MHA Devotional 2019

Last Sunday, I spoke at the Mormon History Association devotional in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle and gave a short talk and opening prayer. As I was entering the building, it struck me that a little over five years ago, I stood in line outside of that same building as an organizer for Ordain Women and asked for entry into the Priesthood Session of General Conference. Today, I am an ordained elder and pastor in Community of Christ. It was an honor to speak at this event

Nancy Ross is at a small pulpit on the left. In the center and on the right, a congregation sits in the choir seats at the Salt Lake City Tabernacle.
Nancy Ross speaks before a crowd at the Mormon History Association devotional in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. Photo courtesy of Ben Park.

This morning I would like for us to briefly consider the story of Alma the Elder in Mosiah 16 and 17. All of my academic training is in the discipline of art history, so instead of reading the relevant verses to you, I want us to imagine this story by recalling Arnold Friberg’s painting Alma Before King Noah, which was completed in 1955 for Adele C. Howells, who commissioned the painting for The Children’s Friend magazine.

I imagine that many of us are familiar with this one and it was probably the best illustration in the illustrated Book of Mormon that my dad used to read to me and my siblings when I was a child in the LDS Church. Noah sits on an elaborate throne in a gold-fringed purple robe and wears a crown that looks like it came from the movie Muppet Treasure Island. Noah literally clutches his pearls, or whatever jewelry is at his neck, as he sits and listens. Abinadi is in the center right of this painting and his powerful but elderly body glows white, as opposed to darker skin tones of Noah.

I want to use the spiritual practice of sacred imagination to better understand this scene. Sacred imagination is a tool described by womanist biblical scholar Willa Gafney in her book Womanist Midrash. I want to use my sacred imagination to imagine myself in this painting. I imagine that I am Alma the Elder, watching this scene as Abinadi confronts Noah with charges of corruption. I feel like we both have a degree of privilege, and so I identify with Alma in this story. I imagine that this is not the first Abinadi to have come into this building accusing Noah of oppressing his people. I imagine that many of them had bodies that were different from Abinadi’s white and masculine one. I imagine that there were Abinadis with brown and black bodies confronting Noah, and women too. I imagine that Noah burned them all. I sit there, as Alma, taking all of this in. I imagine that today we serve a variety of Noahs and witness a variety of Abinadis in our everyday lives. And I would like to ask us: what are we going to do about it?

Pray with me.

God of Restoration
We come before you this morning
In this sacred place
To account for our doubt and faith
As scholars of the Restoration
We seek your guidance to illuminate the past and present
We pray for the humility and courage to challenge unjust systems that keep us from building a better Zion.
We pray for missing and murdered indigenous women who are forgotten by our legal systems. God, please restore them to their communities and help us to bring their stories to light.
We pray for refugees at our borders who suffer imprisonment in a system with no compassion. God, please help us to restore this compassion that they may be treated with dignity and be relieved of their suffering.
We pray for the safety of black and brown bodies in our communities, who are often not seen as having the same humanity as my white body. God, we ask for a special measure of protection on transgender women, who are often targets for violence.
God, we hear you call to us to create a just peace in the metaphor of Zion. May our hearts hear and answer this call of restoration and be ever turned toward you.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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3 Responses

  1. violadiva says:

    So beautiful, Nancy. Thank you for being a prophet woman and speaking these powerful words.

  2. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, Nancy! Thanks for sharing it with those of us not fortunate enough to attend and hear you in person!

  3. Beautiful devotional, Nancy.

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