The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn

How does a Mormon missionary wind up facing charges of terrorism and conspiracy? In Canada, of all places?

William Shunn’s memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, starts with him at nineteen answering questions for a detective. It’s hard to tell if he’s more disconcerted by the charges he faces or the woman facing him in a short, short skirt. “I haven’t been alone so close to a woman in five months. With no table between us, our knees nearly touch. This is against mission rules in so many ways, I can’t even count.”

Even then, with the full force of the law about to descend on him, he is still worried about the missionary rules under which he was sent from Utah to Canada in 1986 to try to win converts. It’s a familiar feeling, that the rules of a foreign culture aren’t as real as one’s own. The all-encompassing nature of the Mormon culture from which Shunn came, its many rules, and its many means for enforcing them that have nothing to do with the larger cultures outside of Mormonism no doubt contributed to Shunn’s feelings. Nevertheless, Canada’s law enforcement has arrested this upstanding young man. “Elder Shunn, tell me,” says the detective. “Tell me how you ended up here.”

Shunn tells readers the story of how he wound up on the wrong side of the Mounties, weaving his own history together with the history of Mormonism, particularly its founder Joseph Smith. The history illuminates the current setup of Mormonism, how and why they send missionaries, how the culture of the church works and works on its members, and the personal relationships members build with the church’s founders. These relationships with the church’s founding stories in turn play roles in how members relate to authority, and how people with authority in the church use it on their charges.

The book is fast and fun to read. Shunn is a breezy raconteur, recounting his story and the Mormon story with equal deftness. Dipping back into the book to write this, it’s easy to get drawn back in, flipping through the pages and following young Shunn’s efforts to win souls, hang onto his girlfriend back home, and navigate the small-bore perils of missionary life. There’s plenty that’s funny, from the terminology — assistant to the president (a local Mormon functionary) are known to the missionaries as APs, or apes — to the pranks the missionaries play on each other, to just tales of people being people in all their random, weird glory.

Much of Shunn’s young life had pointed him toward this time, a period of exertion that is, and is meant to be, formative for many young Mormons. They leave close-knit families and communities to go forth into a wider world, to win people over to their faith. Only late in the book do readers learn how much and how long his family has been preparing for William, the oldest of several children, to go on his mission. Only late in the book do readers discover what missions meant for his parent’s generation, and how that shaped William’s upbringing.

At the same time, he does not feel cut out to be a missionary: he hates talking to strangers and cannot conceive of himself in a leadership role. He is expected to overcome all of that and develop into a more capable, more open version of himself. These expectations are accompanied by clear and specific goals and procedures: “each of us would have 70 proselytizing hours a week to look forward to, at least eighteen of them knocking on doors. Ten solid Book of Mormon placements would be the minimum weekly goal, along with six first discussions. The monthly goal would be two convert baptisms.”

Shunn wants to do well, but does not think he can. Anyone who has been nineteen knows something of the combination. “Tuttle [the local mission president] was not a handsome man, with his balding head and beaked nose, but he radiated a magnetic good cheer. I wanted to bask like a lizard in the warmth of his attention. At the same time, I needed desperately to conceal from him my true self, my inner infidel.”

These twin forces drive the rest of Shunn’s time as a missionary. The elder Shunn, recounting events roughly two decades later, shows how young people reacted to the tasks and stresses of missionary work in various ways. Some did in fact excel, finding ways to spur themselves on and win approbation within their community. Some got by, doing what they could, cutting corners here and there, going along with the general flow. Some slacked off, dropping Books of Mormon at unattended doorstops and heading back to their “pit” (what missionaries tended to call their apartments) to play video games. Shunn also shows young people trying to live up to the strictures and ideals of their church, or in some back stories rebelling against them and breaking as many rules as they can. In telling his tale, Shunn captures the life and individuality of the people he knew in Calgary, along with the all-encompassing framework that shaped all of their relations.

The Accidental Terrorist also sketches the early life of the Mormon church. Shunn tells the history of Joseph Smith’s family, setting it in the context of religious revivalism in early 1800s western New York. The fires of religion burned so brightly there that it was known as “the burned-over district.” (The cover alludes to this, and to Shunn’s alleged prairie terrorism, with a picture of a young man dressed as a Mormon missionary throwing a match onto a patch of burning prairie grass.) I knew a fair amount of the history already, but interleaved into Shunn’s own story, the background of Mormon growth, persecution, and evolution demonstrates how the church culture that Shunn experiences came to be. Most importantly, they demonstrate Mormonism’s conflicted relationship with secular state authorities, and the institutional church’s tendencies both to try to unify church and state power in its own hands or to operate outside of state strictures. If your leaders have a direct line to God, what is a mere democracy to tell them what to do?

The hijinks are fun, and mostly harmless; the community is genuine, if not for everyone; and some of the converts find a welcoming spiritual home. I am thinking particularly of an immigrant couple who no longer felt at home in the faiths of their birth countries. They may well still be happy Mormons, grateful to the young who knocked on their door that long-ago winter.

Shunn also shows how thoroughly the church is organized to keep people in line. He winds up seeing a very precise list of the people who are meant to call a missionary who tried to flee back home, arranged in the order of how they could pull on the flight risk’s heartstrings to keep the missionary in the field, true to duty and church. There was nothing accidental about the use of psychological power and pressure. It was as crisply organized as the proselytizing hours and the convert goals.

Nor was there anything accidental about can only be called corruption in the instance of another flight situation. A commercial airflight was delayed, immigration and visa rules were bent, all with winks and nods and communications among fellow Mormons that were designed to protect the institutional church and, to an extent, individual members. A criminal fine that was supposed to be paid by wages from the defendant’s own labor was offset by donations from numerous prosperous Mormons. The uneasy relationship between Mormon church and North American states is by no means an artifact of the 19th or early 20th century.

How does Shunn wind up answering that blonde detective’s questions? Like any crime, it’s a combination of longer trends and impulsive decisions. The story of getting there, and what happened afterward makes for a terrific book, full of life, humor and foible, along with just a dash of broader perspective. When he starts to give an answer to the detective’s question, he writes, “My impulse is to blurt out everything. I take a deep breath. I choose my details with care.” Indeed he does.

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