Mormonism and American Exceptionalism

By February 18, 2009

This post is loosely a continuation of my previous one (regarding Mormonism and Anglo-American cultural conflict); both are part of an effort to examine the dialogic relationship between early Mormonism and larger elements of early American culture.

The primary impetus for this post was my recent reading in Daniel Walker Howe’s “What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,” where Howe makes a claim that Mormons of that period “embraced a particularly extreme version of American exceptionalism.”[1] The claim is striking to me because it seems to casually (and perhaps uncritically) connect Mormon attitudes to the much larger and longer tradition of American claims to divine favor.

For me, Howe’s claim raised some intriguing new questions. Mormonism, like many other religious traditions, certainly contains an exceptional element, which over time has given it both strength and trouble. But was and is this exceptionalism related to the American variety? Was early Mormonism somehow tied, as Howe suggests, to that sense of Providential sanction surrounding the great American political experiment or earlier theocratic projects? Is Mormon theology tied to American nationalism? In a modern environment where American exceptionalism is becoming ever more frowned-upon, and where the LDS Church is going global and yet is still often regarded as an arm of corporate or imperial America, these questions seem worth asking.

By almost all accounts, American exceptionalism originated in American Puritan theology. John Winthrop’s oft-cited vision of a “city upon a hill,” is perhaps its exact point of genesis, although that prophecy owed much of its power to the Biblical experiences of Israel. In this sense, American exceptionalism was simply an appropriation of earlier Biblical themes. In any case, the Puritans fully expected to set up the Kingdom of God, and their confidence in themselves as equal to the task has colored America’s sense of self ever since, though in ways that are hard to track. Basically, we might say that the convictions about the elect/millennial role of America that seemed so literal to the Puritans gradually moved to the realm of metaphor in American religion (with some exceptions). The explicit references to America as God’s new Israel were softened. The ideas also gravitated to politics, creating the liminal realm of “civil religion,” which vaguely blended religion and politics and rested, at bottom, on the old exceptionalist myths. From this position, American exceptionalism has exerted an incredible amount of influence on a wide range of activities in American history.[2]

However, Mormonism, Howe might say, went against this quiet diffusion after some two hundred years and defied it. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon apparently reconnected it to its literal, prophetic, religious roots. The cultural question, then, is if Mormonism – seen as an “afterclap” of Puritanism (for this very reason?) by Mark Twain and Emerson, and acknowledged a kind of “reenactment” of Puritanism by Terryl Givens – really shares much of Puritan thinking about America.[3]

I think it clear that it does – the Book of Mormon of course presents the American continent as a promised land reserved as a place of inheritance for God’s faithful. America is the site of the New Jerusalem and the place of gathering preparatory to the Second Coming of Christ. Like the Puritans, Mormonism applies Biblical prophecy to itself, consciously designating itself a new Israel. Clearly it foregrounds America in many of its texts and doctrines.

If Mormonism does partake of American exceptionalism– and it seems evident that it does (at least of the type the Puritans articulated) – this invites us to ask a thornier question: How tied is Mormon theology to other forms of American exceptionalism that have become American nationalism? Does Mormonism inherently have a political commitment? This is a loaded question which draws on the a whole range of anxieties: those that attend our postcolonial age, those that surround the separation of Church and State, and those which inform the expanding politics of a global Church.

It seems to me (I’m sliding into speculation about the present…) that while Mormonism acknowledges that America has an exceptional place in global history, the significance of that exception – despite Church members who conflate their theology with civil religion – is quite small. While Mormons may have a long tradition of exceptionalism (Givens traces it back to the apostasy rhetoric of the First Vision), and even of participation in American exceptionalism, their theology has a surprisingly limited commitment to America as a political entity. And it is political imagination, according to Benedict Anderson, that is at the heart of nations and nationalism.[4]

Two brief notes, one historical, one doctrinal, that I think bear upon this point. First, I cannot overlook Brigham Young’s willingness to leave the United States of America in order to find a place of refuge from persecution. This would have been unthinkable if Mormon theology was significantly anchored to the American Republic.

Second, while the Book of Mormon does emphasize the Americas as an insuperable land of promise, it also recounts the consequences of people who polluted it and were swept off. Readers of the Book of Mormon do not come away from this account with a sense of superiority or egotism, but rather with an awareness that its God is truly no respecter of persons. The commitment here is to geographical, not ethnic, America.

