I was thirteen years old when I met a man who was convinced that in my lifetime, I could see Jesus face to face, be sealed to eternal life, and live through the end of times. I could become a queen and a god. He knew these things because he lived with the scriptures and talked to God. These were the teachings of Joseph Smith, he said, so unlike the faded words of the Prophet’s diminished successors. This extraordinary man was my ninth grade seminary teacher, Robert Dean Foster. He opened my drab, stolid Idaho girlhood to dangerous and exhilarating possibilities. Until then, religion was something I had been born into. My family went to church and followed Mormon rituals and patterns, but without giving these habits much thought or discussion. Religion animated neither desire nor imagination. With Brother Foster, that changed.
In retrospect I can see that I was a a bit obsessed. I hung on his every word in class. I pled with my parents on Saturday nights to let me go to his house. There a group of likeminded kids would gather to dance, harmonize songs at the piano, eat food prepared by his wife Dorothy, mingle with his family (the oldest of eight children his daughter a year younger than me), and talk around the fireplace until the late hour sent us home. I tried to be brave and righteous—refusing at one point to dress in immodest shorts for P.E.(earning the only B of my high school career). My parents were not the only ones concerned by such strange behaviors. At the end of that year, I learned to my great dismay that Brother Foster was leaving (run out of town he let us all know).
The church transferred Brother Foster to Provo High, and we kept in touch over the next four years. As I prepared to attend BYU, he found me an apartment and a roommate, Karen Jacobsen. She was so very serious and so very religious. She went home every weekend, and I found closer friends. But I did go home with her one weekend. Several homes clustered together up one of the canyons near Payson. An aunt next door. So many children. I had difficulty sorting out which were siblings and which cousins. All so very serious and religious, like Karen. You can imagine my surprise then, when Karen invited me to her baptism. Another roommate, Della, also from the Payson area, took me aside when she saw how confused and clueless I was. Karen’s parents were polygamists and had been excommunicated. As Della explained it, the children were welcomed into the Mormon church only as they proved themselves. That was the first time that contemporary polygamy came into my view and I didn’t know what to think. I went to Karen’s baptism. But I never had enough courage to ask about her family, and I never went back up the canyon. The next year I moved into the dorms, and Karen and I lost touch.
I don’t think I ever asked Brother Foster about Karen’s family or about polygamy. But I still saw him from time to time, and he continued as beloved advisor and friend in the background of my life at BYU. I would walk across the street dividing BYU and Provo High and visit him in his seminary classroom. He advised me about religion professors—recommending the ones who taught about Adam God and the more esoteric of Mormon doctrines. This funny, life-loving man also advised about making an intense, invested life. Summers I worked in West Yellowstone. Brother Foster brought crews of handsome young men to Yellowstone to cut timber and live in the woods. I introduced my friends, and we had many happy summer evenings talking, singing, eating, dancing around Brother Foster’s camp fire. Back at BYU, a friend dated one of Karen’s cousin/brothers who was a return missionary.
I remember the last time I visited Brother Foster at Provo High because I left troubled and never returned. He often criticized contemporary leaders for backing away from and watering down the gospel as revealed by Joseph Smith. This time he went on at great length about how Hugh B. Brown, of the first presidency, was a fallen prophet. I had just attended what had been termed a “solemn assembly” at BYU (we needed recommends to attend) where President Brown had spoken. I was deeply moved by that experience and loved President Brown.
Some time later, I ran into Brother Foster’s wife Dorothy at a mall in Provo. I enthusiastically greeted her after so long, and asked how she was. She looked at me very directly and said with an emphasis I could not mistake: “I am fine.” I somehow knew I was not to ask after Brother Foster. I put out feelers to friends and soon learned thatDorothy and Bob had separated and that he had taken plural wives—two familiar to me—my roommate Karen and Susan from my BYU student ward. I didn’t know Susan even knew Brother Foster, but she was from Provo and had been his seminary student.
