDS Church initiated an intense missionary program — still active today — of conversion. That practice has helped the religion grow to its present day following of 15 million people. Still faced with an uneasy and skeptical American public, Mormons are committed to their unique commitment to and relationship with a God who protects them from the nonspiritual “worldliness” of daily life.
A plethora of misconceptions often tends to make the American public uncomfortable with the intricacies of Mormonism. This discomfort manifests at Yale as a lack of interest and a nervousness to ask. Likely due to the never-ending fear of offending a classmate, Yale students tend toward small talk instead of delving into deeply personal subjects. If only they would ask, they would hear the stories their Mormon peers so want to divulge.
Finding a Home at Yale
Rather than feeling confined and self-conscious about an identity that could prove out-of-sync with their peers and roommates, many Mormons at Yale feel excited about sharing this little-known distinctiveness.
“You get lots of interesting questions when you come from a unique background,” Claire Thomas ’19 said. They are presented with the opportunity to dispel stereotypes and reestablish people’s understandings of their religion. Sam South ’18 echoes Thomas’ feelings: “Yale cultivates the sharing of differing opinions.”
Even adults who are members of the LDS Church resonate with these messages about the University’s accepting culture: Yale is “not a hypercompetitive or confrontational environment” according to Stuart Campbell, an associate professor for biomedical engineering and cellular and molecular physiology.
“I have always felt that people are deferential about beliefs at Yale. Academically and philosophically, it’s a really safe place,” he added.
The small size of the Mormon community here has allowed it to turn into a family. Like each student who belongs to a specific community within Yale’s large institution, these members of the Latter-day Saints Students Association spend time together — in class, at church, at dinner — feeling comfortable and reassured among familiar faces. “It’s really nice to have multiple communities all at once,” Hunter Craft ’20 said, verbalizing a sentiment that many Yale students share.
There are many folds to the LDSSA, which is comprised of more graduate students than undergraduate Yalies, spanning from formal religious practice to more social gatherings. First, there is Sunday church at the LDS Church very close to campus, at 84 Trumbull St. There is the aforementioned Sunday family dinner, which I was able to attend last weekend, where students convene after Church, some still in their suits and dresses, some changed into typical weekend loungewear. Another formal religious component of the LDSSA is called Institute. The college version of the high school Seminary, Institute is the official study of the Mormon scriptures, guided here by Director of the LDS Institute in New Haven Randy LaRose. Finally, there are frequent weekend social gatherings, often taking place at the graduate students’ apartments. Last weekend’s hang out featured a chili cook-off.
Beyond the intimacy and community that the LDSSA provides for these students, additional things delineate a Mormon’s Yale experience. In a place where drinking and hookup cultures are pervasive, Mormons’ inability to join their peers could be ostracizing. But, this has not proved to be the case with these students.
“People here are incredibly supportive of what you personally believe and what you choose to do. … I’ve been around people who were drinking, and they knew I was coming, and so they got me my own personal sparkling cider [and said,] ‘So this is for Mikayla, so she can drink with us and feel like she’s a part of it, but also no pressure at all!’ … My friends are amazing,” Mikayla Oliver ’21 said.
Thomas said she felt the same: “My friends were always super understanding that I don’t drink alcohol, and I never felt any pressure from them. … If we were doing something together and they were drinking, I felt okay because I knew that they were okay that I wasn’t drinking. So in that sense I don’t feel a tension.”
“There is a lot of drinking at Yale, and sometimes it can be awkward if you’re not [a drinker] — not because people expect you [to], but just because the activity is not designed with you in mind,” Craft explained. “As an upperclassman, it’s easier in a way because people are a bit more chill with what their social agenda is like. … It’s more relaxed. I was worried about that when I was coming here, like, ‘am I going to have no social life because I don’t drink?’ But that turned out to be a false worry.”
This understanding and acceptance goes both ways. “It’s easy for us to judge people based on how we think they should act or speak or go about their lives,” LaRose said. “It’s important for us to look through different lenses in a sense of understanding so that we aren’t guilty of misjudging people.
Contrary to what some Yale students may think, Mormonism at Yale isn’t a simple tale of social conservatism clashing with social liberalism. Sitting at the Sunday family dinner in Timothy Dwight, I ask my hosts how they reconciled Mormonism’s typically traditional beliefs with Yale’s more liberal ones. Craft replies by disassembling that dichotomy, explaining that there’s a vast diversity in the political standings of the Mormons here.
Soren Schmidt LAW ’20, one of the two graduate students at the Sunday dinner, reflected on the stark dichotomy between upbringing and experiences. He admitted that even though he is relatively ideologically consistent with most of the people at Yale, most Mormons are more conservative, especially “out west.”
“And, by virtue of how interconnected Mormons are with each other — everyone has family or close friends that span the ideological spectrum — even if I’m not conservative, I either grew up in a community that’s very conservative or I have family members who are very conservative. Having these people who you know and love and care about come from these different ideological perspectives — even if you yourself don’t ultimately end up with that particular perspective — is really valuable in helping you have an appreciation for where people are coming from. … I think it’s actually an advantage to know and have people that you love who are different from you —”
“— who voted for Donald Trump,” Jason Ray GRD’ 23 interjected, eliciting laughter from some of the others seated at the table.
Schmidt smiles. “Yeah, who voted for people different than you, even if that’s something I would never consider and even am appalled by personally.”
