A Response to Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.1 of 3)

A few weeks ago a friend posted an article on Mormonism written by a former member of the Church which, for the most part, did a fine job of describing Mormonism for outsiders. After I “Like”‘d the link and responded with some clarifications another guy replied “BHodges would quibble with the angel Moroni himself.” Well, if not the Angel Moroni, I’m quibbling here with one of the most notable academic angels of present Mormon Studies, Matthew Bowman. I recently did a podcast with Bowman, author of a great new book from Random House called The Mormon People, which I pitch to you now.

The prolific Bowman has yet another article out this week in Slate called “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.” It’s another specimen of Bowman’s typically fun, frank, and insightful analysis. But I think the piece requires a bit of quibbling, as such popular columns always do, and I’m feeling a bit audacious today, so here goes nothing.

Essentially, Bowman describes the Church’s correlation movement as a handy short-hand explanation for how Mormon men have shifted from beard-donning 19th-century polygamists to clean-shaven bureaucratic businessmen, or how the church has shifted from radical outsiders to specimens of white bread Americana, all while maintaining a progressivist flare. (Notice how I pulled you in with the title about beards? Well, the original title was “A response to Bowman on Correlation and LDS Culture,” but that sounded too boring. Still, that’s really what I’m focusing on.) It’s a great piece (srsly, go read it!). My quibble is three-fold: First, the article paints a flatter evolutionary model of LDS history than I believe Bowman himself advances in his book. Second, as a result, Bowman glosses over some important distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials. Finally, Bowman also might have drawn attention to how the shifts he describes directly relate to on-going discussions about “official doctrine.” I’ll address the first nit-pick in this post so I can keep your attention. Why write a three-part reply to such a short initial column? Because Bowman is exploring fascinating issues and his analysis deserves close attention!

I. Evolution

Perhaps this is a bit inside baseball for Bowman’s column’s purpose, which seems largely to be aimed at helping Americans understand why Mitt Romney seems like a robotman. At the conscious risk of simplification (he expressly calls correlation merely the “the short answer” to the Young-to-Romney puzzle), Bowman tersely outlines a linear history in which correlation rises to solve particular problems, resulting in mixed benefits and drawbacks. He tells the tale of Harold Lee’s revamping of the All-Church Coordinating Council. A certain “system of review” was formulated in order to monitor all published materials “for theological accuracy and adherence to various church goals.” Bowman notes how this allows for corporation-like streamlined efficiency which leads to better global uniformity in Mormon faith and experience, and also prevents some of the more flighty notions from overshadowing presently-affirmed fundamentals. His observation that the movement has interesting similarities to American corporate culture is almost a truism on the Bloggernacle these days. While the correlation movement somewhat sidelined women and children, Bowman says the Church progressively “discards some of correlation’s worst inheritances,” even while tensions remain.

It’s clear that such a discussion in a popular column provides too little room for Bowman to stretch out his legs. A useful way to conceive of Bowman’s approach is to say Bowman is more neo-Darwinan than Darwinian. Evolution is not a simplistic evolutionary advance leading from primordial goo up to the Goo Goo Dolls, as the old Darwinian paradigm suggests. Instead, a neo-Darwinian approach talks about adaptation to local environments with the result of maintaining sustainability over time. This is an important distinction, but perhaps overlooked by readers predisposed to see a nascent church evolving into a giant corporate machine. There are elements of truth to this simplistic picture, but it glosses over quite a bit. (And the media format itself is the likely culprit. Bowman’s writing for Slate and a non-academic audience.)

I think Bowman might grant me this quibble. Elsewhere, Bowman’s work seems to align with religious studies guru Robert Orsi’s description of “Braiding.” Orsi says “the linear narratives so beloved of modernity—[advancing] from immigration to assimilation, from premodern to modern, from a simple faith to a more sophisticated faith and so on—are not simply wrong but that they mask the sources of history’s dynamics, culture’s pain, and the possibilities of innovation and change. Braiding alerts us to look for improbable intersections, incommensurable ways of living, discrepant imaginings, unexpected movements of influence, and inspiration existing side by side.”1

The take-away: The story of Correlation and the Church shouldn’t be portrayed as a simplistic linear march of either progress or decline, but rather can be understood as a religious group’s negotiation with external and internal pressures, values, concerns, & etc.


