Mormonism in Christianity

Origins of Mormonism
Mormonism began in western New York in the 1820s, a time when the fires of the Second Great Awakening were sweeping across the "burned-over district," and America's most important nineteenth-century waterway, the Erie Canal, was being completed there. Such a mingling of spiritual and physical developments was a perfect expression of the symbiosis between evangelical religion and an emerging industrial order that radically transformed American society, leaving many Americans bewildered and confused. Among those passed by in the rush for progress was the family of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, who had left New England with their children in 1816 in search of better economic opportunities in western New York. They settled in the village of Palmyra, directly on the canal route. Though skeptical of the religious enthusiasms of the revivalists, the Smiths were persuaded of the need for religious affiliation. However, they found it difficult to make a choice among competing denominations. Their third eldest son, Joseph Smith Jr., was particularly confused in his search for the one true church. According to a later official church account, in the spring of 1820 the boy, aged fourteen, retired to a grove on his father's farm, where he prayed for divine guidance. In a vision he beheld two personages. One of these spoke to him, pointing to the other, saying "This is my beloved son, hear him!" He was told to join none of the existing denominations, for they were "all wrong."
As young Joseph matured, he had a number of subsequent visions and revelations that convinced him that God had chosen him as his instrument to restore the true church of Christ, which through the course of history had been corrupted by fallible and evil people. In preparation for this restoration, Smith was directed by an angel to unearth a set of golden records from a hill near his parents' farm. He then translated these records with divine aid and published them in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, a sacred history of three groups of pre-Columbian migrants to America, including the ancestors of some American Indian tribes. According to the Book of Mormon, Christ had visited the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere after his crucifixion, taught the gospel, and instituted a church "to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations" (Book of Mormon, title page). Although accepted as scripture by believing Mormons, and popularly called the Mormon Bible by nonbelievers, Smith regarded the Book of Mormon as a supplement rather than a substitute for the Bible.
Smith also believed that no scripture, ancient or modern, was sufficient for the restoration of the gospel. More than anything else, mankind needed divine authority to act in the name of God, an authority that had vanished after a great falling away in the early days of Christianity. This authority was restored in the spring and summer of 1829, when the powers of the priesthood of the early church—which included the authority to baptize and the gift of the Holy Ghost—were conferred upon Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery by John the Baptist and the apostles Peter, James, and John. Smith now felt authorized to restore the church of Christ, which he officially organized under the laws of the state of New York on April 6, 1830, shortly after publication of the Book of Mormon. In 1838 the name was changed from Church of Jesus Christ to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Although the new religion initially met with skepticism and persecution, it succeeded in attracting a substantial following among restorationists, who saw in Mormonism the fulfillment of the awaited return of the true church of Christ led by a divinely ordained priesthood. Perhaps the most prominent and influential of these early converts was Sidney Rigdon (1793–1876), erstwhile associate of Alexander Campbell (1788–1866). Rigdon brought virtually his entire Ohio congregation over to the new religion, thus inducing Smith and most of his New York followers to establish a Mormon settlement in 1831 in Kirtland, Ohio. There Smith greatly amplified and broadened his theological and organizational principles in a series of revelations first published in 1833 as A Book of Commandments and later enlarged into the canonical Doctrine and Covenants. The Saints were enjoined to gather in communities as God's chosen people under an egalitarian economic order called the Law of Consecration and Stewardship and to build a temple that was, literally and symbolically, the sacred center of the community. Jesus, Moses, Elias, and Elijah then appeared to Smith and Cowdery in the temple in 1836. These revelations initiated a patriarchal order that harkened back to Old Testament traditions and established the nucleus of a kingdom of God in which the temporal and the sacred became indistinguishable.
