O’Dea, Sources of Strain, and Rank-and-File Mormons

By February 26, 2008

Writing in 1957, Catholic sociologist Thomas F. O’Dea devoted a chapter of his important work, The Mormons, to what he saw as “sources of strain and conflict” in the Latter-day Saint church.  The most significant of those sources of strain, according to O’Dea, was the unsettled issue of the relationship between the institutional church and the growing number of “liberal intellectual” Mormons who had encountered “modern secular thought.”  While admitting that “the situation of the intellectual is likely to be somewhat ambiguous in any society,” [1] O’Dea felt that especially in the paradoxical Mormon church, which emphasized ecclesiastical authority and revelation but also encouraged education and intellectual pursuit among the rank-and-file, the intellectuals’ dilemma was especially enigmatic.  After briefly tracing the history of the strain, conflict, and compromise in the early 20th century between the conservative church and the liberal intellectuals, O’Dea ended by suggesting that the matter was far from settled.

We can only conclude that the encounter of Mormonism and modern secular learning is one that is still taking place.  It is a spectacle of the present, of which no history can as yet be written.  Upon its outcome will depend in a deeper sense the future of Mormonism.  A final loss of the intellectual would be a wound from which the church could hardly recover.  A liberalization of belief and an abandonment of traditional positions in faith would transform, if not destroy, Mormonism.  These potentialities slumber fitfully and insecurely within the present state of prolonged but regularized crisis. [2]

The 50 years since O’Dea made his observations have confirmed his thesis that this conflict is anything but resolved.  In that span, the church has witnessed (endured?) the age of Camelot and the New Mormon History, the ecclesiastical discipline of scholars for publishing works deemed controversial and inappropriate, and most recently a renewed effort by both the church and academia to take Mormon scholarship seriously, with a diverse view of the future and potential success of these renewed efforts.  As a young scholar seeking to be a part of this history and its future, I remain optimistic of the eventual resolution of the tension that satisfies all (or at least most) parties involved. 

Somewhere and somehow in my mind, I had decided that, in general, the younger generations were relatively more open to critical, and sometimes difficult, engagement with serious questions surrounding Mormon history, philosophy, theology, and culture.  Perhaps it is my interaction largely being confined to a university setting and the bloggernacle that has conditioned this notion in my mind.  Two recent events have challenged and forced me to rethink that notion.

The first took place three weeks ago.  I received a surprise call from a counselor in my stake presidency, inviting my wife and me to join the stake presidency and their wives, as well as the bishops from my stake and their wives, for their “quarterly retreat.”  This retreat consists of dinner and conversation, followed by the stake presidency and the bishops retiring to a separate room to discuss stake and ward matters and concerns, and the women usually spending that time talking amongst themselves (one woman explained that usually it consisted of what she called “the typical relief society gossip” and “discussion of the difficulties of being a bishop’s wife”).  This time, however, they invited me to discuss with the women the subject of Joseph Smith and my involvement with the JSP. (My bishop, a wonderful man and good friend who has taken a genuine interest in my academic interests and research, apparently recommended the stake presidency invite me).  The result of my preparation ultimately ended in me presenting a semi-autobiographical talk on my interest in and experience with studying Mormon history, the difficulties I faced (and face) when encountered with difficult and challenging issues or events, and the ultimate meaning of studying LDS history to me.  The reaction I received was surprising to me.  The women, most of whom were probably between 45 and 75 years old, responded enthusiastically.  One quiet, humble woman tearfully told me that for the past two years she had struggled with the difficult issues she encountered in reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and that I was an answer to her prayers.  She now knew, she said, that others, including those actively involved in researching and writing on Mormon history, struggled with the difficult issues.  She afterwards gave me a big hug and another tearful expression of gratitude, an experience that has crossed my mind nearly everyday since.  Another woman, this one older than the others, thanked me for my comments, and expressed her optimism that the church has come a long way since her days as a youth in the church 50 or 60 years ago.  She explained that it was refreshing to “see the church come to grips with its history” and tackle some “of the tough issues.”  I left surprised, edified, and encouraged that the rank-and-file of the church of all ages and backgrounds were prepared, willing, and excited regarding the prospects of more rigorous and serious engagement with difficult issues facing the church.

