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matt b.

Reassessing the Classics: Armand Mauss’s THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE (part 3 of 3)

By October 17, 2019

For the past several days, the Juvenile Instructor has examined the work of the sociologist Armand Mauss, a pioneering figure in Mormon studies, under the banner of our occasional series “Reassessing the Classics.” This is the last of three posts dealing with Mauss’s landmark 1994 book THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE: THE MORMON STRUGGLE WITH ASSIMILATION (University of Illinois Press). I wrote it.

I first encountered The Angel and the Beehive in the early years of my graduate school training—not in readings for a course or recommendations from a professor, but in a way far more glancing and tangential (as so many of the best things in academic research develop). I was working on a project about miracles in Mormonism, and it suddenly seemed as though it would be useful to me to know whether or not Mormons commonly talked about such things in the regular monthly testimony meetings held in every Mormon congregation.

So I walked over to the library. This was at a point where such online databases as JSTOR were in their infancy, and even if they were not, the world of peer reviewed journals interested in Mormonism were far from such databases’ consciousness. I’d have to start digging through books, and perhaps reverse engineer my way into any useful articles in Sunstone or Dialogue. As I stood in front of the BX8600 shelves in the library, idly scanning for anything that might seem worthwhile, I had a realization: there were virtually no peer reviewed, university published books about contemporary Mormonism, at least on these shelves. (Or, I learned before too long, really at all.)  Claudia Bushman’s Contemporary Mormonism  was on the verge of publication. Terryl Givens’s The Latter-day Saint Experience in America was there, as was Susan Taber’s Mormon Lives. And that was about all.  This was the first time I felt some frustration that scholars seemed interested only in Joseph Smith and plural marriage. After all, I was interested in twentieth century evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism; they seemed to have rich histories after the end of World War II.

In the end, I left the library with the Shepherds’ A Kingdom Transformed (a fine study of themes in General Conferences of the Church from the nineteenth century to the near present), and with The Angel and the Beehive.

I found what I needed in Mauss’s book; it contains a short but pointed discussion of testimony meetings and the references therein sent me to a series of useful articles. But I found a lot more than that as well.  Mauss’s book has now for twenty-five years been the best comprehensive work on twentieth century Mormon history we have. It managed to both be among the first thorough works on the topic, but also to set the parameters and narrative arc that have structured nearly all work on twentieth century Mormon history since. Mauss’s model of assimilation and retrenchment (and his follow-up works that have extended his interpretation to the periods after the timeframe of the book ends) have proven durable and persuasive to historians working on a wide range of topics. The book has become a firm canopy that has proven able to shelter and anchor a range of other topics.

Mauss’s sensitivity to narrative and to cause and effect has made his book exceptionally useful to historians; it is carefully crafted, not merely well-researched, although it is that too. Mauss draws together a wide range of seemingly fragmentary primary and secondary material—reams of articles in Mormon journals, church-published manuals, surveys, both within and without Mormonism, and a series of trenchant and insightful case studies––and organizes them into a durable story of what happened to Mormonism over a long period of time, as the best work of synthesis do. The legacy of the book among historians of Mormonism is even more impressive when one recognizes that, of course, Mauss’s book is a work of sociology, not a work of history.

I’m convinced the book will remain part of the Mormon studies canon even as the work which follows it transcends it. In part, of course, Mauss pointed the way there himself, with his followup All Abraham’s Children, a study of race and Mormonism which illustrated how many stories beyond the white, male, Utah centers of Mormon power remain to be told. More, we have begun to see Mormon studies branch beyond the historians who have embraced it so far; more and more scholars of multiple disciplines have begun taking the tradition seriously—and as that has happened, those shelves in the BX8600 section of the library have begun to fill with books both building on and dissenting from The Angel and the Beehive—though all still owe it a debt.

Reassessing the Classics: Armand Mauss’s THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE (part 2 of 3)

By October 16, 2019

For the next several days, the Juvenile Instructor will examine the work of the sociologist Armand Mauss, a pioneering figure in Mormon studies, under the banner of our occasional series “Reassessing the Classics.” For the next three days, several scholars will examine Mauss’s landmark 1994 book THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE: THE MORMON STRUGGLE WITH ASSIMILATION (University of Illinois Press). The first of these went up Monday, October 14. Today, Jana Riess, author of many well-regarded books on Mormonism, including the important THE NEXT MORMONS: HOW MILLENNIALS ARE CHANGING THE LDS CHURCH (Oxford, 2019).

Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unveiled the first peek at its new global youth program, which will provide activities and instruction for Saints from ages 8 to 18. As I have been reading about the new initiative, one thought kept going through my mind: Is this a sign of retrenchment or assimilation?*

The fact that this was my recurring question shows how deeply Armand Mauss’s thesis from The Angel and the Beehive has informed my understanding of Mormonism as a vibrant religion with a particular genius for reinvention. And I’m not the only one. The Angel and the Beehive has for the last quarter century been the single most defining and influential work on the social scientific study of Mormonism, its thesis nimble enough to accommodate—nay, to expect—theological and social change when such change has consigned other theories to the dustbin.

Mauss’s contributions to the field don’t end with his own published work, but include his handiwork in creating avenues for scholars to explore Mormonism as a fruitful topic for social scientific study. He was one of the founding members of the Mormon Social Science Association, and served as its first vice-president in the late 1970s. For the first 40 years of the MSSA’s existence, Armand has been actively involved in presenting new research and helping to mentor young scholars.

I’ve been lucky enough to be one of those scholars. Since I was trained as a historian and not a social scientist, it was with some trepidation that I told Armand years ago that I was thinking about diving into a large-scale research project about contemporary young Mormons. What became The Next Mormons was possible in no small part because of Armand’s willing assistance with many aspects of the project, as he offered feedback on early drafts of survey questions, donated to the Kickstarter campaign that funded the national survey, and read and commented on two chapters in progress.

That same generosity of spirit was also apparent when we served together on the Dialogue board. Armand was by that time in his late seventies and early eighties. Plenty of other people look at retirement as a time to enjoy a long-earned respite from work, and a chance to indulge personal interests. (Believe me, I’m not judging.) This was not Armand’s approach. He devoted himself to the journal and the people associated with it. I count myself as tremendously lucky that our years on the board overlapped.

I’m greatly saddened to hear that Armand is facing the end of his life. I will miss his keen intellect, vibrant sense of humor, and equally vibrant Hawaiian shirts. God be with him till we meet again.

* The answer, I think, is that it is both. On the one hand, the youth program is a turn toward insularity, as the Saints eschew non-church programs like Scouting in favor of growing their own. On the other hand, its hands-off approach, greater commitment to gender equality, and emphasis on local flexibility are clear signs of assimilation, as the Church adapts itself to meet the needs of a changing world that is no longer impressed by standardization and uniformity.

Reassessing the Classics: Armand Mauss’s THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE (part 1 of 3)

By October 15, 2019

For the next several days, the Juvenile Instructor will examine the work of the sociologist Armand Mauss, a pioneering figure in Mormon studies, under the banner of our occasional series “Reassessing the Classics.” For the next three days, several scholars will examine Mauss’s landmark 1994 book THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE: THE MORMON STRUGGLE WITH ASSIMILATION (University of Illinois Press). First: Gary and Gordon Shepherd, sociologists in their own right and the authors of a number of well-regarded works in Mormon studies, including A KINGDOM TRANSFORMED: EARLY MORMONISM AND THE MODERN LDS CHURCH (2nd edition, University of Utah Press, 2015).

            Armand Mauss’s The Angel and The Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation was published in 1994 by the University of Illinois Press.  Angel and the Beehive quickly became a landmark work in Mormon studies that continues to be referenced by scholars of contemporary Mormonism to this day.  This was Armand’s first, full-fledged book—one that had been simmering on the backburner of his mind for 25 years.  In it, Armand applied the sociological notion of assimilation and the economics notion of retrenchment to show how the late 20th Century LDS Church was attempting to apply the brakes to liberalizing compromises in belief and practice that had been made in the early and middle decades of the 20th Century. 

