Three of the best books that I have ever read on Mormonism are not about Mormonism at all: Perry Miller’s The New England Mind, Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma, and Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. All of these books discuss Puritanism, not Mormonism, but they have convinced me that in many ways we are all Puritans just under the skin.
For some Latter-day Saints I suspect that this will be mildly insulting. They have a sort of Hawthorne-esque view of Puritans as brutal hypocrites and witch burners. (Some post-Mormons may like my comparison for precisely this reason, I suppose.) In many ways, however, this view of Puritanism has much more to do with 19th century Massachusetts politics than with seventeenth-century historical reality. In the decades when Hawthorne wrote Massachusetts congregationalism was going through a massive schism between Unitarians and old-line Calvinists. The debates were more than theological, as congregationalism was the established church of Massachusetts and both sides wanted control of the government subsidized churches. Ultimately the Unitarians won, but it was a hard-fought battle and stories like The Scarlet Letter were part of the general delegitimization of Calvinist Congregationalism. Much of the modern scholarship on Puritans, beginning with the work of Perry Miller, has been an attempt to rescue Puritanism from the image of mindless bigotry created by nineteenth-century Unitarian propagandists.
Of course, Mormonism rejects in emphatic and radical ways many of the main tenets of Puritanism, particularly the ideas of predestination and limited atonement. Still, many early Mormons were descended from Puritans or Puritan-dissenters and our spirituality includes many, many Puritan elements. Examples might include, our extremely plain style of meeting houses, our emphasis on sermons rather than liturgy (Puritan churches were also centered around a pulpit rather than an altar), our discomfort with crucifixes and crosses, our emphasis on education as a form of godliness, our strict sense of sexual morality, our obsession with journals, and even some early LDS iconography. For example, painted on the wall above the altar of the St. George Tabernacle is a huge all-seeing eye –once upon a time painted over by over-zealous local members and then restored on the orders of Boyd K. Packer — and the all-seeing eye was a popular symbol for nineteenth-century Mormons. Seventeenth-century Puritan meeting-houses also contained many an all-seeing eye staring down from the paintwork of the pulpit.
The most powerful point of contact with Puritanism, however, is Zion. John Winthrop wrote of the Puritan errand in the wilderness to create a godly city upon a hill. Mormons labored to create a Zion “on this the American continent.” Religion is not simply an inner private experience. It is a communal experiment that manifests its self in the godly community with a theocratic government. Mormons and Puritans disagree about the precise character of the community and the nature of the theocracy, but we are both besotted with Isaiah’s image of Zion in the last days.
In many ways Mormonism is a kind of Puritan spirituality without the Calvinist theology. Despite their differences, Brigham Young and John Winthrop strike me as kindred spirits, and to read about seventeenth-century New Englanders is to spend time in familiar company.