The Message of Mormonism (pt. 1): Which Church is True?

April 11, 2014 | 24 comments
By

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.

24 Responses to The Message of Mormonism (pt. 1): Which Church is True?

  1. Aaron Brown on April 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Looking forward to this whole series.

  2. Sam Brunson on April 11, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Nice, Nate. I agree that “Which church is true?” Isn’t terribly compelling in the US today. I’d never thought about the cultural milieu that makes the question compelling.

  3. J. Stapley on April 11, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    I’m not up on the sociological literature enough to know how much research has been done in this area. I imagine a lot. I also imagine that in all of these cases economic transitions loomed arguably larger than establishment. I’m also not as up on Scandinavian religious history, but it was along with Britain the major source for converts in the 19th century. Does it jibe with your hypothesis? I seem to recall that Scandinavia depopulated in drastic fashion during this period.

  4. Nate on April 11, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    J: I don’t know enough about Scandanavia to understand the dynamics there. On the economics I’ve no doubt its important and may drive disetablishment. I do think you can’t fall back on some kind of economic determinism. For “Which church is true?” to matter you need sectarian competition and not every economic transition produces that.

  5. Steve Smith on April 11, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks for the informative and thought-provoking post. I have thought about this question that you address before, but I haven’t been able to articulate it like you did above. I too am looking forward to the series.

  6. theoldadam on April 11, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Only Christ knows who is in His Church. The wheat and tares grow together. We can’t really know.

    But He knows His own and they inhabit all manner of churches where the forgiveness of sins for the ungodly is proclaimed.

    Thanks.

  7. Hunter on April 12, 2014 at 12:35 am

    Excellent.

  8. annegb on April 12, 2014 at 4:07 am

    Very interesting, I’ve struggled over my own apathy toward that statement. I’m looking forward to more; I think you might help me figure myself out.

  9. danithew on April 12, 2014 at 5:49 am

    When I see the phrase “sectarian milieu” I can only think of John Wansbrough’s book that goes by that title (full title: “The Sectarian Milieu: Content And Composition of Islamic Salvation History.”

    One of the most challenging reads I’ve ever encountered – and probably one of those books I’m going to have to go back and read every five years, just to see if I can get more out of it.

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series. The questions you are raising are certainly pertinent!

  10. Rebecca on April 12, 2014 at 6:19 am

    I believe that the is a church of God upon this planet that is build upon apostle and prophet and Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone. James 1:5.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on April 12, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I’m excited to see this series here, Nate; you’ve been hinting at some of these thoughts for a while, and it’ll be nice to see your ideas laid out at length. Great work!

  12. ji on April 12, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Many Latter-day Saints strongly use this message in their sales approaches, but it doesn’t resonate for many non-Latter-day Saints. It’s true, but it doesn’t sell well. Our message should be bigger than that. Or if that is what we’re selling, we need to present it better.

  13. J. Stapley on April 12, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Fair enough, Nate. I’d also want to look at the Christianization of Africa in the 20th century. I’m not sure that it fits the model either.

  14. Wilfried on April 12, 2014 at 10:37 am

    Thank you for the attempt, Nate. I recognize your desire to understand a major issue.

    As J. Stapley (3) indicated, we need to look at the existing research, which is vast and reveals the diversity of religious, social, cultural, or economic conditions, as well as the variety of converts’ profiles in order to assess the value of the question “which church is true?” as catalyst in conversion. In that perspective, Nate, the two conditions you mention — “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” — may constitute factors for some people, but to what extent is analyzed in quite a few studies, versus other major factors. I refer to analyses since Malcolm Thorp’s in the 1970s, then historians and sociologists like Peter Lineham, Marjorie Newton, Mark Grover, Polly Aird, Lamond Tullis, David Knowlton, Ronald Bartholomew, Henri Gooren, Jiro Numano, and more.

    Particularly interesting are studies by non-Mormons, such as Johnnie Glad’s The Mission of Mormonism in Norway, 1851–1920: A Study and Analysis of the Reception Process (Frankfurt: Lang, 2006), or Sophie-Hélène Trigeaud’s major study Devenir Mormon (To Become Mormon) published last year by the University of Rennes.

    As a convert myself, having lived among a few generations of converts since the 1960s and hearing the motivations that keep people entering the church and hanging in, I would not underestimate the value of the Truth-factor. When you state, “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”, is it possible you view it from a perspective that suits generational Mormons who never experienced what it means to change religion?

  15. Roger on April 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I will be interested in seeing where this goes. Which church is true was the thrust of the initial discussion in the missionary discussions of 40+ years ago. Only the few “investigators” (what terminology!) that made it to the fourth discussion heard anything of any substance as to the mission and atonement if Christ. And understanding that wasn’t deemed nearly as crucial as forswearing coffee and tea (not to mention Coca-Cola, depending on the zone leader.

  16. Dave on April 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Great question, Nate. I’ve never really seen your particular question (What social and religious circumstances make the “which church is true?” question meaningful, even pressing, for individuals) raised and discussed.

