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.