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.”
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.” 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.” 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” 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.” 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.
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.
 Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia 40:2 (2008): 2.
 Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 17.
 Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 15.
 Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” 23.