Jan Shipps always has something interesting to say about Mormonism. An essay you might not have run across is “Making Saints: In the Early Days and the Latter Days,” in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994). It turns out that becoming a Latter-day Saint (or acquiring the characteristics of Mormon ethnicity) involves more than just conversion or joining the Church.
Shipps describes three different processes that, at different times, made someone a Latter-day Saint “both ecclesiastically and culturally” in the 19th and 20th centuries:
- The initial process (from the 1830s through the last part of the 19th century) involved first conversion (to LDS beliefs in a restored church and priesthood, new scripture, and continuing revelation) then obedience to the ongoing revelations delivered through Joseph Smith. This meant a physical gathering to where the young church was located, first to Kirtland, then later to Missouri, Nauvoo, and eventually Salt Lake. This also meant accepting the expanded covenant, sealing, and kinship doctrines of the Nauvoo period, which Shipps summarizes with the interesting phrase rhetorical construction of blood descent. The majority of Church growth during this period was by conversion.
- A revised process better describes the saintmaking process of the later 19th century and early 20th century, one centered on migration. Unlike earlier gathering, this migration brought LDS converts to a flourishing Mormon culture region. As direct conflict with outsiders declined, dedication to LDS doctrine and steadfastness in the face of persecution became less important for Mormon identity. Instead, just being in Utah and absorbing its Mormon culture by fitting in with the community was enough to make one a Latter-day Saint.
- A third process describes LDS socialization for those who were Mormon by birth rather than by conversion. It more or less emerged alongside the second process that relied on migration. Once the Church became established and settled in the Great Basin, a stage to stage development ending in “full participatory membership in the community” became the defined path for those born into a Mormon family. You know the steps. While spiritual conversion (or “gaining a testimony”) was often part of the process at some point, one could be lacking in conviction and skip later steps, yet still be part of the LDS community.
What Went Wrong
The two processes of migration (#2 above) and socialization (#3 above) worked for the first half of the 20th century. But everything changed with the Mormon diaspora that followed World War II. First, wards and stakes sprouted up in urban areas around the United States to accommodate Mormons from the Intermountain West who relocated for educational or employment opportunities. Then proselyting success outside the Great Basin area — in the United States and abroad — brought increasing numbers of new converts into these new wards and stakes. But it was no longer feasible for converts to relocate to Utah (so migration withered away) and the socialization process for BIC Mormons did not work as well outside Utah. Together, this created a late-20th-century crisis we are still dealing with: how to make converts into full Latter-day Saints. The terms used to describe the problem have changed over two generations (inactivity, retention, and most recently “the rescue”) but the problem is still with us. In the terms Shipps uses in her essay, we can restate the problem as: We can still get people to join the Church, but we’re having difficulty making them Mormons.
Ironically, the consolidated meeting schedule adopted in the early 1980s (aka “the three-hour block”) has perhaps added to the problem: “Whereas, historically, [LDS communal] activities were were spread throughout the week, making Mormonism’s community dimension paramount, the consolidated meeting schedule weakened the impact of being Mormon in a corporate context.” So the two-hour block you’ve been praying for won’t solve this problem.
Now It Gets Interesting
Shipps reminds us that the three-hour block wasn’t implemented just to save you gas money and give you extra time for naps on Sunday afternoon. It was part of … Correlation (cue sinister music). The original purpose of the correlation program was to pare back activities of the institutional church in order to give families more time together. Family Home Evening was a big part of the new initiative: a family-centered activity or gospel lesson held in the home under the direction of the priesthood-holding father. Add daily family scripture study — also held in the home, under the direction of the priesthood-holding father — and you see more clearly the twin themes of priesthood and family that Correlation moved to the center of LDS doctrine and practice.
But we’re not the only church that preaches the family. Most denominations support families and encourage members to enjoy family activities and read the Bible. What is different about the LDS view of the family? Shipps points out how LDS doctrine elevates and intensifies both the family and traditional gender differentiation:
Gender differentiation for time and eternity is a necessary prerequisite for celestial marriage, a concept crucial to LDS soteriology. … [T]he continuing emphasis that all Saints place on the eternal nature of families composed of fathers, mothers, and children who never lose their identities as males and females provides a basis for understanding Mormonism as an ongoing community of peculiar people.
That’s your money quote. In simple terms, the assertion is this: The expanding LDS doctrine of the family has become the primary basis of Mormon identity. And you can see why this nexus of family doctrine and family-centered gospel practice earns big points on the Correlation globalization scorecard: family-based activity can (theoretically) be replicated anywhere in the world. In contrast, the migration and socialization processes discussed earlier only worked if there was a strong LDS community (either social or institutional) to support the process. It is easy to wonder whether the LDS family doctrine is driving the move to family-centered worship or whether family centering is driving the development of LDS family doctrine. If the latter, it would seem like a public doctrine of Heavenly Mother is just around the corner — a new trinity of Father, Mother, and Son certainly fits well with the LDS exaltation of the family — but I don’t have any sense LDS leadership is moving in this direction.
What Has Happened Since 1994?
The essay was published in 1994. Events in the interim have certainly strengthened the points made in the essay. The Family: A Proclamation to the World was issued in 1995, which elevated to pseudo-canonical status the LDS doctrine of the family: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In 2000, LDS leaders supported low-key local LDS involvement in passing California’s Prop 22. In 2008, LDS leaders again urged local LDS involvement in passing California’s Prop 8, but this time LDS participation was very public and very controversial, even within the the California LDS community. These post-1994 events make a lot more sense in light of the Correlation push, starting in the 1960s, to place family and priesthood at the center of Mormon doctrine and practice.
Where has fifty years of LDS family doctrine left Mormon identity today? I see one big problem. (If you don’t like the word “problem,” substitute “challenge.”) Public LDS support for Prop 8 has had the unintended effect of redefining public perception of Mormons, who are now seen as extreme political conservatives. An argument can be made it has even redefined internal perception of LDS identity in the same way, despite the oft-repeated LDS policy of political neutrality vis-a-vis candidates and parties. This development has alienated thousands of Latter-day Saints who have different political views and probably damaged LDS missionary efforts in North America and Europe as well. So the logic of vigorously pursuing the agenda set by LDS family doctrine has resulted in external and possibly internal redefinition of Mormon identity. Instead of being known as “the family church” (think of those cute and successful family-oriented TV spots that ran for so many years) we are now more likely to be pegged as “the ultraconservative church.” (Note that the problem is not political conservatism per se, it is that Mormonism and the LDS Church is being redefined as a species of political conservatism rather than as a family-centered religion.)
It’s only fair to add one big success: at least Mormonism still has an identity. Unlike many Protestant denominations, the LDS Church still has a distinct set of doctrines and practices. The Church is also doing a great job (relative to most Protestant denominations) teaching those doctrines and practices to LDS youth and keeping them active as young adults. Activity and retention may be concerns, but socialization (the third process in the list above) is still working. We still send out 25,000 missionaries a year. The youth of Zion haven’t faltered yet.
So how would you define present Mormon identity? Who are we in 2011? Who will we be in 2031 or 2051?