Mormonism in Context: Section 1- Introduction

I’ve been reading The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith as part of one of my projects this year.

My reading is ahead of the lesson plan for the Mormonism in Context course, so before I could tackle the first section, I had to go back, re-read the introduction to the “textbook,” and then work with the other materials, which include an overview of the religious climate in the United States during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, as well as a portion of the NPR documentary The Mormons. This course also pulls on the recently released Gospel Topics essays, which I’m glad of because, even though I’ve known of their existence for some time, I haven’t read any of them.

Once finished going through the materials for each section, you’re supposed to reflect on what you’ve read and learned.

My Reflections on the Progress of Mormonism

Reading the essay on evangelicalism and revivalism didn’t provide a lot of extra insight for me. Indeed, many of us probably remember lesson upon less about how the Prophet Joseph Smith asked his questions about religion against a backdrop of fervor and revivalism.

What I found interesting, however, was the idea that some revivals lasted for weeks on end. Getting into the format of revivals also offered some interesting insight into some of the meetings that we hear about from the early church. Many of the early meetings (think visitations and what-not during the Kirtland period), and the way preaching was done, was very in line with the religious cultural practices of the time. When we think of evangelism today, we don’t really think of Mormonism as fitting in. However, early Mormonism was kind evangelical in nature — even if it really isn’t now. While the book claims that Joseph Smith didn’t like the nature of revivals, there were nevertheless plenty of instances involving speaking in tongues, visions, and many practices we associate with evangelical-style religion today.

The introduction section also set the stage to show the fast rise of the LDS Church, and its (somewhat dubious) acceptance in the mainstream. We hear a lot about being a peculiar people, and we know that members of the Church were waaaaaaaay outside the American mainstream by the time of the Nauvoo period.

rise of Mormonism

This is one of the most interesting parts of the Mormon psyche. We want to be set apart from the world. Different. The Lord’s chosen people. The modern Israel. At the same time, we want to make sure that people understand that we’re “just like folks.” We want worldly respect in the realms of business, politics, sports, entertainment, and just about anywhere else.

Look at all the efforts to “normalize” us today. Media campaigns from the church (think Meet the Mormons and the I’m a Mormon effort) focus a great deal on making sure people understand how similar we are to other Christians. There’s nothing wrong with building a foundation for understanding on commonalities, but it is a rather stark contrast from the past. I’ve been guilty of this as well. I remember sitting down with people and trying to “prove” how normal Mormons are.

And the truth is, most of us are people. People are people. Most Mormons are “regular” people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t always like that. And there are still plenty of folks that see Mormons as cultish weirdos. Today, we realize that our little upstart religion was at one point rather fast growing, and is large enough that there are break off sects that fall under the labels “Mormon” and “Latter-day Saint Movement.” That’s kind of major (without being a major world religion).

But, even though Mormons, and the LDS Church, are about as mainstream as it is possible to get right now, we are still viewed very much as outside the mainstream by other Americans. It’s an interesting problem to have. Many of us consider ourselves as mainstream, and the institutional Church is making serious efforts to make us seem normal to everyone. And we want to be seen normal so that we can do things like run for president and run successful businesses.

But at the same time, we want to be different.

It’s interesting to chart the rise of Mormonism, and it’s also interesting to look at the interplay between what we’ve become, who we used to be (and all the baggage *cough* polygamy, priesthood, other changing doctrines *cough* that comes with it), and what we wish we were. It’s also interesting to note that, for people who have people at the pinnacle of just about every achievement it’s possible to enjoy, from sports to music to politics to business, we have a rather strong persecution complex.

It’s all a bit of a jumble, and it’s no real surprise that there is something of a Mormon identity crisis going on. How much do we conform to the norms of society so that we can still be mainstream without losing our distinctiveness? How much should we tolerate dissent? And what types of dissent are ok? What will the Lord reveal next, and how will members respond?

Basically, the introduction set the stage for us to think about who we are in context of the time in which the religion was founded/restored, as well as prompt some thoughts about where we could be headed.

I’m excited to keep moving forward with this book, and also to think about where I fit in my own contextualization of Mormonism.

Do you have thoughts about the changes in Mormonism over time? And do you really think that Mormons are embraced as mainstream? Or are LDS accomplishments in various realms insufficient to signal widespread acceptance?

2 Responses to Mormonism in Context: Section 1- Introduction

  1. Hi Miranda,
    Thanks for introducing me to Mormanism in Context. Looks fascinating. The biggest change I see and it is slow in coming is the Church being more open about its early history. Learning that early history has been a real shocker and trial for some but it shouldn’t be if people understand the proper historical context. Bushman’ book on Joseph Smith was helpful to me in that regard. The other essay I have found really helpful is Orson Scott Card’s piece on the Book of Mormon http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html.

    The other change which has also been slow in coming is the idea that there isn’t one set mold for Mormons. It is why I’ve enjoyed the Im A Mormon campaign. It shows the diversity.

    • Glad you like it! Brian Whitney is historian and sociologist, so he’s a good guide. I have a copy of Rough Stone Rolling (I bought it in hardcover when it first came out), and enjoyed it a great deal. Thanks for that piece from Card. I have a love/hate relationship with his writing, including his fiction.

      I agree that it can be difficult to navigate all this. None of it has been a real surprise to me, because my family has always been very intellectual about the church and speculative about theology. But I can see how it can be difficult for converts, and for members who grew up essentially being told that anything outside of “approved” correlation was tantamount to anti-Mormon literature would feel lost. For many people who are younger than 35, you could easily go through your entire upbringing reading only “approved” materials and never learn any of this. With the Internet blowing everything wide open, this stuff needs to be addressed.

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