These innovations—radical departures from traditional Protestantism—while attracting many new converts, strained the loyalty of some early Saints and also began to arouse the hostility of non-Mormons. When the Saints were forced to leave Kirtland in 1838, it was largely the result of internal conflict; however, as early as 1833 a Mormon settlement in Jackson County, Missouri, had to be abandoned because of persecution. When the Mormons were completely driven out of Missouri in 1839, it was primarily because of opposition to their kingdom. Internal conflict also intensified as Smith continued to move beyond his early restorationist impulse in favor of a kingdom of God that achieved its fullest expression in Nauvoo. Founded in 1839 for refugees from Missouri, Nauvoo became Illinois's largest city in its day, with a population of about eleven thousand by 1844. It was a city under the full religious, social, economic, and political control of the Mormon kingdom. Much of this development was the result of the spectacular success of missionaries in Great Britain who, beginning in 1837, sent a steady stream of converts to the American settlements.
The success of Nauvoo may well have led Smith to overreach himself. He assumed the leadership of the Mormon militia and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Smith ostensibly made this gesture to avoid having to make an inexpedient choice between the Whigs and the Democrats, who attracted the majority of voters, but he was also imbued with the millennial belief that, if God wished him to become president and establish Mormon dominion over the United States, who would hinder him? The temple in the center of Nauvoo was much more Hebraic in design and ritual (with Masonic borrowings) than the one in Kirtland, which resembled a New England meetinghouse. Innovative doctrines and ordinances, such as baptism for the dead and especially plural marriage for time and eternity, with Smith and his closest associates secretly taking numerous wives, offended the religious sensibilities of many Saints, who believed they had joined a more traditional, more Protestant kind of Mormonism. Similarly controversial doctrines, such as belief in the preexistence of humans, metaphysical materialism with its attendant denial of the belief in creation ex nihilo, eternal progression, a plurality of gods, and the capacity for humans to achieve divinity through obedience to the principles of Mormonism, outraged not only nonbelievers but tested the faith of some of the more traditionally oriented Latter-day Saints. A group of alarmed anti-Mormons effectively capitalized on internal dissent and formed a mob that killed Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844.
History has shown that the killers of the Mormon prophet were wrong in thinking that they had delivered a mortal blow to Mormonism. Although Smith's energy and genius started the new religion and kept it going in the face of nearly insurmountable external and internal opposition, a number of able leaders had been attracted to the young religion. They helped ensure its survival after Smith's death. As early as 1834, Smith had organized some of his most loyal lieutenants into a council of twelve apostles in restorationist emulation of the primitive church. In 1840, Brigham Young (1801–1877) became president of this powerful and prestigious group. In this capacity Young was sustained as leader by those Mormons who had unquestioningly accepted Smith's Nauvoo innovations. Most of those devotees followed Young to the Rocky Mountains, while most of the more traditional Saints, who rejected plural marriage and kingdom building, remained in the Midwest. In 1860, Smith's son Joseph Smith (1832–1914) became president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which established its headquarters in Independence, Mis-souri.
Settlement in Utah
Young's advance pioneering party arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847 and immediately began to survey a site for a city with a temple at the center. Aided by a steady stream of immigrants, Young built an inland empire, including Utah and parts of present-day Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California, which boasted a population of over 100,000 by the time of his death in 1877. A practical leader not given to visions and revelations, he insisted throughout his life that he was implementing the plans that Smith had been unable to realize fully in Nauvoo. Plural marriage, practiced secretly in Nauvoo, was publicly announced to the world from Salt Lake City in 1852. Most of the church leaders took numerous wives to set an example for their somewhat reluctant followers, and by the 1860s more than 30 percent of the Mormon population lived in polygamous households. Temporal government was placed in the hands of ecclesiastical leaders under the auspices of a political kingdom of God whose theocratic model was ancient Israel. An ambitious attempt to establish a Mormon State of Deseret failed, but home rule for the Mormons was only partly thwarted, as the federal government, under the Compromise of 1850, created the Utah Territory with Young as governor.
