This is the first in a series of posts in which I lay out some of my thoughts on what Mormonism’s message to the world has been and what it might become in the next generation or two. It’s a big topic, and I’m likely to yammer on at some length. You have been warned.
Since the beginning of the Restoration Mormonism’s central message to the world has been “Join us!” We are and have always been a missionary religion. From an internal perspective missionary work serves three basic purposes. The first is to assist individuals work out their cosmic salvation by persuading them to make and keep sacred covenants under the authority of the priesthood as instructed by God. The second is to make the lives of converts in the here-and-now better by giving them a set of disciplines that will allow them to avoid much of the misery of the world for themselves and their families. Finally, missionary work builds the Kingdom of God on Earth, expanding and strengthening the Church as an institution and a community. As the Church grows stronger it can more effectively carry out those tasks committed to it by God. So much for the internal perspective. Here I am far more interested in the messages that we give to potential converts.
One way of thinking about this is to say that we offer Mormonism to the world as an answer to a question. What is that question? For a long time the question has been, “Which church is true?” We imagine every potential convert as a young Joseph Smith confused by the cacophony of sectarian voices and eager to find the right answer to this burning question. At various points in time it has proven to be a very potent strategy. During the first generation of the Restoration the existential energy aroused by this question brought thousands into the Church in North America, Great Britain, and later – to a lesser extent – in Germany. In the twentieth century it’s a question that has moved people in Latin America, the Phillipines, and to a certain extent in Central and Eastern Europe in the final decade of the twentieth century.
However, “Which church is true?” is not a universally important question. For example, I imagine that for most contemporary western Europeans or mainstream Americans it is a question that not only lacks existential energy but is almost incomprehensible. Likewise, it is not a question that nineteenth-century Mormon missionaries found burning in the minds of Frenchmen or Italians.
Many societies have some kind of culturally established church or religion. One does not ask the question, “Which church is true?” because everyone shares the same religion in the same way that everyone shares the same language or national identity. It’s not the these people are unaware of the existence of religious diversity. It’s just that the diversity doesn’t present a real existential choice, a question upon whose answer one’s life and identity hinges.
Seen in this light, the cultural conditions in which the question “Which church is true?” matters are actually pretty unique. Looking at times and places where this has been a successful message, I’d suggest that this question only becomes powerful when two conditions are met. The first is a society in which religious belief is an important force in people’s lives and the second is a society undergoing the cultural disestablishment of a dominant religion. Notice that it’s entirely possible to have one without the other. It is the confluence of both that creates a sectarian mileu in which denominational competition occurs and becomes culturally significant. Notice also that both conditions are met in those places where this question has proven a winner for Mormonism.
First take the Jacksonian America of Joseph Smith. His was the generation in which the various state-sponsored Protestant churches – generally Congregationalist or Episcopalian – finally succumbed to the forces of disestablishmentarianism. Legal disestablishment coincided with cultural disestablishment. The commanding heights of American religious life previously occupied by the learned clergy produced by Harvard, Yale, or The College of William & Mary were up for grabs. In this environment religious sects proliferated and – more importantly – the choice between the sects was a central cultural concern.
A similar story could be told of Victorian Britain, where so many joined the Church from the 1830s to the 1850s. In 1688, the Church of England achieved final cultural and political victory over Catholicism on one hand and the dissenting Protestantism of Cromwell and his minions on the other. James II, England’s last Catholic king, was sent packing and religious conformity was enforced on the nation. During the first few generations of the Hanoverian dynasty Catholicism in the form of Jacobite insurgency remained a potent enough threat to keep religious conformity high enough on the political agenda to generate substantial legal and cultural coercion. As the Stuart threat receded entirely after the Battle of Culloden, however, religious life opened up. The dissenters felt less threatened, Methodism injected sectarian life back into British life, and the perennial problem of Ireland placed pressure on official anti-Catholicism. By the 1830s all of these forces led to a series of Parliamentary acts opening cultural and political life to non-Anglicans. The Church of England remained established, but the political and cultural ascendency it had enjoyed after 1688 was over. This was the world into which Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff brought Mormonism.
Later in the nineteenth-century Mormonism had some modest success in Germany. Here I think that a similar process was underway. Since the Peace of Augsburg, Germany had been divided into autonomous principalities, each with its own established religion. This system took a huge cultural hit in the wake of the French Revolution as Napoleon’s armies occupied Germany and sought to impose universalist and rationalist ideologies in place of the patch work of Augsburg. In the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, pan-German nationalism – a hitherto unknown idea – emerged culminating in the unification of Germany under Bismark in 1870. German unification, however, involved a kind of cultural disestablishment of the previous religious and political system. Again, it was at this moment of cultural disestablishment that Mormon missionaries succeeded.
Finally, let me speculate that in the second half of the twentieth century Mormon missionary work in Latin America and the Philippines has benefited from the cultural disestablishment of the Catholic Church in large segments of those societies. As Catholicism has lost its position of unquestioned cultural control in Latin America as sectarian space has been opened up. In this space Mormonism has competed with Pentecostalism and Evangelical Protestantism, offering an answer to the question that previous generations of Latin Americans never asked. Perhaps most speculatively, something like this process also happened in the 1990s in the former communist bloc countries. In those nations, two or three generations of persecution and collaboration with the Communists left the traditional established churches culturally weak. At the same time, a flood of novel sectarian choices made the question of “Which church is true?” momentarily important.
If my analysis here is corrected, the question “Which church is true?” only really matters in pretty culturally specific contexts. It is not in and of itself a question that necessarily excites the kind of existential energy that would drive conversion and make someone change their life. Not surprisingly, Mormonism has crafted other messages to the world, which I’ll talk about in later posts.