Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith; drawing by David Levine

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 it would be an erroneous inference. Utah was one of the first territories in which women were allowed to vote; in fact this was an additional reason, in the minds of the Mormons’ enemies, why it should not be allowed to come into the Union as a state. One finds in nineteenth-century Mormon society none of that pious cant about the sanctity of motherhood, the sanctity of home and hearth, which was the real mark of women’s degradation elsewhere. Mormon polygamy cannot be understood if one thinks of it as an alien institution, a form of “Oriental” debauchery, as critics of the Church have always believed it to be. That polygamy could coexist with a high respect for women is precisely what was distinctive and interesting about Mormon polygamy.

The prominence of Mormons in politics—Ezra Taft Benson in the Eisenhower cabinet, his son in the John Birch Society, George Romney a leading candidate for the Presidency—disturbs Mr. Turner, as it vaguely disturbs a great many other people. An interview with Romney “reassured” the author that Romney’s Mormonism would not influence his actions as President. This inquiry was as unnecessary as similar inquiries, a few years ago, into John Kennedy’s Catholicism. The political prominence of Mormons and Catholics testifies not to the growing power of those religions but to their assimilation into American society. Mormons as a religious group have no reason to seek national political office, especially now that they have nothing to fear from the federal government. Even when they did so in the past, they had no wish to govern a country which they believed was doomed to moral destruction. “We do not intend to have any trade or commerce with the gentile world,” said Brigham Young. “…I am determined to cut every thread of this kind and live free and independent, untrammeled by any of their detestable customs and practices.” If George Romney shared these sentiments, he would not be seeking federal office. The larger implications of this fact, however, if one considers them carefully, are dismaying, because they show how far religion has lost its power to influence the world of affairs, politics in particular. Elsewhere we find Quakers leading the cry for war. It is not a question of hypocrisy. What has happened is that religious questions have been arbitrarily defined as questions of private belief which have no application to public life.


When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made a triumphal tour of Europe in 1955, the church engaged a public relations consultant, Robert Mullen, to blaze the trail. How was it possible, a hundred years ago, for the Mormons to reach Utah, many of them walking the entire distance pulling their families’ goods in handcarts, without benefit of a press agent? Mr. Mullen, a non-Mormon, was so taken with the Saints that he wrote a book about them, which has been published for reasons that are not entirely clear. The best that can be said for the book is that it is no worse than the books Mormons write about themselves; but why do we need still another uncritical account of Mormonism?

The book contains no glaring errors of fact, although it glosses rather uncomfortably over the Negro issue. It is true that Utah (which has few Negroes) has complied with federal civil rights legislation. But it is also true, as Turner points out, that the Saints have no missions anywhere in Africa except in the Union of South Africa, and that efforts to start one in Nigeria collapsed because the Nigerian government refused to give visas to Mormon missionaries. (On the other hand, Negro priests have been ordained by missionaries in Brazil, in violation of the official dogma which bars Negroes from the priesthood.) In general, however, Mr. Mullen does not have to evade the truth, because unless one has strong feelings about polygamy, the truth about the Mormons—at least about their history—contains nothing particularly scandalous. The absence of falsehoods, however, does not necessarily add up to historical truth.

IF THE HISTORY OF THE MORMONS is to mean anything, it has to be referred to larger patterns in Protestantism and in nineteenth-century society as a whole. Neither Turner nor Mullen is much concerned with historical context—a fact which is not surprising, since their books deal principally with the contemporary Mormon church. One turns to Professor Flander’s book, on the other hand, in the expectation that a book on Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons lived from 1839 to 1846 and where many of the distinctive features of their communal life first took shape, will do what the other books do not—relate Mormonism not only to other religious developments of the period but to other utopian experiments, both religious and secular. It says a great deal about contemporary scholarship that Professor Flanders shows so little interest in these matters. His historical account is no more historical, in the true sense, than the books by Turner and Mullen, which do not pretend to be historical in any but the most perfunctory way.

