Mormonism and the Catholic Critique of Protestantism in America

By April 20, 2015

Today’s post comes from Bradley Kime, who will graduate this spring with a Masters in history rom Utah State University. Bradley has published in the Journal of Mormon History and is an editorial fellow at the Western Historical Quarterly.  He will begin his PhD program in religious studies at the University of Virginia this fall (WAHOOWA!).

For the last few years, Stephen Webb has generously praised LDS Christo-centrism. Back in 2012, before the publication of his Mormon Christianity[1], he offered the First Things crowd a positive take on Mormonism?s eternally embodied Savior titled ?Mormonism Obsessed with Christ.? When First Things recently posted the article on their Facebook feed, the 108 comments (and counting), almost entirely from creedal Christians across the Protestant-Catholic spectrum, were overwhelmingly negative. One comment summed up the general consensus: ?You know who else was obsessed with Christ? Arius.? In other words, earnestness doesn?t equal orthodoxy, and calling a spade a spade is important. Almost as a chorus, First Things readers reaffirmed that the Mormon Christ was a heresy, notwithstanding Webb?s misguided generosity.

For the Protestant portion of First Things readers, this heavy emphasis on Mormon heresy is a historical development. By historicizing Terryl Givens?s earlier analysis of anti-Mormonism[2], Spencer Fluhman has shown that Protestants didn?t always cast Mormonism as heretical. A heresy is false religion, and recognition as religious took Mormonism the better part of a century to achieve in the discourse of Protestant America.[3] But it?s important to understand that for Catholics, Mormonism was never anything but a heresy?right from the beginning. Yet, in contrast to contemporary Christians, the Mormon heresy that preoccupied nineteenth-century Catholics wasn?t Christological (or anthropological). It was ecclesiastical: the rejection of Papal authority. Certainly Mormonism manifested myriad theological eccentricities, but these merely followed, as did sectarianism generally, from trading Papal authority for sola scriptura. In other words, Mormonism was the Protestant heresy writ large. Catholics explicitly, conscientiously accorded Mormonism the title of heresy at its birth because Mormonism (along with Millerism, Adventism, Transcendentalism, Mesmerism, Spiritualism, agnosticism, atheism, and later Christian Science, Dowieism, and others) was Protestantism?the ?latest phase of Protestantism,? or ?the last form in which Protestantism shows itself to the world.?[4]

Consequently, for nineteenth-century Catholics, Mormonism was priceless rhetorical capital. This is only something that becomes clear if we don?t extract reactions to Mormonism from reactions to the whole constellation of (ir)religious outsiders that lit up America?s long nineteenth century.[5] Measured by its odium and audaciousness, Mormonism burned most brightly, but it belonged to a constellation nonetheless, and Catholics capitalized on the whole constellation. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Catholics and Protestants continued to debate long-standing positions on scripture and authority, faith and reason, and church and state. But disestablishment and denominationalism created a new American context for those contests and proliferating (ir)religious outsiders provided Catholics new rhetorical resources with which to press their positions. Thus Catholics cast Mormons and Millerites, atheists and agnostics, Spiritualists and Christian Scientists as the exegetical and educational products of mainstream Protestants, who then turned around and marshalled their ?moral establishment? to persecute those (ir)religious outsiders.[6]

Catholic commentators were adept at assembling a dizzying array of (ir)religious outsiders into a single-minded critique of mainstream Protestantism, but here?s one example of how this worked particular to Mormons: Continuing a long-standing contest over the proper relationship between church and state, Catholics used a supposed Protestant complicity in Mormon polygamy to prove that only Catholics could protect religious freedom from the Mormon menace. Besides lacking legal and divine authority to suppress Mormonism, Catholics argued that Protestants? complicity in the Mormon practice of polygamy robbed them of even the moral authority to act effectually. Their central strategy here was to triangulate Protestantism, the legal laxity and prevalent practice of divorce in America, and Mormon polygamy. As one Catholic put it: ?Luther . . . justified [bigamy], and our country, Protestant in its tone, legalized it by its lavishly granted divorces, so relaxing the marriage tie that Mormonism, with polygamy as a doctrine, is firmly fastened on the land.?[7]

