Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
043: A Conversation with Emma Lou Thayne

043: A Conversation with Emma Lou Thayne

Thayne_web“I get impatient with dogma and dictum, but somewhere way inside me and way beyond impatience or indifference there is that insistent, infernal, so help me, sacred singing — All is well, All is well. My own church, inhabited by my own people — I would be cosmically orphaned without it.”- Emma Lou Thayne

I first met Emma Lou Thayne at Benihana’s- a Japanese steakhouse.  We shared a table, watching the chef stack onions & dice peppers at rapid speeds, swapping stories about our individual travels through Asia.  I bumped into her a few months later at a conference, & once more at a film screening.  I was deeply impressed with her handle on life & her view on Mormonism- although her stories were her own, she inspired me to create a better story for myself through her sharing. When I was presented the opportunity to interview her- I jumped at the chance.  The following podcast is less of an interview than we had planned, and more of a casual conversation held one afternoon in Emma Lou’s home.  We cover a range of topics- from her memories of pre-correlation Mormonism, the ERA, & Helen Keller, to her work in raising awareness for mental health.

Emma Lou Thayne is a nationally ranked Senior Women’s Singles & Doubles tennis player, she taught for many years in the University of Utah’s Department of English and Division of Continuing Education, she is an award-winning poet, a well published author, and a leader for the arts, education, and business.

The Thayne Community Service Center at Salt Lake Community College (named for her), had this to say about her: “Emma Lou Thayne is a peacemaker, she cares deeply about people. Whether writing of love or loss, triumph or suffering, Emma Lou sees the extraordinary in the ordinary, she recognizes dignity in daily experience, and she magnifies moments that many would allow to pass without recognition. Emma Lou Thayne is a poet, and her poems celebrate connections.”

Her most recent book- “The Place of Knowing- A Spiritual Autobiography“, can be found online & at a bookstore near you.


  1. Not so much as the poet, of course, but I also have a bit similar feeling on Mormonism. (The Thayne quote at the outset.) A Japanese old convert (72) to the religion living in Osaka, Japan. [ A question: scared or sacred? 3rd line of quote.)

    1. Jonathan Griffith

      Jiro- ‘sacred’ is the original. Thanks for the comment and all the best to you. I would venture to guess that there are at least a few younger folks in your ward who look to you as a hopeful example of heterodox & active membership.

  2. Cliff

    I read her book last year. It was a very good book! The Church has historically had a difficult time with mystics – I think Emma Lou is a great example of making it work.

      1. Cliff

        Some people think a mystic is someone who enters into a different mental state that reflects some eternal or godly consciousness. One who does this and is left with an imperative from the experience is sometimes called a ‘prophet’. Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow are good examples of this.

        Others think that if you want the mystical experience badly enough, meditating for hours daily and studying constantly and joining communities aimed in that direction, this is enough to be called (or to claim being) a mystic. Many actually do become mystics(according to the first definition), but not all. St. John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) wrote a manual on how to become a mystic, called “Ascent to Mt. Carmel”. It’s good information.

        So as far as the Church goes, Joseph was the first & founding prophet. He could also be considered a mystic, due to the First Vision (and undoubtedly many other experiences as well). The fact that he dabbled in magick did not change this IMO.

        But when Hiram Page began to use a seer stone independently, it caused a problem in the Church. Same for some of the new members in the Kirtland area that began prophesying and demonstrating the Gifts of the Spirit. Indeed, anytime someone independently touches upon the ultimate source of authority in an established organization, bad things happen. So as a matter of institutional survival, steps are taken to shut down the competition. This is not bad, it is a simple matter of institutional dynamics that holds true for ALL institutions, even churches.

        Not only that, but mystics tend to be extremely independent and strong willed, I suppose because they think they are ‘right’ due to their mystical experiences, which do tend to give the mystic a gorilla-charged sense of certainty, of ‘rightness’.

        This doesn’t give the hierarchy any happiness. So they squelch it. And again, you can’t blame them. It is survival psychology.

        In more recent times (1900 +/- 20 years) the Church made an additional effort to distance themselves from what they (and the American public) saw as “Pentecostalism”. This is because it was (rightfully, in some ways) seen as a ‘showy’ or ‘dramatic’ product of Spiritualism, a movement that also gave birth to seances, tables floating in the air, voices from the dead, and so forth. And the general public looked down on these things.

        So the Church, in an effort to be more respectable and thus garner more converts, put the kibosh on anything resembling pentecostal-type outflowings of the Spirit. In this time frame (prev. mentioned) they discouraged or outright banned A) women healing & blessings; B) speaking in tongues in church meetings; etc.

        Today, when a member tells someone of a vision or powerful spiritual experience, they are generally frowned upon and told to keep it to themselves. They will be given quotes as appeals to authority in justification:

        “Let us be faithful and silent, brethren, and if God gives you a manifestation, keep it to yourselves; be watchful and prayerful, and you shall have a prelude of those joys that God will pour out on that day, (HC 2:309)”
        — Joseph Smith, Jr.

        “The Lord has taught me many things, and He would teach me many more things if I could just learn to keep my mouth shut.”
        — J. Reuben Clark

        As a youth, I ran into this within the Church. And it caused me to explore far and wide beyond the Church, in an attempt to gain information and understanding. No hard feelings, but I regret that the Church has done what it has — I believe it to be sound survival tactics, but an overall disservice to the membership in general.

        Not sure how I would’ve changed things to make it better, though.

  3. David Nicolay

    I started listening to this interview last night intending to just get a few minutes in then finish in the morning. Of course I couldn’t stop listening and wished it were longer even. She is a fascinating woman and a real inspiration. Her description of the way relief society was run was a real eye opener on the effects of correlation. Good interview! Jonathan, you should invite her to an ATF party. She would have us hanging on her words.

  4. I loved hearing my beloved Aunt Emma Lou. As many times as I’ve heard Emma Lou speak, this interview contained a lot of stuff I hadn’t heard which I loved. I wish we had more Emma Lou’s. More like her in this younger generation. We have them, but she commands the respect of both genders and has always been very well connected to the hierarchy of the church.

  5. Corrina

    I am so inspired by Emma Lou Thayne. I’ve seen her name in many places, but I have never really read much from her or about her (excuse my ignorance!). Now I will. I especially liked the part about her sadness and frustration over the church’s involvement in the ERA. I recently watched the documentary “Makers” on PBS and learned more about Phyllis Schlafly–she certainly knew how best to get to Mormon women–go straight to the President of the Church.

    Thanks for the great interview–just wish it was longer….!

  6. Jeremy Timothy

    I know I’m posting this long after the fact, but it’s real interesting that I ran into a great poem by Sister Thayne the day prior to the posting of this podcast. I thought I’d share it. Indulge my searching my unsteady voice You share The blame; It’s You who gave me choice.

  7. Pingback: In Memoriam-Emma Lou Thayne | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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