            Society at large exerts pressures on perceived deviant groups (emerging from within or entering from outside a host society) to conform to prevailing norms and values, compelling them towards  assimilation into established society.  But if such groups become totally assimilated, they of course lose their distinctive identity and original purpose for being. One strategy to deal with these losses is to attempt “retrenchment”: a cut-back on compromises and perhaps even a return to original principles.  Angel and the Beehive examined this retrenchment strategy as a response of LDS officials during the 1950s through the 1980s to perceived liberalizing tendencies in society that seemed to threaten basic LDS tenets if allowed to be adopted by church members.  Armand proposed that church leaders were in effect saying:  “Assimilation has gone far enough. Let’s start remembering the things that have made us a peculiar people.”

            Particular areas Armand identified as indicators of retrenchment efforts included: (1) increased emphasis on continuous revelation through modern prophets; (2) renewed emphasis on temples, temple work, and genealogical research; (3) expansion and standardization of missionary work; (4) renewed emphasis on family values; and (5) expansion of formal religious education and indoctrination.  A large portion of his book marshalled supportive evidence for retrenchment emphasis in these areas, some of the evidence being social science research data drawn from a variety of sources (including my brother Gordon’s and my content analysis of General Conference addresses over a 150-year period, 1830-1979), while other evidence was garnered from standard historical sources and Armand’s own extensive involvement with and knowledge of relevant events. Armand’s presentation and analysis of evidence was persuasive and impactful on the ways that scholars viewed the dynamics of changing LDS policies. 

            Following publication of Angel and the Beehive, Armand continued to think about the assimilation and retrenchment issue for the LDS Church over succeeding years.  Generally speaking, in the case of new or radical religious organizations, complete resistance or uncompromising retreat from changes demanded by the outside world can result in destruction of the group by the larger society, extreme isolation, failure to attract or even maintain members, or internal schism and division, as some group members break away to retain their purity while others continue along the path of compromise and ultimate assimilation.  

            Another possibility, however, is to find an acceptable middle ground in which a certain amount of tension between group and society continues; the group wants to maintain certain distinctions, but not so much that the group is in danger of being suppressed into extinction or so little that the group simply morphs into a bland version of already existing groups in the larger world.  Since change in modern societies is axiomatic, this middle ground path must continually be monitored and adjusted to maintain an “optimum” balance of tension between social compromise and group distinctiveness.  In a 2011 Dialogue article, Armand reconsidered his retrenchment thesis in this light and concluded that for the previous two decades “LDS general authorities [had] gradually introduced a series of changes in church policy that have had the cumulative effect of pulling the pendulum of ecclesiastical culture back somewhat from the retrenchment mode and toward assimilation.” 

            In this analysis, Armand identified the partial reversal of retrenchment (swinging of the pendulum back to more assimilating compromise) as occurring primarily in the areas of (1) LDS scriptural and doctrinal understandings, (2) gender and family policies, (3) issues of homosexuality, and (4) rapprochement with independent scholarship in Mormon studies.  Armand was careful to qualify his observations by saying “I haven’t yet gathered the kind of systematic data needed for reliable conclusions.  Nor am I claiming there has been a wholesale rollback of retrenchment policies, but only some relatively modest ‘course corrections.’”

            As it happened, Gordon and I were in a position to generate empirical results that could test Armand’s new “course correction” hypothesis as a corollary to his earlier assimilation and retrenchment thesis.  We did this by carrying out a 30-year update (1980-2009) of our original content analysis of General Conference addresses. In so doing, we formulated specific empirical tests of LDS leader’s changing emphasis on themes that represented most of the areas Armand had predicted would swing away from retrenchment concerns back towards greater accommodation and reduction of social tension. Our results were consistent with Armand’s expectations and thus lend some empirical support, previously lacking, for his “course correction” hypothesis.  (See the 2nd edition of our retitled A Kingdom Transformed: Early Mormonism and the Modern LDS Church.  2016, University of Utah Press, pp.202-04; 2011-28.)

            Our own unsystematic observations of more recent changes in LDS Church policies—during the later stage of President Monson’s presidency and the new and current presidency of President Nelson—indicate to us an ongoing set of pendulum swings between retrenchment and societal accommodation, perhaps seemingly a bit more in the direction of accommodation.  This especially seems true in such arenas as women’s’ status, rapprochement with professional scholarship, and doctrinal/historical exposition.  But policies continue to be much less accommodating on LGBT issues and decidedly less so on insistence of unquestioning compliance with directives claimed to be the product of current prophetic revelation.  Meanwhile, Armand, we can be sure, continues to surveil these organizational dynamics at play within the conceptual framework he has done so much to clarify for us. 

