Friday, March 9, 2012

Mormons Grapple with Sacred History

All my life I have never heard of anything but progress in the growth of the Mormon faith. With Mormon friends in my youth, I accumulated scores of anecdotal evidence about the triumphs of Mormon missionaries (though I never became remotely convinced of the truth of their message). This perception was reinforced as an undergraduate studying under, and eventually working under, a specialist in religious statistics. Mormons are one of the largest religious groups in America, and however much my professor qualified the statistics with references to natural growth, no one denied that aggressive evangelism and a certain social appeal of the religion were major contributing factors. Some time ago, however, an article awoke me to the fact that whatever may be said about the continuing growth of Mormonism, there is also a substantial amount of disaffection. There has been a sharp rise in "apostasy" in the last ten years, and a recent survey suggests that 39% of those leaving cite church history as the primary reason for losing faith, 84% at least a strong or moderate factor.

Mormons, like Christians, have a strong sense of sacred history. One of the peculiarities of the Mormon history, however, is that it includes a rejection of the standard Christian retelling of history in favor of a latter day reinterpretation. It is grounded in the belief that the initial revelation on which the church was founded was incomplete and open to misinterpretation by subsequent Christians. The result is a period of profane history between Christ and Joseph Smith before the narrative is once again picked up and purified. "Put another way," in the words of Hughes and Allen, "early Mormons, by rooting themselves int he primal past, simply removed themselves from history and the historical process and claimed instead that they had sprung full blown from the creative hands of God. In April of 1830, they said, their prophet had restored to earth the ancient church with all its gifts, miracles, and visions." The problem which arises from this is that, in the cold light of day, it is easy for Mormons to look at the supposedly restored, ancient church--born as it was directly form the mind of the divine--and to become disenchanted with what they see.

The article mentions the rather conspicuous blots of polygamy--which was undeniably abandoned not out of religious conviction but political expediency in the Utah statehood process--and racism--particularly the ban on people of "African descent" participating in sacred rites or ordination which was not lifted until the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. These deserve scrutiny, given that the Mormon faith is rooted in the more perfect revelation of God given to its leaders in the nineteenth century. If this revelation really was intended to correct and redeem Christianity out of its flawed state, why were so many of the special beneficiaries of God's revelation so utterly misguided? Why did Joseph Smith and Brigham Young endorse polygamy? Why did their racial attitudes seem to reflect the lowest common cultural denominator rather than an eternal God? Most importantly, why were both these issues reformed under the guise of "new revelation" at moments in history when it was most politically expedient to do so?

There are of course other issues from a historical perspective. Early apostates give an interesting alternate account of the beginnings of the faith, particularly those who were supposed eye witnesses to the first miraculous underpinnings of the movement. There is also, of course, the wealth of outlandish mythology which dominates Mormon narrative, made all the more difficult to accept because it lacks the antiquity and alien culture of traditional Jewish and Christian myth (whether they are factual or not). Consider also the driving belief among early Mormons that the absence of abundant charismatic gifts (e.g. healings, visions, prophecies)--now muted in the contemporary church--indicated the absence of divine approbation. The list could, obviously, go on.

Nevertheless, the purpose here is not to try to convert Mormons--mostly because I doubt many are reading this. Instead, it is to highlight the peculiar problem which history ought to (and apparently does) pose for Mormons. The strong root of the faith in corrective revelation makes the historical stumblings (which is a grossly inadequate euphemism for a century of institutional racism) of the religion that much harder to reconcile with. After all, it is easy for me to distance myself from the Crusades or the Inquisition (grossly misunderstood as both are by uninformed modern critics) or, more to the point, "Christian" defenses of slavery in the antebellum South. God did not inspire those events, and I can specifically point to the authoritative text which joins me in my condemnation of them. Mormon history is not so easily dispensed with. The gross errors are those of the authoritative actors themselves operating within a normative, sacred history. Their best defense has been to duck behind a progressive revelation which declares polygamy, for example, appropriate for one time and inappropriate for another. Except I think we all know intuitively that racism was never appropriate for any time. Apparently, there are Mormons coming face-to-face with their own history and finding that they know that intuitively as well.

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