More recently, at a get-together with some old roommates and our spouses, one of the women asked if any of us were familiar with “some show on PBS called ‘The Mormons.'” She had seen the recent re-broadcast of the film.  I responded that I had seen it and owned a copy, and offered to let her borrow it sometime.  I also explained that much of the film could be seen on PBS.  She asked if it was good, to which I responded, for sake of simplicity, “yes.”  When she asked what it was like, I told her it was an attempt by a filmmaker who was not LDS but interested in the church from an observant point of view.  I told her I thought it was, overall, a success, despite some personal criticisms of the film.  She said, “Oh, good. So they don’t bash on the church at all?”  I explained that they did not shy away from difficult and controversial issues, but generally discussed them in a manner that was relatively fair and balanced.  Her expression changed to a look of confusion and she replied, “But I thought you said it was good!”  My wife interjected (sensing my growing frustration), kindly explaining that she rather ejoyed it, and although there were things discussed that confused her and challenged some of her notions of LDS history and culture, overall she thought it was a fine documentary.  With an intensifying expression of seeming incredulity, this friend concluded by boldly telling us that it clearly wasn’t worth her time to watch something that was critical of Mormonism in any way, shape, or form.  This produced within me a feeling of sadness and pessimism that, combined with the first experience, has resulted in a state of confusion. 

I am no longer sure where to stand in attempting to gauge to the general church membership’s attitude toward recent developments in Mormon studies and the continual strain between intellectuals and the church.  While I feel secure in the ground I have personally staked out in regard to the matter, I no longer feel comfortable labeling groups within the church based on education, age, or activity as more or less open to academic interest in Mormon history and the difficulties that accompany it.


[1] Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 224.

[2] O’Dea, The Mormons, 240.


  1. Christopher: I have had similar experiences, talking with some members who are extremely open about things and some who are extremely defesive. Most of the members that I have talked with simply don’t seem to be thinking about intellectual issues much one way or another. I am doubtful that I can generalized a great deal from my own experience, as I have attended a number of very differnt kinds of wards in my adult life — BYU wards, singles wards in DC, singles branch in Newport News, two family wards in Northern Virginia, a Cambridge Ward filled with Harvard and MIT grad students, a Little Rock Arkansas Ward, a ward in the Avenues in SLC, my ward in Williamsburg, etc. There is an amazing and powerful commonality between all of these very different communities, but they have been different. I tend to be more skeptical that I used to be about my own ability to generalized about “Mormons” with great confidence. Perhaps the best way of thinking about this is to say that there is a healthy diversity of opinion.

    FWIW, I have had extremely positive interactions with my local leadership about my interests in Mormon history. I regularlly talk with my bishop and his wife about LDS history. When my stake president found out that I was doing research on the Mormon court system, he gave me an old copy of the General Handbook of Instructions. The first counselor in the stake presidency is our local institute director, and he has come to my office to talk about Mormon history and borrow some of my books, etc.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 27, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  2. I think even us rank-and-file members who have been paying any attention know there are difficulties in Mormon history. I maintain some skepticism of ever really knowing the full story, so I often will be very caustious of what I hear from the scholars and intelectuals, and question what their motives are.

    When I consider things like the PBS documentary, and having so much time devoted to MMM, and modern polygamists, and Margaret Toscano then I wonder about how objective the whole thing was. While these things might make for better television and funding, I do not think they are what the church is about. So when it comes to women in the church we get Tascono and not a good overview of Relief Society, etc.

    So when scholars and intellectuals strut their stuff, it is so often fringe stuff that seem to ignore or miss the core.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 27, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  3. Thanks for this post, Chris. I think that you articulate well an issue that many of us face. A large part of the problem, I believe, is the interplay between “faithful” narratives of the church’s past and more “academic” narratives. These narratives are often complimentary but at other times they are divergent. Rather than seek to reconcile the narratives, I think that most Mormons try to discredit whichever narrative that they don’t like. “Intellectuals” try to take apart the “faithful” narratives while “rank-and-file” Mormons try to discredit “scholarly” narratives by casting them as unreliable. (I use so many quotes because I realize that each of the categories that I’ve set up here is in no way stable or exclusionary. I realize that many that read this blog, including myself, would construct themselves as both faithful and intellectual.)

    Comment by David G. — February 27, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  4. Great post Chris. I have had similar experiences to Nate, and your experience with the ladies is similar to some experiences I have had over the last year or so. People love the Gospel and the Church and it seems to me just as people love their families, often with some experience folk are open to the idea that just like families the Church has had some tough times.

    As far as the young folk, I think that the greatest shift is among the scholars. The older scholars (both conservative and liberal) seem to be incredulous the the young scholars can grapple with tough issues without either taking an activist stand or leaving the Church – which is simply dysfunctional.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 27, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  5. Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

    Nate, I think that you’re right that it’s good to approach the situation as evidence of “a healthy diversity of opinion.”