Book Review: Jake Johnson, MORMONS, MUSICAL THEATER, AND BELONGING IN AMERICA (Illinois, 2019)

By August 15, 2019

Once I wrote this sentence: “The musical Saturday’s Warrior might well be the most influential theological text within the church since Bruce R. McConkie’s strikingly assertive 1958 Mormon Doctrine.” At the time I stared at the line on my computer and then deleted them. It felt like the claim needed more unpacking that I was in a position to do at the moment. Thankfully, Jake Johnson has stepped forward to do that work. Here is a creative and often insightful reading of Mormon popular culture, a topic that certainly deserves this sort of attention.

Johnson’s argument is that musical theater has been particularly influential within the LDS church for two reasons.

First, Mormons embrace what Johnson calls a “theology of voice.” The spoken word is particularly influential among church members, he claims, because of the church’s emphasis upon prophecy. “Mormonism’s loquacious God,” says Johnson, delegates the power of his voice. (14) This phenomenon, which Mormon theologians have called “divine investiture,” dates back as far as Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in which God appointed Jesus to speak for him, and Jesus in turn made Joseph Smith a prophet. Smith then delegated that power to other authoritative figures. Though Johnson does not unpack this unfolding of prophecy as thoroughly as he might, this ecclesiology of delegation and appointment is for him preeminently an act of speech. Authority is expressed through echoing the language and even verbal style (that is, the voice) of those in authority, as David Knowlton has observed of the vocal patterns of the LDS testimony meeting.

This is, I think, a smart argument, and in an odd way I think it reveals the faith’s rootedness in American Protestantism, whose reliance on Scripture is always in an uneasy embrace with the verbal word of the preacher. Protestants produced innumerable manuals of preaching produced in nineteenth century America, and the ways in which they sought to reconcile the authority of the written word with the mass appeal of the verbal word are strikingly similar to the tensions of authority Johnson sees within Joseph Smith’s nascent movement. For instance, Johnson cites the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher, who dismissed the theater as “garish” and “buffoonery.” (58) But of course, Beecher was famous precisely for his skill in preaching, his theatrical, imposing presence behind the pulpit, and he had many ideas about the relationship between scripture, verbalization, and truth (most tending toward the liberal).

Johnson traces this impulse toward speech and investiture through Mormon history, spending much of his time with the famous “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in August 1844, at which Young, speaking to the gathered and confused faithful in the wake of the assassination of Joseph Smith, was said to have taken on the image and voice of Smith. For Johnson, this was an act of mimicry. Young was, as Johnson notes, known for love of acting and the theater, and Johnson believes he consciously took on Smith’s voice and affect in an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty and take on the mantle of the fallen prophet.

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Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought announces a new editor

By August 8, 2019

The Dialogue Foundation’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce that Taylor Petrey, Associate Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, has been appointed the next editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

Petrey holds a BA in philosophy and religion from Pace University, and both an MTS  and a Th.D. degree from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament and Early Christianity. He joined the faculty of Kalamazoo College in 2010 and served as the Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program from 2012 through 2016. He is currently chair of the Religion Department.

Petrey is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on Mormonism, gender, sexuality, and early Christian thought. His essay “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology” received Dialogues “Best Article” award in 2011 and has become one of the most downloaded and cited articles in the journal’s history.

“We are very excited that Taylor has agreed to become our next editor, said Dialogue Board chair Michael Austin. “He brings a profound understanding of some of the most crucial issues in Mormon Studies today–issues surrounding gender and sexuality, international Mormonism, interfaith connections, and inclusive theology. And he also understands what it takes to do academic publishing in the information age.”

Under Petrey’s leadership, Dialogue will enter its 54th year of publishing articles, personal essays, fiction, poetry, and sermons relating to the Mormon experience. Dialogue began publication in 1966 with Eugene England as its founding editor. Since that time, the journal has published four issues a year. 

