Missionary Work in the Pre-Correlation Age, My Grandfather’s “Mormon Doctrine,” and Mormonism’s (Un)Systematic Theology

The Toronto, Ontario, LDS Mission in 1948. My grandfather, Wayne Park, is on the very right side of the eighth row from the bottom. This picture is courtesy of Mark Butler, whose father served in this mission. Also pictured: a young Neal A. Maxwell, second from the left on the sixth row from the bottom.

My grandfather took a train to Toronto, Canada, to start his LDS mission in 1948. After a very brief stay at the mission home, he was off with his new companion to find converts. The Church was very small at the time in the area. Big cities like Toronto and Oshawa had branches, but most small towns lacked a single member and the missionaries were left to travel long distances, usually once every few weeks, to neighboring villages in order to gather with missionaries and have a makeshift sacrament service. When they entered towns that lacked any previous LDS presence, which wasn’t rare, they would first find the sheriff in order to get a permit to preach the gospel. There was very little oversight. Though they would write weekly letters to the mission president, they were infrequently visited by authorities and mostly left to their own decisions. They did have a missionary handbook that they were expected to learn—a common mission saying was “Be careful of page 27!,” a reference to the section in the book that cautioned against being alone with a member of the opposite sex—but most lessons were learned through trial and error. While there was some opposition to their message (missionaries didn’t dare to go to the Province of Quebec due to the story of previous elders being stoned), the general reaction was one of apathy. A majority of the missionaries were fortunate to witness one baptism per year. [Read more...]

Thinking Historically as a Christian (And/Or a Mormon)

This last weekend, during the Saturday morning session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dieter Uchdorf of the First Presidency offered one of the most meme-worthy quotes for scholars of Mormonism. (You know, if Mormon scholars did memes.) While explaining that there are a number of possible reasons why some would choose to leave the Church and giving the particular example of being nagged by “unanswered questions,” he admitted that “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done,” he cautioned, “that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” While many rushed to plaster facebook with the quote (guilty!) and, sadly, were too busy using it as a bludgeon for ideological reasons to miss the entire talk’s overall message, Uchdorf’s message actually brings up important questions. [Read more...]

Mormonism, Interfaith Marriage, and the Practice of Pluralism

Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning. (D&C 22:1)

As America continues to navigate the intended and unintended consequences of pluralism, interfaith marriage has become a significant arena of interest. This week, Stanley Fish highlighted Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new and provocative ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America. In the last decade, nearly half of all American marriages involved individuals of different faiths. On the one hand, such a statistic both reaffirms and perpetuates the nation’s increasingly pluralist tradition: besides demonstrating the extent to which individuals have become tolerant of other faiths, interfaith marriages also ensure that the succeeding generation(s) will come to accept religious diversity as commonplace. Richard Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace persuasively argued that America’s, well, grace is found in the nation’s increasing exposure to and acceptance of religious pluralism, largely through building a network of kinship and friendship with those outside one’s own faith. [Read more...]

Mending a Fractured World

In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers tells the story of how, following the 1970s, America’s intellectual world fell apart. Ideas that were taken for granted during the mid-twentieth century, like national consensus, gender norms, racial identities, historical meaning, and market-based capitalism, fragmented into numerous directions. The social unrest of the 1960s (which challenged traditional assumptions), the end of the Cold War (which eliminated the nation’s most potent unifying rhetorical mobilization), and the culture war battles (which politicized and bifurcated cultural meanings) left Americans grasping to find some form of hegemonic basis to hold on to while all semblence of mainstream consensus fleeted away. (Such hegemony was never actually present, of course, but it had previously played an important public, if superficial, role in a perceived national consensus.) In short, the intellectual foundations of what “society” meant were coming unhinged. The key task for American thinkers in the last quarter of the twentieth century, according to Rogers, was to figure out what to do with the fractured mess that modernity produced. [Read more...]

Thanksgiving as a Political Arena

Perhaps because it always falls several weeks after elections, Thanksgiving is never very politicized. (Perhaps the ritual of gorging oneself on turkey and stuffing is too sacred to be profaned.) While we certainly have enough political debates throughout the calendar year, and we are now gearing up for the nauseating annual “War on Christmas,” Thanksgiving is often seen as a benign and happy holiday in which all people, regardless of political or religious beliefs, are thankful for the blessings in their lives—not to mention food on their plates and football on their televisions. Indeed, perhaps the most pressing debate that comes up is, “why do the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys always get the nationally broadcasted games?” [Read more...]

Narrating the LDS Past: Past and Present

[Yesterday, I had the privilege of virtually attending the blogging event held in honor of the Joseph Smith Papers most recent contribution: Histories, Volume 2.]

On the day the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized in 1830, Joseph Smith claimed a revelation that “there shall be a record kept among you.” The Joseph Smith Papers Project, which has been going strong for over a decade and has now published its sixth of a projected twenty to twenty-five volumes, is perhaps the most ambitious and significant result of that charge. Endorsed by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the project has taken Mormon documentary editing standards to a new level and established a pattern nearly impossible to duplicate. The most recent volume, the second in the “Histories” series, reproduces early attempts to narrate the Church’s history prior to (and immediately after) Joseph Smith’s death. Unlike the first volume in the series, though, these texts were not directly overseen, dictated, or even supervised by Smith himself; rather, they were commissioned by him and composed by others who claimed their own first-hand experience. [Read more...]