THE CHURCH: Non-Mormons, Ex-Mormons, and the Perceptions of Mormonism

By May 22, 2013

Note: I have tamed my views considerably since high school. Not living in Southeastern Idaho for a while has helped.  Anyone who would like to critique my rash, abrasive high school self should remember their own foibles first and that I was acting from a place of pain and alienation.  I?m also not saying that Ed Decker or Fanny Stenhouse is correct in their depiction of Mormonism ? just that we need to take their geographic location seriously.

Recently, there has been a spate of work about how Mormons have been perceived in American popular culture.  Spencer Fluhman recently published A Peculiar People, which explores the role that anti-Mormonism played in defining what counted as ?religion? in the United States in the nineteenth century and what was dismissed as fanaticism and lunacy. J.B. Haws will also be publishing a book on the Mormon image in the twentieth century with the same publisher next year.  Cristine Hutchinson-Jones and Megan Goodwin have both written about the public perception of Mormonism on this and other blogs.  (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.)

Although I have used a lot of this work in my dissertation and have found their analyses of American culture to be insightful and incisive, I am still conflicted about the way that they portray critics of Mormonism.  Most of the work that has been published about perceptions of Mormonism as focused on the how Americans as a whole perceive Mormonism.  There is little attention paid to regional variation.  As a result, a lot of the contest over the meaning of Mormonism that happens within Mormon circles and within the Intermountain West is lost.  According to most analyses of public perceptions of Mormonism, most Americans now see Mormonism as naïve, overly friendly, and slightly odd.  They are people who have been duped and who believe bizarre things ? in planets called Kolob, in Jews who traveled to America, and in golden plates.  As Cristine and Megan have also pointed out, there is a darker side to contemporary portrayals of Mormonism.  Mormons are seen as uniformly conservative and as blocking progress in regards to the status of women and the rights of sexual minorities.  Books like Jon Krakauer?s Under the Banner of Heaven have also portrayed Mormons as potentially violent and disruptive.  Although both of these portrayals are common within American culture, as a whole, the latter is much more common in my experience among those who have lived in the American West than among the American populace as a whole.

For people living in the wider United States, Mormonism is a small, minority religion that is mysterious and slightly odd.  For those within the Intermountain West, however, Mormonism is a powerful entity.  Growing up, I felt that the Mormon Church controlled not only local politics but also the tenor of my education, the standards by which my morality was judged, and discussions about religious faith.  Every year, I endured missionary week when the local seminary encouraged its students to spread the gospel to their friends.  I sat quietly as my teachers told us skipped over evolution and sex ed as inappropriate topics for discussion, and I listened as a Mormon student prayed at graduation on behalf of the entire graduating class.  My non-Mormon friends and I responded to the ever-presence of Mormonism within our lives by reading A LOT of anti-Mormon literature.  I first learned about the temple and what happened inside from Deborah Laake?s Secret Ceremonies, which I read as a junior in high school.  Likewise, my introduction to Mountain Meadows came from  Whenever my Mormon friends tried to witness to me about Mormonism, I asked them about Joseph Smith?s polygamous wives, the Kinderhook plates, the Masonic meaning of the green aprons in the temple, the priesthood restriction, and about the lack of physical evidence of an Israelite civilization in the Americas.  I rolled my eyes when my friends eagerly told me about how Mayan temples were proof that Lamanites had existed and responded that the Book of Mormon contained several anachronisms including references to horses and steel.  I was insufferable and hot headed, at times.  I assumed that I knew more about Mormonism than my Mormon friends did.  My non-Mormon friends and I occasionally mocked the faith of our Mormon friends when they weren?t around.  What made our actions different than anti-Mormonism in the rest of the United States is that we didn?t think that we were attacking a small cult or ridiculing a marginalized religious group.  We saw ourselves as speaking truth to power.  For us, the Mormon Church was THE CHURCH.  All of us had Mormon family members.  All of us had experienced endless bouts of proselytizing, and all of us had been judged as slutty or less than for not living up to modesty and health standards that we hadn?t agreed to.  Our understanding inverted the power dynamic assumed by much of the literature on public perceptions of Mormonism.  We saw evangelical Christianity and Protestantism as a minority religion in danger of being snuffed out and Mormonism as the dominant force determining our lives.