    Eric, I don’t want to turn this thread into a forum for arguing the merits of Helen Whitney’s film. My reaction of disappointment would have been much different if my friend has seen The Mormons and wasn’t pleased with it. That’s fair. What seems sad to me is the idea that some Latter-day Saints can’t approach their faith in an intellectual or critical manner at all, and refuse to even view or read anything resembling an academic narrative of Church history.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  6. David, you articulated well what I was trying to in my post. I like to think that I, like you, have staked out a position that is a healthy mixture of the faithful and intellectual approaches to the Church, its history, and its culture.

    J., interesting observation about “the young folk.” I think you make a valid point. And I like your analogy to a family.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  7. Chris, good post. I’m reminded of the discussion going on pre-‘nacle about “faithful” vs “objective” history, with Louis Midgley at BYU heavily involved.

    I think we’ve come a fair distance since then, and I certainly see a refreshing new approach to church history that is on a par with the “Camelot” of Leonard Arrinton’s days. These things do tend to run in cycles, but the pendulum swings seem to be moving further towards an honest evaluation of the church’s history. I found RSR fascinating, challenging on some levels, but ultimately strengthening my testimony of Joseph Smith. Others that I have talked with, though, have been critical or dismissive of Bushman’s work.

    Wasn’t it Joseph Smith himself who said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest”? The tension O’Dea wrote about I think will always be present, but is vital for the church to continue to grow and mature. Our history is so tied up with our doctrine that we can’t ignore it, and how we handle it now will help to set a tone for the decades to come.

    I love paradoxes, usually.

    Comment by kevinf — February 27, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  8. Pardon my spelling, that’s Arrington. Typing dyslexia again.

    Comment by kevinf — February 27, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  9. Nate, Regarding your comment that “I have had extremely positive interactions with my local leadership about my interests in Mormon history. I regularlly talk with my bishop and his wife about LDS history.”

    I’m glad and encouraged by reports like this, and I’ve heard many of them in the recent past.


    Thanks for your comments. I think you’re probably correct in your assessment, and I think (hope?) the church and its scholars are better prepared to handle the “honest evaluation of the church?s history” than they were in Arrington’s day.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  10. Great post.

    My general concern has been with the rank-and-file members of the Church with whom I rub elbows who don’t seem to spend much time thinking about the gospel in depth, as far as I can tell. Some even seem a little suspicious that I like to research Church history and religious doctrine in general. Then I come online and feel like the smallest fish in the biggest pond. If only I knew some people who were really interested in my day-to-day non-internet life!

    Comment by BHodges — February 27, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  11. There’s always been a spectrum, in my experience. 10-15 years ago I had people telling me that I had “saved” their testimony, while other people were announcing that I was the worst heretic on the East Coast. Today, same thing, some people tell me I’ve given them a spiritual connection to Mormonism that they treasure, others say I’m threatening to faith. I think the trick is to not take yourself too seriously in all this. Who knows what God thinks of the faith walks of others, including the “provincial obscurantists”? I certainly don’t. And no one was ever damned for ignoring my scholarship.

    Comment by smb — February 27, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  12. Interesting post, Chris.

    I think that some of this tension is loosening while many more people are becoming more interested in “scholarly” history. From my experience, the lay member of the Church is much more likely to appreciate certain views if they personally know someone who holds them. When they realize that someone they know, trust, and admire is willing to look at history in a “scholarly” way, they suddenly think, “hey, since person X thinks its ok, then there must be some merit to it.”

    Comment by Ben — February 27, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  13. “I think the trick is to not take yourself too seriously in all this. Who knows what God thinks of the faith walks of others, including the ?provincial obscurantists?? I certainly don?t. And no one was ever damned for ignoring my scholarship.”

    Amen and Amen!

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 28, 2008 @ 7:53 am

  14. My experience has been much the same as everyone else’s. Many members are not only threatened by considering non-Mormon perspectives on historical and theological matters but, it seems, by thinking about it at all! And some seem to think you are starting down the road to trouble for thinking about it too much. I think that it reflects a sad lack of confidence that reasoned analysis could end up confirming one’s testimony. I understand that historical precedent has gone the other way in the past, but these should be examples that we improve on, not abandon altogether.

    Also, on the subject of “sources of strain”, I was really hoping that Terryl Givens’ last book People of Paradox would be a contribution, or an update, on O’Dea’s writings on the matter. In my opinion, it showed a disappointing lack of depth in that regard.

    Comment by AHLDuke — February 28, 2008 @ 7:27 pm


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