Set Aside Whether Or Not Mormon Fundamentalists Are Mormon. The Better Question Is, Are They Fundamentalist?

By July 13, 2010

A lot of people would say no, including the last president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley. Most attention to such arguments is directed at their rejection of the right of ?Mormon fundamentalists? to claim that first word. The denial of their right to the second, then, is an effort like unto it, piggybacking on the effort to sever any remaining cultural filaments which connect the polygamist sects of Texas, Arizona, and so on to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Following these arguments, the word ?fundamentalist? does not apply for the same reasons that ?Mormon? does not. The logic is: you can?t be a fundamentalist X if you are shut out of participation in X in the first place. As the scholar and critic of the fundamentalist Mormons Brian Hales puts it, ?Critics of the ?fundamentalist Mormons? argue that they do not qualify for the title because they do not adhere to the fundamental teachings of Joseph Smith.? In Hinckley?s words, ?This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members.? Therefore, he continues, “There is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.”

The problem with this position is that it elects to pick its fight on the Mormon fundamentalists? home court. Hales?s argument rests upon the premise that fundamentalist Mormons emphasize certain of Joseph Smith?s teachings but reject others, and have developed new doctrines since they became a self-aware movement. But this challenges the fundamentalists by first granting them their presuppositions ? that is, that to be a fundamentalist is to cling as closely as possible to whatever the original teachings of a faith might be. Hales rests his case on the presumption that they do not. This is not only a tactical error, but an interpretive one as well.

It?s more useful, I think, to define fundamentalism not in terms of doctrinal oneupsmanship, but rather, as an impulse, an orientation, a way of understanding what it is to practice and believe religion. In the tremendously apologetic (because they seem to view it as presumptuous to try to turn fundamentalism into a cross-cultural, multi-religious phenomenon in the first place, though they rightly point out that everybody?s already doing this anyway) introduction to their series Fundamentalisms, R. Scott Appleby and Martin Marty point out that ?fundamentalism? is most useful to describe the way a religious community views itself in relation to the world around it, and the word they use more than any other is ?fight.?[1] Fundamentalists differ from conservatives or traditionalists in that they perceive certain aspects of their core identity under threat from outside forces: cultural, institutional, intellectual, and they react by circling the wagons, by forthrightly challenging corruption and insisting upon purity, by emphasizing difference rather than pursuing engagement. And to do this, they sometimes ? nay, frequently ? innovate in practice, theology, and institution. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Studies of multiple other fundamentalists movements ? George Marsden on the granddaddy of them all, Protestant fundamentalism, Ian Lustick on Jewish fundamentalism, Bernard Lewis on Islamic fundamentalism ? reveals that innovation, innovation in service of the idealized fundamentalist community, rests near the heart of any movement. This means that noteworthy features of fundamentalism, like theories of scriptural inerrancy, apocalypticism, a revisionist sacred history ? and Mormon fundamentalism?s developed theologies of priesthood and polygamy – are symptoms rather than causes, and certainly not internal contradictions.

Ultimately, it seems to me that Hales?s argument emerges from the same place as Hinckley?s; that is, a desire to exile Mormon fundamentalism from the Restoration movement of Joseph Smith. There?s good reason for this; the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, beset by tawdry child abuse scandals, in particular is nobody?s idea of a beloved denominational cousin. But at the same time there?s a natural academic desire to be evenhanded here, to kick back at Hales and Hinckley?s perspectives as ultimately devotional rather than academic, and therefore inimical to scholars? ability to rise above denominational turf wars and apologetic bickering and evince respect for beliefs we may not share. This is not meant, then, as a presumptuous assertion of academia over some straw man of denominational provincialism, but rather an observation that these sorts of conversations are always, ultimately, ongoing.

[1] Martin Marty and R Scott Appleby, ?Introduction,? Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991) vii-xiv.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


  1. Nice, Matt. While i understand the impulse, I’ve never agreed with the assertion that there’s no such thing as a Mormon fundamentalist.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 13, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

  2. Thoughtful analysis, as ever, Matt.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 13, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  3. Thanks for this, Matt. I think you are largely right that the common rejection of ‘fundamentalism’ in this case is largely due to identity politics. This dispute seems to be another result of the separation between public and academic discourse.

    Even if they don’t use this terminology, it seems that when arguments like those of Hinckley and Hales are made, they are thinking more of ‘Fundamentalist Mormons,’ where ‘Mormon’ is the dominant identifier and ‘Fundamentalist’ is a distinguishing adjective, thus making identity issues within Mormonism the focus. However, as you point out, modern polygamists are also a part of another form of discourse, as ‘Mormon Fundamentalists,’ where they are associated with the larger academic study of fundamentalism and ‘Mormon’ is now the adjective and not the central focus. Or maybe I’m just rambling and not making any sense except in my own mind.

    Anyways, well done.

    Comment by Ben — July 14, 2010 @ 8:09 am

  4. A good reminder that the term “fundamentalist” is both porous and often angry, neither of which is particularly useful for understanding religious groups well. Though I think Matt is a fundamentalist.

    Comment by smb — July 14, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  5. So by seeking to exclude “Fundamentalist Mormons” are Hales and Hinckley “circling the wagons” and becoming fundamentalists themselves?

    Comment by Giglamesh — July 14, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  6. Hmmmm. I like your way of thinking about this. Few fundamentalist are truly going back to the “fundamentals” but are usually arguing for there own interpretation. Even the mainline SLC Church make claims to early practive of the Restored Church and the Ancient Church which really do not connect.

    Comment by Chris H. — July 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  7. Thanks, folks. I think Ben and G are on to something, though I’d retreat pretty quickly from the notion that Hales and Hinckley are moving toward fundamentalism, for a number of reasons. The most important of those are that fundamentalists generally take the term as a badge of honor, and embrace the sense of being a remnant or embattled minority which it implies. This is certainly not true of the LDS church.

    Sam – word.

    Comment by matt b. — July 14, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  8. So, which group is fundamentalist – the prairie saints who stuck around, or the mountain saints who fled west?

    Comment by Paul — July 15, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  9. Paul – see seven.

    Comment by matt b. — July 15, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

  10. At a certain point, “fundamentalist” no longer means adhering to the “fundamental” beliefs of a particular religion. In fact, I think we’ve already reached that point, since I don’t think that “fundamentalist Christians” or “fundamentalist Muslims” believe in the tenets of their respective faiths that are fundamental; they believe in a particular kind of literalism and traditionalism — intermixed with reactionary conservativism — that we define as “fundamentalist.”

    At the end of the day, I presume that everyone defines their own beliefs as those that are “fundamental” to their own religion; at the same time, we have to call each other something, and in this particular case “polygamists” won’t do.

    Comment by John Hamer — July 21, 2010 @ 1:12 am

  11. […] past and the present. (See here, here, here, and here, for example. Also, and especially, here, and here) A recent and significant contribution to these debates comes from Harvard historian Jill Lepore, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Historical Fundamentalism and Mormon History — November 1, 2010 @ 8:36 am


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