French Polynesia and Mormonization: Rethinking Mormon Origins

On January 3, the Community of Christ’s First Presidency called Maureva M. Arnaud Tchong to serve in the Council of Twelve Apostles. The current mission center president over 60 congregations in French Polynesia, Arnaud will be the first individual of native Polynesian heritage to serve as an apostle in any church descended from Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century Restoration movement. She will also be the first woman from outside of the United States to serve in the Community of Christ’s Council of Twelve Apostles. [1] Even though Arnaud represents a breakthrough for women in Mormon churches, she stands in a long line of matriarchs who have sustained the Community of Christ in generation after generation. In fact, Arnaud can trace her spiritual heritage through a line of matriarchs that stand at the very origins of the church—all the way back to Tupuai.

In April 1844 on the island of Tupuai, a woman named Tehinaarrii encountered three strangers. Addison Pratt and two other missionaries from Nauvoo, Illinois, were hungry and a long ways from home. They needed help. Tehinaarri took them into her home and “gave them food, housing, and much needed assistance.” [2] Her act of hospitality marked the beginning of the church on the island.


Tehinaarrii’s story, narrated by Community of Christ Apostle Susan Oxley in the most recent Herald (the Community of Christ’s equivalent of the Ensign), provides an interesting retelling of localized Mormon origins. Rather than the more familiar “missionary conquest” narrative where white missionaries bring the truth to benighted brown others, Oxley’s narrative emphasizes Pratt’s need for what Tehinaarrii can offer him—friendship, housing, and food. Tehinaarrii becomes the Christ-bearer in this story, too. She shows Pratt how Jesus’ kingdom is lived in everyday life through acts of hospitality to strangers.

Perhaps we could dismiss this narrative as one created by modern Americans (Oxley and me) who deeply want to avoid the problematic features of colonial evangelism enacted by their church in previous centuries. But the story that I have just told did not originate with Oxley or me. Instead, the story has been told over and over again by Tehinaarrii’s descendants who still live on Tupuai. Today, three Community of Christ congregations exist on the island, and the members of these congregations proudly trace themselves back to the moment when their (in some cases literal) ancestor showed hospitality to three strangers.

The story of Tehinaarrii leads us to ask a question: when and where did the church begin? Was it during a theophany in a grove in Palmyra? At a Methodist prayer meeting in the northwest of England? [3] Over a shared meal on Tupuai? What if it was all of the above? Let me explain the rationale behind the last option. Scholars of Islam have recently tried to talk about Islamization, or the “various religious, cultural, political, and economic processes by which human beings, in various places, have become Muslims.” This focus has allowed scholars to reconceive of what Islam is. “Rather than assuming that Islam is a fixed entity that over time spread from the Arab and Persian Middle East to the rest of the Afro-Eurasian landmass, scholars have remapped Islamization and stressed indigenous processes of identity formation and local appropriations of Islamic traditions.” [4] The upshot of this process is to localize all forms of Islam, radically decentering notions of a normative center versus heterodoxic peripheries.

Could this same reconceptualization be applied to Mormon history? Should we start thinking about “Mormonization,” or the “processes of identity formation and local appropriations of Mormon traditions” rather than a story of a church that is a fixed entity that then spreads from a center into all of the world? Religious studies scholars have actually been doing this for some time. More than a decade ago, Laurie Maffly-Kipp published an essay that detailed how the voices of early Polynesian Mormons “tell a somewhat different story” apart from the familiar Mormon narrative of a Westward trek to gather to the American Zion. The nineteenth-century Polynesian saints offer a story that is “no less Mormon, but with a particular sense of what it meant to ‘become a people’.” [5] Mormonism became different in their hands, just as it was different in the hands of all peoples in all places at all times. Being Mormon, like being Muslim, was and is a localized experience.

What can attention to “Mormonization” do for scholars? By listening to the voices and stories of Mormons from diverse contexts, we have the potential to dislodge some of our own biases about what counts as the central parts of the Mormon story versus what is merely peripheral. All becomes local, whether it is Mormonism lived in Salt Lake City, in Independence, or in Tupuai. Of course, that does not mean that all agents in our stories have possessed equal power. However, studying the process Mormonization around the globe creates a new narrative sense for framing the origins of Mormonism.  Mormonization implies that the religion grew up in a thousand places of origin. As the example of Tehinaarrii’s meal with three strangers suggests, close attention to the transnational contexts of Mormonism and Mormonization provides a fascinating alternative for how scholars can narrate the very origins of Mormonism itself.

 

[1] Women have served in the Aaronic and Melchisidec Priesthood in the Community of Christ since 1985. Currently, three women serve as apostles and one woman in the First Presidency. All are from North America.

[2]Susan Oxley, “Hospitality and Sanctuary on Tupuai,” Herald 160, no. 1 (2013): 31.

[3] Stephen Fleming argues for something like this reconceptualization of Mormon origins. See his “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” Church History 77, no. 1 (2008): 73-104.

[4] Edward Curtis, III, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 13.

[5] Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Looking West: Mormonism and the Pacific World,” Journal of Mormon History 26, no. 1 (2000): 44.

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