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.”