Flanders has ransacked all the relevant sources and has meticulously described the settlement of Nauvoo, the financial difficulties which attended the purchase of land and which helped to bring about the failure of the settlement, the internal struggles within the leadership, and the harassment of the Mormons by other settlers—culminating in the murder of Joseph Smith by a local mob—which completed the destruction of Nauvoo. Flanders has also described, in detail, the Mormons’ highly successful mission to England, where between 1837 and 1856 they made more than 75,000 converts, of whom 25,000 migrated to America. But when all these things have been said, the history of the Mormons remains as puzzling and as obscure as it was before. From what source, what reservoir of superstitution, paganism, hope, and frustration, did Mormonism, in the midst of the most “enlightened” civilizations of the age, suddenly spring, with its grotesque theology, its ancestor worship, its polygamy, its social program at once authoritarian and egalitarian, and its inspired, crazy messiah, Joseph Smith, whose accounts of visions and voices not only affronted credulity but considerably contradicted themselves? An effort to understand the Mormons, one would suppose, could not possibly stop with the Mormons themselves. In the history of Anglo-American society, the Mormons are so clearly a pathological symptom that a historian could not address himself to the Mormons, it would seem, without asking himself what kind of society could have produced them.

It is admittedly difficult to make sense of a movement as eccentric as Mormonism. The theology of the Latter-day Saints was the creation of its founder, “shiftless,” “indolent,” “prevaricating,” “cunning” Joe Smith, Jr., as he was known to his neighbors in Palmyra, New York. Smith’s father, a native of Vermont, farmed, kept store, did odd jobs, moved his family nineteen times in ten years, joined the Universalists, joined the Methodists, joined the Presbyterians, and “had what he called visions,” Alice Felt Tyler notes, “which seem to have made some impression on his family.”1 He and his son spent much of their time hunting for buried treasure with a divining rod. In 1823, “young Joe” had a vision of the angel “Moroni,” who after a four-year period of trial showed him the golden tablets (Smith first described them simply as a book which had been buried in the ground, but in later versions they became metallic), buried by the angel 1400 years earlier. On them was recorded, in cryptic signs which it was given to young Joe to read, the history of the Nephites, last survivors of the lost tribes of Israel—their migration to the New World. the civilization they built in the wilderness, and the eventual destruction of this civilization by the American Indians. The record of these revelations, set down by Smith in the Book of Mormon (Mormon, he explained, was the father of Moroni), contains passages borrowed from the Christian Bible, but it can be considered a Christian document only in a very general sense. It requires adherents to believe that Christian history is mostly a fraud, a monumental miscarriage, and that not the Christians but the Nephites and their successors the Mormons are the chosen people of God.


MORMON THEOLOGY bears something of the same relation to Christianity as the doctrines of the Black Muslims bear to Islam; nor does the similarity end there. The fierce exclusiveness of the Mormons, coupled with a formidable talent for proselytization, their search for a territorial base of their own, which drove them from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Utah, their rejection of the feminine component in Christianity in favor of an explicitly patriarchal style of life, and above all, the amazing capacity of the new religion to inspire the poor, the restless, the down-and-out with a sense of their own importance—Joe Smith, “the most ragged, lazy fellow” in Palmyra, being himself a principal case in point—all these things, together with their outlandish, trumped-up, pseudohistorical myth of themselves as the chosen people, strongly remind one of the Black Muslims. Both theologies are excrescences of larger systems of thought, as much pagan as they are Christian or Mohammedan, synthetic constructs invented on the spot by men whose careers continually invite the suspicion of outright imposture—Smith, like Elijah Muhammed, seems always to have had one eye on the main chance—yet which for all their artificiality make a genuine appeal to the outcasts and underdogs of the world, the class of people to whom Christianity itself was first addressed but whom in its triumphs it learned, with the rest of the world, to despise.

