April 27 marks the hundredth anniversary of Family Home Evening, a weekly Mormon event inaugurated by President Joseph F. Smith (not to be confused with founder Joseph Smith; this was his nephew). Once a week since its initiation, Mormon families have come together for prayers, Scripture lessons, songs, games and a snack. The idea is that the night makes families stronger and more faithful in their calling.
Why is this part of the religion? Well, family is central to Mormon theology. Latter-day Saints believe that family is an eternal bond that gets codified in Temple rituals that seal, or join, individuals together for "time and all eternity." So it's not unusual for members to talk about their "forever families," because for Mormons, families literally last forever. As Elaine Anderson Cannon writes, "For Latter-day Saints, the concept of eternal family is more than a firm belief; it governs their way of life. It is the eternal plan of life, stretching from life before through life beyond mortality."
Indeed, families on earth reflect a divine family: Latter-day Saints believe that they're spiritual offspring of a Heavenly Father and Mother and existed as spirit children before being born. Here on earth, they come to know each other in the flesh, as they strive together to maintain a relationship with God during the twists and turns of life. At the end of their journey, they will be rewarded with an afterlife where they reunite with family.
Always intrigued by the traditions of others, I wanted to find out how Family Home Evening affected Mormon life:
Could families pull off a civil evening?
Would this be fun?
What would you do on Monday evenings without a local family?
My first stop: the home of Laurie and Gordon Low, a Mormon couple who invited me to dinner. Laurie had volunteered to be my guide as I visited two local Family Home Evenings, or FHEs, for short.
FHEs are a staple of the Low household. The couple has observed FHE since they were newlyweds, though their children are now grown with their own babies. In fact, Laurie kept a journal of their early ones; in neat, now faded script, she recorded the milestones of her and Gordon's life together.
The birth of a child, an anniversary, the loss of a tooth were all there, part of Monday night.
Laurie had arranged for me to visit two FHEs, one at the residence of a local family and the other at a ward (a local place of worship) where young adults gathered.
"Welcome, Sister Low," Lori and Kenny Bement said to my guide as we stepped into their home. (Sister is the term of respect that Mormons use for others in their faith.)
I was surprised that the Bements didn't see me as an intruder. Guests are welcome at FHE, even non-Mormons like myself. And that's not because anyone is seeking a new convert -- no one tried to convert me at all. They simply welcomed me into their home.
Another surprise: Family Home Evening is not led by parents. Lori, Kenny and their children rotate evening responsibilities. This is typical. FHE isn't hierarchical; it's a time where everyone is involved in pulling the evening off.
That night, the Bement's youngest daughter led the hymn, and the middle daughter read from Scripture. Kenny discussed a portion of a Mormon text called The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and their eighteen-month old son quietly munched on Cheerios from the comfort of a beanbag chair. Meanwhile, Lori taught the lesson: She handed her eldest daughter a pencil and asked her to break it. The girl cracked it in two. Then she handed her six pencils, one for each member of the family.
She couldn't crack them.
The metaphor: Together, we're unbreakable.
The eldest daughter also pulled out a genealogy of her family extending back five generations, and I couldn't help but think, "If we went back a few more, maybe we would be connected."
Where, exactly, does family end?
After reciting their family motto and Scripture verse, the Bements broke out dessert. We couldn't stay, though, because Laurie and I had to depart for a local a ward that hosts FHE for young adults throughout the Boston area.
We could hear them long before we saw them. Under the leadership of two college students named Lori (yup, that's a third Lori) and Sam, they laughed and clapped in the ward gymnasium as they played a game that resembled Seven Up. About 20 of them gathered from schools ranging from Harvard to Emerson and Wellesley, and for them, FHE was an opportunity to share a night with other people who knew what it was like to serve on a mission, who knew what words like "seal" and "forever family" meant.
As one young woman told me, when she met other college students, the first social activities they suggested were either a drink at a bar or coffee at a cafe.
As a Mormon, she couldn't do either.
After the game, the students participated in a Scripture lesson and discussion, and when snacks emerged, we began to chat. Some were finishing school; some were newly returned from missions; some were college-aged nannies.
All had found surrogate families in one another.
Meanwhile, some were looking to start families of their own.
"Do you ever scope out the scene for an eligible date?" I asked one woman.
"That's part of the point," she laughed.
But all goofiness aside, there was something earnest about how these young adults sought meaningful relationships with their peers, just as there was something earnest about how the Bements taught their children the sheer power of family using pencils, a hymn and some Scripture verses. These young people and this young family had all taken an evening away from Facebook and Twitter and the latest Big Bang episode to simply be together, to cultivate relationships with each other so they could have a better relationship with their God.
So does it work? Perhaps no one is in a better place to answer that than my guide Laurie Low. I watched her that night; I saw the look of nostalgia on her face and heard her memories of being a college student and meeting her husband, of early FHEs as a young mother, ones so special she memorialized them in a journal.
I saw the memories of her own family reflected in the FHEs that we observed, and I saw that she was part of a family beyond her nuclear one every time someone referred to her as "Sister."
As I reflect on the hundredth anniversary of Family Home Evening, it seems the ritual's legacy isn't just that biological family matters. It's also that that family isn't limited to those who sit around a living room coffee table. Sure, those might be the people that Mormons believe accompany them into the Celestial Kingdom, but in some ways, the Mormon nuclear family is a metaphor for something larger. Like the Bement family tree, if you go back far enough, we can see that we're all connected. That means that the kindness and generosity and wisdom that we share with our nuclear family is a model. It's a model for how we can care for one another, whether it's a biological child or a stranger like me who drops by for the evening.