1. See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.


  1. You’re right, you did draw me in with talk of beards. For shame!

  2. haha!

  3. I’m in a skimming mode for the sake of time and once you got to the nit picking I jumped to the take away. I’ll say I’m gonna come back later and read the primary source as well as your full response, but that’s me speaking as if I own all of my time. For now, I’m satisfied with the take away because that’s where my head is at quite a bit lately. You summed it up nicely for me!

  4. I don’t actually believe in progress, so I completely agree.

  5. I’m with EOR- evolution is fun and all that, but let’s hear about the beards:) (says the wife of a very beardy young priesthood holder)

  6. Fur realz though it was a good response. Especially the take-away (nods to Dolly)

  7. I think you would quibble with the Angel Moroni if given the chance. I mean, why wouldn’t you? =)

  8. I don’t actually believe in progress, so I completely agree. Figured as much, based on your wider body o’ work. One down, two to go!

  9. Disappointed that the Beard lead in didn’t pay off like I expected.

  10. My actual beard project is on the back-burner right now, but I haven’t forgotten it.

  11. My beard project has been off-again, on-again for years – with the on-again stages lasting only a couple of days, due to work expectations and the desires of my wife.

    Oops, not what you meant.

    I really like your take-away. I agree completely – and the constant pruning battle described in Jacob 5, even right up until the very end, suppports your conclusion, imo.

  12. I recently checked out Bowman’s new book from my library just because I live in a very small midwestern town and not a lot show up here. Now I am looking forward to reading it more.

  13. Bowman’s book is required reading to get one’s beak wet in present views of Mormon history.

  14. . The story of Correlation and the Church shouldn’t be portrayed as a simplistic linear march of either progress or decline, but rather can be understood as a religious group’s negotiation with external and internal pressures, values, concerns, & etc.


    Oh no! Time to rethink my conclusion (or not) that the Correlation Committee is the very come back of the Pharisees and their active efforts to complete the Pharisee-a-tion of the Church, and one of Satan’s best designed, disguised and malevolous plans.

  15. Audacity and quibbling are to blogging what duck and orange are to duck à l’orange

  16. Hating on Whig history is all the rage, but I’m confident it will be victorious in the end.

  17. Ha! I avoided the W word because I knew Bowman’s no Whig. This part 1 of the 3 is more directed at the attitude manifested by comment #14. The next 2 posts get more to Matt’s substance in the column.

  18. We could also put this in a dialectic frame, and say that first of all, Joseph Smith’s approach was to celebrate all gifts, and personal revelation was a real thing.

    Then in early Kirtland we have Hiram Page with his own peepstone telling the Church this and that, which made Joseph affirm his position as the Prophet to the whole Church, and the only one who should be directing the Church.

    After that, then, to make a long story short, we were back in McKay’s times when everything was allowed to flourish; we had people like McConkie publishing Mormon Doctrine and such, we had lesson manuals that recounted extremely obscure doctrines as if they were clearly Joseph’s favourites and so forth.

    Then comes correlation, which starts “consolidating” the effort, and “correlating” between the FP/Q12 and auxiliary general presidencies; we got local branch/ward correlation meetings where the idea was to make sure everyone was playing on the same time with the same goals.

    Now, I would say, we are seeing the pendulum starting to slowly swing the other way, after a mammoth effort to bring the whole Church on the same page.

    There is now a realisation that the Internet makes for a kind of a unifying experience, at least for anglophones, while it also opens a completely different world than a Mormon Corridor Ward, where one daren’t bring up anything about social justice or come to Church in a non-white shirt, no tie.

    I’m naturally simplifying and taking shortcuts, but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s been happening and will happen. Retrenching is about to turn into embracing the various different kinds of saints, despite their dress, occupation or pigmentation.

    I hope, that is.

  19. #18 “Retrenching is about to turn into embracing the various different kinds of saints, despite their dress, occupation or pigmentation. I hope, that is.”
    I hope so too! My Dad was and is pretty nonconformist on the shirt front, barely ever white, often bow ties, beard and moustache… I’ve never understood the preoccupation with what we’re wearing. So long as it’s clean and covers up essentials what’s the problem?

  20. Well, that’s just a slippery slope to Nakedsville, Kai.

  21. #20
    How are you defining ‘essentials’?

