Mormon Vodou

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[1].

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.

Notes:

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.

Comments

  1. StillConfused says:

    Is “vodou” the same as “voodoo”?

  2. Still Confused,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Voodoo

    yes, it is the same.

  3. interesting…so we wouldn’t want to incorporate diversity too much in the church or it might end up in a power struggle over the identity and theology of the church…

  4. Great post. Agreed that these are fascinating questions. I have little else to add except ….

    When I was in Haiti a few years ago, I was determined to bring back a relatively cheap piece of artwork as a souvenir. I went to a gallery, and ended up selecting what, to me, appeared to be the most explicitly-voudou themed piece I could find. (Not that I actually knew how to interpret, or even identify, voudou iconography, but still ….). The piece was rather ugly, frankly, but my aesthetic is to prioritize the bizarre over the beautiful. :)

    My wife hates it. It’s stuck in our storage room, and I’m prohibited from hanging it anywhere. My wife wishes I’d never bought it. But now, after reading this post, I finally sort of share her sentiment. I now wish I could go back in time and search for an explicitly Mormon painting that incorporates Haitian voudou themes (if such a work even exists; probably not). Owning and displaying that would make me the coolest Mormon west of the Mississippi, no question about it.

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    “…the World Religion status we seem so keen to claim.”

    If I understand Davies’s definitions in your first sentence, then I don’t think it’s true at all that we’re keen to become a World Religion, with “multiple and diverse manifestations across the globe.” The ideal future most often imagined seems to me to be much closer to Davies’s “Global Religion.”

  6. It’s ok Aaron. You’re already the coolest Mormon west of the Mississippi :)

  7. Thanks for bringing this piece of work by Basquiat to my attention. I’ve been intrigued by Voodoo and Haitian forms of worship and ritual for many years. I had never really contemplated the LDS form of Haitian worship or membership before. It’s really fascinating to me. Thanks!

  8. StillConfused says:

    I have always been afraid of Voodoo because I equate it with Satanic rituals. But knowing that there are Mormon Voodoo-ers is actually quite interesting.

  9. Aaron R., this is a really interesting take on mormon identity and international growth. thanks for your thoughts.

    Incidentally, I was at a conference where Davies presented this thesis, and a professor from BYU was also speaking on his panel. It was embarrassing. The BYU prof was utterly out of his league academically, and kept trying to trump the conversation with Mormon truth claims. It really made me think that as much as mormons want to be taken seriously and respected in academic circles, they need to be able to play ball and contribute on that level. I read this blog post and realized that we’ve got some very impressive up and comers like you and Brad who will be able to pull it off. That makes me happy.

  10. Fascinating. Of course, Haiti is only one example of a culture which includes a belief on voodoo. Mormon missionaries in Africa deal with an indigenous belief in sorcery and the revelatory power of dreams–which can either help or hurt the cause.
    I found it interesting that the Church video on OD2 depicts an African man miraculously being able to turn on a radio which hasn’t been working, and hearing the news of the priesthood revelation on June 8, 1978. But after that depiction, Pres. Faust talks about culture and how some things cannot be accepted within the culture of the gospel–and names adultery specifically. (I don’t actually think any one country has a claim of being uniquely excessive in cases of adultery, but it was interesting that this was the subject chosen.)
    It will be so interesting to see how all of this plays out.

  11. Somewhat of a threadjack, but the connection of Haiti-Mormonism made me wonder if you had seen this article:

    http://www.aolnews.com/world/article/no-sanctuary-at-leogane-haiti-mormon-church-during-hurricane-tomas/19706704

  12. In South Africa in some areas there was a don’t ask don’t tell surrounding witch doctors… People would go to them instead of asking for a priesthood blessing or in addition to.

    Also in Hindu communities there was quite a few converts who would be perfectly willing to add Jesus to their long line of deities (not real Krishna worship, but Muslim polluted hinduism). If praying to the Mormon God didn’t work so well, you just kinda moved down the line to the next God and tried him out.

    In both cases there was a gentle and easing away from it that worked best…generally with support in finding a replacement, or maturing in the gospel. It was best done slow. Instead of seen as devil worship and idol worship…looking for the common ground of relying on a higher power. Of course this didn’t always happen an in the beautiful nature of human kind there were sometimes drastic calls to repentance

    of course there was also the Branch president clinging to his Jehovah’s witness bible –

    sigh

  13. Heck, I’ve wondered at times about the effects on the Church and the doctrine causes by bringing so many “mainstream” Christians into it. Surely some of their pre-conversion beliefs that might not be totally compatible with Mormon doctrine survive to some extent and can be propagated among the members by their influence, right?

