For the next several days, the Juvenile Instructor will examine the work of the sociologist Armand Mauss, a pioneering figure in Mormon studies, under the banner of our occasional series “Reassessing the Classics.” For the next three days, several scholars will examine Mauss’s landmark 1994 book THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE: THE MORMON STRUGGLE WITH ASSIMILATION (University of Illinois Press). First: Gary and Gordon Shepherd, sociologists in their own right and the authors of a number of well-regarded works in Mormon studies, including A KINGDOM TRANSFORMED: EARLY MORMONISM AND THE MODERN LDS CHURCH (2nd edition, University of Utah Press, 2015).
Armand Mauss’s The Angel and The Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation was published in 1994 by the University of Illinois Press. Angel and the Beehive quickly became a landmark work in Mormon studies that continues to be referenced by scholars of contemporary Mormonism to this day. This was Armand’s first, full-fledged book—one that had been simmering on the backburner of his mind for 25 years. In it, Armand applied the sociological notion of assimilation and the economics notion of retrenchment to show how the late 20th Century LDS Church was attempting to apply the brakes to liberalizing compromises in belief and practice that had been made in the early and middle decades of the 20th Century.
Society at large exerts pressures on perceived deviant groups (emerging from within or entering from outside a host society) to conform to prevailing norms and values, compelling them towards assimilation into established society. But if such groups become totally assimilated, they of course lose their distinctive identity and original purpose for being. One strategy to deal with these losses is to attempt “retrenchment”: a cut-back on compromises and perhaps even a return to original principles. Angel and the Beehive examined this retrenchment strategy as a response of LDS officials during the 1950s through the 1980s to perceived liberalizing tendencies in society that seemed to threaten basic LDS tenets if allowed to be adopted by church members. Armand proposed that church leaders were in effect saying: “Assimilation has gone far enough. Let’s start remembering the things that have made us a peculiar people.”
Particular areas Armand identified as indicators of retrenchment efforts included: (1) increased emphasis on continuous revelation through modern prophets; (2) renewed emphasis on temples, temple work, and genealogical research; (3) expansion and standardization of missionary work; (4) renewed emphasis on family values; and (5) expansion of formal religious education and indoctrination. A large portion of his book marshalled supportive evidence for retrenchment emphasis in these areas, some of the evidence being social science research data drawn from a variety of sources (including my brother Gordon’s and my content analysis of General Conference addresses over a 150-year period, 1830-1979), while other evidence was garnered from standard historical sources and Armand’s own extensive involvement with and knowledge of relevant events. Armand’s presentation and analysis of evidence was persuasive and impactful on the ways that scholars viewed the dynamics of changing LDS policies.
Following publication of Angel and the Beehive, Armand continued to think about the assimilation and retrenchment issue for the LDS Church over succeeding years. Generally speaking, in the case of new or radical religious organizations, complete resistance or uncompromising retreat from changes demanded by the outside world can result in destruction of the group by the larger society, extreme isolation, failure to attract or even maintain members, or internal schism and division, as some group members break away to retain their purity while others continue along the path of compromise and ultimate assimilation.
Another possibility, however, is to find an acceptable middle ground in which a certain amount of tension between group and society continues; the group wants to maintain certain distinctions, but not so much that the group is in danger of being suppressed into extinction or so little that the group simply morphs into a bland version of already existing groups in the larger world. Since change in modern societies is axiomatic, this middle ground path must continually be monitored and adjusted to maintain an “optimum” balance of tension between social compromise and group distinctiveness. In a 2011 Dialogue article, Armand reconsidered his retrenchment thesis in this light and concluded that for the previous two decades “LDS general authorities [had] gradually introduced a series of changes in church policy that have had the cumulative effect of pulling the pendulum of ecclesiastical culture back somewhat from the retrenchment mode and toward assimilation.”
In this analysis, Armand identified the partial reversal of retrenchment (swinging of the pendulum back to more assimilating compromise) as occurring primarily in the areas of (1) LDS scriptural and doctrinal understandings, (2) gender and family policies, (3) issues of homosexuality, and (4) rapprochement with independent scholarship in Mormon studies. Armand was careful to qualify his observations by saying “I haven’t yet gathered the kind of systematic data needed for reliable conclusions. Nor am I claiming there has been a wholesale rollback of retrenchment policies, but only some relatively modest ‘course corrections.’”
As it happened, Gordon and I were in a position to generate empirical results that could test Armand’s new “course correction” hypothesis as a corollary to his earlier assimilation and retrenchment thesis. We did this by carrying out a 30-year update (1980-2009) of our original content analysis of General Conference addresses. In so doing, we formulated specific empirical tests of LDS leader’s changing emphasis on themes that represented most of the areas Armand had predicted would swing away from retrenchment concerns back towards greater accommodation and reduction of social tension. Our results were consistent with Armand’s expectations and thus lend some empirical support, previously lacking, for his “course correction” hypothesis. (See the 2nd edition of our retitled A Kingdom Transformed: Early Mormonism and the Modern LDS Church. 2016, University of Utah Press, pp.202-04; 2011-28.)
Our own unsystematic observations of more recent changes in LDS Church policies—during the later stage of President Monson’s presidency and the new and current presidency of President Nelson—indicate to us an ongoing set of pendulum swings between retrenchment and societal accommodation, perhaps seemingly a bit more in the direction of accommodation. This especially seems true in such arenas as women’s’ status, rapprochement with professional scholarship, and doctrinal/historical exposition. But policies continue to be much less accommodating on LGBT issues and decidedly less so on insistence of unquestioning compliance with directives claimed to be the product of current prophetic revelation. Meanwhile, Armand, we can be sure, continues to surveil these organizational dynamics at play within the conceptual framework he has done so much to clarify for us.