Eli McCann: Mormon pioneer kids never complained? That’s a real butt-slapper!

They just sang as they walked (and walked and walked) — and never murmured or griped? Even as a Primary child, I knew that was a load of hooey.

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune

About every six months for the past 34 or so years, my mom has referenced an incident that happened in church when I was only 5.

Mom, a Brigham Young University music performance major, was never shy about belting the hymns during sacrament meeting, an affront to my tiny sensibilities in the late ‘80s, when one day I reportedly shouted to a quiet congregation at the conclusion of the opening number, “Mom, pipe down! You’re embarrassing me!”

“This was during his ‘phase,’” my mom will sometimes say, referring to a period from age 4 to 14 when embarrassing the family during religious gatherings was part of my routine.

Today I tell my parents these were character-building experiences for them, and I say it in a tone like I’m still waiting for a thank you I’m afraid will never come.

My most memorable outburst occurred when I was 6. My sisters and I had been assigned special speaking parts for the upcoming ward Primary program aimed at celebrating the sacrifices of the Mormon pioneers as they traveled across the Plains burying Cabbage Patch dolls that died during the journey (assuming our experiences later as teens attending stake trek activities were accurate).

The plan was that I would go to the microphone and say, “Pioneer children walked all day and never complained.” This would then prompt the Primary to begin singing one of the classic bangers: “Pioneer Children Sang as They Walked (and walked and walked and walked).”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young girl tries to maintain a firm footing in a downhill portion near This Is the Place Heritage Park during a pioneer reenactment.

Even as a child, I recognized this as parental propaganda; this wasn’t really about the pioneer children (who, no doubt, complained a lot). This was about us. The entire purpose of this portion of the program was to give our moms and dads fuel in a future fight about obedience and compliance. “Remember how you just learned in church that pioneer children didn’t complain? Now imagine what they would think of the way you’re behaving over being told to clean up a messy bedroom.”

The moment I heard about my assignment for the program, I told my parents I would, under no circumstances, be participating in this. They pleaded. Begged. Bartered. Did everything they could, but I was a stubborn child, and the more they pushed, the more I dug in my heels. Finally, my mother reasoned that maybe I was just scared to take the stage alone, and so she offered to walk up to the podium with me when it was my turn to calm my nerves.

This was offensive. I wasn’t scared — just obstinate. But, at some point, I relented and agreed to my mother’s proposal. And then my 6-year-old brain, which did not yet have the capacity to understand the concept of “consequences,” came up with a quite terrible plan to teach my parents and all the adults of our congregation a lesson.

The day of the big program arrived. When it was my turn, I marched to the podium in my smartest black suspenders, my proud mother trailing me. I, freckle-faced and barely more than 3 feet tall, stepped onto a stool and pulled the mic closer to my mouth than necessary. I yelled my line, loud breaths between every second word: “Pioneer children walked all day and never complained!” The adults in the congregation were pleased with my conformity. I could see it in their eyes. I had pleased them with my chipmunk voice and blue clip-on bow tie.

My mother turned to walk away from the mic as the accompanist began the polite intro to the song. But I did not leave the mic. Instead, I pulled it even closer to my mouth like a drunken lounge singer and yelled, as loudly as my little voice would allow, “and THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is the stupidest thing I have ever done in my entire life.” And with muffled snickers ringing through the chapel, my mother’s back still turned to me, I jumped off the stool and slapped her behind.

There was an echo from the slap. It was louder than the congregants’ gasps.

This story is still referred to, decades later, as “The Church Butt-Slapping Incident” in hushed voices among my family members.

I was thinking about this experience this past December, when my parents called to invite my husband and me to attend their sacrament meeting the upcoming Sunday, when my dad would be giving a talk about family. My husband and I aren’t religious, and I hadn’t attended a Latter-day Saint Sunday service in years.

“Absolutely no pressure,” my mom told us. “We certainly understand if you don’t want to come.”

As I prepared to decline, my atheist husband, who had never before attended a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting, whispered to me, “Obviously we’re going,” before saying the same out loud into the phone.

That Sunday, we donned our Sunday best and traveled to my childhood meetinghouse. We found my mother waving in our direction from a center pew, where she had saved a place for us. My husband sat up straight, singing, listening, participating, while I slumped next to him, scrolling through Twitter on my phone. He even took the sacrament (after asking me whether I thought the teenage boys breaking the bread at the front of the congregation had washed their hands). I tried to stop him, but he waved me away in a “when in Rome” sort of way.

When my dad took to the podium to speak, my husband excitedly grabbed my mother’s hand like they were proud parents who were about to see their toddler’s dance recital. He even nailed the polite church laugh at each of my father’s mild jokes.

As the closing hymn concluded, my mother singing at least as loudly as the rest of the congregation combined, he turned to her and said with the utmost admiration, “Cathie, you really carried this place on your back today.”

I never was the son my parents deserved. Instead, I married him.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.