The assumption that the church is all-powerful pervades a lot of anti-Mormon literature published by authors from the Intermountain West.  Although some people from the Intermountain West like Bernard DeVoto or John Fitzgerald published humane accounts of Mormonism, others like Ed Decker,* Jerald and Sandra Tanner,** and even John Krakauer*** reflect the bitterness and sense of powerless that I felt as a teenager.  Even saner accounts of Mormonism written by ex-Mormons or non-Mormons from the Intermountain West often contain the sense that the church, rather than being a marginalized community, is a powerful entity with the ability to control the political landscape.  Sonia Johnson, for example, saw herself as fighting against an opponent with enormous political and financial power.****

The writings of ex-Mormons and non-Mormons from the Intermountain West have been enormously influential in the way that Mormonism is portrayed within academia and American culture.  Krakauer?s book, for example, was a national bestseller and Decker?s film The God Makers is available in various clips and formats on You Tube.  Hits for the various versions vary from 60 or 70 views to over 14,000.  Understanding their influence on public perceptions of Mormonism ultimately requires understanding the internal dynamics of communities within the Mormon Corridor.  Although Krakauer?s book can be placed within a wider history of American depictions of Mormonism as violent, it can also been seen as part of a paranoia among non-Mormons in the American West with the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the wrongs done to non-Mormons in Utah and Idaho.  This is as important for historians studying the nineteenth century as it is for historians of the twentieth.  Ann Eliza Young, Fanny Stenhouse, and Charlotte Cobb Godbe were all former Mormons who saw themselves as critiquing a community from which they had come.  Although they often used language similar to critiques in the East Coast, it is important to understand their arguments as part of a conversation emerging within a particular community.  None of these women were originally outsiders to the Mormon community.  In fact, all of them were in one way or another related to and part of Brigham Young?s family.  Bonus points to anyone who can tell me how the Stenhouses are related to Young.  If we treat their work as simply another depiction of Mormonism, we miss out on what is truly going on.

* Ed Decker converted to Mormonism while at the University of Utah.

** Jerald and Sandra Tanner currently live in Utah. Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Jerald Tanner passed away in 2006.  Although I knew that he had passed away a few years ago, for some reason, it didn’t pop into mind as I was describing him as living in Utah.  Tanner’s death was caused by complications from Alzheimer’s.

***Although not from Utah or Idaho, Krakauer has lived in Oregon and Colorado and grew up as he puts it ?among the Mormons.?  He has also been involved in efforts to provide homes to boys who are abandoned by their polygamous families.

****Sonia Johnson is from Malad, Idaho.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very helpful. “America” is a big place, and Mormonism’s shadow in the West is long. Both are good to keep in mind. The broader point is important, too – that arguments (whether scholarly or religious or political) emerge in particular cultural contexts and from local histories. National narratives are tricky business; where people speak from is as essential to understand as what they say.

    Comment by Tona H — May 22, 2013 @ 6:22 am

  2. This is insightful and important stuff, Amanda. As someone whose current work focuses on regional variations and local contexts for broader discussions, your points ring true. Thanks for opening up your own history to make the message so much more poignant.

    Have you looked at the documentary book Playing With Shadows? It might match what you are calling for.

    Comment by Ben P — May 22, 2013 @ 6:29 am

  3. Easy peasy on the bonus points: Clara, a daughter of T.B.H. and Fanny, married Brigham’s son Joseph A. and was mother to four of Brigham’s grandchildren (and her children from her later marriage to the wacky Agramonte used the Young surname throughout their lives, rather than the name of their own father).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 22, 2013 @ 7:39 am

  4. This is great, Amanda. Thank you.

    I can empathize with your experience of Mormonism as a young person, in a way, because I grew up in the rural South. Conservative evangelical Protestantism — particularly Southern Baptists — felt to me as Mormonism clearly felt to you. I’m sure that sense shapes my own work, and your post is a good reminder to me that my experience isn’t everyone’s, and I need to remember that and be more conscious of the ways that experience shapes my work — particularly my tone, I think.

    I definitely struggle with how to balance the critiques of those with some sort of “insider” knowledge (Mormons, ex-Mormons, and non-Mormons from the intermountain West) with the broader “American” perceptions that I found so deeply troubling. You’re absolutely right that they’re different in their motivations and their knowledge base. (Though, as we all know, their are varying degrees of membership and of knowledge among members!) In point of fact, I say very little about some of these sources in my own work. For example, I only deal with the news media’s coverage of Sonia Johnson — I don’t deal directly with her book because it is, in so many ways, an internally directed critique, and its contents weren’t really discussed at length in the media in the way that her public support of the ERA and her excommunication were. The Tanners, Decker, and Krakauer are different in large part because they *aimed* for a much wider audience *and they got it.*

    That’s the key for me. As I said in my comments on Megan Goodwin’s recent post, I’m not concerned simply with the content of the materials I’m examining, but also with who’s reading/viewing them. It’s important to remember that while an author or creator may have significant knowledge and direct experience of Mormonism, their audience, if it extends beyond the bounds of the intermountain West, likely doesn’t. In my work, I focus on materials that have reach a broad American audience, which I identify primarily by looking for things that receive attention in the form of advertising, reviews, news and op-ed pieces, etc., in national media. They’re influencing an audience that does not have the deeper knowledge of Mormonism that those from the intermountain West generally do, and such sources very often don’t provide the kind of nuanced background that would help an uninformed person better understand the Mormons *before* they consume the critiques being leveled at them.

    This is clearly an important topic, and I would love to see more work on the regional representations of Mormonism within the intermountain West. As we’ve talked about before, I’ve definitely recognize a difference in the kind and quality of materials I’ve seen generated out of that region (DeVoto and Stegner — who weren’t always friendly, but who were at least knowledgeable, nuanced, and fair — Fitzgerald, Virginia Sorensen, etc.).

    Comment by Cristine — May 22, 2013 @ 8:58 am

  5. I was going to write something, and then I read Cristine’s comment, which I think is tremendously important and gets at the bulk of my thoughts. I grew up in the Seattle area, a couple of miles away from Ed Decker’s establishment, and then went to high school in rural Missouri (Assembly of God country) where his materials were often distributed by churches. How this work was consumed varied greatly, I’d imagine between these regions and rural Southeastern Idaho. I also think that the recent work on his organization showing how it shifted from a Mormon outreach group to a counter-cult ministry which sort of pandered to Evangelical Christianity is tremendously important and fits into the interplay between creation and reception.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 22, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  6. These are excellent points, Amanda. I think it is also important not to dismiss or merely problematize but to take into consideration the “who, why, when,” and intended audience of a specific work. When I started to take an interest in Mormonism after discovering my then fiance’s extended family was mostly Mormon, I went to the Brooklyn Public Library to check some books out. The books they had there were by or in the vein of Deborah Laake, John Krakauer, and Sonia Johnson. Of course, these were and have been popular books. When I tell people I am writing my dissertation about Mormonism to people outside of academia, I am almost always asked if I have read Krakauer’s book. What I wonder is what people who live outside of the Intermountain West get from this sort of literature? I wonder if it contributes to the idea that Mormonism is a smaller “weird” religion? I, also, wonder how much and what the “Mormon Moment” has done to change the image some of the literature present?

    Comment by NatalieR — May 22, 2013 @ 10:40 am

  7. I believe that Jerald Tanner is dead. Maybe you think living in Utah is the equivalent of being in hell, but some might disagree.

    Krakauer’s name is spelled “Jon.” And his experience, whatever it was, growing up “among the Mormons” in Oregon or California would put him well outside any place where the church was THE CHURCH.

    And wherever Sonia Johnson was from, hadn’t she lived in the East for years before she slipped the surly bonds?

    Comment by Mark B. — May 22, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  8. Tona – Thanks!

    Ben, I haven’t seen that one. I’ll have to watch it.

    Ardis – Haha… I should have known that one would be easy for you. Next time I’ll have to put a disclaimer… Bonus points for everyone except Ardis who will know the answer immediately. Your comment about the weirdness of Agramonte made me look up the origin of the last name. It appears to particularly common in Cuba. Do you know if the Agramonte she married was from Cuba? And if so, if he is related to the Agramontes from the Cuban revolution?

    Cristine and Jonathan, the question of who is receiving the work is clearly important, but one of the things that bothers me about the current scholarship (and I honestly don’t know whether or not you do this in your work or dissertation, Cristine, since I haven’t your read dissy) is that so little of it engages with the readers themselves. One of my favorite books is Janice A. Radway’s “Reading the Romance.” After feeling dissatisfied with the way that scholars approached romance novels, she decided to ask readers themselves why they read romance novels and what needs they were fulfilling. The result is a heavily nuanced examination of the role that romance novels play in promoting traditional marriage. I would love to see a similar analysis of how anti-Mormon literature is received. I am sure that it IS received differently in Missouri than in Idaho, but I haven’t seen the work that would show HOW it is received differently. Part of that is about cost. Doing the work requires embedding oneself in a community and doing heavy ethnographic research. I am looking forward to Rosemary Avance’s work, partially because funding from the Eccles’ Center allowed her to relocate for a year and live in one of the SLC suburbs.

    Mark B. – Thanks for the copy editing. I knew that Jerald Tanner died a few years ago from Alzheimer’s Disease, but for some reason it didn’t come to mind while writing this piece. His death, of course, doesn’t diminish the influence of his work or of the ministry that his wife carries on.”

