Modern Mormonism is vastly different in many respects from its earlier incarnations. A convenient demarcation between early and modern Mormonism is the year 1890. In the fall of that year, LDS President Wilford Woodruff declared that Mormon leaders would no longer perform or authorize any new plural marriages. In effect, this "manifesto," as the document came to be known, assured the U.S. government that the LDS Church was in full compliance with the laws of the land and that Utah could safely be admitted to the Union as a state.
It was not until nearly two decades later that authorized plural marriages ceased completely, not surprising given the cataclysmic nature of the shift in practice. Utah was granted statehood in 1896. In 1891, the LDS Church in Utah dissolved its political arm, the People's Party, and Church leaders encouraged individual Mormons to affiliate themselves with one of the two political parties that dominated American politics. This move further diminished Mormon alienation and brought them into greater cultural alignment with the rest of the country. The Spanish American War of 1898 represented the first conflict in which large numbers of Mormons served in U.S. military. From that point until the present, Mormonism has always encouraged military service.
In contrast to the place of Mormonism in American culture during the 19th century, 20th-century Americans came to view Mormons as hardworking and honest. Evidence of this newfound esteem came in the 1950s, when Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mormons also rose to prominence in the U.S. Military, the FBI, other government agencies, and in the business world. In 2008, Mitt Romney became the first Mormon contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party.
The history of modern Mormonism, however, has not been without its controversies. Since at least the time of Brigham Young, and possibly even before that, persons of African descent were not allowed to hold the LDS priesthood or to enter LDS temples. During the 1960s, the Church faced significant cultural backlash for this discriminatory practice. Some colleges and universities refused to compete in athletic events in which Brigham Young University, the Church's flagship university, was scheduled to participate. Intellectuals within Mormonism found the ban increasingly difficult to understand, while more conservative Mormon leaders and writers fashioned a variety of defenses of the practice, most of which centered on the notion that those persons born through African lineages had been spiritually weak in their lives as spirits before being born on earth. It was not until 1978 that Church leaders rescinded the ban and allowed all worthy Mormon men to hold the priesthood and allowed worthy men and women of African descent to participate in LDS temple ceremonies. While the number of African American Mormons remains small, the Church in recent years has actively preached against racism in all its forms. It refuses, however, to apologize for the racist policies of the past.
Polygamous splinter sects that garner much media attention also pose problems for modern Mormonism. The LDS Church resents the application of the name "Mormon" to these groups and seeks to distance itself from them. The sects that practice plural marriage claim that they are being true to the memory and teachings of Joseph Smith and that the LDS Church has yielded fundamental religious principles in exchange for cultural acceptance.
Since the 1970s, the LDS Church has aligned itself with other conservative religious organizations in the U.S. on issues in the so-called culture wars. Mormon leaders encouraged members of the Church to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that the legislation would encourage women to work outside of the home, thus undermining the stability of the traditional family unit. For similar reasons, in the fall of 2008, the LDS Church marshaled significant support in California for Proposition 8, a ballot proposal that established the legal definition of marriage as applying only to unions as between a man and a woman. Along with conservative Evangelical Christians, Mormon leaders publicly stated their opposition to same-sex marriages and their belief that such marriages represented a threat to civilization.
Despite LDS cooperation with the powerful, conservative Evangelical Protestant churches in the U.S. on social and cultural issues, many Evangelical churches insist that a variety of theological views disqualify Mormonism as a Christian church. Mormonism in the 21st century enjoys less cultural approval than it did in the mid-20th century because of its alienation from progressive secular culture on one hand and the theological enmity of the religious right on the other.
On an organizational level, modern Mormonism is much more sophisticated than it was in the early years. During the 20th century, Mormonism became highly bureaucratized as the Church continued to expand around the world and encountered increasingly demanding and complex circumstances. To serve congregations across the globe, the LDS Church maintains a large translation department and continues to train thousands of missionaries each year in languages needed in the Church's vast proselytizing enterprise. The Church builds hundreds of meetinghouses each year across the globe and now has more than 150 operating temples.
1. Was there a connection between polygamy and statehood? Explain.
2. How have Mormons been involved with U.S. politics?
3. Why was Mormonism controversial throughout the civil rights movement? How was it resolved?
4. Why have favorable opinions about Mormonism declined in the 21st century?