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Secrets of the Mormons

Mormonism: The Story of A New Religious Tradition

by Jan Shipps
University of Illinois Press, 211 pp., $14.50

Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism

by Richard L. Bushman
University of Illinois Press, 262 pp., $17.95

Brigham Young: American Moses

by Leonard J. Arrington
Knopf, 522 pp., $24.95

History has always been central to Mormonism as a foundation of faith, a source of group identity, and a vulnerable target for heretical and Gentile attack. The historical consciousness of the Mormons is wholly different from that of such relatively modern denominations as the Methodists, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists. For Mormons the visions and revelations received by Joseph Smith, Jr., beginning in 1820, opened a new dispensation in human history and ended “the Great Apostasy” of some fifteen centuries, during which Catholic and Protestant churches had deluded the world and blocked the way to Christian salvation. The sudden intrusion of sacred power into mundane history led in 1830 to the restoration of the only true Church of Christ, later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to the rebuilding of social and political institutions based on divine authority.

Traditionally, Mormon faith has rested on a belief in the literal historicity of sacred events. These include Joseph Smith’s vision of God and Christ as physical beings in 1820, the subsequent appearances of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith, and Joseph’s discovery and translation of buried golden plates containing lost books of holy scripture. According to Smith, the golden plates, after being translated into what later became the Book of Mormon, were taken up to heaven. The meaning of history was infinitely enriched by the great Mormon epic of persecution, the gathering of the Saints, the martyrdom of the Prophet, and the Mosaic-like exodus to a promised land. As Jan Shipps observes, “Today’s Saints live out their lives in a corporate community that still stands squarely and securely in the presence of the past.”

From the very beginning Mormon leaders saw the strategic importance of retaining control over their own history. Faced with doubt and skepticism even among his own followers, Smith sought divine assistance to persuade three disciples to bear testimony that they had seen the golden plates and heard the voice of God affirm that the translation was accurate. Soon thereafter Smith created another historical document in which eight witnesses testified that they had “seen and hefted” the golden plates. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three original witnesses and the scribe to whom Smith had dictated the last part of the Book of Mormon, became the Church’s first record keeper and historian. Soon after the founding of the Church, apostates and anti-Mormons accumulated their own historical evidence to challenge Mormon claims. But in view of the number of defections and the divisive struggle for leadership after Smith’s assassination by a mob in 1844, there were remarkably few leaks or recantations. Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” was so fearful of the unauthorized use of a controversial text that he suppressed the first published edition of Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, recollections dictated by Smith’s aged mother, which remains a prime source of information on the origins of the Mormon movement.

Authorized Mormon histories, including the indispensable seven-volume History of the Church attributed to Joseph Smith, have been written to propagate or reinforce Mormon belief. There has also been a continuing stream of anti-Mormon works, supplemented since the early twentieth century by many doctoral dissertations that have sought to apply to Mormonism the methods of social science. While outsiders have been eager to relate Mormonism to the social and intellectual environment of the Jacksonian period, they have seldom given serious attention to the movement as a distinctive religion. Mormon authorities, for their part, have been determined to prevent the records of God’s dealings with his chosen people from being put to sacrilegious use. Access to Mormon archives has traditionally been restricted and we still have no scholarly editions of key Mormon texts.

During the 1940s and 1950s several prominent Mormon writers and intellectuals left the Church or, like the historian Fawn M. Brodie, were excommunicated. Encouraged by the cultural ferment of the mid-1960s, groups of intellectuals who were also practicing Mormons sought a middle ground between faith and humanistic values. Leonard J. Arrington, who in 1958 had met the highest professional standards with his landmark book, Great Basin Kingdom, was involved in launching both the Mormon History Association and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The new journal, which had no connection with the Church, proposed to bring Mormon faith “into dialogue with human experience as a whole” and to encourage artistic and scholarly achievement based on the Mormon cultural heritage. Richard L. Bushman, the young editor of its book review section, pointed out that Mormon college students were frequently “overpowered by a secular culture that dazzles them with its splendors and seemingly puts Mormon parochialism in the shade.” A new intellectual dialogue would help young Mormons learn to live in the modern world.1 The first issues of the journal promoted open critical discussion and debate. The lead article on Mormon history was written by Mario S. DePillis, a young Roman Catholic scholar who had been trained at Yale.

During these same years the Correlation movement started by a Mormon reformer, Harold B. Lee, had been engaged in reorganizing and centralizing the Latter-day Saints’ bureaucracy. As Gottlieb and Wiley show in their new book, which is a useful and well-researched guide to the Mormon establishment (unfortunately written in the style of a journalistic exposĂŠ), this movement was basically a conservative reaction against secular erosion and was designed to strengthen the priesthood and above all the patriarchal family. But Correlation was also keenly attuned to public relations and professionalization. Lee and other leaders were eager to increase public respect for the Church and to place experts in specialized administrative positions.

In 1972 Leonard Arrington became the first professional historian to occupy the office of “Church Historian.” Under Arrington’s leadership, the Church staffed a new historical department with professionally trained scholars, commissioned a sixteen-volume history of the Church, considered editing authoritative editions of key Mormon texts, and made the archives more accessible to non-Mormon scholars. During the “Arrington spring,” as it came to be known, the historical department’s numerous publications addressed a wider academic and professional audience as well as church members who had previously been restricted to “salvation history.”

For Arrington and younger Mormon historians like Davis Bitton, Marvin S. Hill, and D. Michael Quinn, free scholarly inquiry could only strengthen faith among Mormon intellectual and professional groups exposed to the wider academic culture. Arrington himself had grown up outside the Mormon cultural community and had been deeply influenced by Santayana’s Reason in Religion before he thought seriously about the historical meaning of Mormon miracles. He finally concluded that “ultimate truths are often, if not always, presented artistically or imaginatively in a way suited to the needs and exigencies of the living community of persons.” Since God’s will could be revealed only to “those prepared, by intellectual and social experience and by spiritual insight and imagination, to grasp and convey it,” a “naturalistic” approach was not only valid but “makes more plausible” the truths that prophets attempted to convey. Arrington admitted in 1958 that a naturalistic method made it “difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what is objectively ‘revealed’ from what is subjectively ‘contributed’ by those receiving the revelation.”2

This moderating position raises fundamental problems for a church that has always been literal-minded and intolerant of ambiguity. The optimistic liberals of the 1970s misperceived the Church’s aims and fears. The corrosive effects of naturalism had been all too evident in the writings of such ex-Mormons as Bernard DeVoto and Fawn M. Brodie. The Church harbors a deep suspicion of intellectuals; as the authorities concluded in 1983, there is “no need for innovation.” Having withstood all the twentieth-century forces of secularization, Mormonism remains the fastest growing religion in America. Thanks to a high birth rate and the extraordinary success of foreign missions, especially in the third world, church membership by the early 1980s passed five million. A vast business empire is complemented by growing political power, most recently evidenced by the crucial lobbying pressures of the Mormon church in defeating the ERA. The Church was instrumental in mobilizing anti-ERA forces in the Rocky Mountain West and also helped to coordinate fundraising and letter-writing campaigns concentrated on such pivotal states as Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. The main danger the Church faces, in the eyes of the leadership, is a “secular humanism” that would undermine faith, family unity, and obedience to authority.

In 1978 the Church began to demote Arrington and curtail the historical department’s projects. As the purge progressed, the surviving historical activities were transferred to an institute at Brigham Young University, and in 1982 Arrington was discharged from his ecclesiastical and bureaucratic positions. Ultraconservatives, such as Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, Boyd K. Packer, and Mark E. Petersen, tried to launch a campaign to identify and root out unorthodox intellectuals. According to Gottlieb and Wiley, this effort has recently been restrained by Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley, an expert at public relations and the dominating figure in the First Presidency since President Spencer W. Kimball became enfeebled by age and ill health. Even so, Mormon intellectuals were deeply shocked and saddened by Arrington’s dismissal and by the new restrictive policies.

Scholars who are also practicing Mormons continue to speak out courageously; they write critical essays in such journals as Sunstone and Dialogue. Their position is complicated, however, by the activities of such anti-Mormon zealots as Jerald and Sandra Tanner. The Tanners are apostate Mormons and Christian evangelicals who during the past quarter-century have printed a large number of Mormon and anti-Mormon documents, some of them smuggled from Church archives, in an effort to expose the fraudulence of Mormon religious claims. The Tanners have supplied Mormon historians with rare and inaccessible texts, but they have also endangered the assumption that free inquiry will strengthen and deepen Mormon faith. In the eyes of anti-intellectual traditionalists, the Tanners and Arrington’s historical department were both responsible for a “New Mormon History” that subverted the faith. The discovery and publication of historical documents have been the battleground defining alignments both within and outside the Church.

This past spring the press has printed accounts of two important and recently discovered letters, one apparently written in 1825 by Joseph Smith, Jr., and the other in 1830 by Martin Harris, one of the original Mormon witnesses and a key figure in early Mormon history. While the Tanners originally suspected that the Harris letter was a forgery, it is almost certainly authentic. Together, the letters confirm the view that Smith was deeply immersed in the folk magic of the early nineteenth century and was first regarded as a remarkably successful practitioner of occult arts, especially those dealing with underground spirits that guarded buried money and other treasure. The Harris letter, which describes Joseph’s efforts to uncover the golden plates, makes no mention of angels or other divine figures but refers instead to a spirit that “transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole.”

  1. 1

    Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1/1 (Spring 1966), p. 12.

  2. 2

    Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I am a Believer,” Sunstone 10/1 (January 1985), pp. 36–38; Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Harvard University Press, 1958), p. ix. For a moving account of the “golden decade” from 1972 to 1982, see Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot: A Personal Memoir,” Dialogue, 16/3 (Autumn 1983), pp. 9–33.

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