 I’d appreciate your insights to other doctrinal or historical points that might be relevant here.


[1] Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford UP, 2007), 316.

[2] Deborah Madsen contends that this discourse “permeates every period of American history, and is the single most powerful agent in a series of arguments that have been fought down the centuries in defining America and Americans.” See her American Exceptionalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998), 1.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, as qtd. in Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); Emerson was parroting Mark Twain to vague effect.

[4] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Ryan. This really is a stimulating post.

    I cannot overlook Brigham Young’s willingness to leave the United States of America in order to find a place of refuge from persecution. This would have been unthinkable if Mormon theology was significantly anchored to the American Republic.

    I touch on this a bit in my thesis, where I argue that when the Mormons left the Republic for Great Basin, they saw themselves as carrying on the best of the traditions of the United States. In particular, the spirit of the Constitution was transfered in a sense to the “new America,” if you will. I follow Ken Winn in basing most of my argument on Pratt’s Angel of the Prairies. Pratt reads U.S. history through the BoM lens of the Gadianton Robbers, blaming corrupt government officials for the downfall of the nation.

    On the relationship between the BoM and the Americas, Steve Fleming has done some work (published in the religious educator) on 1 Nephi 13, questioning the traditional (at least in Anglo-American circles) reading of Nephi’s vision of the future.

    A question I’ve had is whether 1 Nephi 13 has to be read as referring to the U.S., or if we can make a broader reading that includes all of the Americas. I sat down over the break with a Mexican friend of mine to discuss how he reads the text, and not surprisingly we read it quite differently. I still think the strongest reading is one that emphasizes the U.S., but it is possible to see Cortez and the Spaniards rather than the Puritans in some verses.

    Anyway, I think there’s a lot of work to be done on the place of America in Mormon thought, especially Mormon variations of the U.S. as a Christian Nation.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  2. Thanks for this, Ryan. I just finished reading George McKenna’s new Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale University Press, 2007), so this question definitely struck a cord. You might want to check that book out to see the larger context for 19th century American exceptionalism.

    I also echo David’s comment regarding the West fulfilling America’s true promise. Just as they saw modern Christianity as fallen away from its true origins, they also felt America had fallen into a state of national “apostasy” (I briefly cover some of the rhetoric of this as related to JS’s martyrdom in my third point here).

    An interesting case-in-point: while working in the Church Historic Sites department last summer, we found the American flag that the Mormon Battalion carried. But, rather than using their contemporary flag (how many stars/states were there in 1847? 30? 40? Man I suck at basic history…), they carried an original with only 13 stars, symbolizing their devotion to the original national ideals.

    Comment by Ben — February 18, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  3. Excellent stuff, Ryan. You’re two for two on solid and insightful posts. Keep it up.

    David, do you have a full citation for Fleming’s article in the RE? I searched through the back issues, but couldn’t find it. Also, I’m curious about the reading of 1 Nephi 13 by your Mexican friend. Did he read it the way he does initially, or has he made a conscious effort to read it as not referring to the Puritans, et al in an act of cultural defiance and effort to not limit the text to American nationalism?

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  4. Chris, I don’t have the full citation. But I’ll email Steve and he’ll let you know.

    That’s how my buddy grew up reading the text. His views of the Puritans (and most American Protestants) were shaped in his public schooling, and they are not very flattering.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  5. That’s how my buddy grew up reading the text. His views of the Puritans (and most American Protestants) were shaped in his public schooling, and they are not very flattering.

    Awesome. I wonder how common such a reading of the text is among Latin American saints. And doesn’t this reveal a whole new area of where Book of Mormon studies can go? International interpretations of the text would be a fascinating project.

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  6. Agreed. My friend is a bit idiosyncratic, so I’m not sure how much we can generalize his views to all Latin American Saints, but his reading certainly provides suggestions. Not to threadjack too much, but my friend (and other Latinos I’ve talked too) read the Nephi/Laman narrative very differently than most whites that I’ve talked to.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  7. David,

    The piece that I published in the RE didn’t address 1 Ne 13. It’s volume 7 no. 2. You’re right though, I had planned to do a reading of 1 Ne 13 focussed on versus 4 and 5, arguing that the GAC is the entity that persecutes that saints and the saints are the people that are persecuted by the GAC. Then look at religious radicals that have been persecuted throughout the history of Christianity. I sent a draft to the journal of Book of Mormon Studies and was told that talking about the GAC was a political no no. I’ll give it another shot when I have more expertise.

