Five days before she died, LDS scholar shared her wildest dreams for the church

Melissa Inouye opened up about helping others navigate faith crises, an existing patriarchy in the Church Office Building and preserving women’s voices.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Scholar Melissa Inouye, shown in 2019, died Tuesday, April 23, 2024. She was 44.

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Some knew Melissa Inouye through her groundbreaking scholarship on the global history of Christianity. Some discovered her through her deeply personal books and sermons on finding God amid the hard stuff of life. Still others (“mostly people in their 70s and 80s,” she joked) learned of the historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from her regular appearances on the weekly program “Come Follow Up,” where she brightly offered deeply thought analysis heavy on analogy.

Inouye died Tuesday of cancer at age 44. Five days before, The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with her about hope, faith and one of her personal heroes, the late Latter-day Saint leader Chieko Okazaki. This conversation, which Inouye asked to be held until after her death, has been edited for length and clarity.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) The late women's leader Chieko Okazaki was a personal hero to Inouye.

What is Mormonism? What is the core message?

Probably the weekly ward [congregational] meetings and activities, people getting together to spend time together in the context of their covenants to follow Christ.

Are there any parts or teachings that have become more important to you as you get closer to death?

You would think that some things, some teachings, would kind of come out and become more and more solid. But, actually, I think for me, it’s gotten me closer and closer to an understanding of what we don’t know. For example, the afterlife, the politics of sealings and the numbers that we use. Are we sure there’s only three places where people go? The politics of who can do what, who can be sealed, blah, blah, blah. I think many times, actually, the truth is we don’t really understand a lot about that.

I have a rock-solid testimony of the local Mormon ward. We’ve just gotten so much help and support from a variety of people with different capacities, and we have to come together to help.

I remember during the pandemic, especially the early pandemic, we had just been in our ward for a few months, so I didn’t know people that well. And I remember looking with resentment at the ward organist. She was up there without a mask, spewing COVID into the air. And I thought that she was probably someone I didn’t want to get to know.

Then I had a really bad weekend and during the course of it I started to sing to myself [the Latter-day Saint hymn that goes], “Now let us rejoice in the day of salvation. No longer as strangers on earth need we roam.” This was originally written by the Saints, and when they’re saying, “all that was promised, the Saints will be given,” they were saying that because so many things had been promised and they hadn’t seen them yet, but they sang “now let us rejoice” anyway.

So that was one of my songs I would sing to myself to cheer myself up on this really sad weekend. The next day it was a Sunday morning. And we walked in and the organist was playing, “Now Let Us Rejoice.”

It just made me feel a little seen by God. And then it turns out she became one of the absolute champions of my family during my illness. She was actually just here this morning. Such a beautiful thing about Mormonism is that it creates these really strong communities where people take liberties with each other because they assume a kinship, which one doesn’t normally assume in secular society. And because you just spend so much time with people — these mutual, entangling interactions that help you get to know people and support them in different ways.

What message would you like to leave with Latter-day Saints who are struggling?

(Deseret Book and Melissa Inouye) Latter-day Saint scholar and writer Melissa Inouye died Tuesday at age 44. Her legacy includes both groundbreaking scholarship regarding global Christianity and deeply personal writings about her wrestles with life's challenges.

Lots of people have come to me confused. They’re in the middle of a faith crisis, or faith transition, and they’re trying to reconcile what they’ve grown up thinking and what they see, and they perceive a disconnect. They want to keep on being the kinds of people they were taught to be and still stay in an institution that’s imperfect.

I never tell people they should leave or stay. That’s a pretty personal decision, but I think so often we overlook the things that actually make us really cool.

Say you went through a faith crisis and you lose trust in the institution and this long-standing pride you had in being part of Christ’s one true church. But that’s not what I would say is the most beautiful and life-giving thing about Mormonism. I would say it’s about the relationships we have with people who are different from us, relationships that are involuntary and sometimes even forced.

If you really believe that people are children of God and that there is a God who loves us, then, in some ways, being in a flawed, local Latter-day Saint institution is the best possible way to know God.

In so many ways in 21st-century life, we have isolated ourselves from our brothers and sisters, depending on our own individualistic and ideological preferences. I don’t think the point of life is to have individualism and ideology. I think the point of life is to do good, to serve and to learn how it feels to love and be loved on a scale that’s larger than yourself. And I have found that many times within a Latter-day Saint context. And I think that’s a really precious thing.