Sometimes Catholics focused on linking Protestantism directly to polygamy; sometimes they emphasized Protestantism?s relationship to American divorce practices; and sometimes they explicitly traced a supposed historical progression from Protestantism, to lax divorce laws, to a weakened marriage culture and the resultant rise of Mormon polygamy in America. Cumulatively the effect was the same. In each of these rhetorical schemes, the Catholic punchline was that Protestantism could not stop Mormon polygamy; only Catholics, unwavering defenders of marriage, could respond to the problem with moral authority. Mormon polygamy was thus a new rhetorical resource for long-standing Catholic contentions about the sacramental nature of marriage and the social ills that followed from Protestant permissiveness toward divorce. But, more importantly, the marriage argument was inextricable from the larger argument?which Catholics rarely lost sight of?that the informal Protestant establishment was insufficient to protect religious liberty from the threat of Mormonism and Mormon polygamy. Catholics, long considered would-be violators of church-state separation and potential oppressors of religious freedom, were actually, in light of Protestant perplexities over the Mormon problem, religious liberty?s only credible defenders.[8]

The pervasive use of (ir)religious outsiders in the wider Catholic critique of Protestantism in America has important implications for Catholic Studies and for the study of the mainstream and the margins in American religious history more generally. But why does it matter for Mormon Studies? One, because it helps extend the study of American reactions to Mormonism beyond Protestant critics and concerns. And two, because, like David Brion Davis?s classic study[9], it models what happens when we approach religious prejudices from the panoramic purviews of the historical persons who held them. Instead of structuring our studies around an object of prejudice (like Mormonism), we can start with the prejudice and work outward to the whole cast of characters that gave shape to it. I?ve found that unconsidered insights abound when taking the latter approach. If you want to hear some more of those insights, take a look at my full paper when it?s published.

[1] Stephen H. Webb, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] J. Spencer Fluhman, ?A Peculiar People?: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 9?10, 18?19, 127?47.

[4] These and other examples in ?Latter Day Saints,? Jesuit; or Catholic Sentinel, October 18, 1834, 331; M. A. C., ?About the Utah Saints,? American Catholic Quarterly Review, July 1895, 490; Morning Star and Catholic Messenger, January 19, 1873, 2; and Bertrand L. Conway, The Question-Box Answer. Replies to Question Received on Missions to Non-Catholics (New York: Columbus Press, 1909), 209.

[5] As opposed to Matthew J. Grow?s approach in ?The Whore of Babylon and the Abomination of Abominations: Nineteenth-Century Catholic and Mormon Mutual Perceptions and Religious Identity,? Church History 73, no 1 (2004): 139?67.

[6] ?Moral establishment? as a phrase for the national Protestant political power and coercive use of Christianity in the common law that rose, pheonix-like, from the ashes of state establishments, is David Sehat?s. See The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] ?The Inquisition,? American Catholic Quarterly Review, April 1876, 277.

[8] For the particulars of Mormonism?s imposing threat to religious liberty, see Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[9] David Brion Davis, ?Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,? Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47, no. 2 (1960): 205?24.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Historiography


  1. To what extend do Mormons conjure up (for Catholics) images of radical Protestants such as the Anabaptists? How do Catholics respond to the Shakers?

    Medieval historians have long argued that the Protestant reformation by changing the relationship between the clergy and marriage opened up questions about sexuality. Mormons were only one such group to flirt with the possibilities that the fissure opened up. It seems like our understanding of Catholic responses to Mormonism would benefit from exploring their responses to other religious movements, such as the Shakers, the Anabaptists, the Millerites, etc.

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 20, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  2. Great stuff, thanks for this Bradley.