In 2018, Dialogue moved the electronic version of its journal from a subscription-supported to a donor-supported publication model. All of its content is now free on the Internet from the moment of its publication. In 2020, Dialogue will begin partnering with the University of Illinois Press to produce the print edition of the journal and will make all of its past issues available through JSTOR and other electronic databases. 

“This is an exciting time for academic journals generally,” said BYU History Professor Rebecca de Schweinitz, a Dialogue Board member who co-chaired the search committee that recommended Petrey for the editorship. “And it is an especially exciting time for Mormon Studies. We need somebody at the helm who understands both the new audiences that have emerged and the new technologies needed to reach them. Taylor is an exemplary scholar with a deep understanding of the modern publishing world.” 

“I am thrilled to join Dialogue and to be a part of the legacy of this great journal,” says Petrey. “This journal reflects and shapes the best of Latter-day Saint thought, culture, and scholarship and I can’t wait to embark on the next phase of the LDS tradition’s premier intellectual and literary venue.” 

Petrey will replace Boyd Petersen, who has been Dialogue’s editor since 2016. Please join us in welcoming him to the team.  We appreciate your continued support of the journal.

Book Review: Harvard S. Heath, ed., CONFIDENCE AMID CHANGE: THE PRESIDENTIAL DIARIES OF DAVID O. MCKAY, 1951-1970 (Signature, 2019)

By January 18, 2019

Harvard Heath tells us in the introduction to his edited selections from the David O. McKay diaries that the complete diaries run some 40,000 pages long, about 15,000 pages of which are dated entries. The volume he produced here comprises, he estimates, about ten percent of those dated entries. He also includes a very few selections from the hand of other authors, most prominently Alvin Dyer. The McKay diary, of course, is as much a production of McKay’s longtime secretary Clare Middlemiss as of McKay himself; a fair number of its entries are in her voice, and much of the rest McKay dictated to her for transcription.

We thus owe Middlemiss a great debt, and historians might be further grateful that she left a copy of it to her nephew W. Robert Wright, who in turn donated it to the University of Utah. It’s that copy from which this volume has been assembled.

Heath chose, as he says, to emphasize “history, doctrine and entries showing the president’s administrative style.” (xiv)  This, of course, means that a historian interested in the full range of McKay’s presidency will want to slog through all 40,000 pages; though it would have been of course impossible to include all those entries here, the historian in me worries about what I might be missing. Nonetheless, the excerpts Heath has provided here are extremely valuable in their own right, and he deserves plaudits for making them accessible.

To the diaries themselves, and what they might reveal about the workings of Mormon leadership within the McKay administration. Heath points out in his introduction that McKay was something of a “bridge between centuries, with one eye on the future and another on the past.” (x) This is an apt description of the man who emerges in these pages. McKay seems to me a man blessed with an essentially generous, tolerant and open-hearted personality nonetheless rooted in the essentially parochial and conservative instincts of a late nineteenth century upbringing. He was refined and compassionate, easily touched by the needs of the marginalized (as witnessed by his repeated worries, shared with his counselors, that young Black boys would be embarrassed when their white friends received the priesthood while they themselves did not (452)—a concern that he nonetheless was reluctant to rectify). He wanted the Church to open and operate retirement homes for the indigent elderly. Yet at the same time he was comfortable dealing with presidents; his diaries record meetings with every president who served while McKay was in office. (McKay was most impressed with Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson; least with John F. Kennedy, whom he seems to have found callow—though, as on page 400, the gracious McKay consistently sent Kennedy his best wishes.)  

