Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

"There is in Mormondom, as in all other exclusive faiths, whether Jewish, Hindoo, or other," Sir Richard Burton wrote in his book The City of the Saints (1862), "an inner life which I cannot flatter myself or deceive the reader with the idea of my having penetrated." Burton, a world traveler and adventurer, visited Salt Lake City with an Orientalist's eye, observing the colorful sect and its much-married leader, Brigham Young, in a generally sympathetic way, yet admitting his inability to comprehend the Mormons.

Academics acknowledge the same difficulty. When Sydney Ahlstrom described Mormonism in his prize-winning A Religious History of the American People (1972), he stopped short of pinning the faith down. "The exact significance of this great story persistently escapes definition." The categories normally invoked to explain denominations were rendered practically useless. "One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these."

The positions of Burton and Ahlstrom point to the question and the problem of this book. Readers trust the objectivity of outside writers even though they admit difficulty in penetrating the inner life of Mormondom, while the reports of those living that inner life are often dismissed as biased and misleading. Even those who have been disillusioned by the strange life of the Mormons and broken from the faith are believed more than those who write from the inside. Latter-day Saints may be among the x last groups in contemporary America not trusted to speak for themselves. At the same time, Mormons dismiss the outside appraisals for failing to describe a life that Mormons recognize. Few people try to see the Saints both from the inside and the outside.

I write from this no man's land as a third-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I attend meetings regularly and fulfill church obligations. I was married in the Salt Lake Temple to a man whose Mormon lineage dates from the 1830s. We have both held many positions of leadership. We have raised our six children as Mormons, and our four sons have also served missions and been married in the temple. But we are not Utahns. We were both raised on the West Coast and attended college on the East Coast. Although our ties are strong to Utah where many of our family members live, we have generally lived elsewhere, both as citizens in multicultural environments and as members of Latter-day Saint congregations. I understand both contemporary American culture as well as inner Mormonism. I know how Church life looks to the greater public, even as I view it from within.

By "inner" I mean the ordinary life of Mormons as they experience it. I am not describing the hidden so much as the obvious. To describe the inner Mormonism I have used examples from my own experience, the words of ordinary Mormons, and materials from print sources. My aim has been to describe the current evolving Church as it is experienced by members in a narrative that others can also understand.

Though my approach is straightforward, my subject is not. "Mormonism" is an elusive term, defying easy definition. The schismatic branches of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encompass many disparate people, all claiming present or past loyalty to and descent from Joseph Smith, Jr., the Mormon prophet, generally called here Joseph Smith. Mormondom encompasses them all. By far the largest number of followers belongs to the church based in Salt Lake City that traces its history through Brigham Young who led the majority of believers from Illinois across the western plains to settle in the desert wilderness. I focus on this group. But many of Smith's followers stayed in the Midwest where they later founded the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (spelled with a capitalized "D" and without a hyphen) in the 1850s. The Reorganized Church included Joseph Smith's wife and family; Smith's son Joseph Smith III became the prophet-president in 1860.

The two groups divided over the issue of plural marriage, which Joseph Smith had privately preached to a limited group in Nauvoo. The Reorganized Church denied Smith's marriages to multiple women and built up a church that focused on earlier teachings. Leadership of this group succeeded through Smith's line for 136 years until 1996. The Reorganized Church has moved steadily toward the Protestant mainstream, adopting the name The Community of Christ in 2002, a name that better explains what it is rather than what it is not. The church promotes "communities of joy, hope, love and peace." The Community of Christ, a church in its own right rather than an offshoot of the Utah church, claimed 250,000 members in forty countries in 2003.

After his appointment in 1996, President W. Grant McMurray, who wanted to be known as the leader of "a prophetic people," rather than as a prophet himself, steered the group toward ecumenism and reconciliation, avoiding, as he said, "sappy sentimentality" and "stifling literalism." The Utah church and the Community, drifting farther apart, show the different possibilities of evolution within Mormondom. In 2005 McMurray resigned from his leadership of the Community of Christ, for health and personal reasons, without naming a successor. The Council of the Twelve chose Stephen M. Veazey, who had been the director of field ministries and so the leader of this church's fast growing outposts, to succeed McMurray. About 130 other groups, mostly small, have broken off from the main body of Latter-day Saints. After Smith's death in 1844, James J. Strang took a group to Beaver Island, Wisconsin, where he continued polygamy and was crowned king. Strang was shot and killed in 1856, but a small remnant of his order remains. The Godbeites, a group of intellectual converts from England, broke from the Utah church in the 1860s, favoring more interaction with the outside world. The literate members produced many documents before the group died out by 1880.

Polygamy has also led to divisions in the twentieth century. After coming to the Salt Lake Valley, the Latter-day Saints lived the practice openly and announced it publicly in 1852. Polygamy continued through years of oppression and persecution by the U.S. government and was paired with slavery as one of the "twin relics of barbarism." When national laws made the extinction of the Church likely, the leaders capitulated, forswearing polygamy and renouncing involvement in local politics. A document called the Manifesto discontinued the practice in 1890, and Utah was soon granted statehood.