Historians Saying Interesting Things … About Mormonism

Between the new polygamy essays at LDS.org and the new religion curriculum at the BYUs, there has been a lot to argue about this week. Let’s try something a little friendlier: The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years (U. of Illinois Press, 2006). It has been on my shelf a couple of years now. I recently pulled it down as part of my new plan to actually read the LDS books that I buy. The book contains 21 articles, all variations on “Mormonism and X” but all terribly interesting. That template derives from MHA’s format for the lecture series: an accomplished historian (all non-LDS as far as I can tell) who works in a field related to LDS history but who has not studied Mormonism directly is invited to research and present something interesting about “Mormonism and X.” Here is what three of these historians talked about.

Mormonism and Popular Evangelicalism

Gordon Wood is a historian of the Revolution and early America. In his lecture, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” he showed how many of the features of popular religion on display over the course of the Second Great Awakening were incorporated into early Mormonism. In the wake of the Revolution and the overthrow of social hierarchies, popular religion exploded. “Visions, dreams, prophesyings, and new emotion-soaked religious seekings acquired a validity they had not earlier possessed.” “Subterranean folk beliefs and fetishes emerged into the open and blended with traditional Christian practices …. Thousands upon thousands became seekers looking for sings and prophets and new explanations ….”

Wood sees Mormonism as “very much a product of its time, but not in any simple or obvious way.” It certainly was eclectic, which frustrates simple explanations or summaries of early Mormon religious thinking. In an oft-quoted passage, Wood comments:

Mormonism was both mystical and secular, restorationist and progressive, communitarian and individualistic, hierarchical and congregational, authoritarian and democratic, antinomian and Arminian, anticlerical and priestly, revelatory and empirical, utopian and practical, ecumenical and nationalist.

And why did Mormonism grow and flourish when similar religious movements quickly petered out? “The Book of Mormon together with Joseph Smith’s revelations gave to Mormonism a popular authoritative appeal that none of the other religions could match.” And: “In dozens of different ways Mormonism blended the folk inclinations and religiosity of common people with the hardened churchly traditions and enlightened gentility of modern times.”

A couple of ideas from the article seem quite relevant to 21st-century Mormonism. First, despite the persistence of narrow sectarianism in some LDS thinking, there is a broad spectrum of Mormon views on almost any particular topic, as suggested in the block quotation above. Lacking formal creeds and catechisms, Mormonism makes it difficult for one interested in policing boundaries to point at some view or assertion and confidently state, “No, we don’t believe that.” This is, I think, one of the secrets of Mormon success. Second, Wood noted that early Mormon theology “mingled supernatural folk wisdom with modern rationalism.” This, too, seems to have carried over to our day. At BYU, the religion building is flanked by the physical sciences building and the biology building. It all seems to hang together nicely for most Mormons. Another secret of our success.

Mormonism and Culture

Langdon Gilkey, a theologian, addressed the problem of culture. Traditionally, he says, “theologians have tended to ignore this relation” between religion and culture, but he sees theology as being “as much related to that community’s cultural setting as are the designs of the churches ….” He notes the resulting problems. For example, churches doing missionary work in other cultures can unwittingly practice “an uncomprehending American imperialism.” Also, “religious communities reflect and copy the errors and sins of their cultural mileau as well as its virtues.” The whole discussion seems relevant to our continuing struggle to differentiate between our religious ideas and values (“the gospel”) and various political and cultural ideas and values that have infiltrated our religious views and thinking.

Mormonism and History

Edwin Gaustad, a noted historian of American religion, addressed theology and history. He advocates “historical theology” (as opposed to biblical theology or systematic theology) which he defines as “that mode of thinking about God that reflects the changing understandings over time. In this discipline, history is taken seriously; the development in religious ideas and institutions is faced openly; the richness that comes from varied perspectives is acknowledged gladly.” I like it, but that’s certainly not how CES approaches doctrine and theology.

He does recognize the central position of history (more than theology or biblical scholarship) and hence historians within Mormonism. The traditional conflict between faith and reason becomes, in Mormonism, largely a conflict between faith and history. He comments:

[H]istorians with the LDS Church … are in a position to play a unique role. You are the scholarly profession within the church …. In no other denomination in American religious life do the historians occupy so central, so sensitive, so potentially significant a place. You do not have to compete with an array of systematic theologians or canonized philosophers; you do not have to sit at the feet of countless biblical scholars and literary critics …. What advantages you enjoy! On the other hand, what burdens you bear!

You’ll have to find a copy of the book for the 18 other articles. It’s worth your while. With a little luck, we’ll get a volume covering the second twenty years before too long.

5 comments for “Historians Saying Interesting Things … About Mormonism

  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing. Gaustad makes a good point. In really no other faith tradition do historians play such a crucial role.

  2. Tom, no, I think it is because (as Gaustad noted) the LDS tradition is largely without theologians and biblical scholars. A few try to work in these fields, but they have no particular institutional standing. Historians more or less fill that institutional vacuum.

  3. The church also has a doctrinal directive to record history. Families are encouraged to write their histories, and wards are required to submit histories every year. Historians, therefore, fit into the paradigm that church leadership has established. Biblical scholarship and literary criticism tends to come into conflict a bit more with that paradigm. Church leaders are considered ultimately authoritative concerning our theology and our interpretation of scriptures by virtue of their priesthood office and right to church-wide revelation. Our “canonized philosophers” must, by definition, come from within the ranks of church leadership (C. S. Lewis excepted).

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