The Attraction of the Extreme

Phoebe Palmer diary (1847):

After class, went to see Mrs. Pillow, who has lately returned from the residence (of months I believe) among the “Shakers.” She had become so far deluded, during her residence with them, that she renounced all earthly obligations to her husband and family, and the pursuasions of a kind husband were unavailing, in urging her return. His only alternative was to take out a writ, and demand her person by law.

O, how dangerous is the least departure from the Written Word. A dependence on revelations or anything not fully sanctioned,–who can tell where the evil of such a dependence may end? I urged the authority of the plain Written Word, relative to the duties which she had renounced, and she informed me that the Shaking Quakers had received superior light in reference to these subjects, and revelations in connection with them, which the “Children of this world” (of which she regards me as being one) could not apprehend.

I assured her that if they gained this superior light by adding their revelations to make up the amount of God’s requirements by the testimony of the Scriptures themselves, they were condemned. The volume of revelation being closed, God had now declared, “If any man shall add to the words of this Book, God shall add to him the plagues written in this Book, or, if any man shall take away from the words of this Book, God shall take away his part out of the book of life,” etc. And, no prophecy of the Scripture being of any private interpretation, I conceived it to be impossible that they should have light on the Scriptures which any other disciple of Jesus might not have.

I spent perhaps an hour, with seemingly but little profit, in urging Mrs. P. to the importance of keeping close to the revealed will of God, as recorded in the Bible, with perhaps little other benefit than that of driving her to the conclusion that she must have required something beside Scripture, in bringing her to embrace such a faith. I left, deeply convinced of the danger of stepping aside, in the smallest degree, from the Written Word, assured that such a remove, however small, is getting on Satan’s ground,—just where he claims as his right, the privilege of carrying us away with every wind of doctrine.

Palmer was a prominent New York Methodist during the period (c1839) and devotee of the “holiness” movement — a broad revival of John Wesley’s own ideas about perfection. The movement was styled as a response to the observed imperfection among persons who claimed to be “justified” Christians. But there are a number of points in the diary here that suggest the parallel ways Mormons and Shakers were seen.[1] The Mormons had signed on to the Sanctification bandwagon from the beginning and yet were most certainly seen in the same way as the Shakers in their proposition that revelation had not ceased with the Bible.

All this reminds you of polygamy groups of the 20th century and people running off from mainstream Mormonism to plural marriage communities. There is a slice of Mormons that seem more susceptible to the exotic– wishing to belong to that gnostic-like club of folks with special knowledge/praxis/sacraments — the exclusivity of it perhaps.

[1] Check out Steve Taysom’s book Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds, Indiana UP, 2010.


  1. I think part of it is a quest for authenticity, part of it is the power of primordialism, and part of it is our inability to ever feel quite right in our current world. I think it’s an ongoing tension, one that may get elided more than is necessary by the Angel vs. Beehive paradigm that Armand Mauss eloquently expounded in his book of the same name.

  2. Maybe the attraction to the extreme is rooted in the fear that we’ll never be more than we are. After all, it turns out that I’m just an everyday gal, no more or less special than everyone/someone else. In my desperate urge to be more than just a drop in the ocean, I’ll attach myself to anything that will give me the illusion of being extraordinary.

  3. D&C 85:6
    Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest, saying:

  4. ” wishing to belong to that gnostic-like club of folks with special knowledge/praxis/sacraments — the exclusivity of it perhaps.”

    Ummm… ya because Mormon’s don’t believe in any kind of special knowledge or exclusive theories and practices that only those who are worthy to receive will receive?

    It’s not a slice of Mormons that believe the Lord reveals special knowledge/praxis/sacraments to the some form of the elect, it’s one of the crowning doctrines for all Mormons, is it not?

    It’s important to point out the only one making exclusions is the individual electing to exclude themself.

  5. Well, the Shakers were certainly extreme, but you gotta admit that they made some very fine furniture, and gave us a lovely melody in “Simple Gifts.” Perhaps the denial of the normal enjoyments and expectations of life in pursuit of extreme asceticism or religiosity brings with it a compensating single-minded creativity when it is channeled for that purpose.

  6. #5: Ken,
    “pursuit of extreme asceticism or religiosity brings with it a compensating single-minded creativity ….”.
    Maybe this is true, but for Mormonism (good for many), what has been the price for others who could not to live it?

  7. #6, Bob: remember that I prefaced my idea about pursuit of extreme asceticism or religiosity with “perhaps.” I’m really not sure that the compensating creativity and purpose that some people find from living an extreme life is the norm. In fact, I suspect it is not. For every Shaker who channeled their repressed libido into creating great furniture or beautiful hymns, I imagine several others couldn’t handle it at all. And with Mormonism, I’ve certainly seen the range of responses. We may not be as extreme now as we were a few generations ago, but much of what we are asked to do departs significantly from the norms of our culture. And that was true of primitive Christianity as well. I suspect there is a range of reactions, ranging from single-minded purpose and enlightment to leaving the fold because it is simply too hard and the benefits seem hard to understand.

