In her brilliant book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Uillinois, 1985), Jan Shipps suggests that the Word of Wisdom replaced polygamy as â€œboundary maintenanceâ€? between the church and the world.
Shipps was fascinated with Mormon identification with Israel. How did that identification persist over time? Israel, as a construction, she postulated, required a symbolic boundary against not-Israel, Babylon, or the world. Before 1890 the boundary was maintained by the corporate church. Polygamy and theocratic government set Mormonism apart. But the demise of these institutions between about 1890 and 1910 left Mormons vulnerable to softening the boundaries, merging with the world, and relinquishing their claim as Israelites with a special mission. A new boundary, in postmodern parlance, had to be invented.
Shipps says the new boundary was the Word of Wisdom, a â€œprinciple with a promiseâ€? for decades but elevated to commandment status under church president Heber J. Grant in the 1920s. The boundary separating Mormons from the world shifted from plural marriage to W of W. In the process, according to Shipps, the responsibility for maintaining the boundary shifted from the corporate church to individuals. More recently, Kathleen Flake has built on Shippsâ€™s argument by showing how the church reemphasized the boundary-reinforcing Joseph Smith story after the demise of the corporate kingdom. After all these years our missionaries are still encouraging people to gain “your own testimony” of the Joseph Smith’s First Vision, a story largely unknown during JS’s lifetime.
Accepting Shippsâ€™s position for sake of argument, my question is where Mormonism stands today. We know that the Israelite doctrine gets little emphasis in general conference addresses, though it lives on in the scriptures, hymns, and patriarchal blessings. And the idea of boundaries, as our temple interview questions suggest, still enjoys considerable vitality. The Word of Wisdom remains a boundary between Israel and the world, but as Mormonism splinters out in many directions, across many continents and languages, brushing up against new public sectors, will the old boundaries become too weak to maintain Israelite identity? Already the W of W may be losing strength as a boundary. The adoption of smoke-free work environments and alcohol-free lifestyles could mean Mormons will have to look elsewhere for distinctiveness.
In a later essay, Shipps suggested that Mormonismâ€™s growth will mean the creation of many Mormon identities in the public mind not unlike the way Jewish peoples are now observed. The center will not hold. Does that mean new boundaries will have to be invented to preserve Mormon distinctiveness? If a new boundary were to be invented, what would it be?
One postulation is modesty. The church has given increasing emphasis to modesty over the last fifty years, from Spencer Kimballâ€™s challenges to BYU students in the 1950s and later as church president in the 1970s, to the increasing emphasis on the Especially for Youth pamphlets since their inception in the 1960s, to the BYU Honor Code beginning in 1971, to the recent injunctions against earrings and tattoos. Current BYU President Cecil Samuelson seemed to imbue modesty with elevated importance when he addressed the topic in his first address as BYU president. Modesty seems to merge with the image of the chaste Mormon.
Does an image of the modest Mormon exist today? Where will the boundary lines be drawn twenty years from now?