The Many Folds of Mormonism

In 1860, world traveler and adventurer Sir Richard Burton visited Salt Lake City to find out for himself whether the widespread rumors were true—that a vicious, violent, and vile cult had taken over the Utah Territory. “Going among the Mormons!” one acquaintance warned him, “they are shooting and cutting one another in all directions; how do you expect to escape?” What Burton found during his twenty-four day visit, however, ran quite contrary to the numerous popular portrayals filled with venom and vitriol. To be sure, like any good anthropologist of the day, he viewed the Latter-day Saints an exotic and alien people, but he was generally sympathetic to Brigham Young with his many wives, the communitarianism of the young movement, and their many distinctive beliefs and secretive practices. “But there is in Mormondom, as in all other exclusive faiths,” he wrote in City of the Saints, “whether Jewish, Hindoo, or other, an inner life which I cannot flatter myself or deceive the reader with the idea of my having penetrated.” No “Gentile,” no matter how unprejudiced, “can expect to see any thing but the superficies.” Implicitly hinting at the insider-outsider dilemma that has always plagued the modern study of human groups and institutions, Burton suggests that Mormonism has at least two faces: one that is put on display for the non-member and one that is only accessible to the initiated. Thus, while he might be able to provide a fair, even-handed, and accurate account of his own interactions and observations regarding its public face, he doesn’t think that it’s possible for an outsider to unveil the private face of the Latter-day Saints. Discerning and articulating the inner core of the community would thus remain beyond his reach.

A little over a hundred years later, historian Sydney Ahlstrom responded similarly in his prize-winning book A Religious History of the American People (1972). He stopped short of trying to pin Mormonism down, because, as he puts it, “The exact significance of this great story persistently escapes definition.” In other words, the “categories normally invoked to explain denominations were rendered practically useless.” Ahlstrom then makes this rather provocative claim, “One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these.” The fact that so many sociologists and astute observers have viewed Mormonism in such a wide variety of ways—a ‘native ethnic minority’ (Thomas O’Dea and Dean May),  a ‘subculture’ (Armand Mauss), a ‘global tribe’ (Joel Kotkin), ‘a religion that became a people’ (Harold Bloom and Martin Marty), a mysterious cult, and a world religion—suggests that Mormonism, like the category of religion itself, requires extremely careful consideration and patient observation in order to do justice to its variety and complexity. Simply put, it demands an examination from multiple vantage points.

So, how is one to even begin to respond to the question of the phenomenon of Mormonism—paradoxically so familiar and foreign at once? How should one approach the difficulty of determining what it means to be a Mormon? What is it that makes Mormon lives meaningful and distinctive? Does it contain something like an ‘essence’ that might allow one to concisely capture it in a conceptual category or reduce it down to some core identity? My basic contention here is that even if identifying central features of Mormonism is useful for certain purposes, too often such efforts conceal far more than they reveal, because they fail to adequately examine its diversity or genuinely wrestle with its multiplicity. Accordingly, I want to briefly highlight three ways in which I think it makes much more sense to talk about Mormonism as a plurality of complex and multi-layered phenomena that overlap and criss-cross one another in extremely elusive ways than it does to talk about Mormonism as a singular phenomenon that is monolithic and univocal in nature. These three ways are by no means meant to be exhaustive but simply to offer a few conceptual rubrics from which one might begin to allow the multiplicity of Mormon ways of thinking about and being the world to show itself in all its richness and messiness. I call these rubrics Denominational Mormonism, Developmental Mormonism, and Decentralized Mormonism.

Denominational Mormonism is the probably most obvious and least controversial of the three, and refers to the basic fact that there have been hundreds of factions that trace their roots to the movement founded by Joseph Smith in April 1830. In his Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, Richard Bushman provides a kind of typology that captures what I take to be the three most prominent strands. At one extreme, there is the Community of Christ, which has “taken the course that modernism would seem to dictate.” It repudiated the practice of plural marriage in the nineteenth century, began ordaining women to the priesthood in the late twentieth century, and downplayed much of the miraculous origins that became so central to the self-understanding of the Utah-based Church. As Bushman notes, “From a modern perspective, it is the ‘sensible’ version of Mormonism, resembling in many respects a liberal Protestant denomination.” At the other extreme, there are the various fundamentalist groups and individuals who split away from the LDS Church at the beginning of the twentieth century because it abandoned plural marriage, stopped engaging in communal economic practices, deemphasized the exercise of spiritual or charismatic gifts, and let go of some of its more extreme teachings and theological speculations. Somewhere between modernization and fundamentalism, there is, of course, Mormonism’s largest denomination, the relatively moderate Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which boasts some 14.5 million names on its membership rolls. Its success is, in large part, a result of its ability to skillfully navigate between those extremes—sometimes trending toward cultural assimilation and other times toward institutional retrenchment. Nonetheless, all of these competing branches are legitimate expressions of Mormonism.[1]