Mormonism, even in the history of Protestant sectarianism, was eccentric; but it was a recognizable product, all the same, of the evangelical revival of the early nineteenth century. Taking first root in the “burned-over district” of western New York, it was the product, more specifically, of a peculiar set of circumstances which made that part of the country so fertile a source of enthusiasms of every kind. Successive waves of revivalism rendered the people of the burned-over district peculiarly susceptible to intense religious emotions. (In England too Mormonism grew in ground already fertilized by Methodism.) While fierce competition among proliferating sects produced a chronic state of religious excitement, it gave rise at the same time to uncertainties and doubts which turned some men away from dogmatic religion altogether while driving others into a search for ultimate religious truth, a dogma to end dogmas. “In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinion. I often said to myself, What is to be done? Who, of all these parties, are right? or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it? and how shall I know it?” Thus Joseph Smith described his youth in the burned-over district; and if he finally worked out for himself answers to these questions that were highly idiosyncratic, the search itself, grounded in the assumption that the answer, whatever it was, would reveal itself in some definitive system of belief, grew out of expectations shared by other inhabitants of that part of the world. Even the imagery of Mormonism was rooted in local superstition. A mania for treasure-hunting had seized the district a few years before. And as Whitney Cross has shown in The Burned-Over District, legends of the lost tribes of Israel flourished here years before Joseph Smith turned them to his own account.

The people of the burned-over district also experienced, more distantly, the lingering force of Puritanism, which had given way to Congregationalism in the more settled parts of the country but lived on in the rural districts of New England from which many of the settlers of western New York had originally migrated. David Brion Davis, in “The New England Origins of Mormonism” (New England Quarterly, 1953), has explained how the Puritan legacy predisposed the settlers of western New York to a set of religious expectations quite at odds with the prevailing liberalism. “The descendants of farmers from isolated valleys in Vermont and Connecticut instinctively thought of one church, the church, with a definite logical creed and reassuring covenants.” Moreover, they expected religion to provide not only spiritual guidance but a set of principles around which to organize the social order. The essence of Mormonism was the attempt to create a community of “saints,” in which every “secular” activity should be governed in accordance with a religious conception of the good society. It was in this respect that the Mormons showed themselves most fully the descendants of the New England Puritans and of the Calvinists at Geneva. More broadly, their ideas reflect what Philippe Ariès has called the moral “rehabilitation of the lay condition”—a belief in the perfectibility of secular life, which stands in sharp contrast, at one historical extreme, to the medieval view that the only truly religious life consisted in the renunciation of the world and the pursuit of the religious vocation within the Church itself, and, at the other extreme, to the modern conception of secular activities as sufficient ends in themselves. Part of the originality of early Protestantism lay in defining work and marriage as “callings” no less Godly—in Protestant eyes, a good deal more Godly—than priesthood or monasticism; and although these ideas gave way in time to an easygoing acceptance of the world as it is, they regularly reappeared in those periodic revivals of moral enthusiasm that marked the history of Protestantism down to the nineteenth century.

IF IT IS IMPORTANT that the Mormons were originally sons of New England, it is equally important that they were poor people—poor farmers, unsuccessful mechanics, industrial workers (in England); in short, the dispossessed. The point is not so much that, lacking education, they fell easy prey to superstition. More important, their lack of education prevented their exposure to liberal culture. Thus an earlier religious tradition was able to survive in the working class after it had disappeared, leaving hardly a trace, from the middle class. In this respect as in many others—their family organization, their sexual practices, their taste for paternalistic modes of social organization which elsewhere were giving way to laissez-faire—the nineteenth-century poor lived in a culture that had become a storehouse of pre-industrial archaisms. Of these, Mormonism was one of the most vivid and poignant examples.

The Mormons’ utopianism, expressing itself in the wish to found model communities, reflected the survival of a powerful, obsolescent pattern of religious thought. It also reflected the utopianism of the immediate historical period in which Mormonism took shape. Alice Tyler, in Freedom’s Ferment, argues that utopianism grew directly out of the logic of sectarianism.

The leaders of these new sects emphasized their separateness and the need for close association of all members. The more peculiar the tenets of their faith, the more necessary became the intensive instruction, criticism, and supervision that community living could make possible.