  22. Velska in comment 18: I like your image of the swing in theological and cultural issues from creative and “poly-” to the rigid and “uni-” and back again. It’s been going on for millennia, well before Joseph read James 1:5. From Joshua “reforming” the temple and the “flyover prophets” (ht Jana Reiss) hollering about the people’s self-righteousness while they themselves were crazy as loons. In 1215 Pope Innocent III convened the Fourth Lateran Council, because bishops and parish priests had forgotten or never learned the Latin behind the rituals they performed, and wide and wild variations were being taught as “Catholic” and universal when in fact many of them were really particular and local. This had to STOP, went the institutional thinking, before the factions split into entirely different churches and fell away into heresy. After THAT worked pretty well, the reaction was the huge flowering of personal piety in mysticism in the 12th and 13th centuries, when even the Popes could not stop Jesus from showing Himself to the dangerously unauthorized, so the dangerously authorized killed them. (Some of them–I oversimplify; my point is, you’re right!) And so it goes.

  23. Tom Liddicott says:

    Well I’m sorry Hodges, I understood Bowman’s article very well, but I don’t understand yours. Speaking as an Englishman, I’m afraid your comments are all Greek to me.

  24. Motivational theory is an abstract that eludes me but I do take exception to the inference that a slick corporate like organization can effectively mold anyone into a clone like embodiment of the flavor of the day, beard or no beard. Corporate giants, deemed too large to fail, imploding about us on a regular basis should be proof enough that the corporate model, in and of itself, is not sacrosanct. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is eternal, the church, which is charged with the care-giving of that Gospel, is not; however, the evolution of the church is, to me, evidence of divine guidance which addresses the needs of the day based upon the, as stated in the article, “external and internal pressures, values, concerns, & etc.”

  25. Tom, #23: Sorry about that! My basic point is that Bowman shouldn’t be understood as telling a simple story of the church evolving from a little backwater group into a mega corporate empire, full stop. Instead, Bowman is drawing attention to ebb and flow between LDS culture and their wider cultural context.

    Also, and I get into this a little more in the next 2 parts, Correlation is sometimes understood as the death knell of the Church’s dynamism. It is bureaucratic, stifling, homogenizing. It is to blame for boring church manuals or dampening flighty speculations of our leaders. But Bowman crucially draws attention to some of the impulses behind Correlation, which includes a desire for efficiency, a progressivist streak or belief in the potential for human hands to build Zion, etc. At the same time, I think his piece glosses over important considerations regarding “correlated” materials and Mormon pop cultural products and unofficial works. Such unofficial works are informed by correlation efforts, but the relationship is a muddy and really interesting one. See part 2 for more on that, maybe it will make more sense. \

    Bill, interesting #24.

  26. Any organisation must, as it grows, get its message straight, standard, and simple, whether it be a Church, a Company, or a Mother’s Club. I’m sure this is all the Church has sought to do. I’m reading a lot of babble from people who seem to have little knowledge of organisational practicality. Having served in the Church since I was 12 years old, I can say that I love and appreciate the correlated programs,and the inspiration behind them. When will people appreciate the spiritual guidance between this great latter day movement. We are guided by Prophets and Apostles. The Lord knows what He is doing.

  27. Brad, I’m confused by your response. It seems as though you think Bowman is somehow denigrating correlation efforts, or that I am. I don’t think that’s what we’re doing, though.

  28. Sweet Carol says:

    Mormons believe in eternal progression and we are expected to grow while here on earth. Beards are like black or grey silk dresses and bonnets, merely tradition, and you did get me in by the beards. However, the church correlation is part of the same progression. We had lessons and they were separate or had a guideline. Yet we travel around now much more and we move much more so the church has refined and have correllation of the lessons so all are getting about the same lesson, though it is still guided by personal inspiration from the teacher. Correlation is a great program and has been out there for some time. We are all on the same page now, which the Lord’s church should be. Great idea. Sure glad that the just dresses are no longer required on campus. Slacks for girls are much more modest and warmer in the Utah cold. So tradition does change, but the basics of the gospel do not.

  29. I too was drawn in by the beard talk. Well played gents, well played. But because “beard-wearing” and “radicals” seem to be synonymous, or at least implied here, I’d like to indulge in a little quibbling of my own.

    I think it’s important to judge history along side the cultural context of the time, not with our current (or recent) cultural glasses. Can we honestly deem the wearing of a beard as radical in 19th century America?