In 1857, however, President James Buchanan (1791–1868) felt compelled to act on reports by territorial officials, who had accused Young and his followers of disloyalty to the United States and of immoral polygamous liaisons. The president sent an expeditionary force of the U.S. Army to Utah to prove to a reform-minded North that the Democrats were at least against one of the "twin relics of barbarism" (meaning slavery and polygamy), whose elimination had been the rallying cry of the Republican Party platform in 1856. "Buchanan's blunder," however, did not gain him any political advantage and ended in a negotiated settlement. Although Alfred Cumming, a non-Mormon, was officially installed as the new governor, the Mormons regarded Young as de facto governor of Utah. Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall for Young's Mormon kingdom; further government attacks on polygamy and the political kingdom were delayed only by the Civil War. Beginning in the 1870s, the U.S. Congress exerted increasing pressure on the Mormons, who in 1890 were forced to relinquish polygamy and the political kingdom as the price of their religion's survival. Mormon president Wilford Woodruff (1807–1898) issued a manifesto disavowing any further sanctioning of plural marriages by the church, symbolizing the passing of an era and the beginning of the reconciliation of Mormonism with the world—a transformation reinforced by a "second manifesto" issued by church president Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), a grandnephew of the founding prophet, in 1904.
Modern Mormonism
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Mormonism had been an antimodern, antipluralist religious movement in a modernizing, pluralistic world. The latter was represented perhaps most significantly by the symbiosis between evangelical religion, entrepreneurial capitalism, and political pluralism. Religion, like politics, had become a commodity in the free marketplace of ideas and beliefs. Democrats and Whigs might disagree about means but not about ends. The same was true of Protestant religious denominations, who agreed that ultimately they would all arrive at the same truth, if by different routes. This was a world alien to Smith and most of those who became Mormons. Smith's original quest, which had sent him to pray in his father's grove, was for the one true church. Because truth ultimately could not be divided, "correct principles" also applied to economics, society, and government—principles that were incompatible with an emerging, competitive, capitalist American society. Here then was a fundamental source of conflict between the Saints and their adversaries, in which the former were sustained by their millennial expectations of the near advent of their Savior and the eventual triumph of the kingdom of God over its enemies.
When the Saints voted on October 6, 1890, to accept Woodruff's manifesto, they may not have perceived the full significance of their decision. Yet this event was a watershed in Mormon history, as the Saints then had to jettison some of their most distinctive institutions and beliefs: economic communitarianism, plural marriage, and the political kingdom. Mormons now followed their erstwhile evangelical adversaries into the pluralistic American cultural mainstream, joining what the historian Martin Marty has called "a nation of behavers." In search of new boundaries and symbols of identification, the Mormons, much like the evangelicals, placed greater emphasis on strict codes of behavior: abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee; acceptance of regulated dress norms; and more intensive monitoring of sexual morality. These codes reflect the very values that had aided nineteenth-century evangelicals in their adaptation to an emerging capitalist industrial order requiring work discipline that was effectively sustained by internalized behavioral norms. Nevertheless, the question of how close modern Mormonism has moved to the Protestant mainstream remains controversial. In spite of Mormon protestations to the contrary, major conservative evangelical groups continue to reject the Mormon claim to be Christian.
In any case, Mormons found modern values congenial in their own adaptation to a competitive, individualistic social and economic order. They prepared the rising generation to meet this change not only through the family but also through a growing number of church auxiliaries: primary associations for the very young, young men's and women's organizations, Sunday schools, priesthood quorums, and women's auxiliaries. Such institutions were all designed to keep Mormons active in their church from the cradle to the grave, while at the same time allowing them to become productive members of the larger American society. Religion thus became a springboard for social and economic success in the world (though not intentionally so), which was further facilitated by the Mormons' increasing commitment to education. In the early years of the third millennium CE some fifty thousand Latter-day Saints (LDS) attended church-sponsored institutions of higher learning, such as the flagship Brigham Young University as well as church colleges in Idaho and Hawai'i. Many thousands more studied at secular universities throughout the United States and the Western world, receiving religious instruction at LDS institutes adjacent to such campuses. Mormons serve in prominent positions in the federal government, in the military, in major business corporations, and in major universities.
