Bowman on “The Crisis of Mormon Christology”

By January 13, 2009

I picked up the latest issue of Fides et Historia last week and was pleased to find an article by JI’s own Matt Bowman. The paper, entitled “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” is an expansion of what Matt initially presented at the 2007 Summer Seminar, and examines “how Mormon visions of Christ changed during a period in which their experience of culture was simultaneously destructive and creative: the tumultuous years around the turn of the century, which witnessed both the destruction of polygamy (and the utopian society it represented) and a forcible reconciliation with the United States.”[1]

Bowman argues that the Jesus of Mormonism has historically been constructed by Latter-day Saints in various ways in response to their surrounding culture. In the 1880s, “Mormonism was “isolationist and theocratic, disdainful of American society and fervently directed toward a literal reproduction of heaven on earth-achieved through the social order of Polygamy.”[2] Central to the creation of this divinely ordained social order were covenant relationships that bound the Saints together into one large family with their Elder Brother, Jesus at the head. “It follows then,” Bowman explains, “that nineteenth century Mormons sought to interpret Christ’s life and work in the context of the anthropology, covenants, and ordinances that they believed both described and won exaltation.”[3] This Christ was described most clearly in John Taylor’s 1882 The Mediation and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the next three four decades, however, Mormonism underwent a difficult and significant transition that saw the demise of plural marriage, the statehood of Utah, and the general move towards the mainstream of American society. As the identifying characteristics of Mormonism changed during this era, so too did the Christ Mormons worshipped.

Mormon thinkers, including B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, and Osborne Widstoe, drew upon the writings of both conservative and liberal Protestant theologians in an effort to construct a Jesus that not only was fit for worship in this new era of Mormonism, but also that spoke to large issues confronting Christianity in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (biblical criticism, scientific advancement, and increasing poverty, to name a few). Together with the Mormon canon of scripture, these “Mormons thus combined the methodology of conservative evangelical Protestants with the concerns of the scholars of the liberal school”[2] and produced a distinct Christology that simultaneously returned to an earlier emphasis on the Christ of the New Testament and his miraculous nature and “baptized [the] evolutionary thought … of thinker like Herbert Spencer and John Fiske.”[3] This new Jesus was both the divine Savior of the world and the perfect example humans ought to emulate. Bowman thus concludes that

Mormon thinkers had preserved distinctly Mormon ways of thinking about Christ, salvation, the afterlife, and atonement through the trials of the loss of polygamy and the challenge of assimilation to a Protestant American culture. This achievement was based on their appropriation of the language of the latter to fill the gaps of the former. They began a transformation from a “Christ against culture” toward a “Christ of culture,” refashioning their faith’s soteriology in terms that Mormons newly integrated into an American culture of individualism and effort could embrace.[4]

Bowman’s work is significant, I think, for a few reasons:

  • It’s very inclusion in this journal represents a step further in the mainstreaming of Mormon studies and of the field’s acceptance by the larger scholarly community. This is the first article treating Mormonism that Fides et Historia has ever published [ed. note: It has been brought to my attention that while this is the first article on Mormon history that Fides et Historia has published, an issue from 2007 included a review essay by John Turner entitled “Believing History, Believing Joseph Smith”].
  • Matt’s paper engages intellectual and religious history in a theologically-informed way.
  • It is exactly the sort of methodologically-informed history that Mormon studies so desperately needs (and that Matt himself called for at last year’s MHA). It speaks to larger issues, and successfully situates Mormonism within a comparative religious studies framework, analyzing various strands of Protestant thought during the Progressive Era.  

[1] Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia 40:2 (2008): 2.

[2] Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 17.

[3] Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 15.

[4] Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 23.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Congratulations, Matt! And thanks for the write-up, Christopher.

    Comment by Edje — January 13, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  2. Bravo! Thanks for posting this, Chris.

    Comment by Elizabeth — January 13, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  3. Thanks for the write-up Chris; I remember hearing Matt deliver this paper at the summer seminar, and was waiting to see it appear in print.