  14. The article linked above makes me want to hide my recommend.

  15. Jack Stickney says:

    A similar phenomenon was experienced by meridian-of-time converts to the Church of Jesus Christ who were steeped in Jewish tradition and customs. Gradual assimilation to the main stream of LDS practice should take a gradual course as understanding and testimony crystallizes.

  16. Antoinette says:

    Very interesting article, and it is a relevant conversation to have concerning church growth and cultural tolerance/inclusivity. I think that like anything else, old habits die hard.
    As an African American, I understand the power of oral and religious traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. We (as a people) often have a hard time breaking from that course, especially where faith is concerned. I imagine that for Haitian Mormons, the strongest point of the gospel is the concept of eternal families and family history, so it would only make sense that they would keep these vodou traditions/rituals alive in some form as a way of keeping their family traditions and links alive.
    I think that as they mature in the gospel, that they will eventually see vodou as a part of their cultural past, and not necessarily integrate it with LDS concepts.
    Colonialism and the post-colonial period has much to do with this synthesizing of theological/cosmological concepts. Much of the Caribbean nations have a rich legacy of faith that is as complicated as their identities. For example, Santeria. It is a mixture of African vodou and Catholicism. The colonizers forced their faith upon the people, and so, in order to keep their faith traditions alive, synthesized both religions and combined them into one, so the African deities were meshed together as one with the saints they worship in their Catholic faith.
    So, I think that this is definitely something to consider as the church becomes global. I wish that there were more black Saints out there, because for myself, I don’t shy away from my roots in my faith. I consider this as just building upon the foundation I was given. So, I definitely identify with wanting to keep not necessarily the rituals/practices alive, but the cultural heritage alive, the connection to our ancestors alive.
    This is a very thought-provoking article. Thanks!

  17. Forgive me for posting anonomously. I live in a Catholic, Spanish speaking country and part of my calling has me visiting in the homes of members. It is not uncommon to see Catholic art and or crosses on display in some of these homes along with LDS art. In fairness, some of these homes are part member families. Once a year or so the ward provides art (LDS!) to any who want it. I was asked to baptize a young man a while ago and was amused to see him cross himself as he came down into the font. ( he is still active 3 months later).

  18. In re the aol news article: I don’t take the reporting as fact. It is difficult to judge the situation from here, and impossible to discern the motives of the reporter.

    In re voodoo: Eventually the Haitians will learn to leave it behind. If they listen to the Heavenly Father, He will direct them down His path, one person at a time, one day at a time. I don’t think His way includes voodoo.
    In the Spanish branch in our stake, they run their programs a little differently because of their culture. Over time adjustments come. It must be much harder when it’s just the missionaries to guide the converts.

    We have a “global religion,” with centralized policy and decentralized authority. I think it works remarkably well.

  19. nat kelly says:

    I don’t think it’s that strange that vodou has been incorporated into the LDS faith in Haiti. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of regions in the world where local cultures and beliefs become synthesized with the LDS tradition.

    And I think it is important for us to realize the way we practice the faith, wherever we are, is probably something syncretic. In the States, we are super strict about how garments can be worn, very specific about which parts of a woman’s body have to be covered, etc. This is all cultural hangover from our own cultural background, but has been absorbed into strict religious practice. In a society where nakedness has none of the sexual meaning we lend it here, these religious rules are going to have a completely different meaning.

    American saints do the same thing as Haitian saints. We just get to declare our actions “good”, and regard theirs as suspect, because we’re the majority, and people from our background are the ones making decisions about what is good and bad.

  20. Jonathan, I agree that the distinction Davies draws between World and Global religions is important but I did not want to address that specifically here, primarily because it has been discussed elsewhere on the blogs. However, what I think is most useful about that distinction is the way it plays with Mormon sensibilities about the Church’s status in the world. My sense from Davies is that our ability to be truly Global (rather than being merely nominally Global – i.e. being truly Global seems to suggest thriving Mormon communities across the globe as opposed to just having an LDS presence there) is, in fact, a product of our capacity to be a World Religion, as defined by Davies. He seems to be gently trying to persuade Mormons that you cannot have one without the other. IMO, that is what made Roger Keller’s response so awkward (cf. Karen Hall’s comment).

    Margaret, agreed. For many British Mormons these questions are starting to become very prominent now because of the large numbers of migrant converts, esp. in the London area.

    britt k, though we perceive these transitions as slow and part of the maturing gospel culture in that country it seems that we miss the cost in terms of people. Often good people are lost to the Church as their religious ‘eccentricities’ become less tolerable. Choosing Vodou as an example is important because of the stigma that currently surrounds the practice and also because it has already been fiercely resistant to Christianisation via Catholicism.

