My Closest Friends I’ve Never Met

A strange thing happens when you spend several years worth of evenings pouring over hundreds of oral histories in order to write a book. Besides fantasizing about when you might have time to kick back on the couch and watch a mindless television show, you develop a very close relationship with the people behind the transcripts. In the case of the interviews I worked with, the subjects were asked to talk about challenges they had faced, turning points in their lives, and other spiritually significant experiences.

Paper files

These types of questions produce highly personal discussions, and I found myself developing an odd type of intimacy with a large number of people I’d never met. I spent so much time with these interview transcripts that the people behind them became very real to me. So much so, that sometimes the line got blurred . . .

A case in point occurred at BYU Women’s Conference some years ago. I attended a class to hear a friend present, and found that her co-speaker was Jane Clayson Johnson. I did not know a lot about Jane, apart from her profession as a journalist. As she shared details about her career, her divorce, and waiting for and finally meeting her second husband, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat as the realization hit me – Jane Clayson had married Mark Johnson!

You probably find this news about as earth-shattering as the family members sitting on either side of me that day did (that is, NOT AT ALL). But you see, Mark Johnson was one of my close friends. I’d last heard from him in 2002, when he was reflecting on his conversion to the church, his desires for a family, and trying to navigate the idiosyncrasies of LDS dating. That’s the thing with these close friends – I know them from a point in time, and don’t often get to see where things progress from there. I was beyond thrilled to know Mark was married, and learn through his wife how life had unfolded.

Now mind you, Mark Johnson and I have still never met, and if he passed me on the street today, I would not recognize him. Yet that doesn’t compromise the way I feel about all the individuals who participated in the interviews that came to comprise For All the Saints, or the many positive ways in which their experiences, insights, and collective wisdom have impacted my life.

And there are those cases where I do get to meet the person behind the interview, and the real-life relationship that develops is even better than I could have imagined. Ann Hinckley Romish, almost 80 years young, and daughter of the indomitable Betty Hinckley (who I hope to meet in the next life), is a true friend who knows when to encourage and when to push – I always leave her company determined to do and be better.

In short, my life has been infinitely improved by coming to know all the men and women I spent those many evenings with, if only on paper. And to all my BFFs out there that I’ve never met: Barbecue at my house! Let me know when you can come!


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We Love You, We Need You

Sonia Johnson, a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and a founder of Mormons for ERA, was excommunicated from the church in 1979. Judy Dushku did not know Sonia Johnson personally, but Judy was a vocal advocate for women’s rights and other social issues, and the national news flurry around Ms. Johnson struck Judy to her core.


In the midst of swirling emotions, Judy received a phone call from her bishop, Gordon Williams, asking if she would meet with him that coming Sunday. It seemed a confirmation of Judy’s worst fears. Would she be reprimanded? Would she be asked to stay silent on matters she cared deeply about? Would she be asked to relinquish her membership in the church altogether?

Full of trepidation, Judy walked in the cultural hall after Sunday services concluded, just as her bishop had asked her to. There on the gym floor were two folding chairs facing each other. Bishop Williams sat on one and beckoned Judy to join him.

folding chair

As soon as she was seated, Bishop Williams smiled. “I just wanted to talk to you to let you know how much you’re appreciated in the stake and in the ward. I want you to know how much we love you, we care for you, and we need you.”

Over the years, Judy has continued to speak out and for social and political issues she cares about. She is an academic, the founder of a nonprofit in Uganda that works with survivors of war, and most recently served as stake Relief Society President. To this day, that conversation in the empty cultural hall remains dear to her heart. “He just called me as my bishop to tell me I was fine. That was one of the sweetest things.”

With today’s swirling news cycles, may we each be careful about the assumptions we make and find ways to reach out with love and sensitivity the way Bishop Williams did.

We love you, we care for you, we need you.

References: Dushku, Judy, interview by George McPhee. August 13, 1997. Watertown, MA: The Clayton M. Christensen collection of Boston Latter-day Saint Oral Histories, MSS 7770, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

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Give away, oh give away!

