UPDATED: Feb. 15, 2014, at 4:43 p.m.
At 2:30 p.m. every Sunday, approximately 30 Harvard undergraduates shuffle into an unassuming red brick building on the corner of Longfellow Park and Brattle St., arriving from across campus in groups of three or four. On this chilly February afternoon, the students remove their coats to reveal conservative church attire—dresses and skirts for women, slacks and button-downs for men. They gather in the foyer, chat with church members, and slowly stream into the chapel, filling in pews row by row until the entire room is packed with young adults. This is the Cambridge congregation for unmarried Latter-day Saints, known better to non-members as Mormons.
The congregation on Longfellow Park primarily consists of students—mostly undergraduates—from Harvard, MIT, and other Boston-area universities. The building houses three worship meetings on Sundays, the first of which is called the Sacrament Meeting, that together last until approximately 5:30 pm. The chapel walls are white and unadorned, disrupted only by large glass windows that allow soft, yellow sunlight to fill the room. The unobtrusive appearance of the chapel aptly reflects the Sacrament Meeting’s tone—quiet, dignified, and above all, humble.
Mormons at the College consider this building a sort of haven, a space that fosters a student-based community and provides a restful atmosphere that departs from the bustle of their everyday lives at the college. The students come from all over the country—Maryland, California, Utah—but have continued to practice their faith while attending Harvard.
“This is a very unique place to be a Mormon,” says Philip M. Ngo ’14. “If you are here, you decided not to go to [Brigham Young University], so already you have a fairly interesting cross section of Mormons.” Ngo, who grew up in Utah and has many friends who attended BYU says that living in this environment, among a diverse population of ambitious students, has tested but ultimately strengthened his faith.
Other Mormon students agree, noting that Harvard’s predominantly secular environment is sometimes at odds with their devout lifestyle. While their religious activities may constitute a significant portion of any given week, larger commitments, from missions to marriage, also have immense effects on their Harvard experiences. Yet students also noted that the challenges at Harvard provide an opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with Mormonism, pushing them to explore and further understand their own beliefs.
In 1830, Joseph Smith, who according to Mormon doctrine was received as a prophet by God and Christ, founded the Church of Christ, a congregation that would later evolve into the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the church believe God’s will is channeled through an earthly prophet, the President of the LDS church. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon serve as sacred scriptures in the church.
Today, there are approximately 15 million Mormons serving in nearly 30,000 congregations worldwide. Harvard’s Mormon community numbers only 30, but according to Caroline M. Trusty ’14, a Mormon student from Baltimore, the undergraduate congregation is very tight-knit.
“There’s just a structure in place, you never have to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m a Mormon, where do I go?’ There’s always some place to go,” Trusty says.
Harvard Mormons have the opportunity to spend time together during the week through church activities and group events sponsored by the Harvard Latter-day Saint Student Association. Students meet for three-hour church services on Sundays and can attend a Bible study session called Institute on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. Additionally, students gather in the Dunster dining hall every Monday evening for Family Home Evening, which involves games and dinner. Often, Dunster House Master and Kennedy School professor Roger B. Porter, who also serves as Bishop for the students’ congregation, joins the students in this weekly gathering.
“What’s great about the church is that everywhere it’s the same,” says Trusty, noting that her family practiced Family Home Evening in Baltimore every Monday night when she was in high school.
Andrew C. Ball ’17 says that in the short time he has been a member of the undergraduate Mormon congregation, he feels like he is already well-integrated into the community.
“Everyone likes to be together,” he says.
The closeness of the community is in part tied to the community’s size. Ellen N. McCammon ’14 joked about knowing the entire Harvard Mormon population.
“This is the standard reaction when people find out I’m Mormon,” she says, laughing. “It’s, ‘Oh, do you know so-and-so?’ another Harvard Mormon and I’m like, ‘Yes,’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh, well, do you know so-and-so?’—another Harvard Mormon— and I’m like, ‘Yes.’ And they’re like, ‘Do you know all the Harvard Mormons?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes.’ Like, I’m not kidding with you.”
According to Porter, the number of Mormon undergraduates consistently remained between 25 and 50 during his tenure as Bishop. Though this number may seem small, Nikki K. Kapu ’14 says that Harvard’s current community of 30 Mormons comprises a larger Mormon community than those of other top schools.
“If they’re accepted, a lot of Mormons do choose to go to Harvard just because the community is not huge, but it’s large enough that you don’t feel alone,” Kapu says.
However, at Harvard there are more students who do not identify with a religious group than identify with any one religion. According to The Crimson Freshman Survey, 32 percent of respondents from the Class of 2017 identified themselves as atheist or agnostic, while only 24 percent consider themselves either “religious” or “very religious.”