    I’ve never lived in Utah, so I can’t comment on it being “hell,” but I can say that it was difficult to grow up as a non-Mormon in Idaho. Part of that was related to it being a small town, part of it was about the influence of the Mormon Church. I am sure that my experience would have been different if I had grown up in Park City or in Salt Lake City itself… although I have had Mormon friends from SLC tell me they noticed a similar division in their high schools and wished that there had been less division between Mormons and non-Mormons.

    As far as Sonia Johnson, I would argue that where we grow up continues to affect us well into adulthood even if we move away. I have some friends from certain parts of California and Oregon would argue with you about THE church part, but I have a feeling your critique isn’t so much about the substance of my argument as it is a reaction to the criticism inherent in my depiction of what it feels like to grow up as a non-Mormon in the Intermountain West.

    Comment by Amanda — May 22, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  9. Natalie, Excellent points. I haven’t seen any work that addresses the questions you raise, but I wanted to make a quick comment about the Mormon Moment. One of the things that really frustrated me about the Mormon Moment was how rarely the Mormon Church was viewed from the perspective of Utah or the surrounding areas. I wanted to hear about the role that Mormon Church played in local politics and the debates over its influence in the area. A part from the Rock Center special I was almost always disappointed.

    Ardis, never mind. I continued searching after I posted and found your wonderful Keepapitchinin story, which is fantastic reading and everyone should check it out.

    Comment by Amanda — May 22, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  10. Amanda, this is really quite far outside my competence, but based on my perception of our respective experiences, I would imagine that there would be a lot of similar observation of minority believers in regions with a strong majority religions. As I mentioned, I have no idea if any work in that area has been done or not.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 22, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  11. J. – I suspect you are right. Cristine’s comment about her experiences growing up in the South with a Baptist majority suggest the same. I’m not sure whether much work has been done either.

    Comment by Amanda — May 22, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  12. Another contrast would be with someone like Wallace Stegner, who grew up in Mormon Country but seemed to develop no animus against Mormons or Mormonism but instead something like affection. I suspect those who develop Stegner’s attitude get very little press, but those who see the Church as a menace to civilized society get a lot of press. So there is selection bias at work in what is published and read.

    Comment by Dave — May 22, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

  13. This is good, Amanda. I think what you outline here is important for understanding the reaction to Mormonism’s involvement in Prop 8 a few years back. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — May 22, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

  14. Thanks, this is great.

    Comment by Saskia — May 22, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  15. @Amanda: You’re definitely right about the dearth of work on how readers actually receive material. And the history prof on my dissertation committee routinely warned me on this point, that it’s virtually impossible, when working with the methodology that I do (NOT ethnography), to know how readers receive the material. I’d love to see someone do the work, but in the meantime, in order to cover the breadth of material that I do, I do my best to read how the material might be received, depending heavily on reviews, op-eds, and other written/filmed responses as guides.

    @Dave: Wallace Stegner is actually not always so affectionate (though, as I said, I think he’s often far more balanced and fair than many others). Check out the ending to The Gathering of Zion, where he describes the Mormons thus: “They stand facing the rest of the world like a herd of rather amiable musk oxen, horns out, in a protective ring, watchful but not belligerent ? full of confidence but ready to be reasonable, and wanting to be liked.” That’s a backhanded compliment, at most. My informed guess is that he, too, felt the pressures of growing up non-Mormon in the intermountain West.

    Comment by Cristine — May 22, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

  16. Dave, at least he got a Pulitzer and a day named after him before being forgotten. Poor Vardis Fisher doesn’t even have that!

    Comment by Amanda — May 22, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

  17. Were there enough Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon to really count as growing up “among the Mormons”? While it’s just speculation, I always took Krakauer as being a climber and picking up some of the anti-Mormon vibe in the non-Mormon Utah climbing scene. I doubt he felt directly the tension you mention. (I could be wrong)

    While I don’t deny in the least the tensions you raise, I think we need to avoid becoming reductive in how we view these fairly disparate individuals.

    Comment by Clark — May 23, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

  18. Clark, my sense of his engagement with the Mormons comes from reading Under the BAnner of Heaven. He describes himself as having grown up in an area with a lot of Mormons. Perhaps I was overly hasty in including him here… or perhaps his views changed in Colorado or as a result of his involvement with the lost boys. I’m willing to concede on Krakauer BUT I think the larger point still stands.

    Comment by Amanda — May 23, 2013 @ 2:53 pm


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