The Many Folds of Mormonism

The Many Folds of Mormonism May 2, 2012

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.”


"For some reason, this article popped up in my feed just today. I can't imagine ..."

The Women Who Enable Abusive Men
"In response to a 2012 atheist billboard I wrote the following about it saying the ..."

On Mormons and Planets
"Season 4 of Fargo--where Timothy Olyphant plays the Mormon lawman Deafy and Chris Rock plays ..."

Mormon ‘Niceness’
"I pretty much wrote the exact same thing about my husband's "bachelor name" back in ..."

No, I Did Not Keep My ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!