Developmental Mormonism refers to the fact that the tradition has undergone significant and substantial changes throughout its relatively brief history. Even if one focusses exclusively on the LDS Church, the communitarian kingdom-building and polygamy-practicing people of the nineteenth century represent a radically different community than the contemporary correlated corporation of the twenty-first century. Once upon a time, believing and practicing polygamy was viewed as necessary in order to reach the highest heaven, in large part because that was viewed as the divine order of marriage. Today, however, even though plural marriage is still a part of Church doctrine and covenants, neither the belief nor the practice are seen as necessary for exaltation, and the official answer to the question of whether the divine order of marriage involves a monogamous or polygamous relationship is “We don’t know.”[2] Once upon a time, members of the church were expected to participate in the communal economic practice of consecration by deeding one’s personal property to the church. Today, however, even though a commitment to consecration is still required of temple-attending members, this does not involve the transferal of personal properties. Once upon a time, the exercise of charismatic gifts by both men and women—e.g., speaking in tongues (glossolalia), uttering prophecies, experiencing visions, and administering healings—was a part of the Church’s public discourse. Today, however, glossolalia is virtually unheard of, and the experience of those sorts of spiritual gifts have been largely relegated to the private domain.[3]

Finally, decentralized Mormonism refers to the diverse experiences, understandings, and expressions of individual Mormons. The basic idea of decentralization is that no religious institution, no matter how much power and influence it might wield, fully defines or completely controls the manner in which religion unfolds within the particular lives of its practitioners. Once again, even if one limits the scope to the LDS branch of Mormonism, the common conception that the contemporary community is a unified and insular group that is more or less monolithic in belief and homogeneous in practice simply isn’t the case. There are substantial disagreements over the church’s history, theology, practice, culture, and politics, as even the briefest jaunt through the Bloggernacle makes abundantly obvious. Even something as ostensibly obvious as the way in which local congregations are structured and managed can be scrutinized from a variety of different perspectives. From Mormons for marriage equality to those who oppose LGBTQ marriage, twenty-first century Latter-day Saints represent a wide spectrum of self-understandings and personal commitments.

Contemporary usage of the term Mormon might thus be preceded by any of the following (often problematic) adjectives: liberal, active, uncorrelated, inactive, democrat, open, in-good-standing, gay, libertarian, cultural, new order, anarchist, republican, semi-active, independent, traditional, lesbian, middle-way, conservative, progressive, and orthodox. From Harry Reid to Orrin Hatch, from Joanna Brooks to Ralph Hancock, and from John Dehlin to Daniel Peterson, LDS Mormonism includes a rather dizzying array of differences that can often leave one wondering just exactly what it is that they all share in common.[4] What is clear, however, is that among the folds of this more expansive and inclusive view of the tent there is far less uniformity and univocity than is often assumed. The result is that not only the tightly correlated profiles found on and highlighted in the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, but also the various caricatures of Mormonism, like the brilliant satirical portrait presented in the Book of Mormon musical, can be equally misleading.

Any discussion that seeks to illuminate this diverse family of faiths should thus be filtered through a rich, textured, and nuanced lens. It should demonstrate at least some awareness of and appreciation for the multiplicity of manifestations that make up the manifold that is Mormonism.


[1] It’s worth noting that these denominations all fall under the purview of the academic study of Mormonism, which means that the scope of Mormon Studies is not limited to the LDS Church. With all due respect to Gordon B. Hinkley and the Public Relations Department, therefore, the LDS Church is not the only  context in which the use of the word Mormon is appropriate, and there is indeed such a thing as a polygamist or a fundamentalist Mormon.

[2] That belief in plural marriage is still present in the contemporary church is partially apparent from the fact that its doctrinal justification remains in the LDS canon of scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132). However, the affirmation of the doctrine shows itself most vividly in the fact that the practice itself is still present, albeit in what I call a “passive” sense. By that I’m referring to the notion that an LDS man can be sealed to more than one woman in the event that his wife dies. This is the case, for example, with two current members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Russell M. Nelson. Hence, even though the LDS Church rejects the active practice of plural marriage, there is an important sense in which it both believes in and (passively) practices it.

[3] Examples of change could be multiplied many times over. For an excellent discussion of the evolution of various Mormon doctrines, see Charles Harrell’s “This is My Doctrine.”

[4] The editors of The New Mormon Challenge, for example, say that “trying to figure out just what constitutes Mormon theology [i.e., official belief or doctrine] is like trying to nail Jell-O dipped in olive oil to the wall.”


  • Christopher Smith

    Nicely said, Richard. I clipped your second paragraph and saved it for future reference.

  • Robyn

    “With all due respect to Gordon B. Hinkley and the Public Relations Department, therefore, the LDS Church is not the only context in which the use of the word Mormon is appropriate, and there is indeed such a thing as a polygamist or a fundamentalist Mormon.”

    As a “Mormon in good standing”, I agree with the first part of this statement that the use of the word “Mormon” is appropriate in the greater historical context of studying the religion. But the last part of the statement, “there is indeed such a thing as a polygamist or fundamental Mormon” is simply inaccurate. Our church leaders do not consider polygamists as Mormons because they have been excommunicated and don’t follow Mormon practices or doctrine. I don’t consider them to be Mormons either. Mormons and polygamists/fundamentalists don’t believe the same things. Their ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are historical, and are not rooted in current theological or social or spiritual practices.

