The Holy Bible is the sole authority. And of course, in Mormonism, they have the Book of Mormon. As mainstream Christianity, no, we don’t accept that. But we do share many of the common values that I believe are important to this nation. Listen, we’re not voting for the pastor-in-chief of the United States. We’re voting for the president. We’re looking for a person who is the most qualified.
–Rev. Franklin Graham, interview with John Muir, World News With Diane Sawyer, January 13, 2012.
Mormonism is not Christianity. The decision for evangelical Christians right now is going to be do we prefer someone who is truly a believer in Jesus Christ or someone…who is a part of a cult.
–Rev. Robert Jeffries, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas
Timing aside, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, Matthew Bowman (2012) was not written to advance Romney’s political aspirations—it is a very scholarly tome—but it is suggested reading for anyone who is interested in knowing the facts about Mormonism, rather than simply judging it, or anyone who adheres to it, based on media sound bytes and innuendo. The author, a Mormon, is a professor of history at Hampden Sydney College. In his book he addresses the religion historically, socially, and organizationally from its origins in 1830 to the present day. His Mormon background doesnt cause him to hold back any punches. It is a well-researched book that is worth reading.
Noteworthy books about the prophet Joseph Smith include No Man Knows My History (1945), by Fawn McKay Brodie[†] (niece of a former President of the LDS), and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005), by Richard Bushman. Brodie was excommunicated for her portrayal of Joseph Smith as a sort of a good looking, charming snake oil salesman whose blue eyes and Elmer Gantry charm led many sincere people to follow him to perdition. Bushman’s biography is long on facts, some embarrassing but acknowledged by the LDS, about Smith’s flaws. Bowman—who dedicates his book to Bushman—is equally forthright in dealing with the flaws of Joseph Smith, the founding father of Mormonism. Fortunately, for Bushman and Bowman, the LDS is much more realistic about facing history head-on. Smith’s flaws, however numerous, make the fact that Mormonism is today a strong and viable religion seem like God has to be at work in all this. Bowman picks up where the Smith biographies stop, and this makes his contribution to the literature remarkable.
Smith’s story is fascinating in its childlike intensity. As a boy, he reported a visitation from an angel named Moroni who led him to a site beneath a tree where were buried golden plates containing a narrative of American peoples who lived during the time of Christ. Using a “seer stone,” Smith “translated” these plates, creating what would be known as the Book of Mormon, a story of grace and redemption (in spite of Mark Twain’s reference to it as “chloroform in print.”) as delivered by Christ shortly after his death and ascension. Yes, you heard me. Christ came here before going to heaven. On his way to a New Life, he stopped in a New Land.
Joseph’s family believed in his vision, as did many others who were seeking a faith that addressed their aspirations and needs more than what they had encountered among the staid and calcified faiths of their fathers. Soon, Joseph Smith and his followers—among whom were numbered Brigham Young and Parley Pratt (the great-great grandfather of Mitt Romney), set out to change the spiritual landscape of America by renewing Christ’s promise of salvation in the new world.
Mormons encountered difficulty everywhere they went, some brought on by the oddities of their faith, their empire-building, and financial meddling; others by the fact that members of the church prospered, and their communities soon translated into powerful voting blocs. In Illinois in 1845, where the population of Nauvoo (about 12,000) made it larger than Quincy or Springfield and almost as big as that of Chicago, Mormon voters cast a long shadow. The Mormon practices of bloc voting resulted in a situation where the “gentiles” felt marginalized. Marginalized people with guns can be testy. Thus, much of the history of Mormonism reads like a Wild West movie script, replete with shootouts, sieges, murders, and other assorted mayhem.
The things that set Mormonism apart from the mainline religions included the belief that humans lived before: imagine pre-mortal souls, hovering around up above, dreaming of and possibly even picking their parents so as to embark on the next step of their journey to perfection. There is no “original” sin. God is a body, and Christ is his son. Any human can attain perfection in this life (with the help of the Church–a concept that is anathema to ‘faith alone’ Protestantism), and find his way to eternity and become like God. Heaven is seen as a web of relationships, which the church has the ability to “seal” on earth to ensure that families will be together in heaven. And, persons may present themselves to be baptized as “proxies” for deceased parents or other relatives who had not received baptism into the Church (Chicago voter registration may have been inspired by this). Joseph Smith was a prophet, able to receive direct revelation, and the objective of Mormonism was to create a New Israel on Earth, a theocracy that, it was feared, was becoming more of an autocracy.
