Christian Common Sense and the Shape of Mormonism

By January 4, 2010

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? [1]. 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?

[1] 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).


  1. Ryan –

    I think your post is brilliant (don’t believe I have said that on any blog before). Thirty-five years ago, I was your grandfather’s research assistant at BYU. Dr. Tobler had me read anti-Mormon pamphlets, and it was under his direction that I first saw one of the Van Deusen temple exposés with its wood-cut illustration of Brigham Young dancing ring-around-the-rosy with a semi-clad young lovely in the temple.

    During that same era, I recall Jane Crawford (later, Dr. Jane Crawford Muratore, a UCLA administrator), a Catholic and a close personal friend, teaching a course at BYU in which she emphasized the importance of grace in Medieval theology. She emphasized GRACE by enunciating the word loudly, writing it in block letters on the board and circling it, with fragments of chalk shattering to the floor. Clearly, she felt certain frustrations that you have articulated well. The questions you pose are superb. I have tried to pursue them for many years, and it will be interesting to see what readers have to say.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — January 5, 2010 @ 12:31 am

  2. You ask, “How else has Mormonism leaned on other Christian conceptions?” I would add that early Mormonism seemed to take for granted the Christian conception of unity between God the Father and Jesus Christ. Now, after a century of promoting the message of the First Vision as a lesson in the distinct corporality of the Father and the Son, we are today hearing Elder Holland reiterating the theme of their oneness.

    I would also add that early Mormonism seemed to assume a large quantity of manifestations of diverse spiritual gifts (i.e., speaking in tongues). Today, we seem to have de-emphasized this. This issue has been addressed, of course, by Elder McConkie’s ell-known statement that, when you count up the number of priesthood blessings and healings that regularly occur across the worldwide Church, the Church is a very active outlet for spiritual manifestations.

    Thanks for this, Ryan T. I suppose that what you say (about how major Christian underpinnings that were taken for granted in the early LDS Church have been subsequently downplayed) was something I instinctively knew, but something that I would have never been able to actually articulate. So, again, thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — January 5, 2010 @ 3:35 am

  3. An absolutely fascinating post. I’m still not sure what I think of the underlying premise, though. In some ways, it seems almost counter-intuitive that an underlying belief can be so widely-held that it scarcely bares mention, and thus becomes, in the next generation, less widely (or strongly) held than a competing belief. Raises some very interesting implications.

    Comment by Randy B. — January 5, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  4. I’ll echo Rick and thank you for this “brilliant” post; it raises interesting questions, and offers a unique framework and avenue that I haven’t really seen engaged.

    Regarding your first point, I can definitely see how a turnover in generations can lead to a loss of previously foundational, if silent, idea of grace. I can see how a work like Parley Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology, an over-200 page treatise that is undergirded by an atonement theory yet has less than a dozen pages that discusses Christ, can lead to an Amasa Lyman who claims the atonement is not necessary. (There are definitely a lot more factors going into Lyman’s theology, but I think there could be some connection there.) I bet works like Widtsoe’s Rational Theology could also be pointed to as something in a similar vein: we are somewhat shy of it today because we don’t see it as “Christ-focused” as we are used to.

    There is, of course, and I’m sure you’d agree with me, a danger in putting too much emphasis on what goes silent, no matter how much an idea was taken for granted; what we choose to emphasize is often at, if not close to, the heart of what we believe. Especially with someone like Joseph Smith who was such a theological iconoclast during the Nauvoo period, it seems like his emphasis on differences was at the center of his message. I see him in Nauvoo as basically proclaiming Protestantism had got it mostly wrong.

    And then there is the tricky task of determining (from relatively silent sources) what those ideologies were when they weren’t emphasized. I’m thinking evidence would be tough to come by for some of these “unwritten assumptions.”

    But, these are important questions, and I think we need to really consider them.

    Comment by Ben — January 5, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  5. Thanks for your reflections, Rick. My grandfather has an outstanding memory…next time I see him I’ll mention you to him.

    And Hunter, I think, these are excellent further examples of the kind of phenomena that I mean.

    Randy B: I’m not totally sure yet what I think of the underlying premise either. Thank you for your insights.