I saw Brother Foster for the last time some fifteen years later. By then I was a single mother, no longer active in the church, and a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. I saw him sitting alone in the student union and sat next to him. He told me he was there because two of his wives were attending the U. “I’m getting old,” he said. “They will survive me and need professions for independence.” I have many regrets about that last visit. I did not ask after Karen or Susan. I did not encourage any conversation. I was shy, embarrassed, afraid. I wish I had encouraged him to talk. I wish I had told him how much he had meant to me. But I didn’t.
The next I learned of Brother Foster was last January at Sunstone in southern California. I asked Lindsay Park if she knew of Robert Dean Foster. Indeed she did. She sent me links to articles about Rockland Ranch—his community blasted into the red rock near Moab. Brother Foster died of cancer in 2008, but his son and other members of his large family still live there. He had 10 children, as I remember, by his first wife, and 38 by his plural wives. I wished that I had talked longer to him that day in the student union and had visited the Rock, met his family. Perhaps sang and danced and talked a night away.
As my earliest mentor, and friend, Bob Foster had a profound impact on my life, for good and ill. He set the horizons, mapped a landscape, where I lived for a good many years. Into my early twenties, I lived in the end of times. I like to forget this, but my BYU journal—the five volumes I titled “A Book of Remembrance”—won’t let me. (I promised to fill these books with religion and I did.) Passages such as this one play and replay (this from Christmas eve my junior year):
I think that Christ’s purpose right now is to perfect a people who will be living in such a way that they can stand at his coming. Only then will the gospel begin to spread worldwide and then only because God will destroy so much of the wickedness. I used to worry alot about what would happen to me in the future & I guess I still do but I’ve decided that there is really nothing to worry about. IfI do my very best, God will help me and he will take care of his own. I’m convinced grave trials lieahead and I certainly can’t hope to escape, I just pray my faith will grow. I can see how only those who are receiving personal revelation can really survive God’s way. I just hope I will have found a worthy man with the power of the priesthood to guide me. I can really see how a woman can never truly be happy or at peace unless she is living worthily within the marriage covenant. . . I’ll try to be ready for whatever is my lot in life. I’m afraid but I also feel the excitement of what lies ahead. Oh,if I’m only prepared. So this is what Christmas means to me this year. I really can’t see a baby whenI think of the savior—rather that glorious man—the God & creator of this earth. And I want to help build the kingdom of Zion so he can return. That’s Christmas all year round and forever.
journal is single-minded, unrelenting, often judgmental. Copying this poem from a not-encouraged suitor into my senior-year journal, I demurred that his words might be about me:
I feared you would dismember
My great thoughts, that your principle
might lead you, red-haired and ruthless,
to sack the romantic Shenandoah
where I dwelt trembling. . . .
In the quiet times, alone,
I remembered your force, your discipline
and escaped the discouragement
of living with flesh and disorder
by fleeing you in the days that passed.
Looking back, I identify with the writer. From the retrospect of a life lived “in flesh and disorder,” I can now imagine this as a poem about my (at least) two selves. There was the girl I should be, the discourse dominating those journals wrote that girl .
I faintly remember another self, rarely appearing in the official “Book of Remembrance.” Ultimately I joined the writer and fled the first. The same year I met Brother Foster with his intense God-animated world, my fourteenth year, I discovered the novel and a parallel world just as dangerous and exhilarating, a world of reading and literature. However censored my official self, I had found a stubborn uncensored shadow who read Crime and Punishment and Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
It took twenty years (a decade past my “Book of Remembrance”) to finally let those two selves sit down together, talk, worry, cry, fight, and figure out who we wanted to be. In one frightening year, I left my marriage, my church, my neighborhood, my work at Sunstone, and found a nascent voice and a what I like to think is a more consolidated self. Though I distanced myself from the church and God, I like to think Brother Foster would have approved. I regret that I didn’t share my story, after listening to his, that day we met in the student union at the U. He was the one who taught me that life is exciting, unexpected, dangerous, compelling. He taught me to dance, laugh, sing, enjoy the company of friends and distrust the authorized view. I would like to have told him how much his friendship mattered to me.
Note: The above is a presentation I have at Sunstone Northwest in November 2015. Here is a PDF of the presentation: Brother Foster and End Times. Here are some links about Brother Foster and his community: