Tania Rands Lyon and John Lyon
The Mormon Story
This book is long overdue. Once the most persecuted faith in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon church) has emerged as one of the fastest growing and most influential religious groups in the country. It enjoys political representation beyond its 2 percent of the U.S. population (5 percent of the U.S. Senate is Mormon, for example) and now holds assets estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. It is truly an international church; indeed, membership abroad recently surpassed that inside the United States. If growth rates continue as sociologist Rodney Stark has predicted, Mormonism will soon be the newest major world religion since Islam.
In spite of this remarkable status, very little has been written for a general audience on the subject. Mormonism certainly invites sensationalist coverage with its history of colorful prophets, polygamy, theocracy, and temple rites closed to all but committed insiders. Unfortunately, much of what has been published on the LDS church veers toward defensive apology from believers or acerbic invective from opponents. Other surveys are either tendentious and out of date (America's Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power, by Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, 1986) or geared to a scholarly audience (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, by Jan Shipps, 1985).
Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, by Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, has broader appeal, although its loose journalistic style of documentation may frustrate the reader accustomed to more careful footnoting of claims. Here at last we have a well-researched and eminently readable overview of Mormonism that is penetrating but also respectful (and therefore able to make sense of why the church inspires such growth and loyalty in its members). Mormon America covers a wide array of topics, from well-known issues like polygamy, racism, and peculiar lifestyle habits to less publicized issues like politics, finances, and theology. Throughout, the authors seek to understand and explain the Mormons by contextualizing them in both mainstream America and contemporary Christianity.
This is no insignificant task in light of an issue that permeates both this book and its predecessors. Stated most simply, there is an "us and them" mentality found in the LDS church, exemplified in an anecdote the Ostlings share about the distinguished historian Leonard Arrington, author of Great Basin Kingdom. When Arrington, a devout Mormon, was called as the first (and only) official church historian not drawn from the ranks of the church's highest ecclesiastical leadership, he discovered his own book on the shelves of the historian's office, filed under the category "anti" ("anti-Mormon literature"): "The book apparently had not provided enough supernatural explanations, so a librarian decided 'if it wasn't pro-Mormon it must be anti.' " As the Ostlings observe, "the thin-skinned and image-conscious Mormons can still display some immature, isolationist, and defensive reactions to outsiders [and even to insiders, such as Arrington], perhaps because there is no substantive debate and no 'loyal opposition' within their kingdom."
This "us and them" mentality is a holdover from the nineteenth century, when the Latter-day Saints constituted a decidedly unwelcome minority in America. But it is surprising to encounter such a stance from an institution that at the end of the twentieth century has surpassed the 10-million membership mark worldwide: "As Jan Shipps observes, Mormonism can no longer employ special pleading for itself as a protected minority. What occurs inside Mormonism is no longer merely an internal matter, and what Mormonism does is becoming vitally important to the larger culture." The Ostlings go to great lengths to circumvent the church's defensiveness and front of silence; their financial estimates, for example, cannot be wholly conclusive since the church will not publicly reveal its assets and revenues. But their tone strives to avoid the "us and them" mentality of both church apologists and antagonists by presenting a spectrum of viewpoints that includes faithful believers, nonpartisan scholars, and dissenters.
Wisely, given their general audience, the authors begin with some of the more exciting aspects of Mormon history and the church's distinctive cultural characteristics before working their way into the theological issues that set Mormonism apart from the rest of Christianity. Indeed they reiterate Rodney Stark's view that those who convert to the LDS church are more often attracted to its social cohesion and highly developed sense of community than to its doctrinal claims. The Ostlings argue that theology is no longer the primary motivator of religious America, and they organize the book accordingly.
Their coverage of early Mormon history is thematic rather than strictly chronological but nonetheless engages the major events and issues and succeeds in making a very complex history accessible. They deal especially well with some of the tangled political tensions between Mormons and their neighbors during the early decades of the movement.
They also go beyond historical narrative to discuss the nuances of writing history within Mormonism. In an intriguing (and disturbing) chapter, the Ostlings discuss the tension between "faithful history" and accurate history within Mormonism. As they point out, "There is a very real sense in which the church's history is its theology. … And just as creedal churches have official statements of faith, the Mormon Church tends to have official versions of sacred history." Understandably then, to offer an alternative version of history, no matter how well-documented, is to assail religious truth at its core.
This chapter lists several examples of historians censured by the church for publishing unflattering or potentially faith-damaging details of Mormon history. It also portrays the strict control that the church maintains over its presentation of history. Examples range from the omission of Brigham Young's polygamous wives in a churchwide manual of his teachings to extremely limited access to the church's historical archives. The Ostlings seem more willing to take sides on this subject; here, in contrast to other chapters, they do not conclude on a positive note that emphasizes the potential of a certain aspect of Mormonism. Instead, they leave the reader with the sense that a painful issue remains unresolved.
Much of their book deals with historical data. They devote two entire chapters to the sensitive issue of polygamy, addressing both its historical practice by the Mormon elite, and its current practice by those labeled as "Mormon Fundamentalists." In a very well-researched and well-presented section, the authors cover the contradictions within the turn-of-the-century church as some leaders continued to take plural wives even after the 1890 Manifesto banning polygamy (a revelation issued by then-prophet Wilford Woodruff). Today, thousands of polygamous families scattered throughout Utah, Colorado, and Arizona use this historical disjuncture between official policy and unofficial practice to justify their defiance of the church, which vehemently condemns polygamy and excommunicates those who practice it.