    Ben: Nice critique. I do agree with you that the silent is very close to the nonexistent. You emphasize (along with Shipps, so you’re in good company) that Mormonism was primarily a departure from traditional Christianity, and there’s plenty of evidence that shows that to be so (I certainly cede authority to you on Joseph’s Nauvoo discourses). And yet I can’t shake the idea that without an established bulwark of Christianity, Mormonism would look much different. To some extent, perhaps we can understand the (widespread) separatist language in its role as evangelizing or polemic rhetoric. And if we can acknowledge that exterior anti-Mormon dialogue helped shape Mormonism, perhaps other exterior influences helped shape it too.

    So yes, fascinating point: are these points of belief like genetics, where information can be present but unexpressed (“recessive ideology,” perhaps), or do important beliefs always display themselves?

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 5, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  6. Ben, I also meant to acknowledge your examples in Key to the Science of Theology, Amasa Lyman, and Rational Theology. To me they seem very relevant to this discussion.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 5, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

  7. Interesting post. I would not put “grace,” if you mean by this that humans are saved through the grace of God alone and not through any human act, as one of those Christian ideologies that remained uncontested during the early 19th century. Although grace remained a basic tenet of Christian theology, the experiences of Americans was putting to the test the very notion that one’s actions did not have a direct effect on one’s standing with God. After all, one’s actions clearly now affected one’s social, economic and political standing. Charles Finney explicitly undermined the concept of grace when he demanded that the sinner stop sinning and once all Americans achieved perfection the millennium would come. Joseph Smith’s conflicted views on grace are a reflection of the conflicted views held by many Americans, in my opinion, and nothing new.

    Comment by Janet Ellingson — January 5, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

  8. This has to be one of the best threads of discussion (to my taste) on a Mormon blog that I have seen. I surely appreciate everyone’s insights thus far, and Janet Ellingson reminds us not to forget broader contexts while exploring the rich particulars of our past.

    It’s like the situation of the stable dog that didn’t bark when the prize horse was removed from its stall (in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze,” mentioned by Bill Mackinnon so effectively in another context a few years ago): that which is familiar or presumed often goes unnoticed. We are challenged constantly to be aware of certain underlying doctrinal assumptions or tensions which might otherwise seem extraneous and esoteric ? so basic to our thought (or else so perennially controversial) that we sometimes overlook or ignore the obvious.

    “. . . [T]he culture of that period,” observes Richard Bushman of the earlier nineteenth century, “bore directly on the success of the young church under Joseph Smith’s leadership. People would never be able to grasp theological ideas that were entirely foreign to them. They would need a basic preparation for the Prophet’s revelations, making the cultural environment crucial to understanding how the Restoration came about.” ?Richard Lyman Bushman, “The Archive of Restoration Culture, 1997-2002.” Brigham Young University Studies 45 (issue 4; 2006), 99.

    Ryan’s post made such an impression on me last night that I tried to think of additional doctrinal concepts which might be applicable. I confess that this is a somewhat new way of thinking for me, but here are ten examples which I feel were strong 1) in general Christianity of Joseph Smith’s early experience, as well as 2) either in the Book of Mormon or earliest Mormonism (or both); which may have received less self-conscious attention among Latter-day Saints afterward, but which are now being emphasized more strongly in some Mormon thought and literature:

    Infinite atonement
    Divine condescension
    Depravity of natural mankind (in spite of the fortunate fall of Adam)
    Faith vs. absolute “knowing”
    Redeeming love/singing the song of redeeming love
    All alike unto God
    Tree of Life personification(s)
    Presently-unknowable yet essential mysteries of Godliness/Godhood/Deity
    Dangers of increasing atheism

    Comment by Rick Grunder — January 5, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

  9. Check out Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice. Bourdieu calls the unspoken norms the doxa which only are put into words when they are challenged. However, Bourdieu argues that the doxa are passed from one generation to the next and would not be lost without much discussion.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 5, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  10. I think your point is perceptive, Janet; certainly I agree that the experience of Americans was challenging their appreciations of grace (at least in the sense of their being “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”). On the other side of things, though, I guess I would point to the surge of evangelical revival as evidence of the enduring need for grace, with its emphasis on God as sole proprietor of salvation. Finney, though, did introduce a new human component with his ideas about accelerating the Millennium and staging revivals.