Many of these Mormons are third- to fifth-generation Latter-day Saints who have a strong cultural identification with their religion that is enhanced by closely-knit family ties. The strong Mormon emphasis on family solidarity finds theological and institutional expression in the belief in the eternal nature of the family when family ties have been solemnized within the sacred precincts of the temple. Temple ordinances, conducted not only for the living but also vicariously for the dead, are intended to bind families and ultimately the entire human race through sacred covenants. Only those Mormons who observe their religion's strict rules of conduct are allowed to enter the temple and participate in these ordinances and rituals. Temples, then, are not ordinary church buildings but are regarded as special edifices and are found only in major population centers. There are more than a hundred of these in various parts of the world. Meetinghouses, on the other hand, are functional buildings where congregations of several hundred members hold simple worship as well as social and athletic events—all open to non-Mormon visitors. Often two congregations share one building.
Modern Mormonism has succeeded in extending its appeal to members of diverse racial, social, and cultural backgrounds around the world. Missionaries who serve the church at their own expense for two years (mostly young men and women of college age) are increasingly successful in attracting converts in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Many of these converts are attracted by a lay church that offers active participation to all of its members and provides an instant, socially cohesive group whose authoritarian male leaders set boundaries while providing recognition for behavior that conforms to group standards. Many converts are especially drawn to the Mormon family ideal.
This rapid expansion of Mormonism beyond its traditional culture region as it becomes a world religion brings with it some potential for conflict. Some multigenerational Mormons are apprehensive about the erosion of traditional symbols, such as architecture, in favor of a generic utilitarian building style. Others see this as a necessary accommodation of their religion to the cultural needs of new converts. Prophet President Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation extending the lay priesthood to all Mormon males, irrespective of race or color (blacks had been denied the priesthood prior to that date), can be seen as a clear message indicating recognition of the need for major change. This is not to say, however, that tradition had suddenly lost its hold on a conservative hierarchy. Rather, it could be said Mormonism is cautiously backing into the future. A telling example of continuing conservatism is the persistent opposition to changes in the role of women, who are admonished to remain at home to raise children while partaking of the priesthood only through the male heads of families. (By contrast, the Community of Christ, which had never withheld the priesthood from blacks, announced that women were eligible for ordination to the priesthood.) This emphasis on "family values" is also reflected in continuing resistance to tolerance of homosexuality. At the same time, while not condoning abortion, Mormon leaders are less visible in their opposition than the Catholic hierarchy. They have also refrained from getting involved in the public controversy over stem-cell research, having adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Thus, if their history is a reliable guide to the future, the Mormon hierarchy in Utah will not allow its conservatism to hinder the progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the twenty-first century.
For more than a century, studies of Mormonism were highly polemical, divided by a simple dichotomy between believers and nonbelievers. The first sophisticated modern study of Mormonism was by the Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O'Dea, The Mormons (Chicago, 1957). For factual detail, a comprehensive and reliable scholarly account is James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1976). An interpretive synthesis from a scholarly Mormon perspective is Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York, 1979). An informative and evenhanded interpretation from a non-Mormon perspective is Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (San Francisco, 1999). A scholarly history of the Reorganized Church and the Community of Christ is Richard P. Howard, The Church through the Years; vol. 1: RLDS Beginnings, to 1860; vol. 2: The Reorganization Comes of Age, 1860–1992 (Independence, Mo., 1992–1993). This should be supplemented by Alma R. Blair's "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Moderate Mormonism," in The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History, edited by F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards (Lawrence, Kans., 1973), pp. 207–230. For a perceptive discussion of the problems associated with modernization, see Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1994). Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago, 1981), attempts to place Mormonism in the broader context of American culture. Jan Shipps's Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana, Ill., 1985) is written from the perspective of a sympathetic non-Mormon scholar; hers is a successful attempt to transcend the polemical dichotomy.

Klaus J. Hansen

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