Mormonism has a complicated relationship with Protestantism. It also has a complicated relationship with the United States of America. If Mitt Romney’s impending nomination as the Republican candidate for President has done nothing else, it has reinforced in my mind that complexity. It was with sincere appreciation, then, that I read Ben Park’s timely article in the latest issue of Dialogue. No, Ben’s essay does not address Mitt Romney. But it does examine Mormonism’s historical relationship with both the American nation and its Protestant establishment.
In “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Religion Formation,” Ben analyzes another “Mormon moment”—the years immediately following the assassination of Mormon prophet (and U.S. presidential candidate) Joseph Smith. More specifically, he examines the rhetorical strategies employed by Mormon leaders to simultaneously synthesize Joseph Smith’s rather eclectic teachings and solidify claims to authority. As Ben explains in the article’s introduction:
Mormonism’s apostles, despite some backsliders within its own ranks, as a quorum ultimately won the allegiance of the largest group of Smith’s followers. What is more, they held it by navigating a tenuous relationship with, on the one hand, the inchoate “material” left from the movement’s founder and, on the other, ideas and tensions present in their surrounding American culture. Their motive was their need to validate their own succession rights and to construct a coherent Mormon theology. Their success depended on the ability to offer both resistance and accommodation to both internal and external influences (59-60).
It’s a brilliant article that elucidates “two burning issues of the period: Mormonism’s relationship to the American nation and the LDS conception of continuing revelation”—issues, Ben writes, “that strike at the heart of Smith’s religious legacy as an ‘American revelator’” (60). His article, then, contributes to our understanding of both the development of Mormon theology and adds further context and much-needed nuance to the competing claims to authority in the aftermath of Smith’s death. Ben’s most notable accomplishment, it seems to me, is the careful attention he pays to not only internal debates among Latter Day Saints but also external tensions in American culture and religion more generally, and in noting the ways in which internal and external pressures intersected with one another.
In tracing Mormonism’s relationship to the American nation during this period, Ben highlights a subtle but important shift in Mormon teachings. In their critiques of the U.S. government’s repeated failure to protest the Mormons, writers like Parley P. Pratt began to more clearly distinguish “between America the nation and America the land,” shifting the meaning of the Promised Land spoken of in Mormon scripture from the former to the latter. The actual land—its fertile ground and mineral wealth—were as sacred as the American nation. This important shift was crucial not only in systematizing Joseph Smith’s teachings but also in asserting the authority of the Twelve Apostles in determining the future of the church, especially because Brigham Young and others of the Twelve were now looking beyond U.S. borders for the site of their next home.
And as Ben makes clear, even the responses to internal tensions in the Latter Day Saint movement were shaped by larger concerns and debates in American religion. Ecclesiastical authority and popular religion were, after all, concerns that affected not only Mormons in antebellum America and concerned religious thinkers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Lorenzo Dow (who both, as Ben notes, came down on the side of “a more egalitarian model of spiritual truth,” though for starkly different reasons). In refuting the claims of charismatic prophets like James Strang and eloquent leaders like Sidney Rigdon, the Twelve pointed to the temple as a source of priesthood authority and revelatory experience, simultaneously centralizing authority and expanding the function of the sacred rituals introduced by Joseph Smith just prior to his death. “By placing the temple and priesthood keys at the center of Mormonism’s epistemological claims, the Twelve succeeded in establishing a theological framework in which their claims could triumph over competing schismatic options while drawing from elements in both Mormon and American culture” (81).
So what does all of this have to do with modern-day Mormonism and its continually complicated relationship with American Christianity and American government? As Ben notes in his article’s conclusion:
The growth and development of Mormonism from a frontier faith to a Utah theocracy to the twentieth-century “American” religion depended to a large extent on the ability of Smith’s successors to both incorporate and challenge broader cultural tensions in the process of synthesizing and expanding the teachings of its founding prophet. This task required innovation in sustaining—or recreating—a uniquely Mormon and coherent theology with a tenuous and dynamic relationship with the broader culture. As a result, the study of how that theology developed not only sheds added light on the movement itself but also on the dynamic process of religious formation and transformation in both a vibrant movement and an energetic culture (82).
And that is a point I wish more prognosticators and pundits would pay attention to in their analyses of this “Mormon moment.”