In a shamelessly obvious attempt to become a perma blogger at BCC, juvenile instructor Ben Park has written the following guest post. Have a heart and give him a read.
There has been a lot of discussion about the label “Unorthodox Mormon” recently—what it means, how long this idea has been around, and what their role (if any) a “Cultural Mormon” would/should have within the LDS tradition. Most discussions seem to assume a few points concerning the concept: it entails a member of the Mormon Church who does not believe in all “mainstream” beliefs or follows every dictate from the Brethren, it is a recent phenomenon attached to Mormonism’s transition into modernity, and that individuals who fall within its parameters are forced to the margins of Mormon culture. This is an especially salient topic in online discussion, as discussion groups, podcast communities, and even several books in recent years have coalesced around supposedly “unorthodox” Mormonism.
On the one hand, I’m thrilled with the increased attention to Mormon heterogeneity; indeed, I hope that this is the dominant message that sticks after this most recent “Mormon Moment.” I love the vibrancy of our faith—an open-ended vortex with limitless possibilities and numerous appropriations. As Matt Bowman astutely pointed out a few months ago, there is much that Mormons can believe, but little that they must believe.
On the other hand, the historian in me cringes at the way this heterogeneity has been framed, especially in online forums. Perhaps it is an extension of generational hubris—we are all raised being told that ours is a “chosen generation,” after all—but there seems to be a tendency to emphasize that this is a new development, that today’s unorthodox saints are shattering the strict parameters of the traditional Mormon experience. The narrative typically argues that LDS conformity, literal belief, and orthodox posturing are all being newly challenged, perhaps even transcended, and Mormonism itself is morphing into something radically different.
I fully grant that if there is anything new with Mormon cultural heterodoxy in the twenty-first century, it’s that the internet has pushed such ideas and identities into the public consciousness. Indeed, I keep waiting for some scholar with a background in religion and media to examine how certain LDS online communities and figures have become something today that would have been impossible a decade ago: a movement that shifts the primary component of thousands of individual’s Mormon identity away from LDS chapels, away from local communities, away from the traditional avenues of Mormon sociability, and toward online discussion groups that provide no new information, no novel interpretations, and no robust organization, but only a forum in which all involved are offered personal validation and a venue for personal angst.
But behind the layer of modernity’s digital footprint remains a long tradition that is being overlooked. Faith, commitment, and orthodoxy are never stolid and staid features within a static church organization; rather, they are nebulous concepts that are constantly in flux and never fully representative of larger groups and people, even if they are all participants in the same organization. Especially within Mormonism, I want to argue, there has always been a tradition of a broad spectrum of belief rather than fixed trajectory of narrow views—the latter concept is the result of Mormonism’s correlation process, which was designed to make everything (and everyone) appear uniform and indistinctive.
I aim to offer here three examples from Mormonism’s rich historical legacy of divergent and dynamic beliefs.
The first anecdote comes from the late nineteenth-century. As everyone knows, the practice of plural marriage was a crucial tenet of the Mormon identity between 1852 and 1890. It was practiced by the church’s leadership, trumpeted as the familial ideal from the pulpit, and identified as the fundamental marker of LDS culture. But surprisingly, even with the leadership strongly commanding faithful latter-day saints to enter into the practice, young Mormons started to “vote with their feet” against the practice. Mostly a result of the younger generation deciding assimilation into American culture—both through ideas of marital love (which was better emulated in monogamous relationships), and the new economic fads offered by the “gentile” businesses then reaching Utah through the transcontinental railroad (which was more readily affordable for a two-spouse household)—was more desirable than the sacrifices commanded by their church.
The anti-polygamy legislation, which then led to the manifesto, later rendered these decisions made by numerous young Mormons moot; but the point remains that, for many of the saints living in Utah in the late nineteenth-century, “Mormonism” did not entail being fully obedient to a controversial yet foundational command. Such an ideological position in the face of such stern commands—remember, most LDS leaders in the period equated plural marriage with exaltation—strikes against the caricature of nineteenth-century members being always-obedient to their prophet’s demands.
Move forward a few decades. When Prohibition—an act LDS leaders and state of Utah strongly pushed for—was being threatened with repeal, the Church jumped into the political discussion. President Heber J. Grant proclaimed that the eighteenth amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, was “one of the greatest benefits that has come to the people of the United States,” and that repealing it would be a drastic mistake. In 1931, when the repeal debates were coming to a head, the Church added the phrase “We stand for Physical, Mental and Spiritual Health through the Observance of the Word of Wisdom,” to their youth manuals, a move that made all young members recite the motto word-for word on a consistent basis.
