When our neighborhood book group discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn recently, one woman expressed amazement to learn of the poverty that existed in American slums in the early 20th century. How could she have lived for over 70 years without learning of the world beyond Utah? Unfortunately, this neighbor is not unusual. Mormons often isolate themselves from outside influences. Our son-in-law, Doc, a very bright guy, said he’d had no idea until he read Alex Haley’s Roots that African-Americans had suffered the kind of persecution Mormons had in the 19th century. Was his teen reading limited to Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites?
Utah Mormons are often criticized as insular by those living outside the state, but in my experience, Mormons everywhere tend to limit friendships to Church members—possibly because Church activity leaves no time for other people or organizations. Reading material is also often restricted to Deseret Book sources.
Devoid of outside contact, our vision of the world becomes skewed. A visiting teacher told me her domino group had invited a nonmember to join them. “She has high standards,” Sister Small told me, “and we set the example for her.” This kind of hubris—the notion that we are the only righteous people—may have been the failing President Ezra Taft Benson warned against in his 1989 address, “Beware of Pride.”
My sister’s loss of testimony began on her mission when she encountered, for the first time, good people with strong testimonies of their own faiths. Would Pelly have left the Church had she been prepared for the reality that good people, devout in their own faith, exist outside of Mormonism?
Joseph Smith counseled us that, “One of the grand, fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Contemporary Mormons frequently dismiss anything outside our church as unworthy of our time if not downright suspect. Case in point: Our neighborhood book group was formed from our disbanded ward Relief Society book group after the RS president tried to restrict the reading to Church titles. Locking ourselves into cultural insularity does not prepare us to live in the real world. Neither does it further the growth of the Church as a worldwide organization.