This is an attempt to think about Mormonism and Christian ideology in the course of American history. By Christian ideology here I think I mean assumptions or understandings so predominant at a given time that they can actually go unrecognized. In other words, I’m thinking about a silent (yet influential) common or shared sense. Although common sense might be pretty uniform at a given time, it turns out that it isn’t held in common over time. Hence, this is an effort to see how these conditions evolve over time and to demonstrate how, in the long run, that evolution can reveal the influence of the invisible. We find that predominant convictions turn over slowly, and they leave a wide trail behind them. It seems to me that Mormonism contains a number of interesting remainders as a result of being codified in a particular historical moment and amongst beliefs and convictions that just went without saying.
Part of the impetus for this informal post was a conversation I had with my grandfather – Douglas Tobler, retired professor of European History – a few months ago, not long after the passing of Bob Matthews. He reminded me then that he and Bob used to carpool from Lindon to work together at BYU. He related a conversation that they once had during their commute about Mormon conceptions of grace, and the reasons why grace has seen so little emphasis (especially in comparison with, say, born-again evangelicalism).
To me, his account of their conversation raised questions that extend even beyond that important issue, questions that concern how Mormonism has acquired its present theological “shape.” In making their observations about LDS conceptions of grace, these scholars observed that Mormonism was not purely a response, but also a supplement to mainstream Christianity. While it often critiqued particulars of traditional Christianity, it embraced the theology generally and took much of it for granted. Mormonism may have clarified the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, but was largely an elaboration upon that Christian foundation.
The significance of this lies in the fact that as Mormonism developed in a climate of some Christian consensus, there was little need for it to integrate the established essentials of Christianity into itself. Mormonism was built upon an established understanding, the Spirit of the Age, a common Christian sense. Rather than reiterating what was widely known about Christianity, then, Mormonism sought to trace the implications of the Christian Gospel forward, treating the traditional Christian gospel as the engine of something larger. Naturally enough, then, the mainstays of Biblical Christianity went unemphasized in Mormonism. Much that was foundational and widely believed was not formally incorporated into Mormonism; instead it exerted an influence from its prominent place outside, in the public mind.
I’d like to try and trace two examples of this pattern, and I’ll stick to them to keep this short(er), but I’d like to hear about others.
First (to return to the subject of the discussion during the car ride), I’d like to look at the doctrine of grace. I’m not plugged in too well to developments in Mormon theology, but I do know generally that there has been something of a call for a return to grace among Latter-day Saints. For a while now people have expressed surprise (I think rightly) about how little play grace has gotten and gets in Mormon discourse. How could such a foundational element of “Christianity” be so neglected? I think the answer lies at least partly in the mold into which Mormonism was originally cast. There was, of course, an abundant emphasis on grace in both Puritanism and the evangelicalism that replaced it: it was a thoroughly embedded value. Those who came into Mormonism, then, came with an appreciation of grace preprogrammed. And it was against a stark backdrop of grace that works and ordinances were restored. But since there was no reason for Mormonism to restate the obvious, grace remained relatively uninscribed (unwritten, unrepresented) in Mormon discourse, even if it was written on the fleshy tables of Mormon hearts.
Now fast forward. Mormonism has become a standalone establishment. Many of those who participate in it now come from inside it, and many know only what has been said, thought, and written there. Despite teachings about grace in the Book of Mormon, it has had little institutional emphasis, and hearts that contained it formerly have long since gone. The result is something of a strange lacuna in a doctrine that is fundamental to – indeed, thoroughly undergirds – the faith. As it has matured, Mormonism has developed a common sense of its own, and the senses once common among nineteenth century Christians have disappeared.
The other example (and Bob Matthews could tell us a great deal about this, were he still here) is the Bible. It is clear that the Holy Bible played a critical role in early Mormonism, from its role in Joseph Smith’s First Vision to its prompting of revelations, to the subtle significance of its retranslation, and so on. General opinion is that it had much more theological influence in the early church than the Book of Mormon, although there are some calling this into question. As with grace, the original Latter-day Saints arrived on the scene with Biblical Christianity emblazoned on their minds. They were living, after all, in what it usually seen as a “biblical nation” . The Good Book certainly needed no reiteration.
But the Biblical minds among Latter-day Saints are fewer now, and the purchase of the Bible seems diminished. The deep subconscious sway the Bible once had is fading. In reading the title page of the Book of Mormon the other day I was struck by the subtitle added in 1982: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” “Another” implies a precedent, a preexisting “other,” and yet – with the emphasis that the Book of Mormon has received – many Mormons today seem to have lost that initial order of precedence, or reversed it. The Bible’s unspoken centrality is edging toward invisibility, and with it goes the first and fullest account of Christ. The scenes and imagery of the Bible are fainter; presumably, they don’t inform readings of the Book of Mormon or conceptions of Mormon doctrines as vividly as they once did.
How else has Mormonism leaned on other Christian conceptions? What might some of these conceptions be? How has this process affected Mormonism’s subsequent theological “shape”?
Also, these examples stimulate thought, perhaps, about what is not emphasized or written at the present. What do we take for granted and central now that will become foreign and peripheral to subsequent generations? Now that conditions have changed and the pendulum has swung from the nineteenth, and even twentieth centuries, will Latter-day Saints have to reassert elements like grace or the Bible, which were once so much common sense?
 Mark A. Noll, “The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation, 1776-1865,” in The Bible and America, eds. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).