    Antoinette, thank you for your comment.

    Linda, it does work well, but I wonder whether there are limits to the extent of our growth which might result from that structure. We might not want to grow that big, which is fine, but I also think we need to be aware of that cost.

    nat, certainly that is root of the discussion here.

  21. Re: 20 “because we’re the majority, and people from our background are the ones making decisions about what is good and bad.”

    Certainly there are some shackles from US culture we need to break free from. And this is not a flag waviing comment to say all things American and apple pie are the best.

    But this issue isn’t about American saints vs. the World. The reason we have a prophet, his counselors, and apostles, is for the will of the Lord to be made known unto each generation. So certain guidelines can be established and also removed as the Lord makes it known to his prophets.

    In that sense none of the “we, the majority” should be making any decisions for “them” (the Hatians, etc.). Unless you’re one of those called to make those decisions.

    I think what you’re saying is exactly right though, from a certain scope. Neither you nor me should be nor have a right to make those decisions, unless it comes directly to us to decide what we should do in that circumstance.

    But saying I should not decide, should not preclude “the Brethren” from weighing in merely because they are from the plurality culture.

  22. Cultural and religious traditions are not the same thing. A societal tradition of multiple piercings being acceptable, even encouraged for men, should not keep those men from holding the priesthood. A tradition of infant baptismal rites, even if done at home in a family setting, would not be acceptable in any case. I really think your voodoo falls under religious traditions that runs specifically counter to the gospel. To consider voodoo only a cultural tradition and not a religion is to deny that is has any power at all and I am not sure that is true.

  23. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html

    This is a short and insightful article by David Brooks in the New York Times, right after the Haiti earthquake, giving his opinion about the kinds of assistance that really help. Voodoo is barely mentioned, but the overall conclusions impact this discussion.

  24. indian runner says:

    Many years ago, when my young mind started wrestling with making sense of the world through my LDS eyes, I was surprisde to see polynesian men, on the cover of the Ensign, wearing a white shirt and rther conservative tie above the traditional lavalava (skirt if you like). They have found, for centuries and in a friendly climate, lavalava to be a bottom garment suited to their needs and suited to their large stature, prefering going about topless. But in the post-contact years, they have been led to assimilate the concept that the body is private and at church or in the street, a top should be worn. They have maintained the use of the lavalava as a symbol of their identity…but also because it is far more comfortable than the occidental pants. Therefore, the motives behind ethnic or individual behaviours can be syncretic in essence without distracting the individual from his understanding of the universal need for God-man covenants.

    I’d like to kow what percentage of occidental Mormons visit the doctor/GP/guerisseur/shaman BEFORE requesting a Priesthood blessing? The Gospel is a universal message, which means God sends it to his very individual children, and differences in approaches are welcome and necessary to deter the more cynical man from assigning to the LDS church the imperialistic blason with Bible/BofM/White Shirt as coat of arms. Because so many Mission Pdts have a business background, it may be easy for them to resort to what they would themselves call ‘market entry’ methodology, selling a single-face Gospel. It is when this approach is applied that breakaway movements can be formed.

  25. Interesting follow-up from the church’s newsroom regarding the AOL article linked above.

    The short version is that that particular chapel had been set aside for a government agency to use, while seven other chapels were used to shelter over 4,000 people from through the various communities.

  26. Sorry I’m commenting on this so late. Aaron, thanks for linking to the Basquiat article. I served part of my mission in Haiti (2003-2004) and I’m currently writing a dissertation on the colonial period. A few observations:

    1) When so many of the converts (and members) are young single adults, it follows that some practices in Haiti mirror YSA wards in the U.S., especially Family Home Evening at the church, as a community event. Institute is a very big deal, as is participating in the Perpetual Education Fund when schools are open and people can attend.

    2) “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” was still very much the policy towards Vodou when I was there, though in stories missionaries (Haitian and foreign) would make fun of Protestant anti-Vodou crusades b/c: “Protestants don’t have the needed authority.”

    3) In teaching the discussions, we always used “Bondye/Bon Dieu” for God, which could be heard as speaking of the supreme deity in Vodou. In discussing the Resurrection in the old 2nd lesson, investigators would often ask about the difference between the Resurrection and the creation of zombies. And, yes, gaining testimonies through dreams/visions was very, very common. As others have pointed out, this isn’t only true in Haiti and the balance church members find between tradition, national identity, and religious belief and what they consider orthopraxy is always shifting.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,697 other followers