The tenets of the Mormons were “peculiar” enough, particularly after the adoption of polygamy in 1853, after a period of perhaps ten years during which it had been secretly practiced by the Mormon leaders. Yet even here, at what appears to be their most idiosyncratic, the Mormons had more in common with other sects than one might suppose. None of the others adopted polygamy, but all of them in one way or another repudiated the conventional family (even while adopting some of its values): the Shakers, Rappites, and others practiced celibacy; the Fourierists instituted cooperative housekeeping and child-rearing; the Perfectionists set up “complex marriage” accompanied by what John Humphrey Noyes, their leader, called “male continence” (coitus interruptus, designed to liberate women from the tyranny of constant childbearing). Noyes himself pointed out the connection between communitarianism and sexual experiments: communal living dictated the abandonment of exclusive possession not only of goods but of women. “Thus Mormonism,” wrote Noyes, “is the masculine form, as Shakerism is the feminine form, of the more morbid products of Revivals”—that is, of the well-known tendency of revivalism to excite the sexual as well as the religious impulse.

In defense of his own system of “free love,” Noyes appealed not only to the logic of communism but, more concretely, to the bad effects of the conventional system. Monogamy, by giving “to sexual appetite only a scanty and monotonous allowance,” contributed to “the peculiar diseases of women, of prostitution, masturbation, and licentiousness in general.” The Mormons justified polygamy on similar grounds. The advantages for men were obvious enough; what surprised nineteenth-century visitors to Utah was that Mormon women, whom they had expected to find groaning under intolerable oppression, defended polygamy with some enthusiasm. They argued that it prevented bad marriages and forestalled the evils, for women, of the unmarried state.

THE ALLEGED EXCESS of spinsters was a general concern of the early nineteenth century, at least in America, perhaps because diminishing employments for women rendered single women increasingly dependent on their families. This alarm about spinsters, together with the hazards single women faced on the frontier, may help to explain, not why the Mormon leaders introduced polygamy (a matter which it is probably impossible to settle) but why it was accepted with so little resistance by their followers, who after all had been raised in the same monogomous culture as other Americans. Polygamy was one response to a general set of conditions—a response quite in keeping with the values peculiar to the Mormons. Monogamy, a Mormon woman told the French traveler, Jules Rémy,

compels a number of women to their lives in single blessedness, without husband, without children, without a friend to protect and comfort them; or still more, it condemns them to a life of poverty and loneliness, in which they are exposed to temptations, to culpable connections, to the necessity of selling themselves.

Polygamy among the Mormons was another aspect of their insistence on the life of the community as opposed to private satisfactions.

The communal ideal appears most clearly in the economic policies of the Mormons, particularly those carried out by the organizing genius of Brigham Young after the death of Joseph Smith. The idea of the Christian common-wealth now acquired an egalitarian emphasis which had been missing form earlier manifestations of the same impulse except as a minor strain—in the career, for instance, of Roger Williams. The union of communitarianism with the idea of equality, however, came too late; in American society as a whole the idea of equality—insofar as it displayed any real vitality at all—tended increasingly to manifest itself in the form of economic individualism. Rationalistic religion, meanwhile, more and more removed itself from any responsibility for the social order. From the point of view of liberal Christianity, the Mormon experiment was impossible to understand. A Universalist visiting a Mormon settlement in Ohio complained in 1837 that the Mormons had “too much worldly wisdom connected with their religion—too great a desire for the perishable riches of this world—holding out the idea that the kingdom of Christ is to be composed of ‘real estate, herds, flocks, silver, gold,’ as well as of human beings.” These uncomprehending observations show the degree to which the idea of the religious community had already fallen into general disarray.

