Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Move West, Always West: Mormonism As a Frontier Religion

So when you hear the word 'Mormon', what do you think of?

Utah and Salt Lake City.  Genealogy.  Polygamy.  Joseph Smith.  Brigham Young University.  Two young, smiling male missionaries in white shirts and ties with backpacks, trying to convince you that the Book of Mormon is true.  Huge temples in strategic places where secret rituals take place.

Brigham Young University
When you look at this list of descriptive words/phrases, the word I bet you don't think of is 'Christian'.  Nothing in this list of Mormon images comes across as what we normally think of as Christian. But whether Mormonism, in the final analysis, is Christian or not, it certainly is an American religious phenomenon like no other.

The Mormon Church originated here in America over 180 years ago, and it has now grown to become larger than many mainline Protestant churches, including the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.  The Catholics, Baptists, and some other evangelical churches are, of course, still much bigger than the Latter Day Saints church, but there are as many Mormons as there are Jews in the U.S (somewhere around 6 million each or 1.7% of the population).    So it looks like the Mormons are taking their place as one of the many brightly-colored flowers which make up the religious landscape of America.  They are here to stay, so we might as well get to know each other.

It wasn't always that way.  There were any number of times in the first 60 years of their existence when they almost shriveled up and died.  After their birth as a church and religious movement in 1830 near Rochester, New York, Joseph Smith and his small band of followers moved within two years to Kirtland, Ohio (near Cleveland).  After six years in Kirtland, where they were almost destroyed by internal dissent and external opposition, they picked up and moved again to western Missouri, where they believed was going to come and establish his millennial kingdom.  After a year or so there, the Missourians rose up and went to war with Mormons, and arrested Joseph Smith.  Yet they moved once again to Commerce, Illinois (which they called Nauvoo), where they built a city and became a true civil, military, and ecclesiastical force to be reckoned with.

Four locations in 14 years.  (It sounds like my life as a itinerant Methodist preacher!)  Each time they moved, some of the Latter Day Saints fell away out of disenchantment or disgust with Joseph Smith, yet more were added at the next place.  So, as they moved, they always kept growing.

Then in 1844, at the ripe old age of 39, Joseph Smith, founder and prophet, was assassinated by a anti-Mormon mob in a jail in Carthage, Illinois.  It seems like the Mormon movement should have fallen apart right then and there.  And they probably would have except for an extraordinary Mormon named Brigham Young, who had been one of Smith's most able followers from the beginning.  Young took over the leadership of the barely 15 year old movement, then led them across the Great Plains to then unpopulated Great Intermountain Basin of the Salt Lake Valley.  There, they built a Mormon empire that has survived intact to this very day. 

The name of this 'Mormon St. Peter' has been immortalized in the Mormon university bearing his name, located in Provo, Utah, which is now the largest religious university in the United States (34,000 students).  Did you know that every student at Brigham Young University takes a vow to not drink alcohol or coffee, smoke, or have sexual relations outside of marriage?  And if they violate those personal rules, they're out.  Imagine that, if you can, in 21st century America.

One important thing to remember about Mormonism is that it was always a frontier religion.  It was born on the American frontier in early Western New York, and it kept moving west, always west.  Whenever it was no longer welcome because of its strange beliefs or lifestyle, it would pull up stakes and move further west.  New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, and finally, Utah.

Virtually every other religion in America has been imported from outside this land.  Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalism, Lutheran, Baptist, and Methodist traditions all came from Europe and were already hundreds of years old when they arrived (Methodism was the youngest, having been founded by John Wesley in 1738).  Judaism was the oldest of all. 

All of these older faith traditions had already gone through a process of maturation and evolution; they had developed their theological and moral traditions and were, in a way, 'civilized' before they arrived on these rough and rugged shores of this new world.  Mormonism, on the other hand, had to accomplish those essential tasks here in this rather uncivilized place, right before the very eyes of everyone else.  And that, I think, accounts for much of its apparent strangeness.

Which leads me to the final point of this post.  One of the lessons I have learned from my research on Mormonism is that, for conceptual purposes, its history can bisected into halves, which roughly span its life in the 19th century and then in the 20th.  More precisely, each half consists of 90 years: 1830-1920 and 1920-2010.

And it is hard to conceive of two more different histories than the first half and the second half of this movement called Mormonism. Reconciling these differences is the key to understanding Mormonism and its role in American life today.

More to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment