The Message of Mormonism (pt. 2): Angels, Visions, Prophets, and Gifts of the Spirit

April 17, 2014 | 27 comments
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In my last post I talked about Mormonism as an answer to the question, “Which church is true?” and suggested that this question has only been compelling on a large scale in fairly limited circumstances. I ought to note here that I am not trying to come up with some kind of general explanation for why people adopt religions or even of church growth in general. I am just interested in the kinds of messages that we have given about the Restoration and why those messages might or might not be compelling in differing social contexts.

Another message on which preaching the Restoration has relied is one that emphasizes the continuation of the supernatural world of the scriptures in the present. This is the message of angelic visitors, gold plates, the gifts of the spirit, continuing revelation, and a re-established and literal Israel preparing the world for an imminent second coming. It promises to believers a religious life filled with dramatic spiritual manifestations, esoteric spiritual knowledge (often with apocalyptic content), and an escape from a secular world bereft of supernatural content.

Historically, there is no question but that in certain times and places this has been a potent message. Indeed, in the first generation of the Church’s missionary work the promise of the gifts of the spirit and the reports of visions, angels, and miracles had at least as much – if not more – appeal than the sectarian message of the One True Church restored. There was a spiritual hunger for a religion that would allow its adherents to experience the world as it is presented in the scriptures, a world of miracles and an aggressively interventionist God.

Today, the message of supernaturalism strikes me as a two edged sword. Even when it was first articulated by Joseph Smith and his followers in the 1830s and 1840s, many in Western society dismissed such claims and longings as “enthusiasm” and “superstition.” In the 19th century such skepticism would likely have come from rationalist religious elites – Harvard trained Congregationalist ministers or Oxford-graduated Anglican parsons – but it would have also come from the tiny minority of religious skeptics. Over the course of the nearly two centuries since that time, in the developed world the intellectual and cultural authority of science has increased and with it strong supernatural claims have become far less plausible for many. Indeed, what may have been a cultural asset for Mormonism in the 19th century, has become a liability. When President Hinckley was on “60 Minutes” twenty years ago, he did not emphasize the opening of the heavens, the visiting of angels, or the miraculous power of the priesthood.

The secular West, however, accounts for only a portion of the world’s population. There are places today where the message of visions, angels, and the supernatural resonates powerfully. There are pockets of religious believers within the West that still long for the supernatural religious world of the scriptures, although those pockets are small and – I would guess – getting smaller. I suspect that the place this message is most likely to have existential energy for large numbers of people is in sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, from what I have heard it is a message that has powerful resonances in certain portions of Latin America. I don’t know exactly what is making the message vital in those parts of the world. It’s tempting to posit that these areas are simply more “primitive” and “superstitious.” I’m not really comfortable with this explanation for two reasons. First, it seems horrifically condescending, condescending in precisely the way that arguments in defense of imperialism, slavery, and the like have been in the past. In playing with such arguments one is playing with fire. Second, I think that as an explanation the answer is wrong. People in sub-Saharan Africa are not stupid or ignorant. They are often poor, but they also have cell phones, can watch televisions, and have seen modern automobiles and technology. In other words, they are well aware of the scientific and technological revolutions. For whatever reason, however, they exist in a world where such knowledge and technology coexist with credulity and enthusiasm for stories of angels, revelations, miracles, and prophets.

All of this creates a problem for an international church. If we are trying to have a single message to the world, there probably isn’t an “optimal” emphasis on the supernatural. What will fall on Western ears as an implausible emphasis on divine intercession may sound rather tepid to Southern ears. One can see this in differing patterns of disaffection. We lose members in the United States or Europe or East Asia, for example, who simply cannot find the stories of angels and gold plates plausible. We lose members in Africa or Latin America because they joined Mormonism based on the promise of angels, prophets, and spiritual gifts but find the correlated messages of modern Mormonism rather too tame and secular. Rather than migrating out of Mormonism into agnostic secularism, they migrate into the more vivid and dramatic spiritual world of Pentecostalism or syncretic forms of Christianity that offer visions and gifts of the spirit in a less antiseptic and more visceral form than that offered up by the Church.

27 Responses to The Message of Mormonism (pt. 2): Angels, Visions, Prophets, and Gifts of the Spirit

  1. Dave on April 17, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Which raises the interesting question of whether the Church can tailor its message by region and, if it can, whether it should. Right now I believe that all missionaries at all MTCs, regardless of destination, receive the same preparation program. Your post makes me think maybe the Church should think about designing different programs and emphasizing different content by region.

  2. Martin James on April 17, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Nate,

    The heart of the matter is whether moderation in attending to the supernatural is a nice place to be or whether it is serving two masters. Its always been difficult, but it seems to be becoming more difficult in the rich countries to maintain a belief in the supernatural and to be part of the ruling classes.

    Angelology is not a major most Mormon parents want their kids to major in, but they want them ( I think) to believe in angels. Tailored messages are harder and harder to maintain in today’s communication environment.

    You don’t mean to present these as existential questions for the church but they are.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on April 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    All of this creates a problem for an international church. If we are trying to have a single message to the world, there probably isn’t an “optimal” emphasis on the supernatural.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if–were it possible to research the ancient and medieval and early modern historical records in such a way as to highlight these sorts of distinctions–a study of the spread of Christianity over the centuries, as conducted by the, in comparison to Mormonism, highly decentralized Catholic structure of bishops and monastic orders, wouldn’t demonstrate that at least one reason for its success was exactly their ability to tailor the nature of the faith, with its claims to the supernatural, in culturally relevant ways.

  4. Nate on April 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Martin: I am not denying that they are or are not existential questions. I am just trying to figure out what the tensions are around various messages, their effectiveness, etc.

    On belief in angels, I once heard Claudia Bushman tell a good story on this. For many years she was involved in public affairs for the Church in NYC. She recalled explaining in some forum or another about Mormon beliefs in angels. One audience member reacted with incredulity and contempt. Bushman’s response: “You find belief in angels implausible because you never confront intelligent or well-educated people who believe in angels. On the other hand, I hang out with people who believe in angels all the time.” I struck me as a rather profound point about the relationship between credulity and plausibility on one hand and social context on the other.

  5. Nate on April 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Russell: I think that there is evidence for this claim in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

    Dave: For what it’s worth, I suspect that there are massive costs to the centralized approach of Mormon proselytizing of exactly the kind you are pointing toward. My preference would be for flatter institutional structures that involved lots of local experimentation followed by fairly rigorous evaluation and feedback. I think it completely implausible that the optimal missionary message is uniform across the globe. The real question — and it’s hard to figure out how to answer it — is whether the benefits of centralization outweigh the costs. Quantifying or making relative judgments is going to be really really hard.

  6. Jonathan Green on April 17, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Nate, I’m enjoying this series and looking forward to the next installments. It seems to me that a good parallel for the question you are asking might be found in the history of how the atonement was understood, with one theory replacing another over the centuries as Christianity spread to new areas. For Mormonism, one might hazard a guess that the next message that will resonate with Americans will be something that first develops and gains traction outside the U.S.

  7. Martin James on April 17, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Nate,

    I agree with your comment but I don’t think you can separate a missionary message from how the church is lived by the current membership. The church’s current structure and theology does not easily support decentralization of message. Opening up to more decentralization has wide-ranging consequences.

    LDS churches are like franchises. Any local customization creates consequences for the brand. Is it a supernatural brand or is it not? General conference is general after all.

  8. Steve Smith on April 17, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Again, great observations. I believe that the LDS church’s future is in Africa and South America. You are quite right that these are regions where technology and science simply coexist with belief in supernatural phenomena.

  9. Martin James on April 17, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Steve,

    Those are very, very different continents. Are you thinking only Sub-Saharan Africa or do you think the church will make inroads in Islamic Africa?

    What country do you think has had the greatest increase in inflation and currency adjusted tithing over that last 10 years in percentage and dollar terms?

  10. christiankimball on April 17, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    This is a fascinating project. I appreciate the first two entries and look forward to more.
    I think there are problems with the examples. They’re illustrative but (in the cases where I know anything) too broad or generalized and don’t quite fit the lived experience. I suspect there’s no way to fix that, and it doesn’t destroy the analysis or consideration of different messages. But it does occur to me that generalizing over an area as large and diverse as sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America is doomed. Even within a single mission (LDS mission), which is a much smaller unit, my experience is that if we could we would tailor the message by urban v rural, by socio-economic regions, by family structure (areas with lots of singles vs two parent households with children), and so on. If I were running the program (perish the thought!) I’d organize 4 to 6 different messages and give them a different rank ordering by (in the U.S.) zip code.

  11. Nate on April 17, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Christian: I agree about the overly broad generalization. There is a lot of variation between Nairobi and rural Bolivia or between Buenos Aires and Mexico City. I just want to make the broad brush point that supernaturalism may be something of a “losing” message in the developed world but it isn’t a “losing” message everywhere, and the fault line is broadly speaking along a North-South divide, followed by a long, long, long list of qualifications that I am not going to bother making in a blog post.

  12. christiankimball on April 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    There’s not really any need to reply (to #11 which is a reply to #10) but let me expand a little because I really resist the “developed world” and “North-South” generalizations. I’m reminded by the Claudia Bushman comment (related in #4) that back when I spent a lot of time on the south side of Chicago, with lots of people who had a strong evangelical background, including the Hispanic variety of Roman Catholicism which tended to be more charismatic than Anglo-Roman Catholicism (a term I just coined), in that milieu what you are calling supernaturalism seemed to be the price of entry for a conversation about religion, a necessary characteristic of any “real religion”.

    So you’ll reply “that’s African American and Hispanic people . . . Africa . . . Latin America . . . point made”. And I’ll reply “but several-to-many generation U.S. citizen-resident Northerners, so what’s the difference”. Ultimately, I think the “long long long list of qualifications”
    is so long that the generalization is no longer useful. Even though the fundamental point about the message of angels and gifts of the Spirit is valid and important and interesting.

  13. Wilfried on April 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Ditto what christiankimball said.

    Interesting thoughts, Nate. But I continue to find your approach a little unsettling because of wide generalizations, a lack of reference to researched data, and, I assume, a lack of experience with converts in various parts of the world.

    On the one hand, each conversion is an individual event, where usually one factor plays a major role, often socially based and spiritually confirmed. Social factors include the prospect of personal recognition and responsibility in the local unit; friendship given to isolated or aculturalized people (widows, singles, foreign students; (il)legal immigrants -– consider that two thirds of converts in Europe come from elsewhere, mainly Africa); and the hope of emigrating to the U.S. thanks to church contacts. As to the belief in the supernatural, I would not underestimate this factor among Western converts in view of the mental types missionaries often baptize. I heard that even at church HQ there is concern about the abnormal ratio of mentally unstable persons, not to use the word “lunatics,” among converts in certain countries. Missionaries baptize anyone they can.

    On the other hand, local situations can have some influence, but they must be closely analyzed to see to what extent they play a role. For example, since you mention Latin America, Henri Gooren (2007) analyzed the waves of missionary success in Nicaragua, noting, among other items, that at one point “many disillusioned Sandinista militants found in the apolitical LDS Church a new purpose and a chance to use their leadership capacities” … “Various factors coincided to produce the LDS membership explosion of the 1990s: an end to state persecution, increased commitment among the remaining LDS members, the growth of the missionary force, growing dissatisfaction among Nicaraguans with “politicized” Catholicism, and a decrease in the competition with Pentecostalism.” Thomas Murphy (1996) analyzed how both ethnicity and diversity shape Mormon identity in Guatemala and how converts relate to the Book of Mormon: “Guatemalans can claim something most other Mormons lack: a sacred local manuscript [Popol Vuh] they believe complements the imported religious text of the Book of Mormon.” For some periods and regions, it seems peculiar underlying reasons for group-related conversions can thus be found.

  14. Nate on April 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Wilfried: I have read Henri Gooren’s work, as well as work on conversions in Africa and elsewhere. I don’t usually footnote blog posts. You are, I think, again misunderstanding the kinds of claims that I am making. I am not claiming to offer an explanation for conversions in Latin America or Africa generally. I am asking the question of where certain messages prove successful and where they prove less successful. I assume that virtually every message is going to find some success everywhere. Therefore, the fact that one can find examples of folks in Brussels who are moved by stories of angels is really neither here nor there. Indeed, even if one could show that the majority of the converts in Brussels were moved by angels it would be neither here nor there. The question would be are you more likely to find people moved by stories of angels in Ghana or in Brussels.

    The danger of generalizations depends entirely on the use to which generalizations are put. If my generalizations were being used to explain why people in Latin America convert, it would not be terribly useful. If it were being used to explain particular conversions of particular people it would not be very useful. But I am not really interested in those questions. Rather, I am interested in making the point that the success of various kinds of messages varies a great deal according to time and place and make some very very rough suggestions of some of the times and places where the reception is different.

  15. Nate on April 17, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Christian: I like your point about Latin Catholicism. I am not claiming that its impossible to find individuals or groups in the United States or elsewhere for whom messages of strong supernaturalism are compelling. I do disagree that the necessity of a long string of qualifications means that it’s pointless to saying something like, “By and large, it’s going to be more common to find folks willing to entertain the possibility of modern angels and visions in Nigeria than the United States.” The statement, “It’s easier to find blonds in Scandinavia” is not negated by your various brunette Danish acquaintances.

  16. Clark Goble on April 17, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Martin (7) On the contrary I think the centralization of so much of the Church is precisely because there is a profound decentralized aspect to Mormon theology and teaching. Think back to your mission and how hard it was to keep members on splits on topic for the discussions. It seems members’s concerns and discussions often go in directions quite different from the formal discussions. We can complain that perhaps members don’t get as involved in missionary work as they should. But my experience is that once they do they often do emphasize all those things Nate mentioned. And that’s just in the secular US. I’d imagine its even more pronounced in the developing world.

  17. Jared on April 17, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    It appears that Nate’ analysis is that the things of the Spirit should be eliminated from our missionary message altogether–”it is a two edge sword” that has the potential to cost the church members worldwide no matter how we package it.

    I realize that the scripture are not encouraged here but please allow me to politely disagree by citing a few verses.

    Nate seems to be saying that we need to adapt our message to the culture we are in. To a certain extent this is a prudent course. Paul taught:

    19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
    20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
    21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
    22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
    23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

    (New Testament | 1 Corinthians 9:19 – 23)
    ————————-
    However, is Nate suggesting the church should tweak or mask the First Principles of the Gospel so we can attract more members?

    I hope this isn’t his underlying message. The scriptures warn against this course.

    17 And all these gifts come by the Spirit of Christ; and they come unto every man severally, according as he will.
    18 And I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that every good gift cometh of Christ.
    19 And I would exhort you, my beloved brethren, that ye remember that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that all these gifts of which I have spoken, which are spiritual, never will be done away, even as long as the world shall stand, only according to the unbelief of the children of men.

    (Book of Mormon | Moroni 10:17 – 19)
    ————————–
    37 Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.

    (Book of Mormon | Moroni 7:37)
    ————————–
    26 Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!

    (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 28:26)

  18. christiankimball on April 17, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Nate, I suppose I’m looking for footnotes. “Most likely . . . large numbers . . . sub-Saharan Africa” is a bold statement, With 800 million people there will be lots of individuals and lots of stories in any interesting class, but my assumption/prior/suspicion is (a) to the contrary, i.e., not “most likely”, and (b) any such generalization, in any direction, is going to be difficult to take beyond anecdotes.

  19. Nate on April 18, 2014 at 8:33 am

    No footnotes in blog posts. Life is short. I reserve the footnotes for scholarship. This is not scholarship.

  20. BevP on April 18, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Perhaps one thing missionaries in training might be encouraged to do before they declare their message at length in any form: find out who it is to whom they are talking, what their listeners’ stance might be on matters religious, and then tailor their approach to the individuals they are talking to, meeting them where they are to start with, and drawing them closer to the Church through their teaching. Conversion through the Holy Ghost happens to individuals, not subcultural groups, most of the time, I suspect.

  21. Wilfried on April 18, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Nate, I don’t think readers expect footnotes-backed scholarship in posts, but one may expect some kind of backing when statements are made such as yours on, e.g., patterns of disaffection:

    We lose members in the United States or Europe or East Asia, for example, who simply cannot find the stories of angels and gold plates plausible. We lose members in Africa or Latin America because they joined Mormonism based on the promise of angels, prophets, and spiritual gifts but find the correlated messages of modern Mormonism rather too tame and secular. Rather than migrating out of Mormonism into agnostic secularism, they migrate into the more vivid and dramatic spiritual world of Pentecostalism or syncretic forms of Christianity that offer visions and gifts of the spirit in a less antiseptic and more visceral form than that offered up by the Church.

    That is attractively formulated, but is it based on anything else but assumptions to illustrate your point? Not to irritate you, but what if these assumptions are based on merely old cultural stereotypes which are now being reinforced as credible by such a post? I think that’s why I and others reacted the way we did, even if you meant to say something else.

    But I do appreciate your post, precisely because it triggers this kind of discussion that helps clarify issues.

  22. KLC on April 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    I enjoy Nate’s thoughtful generalizations. There is a place for them and for thinking about broad outlines of human activity. They aren’t a substitute for more detailed academic analysis and I’m sure Nate would be the first one to agree with that. He’s not doing that here.

  23. Martin James on April 18, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I don’t know how you do academic research with the data available. I’m skeptical of the idea that retention rates are that influenced by historical truth claims as compared to today’s truth claims. I think it could be much more driven by lifestyle and expected affect on a person’s life prospects (economic, social, marital, familial, etc.)

  24. Natr on April 18, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Wilfried: I have read or had conversations with disaffected members from the U.S., Korea, and Ghanna making these points. I don’t think the claim that Mormonism competes with Pentecostalism in various parts if the world is controversial.

  25. Nate on April 18, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    W ilfried: On stereotypes, I am not offering stereotypes. I am not, for example, saying all west Africans believe in angels and visions or that the “typical” west African believes in visions and angels. Rather I am making an empirical claim that one is more likely to find people in Ghanna that believe in angels and visions than in the United States or Western Europe. In concrete terms this implies only that the percentage of people in the United States who believe in angels and visions is smaller than in Ghanna. I don’t as you point out provide citations or evidence for this claim but I have read academic literature on religious politics in Africa and the United States and Europe. I freely admit to making very broad generalizations. I also think I am basically right and in any case don’t think my conclusions are based on crude racial or ethnic stereotypes. You may think a I am wrong and I am willing to be persuaded, although you’d need to accurately and charitably respond to the actual claims I am making. I find the stereotype accusation somewhat insulting.

  26. Martin James on April 19, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    Banned,

    Think of how much time and money is spent by people trying not to be bored. The church needs more Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s because they weren’t boring.

  27. Fred on May 1, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Great article. I think your analysis of what have been the messages of Mormonism is spot on. Another interesting question is what should be the message of Mormonism going forward. I submit that it must be something subversive and something that resonates powerfully with each human being. It also must be unique to the Mormon faith. I have a few ideas, but I would love hear more. The following are some potential messages unique to Mormonism that I have thought about:

    1. You are part of a loving Heavenly family (you have a Father and a Mother in heaven who sired your spirits and spirit brothers and sisters). Your heavenly parents want you to become godly (e.g. gods) like them. This is arguably unique to Mormonism, though religions may express something akin to God’s family principle. It seems subversive because it embraces a unique concept of deity. It resonates because all of us want to belong to something good and many family circumstances are less than ideal. It also provides hope and guidance to God’s children who are struggling with difficult family circumstances.
    2. God communicates with a living Prophet. This is unique to Mormonism, and it is subversive, but it does not necessarily resonate with individuals who feel may feel disconnected to the present church organization. This message encompasses Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and continuing revelation.

    Other ideas?

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