The Double-Minded Essence of Mormonism

April 8, 2009 | 16 comments
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A while ago I was reading some sermons from the 1880s in the Journal of Discourses.  The 1880s, of course, is the decade when the anti-polygamy crusades were at their most intense.  Thousands of Mormons were incarcerated, the Brethren were in hiding from the law much of the time, and every time you turned around there was a new law confiscating Mormon property or disenfranchising Mormon voters.  Hence, I was surprised to come across a sermon in which George Q. Cannon spoke unironically of his admiration for George Edmunds.  Edmunds was a Republican Senator from Vermont, and the chief proponent of harsher anti-Mormon legislation in Congress.  Cannon noted that he disagreed with Edmunds and thought him mistaken.  Nevertheless, he said in effect that he thought Edmunds an admirable man of principle.  Cannon’s remarks reveal a deep double-mindedness in nineteenth-century Mormonism, a double-mindedness whose preservation surely counts as one of the triumphs of the modern Church.

To get at what I mean, think for a moment about media coverage of the FLDS.  To many a non-Mormon observer the FLDS look as though they are simply a bit of nineteenth-century Mormonism that has survived into the twenty-first century.  To understand what nineteenth-century Mormondom was like, they suggest, one need look no farther than the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas and the world of Warren Jeffs.  If one takes this view, then modern Latter-day Saints are cast in an awkward light.  On one hand, one can argue that the FLDS represent a kind of undiluted essence of Mormonism, and the apparently well-adjusted Latter-day Saints that one meets in the modern world are — if you scratch just below the surface — just like the FLDS.  Call this the Krakauer Thesis.  Alternatively, one can deny that modern Latter-day Saints are just like the FLDS by asserting that contemporary Mormonism is at some deep level inauthentic and deceptive.  Only by denying its essence has Mormonism become respectable and the denial of that essence is itself a deeply suspect act.  Call this the Ostling Thesis.  Nor is this tendency to see in the FLDS some disturbing essence of Mormonism confined to the Gentile journalists.  One sees a certain kind of Mormon sympathy if not for Jeffs, at least for those modern polygamists who see themselves as following God’s will.  Alternatively, one sees Mormons troubled by the FLDS precisely because there is a certain familiarity that leads them to adopt the journalistic narrative, namely that the FLDS represent some sort of authentic core of Mormonism, a core they find disturbing.

There are a number of problems with thinking about the FLDS as a kind of essential distillation of nineteenth-century Mormonism.  First, it is important to realize that the modern polygamists have an independent history of more than a century (i.e.1890/1904-2009), a history that is much longer than that they claim to share with modern Latter-day Saints (i.e. 1830-1890/1904).  Chronologically they are more of their own thing than they are of our thing.  Another way of putting this, is that they have been apostate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long enough that their history has more autonomy and idiosyncrasy than the FLDS-as-essential-Mormonism allows.  No where is this seen more clearly, I think, than when it comes to the issue of double-mindedness.

President Cannon’s praise of Edmunds from the Tabernacle pulpit reveals a man who both wished to maintain the distinctiveness of his faith and his Zion and at the same time wished to reach out to embrace — and be embraced by — the broader world.  Cannon did not present Edmunds as utterly Other.  There was a part of the Senator from Vermont that Cannon found attractive and wished to appropriate.  This double-mindedness showed up in other ways as well.  For example, while it is true that a Gentile traveller making his way through a remote Mormon settlement in the last half of the nineteenth-century might find himself followed and harassed by suspicious villagers, it is also true that Mormons of that day were often eager to impress and welcome outside visitors.  Brigham Young, for example, was remarkably available to virtually any journalist or even tourist who made his way through Salt Lake City, and George Q. Cannon, as Utah’s territorial delegate, was always eager to gather testimonials from Gentile visitors to Utah who has been pleasantly surprised to find that the Mormons were not the monsters that they expected.

The place were this double-mindedness was ultimately resolved theologically, of course, was in missionary work.  The nineteenth-century Mormons scattered their elders as widely as they possibly could to search for converts, and then they sought to gather those converts into the new Zion.  Despite all of the fortress rhetoric of nineteenth-century Mormon sermons and the xenophobia that often poisoned Mormon-Gentile relations, the Mormon Zion was not in its essence an attempt to withdraw completely from the world.  It was always also a point of engagement, a hope that there were those beyond the Great Basin who could be friends, who would listen, and who might come in to enrich the kingdom.  In this sense, Zion was as much about openness as it was about fortresses.

One way of understanding the painful transition from polygamy to monogamy in the years from 1890 to 1904 is to simply see it as a capitulation to overwhelming force, a repudiation of an authentic kind of Mormonism for an inauthentic kind.  Certainly there is an enormous amount of truth the story of force and surrender.  On the other hand, the persistence of polygamy after 1890 and 1904 suggest capitulation to monogamy was not absolutely necessary.  One could hold on to polygamy, as the odyssey of twentieth-century polygamists itself shows.  What was impossible was to maintain the double-mindedness of nineteenth century Mormonism.  To maintain polygamy one had to give up on any open vision of Zion.  One sees the result in the apostate Zion that the FLDS offer.  It is striking to me that one of the absolutely central elements of nineteenth-century Mormonism — an element more fundamental even than polygamy — is ultimately missing from the world of the modern polygamists.  There is no missionary work to the world.  Their source of converts lies entirely within either other polygamist sects or else amongst a tiny, tiny fringe of the Church.  There are no young FLDS men in white shirts thrashing the nations for the pure in heart.  They maintained polygamy, but only at the cost of giving up on the tension at the heart of Mormonism.