When people are struggling, it’s still hard because our experiences are so local. We could have a local leader who doesn’t understand where someone’s coming from, and that can really change things. But I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced Mormonism in many different places and contexts, and the common denominator I find is the beauty of those communities.

What is your wildest dream for Mormonism?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The women's Relief Society logo displays the organization's motto, Charity Never Faileth. Inouye would like to see the Relief Society lead the way on humanitarian outreach.

We have huge potential to change the world because of the financial resources, and, connected to that, the global logistical and administrative networks that we have. And, connected to that, the local, on-the-ground manpower and womenpower that we have.

We could do so much good if [the women’s organization] Relief Society, for example, were in charge of distributing our humanitarian aid and could coordinate those local projects in their areas. Or if, for example, to preserve some sort of complementarian difference but to make sure that women had significant power, if men were in charge of like the sacerdotal priesthood — you know, call the men for the ordinances type things — and women were in charge of the finances, then we would have a true kind of codependent relationship.

If you wanted money for the upcoming Young Men’s camp trip, you would go to the Relief Society president and she would check the books. And if you needed someone baptized, you would go to elders.

It would be a kind of mutual dependency that would engender respect. Right now that kind of balance does not exist in Mormonism because it’s a very patriarchal system — not only in its theology but also in its cultural and corporate practices. If you look at the 25 departments of the church, only the human resources head is female. In a culture like that, it’s just not possible to have normal, respectful relationships between men and women.

The Church History Department is so awesome because it has its own subculture created by people who have gone abroad and studied at other universities and who’ve learned about how other major systems can affect human relationships around the world — people who know that problems in the past are not so scary, know that history shakes out in a way that is often very contingent and isn’t inevitable. And you put all those things together and you get a department where I think the working relationships between men and women are very good.

In most of the other departments of the church, there’s a much more paternalistic culture of condescension, a culture of not listening to women. I have a colleague, whom I won’t name, who worked in the normal world before coming to the church. She has a Ph.D. and she’s just been shocked by how she’s been treated since coming to work for the church corporation.

A lot of it comes down to a kind of lazy fallback on an exclusivist excuse, which is, well, “We’re the one true church. We’re Jesus’ church. So we’re the best.” But I don’t think that’s how Jesus likes to have his participation and support of the church invoked, as a way to to stop un-Christlike and disrespectful behaviors.

And again, let me emphasize, this is not in my department. They’re really cool.

What could we do better as a faith community?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Historical photos of Eliza R. Snow, left, and Emmeline B. Wells. The Church History Department has published the diaries of the two prominent Latter-day Saint women. Inouye would like to see more such efforts for more women in the church.

People have to work harder to preserve the words of dead Mormon women.

There’s this built-in preservation going on when you have male apostles who serve for life. If someone has been in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency for like, 40 years, everyone knows that person’s name. They know their voice. They know what kinds of jokes they tell.

But the structure means that we don’t have that same intimacy, familiarity or longevity for female leaders. It’s not like women haven’t been saying impressive, helpful, spiritual things for years. It’s just that different women have been saying it. And so people forget.

[Former Relief Society counselor] Sharon Eubank, for example, is one of the most eloquent speakers we have with so much real-world experience with Christian discipleship. We have to make sure that her wisdom doesn’t just expire. So I make it a policy that in each one of my talks I give, I quote Sharon Eubank at least once, and I quote [former Relief Society counselor] Chieko Okazaki at least once.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Sharon Eubank, former first counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society, which is made up of all adult women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, poses for a photograph in 2021. Inouye described Eubank as "one of the most eloquent speakers we have with so much real-world experience with Christian discipleship."

If you read Chieko Okazaki’s books, they are so prescient. They are so relevant. She’s like a prophetess. She’s just a beautiful teacher and speaker. It’s such a shame that, because of the particular patriarchal administrative structures of our church, they are forgotten.

And then you have an ironic situation in which you have a church that insists in the political/cultural sphere that it’s important for children to have a father and a mother, how they are entitled to the different things a father and a mother bring. And yet essentially the church [members] are raised by men only in terms of spiritual nourishment and in reference to God. We have Heavenly Father-ized God when our own doctrine is that God is a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother.

