Elliott Smith and the Community of Christ

My first exposure to Elliott Smith was on my mission, from an extremely music-savvy companion who just happened to have a copy of From a Basement on the Hill (I’ll refrain from relating his name, just in case our mission president is reading). I loved the album, but when I got home and read more about Elliott Smith, his story was just too painful for me to get into much of his other work, especially when combined with my inevitable post-mission blues.

Over the weekend, though, I caught a sentence on his Wikipedia page that piqued my interest, and I went on to read a section from his biography. In Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing by Benjamin Nugent, the author mentions that Elliott Smith spent a number of years in his early childhood in the RLDS church (now the Community of Christ). His mother, Bunny, married his stepfather, Charles Welch, in 1973, when Elliott (then Steven) was almost four years old, and the wedding was officiated by an elder of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is unclear how long he and his family attended that church, but by middle school he was instead attending a Methodist church. Quite a bit of the angst in Smith’s upbringing came from a troubled relationship with his stepfather Charles, and later in his life, Smith came to believe that Charles had sexually abused him at some point.

After explaining a bit about the difference between the LDS Church and the Community of Christ, Nugent then argues that, despite a liberal interpretation of social issues, the Community of Christ’s “clear” position on judgment influenced Elliott Smith’s later terror of the afterlife:

Relatively liberal as it may be, Community of Christ is clear on the subject of judgment: “Our eternal destiny is determined by God according to divine wisdom and love according to our response to God’s call to us. God’s judgment is just and is based on the kind of people we have become in relation to the potential of our lives.”

The threat of divine judgment never completely left Smith alone in adulthood, as he explained to Spin: “Mainly church just made me really scared of hell. It still scares the shit out of me. If you grew up being threatened with that, it’s really hard to be like, ‘Oh, it probably doesn’t exist.’ Even if everyone you meet tells you there’s no place like that… I would have to go to hell on a technicality-because there’s some things you’re not supposed to do that I can’t seem not to do.”

One of his friends from adulthood, Marc Swanson, remembers the same concerns. “He wasn’t religious, I don’t think, but he believed in an afterlife. I know he was scared of going to hell and he was pretty serious about that.” On the other hand, Swanson remembers that Smith “didn’t like many organized things, or hierarchical things,” so he’d have probably chafed against a traditional religious practice. (Nugent, pg. 14)

Those familiar with the modern-day Community of Christ might scratch their heads at such a depiction of a childhood of hellfire and damnation. I certainly did. Could such a fiery doctrine really be taught in the chapels of our gentle, liberal cousins? Nugent’s quote from the Community of Christ’s doctrine of judgment seems somewhat wishy-washy, and Nugent has been criticized for searching no further than Google when researching this biography.

Needing further clarification, I had an online conversation with the one and only John Hamer about the doctrines of the RLDS church in the 1970s, and he told me that, because their church had and has no formal creeds of faith, their church “is like a proverbial box of chocolates where you never know what you’re going to get.” Thus it’s quite possible that Smith really did experience such an upbringing in his local congregation, though I imagine his tense and possibly abusive family dynamic, and Smith’s own rebellion from what he saw as power structures, may have colored his RLDS experience. In any case, as mentioned above, by the time Smith was in middle school (in the mid-’80s), his family had moved from the RLDS church to the Methodists. Little more is recorded about Smith’s contact with Restorationist doctrine, and the silence of that record indicates that Smith didn’t have too much else to say about it.

The story of Elliott Smith will never be divorced from its high tragedy, full of hard drug abuse and psychological pain, made quite clear in his very own lyrics. Due to the lack of details, however, the full story of what he felt towards Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, if anything, is not clear.  Interested readers might read some of his later, more well-received biographies for more information on the subject.


Nugent, Benjamin.  Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing. New York, NY:  Da Capo Press, 2005. Print.

Elliott Smith and the Community of Christ

10 thoughts on “Elliott Smith and the Community of Christ

  1. Jake says:

    What a great post. My wife and I both really enjoy Elliott Smith, I think Jess might like him even more than me. Elliott’s story is so sad. Thanks for relating that connection.