A few months back, a friend told me that her book group had chosen “For All the Saints” for their monthly read, and she asked if I would be willing to join their discussion. Because I live in Washington State and her book group met in California, she proposed that I participate via Facetime using our iPads. I agreed, but first had to find a way to get over the intense horror of seeing my face as it appeared on my tablet (is it just me who looks like they’ve aged 20 years and got all kinds of crazy shadows on their face when talking on one of those devices?!?) Jane Jetson was on to something when she used her “morning mask” to converse via video phone – where can I get one of those for myself?

jane jetson

Unflattering technology aside, I had a wonderful time visiting with that group of fantastic women. I loved hearing the stories that impressed them personally, as well as the principles they saw playing out in their own lives. It took me back to the days when I was just becoming familiar with the individuals and reams of material that eventually became “For All the Saints,” when I felt as if I’d stumbled upon a treasure-trove of experiences and insights that made me want to lengthen my stride and rethink what it means to be a disciple of Christ. I enjoyed the opportunity to provide additional details on favorite accounts and share some of the things I learned while writing the manuscript. Most of all, I relished the opportunity to share something I love with others.

After I signed off, the group continued to talk and my friend later informed me they’d spent more time discussing “For All the Saints” than they had any other book in their 10+ year history.

As I prepare to speak at BYU Education Week again this year, I have been thinking of that “virtual” book club meeting and how much fun it was. In honor of that experience, I am offering a free copy of “For All the Saints” to any LDS book group of 10 or more who would like to read it. Just post a comment below and let me know how to reach you or private message me on my “For All the Saints” Facebook page.


If you promise not to hold unflattering two-dimensional Skype or Facetime images against me, I might even agree to visit. Happy reading, everyone!

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“If I Didn’t Know Better . . .”

When I turned eight, my family lived in Rhode Island. We were members of the Newport Ward and attended church in Middletown – aptly named for its geographic location between famous Newport, on one side, and humble Portsmouth, on the other. The chapel that we attended was an odd structure, consisting of a brick chapel attached to the side of an old white farmhouse. I didn’t realize there was anything different about the building at the time, but I have to admit the small second-story room with the baptismal font where I was baptized would likely raise eyebrows today.

A few years later, the ward had outgrown the building. Since the property was too small to accommodate a typical one-story LDS meetinghouse, plans to construct a new two-story structure on the lot were prepared. As soon as the initial go-ahead for the project was given, Bishop Robert Wood asked members of his congregation to gather on a Thursday evening and move everything out of the building in preparation for its demolition. A number of congregants grew sentimental as they emptied the old house and asked if they could take some of the fixtures as keepsakes. Since the structure was to be razed, Bishop Wood saw no reason to refuse. As members left the work party that night, they carted off windows, lights, doors, mantles and anything else they could salvage.

The following morning, Bishop Wood received a disturbing call from his stake president. Having reviewed the project’s projected costs again, the powers-that-be in Salt Lake had determined that they might as well wait to acquire more land in Newport that would accommodate a traditional meetinghouse. Without confessing the events of the previous night, Bishop Wood protested, noting it would be almost impossible to obtain additional land on the island. With the help of his stake president, Bishop Wood arranged a meeting with the Church Building Committee for the following week, when Bishop Wood would be in Utah for a speaking engagement.

At the meeting, Robert Wood gave a thorough, if somewhat aggressive presentation as to why the church should continue with the original building plan. The committee chair ultimately conceded, but noted that the final decision would have to be made by the Finance Committee, chaired by Gordon B. Hinckley who was then a counselor in the First Presidency.

A few days later, Bishop Wood received a call from President Hinckley’s office. In a one-on-one meeting, a significantly humbler Bishop Wood laid out the reasons for continuing with the original project. President Hinckley listened carefully, leaned back in his chair, and said, “You know, Bishop, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d already destroyed that house.”


“President Hinckley, how could you say such a thing?” was all Bishop Wood could muster, given that he had yet to admit the state of things to anyone outside his ward.

President Hinckley simply grinned and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Well, you know, I am a prophet. Okay – let’s go ahead!”

And that is how the current chapel in Middletown, Rhode Island, came to be. Thank goodness for prophets with a sense of humor! Middletown Chapel

References: Robert and Dixie Wood, interview by Robert Fletcher. January 17, 1999. Belmont, MA: The Clayton Christensen collection of Boston Latter-day Saint Oral Histories, MSS 7770, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

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Seek First the Truth, and All Things Will Come

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the letter signed by President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors announcing that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” Whether or not deserved, I have always felt a personal connection to that long-awaited news, as June 8, 1978 was my seventh birthday.


