I spent many years of my life listening (or teaching) Sunday School lessons. For Mormons, stories from the early days of the church are used to teach gospel principles as frequently as stories from the Bible and The Book of Mormon are used. Topics from these stories range from tithing to Sabbath day observance, but some of the biggest lessons they offer come from stories of faith in the face of sacrifice, persecution, and death.
The greatest story I can think of to illustrate this comes from when Joseph Smith was a prisoner for a number of months at Liberty Jail. While there, he received a number of revelations including D&C section 121, which, I think, is one of the most impassioned and beautiful sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. At the end of verse 7 it reads:
...if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give the experience, and shall be for thy good. D&C 122:7
Fast forward to today.
Many generations have passed since the days of Joseph Smith Jr. Mormons are still regarded as odd, but mostly the church is accepted as a mainstream religion. Within the church, stories from the early days of persecution are continually taught to help inspire faith. For most members though, daily trials have died down to nothing more than what the average person experiences, Mormon or not. The persecution of the early saints has evaporated and modern members are left in a haze of weekly worship, temple attendance, tithing, and dietary restrictions to help them define their "mormonism".
That is, until November 4th 2008.
Today there are thousands of people (perhaps more) protesting the church's involvement in the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign: Rallies at temples and church houses, people calling for an end to the church's tax-exempt status, members who donated to help support Prop. 8 being singled out, boycotting Utah, etc.
How are members of the church reacting to this? Here are a couple snippets from Prop. 8/LDS supporters taken from recent opinion articles in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune:
"I say bring on the boycott!"
-Tonia Freeman Doussett; Sandy, UT
"Like Lincoln, we will not be 'slandered from our duty by false accusations, nor frightened from it by the menaces of destruction'."
-Sandra Brimhall; West Jordan, UT
"Buckle up, Saints! The prophecy that the LDS Church and its members would be extremely persecuted in the last days is only beginning."
-Lauren Payne; Riverton, UT
"They're trying to intimidate me and adherents to my faith at our places of worship. It will not work."
-Jeremy Roberts; Sandy, UT
Mormons know something about persecution (which is what makes the current struggle so odd...so sad). Millions of members, especially in Utah, have spent their entire lives hearing about how early Mormons stood strong in the face of persecution, some to the point of sacrificing their lives for their beliefs; and how those individuals were assured their exaltation because of standing "on the side of the Lord".
The protests, the persecution, the intimidation, all the negative energy the church has drawn to itself recently - most members are PRIMED for it. They look forward to tests of their resolve because in their mind it helps them become better, helps them prove to the Lord that they are one of the faithful, and it helps them connect in some way to the early saints who too were persecuted.
Just for the record, and before you think I'm making a case for the church - I think Proposition 8 is a mistake. I used to not have anything against the church, but now I find it increasingly impossible to not harbor hostility toward it. It seems unfathomable to me that since I have left the church to pursue happines how I see fit, the church now doesn't seem to want to leave me alone.
But I wonder if the escalating hostility towards the church is the best way to make progress. Sure it's natural to want to hurt them because they hurt us, but hostility is only deepening and hardening the church membership against gay marriage. In a weird way, it's also giving them something they want desperately - A chance to prove their faith to God.
Do we really want to give them that?