    Thanks for the reference, Steve. Doxa! I assume from the title that Bourdieu is focusing on practice, performance, ritual; how would he approach ideas that have a more ambiguous connection to performative acts or distinct practices? Guess I’ll have to look it up.

    I also want to clarify something that is present but nebulous in my post. I’m trying to draw a distinction between two societies: Mormons and surrounding Christians. They coexist but are separate. My suggestion is that perhaps Mormons are borrowing (subconsciously?) from the other side of a fence – from Christian ideology – and that is the reason why it does not appear in Mormon theology. Maybe we’re on the wrong track with “recessive ideology” (if this is even possible). Perhaps these ideas are invisible (or absent) from Mormonism now because they they were once provided by a neighboring sphere of Christian thought that has now grown distant.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 5, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

  11. Bourdieu isn’t focussing on formal ritual so much as he is knowledge through practice, the things we do.

    I think you’re on to something in terms of contact with other Christians and the problem of what might be called self-imposed ghettoisation. In my recent studies of other Christianities it has become clear how poorly we Mormons often understand other theologies and that we generally create caricatures of other beliefs. I grew up in Utah and thus had almost no contact with other belief systems. The mission was useful, but then we were often engaging in polemic and thus seeking to reinforce the caricatures. But it was clear that by the time this Mormon got to Dallas, I had a vastly different vocabulary from all the Baptists.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 5, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  12. There you go, Steve. That’s closer, I think, to what I’d like to get at. Should have steered clear of “ideology” altogether…it always gets messy.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 5, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  13. This is going to be a good read. For me, 19thC. Mormonism was very much about Americanism: Building a Zion, building a family, paying your own way to Heaven by hard work (Works). Grace was not a core part. Jesus did not have the main role…YOU did. It was still that way in the 60s. Works- Works! Grace was a silly idea of non-Mormons. The only way to sit at the side of God was by hard work (Works) and living a clean (Worthy) life.

    Comment by Bob — January 5, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  14. Thanks, Ryan, for this great post. I’ve often wondered myself about how we as members of the church approach certain doctrines that coincide with other Christian sects, and I feel as though you’ve eloquently captured such considerations. Wonderful.

    Comment by Ardis S. — January 5, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

  15. Apologies, Rick. Somehow I missed your post and contributions. I think in general your observations about newly emphasized doctrines are spot on, and some of them, I think, are returns to a state of knowledge that existed earlier in American Christianity.

    Thank you Bob and Ardis for your insights.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 6, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  16. Ryan, I’ll add my own note of appreciation for this well thought out and written post. In regards to grace, I’ve noticed the gradual return of grace into our vocabulary, and our own somewhat unique understanding of grace and its relation to works over the last two or three decades.

    I wanted to respond to this question, though: “What do we take for granted and central now that will become foreign and peripheral to subsequent generations?”

    One great example that I believe is already becoming foreign and peripheral is polygamy. Growing up when I did in the 50’s and 60’s, polygamy was not that far removed, and when the word was mentioned, it primarily was associated as being a part of our theology. 30 years on, and the word polygamy seems to be more often mentioned in terms of the fundamentalist/apostate groups, or as a historical reference, and not as a relevant part of our own culture. What once was familiar has become for the most part foreign.

    Comment by kevinf — January 6, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

  17. #16: I am going to pick a safe one: large Mormon families. For my parents, a large Mormon family was 10,12, or 14 kids. Now, it’s 4-7(?) I would guess, in the future, we will see an even more average number defining a Mormon family.

    Comment by Bob — January 6, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

  18. Ryan–great ideas. I think one probably has to account for differing emphases within “Mormon” doctrine by individual converts, already among the earliest Saints. It seems likely to me that the primacy of grace was contested territory, even very early. In fact, it seems possible that “official doctrine” was an even shakier category in the early church than it is now, so to speak of “the doctrine” is always a little reductive. For evidence of differing perceptions of where Mormons ought to come down in the grace and works debate, one might look at one of Emma Smith’s hymnals in comparison to the ones W.W. Phelps compiled, or the Manchester hymnal that become the dominant one. (Only one of them contains “Amazing Grace,” for instance).