And yet, as noted in the aside above, McKay retained the suspicions and prejudices of his youth throughout his life. I was somewhat surprised by his consistently expressed hostility to Roman Catholicism, for instance. In these pages he names Roman Catholicism one of the two great threats to the LDS church, along with Communism; he accuses Roman Catholics of formulating conspiracies to undermine the strength of the LDS church in Utah; he states that the cross is an “outward” sign of ritualistic religion. On similar grounds he is dismayed when Minerva Teichert adds the hint of a halo to Christ in her artwork. (96, 196, 173) While his counselors Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner muse that perhaps men of African descent might be given the Aaronic priesthood, McKay worries that establishing church units in Nigeria would encourage young Nigerian men to come to BYU and hence foster interracial marriage. (404-5) He is certain that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and scoffs at the “cowardly” United Nations for its refusal to mention God in its charter. (15)

McKay at the same time maintained a courtliness and temperateness that begins to feel archaic even in the pages of the diary, as fewer and fewer of his comrades seem to share these values over time. These things gave him the charisma for which he is noted. They also stiffed his spine when it came to those things he regarded as gauche or inappropriate. He shared many of Ezra Taft Benson’s right wing political sensibilities; the diary clearly reveals that McKay was a conservative Republican with a suspicion of communism notable even for the mid-twentieth century. More, Benson was extraordinarily persistent with McKay, nagging the church president again and again for permission to deliver political speeches, to campaign for president or vice president on a third party ticket, to get more involved with the John Birch Society. Sometimes Benson asked for forgiveness rather than permission, and sometimes McKay turned a blind eye to Benson’s activities. But he could be firm when he wanted to be.  When the conservative segregationist George Wallace asked Benson to join him on a third party ticket for the presidency in 1968, McKay, at that point ninety-four and ailing, ordered Benson flatly “You should turn the offer down.” (742)  When Benson asked for permission to john the Birch council, McKay rejected him. (689)  McKay also went out of his way to make it clear that members of the Church could vote or serve in office as Democrats, ensuring that prominent Mormon Democrats did not feel alienated from the Church. This was critical for McKay, whose imperative toward comity and warmth was the truest expression of his Mormonism.

In his valuable history of Mormon leadership in McKay’s administration, Gregory Prince notes that McKay’s conciliatory personality led him to often be persuaded by whomever was last in his office. That tendency seems most pronounced toward the end of his life, when his ailments noticeably slowed him down. (The best example here is the comedy of errors surrounding Benson’s efforts to get a portrait of McKay on the cover of the magazine of the John Birch Society (640-644); McKay is talked into it by Benson and out of it by Mark E. Petersen, who is angry at Benson for suggesting the idea. Then Benson talks McKay into it again and back out by Petersen, and eventually the Church threatens to sue if the image is used.  Another is Bruce R. McConkie’s ability to persuade McKay to authorize republication of Mormon Doctrine, which a few years earlier McKay had stated should not be republished, on grounds as much related to the book’s stentorian tone, which the broad-minded McKay disliked, as to its doctrinal statements. (663))

McKay’s affability, though, also illustrates his essential vision of the Church as a warm community of people much like McKay himself.  The hominess of this vision contributes to his worry about the ability of Nigerians and other Africans to successfully integrate into it. It is also illustrated in the sentiment he feels toward his closest associates. Frequently throughout the diaries he gathers his closest advisors around him and weeps as he professes gratitude for their kindness and love. (as on 13)  He makes Joseph Fielding Smith a counselor in his First Presidency after a long night of swapping stories and memories of their long service together. (619) Near his death he begs Middlemiss to never leave his side. (748) He gathered talented people to him—Hugh Brown, Stephen Richards, Middlemiss, Mark Garff—and their loyalty evidenced his leadership abilities.

This sentiment also meant that McKay was manifestly uncomfortable with the growth and bureaucratization of the church over which he presided. He frequently urged General Authorities to avoid using administrators and secretaries to do their work, telling them that “personal work” required their own involvement. (29)  He repeatedly urged the Quorum of the Twelve to seek agreement and unity. He reluctantly went along with the creation of a new layer of ecclesiastical bureaucrats—Area Authorities—but worried that they would contribute to greater distance between the leadership and laity of the church.

By the end of his life, somewhat ironically, McKay was incapacitated enough that his diary entries have become largely records of those other leaders—Brown, Garff, Joseph Fielding Smith, Middlemiss—presenting him with ideas which he gave pro forma approval to. The community of leaders he had assembled around himself and trusted deeply were capable, but they were also birthing a new church, one far more expansive, globalized, diverse, and administrative than McKay was comfortable with. Yet it was perhaps his gift to allow such a thing, so against his own sentiments, to emerge.