It is with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the essence of Mormonism — nineteenth-century and otherwise — lies.  It is not just that we have keys, priesthoods, and prophets that the apostates lack.  It is that they ultimately misunderstand the nineteenth-century experience of the Saints, seeing only the remote fortress against the world and never the Zion that sought to increase her borders and reach out the hand of fellowship to all those of good will whatever their creed.  That last is NOT a bit of slick, modern PR..  It is a trope of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  It is part of the essence of the Restoration.

16 Responses to The Double-Minded Essence of Mormonism

  1. clark on April 8, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Great post.

    One thing I’m fairly ignorant of is the relative proselytizing efforts by the FLDS and related movements. I just don’t see much akin to what happened in the 19th century. (Although I clearly may be wrong)

    The other thing that builds upon what you said is that the Nauvoo experience seems fundamentally different from the Utah experience. Likewise even in Utah there were a lot of converts new to Mormonism whereas unless I’m mistaken this is much less the case with FLDS and other such groups.

  2. Hunter on April 8, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Of all the intriguing and well-written posts that you’ve published here, Nate, I think this is the best one. This is fantastic stuff in every way. Thanks.

    A follow on question: Was there any chance that GQC’s purported admiration of Edmunds is of the sort, “Well, I think you’re a buffoon for the principles you espouse, but I admire your tenacity at sticking to them”? A sort of passive-aggressive comment? In that sense, I wonder whether GQC was truly being double minded in this instance. (I still think your thesis is strong.)

  3. Jim F. on April 9, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Like everyone else, Nate, I think this is a great post, one of your standouts. But surely you think those FLDS missionaries would be threshing rather than thrashing the world. Or perhaps not!

  4. mmiles on April 9, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Great post.

  5. Nate Oman on April 9, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Jim: Oddly, the Doctrine and Covenants uses the term “thrash” rather than “thresh.” (see D&C 35:13)

    Hunter: I don’t know exactly what to make of GQC comments. I don’t think that he was being passive aggressive. I think that he genuinely thought that Edmunds was sincere but wrong. Of course, there were lots of other Mormon leaders preaching the-Republicans-are-the-prostitution-loving-fiends-of-hell style discourse at the same time, so I don’t want to give a sugar-coated image of the rhetoric of the 1880s. John Taylor, in particular, was a pugnacious soul who could give as good as he got, and better.

  6. Nate Oman on April 9, 2009 at 7:19 am

    BTW, I should not that Armaund Mauss says something like (but not exactly the same as) this in his book _The Angel and the Beehive_, and Jed Woodworth has been pointing out in conversations to me for years the double-mindedness of nineteenth-century Mormonism.

  7. Dan on April 9, 2009 at 7:43 am

    I would not have joined the church in the 1800s (which is probably why the Lord saw fit to ensure I was not born in the 1800s). I would have joined at the start, when Joseph Smith led, but a lot of the stuff from the latter half of the 1800s church history seems so foreign to me. Heck I still have trouble with the more hardcore Skousen types today, but I am very glad they are a minority right now. I don’t feel to care to learn much about that era, either, and it has to do mostly with polygamy, and the dogged defense church leaders had of this practice. I’m glad that people like GQC tried to reach out. I think they realized the stunted growth the church would have had if they hadn’t reached out. Or maybe they didn’t realize it, but just felt the need to reach out and not continue to be perceived as whacked. The FLDS seem to want to be perceived as backwards, as stuck in the 1800s. That’s their perrogative, but of course it means they will never progress and increase.

  8. HeidiAnn on April 9, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Great post! Thanks!

  9. Nate Oman on April 9, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Dan: The interesting thing to me is that there is a very real sense in which the FLDS are NOT stuck in the nineteenth century. Their religion and their sense of Zion is ultimately forged, I think, not out of the nineteenth century experience of Mormonism but out of the twentieth-century experience of polygamist fundamentalism. Nineteenth-century polygamy was different in part precisely because it occured on the far side of the Raid of the 1880s and the transition to monogamy from 1890 to 1904.

  10. Kay T. on April 9, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Jim and Nate: You might find it interesting that the first definition of “thrash” in my dictionary is “to separate the seeds . . . from the husks and straw by beating: thresh.” But “thrashing the nations” has an interesting double meaning, which fits in nicely with Nate’s fine post. Thanks.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Hugh Nibley reported that his mission president in Germany told him to warn the Germans that the voice of the misisonaries would be followed by the voice of fire from heaven, something he remembered when he saw the cities he had proselyted in reduced to rubble during World War II. “Thrash” is appropriate.