The most divisive (even today) “revelation” by Joseph Smith was that of plural marriage. The revelation led to fissures within the church, leading one, William Law, to leave, form his own branch of the church, and start a newspaper to attack Smith and his revelation. (Smith’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor led to his arrest on charges of violating the constitution, and his subsequent murder). Those who remained loyal to Smith soon got used to the concept (Brigham Young eventually had 55 wives—can you imagine trying to get to the privy in the morning!), and it became so entrenched that it led to near warfare with the United States government. One person who wasn’t happy about it was Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife. She gave him a stern “talking to” finally, and the old boy stopped acquiring new spiritual wives. After his death, she remarried–to a non-Mormon–but eventually followed her son, Joseph Smith III into the Reorganized Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ), which did away with polygamy and several of the more quaint and curious teachings of Joseph, Jr.
So, from this, it sounds as though Mormonism is the brainchild of an over-imaginative young man with megalomaniacal aspirations and an overdose of testosterone. But hold on.
Bowman suggests that the ones who felt the strongest about retaining polygamy were the women themselves. In the 19th century, monogamy left women vulnerable, especially if the husband died or left. A woman was forced to fend for herself, and frequently that meant poverty, or turning to the ‘oldest profession’ in order to eat and feed her children. Plural marriage made it possible for women to be sealed to responsible men (church authorities had to approve such arrangements), thus gaining status and assuring themselves of more security on the frontier. The more wives a man had, the greater the family network, and thus the greater the place in a heaven that was essentially a web of relationships, of humans sealed forever to one another in family. Some, perhaps many, such marriages were never consummated. Their purpose was salvific—both her and in heaven—as much as procreative.
Nor were women marginalized or treated as brood mares. Brigham Young sent many young people east to train for professions, and they included women. Women served as Doctors in the community. Women in Utah, largely due to the efforts of many of these plural wives, won the right to vote in 1870.[‡] By and large, women were respected.
But the most noteworthy aspect of Mormonism is the fact that not only did it survive the death of the prophet, it flourished; and it continues to do so to this day. This is in large part due to the organization created by Smith, which is essentially the same today as it was in the 1830s. It’s structure rivals Catholicism in its hierarchy, and surpasses it in its ability to change with the times. That is just what happened in 1890, when the church relented on polygamy. Statehood hung in the balance, and the leaders of the church read the writing on the wall. It is unfortunate that the practice led some to splinter off, like the FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints), and the practice of polygamy is still an issue that frequently makes for salacious headlines and many still confuse these splinter groups with Mormonism.
The history of the church in the 20th century is a marvelous story of how it has adapted, and has been surprisingly assimilated into American society. This makes for the best part of Bowman’s presentation, for it is clear that these people are, by and large among the most ethical and religiously inspired people of faith. Mormonism, although it retains a scripture not recognized by Christians, and resembles Catholicism more because of its emphasis on works and the intermediacy of the church in the achievement of salvation, has come to resemble Protestantism more and more, partly due to a conscious effort. Bowman writes:
Their faith in the existence of the metaphysical world that empowers their blessings and seals their eternal relationships with their wives and husband, parents, and grandparents drives … Mormons to devote hours a week to making that world real in the congregations of their church, to pay to spend eighteen or twenty-four months of their lives determinedly carrying copies of the Book of Mormon to any of hundreds of places across the globe, to devote weekends each month to attend the temple. Their devotion to families, though it may be…deeply conservative in contemporary American politics and culture, in fact gestures toward the profound and radical vision of community that draws them toward salvation.
Today, more and more, the charge that they are “not Christian” tends to fall on deaf ears. Besides, how many “Christians” give ten percent, pray as a family every day, attend services regularly, and so forth. Mormonism, Bowman points out, runs counter to many mainline Protestant denominations in that the more educated a person becomes the more likely he or she is to adhere; and, based on the way Christians frequently behave, being called (however inaccurately) “non-Christian” could be considered a badge of honor.
Mormons would, however, vehemently disagree. It is not the Church of Joseph Smith or Latter Day Saints, after all. It is the Church of Jesus Christ.
[*] See “Did Romney’s Mormonism Hurt Him In South Carolina: Sure Looks Like It,” posted by Doug Mataconis, January 22, 2012, Outside the Beltway.
[†] Brodie is perhaps better known for the controversial 1974 Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography, in which she presented evidence suggesting that Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemings.
[‡] The Federal Government revoked their privilege in 1887, however, as part of its effort to bring an end to polygamy.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris