A Gift Taken, Any Gifts Given?: Contact & Exchange among Mormons

By December 11, 2007

In 1925, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss termed the cross-cultural transmission of values, habits, and goods from one community to another after the two communities encountered each other, “contact and exchange.”  He argued that the “ritual exchange” of these “gifts” served as a way to define the social order of society. [1]

Recent scholarship in the field of Religious Studies has borrowed Mauss’s thesis that every culture bears the imprints and certain characteristics adopted and adapted from groups they have come in contact with. Catherine Albanese, for instance, explained that “whatever their ascribed religious identity, Americans were professing religions that bore the signs of contact with those who were other and different.” [2]  Also utilizing this model, though perhaps unaware, is the historian of American Methodism Russell E. Richey. Albanese summarized Richey’s 1991 volume, Early American Methodism, by explaining that the characteristics of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American Methodism–what Richey termed the “four languages” of early Methodism–“were products of the contact” with other religions in America–“goods that they had received and integrated in and through an economy of religious exchange.” Albanese further states that “Methodist contact worked outward as powerfully as it worked inward,” and points to John Humphrey Noyses’s Oneida community and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement as two examples of religions influenced directly by Methodism. [3]

My current research investigates the “outward” influences of Methodism on Mormonism during its formative years. Today, it seems logical that Mormonism in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere bears the imprints of cultures and communities encountered in each respective region.  However, for the purposes and intents of this thread, I am more interested in possible outward influences of Mormonism on other communities (religious or otherwise).  Are there any concrete examples of other cultures adopting (and adapting) traits borrowed from Mormonism?


[1] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967).

[2] Catherine Albanese, “Exchanging Selves, Exchanging Souls: Contact, Combination, and American Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 203.

[3] Albanese, “Exchanging Selves, Exchanging Souls,” 215.  See also Russell E. Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991). 


  1. “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains”?

    As it is easier to see borrowings in areas where Mormonism is a dominant cultural force and as I have only fleetingly lived in such areas, it is hard for me to see the Mormon exports.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 11, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  2. Family Home Evening clones, maybe?

    Does Mauss consider communities who do not consider borrowed traits as gifts? Mormons are so much the Other that I suspect many groups would deliberately and consciously reject any borrowing, and that such adoptions would have to be so subtle that other religious bodies wouldn’t recognize them. If they don’t, would we?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 11, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

  3. J., I agree, though it is still difficult for me to even think of traits borrowed from the Mormons along the Wasatch front.

    Ardis, interesting thoughts. I think you’re right that many groups, even if they did so, wouldn’t recognize Mormonism as the source of borrowed traits. Mormons, likewise, seem hesitant to acknowledge other communities as the sources for their borrowed traits. My guess is that regardless of how “other” a group is, many religious communities wouldn’t recognize the adopted traits as being anything other than uniquely their own.

    Comment by Christopher — December 11, 2007 @ 7:46 pm

  4. I just re-read through Albanese’s article, and found the following that helps address your question, Ardis (as well as sheds some light on the interesting dynamics of Eastern religions vs. Western religions):

    [R]eligious Americans throughout the nation’s history have been what [Allan] Grapard would call “combinativists.” But for Americans there was at last one obvious difference [from the Eastern religions Grapard studied]. What the Japanese casually acknowledged in the overt practice of a blended religious culture, became, in America, a secret obscured. And religious exchange obscured and unrecognized as such became religious exchange denied, an ideology of purity and self-containment proclaimed in its stead (Albanese, ?Exchanging Selves, Exchanging Souls,? 224).

    Comment by Christopher — December 11, 2007 @ 8:01 pm

  5. I can’t seem to find the article but I recall that Mormon Mentality linked to a newstory about a non-Mormon polygamist that had read Mormon texts to see how polygamy works. That I think is a clear example of a gift given. Does anyone know more about this guy?

    Comment by David Grua — December 11, 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  6. Christopher, I’m so Mormocentric that it didn’t occur to me that Protestant churches would be uncomfortable admitting gifts from each other. Thanks for that paragraph.

    David, I don’t know which article MM linked to, but I’m aware of a polygamous group in Circleville, Utah (living in the de-accessioned LDS chapel, no less) who call themselves “Biblical” polygamists and trace their doctrines directly to the Old Testament, bypassing Mormonism. Dunno if they took pointers from Mormon history, though.

    (You gentlemen have some of the most interesting discussions in the Bloggernacle, by the way. I’m sure glad you’re here.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 12, 2007 @ 12:14 am

  7. I recall a member on my mission telling me that the “clap hands church” (her words, not mine) that she converted from had stolen I Am a Child of God from us. She had invited a friend from the other church to visit our service one Sunday, the friend heard the song, loved it, and took it back with her.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 12, 2007 @ 12:57 am

  8. Luckily, the folks at MM archive their “Notes From All Over” and Matt was able to dig up the link. His name is Bishop Anthony Owens and has been married to 8 women (without any one knowing of the others until later), without divorcing any of them. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal?Constitution, Owens

    said he did not believe in divorce because he had become a minister and was studying the Mormon faith. “Their book showed me how it was okay to marry without getting a divorce,” Owens told the newspaper. “I was misled in the spiritual aspect of life. I was thrown off?track.” (Official Mormon doctrine abandoned polygamy in 1890.)

    If you google his name there appear to be a ton of articles on this guy, most of them with quotes from his wives accusing him of being a conman.

    Comment by David Grua — December 12, 2007 @ 2:18 am

  9. At the risk of being vague and undocumented: many years ago, I ran across a citation to an article in Christianity Today. Someone (I don’t know if it was Christianity Today or some other organization) had conducted a national (USA) survey among (non-LDS) Christians on specific religious beliefs, including some general LDS beliefs: we had a pre-mortal existence, we are spirit children of God, families can be eternal, and so on. (Again, I don’t recall if it was limited to LDS beliefs — it may well have been.)

    The article noted that a majority of those surveyed did indeed accept many of the noted LDS beliefs. They attributed this to the decades-long, large-scale LDS missionary effort — that many of these people had been exposed to these concepts via missionary discussions, pamphlets, etc., and had adopted them even though they did not accept the LDS faith itself. As I recall, the tone of the article regarding the results was one of concern.

    I wish I had more details, actual cites, etc., but as I said, it was many years ago. I think it would be very fascinating to see a repeat of that same survey today (and, in fact, I would not be surprised if the Church’s social sciences research efforts has done so). But I think it does point out that there has indeed been a ‘gifting’ from the Church to the society that surrounds us — which may, in turn, suggest the increased stridency and professionalism (in an organizational, not a qualitative, sense) of anti-LDS efforts among Evangelicals. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — December 18, 2007 @ 11:18 am

  10. bruce: That’s fascinating. Now if only we could find the article.

    Comment by David Grua — December 18, 2007 @ 12:31 pm

  11. David, I have been amazed at how often I heard “Mormon” doctrine and practice from the Protestant airwaves as I traveled around rural OH, WV and PA a few years ago. The most blatant was James Dobson’s championing one night a week set aside for family activities – extolled on a radically evangelical station that regularly airs anti-Mormon sermons.

    I couldn’t help laughing at the irony.

    Comment by Ray — December 18, 2007 @ 5:22 pm

  12. Ray, I’ve considered FHE as a possible “gift given.” But I’m not convinced that other cultures that have adopted it have done so because of their contact with Mormonism. It seems more likely to me that “Family Night” in other cultures is the result of sociological research done on the subject in the 1980s and 90s.

    Comment by Christopher — December 18, 2007 @ 5:53 pm


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”