In Utah, under Young’s leadership, the Mormons created a self-sufficient, cooperative, egalitarian, and authoritarian economy devoted not to individual enrichment but to the collective well-being of the flock. Leonard Arrington in his very useful study of the Mormon economy, Great Basin Kingdom2—a book, incidentally, which both Turner and Mullen cite but from which they have failed to profit—shows how the Mormons accomplished, through a system of cooperative and compulsory labor, impressive feats of planning and development—irrigation, roads, canals, sugar beet factories, iron works—without generating the institutions or the inequalities elsewhere associated with industrial progress; indeed, without even developing a money economy. Cooperation and planning caused the desert to bloom, in marked contrast to the exploitive patterns of agriculture which on other frontiers exhausted natural resources and left the land a smoking waste. These practices of the Mormons, however—so successful both from a human and from a technological point of view—ill accorded with the prevailing drift toward laissez-faire. More broadly, “the theocratic economy,” as Arrington notes, “interfered with the spread of capitalistic institutions.” Beginning with the “Mormon War” of 1857-58, when federal troops tried unsuccessfully to break up the Mormon settlements, the government harried the Saints by a combination of military, legislative, and judicial action. Finally, in 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, named in part for a respected liberal senator from Vermont, which effectively deprived the Mormon Church of its secular powers by stripping polygamists of their civil and political rights. (It also abolished woman suffrage in Utah territory.) In 1890 the Supreme Court upheld the law. Four months later the President of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, declared that the Mormons would abide by the decision. The capitulation of the church did not remove it altogether from the economic life of Utah, but its role was now reduced to that of an investor in companies the management of which, Arrington observed, “has been left free to pursue normal business policies…. Church investments, which were mostly promotional and developmental in the nineteenth century, often became, in the twentieth century, such income-producing investments as rural and urban real estate and stocks and bonds in established industrial and commercial enterprises.” Arrington’s book ends on a wistful note: “The remarkable thing about Mormon economic policy over the century is not that it varied to meet changing circumstances and conditions, which it did, but that it held fast as long as it did to the original program.”

THE DESTRUCTION of the temporal powers of the church put an end, for all practical purposes, to the Mormon enterprise; the enterprise had no meaning apart from the effort to create a community integrated and controlled by religious rather than by economic sanctions. After that, the church became an appendage of the economic oligarchy which grew up following the intrusion of capitalism into this last remaining enclave of precapitalist institutions—just as, two centuries before, Congregationalism had become the official religion of the slave-trading descendants of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts Bay. Present-day Mormonism bears the same relation to nineteenth-century Mormonism as Congregationalism to Puritanism; which is to say, hardly any relation at all, beyond a certain pride of ancestry. It does not surprise us to read, in Turner’s book, that contemporary Mormons take an unusual interest in genealogy. The need to establish genealogical links with the past, characteristic of newly arrived elites in every period, testifies to the weakness of more substantial connections.

Similarly the appearance of a book on Mormon history by a public-relations consultant—a book stressing the “colorful” aspects of the “Mormon experience,” as it will no doubt come to be called—suggests that Mormon history has already become part of the generalized myth of the American West and of the triumph of American enterprise. The Mormon church continues to grow. It grows because it can offer special attractions of its own—more community sense, more social discipline, more mystique than other churches competing for lower-middleclass converts, a combination which is appealing to those reared strictly who find things falling apart. But the growth of the Mormons, like the growth of the other churches, has been achieved by sacrificing whatever features of their doctrine or ritual that were really demanding and difficult. In the case of the Mormons, what was demanding and difficult was the conception of a secular community organized in accordance with religious principles. Accordingly the utopian elements of Mormonism were abandoned while the absurd theology remains, leaving the monstrosity of a church which is fundamentalist in most respects but which has nevertheless come to share the central feature of religious liberalism, the comforting illusion that religion is an affair of the spirit alone having nothing to do with the rest of life. From posing a challenge to the American way of life Mormonism has become a defense of its most reactionary aspects.

MEANWHILE the spread of federal power throughout the continent—the imposition of uniform laws, economic practices, and institutions—reduces religious, ethnic, and regional minorities to the level of tolerated and “privileged” corporations—privileged in the sense that they enjoy a quasi-official relationship to the body politic which allows them to wear their colorful and distinctive cultural dress on the understanding that these garments shall be reserved, as it were, for ceremonial occasions, to be put off, on working days, in favor of the plain garb of the American citizen. Ethnic eccentricities, harmless and quaint, not only contribute to our amusement but add to our flattering self-portrait of ourselves as a “pluralistic” society. The ultimate fate of American minorities is to become tourist attractions. Mr. Mullen points with pride to the increase of tourism in the Salt Lake Kingdom of the Saints. But the tourist boom means the same thing in Utah that it means in Vermont, the same thing it means wherever the past has been piously “restored,” roped off, and put on display—not the vitality but the decadence of a way of life.

This Issue

January 26, 1967