“So pale grows Reason at Religion’s sight, So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.” —John Dryden
Leonard Arrington: Brigham Young: American Moses; Alfred A. Knopf; New York.
Richard L. Bushman: Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; University of Illinois Press; Urbana, IL.
Jan Shipps: Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition; University of Illinois Press; Urbana, IL.
Ernest H. Taves: Trouble Enough: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon; Prometheus Books; Buffalo, NY.
Leo Tolstoy called Mormonism “the American religion” and ascribed to it the potential of becoming a world power. But the “Mormon” Church—properly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—is today still not a major world religion, and its status in America has been problematic from the beginning. Early on, persecution persuaded the Mormons to leave the United States for Mexican territory. But even before they reached their Rocky Mountain retreat, the Mexican War changed the boundaries and brought the Latter-day Saints back under the red, white, and blue. The subsequent conflict with Federal authorities over polygamy and the political power of Church leaders was intense. Federal officials actuallv seized all Church property in the late 1800’s. But after Church leaders ended the practice of polygamy in 1890 and withdrew from politics, persecution finally ceased, and Mormons began to take their place in modern America.
Specifying just where that “place” now is, though, is not easy. Geograph ically, the popular perception of Mormonism as a “Utah Church” is no longer accurate: only about a fifth of the Church’s five million members now live in Utah, and almost half live outside of the U.S. and Canada. Identifying the Church’s position within the contemporary American religious spectrum is even more difficult. On social issues, Mormons seem to have found a spot within the “religious right”: a Mormon senator and bishop, Orrin Hatch, has been a leader in the antiabortion fight; Gloria Steinem has called the President of the LDS Church the single most important man in the defeat of the ERA; and Jerry Falwell identifies Mormons as one of five groups whose views make them natural members of his Moral Majority. Given the Church’s history of polygamy, there is considerable irony in Southern fundamentalists’ asking Mormons to help in defending traditional morality. There is irony, too, when descendants of secessionists ask the great-grandchildren of would be emigrants to join in the cause of patriotism.
“Has the day of miracles ceased? Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved? Behold I say unto you, Nay.” —The Book of Mormon
Besides these ironies, there is considerable tension within these tactical alliances. For religious conservatives usually take doctrine— not just morality—seriously, and LDS doctrine diverges sharply from that of mainstream Christianity. Many Chris tians consider Mormons heretics, while some even call hem non Christian. Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon rofessor of religious studies at Indiana University, concludes her insightful analysis of the faith with the judgment that because Mormons accept the Bible and worship Jesus Christ as the only Savior of mankind, their Church must be regarded as “a form of corpo rate Christianity.” Yet she observes that Mormonism does not fit in any of the “standard categories” used for clas sifying other Christian groups. Mor monism is decidedly a “new religious tradition,” one that “differs from tradi tional Christianity in much the same way that traditional Christianity… came to differ from Judaism.”
To clarify just what Shipps means, it is necessarv to enter the little-known world of Mormon doctrine and histo ry. Both begin with Joseph Smith, a raw farm boy born in Vermont in 1805 but raised in upstate New York. Begin ning at the age of 14, the young Joseph was to claim spiritual experiences of an extraordinary sort. Confused about which church to join, he claimed to have learned in a vision of the Father and Son that all existing churches were apostate and that he would be the Lord’s instrument for restoring Christ’s church to the earth. Three years later he claimed to have been visited by an angel named Moroni, who told him of buried gold plates upon which was inscribed a history of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the New World. Published in 1830 as a miracu lous translation of that record, The Book of Mormon told of a group of Israelites who were led to the Americas by the prophet Lehi shortly before the fall of Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Once in the Western hemisphere, this group split into a barbarous, infidel nation, the Lamanites, and a civilized, reli gious people, the Nephites. Visited by the resurrected Jesus Christ after His ascension from Palestine, the Nephites eventually desert the faith, however, and are destroyed by the Lamanites, leaving behind only their sacred record.
But The Book of Mormon marked only the beginning of Smith’s minis try. Claiming ordination by angelic visitation—first by John the Baptist and then by Peter, James, and John—Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 in Favette, New York, with six members. As the prophetic leader of this Church, Smith ordained new apostles of Christ and wrote additional scripture in the Doctrine and Cove nants and Pearl of Great Price. Added to by his successors, these new revela tions identify the family as an eternal unit, enjoin vicarious baptism for the dead, define a premortal existence for men as spirits, and (what is most offen sive to some Christians) announce that as offspring of God men may hereafter become like their Father.
Because of the sweeping nature of his claims, it is difficult to halt be tween two opinions of Joseph Smith. It is no help that his status—prophet or fraud—depends upon the authen ticity of several events in which very few shared directly: three others testi fied that they had seen Moroni and the plates; eight men swore they had seen the plates. In this regard, Shipps ob serves, Mormonism parallels early Christianity, which began with “the story of the resurrection of Jesus with out supporting it with objective evi dence obtained from persons outside the incipient Christian community.” The consequence is that “despite the availability of an enormous body of primary source material, early Mor monism has proved to be almost im pervious to objective study.”