    Thanks, Nate, for pointing out the essential nature of Mormonism as one that is focused on inviting the world to “come and see” the restored gospel in action, bringing themselves and their talents and cultures into the Church. To accomplish that mission means a willingness to embrace the prople of the world where they are, to love them as they are, while offering them more. Some critics of the Church think that our missionaries are going out to condemn the world, but that is not a productive means of gaining converts. The criticism that Mormons are insular and even racist is belied by the Church’s constant outreach to many nations and ethnicities, from its earliest years. One should not forget that, in the wake of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Britain was not universally admired among Americans or regarded with the warm relations the two nations have enjoyed since World War I. Britain was a real foreign nation in those days. Church missions to Polynesia starting in 1844 and to Japan in 1901 reflected the Mormon belief in the worthiness of those other cultures to hear the gospel, a belief not widely shared by all Americans, as demonstrated by the 1923 passage of a law barring new Japanese immigration, which provoked the Japanese so much that the LDS misison had to be closed in 1924.

    In this context, the policy denying priesthood ordination to persons of African descent was an anomaly, and the ending of that policy has led to another surge of missionary outreach to those on the outside of Mormon culture.

    When we believe that every human is a literal child of God, who once knew the truth of the plan of salvation as well as any Mormon, and understand that Christ loves them as much as any one of us, we realize that even those who are our literal enemies now were once our brothers and may become so again in the fulness of time. We are not fulfilling our assignment as the Father’s true church on earth if we are not reaching out to all our family.

  12. Adam Greenwood on April 10, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Great post. And “apostate Zion” is a great phrase. It captures very well what’s going on in all these compound and commune and retreat-from-the-world groups, not just the FLDS.

  13. Rosalynde on April 10, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Yes, Nate, a great post as always. The structure of your argument is an elegant sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis: Mormonism is x, Mormonism is also not-x, and the contradiction is ultimately a good thing. Call it the Givens hypothesis. Do you think double-mindedness of the sort you describe is necessarily a positive institutional feature? How does one distinguish between a fertile double-mindedness and simple confusion in institutional aims? Certainly the mainstream church has fared better, institutionally, than the FLDS. But we don’t have a good counterexample for the other path—one of complete openness. Who knows if that might have been institutionally even more successful? (setting aside issues of revelation and doctrinal correctness, and thinking purely instrumentally, of course)

  14. Nate Oman on April 10, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    RW: One historical possiblity, I suppose might be to look at the Community of Christ (the RLDS Church that was) as an example of the road to complete openess. This is a simplification, of course, of what has happened in the RLDS tradition, but they certainly don’t seem to be trading in any way shape or form that I can see on a “flee to Zion” rhetoric.

    In terms of a positive institutional feature, I think that Mauss tries to make out a case in his angle and the beehive book that in order for the church to thrive it must maintain an optimal level of tension with surrounding society, not too much but also not none at all. Mauss, however, thinks that while this is ultimately healthy for the community it will always lead to a certain amount of personal pain and frustration for some because there will always be those who gravitate to either pole and regard the Church as an institution as either selling out or engaged in closed minded xenophobia. There is also an economic literature that suggests that what you want to do is create costly signalling mechanisms to avoid free riding, but not set the signalling costs so high that you deter any entrants at all. I am thinking here of work by folks like Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannaccone. Of course, the religious studies types don’t like this sort of theorizing, in part because the modeling necessarily flattens out one’s descriptions of religious communities. (I also think that the vast majority of the religious studies types may just be pinkos who reflexively and unreflectively dismiss economics as per se evil and reactionary [note to the humor challenged: this last statment is a joke])

    Certainly Givens offers up a kind of agonistic view of Mormon thought as a struggle between competing impulses and obviously I am sympathetic to that. His approach suggests that the tension is not simply institutionally useful, but also culturally productive.

  15. Wayne on April 13, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    I became a little lost in this thought-provoking essay.
    1) The “double-minded essence” is adherence to an element of sympathy toward the doctrine/practice of polygamy while publicly denouncing it and standing as far away from it as possible. Example: GQ Cannon defending polygamy while befriending an author of the infamous Edmunds/Tucker Act.
    2) The love/hate relationship to polygamy is not a window to the essence of 19th century Mormonism, the essence is the world-wide effort to share the message of the restoration. And, further, this essence is not double-minded.

    Incidentally, I see the Cannon/Edmunds relationship as very similar to today’s Hatch/Kennedy association. I don’t see either as an example of double-mindedness. I can enjoy association with co-workers of different faiths and at the same time disagree on some doctrines while agreeing on some. That’s not double-mindedness.

  16. Nate Oman on April 13, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    By double-minded I meant merely the Mormon desire to both withdraw from the world to live as an isolated and peculiar people and the simultaneous desire to reach out to, embrace, and be embraced by the larger world. My point is that both elements are strongly present in 19th century Mormonism, while the second element is essentially absent from modern polygamist groups like the FLDS. In this sense, they are emphatically NOT simply a continuation of 19th century Mormonism into the present.

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