During the presidential election of 1932, when prohibition was a major part of both party’s campaigns, the Church took an even firmer stance. The First Presidency released a statement that justified their speaking out on the issue because it “concerns very intimately the personal moral welfare of the men and women and youth of the Nation and of the Church in the nation.” President Grant wrote several editorials in the Deseret News denouncing the repeal, and even spoke on the issue at the October conference on the same subject. “Let me promise you right here and now,” he declared to the saints, “that if you vote for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, there will be [unfortunate consequences].” He emphasized that he “hoped and prayed that we as a people would not vote for the repeal,” because doing so would be voting for wickedness. And what happened? Most of Utah voted to repeal the law by a margin better than three to one, making Utah, ironically, the final state needed to ratify the twenty-first amendment. “Thank God for Utah” a prominent banner proclaimed in a New York parade.
Let’s look at one more anecdote. In Armand Mauss’s monumental Angel and the Beehive, he argued that Mormonism had assimilated into American culture to such a degree in the mid-twentieth century that the Church mad a conscious attempt at “retrenchment” for the following decades. Social, religious, and political views among the Mormons were very much in line with other people of their same demographics during the period.A survey taken at BYU in 1935 revealed the shocking news that most BYU students were not as rigid in beliefs like Mormonism being the “one true Church,” the literal reality of Satan, or even the idea that prophets were always correct. (They were, after all, children of the parents who voted against prohibition!)
The official response was a strong and sustained push over the pulpit and through correlated materials to strengthen the orthodoxy of the Church membership. The indoctrination through books by Bruce R. McConkie, the re-emphasis on Church authority, and the centralizing of beliefs and practice through correlation seemingly brought more stability. But did it bring more conformity? To an extent, it definitely did, as it better demonstrated more than ever before the ideal image associated with LDS membership. But it also could have primarily masked the heterogeneity that remained at the local level, as a there was a growing rupture between the correlated image and the lived reality.
I could give more examples, like the doctrinal disputes in late Nauvoo and early Utah, the low figures of church attendance in late-nineteenth century, or even the voting patterns of the mid-twentieth century, but these anecdotes give enough of a taste.
Now, I’m not saying that there hasn’t been a strict and narrow orthodox ideal trumpeted from the pulpit, because that’s certainly not the case. Nor am I arguing that we haven’t had many faith-promoting histories that present a monolithic and conformist past, because those types of volumes still occupy the shelves in Deseret Book. These are the remnants of correlation, and a result of the centralization of cultural authority in the mid-twentieth century and the uniform image presented ever since. But I am saying that there has always been variance at the lived experience of the faith, always a spectrum of belief and practice, always a local push to assimilate with broader cultural values over the values preached from the pulpit. These tensions are nothing new. In a way, these tensions have always been at the heart of Mormonism.
Which brings me to my final point, and that has to do with the terms “cultural Mormon.” Beyond classifying—or, more accurately, caricaturing—ideas of belief and commitment into superficial, artificial, and narrow categories, to adopt the phrase “cultural Mormon” assumes that there is a clearly defined sense of what simple “Mormonism” entails. (Hence the need to differentiate.) To press for an “Unorthodox Mormonism,” a “cultural Mormonism,” a “True Believing Mormonism,” an “Open Mormonism,” or a “New Order Mormonism” means acknowledging that the basic and traditional “Mormon” label is incapable of encompassing these various cultural beliefs and expectations. It is, in itself, the same type of historical amnesia that we accuse hagiographic works of committing: it overlooks the nuance and complexity of the historical record.
I’m a firm believer that Mormon practice, Mormon belief, and the Mormon tradition embraces a broad spectrum of ideas, opinions, and realities. (And I hope the “I’m a Mormon” campaign means that many in SLC agree with me.) By forfeiting that umbrella, which is what we do by attempting to create new Mormon categories, we are conceding the elasticity of the term, overlooking the potential for its uses, and forgetting its dynamic history.
And that, I fear, would be very unfortunate.
I should note that some of these ideas crystalized over a lunch discussion with Matt Bowman, Jed Woodworth, and Rob Jensen, so I extend credit to them.
 Note: I did have a fourth example, Edward Tullidge in 1867, but that section became so unwieldy that I made a post solely devoted to him at the only true and living blog, Juvenile Instructor. (link)
 Discussion of young latter-day saints, especially the generation of young women born around 1860, rejecting the practice of plural marriage is found in Kathryn Daynes, More Wives than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 173-174.
 Summary and quotes mostly come from Richard Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1985), 128-132.
 Figures for LDS political, social, and religious assimilation, as well as the Church’s official response, are taken from Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 33-45. For the surveys of BYU students, see Harold T. Christensen and Kenneth L. Cannon, “The Fundamentalist Emphasis at Brigham Young University: 1835-1973,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17 (March 1978): 53-57. And seriously: go read this article if you have jstor. Remarkable difference between 1935 (before correlation) and 1973 (after correlation). Worthy of its own examination.