    As a note of confession: Matt’s paper was one of a few pieces of scholarship that led me to fall in love with intellectual history.

    Comment by Ben — January 13, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  4. Best piece on LDS views of Salvation at the turn of the 20th century that exists. Period. Good job Matt.

    Comment by Jacob B. — January 13, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  5. Interesting. I’d not thought about the focus on covenants as tied to the political realities of the 19th century.

    That said I think that the last 50 years has seen a paucity of thinking about our Christology. Blake Ostler’s books have changed this somewhat as have Robinson, Millet and others (to varying degrees of rigour). I wonder what will come out of this thinking since thus far few regular members have really engaged with it.

    Comment by Clark — January 13, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  6. Congratulations, Matt! Sounds like fascinating stuff! Interesting that Mormon thinkers drew from both conservative and liberal Protestant theologians. It might be interesting to explore how this maps movement-wise onto the development of Mormon theology in the twenty-first century. (I’m thinking of things like the liberal trend of the early century, the “fundamentalist” reaction in the latter half of the century, and the development of “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy” in the past few decades.) Maybe you do that in your paper; I don’t know. I’ll have to pick up a copy.



    Comment by Chris Smith — January 13, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

  7. Congrats Matt. I’ve delved a bit into this Journal and I am not sure that I have figured it out yet. But I always find you writing brilliant, and look forward to reading this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 13, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  8. Chris Smith,

    I don’t want to scoop Matt’s response here, but the concluding section of Matt’s paper does discuss the move towards neo-orthodoxy in Mormonism.

    I didn’t want to summarize all of the details of Matt’s argument here. Anyone interested really should get their hands on a copy of his article.

    Comment by Christopher — January 13, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  9. Well, thanks, everybody. I am flattered Christopher put this thread up. Ben and Jacob particularly – that’s quite kind of you.

    Clark – I agree.

    Chris – Christopher is correct; briefly, I argue that the rise of Mormon neo-orthodoxy was in part a response to increasingly adventurous theology of Protestant liberals. The emergence of Shailer Mathews-style modernism sacrificed those literalisms upon which Mormon theology rests.

    Comment by matt b — January 13, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

  10. Hey, congrats, Matt. At least one of us has done something productive with that seminar research. 😉

    Comment by David G. — January 14, 2009 @ 11:32 am

  11. I really liked how Matt showed Mormon appropriation of Social Gospel thought/liberal Protestantism (themes like the “the fatherhood of God” and “the brotherhood of man”)to reinforce distinctly Mormon understandings of human redemption, like eternal progression (obviously, Social Gospel theologians did not advocate eternal progression). I remember reading Richard Ian Kimball’s book, Sports in Zion, and being shocked at statements by LDS prophets that sounded like they could have been written by a liberal Protestant like Walter Rauschenbusch. I didn’t know what to make of them before I read Matt’s article.

    For years (okay, since 2004 when I first began reading the journal), I have thought that Fides readers would benefit from dialogue with Mormon historians who attempt to navigate faith and the historical method. While not part of Restoration tradition himself, John Turner’s review of Bushman’s Believing History is a good step in this direction. I think a good comparative article that looked at both evangelical historians and Mormon historians could be enlightening. Fides seems like the right venue for this.

    Comment by David Howlett — January 14, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  12. David Howlett,

    I agree with your suggestion that Fides readers would benefit from dialogue with Mormon historians, and would add to it that Mormon historians would benefit equally as much. Someone should suggest to Paul Kerry, Richard Bushman, Mark Noll, and Brad Gregory that their recent session at AHA might make for an interesting and insightful roundtable discussion of sorts for Fides.

    Comment by Christopher — January 14, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  13. I wrote the editor at Fides and made your suggestion, Chris.

    I, for one, would love to see more LDS participation in the pages of Fides and especially at the Conference of Faith and History biannual meeting.

    Comment by John Turner — January 14, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  14. And Kuklick’s comments are always fun. If I’m remembering right, he’s the one that called Bushman’s belief in Lamanites “madcap” in his review of Believing History. Kuklick was also a major critic of Marsden’s Christian approach to history.

