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.

  • Ignacio m. Garcia

    The only dilemma with this idea is that Mormonism does not exist without the Sacred Grove. That is a place and a story. And unless you can find God and Christ appearing at different places telling different stories, it is not possible to create Mormonization in a “true church with a divinely revealed structure”. What you can do is explain how people come to Christ and how their local world facilitates the process and also changes Mormonism. I believe there is much to learn from this approach. I also know that there have been many mormon “practitioners” who have seen Mormonism this way for years. But we mut be careful to understand that to use this process to understand the whole of Christ’s mission to Joseph is to begin to develop the kind of “filters” that will make Mormonism’s God one that is “in all places, with no body or limbs and with no ‘hard’ doctrines that disrupts the local belief and cultural systems”. While Oxley’s, your’s and Tehinaarrii’s are views that are extremely atractive to those who see the rigidity of our own heritage, we should be careful and thread lightly. Unless we can find this in the scriptures and the modern revelations–and we may be able, I don’t know–it is problematic. One is to tell our story differently–and we should–the other is to call into question the Restoration itself. The main point of the gospel is that it changes peoples’ lives, not that it is changed by them. Where we need to concentrate in is how God’s goodness is everywhere and how as Mormon missionaries travel the globe they find it and it enhances their gospel–when they choose to listen and learn–and thus becomes part of that area’s Mormonization. That is in part what you are saying, but it does not “decentralize” or “displace” the core “creation story” of Mormonism. Just a thought, and thanks for the discussion.

  • Sarah Kendall Taber

    True. And….

    Didn’t Joseph Smith receive his visions in a certain cultural context (one where most people already believed in folk magic, seerstones, and the like, the Second Great Awakening, the ongoing extermination of Native Americans, etc) affected how *he* thought about, sought after, and interacted with God?

    It is well and good to remember that the Gospel is always filtered through a cultural lens. We accept that the prophets in the Bible did so, and those in Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants times as well. Remember Jesus giving Nephi a talking-to for not recording Samuel the Lamanite’s words, and Joseph and his followers’ numerous scrapes and rebukes from God.

    It would be a real shame if we took one particular version of the Gospel as somehow unfiltered because it’s the version middle-class white Americans use. We have our own cultural issues in spades and they definitely affect how we interpret the gospel… as Elder Oaks has mentioned on multiple occasions. “No group has a monopoly on virtue or an immunity from the commandment to change.” (Oct 2003 general conference.)

  • E B

    I’m new here, yet I wonder why you fail to distinguish (for those unfamiliar with the distinction) between the Community of Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (those called Mormons today). Yes, they both have some common traditions and a common heritage, but the Community of Christ went “mainstream” Protestant in a way that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never has and never will.

    Part of what you’re getting at, I believe, is that Mormon culture varies by location and it affects members’ understanding of the gospel. That’s natural. The LDS Church has made large efforts to teach members not to confuse the gospel of Jesus Christ with culture or even the Church itself. The gospel is eternal truth, love, etc. The Church teaches the gospel, sometimes changing policies or programs to best meet that objective as times and circumstances demand. That does not mean the gospel changes – the gospel never changes, it is eternal. Mormon culture is distinct from both the Church and the gospel, being merely the byproduct of people with similar beliefs interacting with each other. However, the culture is to blame for things like judgement or intolerance, contrary to the gospel which specifically teaches to not judge and to love unconditionally.

    • David Howlett

      Hi E.B.,
      My post was trying to intentionally broaden what people think counts as “Mormon” and what is included as part of the “Mormon story,” hence my advocacy for “Mormonization.” This is a move made for academic classification and understanding, and it may not be consonant with many claims made by adherents from some living traditions that can trace themselves back to Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century movement. Let me explain further with a comparative example. When scholars advocate for “Islamization,” they are trying to avoid arguments made by Muslims for one form of Islam being truer than another. Wahabis, a group in Saudi Arabia who are the officially recognized form of Islam in that country, are convinced that they represent the true form of Islam. Malaki pilgrims (Moroccan Muslims) who come on the hajj are constantly chided for their prayer practices by Wahabis who think that Malakis do all sorts of things wrong. And don’t even get the Wahabis started on the gender norms of some European and North American Muslims! There are real Muslims and Muslims who have sold out to colonial Western culture and corrupted the religion, say Wahabis. Advocates for Islamization, rather than directly adjudicate the religious validity of one group of Muslims over the other, relativize all claims by stating that all Muslims practice localized expressions of Islam. Of course, this undercuts the claims of Wahabis and a great many others who see themselves as significantly transcending culture rather than being within it. They are not mere “localized” expressions of Islam; they are the true path, so they claim. If one embraces my Mormonization thesis, he or she might significantly undercut majoritarian LDS claims to cultural transcendence and authority, too. However, one could conceivably find “Mormonization” a useful academic tool (at least in some instances) and still embrace a different theological understanding of being Mormon (at least different than what Mormonization implies). And, I see no reason why one could not meld the two, also. People surprise you! That said, academic tools do some work, get us somewhere, and but they are inevitably inadequate for application to all tasks.

      One last thought. Part of the function of any significant academic theory is to generate conversations and reactions to it. This means disagreements, not just nodding heads and accolades. And that’s good from a pragmatic perspective, because better ideas can come from such sparring. So…what I’m calling “Mormonization,” in the end, might be an inadequate theoretical perspective, but if it generates better theories, it will have served its purpose. Honestly, though, I seriously doubt that much will come from a 900-word blog post!