    In order to see how conservative and normal the practice was, simply compare portraits of US Presidents with LDS Church Presidents and you see that the Church’s beard-wearing prophets roughly align with the popular American culture. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s counter-1950’s-conservative revolution, that beards were viewed as “anti-establishment.”

    I’ll grant this attention grabbing device by Bowman this time, but it’s important not to judge history by our hot-pink colored glasses.

  30. Beard-wearing both then and now are radical. It just happens to be that they are radical in the 1980’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sense. Radical, dude!

  31. EOR #30, nominated for BCotW

  32. I just finished Bowman’s book. Generally a well balanced review of the major developments in the Church, and in context of our relationship with the larger society. I think he could have given greater emphasis to the imporyance of correlation in stripping the Church down to a simplified model that can more readily be copied in many nations, with scriptures, lesson manuals, and church magazines that are translated into dozens of languages and give a complete Church experience to members in nations on the other side of the world from Utah.

    There are three other modern developments which are consistent with the simplifying purpise of correlation, and which Bowman does not, as I recall, emphasize. First, the unification of Church finance, emphasizing tithing as the primary donation, while assuming central financial payment of chapel construction and maintenance costs, and limiting ward budgets to essentials, was a great equalizer, especially necessary in a period of growth where those in young wards with new housing and new babies would have, in the past, suffered from building multiple meetinghouses, while members in older, fully built up wards, with the highest incomes, would be asked for the smallest financial sacrifices. It also prevented rich wards from creating auxiliary programs that created a luxury class Mormonism. Instead, those extra funds ate captured for use in less wealthy communities.

    A second correlation innovation was the smaller temples, which simplified the financial and time demands on members, and broadened significantly the opportunity to participate in temple ordinances regularly in the wider world, not just in the elite Mormon world of Utah, Idaho, and other western concentrations.

    Third, the transformation of Ricks College into BYU Idaho produced another no-frills Mormon system, this time for education, which is helping to support the prosperity of Church members, part of which is establishing BYU-I as a brand that employers can look to for employees both skilled and with high integrity. While the ZCMI and other coops had the goal of having Church members maintain a separate economy, the new BYU-I has a goal of integrating Church members into the national economy, with synergistic benefits to Church public perception and acceptance. It has complementary goals to those of the Perpetual Education Fund. In a book coauthored by Clayton Christiansen of Harvard Business School and Henry Eyring of BYU-I, the BYU-I story is held up as a model of creative disruption of the old, standard less efficient model of practical college education.

    The Missionary Training Centers are also part of the centralized, and essentialized, model of Church marshaling of resources. The creation of lds.org as a central online resource for scriptures and all official resource materials, so they can be available even to small branches in remote locations, is in line with the goal of correlation. And within that, the project of integrating the scriptures with a single cross reference system has made the study of scriptures a much more effective process for.the Latter-day Saints. We know the unified message of the scriptures much better now than we did before.

    This may sound wonkish rather than spiritual, but all these developments help the Latter-day Saints concentrate on the core values of the Gospel, clearing away clutter and custom. Their magnitude of importance is comparable, it seems to me, to what Vatican II did for the Catholic Church.

  33. #32
    Thanks for the summary. Very interesting.
    I get the feeling you are using something rather finer than a nit-comb to find fault with the Slate article, and your analysis would have made more sense as a single post, particularly since the essential point made, seemed to me at least, to amount to the same thing.
    In general I am all in favour of correlation and streamlining. That we have the same programmes, manuals and so forth has to be good. (That I may have some complaint about the way in which the manuals address issues, and use quotations both inappropriately and out of context in some cases, is not to say that we shouldn’t all be learning the same things.) I would even go so far as to say I’d like more integration of programmes. Replace youth Sunday School with Seminary for instance, and even YSA Sunday School with Institute. Keep the seminary home study materials for students to complete (or have them do it online on a daily basis) and have the class on a Sunday during Sunday School. Outside of Utah (where Seminary and Institute take place at School or University), these programmes can place an intolerable burden on families, those called to teach – for whom it is not a paid position (daily seminary especially), and also on students.
    The only real bugbear I have with ‘correlation’ is the attempts to streamline the individuality out of us, as individuals. Which brings me back to issues of beards, dress-codes and so on… It’s sort of at odds with the attempts to demonstrate some diversity with the ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign.

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