“[Harvard is] an aggressively secular and aggressively questioning and skeptical environment,” says Kennedy School professor Lant Pritchett, a practicing Mormon. Although he speculates that the change in environment may be refreshing for some undergraduates, he himself has found that sometimes, non-Mormons can have difficulty understanding the central role that Mormonism plays in everyday life.
“In the kind of environment Harvard is, where lots of people are there because they are ambitious in a certain kind of way, some people then have a hard time grasping that other people have other priorities,” Pritchett says. He recalls the departure of former Harvard Business School Dean Kim B. Clark ’74 in 2005, who left his post to become president of BYU Idaho. Pritchett remembers that some of his colleagues could not fathom that Clark would leave his esteemed position for an institution that had transitioned from a junior college to a four-year university only four years before.
“This is a calling in the church,” Pritchett says. “The people who head the church called him and asked him to do it, and if they call and ask him to do it, he will do it.”
Aticus A. Peterson ’16, who spent the last two years on a mission in Taiwan, says that although he has never encountered prejudice at Harvard, he finds that Harvard students sometimes have trouble comprehending his devotion.
“I’ve never felt threatened,” Peterson explains. “People are all genuinely curious and respectful of what I believe, and most people want to understand why: Why did you take two years off? Why do you spend so much time going to church and doing all these things?”
Ngo agrees, saying that people do not ask him questions in an attempt to convince him that his beliefs are false, but instead because they are truly curious.
Just as students are eager to ask questions about Mormonism, Harvard’s Mormon students are in turn eager to answer them. In April 2013, the Harvard LDSSA hosted the fifth annual “Meet the Mormons” discussion forum, in which student panelists answered questions about the history, practice, and beliefs of the Mormon religion.
“If you went to an event like ‘Meet the Mormons,’ you would discover that the questions there were very respectful, very thoughtful. They came from people who seemed genuinely interested,” Porter says.
As Peterson notes, students frequently ask about his mission, a unique feature of the Mormon church. A month after completing his freshman year, while most of his friends had already begun summer jobs and internships, Peterson flew to Taiwan to begin the first leg of a two-year expedition of service, study, and proselytism.
While in college, many Mormon students take a leave of absence and travel to various regions of the globe, donning suits and dresses as they walk door to door, street to street, searching for new recruits. Typically, these missions last two years for males and 18 months for females. According to McCammon, while the mission is officially optional, it is strongly encouraged that males partake.
“It’s definitely more expected of men, whereas [with] women it’s like ‘gold star for you!’ if you do it,’” says McCammon.
Though the minimum age for males was recently lowered from 19 to 18, the Harvard males who have gone on their missions left after completing their freshman year. After this two- year interruption, the transition back to campus life can be difficult. Both Peterson and Ngo, who completed his mission in Singapore in 2011, said it was strange to see their former classmates grown up and ready to graduate. When Ngo returned to start his sophomore year, members of his former class were seniors.
“I felt old because I was older than all of my sophomore friends. But I also felt young because all of my friends were seniors, and I was a sophomore,” says Ngo, who is 24.
Peterson also noted that the transition backto life on campus was challenging because he had a different set of priorities on his mission than he does at Harvard.
“On a mission, you spend all your time focused on other people, like trying to help other people, and serve other people,” Peterson says. “And so one of the hardest things for me was coming back and finding the trend to bal- ance between focusing on myself, and focusing on other people, because in college you have to focus on your classes, your grades, your exams.”
According to Ngo, daily life during the mission is highly regimented.
“Almost every single day was the same schedule,” he says. He remembers studying scripture in the morning, recruiting in the afternoon. Additionally, he says, mission life was very regulated, as missionaries are only allowed to call their family twice a year and are expected to follow a strict dress code while serving. The rules, according to the LDS Missionary Handbook, also require that missionaries abstain from "inappropriate" association with members of the opposite sex while serving.
“Right when I got back, I got off the plane and I hugged my sister,” says Ngo, noting that this was the first hug he gave a woman in two years. “Apparently it was a very unsatisfying hug...she told me two months later, ‘You gave me a terrible hug right when you got back.’’’
This lifestyle does not appeal to McCammon, who says it is “highly unlikely” that she will go on a mission.
“From what I know it’s very militaristic, the level of structure and scheduling,” McCammon says.
Despite the challenges posed by this lifestyle and the transition back to Harvard, both Ngo and Peterson found their missions to be exceptionally valuable experiences.
“For me, my mission is something I think about every day,” Peterson says. “Just the expe- riences that I had, the people I met, the kind of problems that you encounter trying to help someone, trying to solve these problems.”
THE SOBER LIFE
Another feature that distinguishes the experience of Mormon students at Harvard is the fact that their religion prohibits them from consuming alcohol. One of the revelations that Joseph Smith received from Christ, Peterson explains, was the Word of Wisdom, a law of health. It includes the abstention from alcohol, coffee, tea, drugs, and tobacco. The presence of alcohol consumption on campus, however, has not prevented Mormon students from being social and forming friendships with students who do drink.
