The Mormon Moment

Romney Rally in Arizona, 2011
Romney Rally in Arizona, 2011 – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

In part because he wrapped up the Republican race so quickly, it’s almost been treated as a footnote that Mitt Romney will soon become the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to receive the presidential nomination of a major American political party. As the Washington Post noted in a late May article on the subject, it was an accomplishment “greeted with little fanfare. And that is just how Romney and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want it.” But Mormon historian Richard Lyman Bushman was less restrained in assessing its significance:

If you look at it in a historical perspective, it’s absolutely incredible… A century-and-a-half ago, Mormons were detested as a people as well as a religion. They were thought to be primitive and crude. And now to have someone overcome all the lingering prejudice, that’s a milestone.

I wonder how many outside the LDS know the extent to which that church was persecuted in the mid-19th century. In 1838 the governor of Missouri decreed that Joseph Smith and his Saints “must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.” After founding the city of Nauvoo in neighboring Illinois (and doing his own share of persecuting opponents), Smith was killed, and his followers had numerous clashes with the state militia. New leader Brigham Young led an exodus to the Utah Territory, where he was appointed governor but enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with the U.S. government (spilling into armed conflict not long before the Civil War). And that was all before outrage over church leaders’ practice of polygamy led to a kind of legal war being waged by Washington against the LDS church in the 1880s.

Even after the church renounced plural marriage in 1890… When LDS apostle Reed Smoot was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1902, it took four years of investigations and hearings before the Senate actually allowed him to take his seat, so strong was the suspicion that Mormons remained secretly polygamous and disloyal.

So to have a religious movement that, in the 19th and even 20th centuries, was talked about in mainstream conversation as something like an anti-American cult produce a candidate for the highest office in the land in the early 21st century…

Turner, Brigham YoungWell, it speaks to the remarkable history of Mormonism, from its fascinating origins (a new world religion born under the unforgiving spotlight of modern criticism) into the 20th century, when it moved into the mainstream of American life while seeking to retain its distinctive beliefs and practices. It’s no surprise, then, that Mormonism has attracted a surge of scholarly interest in recent years. The New York Times just published a nice summary of that historiographical wave; see also the commentary on the Times piece by religious historian Paul Harvey and Mormon writer Jana Riess.

What’s most interesting to me about that body of scholarship is that it includes substantial contributions from fellow evangelicals. The Times understandably focused on John Turner, whose new biography of Brigham Young is due from Harvard University Press in a couple of months. (Having completed this book and his first, an acclaimed biography of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, John should really write his next book on how historians can retain the trust of the private institutions whose records they research while still maintaining critical distance.) Also worthy of mention in this respect: longtime (and soon-to-retire) Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, author of Talking with the Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals.

Mouw’s is one of the non-Mormon voices in the excellent PBS documentary The Mormons (five years old now, but still a great introduction to the past and present of the LDS — and available for full online streaming at no cost), where he expresses a fascination with and respect for Mormonism, even as he affirms that some LDS beliefs are simply irreconcilable with orthodox Christianity.

As an evangelical who is curious (but not nearly as knowledgeable) about Mormonism, I sympathize deeply with Mouw’s response to it.

I’m impressed by the example of the Mormons I’ve known: without exception, they are people who profess love of God and express love for their neighbors. And I’m intrigued by the Mormon responses to problems within Christianity with which their more orthodox cousins have sometimes struggled: above all, a theology of the body that doesn’t view the physical as the enemy of the spiritual, and (related to the first) a passion for artistic expression (particularly in dance). Most of all, it’s obvious that Mormonism speaks to the perpetual Christian desire for relationship with God, and for a church that is faithful to its apostolic origins.

In this quest for authentic religious experience, I can’t help but wonder if the Mormon impulse overlaps with the Pietist impulse. (Hmm… Perhaps a subject for our next research conference or colloquium at Bethel…) It’s mere speculation from a non-specialist, but Mormons and Pietists (especially the “Radical” wing of the latter group) seem to share emphases on sanctification and ethical behavior
and concern that right practice (including devotional disciplines, evangelism, and acts of compassion) is at least as important as right belief

Radical Pietists would also share with Mormons a conviction that prophecy is a source of continuing revelation. And some Mormon theologians would also resonate with some Radical Pietists’ willingness to consider God (at least, in part) as feminine.

At the same time, Pietists (especially the “churchly” variety with which I most closely identify) would part ways with the LDS on several essential points, not least:

  • Pietists inherited the Reformation’s credo, sola scriptura. When my Swedish forebears asked “Where is it written?” as a test of doctrine, they expected the answer to lie in the Old or New Testament, and nowhere else.
  • At the same time, churchly Pietists believe that traditional Christian beliefs (including the Trinity and the nature of Christ) pass this test. In that sense, they are catholic and orthodox, heirs not just of Lutheran or Reformed confessions but of a Great Tradition that is summed up in the great creeds of the same Church that Joseph Smith viewed as having gone astray early in its history.

In the end, I’m not sure yet what I think about Mouw’s proposal that evangelicals recognize (in Mormonism, and perhaps elsewhere) “the positive workings of God beyond the borders of orthodox Christianity.” (Perhaps it helps to grow up Reformed, able to draw on a robust understanding of common grace…) But I entirely agree with him that evangelical, Pietist, and many other Christians have “sinned against Mormonism” in the past and would do well to engage it more respectfully and charitably in the days and years to come.


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