Attending graduate school at Yale is Schmidt’s second experience with being a Latter-day Saint at a university away from his small hometown in Idaho. It is his first, however, at a university in which he is the religious minority. Both Schmidt and his roommate Ray attended Brigham Young University, completely owned and operated by the LDS Church, in Provo, Utah. Ninety-nine percent of the student body at BYU is Mormon. Schmidt loved both experiences, explaining that BYU was comfortable and enriching for both himself and his faith, whereas Yale is broadening. “The combination,” he says, “is rich and all-encompassing.” Ray concurred that though he had thought it would be difficult to study in an environment with so few Mormons, he has been “pleasantly surprised.”
For both Craft and Oliver, however, the desire for a college education at a formally religious institution was not as present. “I knew I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t BYU,” Craft said, “and that worked out for the best.” Craft did acknowledge that in his college search, he was surprised to find himself scrolling through the Yale website to learn about how many Mormons walked this campus. Oliver wasn’t opposed to attending BYU, but he said, “I wanted to challenge myself in a setting outside of Mormonism to see how I’d change and grow without so much immediate [religious] support. I think this experience really makes or breaks what you believe: it definitely made mine.”
LaRose also talks about this experience: “My main goal is help them stay strong in what they believe but be willing to look through some different lenses.”
On a Mission
One of the major commitments that college-age Mormons must make to their faith is to be a missionary. Typically taking place around the age of 18 or 19, these missions are a various combination of proselytizing, community service, church aid and humanitarian work. It traditionally lasts 18 months to two years and often takes place in a foreign country, during which missionaries may call home only twice a year. Missionary placements, or mission calls, as they are formally known, are determined by the Church. It notifies the missionary to-be of the time and the location of the assignment, as well as the language the student is expected to learn and speak.
Craft, Thomas, South, Schmidt and Ray have all taken missions. Students take a two-year leave of absence and then are reinstated as a student upon arrival back to the school. The Yale administration knows how it works, as there have been enough missionaries for this to be a semi-streamlined process. Craft, Thomas and South, who each took their missions as undergraduates at Yale, spoke about the difficulty of returning to school with friends who were seniors or graduates. For them, however, the benefits far outweighed the social readjustment demanded. The intense and immersive experience presented students with opportunities for learning that they believe Yale could not have provided through a traditional four-year career. Thomas, who took her mission to Russia, said “being older with more time to get grounded before you act” coupled with the “practical skills learned” helped make her time at Yale more efficient and enjoyable. Craft described it as “a way to recenter around religion.” South believes he is a much better student, thinking more long-term.
LaRose gives an additional reflection on what it means for missionaries. “It’s unique, gives them a unique advantage by having this different culture and language and learning to love and see people for who they are as they pursue knowledge in this kind of a university,” he said. “It helps them see what matters most. … [It’s] about what you can contribute spiritually to the world.”
Luke Sanford ’18 had a distinctive experience as a missionary that made his new life at Yale far more complicated than the one he had left. Arriving back in New Haven from his mission married — and subsequently living off-campus rather than in Trumbull — Sanford found his priorities reoriented. He organized to spend as much time at home, and now, with a five-week-old baby girl, he is far busier than any Yale student could even imagine. “My priorities [are] a little bit different than some students, … and I have a little bit of regret about what I missed out on. But, I have a firm understanding that I dedicated my time to something really valuable: my family,” Sanford said.
“Mormonism encourages you to find out [what you believe] for yourself as you grow up,” Craft said. Each student who reflected upon their relationship with their faith during their time at and before Yale has come to this conclusion: Part of this demanding faith is an existential questioning about what, how and why each of them believes.
For Ray, that is “moving forward without all the answers, looking at beliefs more critically … and maturely in college. The result is that I do believe this.” For Schmidt, it’s a comfort in the dialectical, dynamic process of figuring things out: “Questions and concerns are seen as constructive.” For Craft, he decided to read the Book of Mormon for himself. “I determined that I believe in this. I accept smaller things as a bigger picture that I can’t understand.”
Sanford elaborated: “It can be easy to flow and not really personally progress. I firmly believe in the teachings of the church. … When I don’t do these things, I can feel a void. When I don’t understand why, that’s when I go back and just pray and do a simple investigation of more core beliefs that I know to be true. … I’m always able to find a solution and find peace.”
Even the older Mormons who guide these students are able to reflect on their connection to, and doubts about, the faith to which they belong.
“I have a core nucleus that I’ve been taught and that I’ve corroborated with my own experiences. Other, more outer ideas are what can be questioned. Receiving answers for my prayers is a stable basis [for believing],” Campbell said. “I have a 25-year study of LDS theology. You don’t abandon something after that long because you don’t understand one thing.” LaRose is firm in his aim to help his students walk alone spiritually, as this is the first time many of them are getting off the religious “piggy-back” of mom and dad and tradition.
LaRose, Campbell and Sanford encourage this questioning and affirming of beliefs amongst the younger students. “We honor people’s freedom to choose,” LaRose said. “We certainly will have open arms and open hearts.”
Each of them was able to respond personally when I asked about how they plan to raise their own children. “It would be extremely painful if they decided not to follow the faith, … but there is a freedom to choose, an agency,” Campbell said. “There’s enough opposition that you wouldn’t do it if there were no benefits, so I want my kids to feel those same benefits using the toolkit that I have successfully used to navigate hardship.”
Sanford shares similar insight, despite being such a new parent.
“The Church has brought me some of the greatest happiness of my life, and all I want for my kids is happiness, but … restricting them in that sense could provide some major negative ramifications in the future. We are trying to find that balance between guiding with love and shepherding them into what we believe to be the best possible way, while still allowing them the freedom to choose.”
Shayna Elliot | firstname.lastname@example.org .