“None of my roommates are Mormon, most of them drink,” McCammon says. “Honestly I don’t find anything to be particularly morally wrong with drinking, it’s just the way I was raised.” Like McCammon, Mormon students on the whole do not seem to be bothered by others’ decisions to drink. Katherine B. Ingersoll ’15 says that her abstention from drinking is “a standard I abide by in order to qualify for certain positions in the church... it’s just a tradition I want to keep.”
However, non-Mormons sometimes assume that this abstention implies judgment. Though Ingersoll tries not to appear condescending, she says that people “often perceive that since I’m not drinking, [she thinks] drinking is bad or a sin.”
This misunderstanding can sometimes hinder social interactions. Trusty describes how during her freshman year, she felt that there was “a little bit of a barrier because people were worried about what they could or could not say in front of me, or what they could or couldn’t do if I was around.” Fortunately, as her friends got to know her better, they stopped worrying so much about being judged, she says.
Students agree that they have not felt pressure to drink from their peers. Ingersoll, who is in a final club on campus, says that within this club she has still been accepted even though she doesn’t drink. Furthermore, Mormon students say that they have not been tempted to drink because of their beliefs and upbringings.
“I know why I choose not to drink. So I haven’t ever been in a situation where it’s something that I’ve wanted to do, because I firmly believe in reasons why I choose not to do it,” Kapu says.
Even though Ingersoll does not feel pressure to drink at her final club, other students prefer to avoid events and parties where people are drinking. McCammon mentions that it can be “kind of boring to go to parties and have everyone be totally plastered.”
Fortunately, many students have found non-Mormon friends who are not interested in drinking. Ngo says that he has naturally gravitated towards people who do not want to go out and drink on the weekends.
Though Trusty does have friends who drink, she explains that she often chooses to do social activities during the day, and then returns home when most are headed out. “I spend a lot of free time with my blockmates going to lunch and just hanging out,” she says.
McCammon recounts an experience she had when she lived with heavy drinkers: “I had a roommate puke on my laundry one time—but that would be disrupting to anybody.”
“A HIGH PRESSURE GAME”
“No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
— David O. McKay, Ninth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Because of the focus on marriage and finding the right partner in the Mormon tradition, Mormon students might be expected to approach relationships in college differently than the rest of the student body. But while some get engaged on campus, others cannot fathom the idea of getting married anytime soon. Though the students have a variety of personal preferences with regards to whom and when to date, they all agree that marriage is an incredibly important decision as it determines the ability to successfully raise a family. “We believe that families are forever, that families are eternal, and so the relationships that we have with our family members here don’t end with death but continue on,” Peterson explains.
McCammon agrees, adding, “It’s definitely a very high pressure game when all potential dating partners could be married to you forever.”
Many Mormons tend to marry at a relatively early age. Kapu is engaged to a Mormon she met while studying abroad, and they will be married at the end of her senior year. Kapu notes that this is not uncommon, and that many Mormons get married around graduation time.
Despite the fact that Mormons do tend to marry earlier, many Mormons at Harvard do not intend on an early marriage. Trusty says that her sister’s marriage at age 21 was “mind-boggling.”
“For me, personally, if I met the right person, and it was the right time, and I felt right about it, then I would do it. But I’m not at that point in my life, so it’s not on my radar,” she says.
Others agree, saying getting married is not in their foreseeable future. Ball says that he definitely wouldn’t get married in college. “I can’t believe I’m talking about it now,” he says, blushing.
Indeed, marriage can completely change the fabric of the undergraduate experience. McCammon says that undergraduate Mormons seem to vanish once they are married. In fact, after students marry, they attend another congregation for married couples and families. “When they get married you just stop seeing them,” she says. “They don’t want to hang out with a bunch of single people.”
The law of chastity in the Mormon church requires abstinence from sexual relations before marriage, and the students say this is also a factor in the Mormons’ different approach to relationships. “We have certain standards that are important for us for dating,” Kapu says. “We don’t believe in sex before marriage, but it’s not just sex. We don’t do a lot of things before that, so people view us as pretty conservative.”
According to Kapu, this choice can make it difficult for a Mormon woman to date a non-Mormon man. She believes that the traditional dating culture of Mormons is at odds with the hookup culture present at many colleges, Harvard included. In her opinion, most college students will not be interested in a romantic relationship without the physical component. “Most boys in this school are not interested in me because I’m Mormon,” she says. “I’m not interested in the same kind of relationship as they are, or they have a perception that I would only want to date Mormons or that I wouldn’t be a good girlfriend.”
Ball considers another reason why Mormons tend to date and marry each other: “because they share the same beliefs and understand each other on a personal level.”
