Guest Post: Bradley Kime on Mormonism in Thomas Albert Howard’s God and the Atlantic

By July 11, 2013

Today, we are pleased to announce a guest post on our July theme,  Mormons and Politics, from Bradley Kime. Here is a brief bio from Bradley: 

I just graduated from BYU with a BA in History. My Phi Kappa Phi paper, “American Unitarians and the George B. English Controversy” will be published in Religion in the Age of Enlightenment next summer, and my capstone paper, “Exhibiting Theology: James E. Talmage and Mormon Public Relations, 1915-1920,” is under review. I’ll be heading up to Utah State in a few weeks to work with Phil Barlow on an MA in History. 

I just finished reading Thomas Albert Howard’s God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). It’s a brilliant book that touches on JI’s themes for this month and last (politics and the many images of Mormonism). Howard wrote it in response to what many perceive to be the growing trans-Atlantic political implications of American religiosity vis-a-vis European secularity. Howard’s take is that a long-standing elite European discourse on American religion, which he traces through the nineteenth-century and into the twentieth, has “left a sizable mark on the formative presuppositions” behind current policy differences and European perceptions of America. (200) In other words, he argues that elite European critiques of American religion in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries still impact trans-Atlantic political divisions in the twenty-first. And Mormonism seems to have been a particularly consistent target of those critiques. Along with some forays into the secularization and modernity debate, and the retrieval of two sympathetic commentators (Phillip Schaff and Jacques Maritain) from Tocqueville’s shadow, this is primarily a book about negative images of American religion as peddled by its cultured despisers across the pond.

Before I get to the Mormonism bits, criticisms of the American religious scene came from the right and the left “a Traditionalist and a Secularist Critique. Within the former, British Anglicans (including Trollope, Dickens, and Arnold), believed disestablishment and democratization fostered social chaos, sloppy theology and supernaturalism. Continental Romantics believed “worldly practicality” was the “true religion” of Americans, and “money . . . their only almighty God.” (53)  And Catholic ultramontanes viewed American religion as a reflection of the anticlerical French and 1848 Revolutions. From the left, various streams of Secularist critique shared a developmental view of historical progress that precluded the persistence of primitive religion, early French social thought, the trajectory of thought from Hegel to Marx, and republican anti-clericalism in the wake of the failed 1848 revolutions, among others. As Howard sees it, these prophets of secularization from Condorcet to Heidegger, perplexed by America’s resistance to their meta-narrative of modernization, disparaged American religiosity without utilizing much empirical observation.

For all of the above, Mormonism epitomized the disastrous effects of American religion.[1] Tory intellectuals responding to Dissenters’ demands for disestablishment in England pointed to Utah as the end product of religious voluntarism. (38)  Republican 48ers looking to extend the anti-clericalism and rationality of the revolutions believed that Mormon authoritarianism and supernaturalism provided the “clinching argument for American backwardness.” (128)  And French thinkers from Comte to Baudrillard have seen those “miserable anarchists” the Mormons as representative of primitive American culture. (102, 117)  Most fascinating to me was the ultramontane critique. Catholic scholars drew an easy line from Wittenberg to Salt Lake City. What American disestablishment and Protestant sectarianism, individuality, and bibliolatry destroyed were real spiritual needs: unity, authority, and objectivity. Mormonism was the inevitable misguided attempt to fill those needs-a Catholic parody posing as panacea for Protestant ills. (71-73)

Recent work (most notably Spencer Fluhman’s) has of course situated negative images of Mormonism within huge and heated nineteenth-century conversations on religion. Howard is tracing how European discourse denigrated religion, rather than how a certain discourse defined religion, as in Fluhman’s case, but it’s not often we get such juicy (albeit small) glimpses of elite European takes on Mormonism, especially where Mormonism functioned as such a salient stand-in for everything that was wrong with American religion itself. Help me out with the historiography here; despite the massive literature on anti-Mormonism, isn’t an extensive Religious Studies approach to European anti-Mormonism waiting to be written?[2]

In any case, Howard’s concluding concern comes back to politics. Current trans-Atlantic political divisions don’t explain themselves. Anti-American sentiment in Europe is still informed, Howard believes, by (among other historical factors) the negative images of American religion generated by European intellectuals during the last two centuries. And regardless of their place on the political spectrum, European intellectuals seem to have found in Mormonism many useful images for denigrating the American religious experiment.


[1] Although it should be noted that not all nineteenth-century European intellectuals disparaged Mormonism. For some high-praise from Carlyle, see Paul E. Kerry, “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons,” Literature and Belief 25:1-2 (2006): 261-288.

[2] Howard’s is an intellectual history, not Religious Studies. (He adopts an admittedly problematic and fluid definition of religion as, at times, “efforts to relate to the divine,” and, more often, “evangelical Protestantism.”) So I wonder what a Religious Studies scholar would do with European anti-Mormonism.

Article filed under Christian History Intellectual History Politics


  1. Great thoughts, Bradley. I was looking for an article on European anti-Mormonism and I didn’t find anything academic at all. I second your call.