    Mark Ashurst-McGee just sent me a draft of a chapter from his Diss. that has a comparison of JS’s vision of zion and the Puritans City on a Hill that he plans on publishing soon. It thought it was the strongest part of the paper, though he ought to flesh it out a bit. So Mark probably has a lot to say on this topic.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 18, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  8. Hehe, that’s what I get for touting friends’ published work without actually reading the published product.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  9. I sent a draft to the journal of Book of Mormon Studies and was told that talking about the GAC was a political no no.

    My, my. How times have changed.

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  10. Right, Chris. I was essentially told the Robinson was to be the last word on the subject.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 18, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  11. But they have a new editorial staff so I give it another shot at some point now that I know where the land mines are.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 18, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  12. 5/6: On my Brazilian mission I frequently heard saints interpret hemispherically rather than nationally, glossing over the singular “he.”

    Comment by Edje — February 18, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  13. Anecdotally, I would say strains of Mormon/U.S. exceptionalism and triumphalism are interlinked and alive and well among many or most white anglo U.S. members, at least as evidenced by some of the rationales I heard expressed frequently at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was astonishing, to me anyway, how little many of my LDS friends cared about what the rest of the “world” thought about our proposed invasion, and in my perception, it seemed like many conflated the rest of the planet with a moral “Babylon.” How the U.S. is right, as God’s chosen land, and as our then-U.S. President suggested, paralleling Jesus’ language, you are either for us or against us.

    Anyway, that is my perception of the view of many white anglo U.S. Mormons; I could easily be wrong.

    Comment by DavidH — February 18, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  14. Anecdotally, I would say strains of Mormon/U.S. exceptionalism and triumphalism are interlinked and alive and well among many or most white anglo U.S. members…

    I would say the same. It seems difficult but important for us white anglo Mormons to carefully differentiate between the civil or civic religion that attends American politics and our actual theology – particularly when our tradition has such strong exceptionalist (and potentially nationalist) claims. A clear explication of Mormonism (history and theology) with respect to The United States of America would help here.

    I also agree with Chris that a study of international readings of the Book of Mormon would be riveting…particularly of those prevailing in South/Latin America and those coming from secularized/super-sensitized Europe.

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 18, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  15. This is just carping, but my advisor, T. Dwight Bozeman in his 1988 book, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism tried to demolish the American exceptionalist arguments that people draw from Winthrop et., al. He argues in one of his chapters, contra Perry Miller, that the Puritans saw themselves as more of going on an errand out of the wilderness of England rather than an errand to the wilderness of New England. And they were not millennialists in the way that later Puritans were, too. He does admit that latter generations of Puritans develop the strain of American exceptionalism that almost everyone assumes the first generation had, but he says that calling the first generation of Puritans proto-nationalists is just reading back into the sources later understandings. Fundamentally, the Puritans of the first generation were disciplinary-minded primitivists intent on recapturing an earlier imagined tradition rather than progressivist millennialists. Since I am no expert on Puritanism (and I have probably mangled his very precise arguments), I always defer to him on these matters. This is tangential to this conversation, but I thought I’d throw that in.

    Comment by David Howlett — February 18, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  16. http://museweb01-pub.mse.jhu.edu/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.1.farmer.html

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 18, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  17. Jared farmer made an interesting comment about Mormon exceptionalism in an earlier comment to this list, which is now available as an article:

    http://museweb01-pub.mse.jhu.edu/journals/historically_speaking/v010/10.1.farmer.html

    “Typical and exceptional at the same time” about sums it up. Does forgetting what “Latter-days” in the church’s official name means change anything? I dunno.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 18, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  18. Depending on one’s definition of American exceptionalism, I think Mormonism can fit into this discussion in multiple ways. Defining American exceptionalism as any aspect deemed particularly unique to the American experience, nineteenth-century Mormonism presented difficulties for nineteenth-century Americans who promoted an egotistical, nation-building, version of American exceptionalism. As Henry Nash Smith outlined (Virgin Land, 1950), some nineteenth-century Americans romanticized the West, using exceptionalist rhetoric, and adding another feature to American exceptionalism. David Wrobel more recently pointed out (see Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence, KN: University Press of Kansas, 1993); and Wrobel, “Global West, American Frontier,” Pacific Historical Review 78, no. 1 (Feb. 2009): 1-26) that exceptions exist, including some nineteenth-century travel accounts which counter the imperialistic and nationalistic narrative. Wrobel included Sir Richard Burton’s City of the Saints (1861) as an example of a counter-narrative to the exceptionalist rhetoric about America’s West. Burton, a world traveler, compared the West’s geography and people (including Mormons) to other places and societies, thus diminishing the uniqueness of the American West. Yet, for Burton, Mormonism was the exceptional feature of the American West.

