Ethan Yorgason is Professor of Geography at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea. He has also recently taught history and geography at BYU-Hawaii, and was winner of the MHA’s Best First Book Award for Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.
I know the Church is true because …
Latter-day Saints follow up with a variety of phrases and ideas. Many answers reference the direct relationship between God and the individual (i.e., I have received a burning in my bosom about Joseph Smith). Others point to how God works through people on the earth to answer individual prayers (i.e., the missionaries showed up at my door in my hour of despair to teach me the truth). Still others look more broadly at the Church itself and the Mormon community (i.e., the Church has a lay ministry, just as it did in the time of Christ).
Many of these answers, and their supporting discourses have long, stable histories. Though similar reasoning surely exists in other faith systems at times, taken collectively they help define Mormonism as a unique faith/culture.
But some of the answers vary more historically. I think this is particularly true of the last category, where Latter-day Saints seek evidence in trends within the Church and the Mormon community. This category may be on the least solid ground theologically, but it is perhaps the most interesting sociologically. It’s not so much that completely new answers appear at certain times historically, or that other answers completely disappear. Rather, it’s more of an issue of emphasis. Which answers become most prominent at certain times and which fall by the wayside?
In the early twentieth century, for example, Mormons pointed to the desert blossoming as a rose as evidence that Mormonism was the work of God. That argument isn’t unheard of now, but it’s hardly prominent. A second line of reasoning has greatly diminished in past decades, though I’m not prepared to say it’s in it death throes: rapid Mormon growth as a sign of the truth of the Church. Church leaders certainly seem to be drawing on it less often, though it does resurface now and then. But Mormonism’s growth rates, however one wishes to measure them, have moderated significantly recently. Another old mainstay has taken a beating recently (almost literally, though not exclusively, with the involvement of some Mormons in Bush-presidency misdeeds): the higher morality of Mormons demonstrates the truth of the church – the “by their fruits you shall know them” notion.
So where are we now? To me, this is the worrying part, even though I recognize that it can be argued that prophecy foretells it. It seems that to a greater extent in the past few years, what we’re left with is filling in the “I know the church is true because …” statement with, “the world is fighting against us and mocking us, trying to destroy everything we hold sacred.” Although reference to the state of the Church may be a problematic way to fill in the statement in the first place, now it seems we have very little proactively positive to point to – we’re just taking pride in antipathy from others.
Of course this is not a wholly new theme. Glenn Beck was preceded by Cleon Skousen. But it seems to have gained new life even in the 20-some years since I was a youth in the church. Back in those “olden days,” the sense that the world was fighting and mocking us usually applied to individual members who faced a hard time from family or friends in their decision to join the church. Now it’s more ideological, with implicit and explicit reference to Mormons as defenders of the family and true American values. The more we’re mocked on these fronts, the more, at least to many within our community, we know we’re right.
I might be wrong. Maybe I read too many comments from the Utah newspapers. Certainly this sense doesn’t apply to Mormonism outside the USA. But as a sometimes watcher of Rachel Maddow, I’ll just say I hope someone can talk me down.