Prior to this announcement, canonized as Official Declaration 2, members of the Church struggled with the restrictions that kept faithful Saints from being able to hold the priesthood and participate in temple ordinances. In the fledgling Boston Branch, the black members who attended were among the most active of the congregants and the men participated in all Elders Quorum activities as “prospective Elders.”

One of these men was Richard Lowe. He had joined the Church in 1964, knowing that the blessings of the priesthood were not available to him. This restriction was a matter of real concern and he made it a matter of prayer prior to his baptism. In a dream, he saw himself at a podium atop which sat a very old book. Instructed to look at the book, he read clearly the words, “Seek first the truth, and then all things will come to you.”

Richard served as the Sunday School superintendent in the branch, while his wife served as Primary President. Although he did not understand the policy that prevented him from being ordained to the priesthood, Richard expressed faith in his leaders and his willingness to wait for further revelation from the Lord. In the meantime, he expressed gratitude for his brothers within the Church who came to his home and shared the priesthood with his family so that they did not want for anything. Above all, Richard made it a priority to live up to his covenants so he would be ready when and if the blessing finally came to him in mortality.

On Friday, June 9, 1978, Richard was at work when he received a phone call from his wife, who sounded strangely emotional. “Honey,” she said, “I have good news,” before she burst into tears. Just then, a fellow Church member and an investigator who worked for the same company rushed in to tell Richard the news coming out of Salt Lake. The three men embraced and wept together.

The following Sunday, Elder Robert D. Hales, then of the First Quorum of the Seventy, ordained Richard Lowe to the office of an elder.

I have great admiration for the men and women, like Richard and Priscilla Lowe, who, when confronted by a policy that appeared unjust, irrational, and incomprehensible, chose to trust the personal assurances they had received and continue in faith, even when resolution was never assured in this life. When I perceive (rightly or wrongly) conflict between principles and practice, I do best when I too remember to “seek first truth” – for, “he that doeth truth, cometh to the light” (John 3:21).

References: For All the Saints, pages 189-190 and Poulsen, Elissa J. “Honey, I Have Good News!” Ensign, December 1979.

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Something Significant in Small Increments of Time

Just the other day I got the question again: “How did you manage to write a book?”

The short answer is: “Very slowly.” After all, it took me the better part of eight years, with admitted stops and starts over that course of time. The more reflective answer takes me back to the realities of that effort, and the life milestones I marked over those years. I lost three babies and welcomed three children into my life as the days, weeks, and months passed by. In fact, I was living in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with my youngest two, a set of twins, while I was reviewing the final edits and proofs from my publisher.


All that aside, however, there was one thing that inspired me to push forward, regardless of obstacles. Early on in the project, I read the transcript of the interview that had been conducted with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. For those of you who do not know who Laurel is, she is a professor at Harvard University who won the Pulitzer Prize for History with her book, A Midwife’s Tale and coined the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Laurel’s first publication was not Pulitzer-prize material, but it was a landmark for her and a number of other women. As part of a Relief Society fund-raising project, Laurel organized the research and writing of an area guidebook entitled A Beginner’s Boston.

“I did a ton of the work myself,” she said. “I remember how hard it was to write. I had three kids by that time. They were little and needed a lot of attention. I had been out of school for five or six years. I was just trying to keep my head above water. . . . I designated my children’s nap times to work on the writing that would go into it. It was just like pulling teeth. It was so hard. But I got so I could do it.”

Beginner’s Boston was a phenomenal, unexpected success and was touted by the Boston Globe as the first real guidebook to the city. But its impact on Laurel was the most lasting. “What I got out of it,” she reflected, “was a confidence in my ability to do a major thing in small increments of time.” With that new-found knowledge, Laurel went on to pursue a master’s degree, a doctorate, and has never stopped achieving since.

My father never accepted a complaint about how long something would take as a reason not to do it. “The time will pass anyway,” he’d simply respond.

Whenever I want to give up on a goal or a project because life is too busy or just too hard, I recall Laurel’s observation and remind myself that I too can accomplish something significant with even small snippets of time, stolen here and there, so long as I am consistent and persistent.

What have you always wanted to accomplish? Is there something you can do today that can move it forward? Don’t underestimate the power of small increments of time – they have the power to turn ordinary moments into an extraordinary life.

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Happy Pioneer Day! How about celebrating with dinner cooked in an asbestos box?

Have you ever wondered how pioneer women found the time and energy to make dinner after trudging across the plains all day? The answer, in many cases, was the hay box, also known as fireless cookery.