“Male and Female: A Proclamation.” Three Points From the History and Sociology of Religion

By January 14, 2019

It appears that a person or persons unknown have been circulating a document in at least one ward building in Utah. Entitled “Male and Female: A Proclamation,” the document repudiates recent alterations to the language of the various temple ceremonies, particularly the endowment and the sealing rituals. The document particularly targets those alterations made to language about gender. It’s been widely reported that these alterations move the ceremony toward greater gender egalitarianism.
This document was left in the lobby of an LDS chapel in South Jordan, Utah.

There are a number of points which could be made about 1) the alterations themselves, and 2) this document, but I want to restrict myself to three.

First: perhaps the primary word the document uses to describe gender relations is “submission.”  It argues that “worldly understandings of equality are completely contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . this pattern of humble submission applies to and reflects the eternal nature, relationship, and order between male and female, and between God, husband, wife and children.” It also uses New Testament language about “heads,” arguing that mean are placed in authority over women.

This is interesting language insofar as it is far more common in recent American evangelical discourse than it is in LDS discourse.[1] As is sometimes said of Mormons, there are perhaps as many versions of evangelical theology as there are evangelicals. Some evangelicals, however, advocate “complementarian” theology, which maintains that men and women are irreducibly different and hence interprets marriage as creation of a wholeness greater than the two parts separately. This is not language unfamiliar to Mormons, though the word “complementarian” is far more common among evangelicals than it is in the LDS church.

Some complementarians, further, emphasize the concept of “headship,” as derived from the pastoral letters of the New Testament (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and sometimes Ephesians). As they interpret it, “headship” means that women are equal before God, but that men are to hold “headship” over women. Where exactly this “headship” applies is a matter for debate: some evangelicals would say only in the home; others would say it applies everywhere.

Further, some headship complementarians draw on the New Testament language of submission. If a man’s role is “head,” they argue, than a woman’s role is to “submit.” What exactly “submission” means is up for debate. Some evangelicals have argued that it means that women should not seek to alter their husbands and should submit to his will, arguing, as does “Male and Female,” that Christ’s submission to his Father’s will is the necessary model. They argue that the natural differences between men and women make such a relationship the most successful. Others argue that there is no natural hierarchy between men and women, but that God intends for women to voluntarily submit. Other complementarians who define headship more narrowly argue for “mutual submission” between husband and wife.  

That this document draws on this language, which, as I’ve said, is not common in LDS discourse, indicates its authors have some familiarity with contemporary evangelical discourse about gender. As J. Stapley notes, Colleen McDannell’s recent Sister Saints (Oxford, 2018) points out that the LDS church has been pulling away from the sort of detailed and explicit language about patriarchy as complementarian and headship rhetoric embrace.

Second: This document advocates a primitivist vision of Mormonism.  Primitivism is hardly an uncommon rhetoric at work in the broad sweep of Mormon history; nor it is uncommon in Christian history more generally. Primitivists believe that truth was once present on the earth (in many possible forms; some primitivists cite an ideal church, some a perfect scripture, some perfect authority) but has been corrupted and hence requires renewal and revitalization. They tend to view change as destructive. This document makes that argument with reference to the temple endowment ceremonies, arguing that the words of the endowment “were correctly revealed in sacred temple ordinances to the prophet Joseph Smith Jr,” and that the endowment ceremony contained the “words spoken by the mouths of The Father, The Son, Adam and Eve” before these changes. This is an unprovable claim, in part because no written record of the endowment ceremony as Joseph Smith originally instituted it exists (the ceremony was transmitted orally for decades). But it is a theological claim which draws upon the primitivist impulse.

What scholars call the “church-sect” typology is common in the sociology of religion. It argues to radically oversimplify that a “church” is a religious group comfortable in the society in which it finds itself; a “sect,” conversely, is a group at odds with its surrounding world. Sociologist Armand Mauss has famously argued that the LDS church has cycled back and forth along the church-sect spectrum throughout its history.[2] Many Mormon fundamentalist groups which separated from the modern LDS church can thus easily be read as sects discontented with the LDS church’s decisions that have propelled it toward church-dom. Most famously, of course, many such groups abandoned the LDS church in reaction to the end of polygamy.

