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Do Mormons practice intercession for deceased loved ones? Anthropologist suggests they sometimes do

FILE: Attendees have gathered in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird for the 51st annual Mormon History Association Conference, which concludes Sunday morning and typically draws an eclectic following of Mormons, non-Mormons, scholars and non-scholars.
FILE: Attendees have gathered in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird for the 51st annual Mormon History Association Conference, which concludes Sunday morning and typically draws an eclectic following of Mormons, non-Mormons, scholars and non-scholars.
Deseret News

Though it’s not a formal doctrine within their church, Latter-day Saints in practice sometimes engage in what other faith groups might call “intercession” on behalf of deceased love ones, a non-Mormon anthropologist observed Friday in the opening plenary session of the 51st annual Mormon History Association Conference.

A reported 540 attendees have gathered in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird for the event which concludes Sunday morning and typically draws an eclectic following of Mormons, non-Mormons, scholars and non-scholars, young and old.

Fenella Cannell, associate professor in social anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science in England, spoke to the audience via video recording and then responded briefly to questions live via an internet connection.

Cannell has conducted fieldwork observing Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in upstate New York and in Utah.

“A lot of my work with Latter-day Saints has really been trying to talk to anthropologists about how they misunderstand Mormonism and what Mormonism is,” Cannell said in the outset of her presentation. “There might be something anthropology has to say about your conference topic of ‘Practice,’ because anthropologists like to begin by thinking about religion as it’s practiced every day as people live it.”

Cannell explained that in her paper she would suggest that “there is intercessionary practice among Latter-day Saints, although that really isn’t a Mormon term.” Intercession, among some Christian denominations, is prayer, pleading or petition on behalf of another, especially a deceased person.

She drew from a chapter in a book she is writing that presents her observation of a Mormon Sabbath-day Relief Society meeting she attended in upstate New York.

She recounted that a woman named Ruth, presenting a lesson in the meeting, said, “I know I’ll have the chance to be with Angus in eternity if I keep on following the iron rod. I will be with Angus for all eternity, and the few extra years of this mortal experience that I was begging for here will seem pretty insignificant from that perspective.”

Ruth, recently appointed as a counselor in the local ward Relief Society presidency, was a woman with considered opinions, a sense of humor and two adult daughters who also lived in the ward. Six years earlier, she had suffered the death of her husband, Angus, whom she dearly loved, from three kinds of cancer. Angus, a smoker, never joined the LDS faith, though he felt the Mormons were good people.

The lesson she gave that day was based on an article in the church’s Ensign magazine about miracles. She said from the time of her husband’s death until the previous Thursday, when she was preparing the talk, she had felt bitter and resentful because she had asked God for a miracle to give Angus a few more years of life and she felt her prayer had not been answered.

In the discussion Ruth asked someone to read a passage from the Mormon scripture Doctrine and Covenants, Section 42:48, the promise that he who has faith to be healed and is not appointed unto death shall be healed. She had been basing her hopes for a miraculous cure of her husband on that scriptural passage and her faith in the power of the priesthood in the church.

Ruth had come to realize, Cannell said, that it had been Angus’ appointed time to die and that a different kind of miracle had taken place: Ruth had been healed of the anger she felt when she didn’t get miracle she had prayed for.

“She recalled the wonderful blessing that had been given to her husband by the then-bishop of the ward before Angus died,” Cannell recounted. “The bishop had talked about there being two kinds of faith — your own faith and the faith of others. At one point he had said under inspiration, ‘Angus, at this point the time has arrived when you have to have your own faith. You can no longer rely on the faith of others.’

“Even when she heard this, Ruth said, she didn’t understand or accept what was coming.”

Ruth had been hoping since then that she would have a spiritual experience in the temple, but it had not come.

One of Ruth’s daughters, Joyce, spoke in the meeting and observed that her father had many opportunities to give up smoking and join the church, but had not done so.

But at the end of his life, some remarkable things happened, including a dream of one of Angus’s sons-in-law that Angus’s mother, whom he had never met, appeared as a young woman and said, “You’ve had him this long; it’s time for me to have him back now.”

The daughter found a picture of Angus’s mother as a young woman and said, “It may be that your mom will be the one to meet you at the veil.”

Angus himself experienced a dream that caused him to tell his wife, “Ruthie, you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved and I know that I’m going ahead to prepare a place for you and you and I will walk together hand-in-hand through eternity.” He told her she could do the vicarious ordinances for him in an LDS temple that Mormons believe are necessary for salvation.

“She was incredibly surprised, because Angus never, ever spoke about God,” Cannell said.

A woman in the class, who had tried to give missionary messages to Angus to which he had not responded, then rose and related spiritual impression she had encountered in which she saw Angus dressed in white, symbolic of the temple ordinances. “He was such a good man. I’m so sorry you were angry, and I’m so glad you’re not angry anymore,” the woman said to Ruth.

Cannell cited Mormon scriptural doctrine that honorable people who do not receive the gospel while in mortality, but accept it later, will be resurrected to inherit the terrestrial kingdom, the second tier in what church members believe are the three degrees of glory, and they will be unmarried.

People in that Relief Society meeting would have been familiar with that doctrine, she said, yet they had encountered a complex situation in the case of Angus, as Mormons sometimes do in dealing with their beliefs about life after death.

Because of the spiritual experiences she and others had experienced pertaining to Angus, and considering her knowledge of Mormon principles pertaining to the hereafter, Ruth remained “suspended in a state of hopeful equivocation,” Cannell remarked.

Cannell commented that the proceedings of the Relief Society meeting she attended was “a form of Mormon intercession, albeit intercession is most certainly not a Mormon term, and is not supposed to exist within Mormon doctrine.”