If we want our own rhetoric to hold up that children are entitled to the different kinds of parenting and teaching that different kinds of people bring, we need to find ways to preserve and perpetuate women’s voices and the respect for our Mother in Heaven.

Also, this is kind of silly, but after [the Latter-day Saint historian and scholar] Kate Holbrook died, I made up a formula. And that is: If someone dies at the ages of 60 and up, it’s OK to just go to their funeral and say what great people they are. If someone dies between the ages of 35 and 60, however, it’s not enough to just memorialize them. It’s everyone’s job to perpetuate those people’s work since they didn’t have time to finish it.

Which is very self-serving, of course, but I did come up with it when it was Kate and not me.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kate Holbrook, a historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks in 2018. Holbrook, a friend of Inouye, died of cancer in 2022 at age 50.

What do you feel like your most meaningful contribution has been to the faith community as a scholar, as a writer, as a person?

I’ve helped to push work on Mormon studies outside of North America.

In 2017, I founded the Global Mormon Studies research network. Before then, you would have all these Mormon History Association panels that were about Joseph Smith, Missouri wars and the Book of Mormon translation. These standard sort of American-y things. And then you would have one panel and it had, like, Saints in Thailand, Saints in Turkey, Saints in Taiwan — and were mashed together and there’s nothing really holding them together thematically except for the fact that they weren’t about the United States.

The Global Mormon Studies research network is trying to expand that. And if you look at the programs at places like MHA now, you’ll see much more international diversity. That was obviously not just like me single-handedly bringing scholars into being. There were already a lot more scholars recently who have language skills and background in regions and cultures who are able to apply that to the study of Mormonism.

And the second thing is that — as is really common in any old boy’s network, which the church tends to be because of its patriarchal structure, and also the related institutions — people tapped people they knew. There was no way for someone younger coming in to make themselves known. So you ended up with the same people over and over again.

One of the things the research had was a website where you could put up a profile and announce yourself and the work you were doing and what institution you were at. That was a much more egalitarian, inclusive approach to scholarship. So now if you’re organizing a conference on a certain topic or region, you can go to that database.

This May they’re going to be holding a Global Mormon Studies conference in Mexico. The one before that was in Coventry, England. And the one before that was in Bordeaux, France. And just because they have been in different places, they’ve brought in different people.

Mexico is going to be really cool because it’s going to break the hegemonic barrier of the English language. It’s going to have papers in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

I’m really proud of Michelle Graabek, who is the new head of the organization, and of the Church History Department’s outreach, which has been really enthusiastic in supporting the conference. It will be a really groundbreaking conference especially because it will involve a number of scholars from Mexico who wouldn’t be able to fly to the United States for a conference held all in English.

That’s an academic contribution, but it also crosses over as we’ve seen to the Church History Department. Now people are thinking about Mormon studies in ways that are more inclusive and more global to reflect what is actually happening as opposed to who tends to get seen and heard the most.

I’ve been working in the Church History Department on projects like global history, where we’re trying to elevate the voices of global Latter-day Saints. There’s the global church history competition, which is currently a pilot underway in four different areas. It’s also an attempt to bring attention to the work of local historians.

I went on a kind of a listening tour of the church history specialists in Europe and the Swiss church history specialist looked at me and said, “How would you Americans like it if we Swiss wrote up your history and just gave it to you?”

Ever since then, we’ve tried to find ways not only to have more local sources but also to collaborate with local historians so that they will feel empowered and connected to the larger organizations in writing their own histories.

Why is that important? What do we learn about Mormonism when those histories are written by the people themselves and include more local voices?

It’s like for years we’ve been writing books about birds that were only about penguins. But there’s a lot more to birds than penguins.

What gives you hope?

[Brigham Young University professor] George Handley gave this presentation where he showed us some of the many different beetles in the world. I was very impressed. The natural world is fragile in some ways, but has also proven itself to be so resilient in many other ways. Like when you go into the mountains and leave behind civilization and you sit on the rocks that have been sitting there for millions or, you know, hundreds of thousands of years. They’re just rocks. They’re really impressive, though. They were created by a Mother and Father creator-God, who also created humanity. It’s pretty impressive.