The Mormon Establishment
The Latter-day Saints: The Mormons Yesterday and Today
The Mormons, once a persecuted sect, have become a world religion, with temples from Norway to Chile, from Düsseldorf to Tokyo. They number 2,600,000 members, 1,600,000 of whom have been added since 1947; by 1970 they can be expected to have added 400,000 more. But when Wallace Turner, in The Mormon Establishment, writes with some alarm that “in widening waves this religious force in American life is felt across the nation,” he loses sight of the conditions on which all this growth has been predicated. It is not as a religious force that Mormonism now makes itself felt. It makes itself felt precisely in the degree to which the Mormon influence has ceased to be distinguishable from any other vested influence. As long as the Mormons were different from their neighbors, their neighbors hounded them mercilessly. Only when they gave up the chief distinguishing features of their faith did the Latter-day Saints establish themselves as a fixture of the eccliastical scene, another tolerated minority. This is the lesson, if you like, of Mormon history.
Mr. Turner, a journalist, has a muckraker’s instincts, useful equipment when joined to the proper subject. In this case his efforts are misplaced. The Mormons have been exposed so many times, and with such telling effect, that there is nothing left to expose. Alarmed by the disclosure that these bearded sectarians were living in “licentiousness, lawlessness, and all evil,” Godfearing Americans long ago demanded that the federal government, guardian of liberty and virtue, take action against “that sink of inquity”; and the Mormons, in the face of unremitting harassment (and as the price of statehood for Utah), eventually capitulated. Polygamy, which fascinates Mr. Turner, is about as relevant to Mormonism today as an exposé of simony is relevant to Catholicism. Mr. Turner insists that polygamy is still practiced widely, but since the people who practice it are all apostates from the Church of the Latter-day Saints, it is not clear what their activities have to do with Mormonism. Nevertheless, Turner deems the details worth two chapters in his book. He gets equal mileage out of the Mormons’ antipathy to Negroes, which is a scandal, but a scandal not peculiar to the Mormons.
THE TROUBLE is that Turner does not distinguish between Mormonism as a religion and the Mormons as the dominant social class in the state of Utah. The Mormons’ present conservatism, which Turner tries unsuccessfully to read into the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, has to be understood as the conservatism of an economic elite, not as something intrinsic to Mormon doctrine, which in its original form pointed to an egalitarian rather than a conservative form of social organization. Turner is so indifferent to such distinctions, and in general so imperfectly acquainted with the early history of the church, that he makes the mistake of saying that the Mormons have “historically” set a low value on women. One might infer a contempt for women from polygamy, but …