Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pioneer Day: Suffering Saints.

Emil Herman Emanuel Christensen
It wasn't many years ago that I learned that my great-great grandfather, Emil Herman Emanuel Christensen, a convert from Denmark, committed suicide--and at the same time finally understood why photos of his daughter Lillian, my great-grandmother, almost always show her with a mournful face.

It turns out he was an alcoholic. This was not terribly unusual in Utah Territory at the time, as the alcohol prohibition of the Mormon Word of Wisdom, while encouraged, was not yet enforced as a entrance requirement for the temples. That policy change didn't happen until 1902, when he was 39 years old and well set in his addiction.

As the story was told to me, he had not long prior managed to quit drinking long enough to earn permission to enter the temple and be sealed to his wife and children--a very joyful event for the family. But soon thereafter he relapsed, and the despair of failing his family and religious community drove him to hang himself.  No doubt Lillian's sad face reflects the burdens laid on an eldest daughter in a household with a drunken father, and (later) no father.
Lillian Christensen Fullmer Brown

I mourn for Emil Herman Emanuel Christensen, who battled with what was seen at the time as a solely moral failing, and failed. Had he lived in this time, he would have had far more powerful options for grappling with and overcoming this demon, and his daughter's face might not have been so sad for so long. I don't know his character, but I like to believe he would have succeeded if he had been given more tools for recovery.

So the question becomes--was it cruel to exclude people like my great-great grandfather from the temple? People with crippling addictions who didn't know how to overcome them? Can part of the blame for his suicide be attributed to that strict new temple admission rule?

Perhaps in light of what we know now, it was cruel--perhaps one could say that he wasn't given a fair chance to beat his alcoholism, and so should not have been made to suffer socially and religiously.

But there is also his sad daughter to consider, and the marred family life that resulted from her father's drinking. Without that harsh shaming laid on alcoholism beginning in 1902, perhaps the great shift to sober living would not have happened in the Mormon community--a shift that has blessed my life and the lives of countless others. The heavy weight of chemical addiction has largely been lifted from faithful Mormons through this social and religious pressure, making it easier for families to remain intact, making us more productive, and adding years to our lives.
Death certificate of Emil Christensen

I am so sad for you, great-great grandfather Christensen, that you had to be the one to live in that moment when the traditions of thousands of years bumped up against a difficult new standard. I doubt I would have fared better in your place, given my own rather addiction-prone nature. But thank you for taking the blow in that moment and for signaling to your children through your efforts to quit--and even through your suicide--that you viewed your actions as wrong and believed that there was a better way. For all the sadness your sad end caused, and even though that tragedy was unnecessary, you stood at the beginning of a new tradition in our family, and by it I have been greatly blessed.

Rest in peace.