  8. I’m not sure why this post isn’t getting more traffic–it’s a very intriguing topic. The idea of religious or spiritual extremes is something that I think it embedded deeply into the collective Latter-day Saint psyche, although nowadways we tend to not think of ourselves as an extreme group. But look what many of our members go through for the sake of the Gospel and church: Being cut off from your family for joining the church; not being able to have your non-LDS or less active LDS parents at your temple wedding; covenating to give and do whatever it takes to build the kingdom; leaving family and friends to pursue self-funded missionary work, and much more. These are just a few things that we accept and even cherish, but that many people on the outside and in the borderlands see as extreme. Two books that explore the notion of pushing our faith to the extremes include the late Sterling Van Wagoner’s excellent “Sydney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess,” and John Krakauer’s flawed yet compelling “Under the Bannder of Heaven.” What think ye?

  9. Make that Richard S. Von Wagoner, not Sterling Von Wagoner. My bad. Now get back to work on that beautiful Shaker furniture…

  10. #8: Ken,
    Mormonism is extreme in it’s doctines. Mormon culture is extreme in it’s behaviors. This has been helpful to many who stay/came in the culture, but it has caused the loss of many(millions ?) of it’s members. It’s a shame, because I think the Church is good enough to stand on it’s own, without these extremes.

  11. I agree it is a shame that we have lost so many…new convert retention figures are pitiful everywhere I have lived, and the extremes are probably part of causing that. I believe that some would argue with Bob that dropping what are considered the extremes would still allow the church to move forward, but I am conflicted about that notion. One one hand, we see the brethren slowly working toward dropping some of the things that are seen as excessive or extreme, but on the other hand, there are still hard lines drawn in the sand that tend to polarize.

  12. Perhaps Bob and Ken you would you mind elaborating on what you perceive to be the extremes that are nonessential parts of LDS doctrine that are driving so many members away?

    In my experience the vast majority of converts who fall away from the Church do so because they don’t want a faith that asks them to actively engage and sacrifice. Things like coming to church every Sunday, holding a calling, dedicating so much of their time, paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, the law of Chastity, etc. But those are generally just symptoms of a lack of spiritual conversion and a solid foundation that this is the church of Jesus Christ and that its tenets are requisite for salvation.

  13. #12: ….”its tenets are requisite for salvation.” I don’t believe your list of things is needed to be saved. That would be a poor list for 99% of God’s children.

  14. Perhaps we self-select into behavior that best fits our internal hardwiring. Some twin studies show that 40% of the variation in exclusivist beliefs can be explained by genetic factors.

  15. #12, Alain, I never said that the parts of LDS doctrine and cultural expectations that make it too difficult for many to stay in the fold are non-essential. They may all be essential–I am not sure which are and which aren’t. But the level of commitment, separation from “the world” and peculiarty we espouse as core features certainly is extreme to many. And yes, the brethren have indeed quietly dropped several doctrinal and worship features during my lifetime that I was taught were essential for salvation. So what is required for salvation and what is not required seem complicated to grasp in the big scheme of things. And I am still a believer.

  16. How immature is it of me to love to see Rev. 22:19 misused on somebody else!

    It’s fun to compare Phoebe Palmer’s exhortations with Joseph Smith’s (D&C 49). Palmer points out the Shakers are adding to the gospel, Joseph Smith starts out with they want only part of the truth (verse 2)

    I still run into fellow saints attracted to special knowledge. Look at the people combing General Conference texts for between-the-lines advice for those in the know.

  17. A gnostic like club, like those in the church who have received the second announting?

  18. Bob, I never said my list included those tenets required to be saved. I said in my experience those are generally the Church expectations that caused most people I have observed to fall away.

    Though, the law of chastity – only having relations with one’s spouse to whom you are married – fairly certain that one is a critical commandment for governing the passions which is part of what it takes to gain salvation.

    My question was Bob, if you’re going to declare the extremes of the Church are causing members and converts to fall away then I’m genuinely interested in understanding what others believe those extremes are.

    With regards to the original theme of this post we’re all familiar with the extreme sacrifices the early Church required of the Saints who picked up everything and shuffled from location to location until finally in exhaustion reaching the Salt Lake valley. My suspicion is that there are those today who are looking for that special sacrifice that will gain a more intimate relationship with God. Those who feel there are radical secrets and spiritual levels that can only be gained outside of the already peculiar aspects of the merely common teachings found in the temple. And that is where the offshoots and unusual practices might stem from.

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