    Comment by David G. — January 14, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

  15. Awesome. Thanks, John. And I think you’re right about Kuklick, David.

    Comment by Christopher — January 14, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  16. David, #10:

    Just for the sake of accuracy, I published my research in the Fall 2008 Dialogue. Dialogue is no Fides, but then again maybe that’s what you meant! 🙂

    Comment by Jacob B. — January 14, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  17. Ha! I had forgotten that, Jacob. So two of us have been productive with our research.

    Comment by David G. — January 14, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  18. I agree that a dialogue between evangelical and Mormon historians about the nature of history-writing would be quite fruitful. A couple years ago – right after I first binged out on Noll’s America’s God and Marsden’s Edwards biography – I put some first reflections on the issue down here. I still think that the two groups may be at cross purposes; the task of the evangelical historians seem to be cleansing the purity of the faith from the messiness of history, while Mormonism depends so much on those particulars.

    More recently, I’ve been following Robert Orsi’s thoughts on the issue, and as with so many other things, I think Mormons might be able to learn a great deal from the Catholic experience. Marian apparitions, after all, are not so different from the Angel Moroni. That is, all the angst around early Mormon truth claims may be a problem beyond the tools of modern history to solve.

    Comment by matt b — January 14, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  19. Matt, your thoughts on the evangelical historians are spot-on, and you’re correct that faithful evangelical and Mormon historians may work at cross purposes. I’m not sure, however, that evangelical historians would approach the subject of Christian origins all that differently that faithful Mormons approach Mormon origins. In any event, I think there’s plenty of room for mutual sympathy and engagement.

    Comment by John Turner — January 15, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  20. I hope Fides does publish that Bushman/Noll/Kuklick discussion; Paul Kerry spoke of it last night in class and described quite a lively dialogue.

    Comment by Ben — January 15, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  21. Bowman rocks. Can someone email me a PDF?

    JT: can you give us a sense for how that conference plays out?

    I’ve personally been fascinated by hearing a Protestant lay out providential history in its full glory–the Mormon interaction with providential history could be quite interesting, as, frankly, is all of providentialism. I’m still no postmodernist, but I do love the way providentialism represents a shared writing of history, with believers ghostwriting for God (or is it vice versa?). I’ve long felt in my own devotions that religion represents in part an attempt to include God in the stories of our lives, and providential history allows us to incorporate those microcosmic narratives into the macrocosm of human history.

    And for a supinated peace sign* toward Hitchkins (or Dawkling or whatever), the grand anthropic principle is in many respects merely the appropriation of providential history for dramatically more banal ends.

    *peace sign=palm forward; supinated peace sign = palm backward, same two fingers.

    Comment by smb — January 15, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  22. The CFH is held biannually, nearly always (as far as I know) at an evangelical college. The panels focus on: religious history; and the intersections between faith, providence, and history. In general, panels are very well attended, which I appreciate. In terms of shortcomings, some papers tend to be a bit parochial in focus and not attentive enough to broader trends in history and historiography.

    I’ve been thinking about how the CFH would react to submissions on LDS topics. I think the organization would be quite happy to convene such panels. I wonder if the demographics of the attendees would limit attendance/interest in LDS panels. I’m not sure. I think there would be great interest in panels exploring LDS views on the practice of history, faith and scholarship, etc. In a nutshell, I feel like the CFH would be enriched by dialogue with Mormon scholars.

    [Per your comment, Sam, most CFHers take a pretty dim view of providential views of history, not in the sense that God’s providential hand is not guiding history but that our limited, fallen minds have too much trouble discerning it].

    Comment by John Turner — January 15, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  23. Congrats, Matt! I look forward to reading it.

    Comment by Jared T. — January 16, 2009 @ 12:40 am

  24. Matt, an excellent perceptive piece. Congratulations.

    Comment by DavidH — January 24, 2009 @ 6:02 pm


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