    It seems that a Protestant religious culture makes the question meaningful. In fact, I think the question should really be, “Which denomination is true?” That is essentially what it means for many who hear it. Live options for most hearers don’t include Islam or Buddhism. Maybe Catholicism, but not really. Catholicism isn’t a denomination. Either you accept the apostolic inheritance represented by Catholic tradition that stretches right back to Peter and his fellow apostles, or you don’t. The Catholic question logically precedes the denomination question. You only face the denomination question if you (1) accept God; (2) accept the Christian message; and (3) reject Catholicism.

    Oddly, for many Protestants the question of which denomination is not particularly pressing. Any denomination will do (as long as you’re not outside the Protestant fold: Islam or Buddhism or Mormonism or Catholicism just won’t do). So the way Mormons use the question requires a Protestant religious culture or mindset, but Mormons use the question in a way that few Protestants would ever use it, at least today. It’s a sectarian question that only makes sense to those who think in a sectarian way.

  17. Nate Oman on April 12, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    J. & Wilfried: To be clear I am not trying to do anything as ambitious as give a general account of religious conversion or even of reasons for conversion to Mormonism. Rather I am trying to think about the much narrower question of when the which – church – is – true question is existentially important for large numbers of people. It will always be compelling for some but that’s not what I am curious about.

    In saying the question is incomprehensible to many I wasn’t thinking within the narrow confines of life-long Utah Mormondom. Rather I was thinking of the kind of secular professionals I train and interact with. I am pretty sure that “Which church is true?” commands no attention from the English academics I interact with at conferences. It did seem to matter to the United Brethren and large numbers of folks in the British Midlands in the 1830s and the 1840s.

  18. Frank Pellett on April 12, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Wow, all that just to be able to use the word “disestablishmentarianism” in a post. ;)

  19. Wilfried on April 13, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Nate, thanks for the clarification (17). .

    I totally agree with you that the question “Which church is true?” is irrelevant for “most contemporary western Europeans or mainstream Americans” as you stated. I would even go further: for probably the vast majority of people who ever lived on earth the “veracity” of one religion over another makes little sense. Only fundamentalist thinking excludes others as “not true”. As Dave (16) said: “It’s a sectarian question that only makes sense to those who think in a sectarian way.” Most Mormons practice a soft version of that thinking with nuances such as “all religions have a part of the truth” or “keep what you have, we’ll just add more truth to it”.

    What I take issue with is your suggestion that the question “Which church is true?” has been successful for Mormon proselytizing “when two conditions are met” — when “religious belief is an important force in people’s lives” and when “a society [is] undergoing the cultural disestablishment of a dominant religion”. But the examples you give are based on generalizations which tend to distort history.

    I’ll limit to one case you mention, namely the unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1870. You said:

    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.

    First, it is incorrect to speak of a disestablishment of the religious system. Apart from the short-lived political Kulturkampf of liberals against Catholics in the 1870s, the main Protestant establishment continued unbroken in its tense accommodation with progressive rationalism since the 18th century. I see no sign of “the cultural disestablishment of a dominant religion” in Germany in the last three decades of the 19th century. And also no sign that religious belief become “an important force in people’s lives” during that period.

    Second, the so-called Mormon missionary success must be properly defined. I have learned to distrust Mormon history-writing when it comes to such “successes”. I refer to Zachary Jones’ study in JMH 37:4 (2011). After years of quasi-zero Mormon proselytizing in Germany, in 1875 European mission president Joseph F. Smith decided to begin “aggressively preaching in Germany.” With the influx of bold missionaries, converts were indeed made, but the data must be looked at objectively: the annual figures show only a handful of converts per missionary, and nearly all among “the poor and uneducated.” If 100 missionaries baptized 300 people in a year’s time, it’s still only one convert per trimester per missionary, not to speak of the type of convert nor the rate of inactivity afterwards. This is not to disparage the heroic efforts of missionaries nor the acceptance of the gospel by the most humble, but it is disingenuous to see in these conversions a moment of historic change in the German attitude toward Mormonism.

    It’s tempting to tie Mormon events to the mighty waves of world history, but let’s preserve the perspective.

    Coming back to the initial idea of your post, Nate, it is correct that the church has been crafting “other messages to the world” than the direct question of “which church is true.” But it seems all these PR efforts are meant to ultimately lead back to the original question. The “costs” the church requires of converts, in particular abroad, can only be justified by its truth claim.

    I look forward to your next posts on the topic.

  20. Scott on April 13, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    The first point, religion being an important force, is the real kicker. Cultural context only matters to the extent that it impacts people’s collective need to filter the universe through myth to understand it.

  21. Nate on April 14, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Wilfried: I admit that Germany is the weakest example of my claim. I do think that, however, that it holds up pretty well for post-WWII Latin America, 1840s Britain, and Jacksonian America, all of which saw greater success than in Germany. As for missionary success, I agree with you. Indeed, I think that most Mormon missionary work fails in the sense of producing few converts and little Church growth. That’s why it’s worth asking what happens when you actually do see dramatic growth. Even acknowledging that a lot of post-WWII growth in Latin America was hollow, that many Jacksonian American Mormons moved rapidly in and out of the Church, and that British converts to Mormonism were a negligible percentage of the British population, it’s nevertheless true that the message of Mormonism worked in those environments in a way that it simply didn’t work in nineteenth-century France or nineteenth-century Latin America.

