Brandan Hadlock; his wife, Christine; and their six children. They moved to Hillsdale so that Brandan could attend the Van Andel Graduate School of States­manship. Brandan Hadlock | Courtesy

The name tag, with its letters in blazing white on a black back­ground, says it all, announcing its wearer’s identity, setting, and reason for ringing your doorbell: “Elder _____ : The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” Although the picture of the Mormon on a mission char­ac­terizes, and perhaps car­i­ca­tures, the life of young members of the LDS church, their message extends beyond the mission field, into posi­tions as stu­dents and pro­fessors at Hillsdale College.

Four of Hillsdale’s young Mormons — a pro­fessor, an alumna, a graduate student, and the college’s only current prac­ticing under­graduate — have found Hillsdale College and its small LDS branch in Jonesville a welcome place to study and exercise the freedom of religion. And with First Amendment debates growing ever more shrill around the nation, assistant pro­fessor of Spanish Todd Mack is starting simple by taking LDS out to lunch. Tuesday morning, he led a Lyceum talk to answer ques­tions stu­dents may have about a religion that has a prac­ticing campus mem­bership cur­rently in the single digits.

“I wonder if anyone has given a talk at Hillsdale about Mor­monism,” Mack said. “In con­ver­sa­tions with people, it seems like people are inter­ested. Not like ‘I wanna get bap­tized,’ but like, ‘I’m curious about this church.’”

Mack, who joined the faculty in the fall of 2017, has plenty of expe­rience sharing his faith after a two-year mission in Spain that led him to his current aca­demic dis­ci­pline. The obstacles to con­ver­sa­tions about faith in Spain’s a-reli­gious society are dif­ferent than those at Hillsdale, where Mack finds inter­ested peers who don’t always know what or how to ask about Mor­monism.

But that curiosity about other reli­gions is Mack’s starting point: “As a Mormon on campus at Hillsdale College, I feel so com­fortable working with stu­dents and other faculty and people of other reli­gions. I feel like there’s so much that brings us together; way more than what sep­a­rates us in doc­trine or lifestyle.”

He hopes, in the future, to talk the­ology and church history, but for now, he said the con­ver­sation will likely center around the prac­tical ele­ments of LDS doc­trine: What is it like to go on a mission? What is it like to be one of the few Mormons on Hillsdale’s campus? What is the Book of Mormon all about?

The number of prac­ticing Mormons cur­rently lies in the single digits, but in the past decade, under­grad­uates and graduate stu­dents have answered those ques­tions in Bible studies, in inquiry groups, and in con­ver­sa­tions with friends.

Hannah Schaff, a junior history major, is the most active of the LDS under­grad­uates. An Orange County, Cal­i­fornia native, she took a year off for a mission in Arizona and New Mexico, teaching to the Navajo and other Native American groups.

Though the yearlong mission is not required for LDS women, Schaff found the expe­rience formed her faith and informs her student life.

“I look back on [my mission] a lot when I’m strug­gling, when I have ques­tions. I know that I had a strong faith then, a strong enough faith that I was able to share it with other people, so it helps me remember my tes­timony,” Schaff said. “It’s hard because you can’t do the same type of mission work in your everyday life. You can’t just go up to someone and be like, ‘Do you want to become Mormon?’”

And Schaff said she can’t ask other Mormons about ques­tions that arise in for­mative classes. A course on the Ref­or­mation, for example, showed her that she had a lot to learn, but she would have loved tri­an­gu­lating that with the opinions of Mormons her age who were asking the same ques­tions.

“I think it’s harder here. I think it’s harder with my friends and acquain­tances, talking about it,” Schaff said. “Then it was what we did and who we rep­re­sented, and I didn’t know all the people. Here, there are people whom I highly respect, who are intel­ligent, who know a lot about their faith, and they’re kind of intim­i­dating. And also people here have so much light. So they aren’t as lost. They don’t seem like they have as much need.”

The lessons learned on a mission, then, are at first per­sonal: “In the daily habits, that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned — to read my Scrip­tures every day because I want that light that it brings into my life,” Schaff said.

But they are also com­munal: Schaff, Mack and the members of their con­gre­gation spend three hours every Sunday morning at their worship meeting. Church members visit one another in what the LDS calls Home Teaching; each man and woman is assigned to a certain number of fam­ilies, whom they visit once a month to take care of per­sonal and private con­cerns; Mack and his wife, Betty, visit Schaff and invite her over to their house to spend time with their four children.

For Amanda Hatch ’16 and Schaff, this means they have a little “light” to share back on campus; Hatch started a Scripture study on campus with the one other under­graduate LDS student at the college during her freshman year.