Other students feel differently, saying that it is not important to them to date a Mormon. “In fact, I’ve only ever dated non-Mormons,” McCammon says.
While abstinence from alcohol and serving missions are more visible features of the Mormon lifestyle, the considerable amount of time Mormons commit to their faith often goes unnoticed. “On a weekly basis I attend two church classes, church, and the Monday night activity making it four different events, so it is a substantial time commitment ” Kapu says.
According to Porter, “the single largest challenge” for Mormons at Harvard is time management.
“I think a balance between intellectual and physical, and social and spiritual is essential,” Porter says. “And if you neglect any one of them you are depriving yourself of something that is very important in your life.”
Time management becomes especially difficult when students only have six days to do what other Harvard students do in seven. According to the Ten Commandments, Latter Day Saints are required to rest on Sundays in order to keep the Sabbath holy. In order to follow this rule, many students opt out of doing school work, practicing sports, and attending non-Church related meetings on Sundays, although interpretation of the commandment is subject to the individual’s discretion. Ngo, a chemistry concentrator, says that not doing schoolwork on Sundays can be challenging, but his Sundays become leisurely and enjoyable as a result.
“Well, if I’m ever feeling a lot of pressure, I stay up really late on Saturday, or get up really early Monday morning, and I try not to break [the rule],” he says.
Still, sometimes students must reconcile their other commitments with this rule. Ball, who is on the varsity tennis team, typically does not practice on Sundays. “My coaches are totally accepting,” he says. He will, however, compete in a match if he is in the starting lineup.
Sometimes, in tandem with Harvard’s competitive and ambitious environment, the sacrifices mandated by time management can appear unrewarding. Trusty, who served as design editor for The Crimson’s Arts section in 2012, applied for the position of Design chair in November of that year. Ultimately, she was not elected to the position.
“When you don’t get to where you want to be, even after all that work, and after you’ve been doing all the right things, and you’ve been praying and going to church and keeping the commandments...that’s kind of a test of your faith,” she says.
Many Mormon students say that their faith has changed while at Harvard, and, in fact, has become stronger.
Others say that being away from their families has made them take ownership of their faith and decide themselves how to practice. “At home, my whole family’s doing it, so it was just part of everyday routine. But coming out to college, you make the decision, you schedule it in,” Peterson says.
Ingersoll feels that this independence has actually strengthened her faith. “I think that distance away from home has made me more spiritual and religious, in the sense that I am no longer at home and going to church with my family, but I am doing those things on my own,” she says.
McCammon, however, has had a different experience being apart from her family. “When you have your whole family going with you, it’s a lot easier to get the energy to go,” she says.
In Harvard’s secular and questioning environment, students have been pushed to really understand where their beliefs come from and why they are worth defending.
“I think my faith is challenged every day,” Peterson says. “I think in the questions that I get from people that I meet, it helps me think about why I believe what I believe.” He recalled how on his very first night at Harvard, he and his roommates stayed up almost all night discussing their beliefs. “I’m better because of the diversity here at Harvard,” he says.
Ingersoll, too, has found that her faith has developed as a result of the Harvard com- munity. “In answering their curious ques- tions, I feel like I’ve spent more time thinking about how I can answer those questions.” Her beliefs have hence matured as she has had “more time to internally think about [her] religion.”
Other students have found that the process of growing up has caused them to rede- fine and personalize their relationship with Mormonism.
“My faith was a lot simpler when I was younger,” McCammon says. “I think a younger person doesn’t see things that make them uncomfortable, and tends to have a very rosy view of any kind of institution that you’ve been raised with.” McCammon says that though her faith in Mormon doctrine has grown over time, she has also come to question some church practices. At her congregation back home, she is frustrated that it is considered shocking for a woman to wear pants.
Ngo says that his understanding of his beliefs and the church practices are in constant flux, as he studies and reinterprets scripture. He mentions the challenge of reconciling science and faith, for example, noting that he has come to believe in both creationism and evolution. Ngo says that his nuanced interpretation of Mormon doctrine comes and changes with years of experience and study. “You recognize that not all answers will come at once,” he says.
Trusty, too, admits she does not always have the answers. But she says that questions from Harvard students about Mormonism have pushed her to learn more about her faith and search for answers to their questions. She also explains that she has invited people to church events because “sometimes it’s easier to show than tell” why her faith is so important to her.
“Being Mormon, it’s not just a religion,” she says. “I’m Mormon first. It’s just part of who I am.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
CLARIFICATION: Feb. 14, 2014
An earlier version of this article stated that the LDS Missionary Handbook prohibits Mormon missionaries from hugging members of the opposite sex. To clarify, the handbook says that missionaries are not allowed to flirt, be alone, or otherwise associate in any “inappropriate” way with a member of the opposite sex during their mission, but does not specify hugging as a banned act.