Just how unattainable objectivity is in viewing Mormonism may be seen by contrasting the two recent books on Joseph Smith by Richard Bushman and Ernest Taves. Bushman, a Mor mon, has written the history of a man of God. Taves, a rationalist, has writ ten an expose of a charismatic liar. As a Latter-day Saint myself, I am natu rally more sympathetic to Bushman’s book, but I think most readers would agree that Bushman’s volume benefits from the comparison. A professor of history at the University of Delaware and a recipient of the Bancroft and Phi Alpha Theta Prizes, Bushman works from a broad bibliography and effec tively anticipates many of Taves’s argu ments. A psychiatrist and contributor to Playboy and Galaxy, Taves has obviously written his journalistic work quickly, drawing heavily upon a few avowedly anti-Mormon sources and simply ignoring most Mormon schol arship. Mormons will be amused that Taves takes the apostate Oliver Cowdery as a reliable witness against the Church, apparently unaware that Cowdery later repented and rejoined the faith. As a skeptical biography of Joseph Smith, Taves’s work is clearly no improvement over Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945).
The most serious deficiency of Taves’s book, though, lies in its con clusion, which argues that the Church would be little affected if Church lead ers were to redefine The Book of Mor mon as “a work of imaginative fiction” and repudiate Joseph Smith’s claims to supernatural revelation. “Surely the vitality of the church is sufficient to ensure its continued existence and growth under this different formula tion.” Perhaps the editors at Promethe us Books (a steady supplier of antirelig ious “humanist” works) believe this. Probably many liberal Protestant theo logians do, too. But most readers will find Taves’s conclusion harder to be lieve than an angel and gold plates.
Most people know very well what has happened to denominations that have redefined the Resurrection as an imaginative or political allegory. The pews are empty. Intelligent readers may not accept Bushman’s faith, but it is hard to reject the conclusion he appends to his account of the boy prophet and Moroni: “The strength of the church, the vigor of the Mormon missionary movement, and the staying power of the Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present rest on belief in the reality of those events.”
In the face of persecution that con tinued even after the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844 by a hostile mob, those without a sincere faith in The Book of Mormon found other creeds. The beleaguered faithful followed the Church’s senior apostle, Brigham Young, across the frozen Mississippi River in February of 1846 and then on to the mountains of Utah. During the next 40 years 150,000 Saints traveled the Mormon Trail, thousands with nothing but handcarts.
The man who directed this exodus was a 28-year-old cabinetmaker and a dissatisfied Methodist when his sister first gave him a copy of The Book of Mormon left by a traveling missionary. He began his investigation of Mor monism supposing that its precepts would leave undisturbed his convic tion that “Jesus Christ had no true Church upon the earth.” He later related: “I found it impossible to take hold of either end of [Mormonism]; I found it was from eternity, passed through time, and into eternity.” Bap tized and ordained an elder in 1832, Young never thereafter wavered in his defense of the Church and became one of Joseph Smith’s most trusted advisers.
As he appears in Leonard Arring ton’s definitive biography (written from within the faith), Young is a “powerful personality” but not an im portant revelator. Since his work added little to the canon reopened by Joseph Smith but resulted instead in several hundred Latter-day Saint com munities in the Great Basin, Young might perhaps be better viewed as an American Joshua than an American Moses. But as with Joshua, Young could perform his work of colonizing only because a previous prophet had given him and his people new scrip ture. While still living in dugouts, the Saints named their towns for Book of Mormon people and places and beganbuilding granite temples.
Ev·en in the 20th century, few Mor mons have accepted Taves’s invitation to “join the rest of the world” in world view. As Shipps observes, Mormon ism refuses to fit into the “post Enlightenment setting” defined by sci ence and the Protestant Reformation. Mormonism may indeed be one of America’s least “modern” faiths. In a time of specialized professionalism, the LDS Church operates with a lay clergy and no professional theologians. Fathers baptize and confirm their own children and ordain their sons, while farmers, businessmen, and physicians serve as bishops. In an era of feminism and youth rebellion, Mormons insist that “the patriarchal order” is divinely ordained and ask their young men to sacrifice two years in missionary serv ice. As progressive denominations re spond to sin and doctrinal deviation with “understanding” and “tolerance,” Mormons excommunicate. While yuppies perfect the art of private consumption, Mormons build large families—and search their genealogy.
But the most anachronistic feature of Mormonism may be its continuing openness to the miraculous. Bushman makes the point that since the 18th century most Christian denominations have rejected the possibility of super natural events not recorded in the Bible. Mormons offend fundamental ists and agnostics alike by violating this Enlightenment—Christian synthe sis with their talk of angels, healings, prophecy, and revelation in our time. Caring little for the contemporary “au thenticity” of existential doubt, Mor mons individually affirm that their faith has been miraculously confirmed by a witness from the Holy Ghost received in answer to prayer. Even professional Mormon scholars such as Bushman and Arrington would ex plain that such revelatory experiences are as essential to their faith as docu mentary research, empirical eviclence, or hermeneutical logic.
The ways of explaining Mormon ism’s anomalies remain irreconcilable. Skeptics continue to see adherents as the dupes of both first-century and 19th-century impostures; many tradi itional Christians suspect heresy and worse; while Latter-day Saints testify that they follow prophets of God and the Holy Spirit. Short of the Judg ment, public agreement seems possi ble only on the undeniable proposition that Mormons are set against the spirit of the age. cc