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.”


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  • Carl Carter

    I am a life-long member, and find the church, doctrine and faith refreshing when compared with what else is out there. Our boys work hard, their stay-at-home wives (one each) work even harder and they work together to raise faithful and smart young families. We have no need to fight the police as they never come to our homes checking for domestic violence, crime, abuse or any addictive substances. We pay our taxes. We love this country. We have a great life and work hard to keep ourselves out of debt and out of trouble. We go to church on Sundays, we give generously to the poor and have a year’s supply of food. We honor the law and vote in every election one time. We look at happiness as a way of life and plan to invite others to see what we have. We respect our neighbors who are not of our faith, but if the worst happens, they are invited to our home and they will eat with us until the last morsel is gone and then we will all starve together. It truly is a way to be happy and you have to choose it and live it to fully appreciate it.

  • Josh


    In your attempt to be inclusive and comprehensive, you end up making the same mistake that non-mormons make when attempting to understand the Latter-Day Saints. Which is, the LDS church is mormonism today. It is not just a part (albeit large) of the broader discussion. It IS the discussion. It constitutes the growth, narrative, and experience of the world to Mormonism (did you engage in your work because of the Strangites in Wisconsin, for example). By categorizing it as just a part, and not letting the LDS Leadership and members define it for themselves, you begin to discuss and see it for something that becomes unrecognizeable to those who live and practice it. Practicing Mormons don’t identify with those groups who have broken away. They don’t. Their stories don’t resonate (see Robyn’s comment above). One other point, the diversity you describe in Mormonism certainly exists. But you say little about the commonality, and that is precisely where the power lies. Latter-day saints consistency of belief, practice, and understanding of doctrine is what creates such a united organization. It creates powerful norms, behaviors, and assumptions which enables, for example, a members to have IMMEDIATE connections to members anywhere in the world. The commonality of belief, stories, doctrine, attitudes, and covenants is the source of power not the diversity in understanding LDS members. The diversity allows for different ways of expression, but it is not the force driving the expression.

  • Richard Livingston

    Robyn, E B, and Josh,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. We’ll probably just have to agree to disagree about whether it makes 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” or “a singular phenomenon that is monolithic and univocal in nature.” You all seem to favor something more like the latter approach, but what I’ve written obviously means that I see very little evidence and few good reasons to do so—even when I look at the LDS Church by itself. If for no other reason than that there have been and now are numerous non-LDS denominations and individuals who all trace their religious heritage back to the movement founded by Joseph Smith, or who self-identify as Mormon for other (perhaps social or cultural) reasons, that would be enough (for me at least) to show that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not synonymous with the word Mormonism, and members of the LDS Church are not the only persons to whom the word Mormon is appropriately applicable. To put it in a way that I think might be a bit more meaningful to many who share your view, just as no single Christian denomination fully owns, controls, and defines what Christianity is or what it means to be a Christian, the LDS Church does not own, control, or define what Mormonism is or what it means to be a Mormon. That a Latter-day Saint might agree with the former while denying the latter strikes me profoundly ironic.

    • Robyn

      The problem is the terminology we are using. A Church and a religion are not the same things.
      Your description of “a plurality of complex and multi-layered phenomena that overlap and criss-cross one another in extremely elusive ways” is, I suppose, your definition of the Mormon religion. This definition is itself a very elusive and rather confusing one. No wonder we are talking in circles. And your definition of the Mormon Church, “a singular phenomenon that is monolithic and univocal in nature,” is also opaque and ambiguous.

      The many sects of the Christian religion obviously cannot speak for the Christian Church because there is no Christian Church per se. This is where your comparison of Christianity to the Mormon Church breaks down. There is a Mormon religion which ties various groups together historically. But that is very different from the Mormon Church which authorizes ordinances, oversees practices, determines doctrine, keeps membership records, etc. Thus your statement, the “LDS Church does not own, control, or define what Mormonism is or what it means to be a Mormon” is misleading. Of course the LDS Church controls and defines what is means to be a Mormon — just as the Baptists define and control what it means to be a Baptist and as the Catholics define and control what is means to be a Catholic and the Muslims define and control what is means to be a Muslim and the Buddhists define and control what is means to be a Buddhist. And the United States government defines and controls what it means to be a citizen. When we mix the two fundamentally different concepts of religion and Church, then the discussion becomes difficult because we are talking about two very separate and unique entities. For 95% of the world out there (and for Mormons themselves and for splinter groups as well) being a Mormon means being a member of the Mormon Church. You are trying to redefine that. That is fine and you are certainly free to do so, but it is in essence calling Episcopalians Catholics. (See my comment above.) It’s misleading and confusing but historically accurate.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Since there is clearly a distinction between the LDS Church with 14 million members and the Community of Christ, which has officually withdrawn its unequivocal endorsement from Joseph Smith, and the various pokygamist sects which reject the main LDS Church as apostate, we need to have a better terminology that makes clear when, in the context of various churches historically descended from Joseph Smith, we are speaking of the one that most people think of when they think of Mormons, specifically with institutions like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, BYU, and the temples, and celebrity Mormons like Mitt Romney, Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, Steve Young and David Archuletta. I suggest the term “Mainstream Mormon”. It is suggestive of the primary fact, that over 90% of the broader “Mormon” category belongs to this one highly.integrated and organizationally centralized church, it has the strongest claim to institutional continuity, and the term is easy to say in its alliterativeness and draws the analogy to Mainstream Protestant churches distinct from the more unusual offshoots.