    My ancestors came from England and France, but I would not consider myself English nor French. And the English and French wouldn’t consider me as one of them either. Another example of this incorrect labeling would be to refer to an Episcopalian as a Catholic. The historical connection is there certainly, but it would be an inaccurate comparison that paints a false picture. If you were to tell an Episcopalian that he/she were a Catholic, the answer would be “No, I’m not.” The same holds true of polygamists/fundamentals. They do not consider themselves as Mormons and we don’t consider them as such either.

    So I must correct the above statement to read, ” there is indeed NO such thing as a polygamist or fundamental Mormon.” I am curious as to why so many want to paint this false picture.

    • Staight Talker

      As a lapsed LDS Mormon who self indentifies as Mormon, I find your comment inane. A Mormon is anyone who self indentifies as Mormon. End of story. That includes polygamists calling themselves Fundamentalists Mormons, Gay Mormon guy on Survivor, New Order Mormons, Cultural Mormons, excommunicated and lapsed LDS, etc. Isn’t it ironic for the LDS to declare themselves as the only Mormons and then get all bent out of shape when Protestants and Catholics don’t include Mormons as part of Christianity. The fundy Mormon polygs are indeed Mormons, as much as that embarrasses you. You’re both children of Joseph and Brigham. Get over it!

  • Cameron Clarke

    This sentence confuses me, “official answer to the question of whether the divine order of marriage involves a monogamous or polygamous relationship is ‘We don’t know.’” Uhm, what? “We don’t know”? First, I am very curious if that is an actual quote, or if you just made it up. Polygamous marriage is not required for exaltation (eternal life, or living in the presence of God the Father). End of story. The Doctrine and Covenants has one section that deals with polygamy, and that is in response to Joseph Smith asking the Lord about Abraham and other prophets of the Old Testament having multiple wives.

    If you want to know what Latter-day Saints truly believe, check out the website

  • E B

    This is well researched (I am a Mormon). What I think you fail to make clear, however, is that the LDS Church does not affiliate, associate with, or identify with the offshoot branches of what you call “Mormonism.”

    There is a problem with the third division. That is, classifying individual Mormons is pretty ridiculous! Either a member genuinely tries to follow Christ, having experienced a full conversion, or a member hasn’t yet experienced a full conversion but may later or may stop coming. This is the heart of Mormonism: following Jesus Christ. Political divisions, gender divisions, and other kinds of divisions do not apply. We are one in Christ and leave the differences at the door. Yes, there are plenty of vocal LDS members out there like Joanna Brooks but as you say, they do not represent the whole or even the essence of what it means to be a Mormon. For more conclusive answers and more official positions on Mormonism and our doctrines and beliefs, please reference, which is a resource for any and all who write about the LDS Church.
    Thanks for listening.

  • David Naas

    With all due respect to the TBMs among us, “Mormon” may refer to anyone who recognized Joseph Smith, Jr. as the founder of his/her religion, and who looks to the Book of Mormon as the word of God. Faith is not something a person wears “pn his sleeve”, around her nedck, or even next to their skin. It is highly individualistic for any and all people, being as matter of Free Will. All the good intentions of the correlation department will not change that. The Catholic Church (Roman) used to try and define who was and who was not a Christian, ditto for the Southern Baptist Convention. The Prophet and the PR department and Music and the Spoken Word notwithstanding, a Mormon, like Christian, is whosoever he/she says he/she is. Otherwise, we enter into the area of heresy hunting, and Heavenly Father Knows, Mormons have experienced enough of that. (And yes, my qualifications are no less then yours, thou of the immediate outrage and rerflexive defense of your version of Mormonism.)
    A very good, very imformative article, especially for the era the Church is about to discover itself in. Since I favor the LDS Mormon version, it is, frankly, the one which I hope the world sees as “Mormonism”, even though there are others.
    As I used to tell the Gospel Docvtrine class I taught, there are lots of Mormons, some Latter-day Saints, and a few Christians among us. Let us all pray that we don’t get stuck in the level of partizanship for Mormon Culture.

    • Richard Livingston

      Thanks for your comment. I may not have the hope that any particular denomination be viewed as “Mormonism,” but I basically share your sentiments.

  • Rick Haywood

    I found an interesting short defense of Mormonism that lines right up with this in some ways. The author was Jed Mixon and I found it in the kindle store. Fascinating in that the author talks about how Mormons are so misperceived, the private perceptions, such as race never being discussed which in my experience is true, yet the world is so pre-occupied with. It was full of internal, private perceptions.

  • LDE

    In re: “By that I’m referring to the notion that an LDS man can be sealed to more than one woman in the event that his wife dies.”
    Temple ceremonies can be performed to seal a woman to more than one man. The important point is to have the ordinance itself done, trusting that in the end, all will be sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction.