BCC is pleased to present a 3-part series from guest author Adam J. Powell, a PhD student at Durham University. His multidisciplinary work analyses the role of opposition in the development of identity and soteriological beliefs among second-century Christians and early Mormons.
Appealing to biblical passages such as Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 14:2, Psalm 135:4, and 1 Peter 2:9; Latter-day Saints have often referred to themselves as ‘a peculiar people’. This self-defining label, though clearly tied to the Mormon understanding of Hebrew connections with the Western Continent, goes beyond establishing a spiritual heritage. It serves as a focus of identity. In fact, the very same phrase from the King James Bible has been adopted by more than one religious group both as an internal motivator and an external identifier. For those on the outside, the term ‘peculiar’ rapidly alienates and distinguishes the adherents from the greater society. Viewed from within, the label reinforces this same in-group/out-group dichotomy, but it also mobilises the collective by fabricating a unique identity as a special and extraordinary group. In spite of its rather circular logic (we are special because we say we are), this act of self-definition greatly impacts solidarity and, subsequently, religious loyalty.
Throughout its history, the faith of the Latter-day Saints has been characterised by paradox. This was perhaps most insightfully and cogently argued by Terryl Givens in the aptly-titled People of Paradox. Whether it is the combined beliefs of continuing revelation and hierarchical authority or the assertion that Mormonism is a restoration of the earliest church while demonstrating obvious Protestant elements, the Mormon faith is incessantly balancing on a fulcrum between pairs of opposites. The insistence that they are a ‘peculiar people’ proves the point.
Attacks on the origins of the Latter-day Saints have been numerous, constant, multifarious, and often harsh. The ink spilt in deriding Mormons has perhaps only been equalled by the rather feeble attempts by apologists to deflect the barrage. The pitfall, of course, in comparing any two religions is that the discussion can quite simply devolve into a doctrinal argument or a rhetorical battle, the artillery often being any formal logical fallacy known and understood by the speaker. Let us avoid this fruitless temptation. The present discussion is not intended as a criticism of Mormons for applying the adjective ‘peculiar’ to something which is demonstrably a recurring pattern in the world’s religions. Indeed, the paradox is observed not by measuring the tradition against other religious environments but by delving into the internal sentiments and axioms of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This, it seems, was Givens’ general argument. The Mormons contain within themselves and their church the makings of a variety of paradoxes. In a sense, their identity is inadvertently located in this truth and not in their preferred descriptors (e.g., ‘peculiar people’ or ‘the seed of Abraham’).
A number of examples will prove beneficial. James Talmage, in The Great Apostasy, asserts that persecution in the early years of Christianity was a key factor in the general apostasy that followed. Talmage is not only regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in LDS history, he specifically wrote a number of significant works on the topic of The Great Apostasy. In his view, the church not only turned from the truth but did so in part because persecution led them to denounce the verity of Christ’s teaching. In a sense, then, the Christians of the first centuries A.D. accommodated to their non-Christian environment. Acknowledging the different degree of reverence accorded Talmage and Joseph Smith, it is still noteworthy to compare the comments of the former to the latter. In December 1835, Smith wrote in his personal journal concerning his recent experience of persecution. Here, Smith claims to be in good company among the ‘saints and martyrs’ of the early church. It is curious that Smith would desire to make a connection to those same individuals who turned their backs on the truth. This illuminates the utility of certain religious concepts. The Book of Mormon had already established a connection to a rich heritage, that of the Israelites. When Smith made a direct appeal to saints and martyrs he was not attempting to root his belief system in some pre-existing, legitimated tradition. Instead, Smith was locating himself. By placing himself in a historical category, he could accommodate the rejection he experienced and integrate it into a positive assessment. As George Q. Cannon said in 1884, ‘it has been the characteristic of truth in every age to be hated and to be opposed.’ Thus, Smith initiated what would be a long tradition within the LDS of appealing to martyrs of all eras, including those of the early Christian world, for support and validation. This was noted by Jan Shipps in her groundbreaking work on Mormon history, and many others have commented on it since.
Another interesting paradox in Mormonism is between the veneration for intellectual endeavours on the one hand and the unstable educational history on the other. Again, this is noted and expounded by Givens; thus, we have no need to revisit the full breadth of the topic here. That being said, intelligence is of primary concern for Latter-day Saints. This is exemplified by the use of that same term to refer to the eternal component of individuals. Parley Pratt’s words are indicative of the import of the term. In Journal of Discourses, Pratt equates ‘intelligence’ with ‘identity’. A more succinct explanation could never be formed. Intelligence became, at an early point in Mormon history, synonymous with identity. When this fact is combined with Joseph Smith’s assertion in Elder’s Journal that ‘intelligence is the great object of our holy religion’, it becomes challenging to overemphasize the role of the term and its implied behavioural expectations. Saints, as individual and eternal intelligences, must pursue education. More to the point, being is synonymous with intelligence.
To recognize the inherent inconsistency, however, one can look to the work of many Mormon apologists. These individuals, undoubtedly well-intentioned, have often engaged in lacklustre academic work under the guise of erudite, intellectual pursuit. In order to demonstrate this point, the present essay will address the first of the aforementioned paradoxes (that of affirming belief in a great apostasy while drawing connections to early Christians). In so doing, the second paradox (high esteem for education vs. poor scholarship) will become illuminated. Far from an exhaustive critique, the following explores only a single example of Mormon scholarship. The reader is encouraged to retain in mind the opening comments. In what ways are Latter-day Saints unique? Is there a tacit assumption that Mormons must locate common ground with mainstream Christianity? If so, why? Will the LDS church follow the pattern noted by multiple sociologists of religion whereby the religious institution gradually accommodates to the greater society, effectively decreasing their distinctive characteristics and losing (or relocating) their identity?