Douglas Davies, in his paper at the ‘The Worlds of Joseph Smith’ conference, argued that though Mormonism might become a Global religion (in the sense of having a world-wide presence) it is unlikely that it will become a World religion (in having multiple and diverse manifestations across the globe). One constraint, Davies notes, is generated by relying upon centralised authority, which is increasingly important in religions that require high levels of energy (cf. Stark). However, Basquiat draws attention to the process of syncretism (the union of different forms of belief) among Haitian Mormons and consequently suggests that we re-think Davies’ thesis.
Church growth has prompted serious questions pertaining to the universality, centrality and relevance of LDS doctrine and culture. For Davies, a world religion can only be such if it can tolerate the localised re-appropriation (i.e. Haiti) of the religious cosmology – including rituals, beliefs and practices envisioned to facilitate death-conquest – of the host nation (i.e. USA – and to a lesser extent the UK). Examples of religious exportation from the US to other parts of the world are numerous and yet though correlation is seeking to translate and simplify a core gospel message there is space, whether given or taken, in which local cultural practices and beliefs become blended with the message of the restoration.
Missionaries first landed in Haiti in 1980 after a few baptisms generated via local interest. Since then the Church has grown rapidly though not without some difficulty (missionaries were removed from the area between 1991-1996 due to political instability). Additionally, Basquiat notes that many Haitians believe that the CIA sends secret agents to Haiti dressed as LDS missionaries and this naturally causes some difficulties.
Basquiat’s research also highlights some of the ways in which Haitian Mormons blend their worldviews with their new-found faith. Setting up JS as a present-day revelator poses a minimal theological problem for people who also believe that their friends have seen God and Jesus regularly. However, for young missionaries accepting these (other) visions as legitimate in contrast to JS’s is problematic. Moreover, Smith’s vision takes on a cosmological significance in the way it anchors the Haitian narratives of faith and conversion.
Fast and Testimony meetings are the most popular meetings in Haiti; both in terms of attendance and also enthusiasm. Haitian creole is the language primarily spoken in these meetings despite the majority of the literature being produced in French. Only the educated can speak French. In these meetings, the embodied experience of Mormonism takes priority and it is in this context that they readily use a different discourse to articulate their experiences; a language which is common to all. This stands in contrast to the Prophetic register that Brad Kramer recently observed among some of the Church leaders in their (in)formal utterances.
Yet, to what extent do these differences represent a genuine syncretism between Mormonism and Haitian culture? These examples could, rather, be considered part of a Haitian bricolage.
Basquiat acknowledges that it is remarkable that Haitian Mormons have found the space to become bricoleurs of their personal cosmologies. This is most evident qua their engagement with Vodou. This space is primarily facilitated through a silence; but of a particular kind of silence. There is, currently, no LDS policy on the practice of Vodou in Haiti. This lack of written policy is matched by a lack of an oral policy as well. Though Leaders are aware of the practice no one discusses it. This amounts to a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
It is in this context that we can observe how many Haitian Mormons reject or ignore LDS claims to absolute truth and prefer to borrow religious practices and other ideas that inspire them. The practice of Vodou is enacted in a variety of ways for Haitian Mormons; for example, they seek out advice and counsel from Vodou priests. In this regard, Haitian Mormons seem to regard Vodou as one part of multiple mythologies that are viable and which bring blessings to their lives. Haitian Mormons continue to have Vodou shrines in their homes and often lay small offerings before them.
Basquiat rightly seeks to interrogate the limits of this interpretive and performative approach to Mormonism. What are the hermeneutical limits to LDS texts and history? Basquiat believes that a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy seems to be the best approach for church growth in this area and yet I am less convinced by her position. The status of oral traditions remain ambiguous in a tradition where authoriatative texts are a primary means of ecclesiastical control. Unless leaders inscribe this openness (cf. the new CHI?) it will forever be tentative for these Haitian Mormons. Moreover, Mauss’ sketch of the trajectory of tolerance in ‘The Angel and the Beehive’ suggests that such ‘maverick’ beliefs are only accepted while the Church is in its infancy but this air of tolerance is slowly reduced as the leadership conforms to the model set out by those above them in the hierarchy. Consequently, this ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ policy is merely a contingent approach that has the fascade of tolerance (as manifest by the Mission President’s and the Young Elder’s ethnocentric descriptions of Vodou and other Haitian practices).
Hence these emerging Mormon communities are liminal in two ways. They provide a frontier from which the limits of Mormonism can be explored but they are also liminal in that they will define the boundaries of tolerance for syncretic approaches to our faith. My point here is not to suggest that LDS leaders should tolerate Mormon Vodou (though I am sceptical whether they can remove it) but rather I want to suggest a larger point regarding the limits to and possibilities of syncretic approaches to the LDS faith. The Vodou example helps us more clearly see that there is scope for such approaches which, it would seem, help prepare our faith to actualise the World Religion status we seem so keen to claim. Yet, it also helps us explore the limits of tolerance within these approaches. In actuality the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy really betrays a silent disapproval that can only last so long. A World Religion, as defined by Davies, cannot be built upon such a premise.
1. I would be interested in how the processes of enregisterment and addressivity are enacted through localised translations of the Prophetic register. For example, a number of people in Basquiat’s study express gratitude at being able to hear the Prophet in Creole.