    Comment by Kristine — January 7, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  19. Kristine is absolutely right. Those LDS from Methodism tended to be more “Arminian,” and it’s true that most members of these “populist” groups tended to be anti-Calvinist, but it’s also the case that various groups, including Baptists, independent believers, and lapsed Presbygationalists would still have some sympathy for a more Calvinistic view.

    It’s also important to remember that our (late 20th-cent) specific flavor of grace vs. works is not actually identical even to theirs.

    Some would suggest that Mormonism doesn’t even really fit well into this current notion of grace vs. works, particularly because what we mean by works has evolved so substantially. And how does metaphysical priesthood integrate into grace vs. works? It’s sort of a metaphysical variant of grace, isn’t it? Or is the sacerdotalism somehow integrated into works?

    I’d be careful to distinguish pietism in its variants (what most of us now mean by works) from sacramentalism or sacerdotalism, which the early LDS believed at least in part (that’s certainly the model JSJ was preaching).

    Comment by smb — January 7, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  20. Sorry, finally read the whole post. I think that the reading of grace as commonsensical hence not preserved is actually historically incorrect for a lot of Mormonism that derived directly from JSJ. not entirely wrong, as there are many different Mormonisms in that early period, but grace being commonsensical is a problem for that period. Many LDS and other populists were relatively strongly against grace as a remnant of outmoded Calvinism.

    Comment by smb — January 7, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  21. To an extent, smb, I think your point is well made. There certainly was a (fairly strong) reaction against Calvinism and its dogmatic elements. But I think you erase grace from the picture too much. Consider Brooks Holifield’s treatment of the debate over grace between Methodists and Calvinists [1]. He is careful to show that although Methodists reacted against Calvinist conceptions of grace, they did not stray too far from it; they nuanced their understanding of grace to make room for some voluntary action. See also his section on “Populist Calvinism,” which suggests that populism and hyper-Calvinism could actually coexist. Baptist theology, he says, was divided on this point, but was generally “an unstable mix of hyper-Calvinist tradition, immediate revelation, and cultural resentment [2]. Finally, although Methodists, Baptists, and others were rejecting Calvinism, they were also up against growing Unitarianism and Universalism, which taught pure moral choice. This kept, I think, mainstream evangelicals from straying too far from a gracious God. So were they “against” grace? Seems to me that grace still retained substantial purchase and key status despite initiatives that sought to temper it, which puts me in line with your initial statement.

    [1] E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America (New Haven: Yale UP, 2003), 268.
    [2] Ibid., 286-290.

    Comment by Ryan T — January 7, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  22. Great point, Kristine, that talking about Mormon belief in general is reductive. I do wonder if your point about the permeability of Mormon doctrine might have actually make it easier for other Christian doctrines to intermix and hold sway.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 7, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  23. I think there was another issue in the air (besides Grace and Works). That was Priesthood.
    Can one be saved without Ordinances that can only be obtained by using a Priesthood?

    Comment by Bob — January 7, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

  24. Fine observations Ryan. Early Mormonism was surely bathed in a certain commonality of Protestantism. But I think as Joseph developed his theology, it was the distinctiveness that was emphasized. And I think grace in particular was buried in priesthood. In Utah, this transition was completed in the gradual reformulation of temple theology. Quite a few of the commenters have noted the post-millennial theology that was at work. Mormonism at least imbibed some of this and on some levels that is anti-grace.

    Finally, by Utah, much of the Mormon population was British/European. A wonderful mix of social/religious tradition came with them to help form an interpretation of Joseph Smith’s revelations in Utah. That, among other effects were much less important among the other Saints who didn’t come west. Thanks for this Ryan.

    Comment by WVS — January 10, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  25. Thanks Ryan. I don’t have anything to add, but good food for thought.

    Comment by Jared T — January 11, 2010 @ 1:00 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…”