  2. Could such a fiery doctrine really be taught in the chapels of our gentle, liberal cousins?

    I live here in the KC Metro area, and Independence is the RLDS headquarters.

    You have to understand the religious demographics around here: Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-brimstone, eternal damnation southern Baptist and other flavors of evangelical. It’s in the water and the air. It’s easy for people of any faith to breathe it in like poison because…it’s just that deep in the cultural psyche.

    I personally have the benefit(?) of having spent 9 years in a southern Baptist private school being immersed in this B.S. (Yes, I said it.) And it made NO sense to me whatsoever because the doctrine of Trinitarianism basically stands on this premise: If you’ve never heard of Jesus Christ, much less been given the opportunity to accept him into your heart as your personal savior, you’re going to hell. DEEDS don’t matter. (But they somehow make it seem like they do.)

    Anyway, every week I stumble across a member or six who says something so…protestant-like I have to do a double-take. And these are people who’ve been lifelong members. The vocabulary and syntax is everywhere; it just is. And along with the vernacular you tend to absorb, you sometimes bring the accompanying doctrinal snippets in with it. They’re too small to notice individually, but then they start adding up until you think you’re doomed.

    However, I always say that if it weren’t for the Baptists, I’d have left the church (ours) long ago, but really, ours is a doctrine of hope. We are regularly criticized for being a church that stresses works over grace, but we have salvation. We aren’t going to a burning lake of fire for not saying the Jesus-please-be-my-savior prayer. We work for exaltation, for the hope of becoming more than an eternal lyre-player singing praises to God.

    But people forget that part. Our doctrine is proactive–to become a god, not reactive–to avoid a burning lake of fire.

    I don’t know. Maybe humans have a need to feel doomed.


  3. So, just to clarify, Moriah, are you a member of the Community of Christ or the LDS church? If the former, then what you’re saying is similar to what John Hamer told me: there is enough elasticity in the CoC doctrine for members to hold “hellfire” beliefs as well as Christian universalist beliefs.

    “I don’t know. Maybe humans have a need to feel doomed.”

    I’m not sure that’s it. I’d phrase it differently: Maybe humans have a psychological need to look down on others (especially those who believe/do things differently) and imagine that they will go to Hell.


  4. I’m LDS.

    Yes, I’ve watched over the years as RLDS have gone through their shifts in stance from quasi-Mormon to full protestant, complete with crosses on their buildings.

    The political problem here, then, is that they aren’t Mormon, but they’re viewed that way by the evangelical (i.e., Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, etc.) community, which is enormous. They will never be accepted as protestants by the evangelical community, but they have kept moving in that direction until, now, they really aren’t…anything. Anything classifiable, that is.

    I’d rather be *something* and despised for it than trying for the brass ring of religious acceptance only to be despised anyway.

    It’s kinda sad, watching them try to get the cool kids’ attention and approval.

    (Especially when the hatred for Mormons around here is healthy and vibrant.)


  5. I appreciate your perspective. Thank you. I’d appreciate it also if we stuck to the topic at hand (Elliott Smith and his experiences with the RLDS church) rather than get into doctrinal disputes/discussions.


  6. Wow, I had no idea he was RLDS at one time. My story of Elliot Smith is an interesting one. My buddy played a CD for me one night at my old house in Provo my senior year of college. I told him I really liked it, and he said, “you are in luck, he is playing at the U of U tomorrow night. We went, and really, it was my first real Elliot Smith experience. That show (to my knowledge) ended up being his last show before he died. Right time, right place for me I suppose.


  7. Doesn’t Elliott Smith look just like Joseph Smith to anyone else?

    Or is it just me?

    His last name is Smith and his familial descendants spring forth from the very branch of the early Mormon Church that Joseph Smith’s own son took over as Prophet and Joseph Smith’s own wife, Emma Smith, followed until her dying days.

    Look at pictures of both of them. It’s eerily uncanny and they both died in their thirties as true artists with many followers to this day.

    They are most definitely related.


  8. Nothing that I read made it seem like Elliott was from the same family as Joseph. His mother joined the RLDS church because she married an RLDS guy (Elliott’s step-father). But if you can prove a connection, that would be cool.


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