“It was hard not having a com­munity, but it forced me to stand on my own tes­timony. But we knew com­munity was important, so the other LDS student and I decided to try to build an LDS com­munity, as small as that might be. We created an Institute class and brought in an instructor from Lansing,” Hatch said. “Some­times it was just the two of us, but we invited friends, and even­tually there were eight of us.”

They invited Russ Tibbits, an accredited LDS teacher (which is unusual for LDS leaders, as most are laymen without special study outside their per­sonal studies — their current pres­ident is an ex-heart surgeon), to lead the class. The eight inquirers read the Book of Mormon, the Old and New Tes­ta­ments, and the Insti­tutes in order to explore the over­lapping beliefs among their faiths.

Because of their view of the Trinity, Schaff said, people often question whether Mormons are truly Christian. But since “the Mormon faith is all about coming closer to Jesus Christ,” Schaff said she believes Mormons simply have a dif­ferent view of the ways God works through his prophets throughout time.

“A big thing that we dis­agree on is the Trinity. We believe in the Godhead, so we believe that the three are sep­arate and that they aren’t lit­erally one person. They’re one person in that they’re united in mission. So that’s a big one, and that’s why people don’t con­sider us Chris­tians a lot of times,” Schaff said. “We also believe in modern-day rev­e­lation, both per­sonal and through a prophet. We believe in bap­tisms and ordi­nances for the dead, for people who have passed away.”

That modern-day rev­e­lation is the Book of Mormon, which the LDS con­siders an extension of the Old and New Tes­ta­ments pub­lished by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, and those ordi­nances are cer­e­monies that take place in temples, the closest of which, for southern Michi­ganders, is in Detroit.

Schaff said LDS members are encouraged to attend “reg­u­larly,” and she travels with LDS pro­fessors around once a month to the temple, where sealings (Mormon wed­dings), bap­tisms, and other cer­e­monies take place. Although this view of the sacra­ments seems foreign to many she talks to, Schaff said it is cen­tered on the LDS’s view of family.

“We research our ancestors and then we do work for them, so that everyone can be bap­tized and receive ordi­nances that are essential,” Schaff said. “It’s very much like mission work on the other side of the veil.”

For Mack, Hillsdale’s emphasis on family is part of what makes him feel at home in a small college and a church of around 100 active members.

“Family — ded­i­cation to those around us — is so essential to every­thing we do,” Mack said.

And it explains the welcome the Jonesville LDS branch gives to other fam­ilies, like graduate student Brandan Hadlock, his wife, Christine, and his six children, who moved to Hillsdale in December 2016.

“When we drove out to church the first Sunday, before we even got in the building, they said, ‘You must be the Had­locks,’ and they invited my wife to play the organ for church that day,” Hadlock said. “We’ve found a won­derful com­munity here. It’s smaller than what we’re used to, but it’s incredible.”

In Hadlock’s pol­itics classes, the topic doesn’t come up as much as it does for Schaff: “There’s not a lot of in-depth spir­itual dis­cussion, so there might be some­thing more missing if I were single. But I have my wife and children, and I’m active in the church here. There’s not a large group of LDS members on campus, but I’m very involved with people of my age group.”

But like Mack, the pro­tection of freedom keeps con­ver­sa­tions open.

“One thing I appre­ciate about the college is their openness for being whatever religion they are,” Hadlock said. “At graduate school events, we pray over meals together. The people here are open and not looked down on for acknowl­edging their faith.”

For Hadlock, the pol­itics of reli­gious freedom can bring reli­gions and denom­i­na­tions together: “There’s a big push for people to be involved in pol­itics … Right now, there’s a big focus on pro­tection of reli­gious freedom in my church, just like Hillsdale. Here in Michigan, we hosted a non-denom­i­na­tional joint con­ference in con­junction with the Catholic diocese.”

Hatch, now a third-grade teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, said that LDS and aca­demic dis­cus­sions dovetail.

“There’s a verse in our Scrip­tures that says, ‘Seek ye out of the best books truth and words of wisdom,’” Hatch said. “That’s been the emphasis at church and school: pursue knowledge and truth in the ways we live. Hillsdale and my faith went hand in hand in that way.”

For Schaff, mission, family, and study helps her to appre­ciate for the people around her.

“I like what Hillsdale stands for,” Schaff said. “I like the people. You don’t have to believe the specifics of what I believe to be the kind of person I appre­ciate.”

  • Good stuff. Great article. Great people. Just one question: “The eight inquirers read the Book of Mormon, the Old and New Tes­ta­ments, and the Insti­tutes in order to explore the over­lapping beliefs among their faiths.” This makes it sound like the Mormons are reading John Calvin’s The Insti­tutes of the Christian Religion in their study group, which I doubt is the case. 🙂