The Ostlings also take up the issue of discrimination against blacks in the LDS church. Rather than leading the reader through a well-worn recitation of the history of the racist policy (members with African ancestry were denied the lay priesthood, open to men of all other races, and were excluded from temple worship), the Ostlings begin by describing the moment of the ban's lifting in 1978 and the impact it had on church members. This revelation holds a place in Mormon consciousness somewhat akin to the Kennedy assassination in mainstream American culture—it was a watershed moment. (On a personal note, one of the authors of this review, who was eight years old when the electrifying announcement reached her family, can remember with great clarity both where she was standing and her mother's tears of relief.)
The chapter that discusses race relations is also refreshingly current. It is by no means comprehensive, however, for the Ostlings virtually ignore the complicated story of Native Americans and Mormonism. The Book of Mormon relates the story of a people living on the American continent, purported to be ancestors of today's Native Americans. The Book of Mormon is dedicated to these "Lamanite" descendants, and LDS interest in their prophesied significance led to the influential but highly controversial Indian Placement Program, which took Native American children off their reservations and fostered them out to white Mormon families.
The Ostlings also devote a chapter to church organization, hierarchy, and mechanisms for transfer of power. They compare the power of a Mormon church president, deemed a "prophet, seer and revelator" by his followers, favorably to that of the Catholic pope and describe some of the characteristics of current president Gordon B. Hinckley's term: a remarkable acceleration in the building of temples and meetinghouses as well as more expansive public relations (in recent years Hinckley has appeared on 60 Minutes and Larry King Live). They also describe how power and decision-making is structured hierarchically.
This is one case in which the Ostlings present the church in a neatly wrapped package according to handbooks on church governance; the result is that they tend to gloss over the realities of church organization and power in practice. They write that "everything flows from the top down" and that decisions within each ward (a local congregation comparable to a parish) are "all very controlled—all very top-down." Even members of the most rigidly centralized corporation will recognize that diverse people can hardly function as smoothly as the Ostlings describe in their presentation of a well-oiled, highly efficient corporation-like organization. The reality of a lay clergy with no formal ministerial training, the differing levels of commitment from members at various stages in their relationship to God and church, and a mixture of colorful personalities can lead to anything but top-down efficiency. The reality experienced on the local level is much more organic and messy.
For many readers, the most interesting parts of the book will be the several chapters devoted to Mormon practices: food storage, emergency preparedness, dietary restrictions, tithing, sacred undergarments, chastity, temple rites, lay ministry and lay priesthood, church services, and full-time missionary work. The authors successfully bring out some of the complex history of each of these; for example, they demonstrate how the Word of Wisdom, a Joseph Smith revelation on dietary constraints, gradually moved from advice to commandment over the course of several decades.
The chapters on theology and Scripture in Mormonism function as a guide to what makes Mormon beliefs so controversial to other Christians. There are a few problems with the Ostlings' account; for example, they seem to give greater canonical weight to documents like Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse (reprinted in the book's appendix) and Smith's translation of parts of the King James Bible than they are actually accorded by the LDS church. But the doctrinal chapters also include a marvelous tour of some of the more interesting Mormon thinking on such fundamentals as the nature of sin, grace, and the Atonement. The authors discuss in detail the distinctive aspects of Mormon doctrine, most notably an idea from the King Follett Discourse summarized later in the phrase "As man now is, God once was, as God now is, man may become." Their attention to the highly distinctive, however, leads them away from what typical Mormons believe and are taught in church. Thus, for example, although many Mormons would affirm that they can eventually become like God (the missionary lessons teach this), few are aware of or pursue the theological implications of a once-mortal god.
The authors also address some of the vexed questions of Mormon scriptural historicity and authenticity, giving full voice to critics. Nonetheless, they end the chapter on doctrine with some appreciation: in LDS theology, they write, "lies a philosophical potential of genuine creative subtlety that Mormon thinkers, drawing on their own doctrinal history, are developing into a theological heritage of considerable depth and complexity."
In spite of occasional minor factual errors1, Mormon America offers a reliable and compelling account of this flourishing religion for insiders and outsiders alike. It brings out what is unique to Mormonism and gives reasonably fair coverage of the religion's strengths and weaknesses. It is sensitive about topics and beliefs that Mormons hold sacred. And it explores very thoroughly some of the conflicts arising from the LDS power structure and the continuing legacy of nineteeth-century Mormonism's insider/outsider mentality.
Because it is willing to address difficult issues, this book could not have been written by a Mormon who valued his or her status in the church. Devout Mormons will find certain parts uncomfortable, but they will nonetheless be rewarded with a wealth of interesting information not to be had from other sources. Non-LDS readers will encounter the controversies within Mormondom but will also gain in sights into the powerful attraction this religion holds for its millions of lifelong members and converts. The authors conclude Mormon America with a quote from the current prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. Referring to the church's growth, he states: "This is a story of success." The same could be said for the Ostlings' book.
Tania Rands Lyon is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Princeton University and has published articles on Mormonism in the former Soviet Union. John Lyon teaches German language and literature at Colby College. Both are practicing Mormons.
1. To name only a few: the Word of Wisdom does not include cold caffeinated beverages (p. 176); patriarchal blessings declare not only literal but also adoptive lineage (p. 200); Christ's incarnation is a unique event for Mormons, although not in the same way as for traditional Christians (p. 326).
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.