All these contested relationships affect the Church's efforts to interface with the general culture and assimilate into American life. This onetime outlaw sect has accommodated in many respects to the standard norms of the United States, allowing one recent commentator to call the Mormons "quintessentially American," even as they seem strange and distant to others. In this dance of opposites, the Church has moved closer to and then farther away from American society, emphasizing areas attractive to the mainstream, while guarding and pointing out the Church's effort to live out ancient, scriptural injunctions in modern society. The Church has created its own intellectual culture in large part to deal with the dilemmas and challenges of modernity. The confrontation of religious absolutism and modern relativism defines identities and attitudes for many Mormons. Some hew strictly to orthodox doctrine and the teaching of Church leaders; others are more questioning. The basic split between the mystical religion of magic and folklore against the rational world of collegeeducated members generates endless discussion and debate.
The political tensions with modern life can be seen in Salt Lake City, Church headquarters and the last in a series of Mormon cities. Joseph Smith tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to organize a City of Zion in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois. His most enduring settlement was Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Saints managed to live for seven years. Later Brigham Young built Salt Lake City. In its 150 years of settlement, the city has undergone phases of isolation and assimilation, of integration and polarization. Currently polarized along the Mormon/non-Mormon or "Gentile" line, the city is a contested realm. Salt Lake, once the outlaw outpost, remains an indigestible lump in the public craw.
These are the contents of modern Mormonism as surveyed in the pages that follow. The final chapter evaluates the Church as it approaches its 200th anniversary. Where is it now and where will it go? An unlikely success, the Church has managed to negotiate many serious difficulties over its 175 years. At times when it seemed that ruin was inevitable, the Church adapted and survived. Now stronger and larger than ever, even as problems remain, the Church will likely sail on successfully into the future. What is its secret? One answer is that the Church mixes strong demands and expectations with encouragement for finding one 's own way in the world and for the individual interpretation of scriptures. Although some general actions may seem clumsy and harsh, the Church is full of people of good will who do their best. For new converts, it is a community for lost and lonely souls. For all, it provides an answer to the question of what life is for and offers assurance that in the end the humble and faithful will find God.
This book will visit events and people as well as documents to bring this group closer to view. The words of many real Mormons will be quoted and Mormon rituals will be observed. The traditional Fast and Testimony Meeting serves as a good introduction to ordinary Mormon life. On the first Sunday of every month, Mormons in every local congregation, or "ward," gather for a seventy-minute meeting where congregants and visitors come to the pulpit to speak "from their hearts."
Every Sunday has a "sacrament meeting," but on this Sunday, most come in the old Puritan tradition of fasting, having refrained from eating and drinking for two meals. They donate the cost of the missed meals as "Fast Offerings" to help the poor, a tradition dating from hard pioneer times. We visit a meeting in the third floor chapel of a congregation that meets near Lincoln Center in New York City. About 250 Mormons of all ages attend. They share the building each Sunday with another "family ward," a Spanish-speaking congregation, and a congregation of young singles. Five congregations meet in this building for three-hour blocks staggered throughout Sunday. A Korean-speaking group met there until recently, and multiple groups in Harlem, Chinatown, Union Square, Inwood, The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens meet elsewhere in the City. An elevator carries people to the third-floor lobby where they greet each other and transact Church business. Congregants are neatly dressed in suits and dresses. The space is crowded with strollers for the noisy young children Mormons bring to services. The missionaries, ten or twelve young men and four young women, wear name badges. The premeeting tone is lively, even raucous, as members compete with the chapel's loud organ prelude music. There is no assigned seating.
The chapel itself is a plain auditorium in natural wood tones with no religious symbols. The ward leaders-the bishop and his two counselors- sit "on the stand," a dais at the front. People gradually fill the chapel, and a few minutes after the appointed time the bishop warmly welcomes them with announcements, many already written on a program.
The congregation sings a rousing LDS hymn. Mormons take pride in their group singing, and this congregation includes some professional singers. A chorister conducts the congregation, and the organist improvises interludes and key changes. Many consider this excellent music, not characteristic of all wards, the high point of the service. People fold their arms and bow their heads for the opening prayer delivered by a member of the congregation. The prayer, addressed to "Heavenly Father" in the name of Jesus Christ, closes with an "Amen" echoed by the congregation. In the business part of the meeting, necessitated by the constant turnover of lay workers, new assignments are announced. The newly assigned people stand, are introduced, and "sustained" in office by the congregation raising their hands in support. Those "released" are thanked in the same way. This action is not a vote but an approval of decisions already made, representing a willingness to support the leaders who make the assignments.
The bishop or a counselor conducts the business. The young leaders in this congregation have families and demanding careers in finance and business; none works for the Church, although they certainly work in it. They tolerate noise because their own children often cry. Some parents take noisy children out, but infant chirping and wailing provide a steady background drone to the meeting.