Reflections on Matthew Bowman’s “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism,” JMH50 Roundtable

By March 26, 2015

JMH50In 1991, the iconoclastic historian Jon Butler brought forth one of the greatest of his many “historiographical heresies.” Well known for being an ardent revisionist, Butler had called the previous year in his important book Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990) for narratives that paid more attention to the enduring and even escalating power of religious institutions in nineteenth-century America. Institutional power, he suggested, had been unduly marginalized in the pursuit of other interests. In 1991, however, Butler took this logic all the way and proposed an entirely new model for American religious history, one that was sure to astound many of his colleagues. In the heyday of the new scholarship on American evangelicalism and during the very apotheosis of Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler insisted that–of all groups–Roman Catholics could serve as a productive baseline for American religious history. Catholicism in America, he argued, more than the hurly-burly of American evangelicalism, could help historians account for hidden aspects of the religious past. [1]

Matt Bowman’s recent essay in the Journal of Mormon History limning an approach “Toward A Catholic History of Mormonism” brings inspiration from Butler’s provocative article into the world of Mormon history. Recognizing the longstanding association of Mormonism with the democratic upsurge of the early nineteenth century, Bowman’s purpose in the essay is to argue for something quite different. Although he acknowledges that plotting Mormonism into evangelical Protestantism has it merits, he insists that “certain features of Roman Catholicism’s American experience offer far more illuminating parallels.” Aspects of American Catholicism, in other words, can orient our views of Mormonism in enlightening ways that the usual frame of “evangelical Protestantism’s democratic ethos” leaves inaccessible.

For my money, the case that Bowman makes for the utility of Catholicism is compelling one. The most obvious virtue of Bowman’s argument is that it offers precisely what the democratic narratives have been missing–conceptual accounting for Mormonism’s institutional or structural core, for matters of priesthood, hierarchy, authority, patriarchy, ecclesiology, etc. Bowman’s argument here in fact extends and makes explicit what many scholars, including some of us here at the JI, have been groping after. In his somewhat recent article, for example, Ben Park takes issue with Nathan Hatch’s democratization thesis, arguing that Mormons assembled a religious patriarchy in response to democratization, rather than reveling in it. [2] Likewise, I took up some related questions of ecclesiology in a presentation on “Mormon ‘Priesthood’ and the Crisis of Authority in the Early Republic” given at last year’s SHEAR conference. There I noted that while Mormonism certainly espouses a priesthood of all believers, seemingly well suited to democratic times, its institutional structure quickly became vertically oriented and represents an answer to the vacuum of authority that came out of revival. Bowman’s proposal potentially underwrites these arguments (and many similar ones) in a wonderfully auspicious way.

As Bowman points out, however, institutional awareness is only the first benefit that a Catholic sensibility has to offer; it also makes sense in view of the political problems and popular antipathy which both faiths have endured, the challenges of ethnic and theological diversity, and the difficulty of adapting tradition to the conditions of a global enterprise. Bowman is quick to point out that even as an institutional lens can better account for the solidarity of Mormonism, it can also potentially account for the fact that institutions are seldom monolithic. Despite its unitary structure, American Catholicism has been a heterogeneous mass of ethnic, liturgical, and doctrinal diversity; Garden of the Soul English aristocrats and French priests, Germans and Irish and Italians and more have all tugged at one time or another on opposite ends of the institutional fabric. Diverse schools of thought have competed within the institutional structure. And debates over worship have dialectically produced an evolving liturgy. All of this diversity opens the way, Bowman suggests, for a similar recognition of Mormonism’s own pluralities, both in its early periods and those more recent. In the intellectual and practical struggles of Catholics, we begin to see possibility of theological and liturgical diversity within the boundaries of the institutional body. Bowman goes so far as to claim that such diversity has been a hallmark of Mormonism from the beginning.

