Mormonism in the New Century

Armand L. MaussBy Armand L. Mauss

I'm not really a prophet -- I just play one on blog sites. If I were really a prophet, maybe I'd be running the LDS Church, which would certainly guarantee its future doom and oblivion. In my present situation, however, I can prophesy with impunity -- which is to say, as a social scientist -- or, in other words, with no accountability!

Those few who have read my 1994 The Angel and the Beehive will have surmised that I take a kind of cyclical view of the history of new religious movements, including Mormonism. As a believer, I have hope and faith that this church will follow its own unique pattern, as the final dispensation of God's true religion on earth, and guided by His inspiration through prophets. However, as a social scientist, I do not expect this particular movement to vary significantly from the general pattern discovered a century ago by Max Weber and his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.

Of course, that pattern is offered in social science as theoretical -- that is, as "ideal-typical" -- so some variation from the pattern is to be expected in the specific history of any new religious movement, at least if it survives its first generation or two. However, LDS history so far has not strayed far from the general pattern. That pattern is one of alternating periods of moving toward greater assimilation with the surrounding society, and then away from assimilation (toward what I call "retrenchment").

These moves are not necessarily intentional; they are institutional and collective. They take place in response to accumulated stimuli, both from outside and from inside, that might not be apparent to individuals at the time, but can be identified by the historical observer in retrospect. The "retrenchments," or "reform movements," usually designed to retrieve eroding uniqueness of message or mission, might be large or small, and sometimes they result in schisms, but they can be seen in many religious movements, sometimes even in quite mature movements. (See examples in Chapter 9 in Rodney Stark and Roger Finke's, Acts of Faith.)

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The typical outcome of this process is the eventual loss (or major de-emphasis) of those cultural and doctrinal traits that most distinguished the new movement in the first place, as the movement is eventually "domesticated" and absorbed into the larger cultural consensus. To the extent that the periodic "retrenchment" efforts are intentional, they are designed to halt or reverse this assimilation process, but somehow the retrenchment mode never pulls the movement all the way back to where it began, so each new retrenchment is launched from a slightly greater level of assimilation than the last one.

In a few generations, the movement is well enough assimilated to enjoy general respectability, but it would no longer be recognizable by its founders. Yet it meets the needs of their more sophisticated descendants. However, along the way, each move, this way or that way, is likely to result in some schism and/or defection, as the latest move fails to accommodate some minority or another. For example, efforts have been underway recently, both by popes and by a portion of the American Catholic grassroots, to roll back some of the assimilation that came with Vatican II and the aggiornamento movement of the 1960s, but that roll-back has remained only partial.

I see this process in the evolution of the LDS religion from the time of Joseph Smith to the present. Space here does not permit the kind of detailed analysis that would allow me to support my observation with specifics, but I believe that short versions of these cycles can be seen during the 19th century, and longer ones in the Mormonism of the 20th century. The assimilation mode starting with the 1890 Manifesto is pretty obvious and has been identified and detailed by many scholars. My main interest has been in the retrenchment mode that started shortly after the middle of the 20th century and is detailed and argued in my 1994 book.

However, the LDS retrenchment since 1950 has not taken Mormonism all the way back to its 19th-century peculiarities and cannot do so (a point implicit in "Moving Targets," a recent, though as yet unpublished, paper by my young colleague Ryan Cragun). Furthermore, I see signs now that retrenchment in the Church is slowing down, perhaps even rolling back somewhat, and is gradually giving away again to a more assimilative posture toward American society and the rest of the world. This process is at least a concomitant, if not a direct consequence, of the greater role and sophistication of the Church's public relations program in the strategy of the leadership at all levels of ecclesiastical organization. It is a strategy aimed at persuading the world, but Americans first and foremost, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an authentic, respectable Christian religion entitled to a place in the ongoing civic conversations about the world's future.