Is the Jewish Comparison a Helpful One?

By January 10, 2014

Note: the following books and article discussed are no by no me representative of the studies that look at Judaism and Mormonism in contrast. They are studies I happened to come across in my early days of reading about Mormon history. For example, I do not discuss Armand Mauss?s  All Abraham?s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (2003) because it was simply not a book I read until later in grad school. Also, while I am very interested in the discussing about Mormonism as an ethnicity, I don?t feel too qualified to discuss in such a brief post. Plus, it?s already been covered here at JI back in 2008 here and here.

During my seventy-two hour self-imposed house arrest during the latest snowpocalypse here in Michigan and the POLAR VORTEX!!! (OK those will be my only references to the weather), I had extra time to develop my first lecture for the American Jewish History class I am teaching this semester. I had the chance to sit through the class a few years and was very interested by one of the questions posed to the class: are Jews a nation, ethnicity, religion, race, or all of the above? The question is a provocative one and assumedly has varying answers depending on what sort of group you asking and what region/area you are asking it in.  I am sure there may be different answers in a religious studies class versus a history class, as well. I don?t remember they?re being a specific reached consensus on the answer from the class I sat in on, but I do remember they?re being arguments and understandings for a variety of answers.

While preparing my syllabus and first lecture, I was reminded of how when I began to reading widely in Mormon history I was struck by how many comparisons were made by scholars between Jews and Mormons in Mormon history scholarship. It is curious to note that the scholars make these connections seemed to be Mormon or those who principally wrote about Mormonism. I first encountered this comparison when reading Jan Shipps? Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (1985) on the first page of the preface when she writes that her book ?tells the story of yet another assembly of saints whose history, I believe, is in many respects analogous to the history of those early Christians who thought at first hat they had found the only proper way to be Jews.?[1]  Later in Mormonism she calls for attention to be paid to the ?parallel between the Mormon trek and the biblical Exodus,? as both stories are central to Mormon and Jewish heritage and the building of a distinct history.[2]  R. Laurence Moore writes in Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986) that the ?American Mormons tried to appropriate Jewish experience, particularly its beginnings, in building their own communities.?[3] The choice of the word appropriate is a bit curious if not jarring. I am going to assume that Moore meant appropriate a presentation of a similar kind of religious history of migration, persecution, and a chosen peoplehood. It would be difficult to assume that a religious group would seek out the harsh persecutions that Jews have contended with in their long history.  Of course, there is the argument that a difficult history is essential toward crafting a distinct people apart from what is considered mainstream.

In his book The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (1995), sociologist Armand L. Mauss does draw the same similarities that Shipps and Moore do between the two groups, yet he cautions against claiming substantial comparisons. He calls attention to three principle differences between Jews and Mormons. First, though Mormons did suffer considerable persecution, he writes it fell ?far short of the Jewish experiences in either duration, severity, or recency.?[4]  Second, while each identifies with a particular homeland, Mauss notes that Utah is becoming increasingly less distinct to Mormonism whereas Israel is becoming more and more Jewish. (There is also the important factor of asking where does Jackson County, Missouri come in to the discussions of sacred space?) Finally, Mormonism is a proselytizing religion with an impressive and extensive missionary program and mission field, and Judaism is inherently not a proselytizing religion?at least with those born outside of the religion. These factors account for dramatic differences in the size, growth, and diversity of each religion.

Despite Mauss?s inferences about the differences between Mormonism and Judaism, the parallels between each religion cannot be ignored and is employed by Mormon scholars. What accounts for this comparison? Each religion?s adherents had to contend with settling parts of their religious customs, rituals, and identities with aspects of American culture and modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[5]  The shared historical experiences of forced migration, political and religious persecution, and ties to homeland are undeniable. Is it because Judaism is just a dramatically older religion than Mormonism? Probably not. But it is a point worth addressing. For example, let?s think about Jews in the American context: there are Reform, Conservative, Conservadox, Orthodox, Hasidic, secular, and, even atheist, Jews. The differences are wide but according to many sources, most recently the Pew report from October, despite the degree of adherence or belief there is ample evidence of a shared Jewish culture. There is definitely a shared Mormon culture made up of regular church attending Mormons and those who no longer identify as religious Mormons but feel an allegiance to a particular Intermountain West Mormon Je ne sais quoi. And, while there are a variety of Mormon faiths that do exist (extending from the LDS Church to the Community of Christ to smaller more independent groups) there seems to be less of an acknowledgement of assumed Mormon culture throughout them.  (At least a strong acknowledgment from the church in Salt Lake City).  Ultimately, the comparisons and divergences between the two religions?that of once (and current?) American religious outsiders?are ripe for further analysis and discussion and can take numerous directions. I am certain that I will be wrestling with some questions in my mind as I continue with my teaching of one religious tradition while I wrote about other. Thanks for reading this hodgepodge collection of thoughts. I am more than interested interested in reading suggestions and thoughts in the comments sections. Thanks!!!



[1] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), ix.

[2] Ibid, 122.


[3] R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 75.

[4] Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 65.

[5] Richard Ian Kimball writes that recreation and sports played similar roles in the Americanization of each group during the progressive era, Richard Ian Kimball, Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 12.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. You might find Steven Epperson’s Mormons and Jews useful:

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 10, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  2. In trying to assess the usefulness of any notion of Mormon “ethnicity” (or cognate terms), it is important to specify the period or phase of Mormon history that one has in mind. O’Dea (1957) made the claim that by the 1950s, Mormons had become a “near nation,” or a near (quasi-) ethnic group. He had some good reasons, and his observations made a lot of sense in the 1950s, but since that time the characteristics O’Dea had in mind have steadily eroded. Mormons are now the least ethnic we have ever been.

    Comment by Armand L. Mauss — January 11, 2014 @ 1:17 am

  3. Have you heard of the book coming out in three weeks that is already receiving controversial reviews? Readers of the Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld will learn that Mormons and Jews, among others, are “cultural groups” that have achieved success because they possess a “superiority complex,” feel insecurity (as opposed to self-esteem) and favor impulse control over immediate gratification. The reviews I have read suggest the authors largely avoid any discussion of race and ethnicity.

    Comment by sterflu — January 12, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  4. There certainly is one thing non – TBM Mormons who care about their heritage and the positive aspects of LDS culture, and yes, belief,can learn from the Jews. That is, surely now, there is a need for the emergence of a formally organised Progressive Mormonism. Perhaps even a body, a ‘World Union of Progressive Mormonism’if you will, an umbrella organisation for more than one organised alternative to the orthodox church, may soon emerge. We might just be able to interest some who would otherwise entirely abandon Mormonism within the wider fold.

    Comment by Jonathan M — January 13, 2014 @ 8:04 am


Recent Comments

Questions on CFP: 2020 MHA Poster: “Will MHA accept proposals from students who have already sent in a proposal for a presentation or panel? If so should the poster be a…”

Steve Petersen on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “Joey, thanks for putting this together! I still need to make it through a lot of these, but it’s nice to have a collection to…”

J Stuart on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “Thank you, Steven and David!”

David Morris on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “The University of Szeged in Hungary recently published our anthology "Mormonism in Europe: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives". The 382-page book features essays by leading…”

Steven L Mayfield on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “American Polygamy by Craig Foster and Mary Ann Watson The History Press”

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”