I’ve said that Bowman’s case is a compelling one, and yet one could still say that it remains incomplete. In his article, Bowman has little space or occasion to discuss the history of religious practice (though he certainly has addressed this elsewhere) [3]. My own recent study of baptism and baptism for the dead, however, certainly affirms how fruitful Bowman’s model is here as well. I have argued, and continue to argue, that mid-19th century Mormonism gave rather rapid birth to an atypical conception of ritual, a sacramental theology which set it off even more starkly from the anti-ritualistic mainstream of American culture. At that time, through dynamic engagement with the rite of baptism, Mormons developed a sacramental view of Christian ordinances, an understanding of ritual practices that became inseparably tied to teachings about priesthood and salvation. Mormons forged therefore not only a suite of distinctive rituals during this period, but a qualitatively distinct notion of ritual that has had crucial implications for the tradition’s historical development. The value of Bowman’s model for this line of study is obvious when one considers that Catholicism, with its long tradition of sacerdotal and sacramental theology, forms the most useful parallel for the sacramental faith that Mormonism has gradually become. It is no coincidence that during the nineteenth century Mormons and Catholics were jointly maligned for practicing what mainstream Protestants thought were bizarre “mysteries,” unholy “mummeries,” and rank superstitions.

Still, the greatest value of Bowman’s proposal as I see it stems from what would appear to be its long-term durability: it seems destined to become only more productive and apposite as the decades wear on. If current trajectories and social trends are any indication, Mormonism in the future may continue to share progressively less with evangelical Christianity and progressively more with Catholicism. Perhaps sensing these trends, in fact, Mormon and Catholic leaders have begun to find common cause and common footing. Many of the questions that most challenge each of these communities–questions of theological tradition, political influence, globalization, authority, dissent–are questions that they share most directly with one another. Thus perhaps we can say that Bowman’s recommendations are highly suggestive for the nineteenth century and they are compelling for the twentieth. But they may become well-nigh indispensable as the events of the twenty-first century extend themselves. Stimulating as it was, Jon Butler’s quirky essay in 1991 landed with an underwhelming thud among scholars of American religion, and it was soon sloughed off into the musty realm of ancient edited volumes. Bowman’s version is far more intuitive and has the potential for a truly explosive impact. For the perceptive reasons that he gives and more besides, Catholicism ought to become a touchstone in our historiographical future.


[1] Jon Butler, “Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as Model for American Religious History,” in Belief in History: Innovative Approaches to European and American Religion, ed. Thomas Kselman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 286-309)

[2] Benjamin E. Park, “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History 14, no. 2 (2013): 183-208.

[3] Matthew Bowman, “History Through Liturgy: What Worship Remembers,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 2 (2012): 108-113.

Article filed under JIers in Print Methodology, Academic Issues Responses Ritual


  1. Great thoughts, Ryan. This is the piece in #JMH50 that has the largest impact on the future of Mormon historiography. Thanks for summarizing and engaging!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 27, 2015 @ 7:52 am

  2. Thanks, Ryan!

    Comment by Saskia — March 27, 2015 @ 9:38 am

  3. Yeah, I really like what Bowman is doing. The comparison to the Modernist Crisis and Vatican II are so great.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

  4. Nicely put Ryan. You might be interested to know that in my course on the History of the Reformation, we always pause at the end of the major religious movements to compare them to Mormonism, and many students see for the first time that in regard to the major issues of the Reformation (grace and works, scripture and hierarchy, church order, and about 5 more) , modern Mormons are more like Catholics on all but one: the only exception is Sunday liturgy, but if you include temple rituals and work for the dead well then there are some strong comparisons there too. So this recognition is growing, and Matt does a great job articulating the importance of it.

    Comment by Craig H. — March 27, 2015 @ 10:38 pm

  5. ^^ Like.
    We inherited so much Protestant identity, even though we are much closer to Catholics in many ways.

    Comment by Ben S — March 30, 2015 @ 7:53 am


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