    Comment by Jeff T — April 20, 2015 @ 9:57 am

  3. Fun stuff. I presume this reflects the thesis? Link to a pdf perhaps?

    Comment by WVS — April 20, 2015 @ 10:08 am

  4. Nice work, Bradley. As you know, I’m interested in the sacramental parallels between Catholicism and Mormonism and in the tension between these and other ritual religions/traditions (e.g. Freemasonry, the Mercersberg Theology, Native American and African American religious practices, etc.) and the anti-ritualistic American evangelical hegemony. Do Catholics have anything to say about Mormonism’s ritual practices? Protestants often coupled Catholics and Mormons together when associating them with bizarre and superstitious rites.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 20, 2015 @ 11:59 am

  5. One other question: Fluhman frames these conflicts around Mormonism as part of a struggle to define “religion” in the nineteenth century. Lately I’ve been finding the concept of “cultural politics” to be helpful as I think about similar debates. Is there a model for these conflicts that you use or prefer?

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 20, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

  6. Wow that’s fascinating. One of the best history posts I’ve read in a while. Great job.

    Comment by Clark — April 20, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

  7. Fascinating. Thanks, Bradley!

    Comment by Saskia T — April 20, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

  8. Thanks for the responses everyone! WVS, I’m defending my thesis on Monday, but I can link a PDF when it’s available.

    Comment by Bradley Kime — April 20, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

  9. Ryan 1) Yes, Catholic commentators often responded to Protestants who coupled Catholics and Mormons for various reasons, including their shared ritualism. The most interesting and common strategy I’ve seen turned those comparisons to Catholics’ credit. Catholics argued that Mormon-Catholic parallels were evidence that Protestants were starving for the Papal authority and sacramentalism they had rejected. Movements like Mormonism, Catholics claimed, emerged to feed that hunger and fill the void created by anti-Catholicism. So parallels didn’t embarrass Catholics; they proved mainstream Protestant paucities, as Catholics saw it. I’ve noticed that when Catholics deployed this strategy they never separated their ritual resemblances to Mormonism from Mormonism’s prophetic aping of Papal authority. One thing this might highlight for your study is that anti-ritualism often included or was inseparable from anti-authoritarianism (not the general clerical/intellectual authority Nathan Hatch’s subjects hated but the sacramental authority represented by the Pope, if that’s a fair distinction?)

    Comment by Bradley Kime — April 20, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

  10. Thanks Amanda. I agree. Catholics responded to Shakers in similar ways and often folded Shakers and an array of Anabaptists into the same critiques of Protestantism. Especially when these critiques took the form of historical narratives, which drew straight lines from Martin Luther to Menno Simons to Joseph Smith as part of Catholic’s larger strategy.

    Comment by Bradley Kime — April 20, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

  11. Ryan 2) this is a great question but I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “model” so tell me if this answers your question. I framed my study as a rare exception to how marginalized religious groups respond to each other in relation to the mainstream. Normally, the margins castigate each other to placate the Protestant mainstream and prove their own Protestant-looking American-ness. In this case, a marginalized religious group used other marginalized others to lay bare the mechanics of their own marginalization and critique the Protestant-determined criteria behind their marginalization. So I’d saw my model was R. Laurence Moore’s work. His big point was that the margins WERE the mainstream, and that the margins and the mainstream constructed their insider/outsider statuses together for their own purposes. My big point is that Catholics recognized what mainstream Protestants and marginalized radicals had to gain by constructing insider/outsider statuses for themselves, and that Catholics therefore subverted their efforts to do so–as Orestes Brownson insisted in his famous essay on Transcendentalism, mainstream Protestantism had to bear the shame of its progeny.

    Comment by Bradley Kime — April 20, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  12. Great post, Bradley. Did Catholics ever consider or take note of the concept of eternal marriage in Mormonism? Or did Catholics just talk about the polygamist dimensions of Mormon marriage (as you have already pointed out)?

    Comment by Peter Wosnik — April 20, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

  13. Marry me.

    Comment by Charleston Chelz — April 21, 2015 @ 2:49 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”