Less famously, but equally compelling in this case, was fundamentalist Joseph Jensen’s famous Salt Lake Tribune advertisement denouncing Spencer W. Kimball’s decision to end the racially based restrictions on priesthood ordination and temple worship in 1978. As does “Male and Female,” this document invokes primitivist arguments that the LDS church was abandoning its scripture, the intent of its founders, and so on. As does “Male and Female,” Jensen’s argument maintained that contemporary LDS leaders were seeking the approval of “the world,” classic sect language lambasting churches, sociologically speaking.

Third: The material culture of “Male and Female” is fascinating. It apes popular versions of the church’s famous 1990s proclamations “The Family” and “The Living Christ” sold in church outlets like Deseret Book in font, in layout, and in design. This indicates, I think, something I’ve argued elsewhere: the extent to which contemporary Mormon piety is deeply marked by the aesthetics of the white American middle class—so much so that the author(s) of “Male and Female” see such design and layout as a signal of spiritual authority.

In total, “Male and Female” may (and likely, will) have very little impact on the course of the LDS church generally. Indeed, its authors may already be part of a fundamentalist group. Regardless, the document reflects significant trends in American religious history generally and Mormon history in particular.

[1] Some recent examples I found useful include R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (UNC, 1997) Alan Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Baker, 2011); Mark and Grace Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship and Life Together (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Intervarsity, 2010).

[2] Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Illinois, 1994).

Summer Book Club: On Zion’s Mount, chapter 4

By July 19, 2018

This is the fourth installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). You can view previous installments herehere, here and here. Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment. Please follow the JI on your social media of choice.

We have in the previous few chapter reviews followed the major theme of the first section of Farmer’s book: the dominance of lakes in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of the early Mormon colonists in the eastern edge of the Great Basin. The lake was a source of fish and conflict, just as the Great Salt Lake was a center of both recreation and source of holiness, as its tributaries were used for baptism and bathing. But in the late nineteenth century, Farmer argues, the lakes of the Mormons’ valleys began to be culturally displaced by mountains.

Part of this displacement was drive by necessity: overfishing and irrigation and conflict and pollution sapped the value of the lakes. It was also abetted by culture; the fictive memory of a desert valley allowed the Saints to imagine themselves as fulfillers of Isaianic prophecy. But, for the purposes of chapter 4, the shift matters because it cleared the way for the rise of mountains in Mormon culture.

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Scholarly Inquiry: W. Paul Reeve, A Century of Black Mormons Project

By June 29, 2018

W. Paul Reeve is Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. He directs the digital history project “Century of Black Mormons.”

This weekend the University will sponsor “Black, White and Mormon II,” the second conference on race in the modern LDS Church the University’s Mormon Studies initiative has sponsored.  We approached Reeve with a number of questions about the “Century of Black Mormons” project.

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By May 21, 2018

Leonard Arrington loved people. “From as early as I can remember, I had a positive attitude toward people,” he wrote several years into his retirement. (3:645) Elsewhere he mused that had he not ended up a historian, “I would have been drawn into politics and would have done well, I think.” (3:133) Arrington was a handshaker and a backslapper, a gossip and a bearer of Christmas gifts. He was an extrovert, an inveterate socializer (out of the house four or five nights a week, some weeks, driven forward by a positive starvation for conversation that seems to have exhausted his wife Grace at times), and a manager loved by his subordinates for his care and supportiveness, if not his bureaucratic acumen.

Arrington’s delight in and longing for community was not simply a matter of temperament. It was a matter of theology. It was his Mormonism. That is not, of course, normally the theme his story is given. The diaries certainly document the better-known story; the fascinating account of Arrington’s service in what is variously called the Church Historian’s Office or Church History Division of the church’s Historical Department (a larger bureaucratic umbrella that also included the church’s archives and the department operating the church’s historic sites). Arrington’s appointment, initiated by First Presidency member N. Eldon Tanner with the support of church presidents Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, came with a new mandate. Arrington and his staff were to research and publish material on the history of the Latter-day Saints. As his ten years in the job went on, the jovial Arrington was baffled when he found his work increasingly criticized, his office monitored, his subordinates questioned and their publications scrutinized for reasons he could never quite understand.

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