Scholarly Categories

by John G. Turner

I recently attended a service at a church belonging to the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which according to the movement's website is "a missionary movement of Rwanda committed to reaching the unchurched in North America."

The service featured liturgy (not surprising), praise songs, and hands being held high or waved in the air. One could fairly categorize it as evangelical, I think. Does that mean conservative? Not in terms of the worship music, which one certainly wouldn't hear at Trinity Church in Boston. Not in terms of race, as the congregation was biracial, unusual in these parts. In terms of theology? Probably, but "conservative" is a pretty imprecise term anyway.

The service got me thinking about how difficult it can be to categorize American churches and religious movements (it's hard enough for me to categorize myself sometimes). Historians like to bring order out of chaos. We hypothesize, categorize, and generalize -- how else to make sense out of the mountains of evidence we encounter?

I find it very difficult to place Mormonism on the landscape of antebellum American religion. Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit, places Mormonism within a broad stream of metaphysical religion. While I see some connections here (the Latter-day Saint emphasis on restoring family connections across the generations, for instance, was shared by many other nineteenth-century metaphysical movements), it is an imperfect fit. "Thus community among them," Albanese writes of metaphysicians, "has tended to be ad hoc and flexible, and authoritarian voices and concerns have not gotten very far." (pp. 6-7) Although particularly during the church's pre-Utah years, authoritarianism was always contested, it did get rather far in this case.

It's equally misleading to simplistically situate Mormons amidst the millenarians, the restorationists, the seekers, the hermeticists, or the radical evangelicals. Thus, for me, making sense of Mormonism is a constant challenge. The organizational hierarchy is baffling. As Richard Bushman concedes, "any effort to extract an organizational chart ends in confusion." (Rough Stone Rolling, 253) The theology is equally complex. The early Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) shared characteristics with other restorationists, sometimes reflected the vibrant spirituality and theology of radical evangelicalism, and illustrated the influence of folk magic in the Early Republic.

Brigham Young expressed a similar frustration -- wonder, really, in his case -- when describing his 1832 conversion:

When I undertook to sound the doctrine of "Mormonism," I supposed I could handle it as I could the Methodist, Presbyterian, and other creeds of Christendom, which I had paid some considerable attention to, from the first of my knowing anything about religion. When "Mormonism" was first presented to me, I had not seen one sect of religionists whose doctrines, from beginning to end, did not appear to me like the man's masonry which he had in a box, and which he exhibited for a certain sum. He opened the main box from which he took another box; he unlocked that and slipped out another, then another, and another, and thus continued to take box out of box until he came to an exceedingly small piece of wood; he then said to the spectators, "That, gentlemen and ladies, is free masonry." I found all religions comparatively like this-they were so deficient in doctrine that when I tried to tie the loose ends and fragments together, they would break in my hands. When I commenced to examine "Mormonism," I found it impossible to take hold of either end of it. (Brigham Young discourse of 17 April 1853)

Most unique was the presence of the "Golden Bible," the Book of Mormon. In the end, though, what I find most striking about the early Latter-day Saint movement is its inherent dynamism, which the new Scripture symbolized. [I'm influenced by Terryl Givens's superb analysis here]. The Saints accepted not only an open canon but a prophet who continually took them in new directions, theologically and temporally. Especially during Joseph Smith's lifetime, and to a lesser extent under Brigham Young, Latter-day Saint theology and practice remained intensely fluid and dynamic. That dynamism perplexed Smith's followers and continues to perplex historians. It's hard to take hold of either end of it.


Anonymous said…
Great post, John.

Sometimes it's easy to underestimate the power of individual personality. A person (or group) with a particular genius may derive something wholly unique out of a certain historical context.

Our own families are living examples of such a principle. My four children have nearly the same DNA, the same parents, the same neighborhood, economic circumstances, religious experiences, etc., but I can already tell they are going to grow up living very diverse lives from each other.

If it's not that simple to categorize the lives of my own kids, it obviously shouldn't be easy to have simplistic conclusions about religious movements in history. Your post is a helpful warning against such a temptation.
Anonymous said…
Speaking of Mormons, what does the RIAH readership think of the explicitly anti-LDS ads running in California in opposition to Prop 8? Are we entering a dangerous new world here?
Anonymous said…
Wonderful post, John. Your suggestion here that Mormonism's early dynamism makes it difficult to try and get a hold on accurately reflects some of my own frustrations in researching early Mormonism. Thanks for your thoughts.
John G. Turner said…

Glad you mentioned the ad, which I found shocking. I hope it would generate some coverage and outrage if the news cycle wasn't already filled. Here's one link to it:

On another note, I was pleased when someone in my American West class asked today if we could do an entire course on the Mormons.
David G. said…
Great post, John. I wonder if the slippery-ness that you describe is related to the question raised by Moore and later Fluhman concerning how Mormonism can go from being seen as completely un-American in the 19th century to being hailed as the American religion in the 20th?

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