    I think your essay generally makes valid points about Mormon diversity, but I seriously think the membets shown in the “I’m a Mormon” ads, and the many more appearing on, represent many of the aspects if Mormon diversity, while the characters in the South Park musical don’t really represent ANY real Mormon that I have ever encountered in my 62 years, including exotic venues like Japan and Marin County, California. Mormons don’t practice making affirmations if things that have no rational basis, and they don’t make up new “Mormon-like” mythos on the spit in irder to attrqct adherents. Those are fantasies about someone else, not real Mainstream Mormons in their beliefs or behavior. The former person would have resisted all the teaching about how to gain a testimony offered through Seminary and Institute and BYU and in sermobs by prophets, especially in rhe Book of Mormon (e.g. Alma 32). The latter would be told to repent for a Hiram Page style rebellion against the Prophet. Indeed, that kind of modification of the message more closely resembles the way the Christian message as it was introduced into successive European countries.

  • BJ

    I think you’re mixing up a few very important aspects of the academic study of any religion. First, as someone who studies religion seriously at a academic level, I nonetheless disagree with your assertion that Mormonism itself must be seen as a plurality. Certainly there are Mormons with varying ideas and understandings of their own faith. But merely telling the world that such differences exist is not a terribly nuanced and doesn’t add much to understanding Mormons. What is more nuanced would be a discussion of how these disagreements come about, how people relate to each other within the religion, how certain views are dominant etc. It is certainly true, while there are outliers, that there is a “core” of Mormon belief. While I don’t think as an outsider one can ignore that heterodox beliefs exist, it also must be recognized that they are recognized by the whole as such. Otherwise we fail to truly understand the religion by ignoring its epistemologies and discursive practices. That Joanna Brooks calls herself Mormon and she also is a feminist doesn’t tell one much about Mormonism itself. Particularly if most church members denounce the use of feminist discourse or themselves feel she is somehow missing the boat. That is just an example. The point is that the term “Mormon” itself is subject to a process of claiming, discourse, and self-definition that is not reflected in your post. That is where the interesting academic meat lies. Merely telling me 14 million people are not a monolith and don’t all think the same hardly surprises anyone, but it also may misrepresent the religion as something more pluralistic than it may in fact be as well. Understanding Mormon doctrine may seem like nailing jello to a tree but I find it hard to believe that there aren’t well-trod intellectual paths for understanding Mormonism’s complexity.

    I don’t find The Bloggernacle to accurately represent Mormon belief either. If we’re talking pure numbers. Anyone attempting to analyze their own religion will inescapably have to involve themselves in the internal discourse about what the religion is and means, who is in and who is out. But you’ve ignored this discursive layer entirely, even though you’re participating in it. Just my take.

  • Johari

    I commend the intellectual and care given to a subject which can be blury to the sensitive and stimulating to the informed. Interestingly, ressponses that took issue ironically only strengthened the point regarding the various types of Mormons. The article reminds me of a description we would give other religon/churches – - “Their precepts are based on truths from the Bible, mingled with the philosphies of man.” What is becoming clear in this article (in my opinion), is that “Mormonism has the phillosphies of man, mingled with truth principles.”
    To provide support to this idea that Mormon theology has gone from official doctrine to official-unoffical doctrine, to doctrine unofficial, to doctrine-practice to just a practice and not doctrine is illustrated by the Mormon scholar Truman Madsen at this link.

    Truman Madsen has also stated (and I paraphrase ) the strength of the church is that it does not have an official cannon. The problem is there is no official definition of the terms policy, theology, doctrine or practice and trying to understand what it meant yesturday or what it will mean tomorrow will yet to be determined. It is whatever they want it to be. That is the real strength of the church, that members accept whatever there told. Now that is something we do know and that is the one “common” bond that the few faithful of the 14.5 million share.

  • Ethan

    First off, I’ve been glad to see this new blog. I’ve seen many interesting posts and discussions over the past few weeks. I wish Richard and the others the best of success.

    Just a couple points: First, Robyn brings up the potentially important distinction between religion and church. She and others pointed out (accurately, I believe) that when most Americans think “Mormons” they mean—or think they mean—members of Salt Lake City’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This church and many of its members wish to claim that “Mormon” refers only to them, for understandable reasons. They don’t want to be conflated with other churches and believers whose practices and beliefs they reject; they’ve had bad experience with such conflations. Yet the argument for exclusively claiming one’s own preferred label through comparison to the Catholic Church, Buddhism and Islam falls flat both historically and sociologically. There is not space here to fully explain (just one quick example: the Catholic Church surely prefers to be called the Christian Church); suffice it to say, no easy formula exists for who gets to claim certain labels. Instead, this question works itself out through time and relationships of power.

    Of course, this is part of what BJ is arguing. Each religion struggles internally over what counts as authentic expressions of that religion. Some people end up with more influential claims than others. BJ is absolutely right: this is a fascinating and important issue. At least from an academic viewpoint. I’m just not sure that Richard was aiming primarily to create new academic insight. I took his post, and much of the whole blog more generally, as more of an effort to respond to popular images of Mormonism within America (and within Mormonism itself). I regard it as directed mostly toward reasonably educated Americans who may not have much background into Mormonism’s details and who may, without exposure to the types of arguments Richard made, be at least somewhat susceptible to overly one-dimensional stereotyping, conflations, or doctrinal misinterpretations.

    Of course I might be wrong. In any event, it will be interesting, in line with BJ’s point but at a much smaller scale, to see in the long run what kind of discourses end up as central and as marginal within this blog itself.