    I realize I am rambling and combining various aspects of exceptionalism, but my point is that Mormonism both confused and confirmed American exceptionalist rhetoric in the nineteenth century.

    Comment by Jordan W. — February 18, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

  19. This is just carping, but my advisor, T. Dwight Bozeman in his 1988 book, To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism tried to demolish the American exceptionalist arguments…he says that calling the first generation of Puritans proto-nationalists is just reading back into the sources later understandings.

    Actually I think there is a strong case to be made here that our ascription of “proto-nationalism” to the early Puritans, e.g. Winthrop, is in error. Anderson’s Imagined Communities suggests that nationalism probably could only develop in an more or less secularized atmosphere, which Puritan American emphatically was not (10-11).

    This said, any argument which claims that Puritans had no designs for America must apparently deal with Samuel Sewell, the Puritan judge and diarist (1652-1730). Howe, citing Holifield, relates that even at this early time Sewell “persuaded himself that the New Jersusalem, the captial of Christ’s millennial kingdom, would be located in the New World” (286).

    Comment by Ryan Tobler — February 18, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

  20. 19: some of this was likely an edenist reading of the ostensibly feral forests of the New World. I agree with the notion of errand into wilderness, but the point is that these “wildernesses” were viewed primordially, and the edenic rhetoric carried them backward and forward, both to some notion of the earth’s creation and to a similar idea of the earth’s ultimate situation. the LDS followed this bidirectional edenism, taking it to a very literal extent in the 1830s with some relaxation in the 1840s as it morphed into something resembling exceptionalism.

    Personally I’m more interested in the broader questions of how religious interprets and instantiates soil/earth than the exceptionalist argument of exceptionalism (how many religions do not maintain that their people have special status or access to sacred ground? how are these religions different from others? what does it mean to use the word autochthonous? What does it mean to be so described?

    Comment by smb — February 19, 2009 @ 6:47 am

  21. #19–Thanks, Ryan for the Sewell reference; I was not aware of it. I definitely think that by Sewell’s generation you can see some clear notions of American exceptionalism emerging. The immigrant generation probably did not have such notions, but people like Increase Mather and his scarily brilliant son, Cotton, definitely had such notions percolating (they would be contemporaries with Sewell; the patriarch of the clan, Richard Mather, was of the immigrant generation). In the 1960s, it was popular to ascribe American exceptionalism to an even earlier era in England. This is a minor historiographical debate, I know. (And I haven’t read in Puritan stuff for at least three years; my memory is not so good on everything!) Your post was very interesting. Thanks for initiating this conversation!

    Comment by David Howlett — February 19, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

  22. 19, 21: David Hall devoted a chapter to Samuel Sewall in Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989). See chapter 5, “The Mental World of Samuel Sewall.” I do not remember specific references to American exceptionalism, or exceptionalist ideas, but it might be worth checking out.

    Comment by Jordan W. — February 19, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  23. The Book of Mormon does not teach that any nation necessarily deserves divine favor. It teaches the exact opposite – that divine favor is conditional on righteousness – that the wicked will be swept off, etc. For example:

    Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it. (1 Ne 17:35, emphasis added)

    The prospect of Brigham Young taking the Church out of the then United States because they were perceived to be ripe for destruction is entirely consistent with this position.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 22, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  24. […] viewpoints. This is an extreme viewpoint of his blend of American Exceptionalism and his Mormonism (I note that this author fails to see that Young left only the boundaries of the American Republic […]

    Pingback by Jesus, had he been a victim, he would have killed the Jews – Glenn Beck | The Church of Jesus Christ — July 15, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  25. […] viewpoints. This is an extreme viewpoint of his blend of American Exceptionalism and his Mormonism (I note that this author fails to see that Young left only the boundaries of the American Republic […]

    Pingback by Jesus, had he been a victim, he would have killed the Jews – Glenn Beck | Christian Articles and videos — July 15, 2010 @ 11:59 pm


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