Hay boxes

Hay boxes are the predecessor to today’s crockpots and slow cookers. The principle is simple – once a food has reached its boiling point, that temperature just needs to be maintained long enough to cook it properly. Pioneer women would begin preparing their evening meal in the morning, before the wagon trains left, by heating dinner over a fire and then placing the boiling, covered kettle, in an air-tight hinged box packed with hay to retain the heat. A hay-stuffed pillow was placed over the top of the cooking pot, the box was shut securely and then placed on the wagon, where the meal would continue to cook until it was time to set up camp again in the evening.

The hay box, or “hot box” was resurrected by the ladies of the Cambridge Ward Relief Society in the 1960s and provided a way to cook elegant meals for hundreds of guests at elaborate ward parties. One sister told of the sweet and sour pork she made for a ward luau using hot boxes, as well as haddock stuffed with cucumber-bread stuffing, baked in aluminum foil and then placed in an insulated container to cook the rest of the day.

By the 1960s, however, the sisters had decided to take advantage of modern technology. According to the book Mormon Cookery from New England, published in 1966, “The primitive ‘hay box’ has evoluted [sic] into the ‘asbestos box,'” which simply meant they improved the insulation in the cookers by lining the boxes with asbestos! (Don’t try this at home).

If you should be interested in hay box cooking, it is a wonderful way to expand your emergency preparedness skills, and instructions for constructing hay boxes out of almost any airtight container can be easily found on the internet. That being said, a mylar emergency blanket provides a safer way to line your box and shredded newspaper can be used in place of hay (in case you don’t live on a farm!). Once you have your cooker, you can use it to make everything from meats to oatmeal and sourdough breads. What would you try first?

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Real-Life Superheroes

My five-year-old son loves superheroes. He can spend all day reading about Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and anyone else with a super-cool costume. One of the lessons of For All the Saints is that heroes are all around us, although their dress may be less flashy and involve less Spandex.

When I am asked to summarize the messages contained within the book, one of the most potent is as follows: Ordinary men and women can accomplish extraordinary things when they are partnered with the Lord.

For those of you curious to know what some of these superheroes look like, I have attached a photo recently given to me of some of the stallwart members who were the pillars of the Cambridge Branch in the early 1940s.

1940s Group Boston

  • Back row (from left to right): G. Roy Fugal, Rulon Robison, Bill Knecht, Ora Lee Knecht, A.G. Cranney, Larry Guild and Bri Decker
  • Middle row: Claire Robison (the original R.S. president who served in that capacity for 27 years!), Naomi Cranney, George Albert Smith II, Ruth Smith, S. Smitty Stevens
  • Front row: Anna Marie Decker, John N. Hinckley, Olive Fugal, and the indominatable Betty Hinckley

The other day, my five year was lecturing me on Wonder Woman’s parentage and gifts from the backseat of our minivan. Pausing for a moment, he asked, “Mom, isn’t it cool that we have a real-life superhero in our family?” Before I could respond, he quickly added so that there was no misunderstanding: “And it’s me!”

May we all see our own potential for bringing great things to pass through small and simple things (Alma 37:6) and our commitment to the Lord’s work.

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I realize that it may be odd to welcome readers to a site that has been up for nearly five months. But for me, today is my first foray into the world of blogging. Between mothering four children (including infant twins), maintaining my household and law practice, and a few technical difficulties, I have not utilized this site the way I had initially planned.

But that stops today! When I was presented with the thousands of pages of oral histories that became the source material for For All the Saints, I found myself empathizing with Mormon, who could only include “the hundredth part” (3 Nephi 26:6) of the Nephite records within the leaves of the gold plates.

My hope is that this website will become an outlet for sharing many of the stories and lessons that I was not able to include in the book. I also hope it will become a resource for collecting more stories that evidence how the Lord builds his kingdom today. As Saints, we are well-versed in events that took place in Palmyra, Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo, and the long trek west. But that only captures the smallest slice of our heritage! The Lord’s work did not stop when the Saints reached the Salt Lake Valley. On the contrary, his work rolls forward in all corners of the world today and there is much we can learn from each other as we each labor in our own corner of the vineyard.

As I stated at the end of the introduction to For All the Saints, it does not matter where we live – as we share testimony and insights, we come to recognize the common spiritual legacy and promises we share as men and women who faithfully seek to follow the Lord’s commands and build up his kingdom. I look forward to exploring this legacy with you.

All my best – Kristen

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