    Also, “a Catholic parody posing as panacea for Protestant ills” is a phenomenal line.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 11, 2013 @ 7:39 am

  2. Loving reading the political critiques from both spectra. Fantastic.

    Comment by Evan Blades — July 11, 2013 @ 10:06 am

  3. I’m intrigued by your second footnote, and although I wonder if “European” isn’t an awfully broad category, I too would be interested to see what a religious studies scholar could do with the topic.

    Comment by Saskia — July 11, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  4. Oh, and thanks for the thoroughly enjoyable post!

    Comment by Saskia — July 11, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  5. Great post, Bradley. Thanks for highlighting this book. While it isn’t from a RS perspective, Craig Foster’s Penny Tracks and Polemics looks at British anti-Mormonism. And Kim Ostman’s work on Mormonism in Finland includes analysis of Finnish anti-Mormonism. I imagine there is other scholarship you could draw on for a theoretically informed analysis of European anti-Mormonism.

    Congrats on working with Barlow!

    Comment by David G. — July 11, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  6. Thanks Joey! Evan, what a pleasant surprise. Thanks for the comments. And Thanks David for the sources — I wasn’t familiar with Kim Ostman’s stuff at all.
    Saskia, thanks for pointing out the need for clarification on “European.” When Howard uses the term in the book he qualifies it as western Continental Europe and Great Britain. He views these as the centers of the continent, “defined in terms of cultural influence.” Scholars from these areas “if certainly not representative of the actual geographical Europe, have exerted a disproportionate influence on European intellectual life as a whole, not to mention on broader trends of thought in many other parts of the globe.” (9) So those are kind of the centers of European thought that I’m most interested in too. Although I’m excited to read Ostman’s work on Mormonism in Finland.

    Comment by Bradley — July 11, 2013 @ 11:55 am

  7. Interesting stuff. It seems in my exposure to continental cultures, that popular anti-Mormonism focused on the idea of cult/secte, which seems of a recent vintage to me. This broader history is really interesting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 11, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  8. Bradley, I wonder to what extent the thinkers you highlight were aware of the success of Mormonism in Britain and certain parts of Europe. Rudyard Kipling comments on the thorough Britishness of the people he met in Utah and sees Mormonism as an extension of British working class religiosity. I wonder if in some way European intellectuals wanted to disclaim Mormonism and calling it American in spite of a significant population of Mormons within Europe was one way of doing that.

    Comment by Amanda — July 11, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  9. Thanks Jonathan. That is a really exciting question, Amanda. As far as these thinkers being aware of Mormonism’s success in continental Europe, I have no idea, but it seems like British thinkers were aware to some extent. Charles Dickens for example, was very aware. [I think he is a bit of an exception though?, like Carlyle; he came to respect Mormons later in life. See Richard J. Dunn, “Dickens and the Mormons,” BYU Studies 8 (Spring 1968): 325-334.] As far as European intellectuals wanting to create some kind of boundary maintenance between Mormonism and European culture, again, no idea, but I’ll look into it. That would make sense though. Every once in a while in Howard’s narrative there are indicators that critiques of American religion were much more a response to things going on in Europe (philo-Americanism, demands for disestablishment, Rilke, among others, complaining about the Americanization of Paris, etc.) than to what was actually going on in America. So your point seems very plausible.
    Also, I should probably know that source but can you point me to the Rudyard Kipling stuff?

    Comment by Bradley — July 11, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  10. This is fascinating stuff, Bradley, and you explain it with skill. I’m becoming increasingly interested with transatlantic religious interchanges in the 19th century, so I’m glad to have this book on my radar. I agree with your closing point, and want to go one step further: placing Mormonism–thought, ritual, migration, class, everything–in a translatlantic context is a woefully neglected approach that needs serious redress.

    Comment by Ben P — July 11, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

  11. Thanks, Bradley. I’ve wondered about Howard’s book and appreciate the overview, and especially the attention you give his treatment of (anti)Mormonism, here.

    Comment by Christopher — July 11, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

  12. I wonder and maybe you know if there is a strikingly different attitude between Eastern European antiMormonism combined with Western–if such a division exists?

    Comment by NatalieR — July 11, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

  13. Bradley, it’s in American Notes pg. 113 for general Mormon stuff and pg. 116 for the references to British Mormonism. Charles Dilke the reformer and Oxford professor also mentions British Mormonism in Greater Britain and John Stuart Mill references Mormonism in On Liberty.

    Comment by Amanda — July 11, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

  14. Re: “Europe,” Bradley, that makes sense. And responding to Natalie (12), I would imagine there to be a sizable difference. That would be an interesting project.

    Comment by Saskia — July 12, 2013 @ 5:52 am

  15. Bradley, what an interesting overview. Best of luck to you in your studies at USU!

    Comment by Nate R. — July 12, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  16. Thanks, Ben and Christopher. And thanks for the sources Amanda.

    Comment by Bradley — July 12, 2013 @ 5:39 pm


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