    Finally, I want to reject the idea that the one-true-church is the only way in which one makes sense of Mormonism as true. There are ways of understanding Mormonism as making very strong and literal truth claims without viewing those truth claims primarily in sectarian terms. Indeed, I think that one of the major challenges for Mormonism is to find a way of framing Mormon truth claims in a post-sectarian world. It’s not that we reject D&C 1:30. It’s just that we find a way of talking about the Restoration that makes its truth existentially compelling in a world where sectarian questions have no existential energy. I also want to reject that what we are doing here is “just PR” in the sense of being shallow and manipulative. I actually think that the process of translating and reinterpreting religious truth in ways that are both faithful and compelling in a new environment is one of the central tasks of sincere religious belief and of preaching the gospel.

  22. Martin James on April 14, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Even if you get rid of sectarianism there is a whole lot of one true church left to deal with.

    Are you wanting to make converts to the existing mormonism from non-Judeo-Christian cultures as an alternative or are you wanting to create a new understanding of mormonism within those cultures? A hindu-mormonism or a Buddhist mormonism for example.

    What becomes of the tradition of a chosen people, of the Abrahamic covenant, of one church led by a prophet and apostles, of callings and elections, etc. ? Are you wanting mormonism to be true is a way that is less exclusive than its language would seem to mean.

    One of the reasons that sectarian is less meaningful is that Christianity is less meaningful due to its relationship to non-christian cultures. European cultures for example are suspicious of religious cultural imperialism for some very good reasons.

    Are you envisioning a mormonism that is less world-historical in multi-cultural way?

    This would seem to be a very, very difficult thing to pull off given the history of mormonism. I’m interested to see your attempt, but letting go of sectarianism seems to either to let go of not enough or of too much..

  23. Martin James on April 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Even if you get rid of sectarianism there is a whole lot of one true church left to deal with.

    Are you wanting to make converts to the existing mormonism from non-Judeo-Christian cultures as an alternative or are you wanting to create a new understanding of mormonism within those cultures? A hindu-mormonism or a Buddhist mormonism for example.

    What becomes of the tradition of a chosen people, of the Abrahamic covenant, of one church led by a prophet and apostles, of callings and elections, etc. ? Are you wanting mormonism to be true is a way that is less exclusive than its language would seem to mean.

    One of the reasons that sectarian is less meaningful is that Christianity is less meaningful due to its relationship to non-christian cultures. European cultures for example are suspicious of religious cultural imperialism for some very good reasons.

    Are you envisioning a mormonism that is less world-historical in multi-cultural way?

    This would seem to be a very, very difficult thing to pull off given the history of mormonism. I’m interested to see your attempt, but letting go of sectarianism seems to either to let go of not enough or of too much..

  24. Troy G. (former student of yours) on May 14, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Nate –
    Anecdotally, this is a question that my non-member wife struggled with when she (informally) investigated the church. I don’t think that it helps that its a party line shared by every testimony giver during that service. The phrase “I know this church is true” has been encouraged to be part of everyone’s testimony, but for a non-member, hearing it glibly stated over and over is not reassuring when you don’t even really know what it means.

    I think this message may be more effective for someone who is unreligous or grew up in an environment with religious ambivalence than for someone who has roots in any other Christ-based religion. For such a person, it may offer a universality that other churches do not. I suppose this view would be consistent with your position if trying to imagine what the individual members of these groups in history probably experienced.

    For a faith/grace-based Christian churchgoer, this message means very little. We put our faith in God, not man. Since a church is a collection of believers, then what does it mean for the church to “have truth?” Why do we require “the fullness of the Gospel” when Christ’s coming fulfilled the law? While some evidence exists in the Bible alone for the importance of having a true church, it’s a hard sell to someone who wants to see consistency in the Bible with such a claim. Many of Paul’s letters demonstrate the variety in the expression of worship that existed among Christians even shortly after Christ’s ministry was complete (and not all were apparently wrong).

    And every Mormon offshoot sect can make the D&C 1:30 claim because its not clear at all what the “church” is. (But it almost certainly is not the “Church.”)

    I think too that the statement of having a “true church” is at some odds with (though not necessarily opposite to) other expressions or ideas that Mormons put forward to explain positions or historical claims, such as “was he speaking as a prophet or man” or “the papyrus was only a medium for revelation, not for literal translation” or “Lamanites became the Native Americans, but not those Native Americans.” To be clear, I’m not trying to attack any apologetic positions, but even that we need apologetics seems to undercut the claim of truth. Shouldn’t truth be self-evident?

    Ok, now I’m ramblin’. I have some other thoughts, but I think I’ll just stop. I always enjoy your posts Nate, though this is probably the first time I’ve ever commented.