Miranda Wilcox (BYU) and John Young (Flagler College) have recently published Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, a collection of essays examining the Mormon narrative of apostasy and restoration in light of the history of Christianity. It is published by Oxford University Press, in both hardcover and paperback. They have kindly shared responses to 12 Questions about their project. I am including six in this post; the remaining six will follow soon in Part II.
1. What led you into this project, and how did it take shape?
Miranda: Although John and I grew up listening to Sunday School lessons about the “Dark Ages,” we found the Middle Ages deeply compelling. We met as graduate students of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, where I studied Anglo-Saxon England and he studied Jewish-Christian relations in the high Middle Ages. As I learned about the Christianization of early medieval Europe, I discovered much sincere devotion to Christ and the Bible; stories written by medieval Christians resonate with my own religious experiences and teach me spiritual insights. It makes me sad when I hear medieval people, whose lives I have come to love and admire, characterized as living in spiritual darkness, rebellious against God, or willfully perverting truth. (For more of my personal thoughts, see my entry at MormonScholarsTestify.org).
When I began teaching medieval literature at BYU, I confronted the challenge of making the Middle Ages relevant to my students whose perceptions were negatively shaped by LDS historical narratives. I felt a deep responsibility to share the vitality and sincerity of medieval religious imagination with my students and local community. In 2009, Brian Birch invited me to organize a collaborative research project that would examine the development and assumptions of the LDS Great Apostasy narrative. I asked John if he would co-edit the volume of essays we would produce. We invited thirteen LDS scholars to share their expertise from their respective disciplines. In 2012, we presented our preliminary work in a conference at BYU. Standing Apart was published in the spring of 2014 and is the culmination of our work together.
John: I echo Miranda’s sentiments about the medieval Christians she and I admire so much. I have been thinking about the issues treated in Standing Apart since I was an undergrad at BYU, when I realized that the terrible stories I had heard about people during the “Dark Ages” (greedy indulgence-peddlers, lecherous priests guarding over Bibles kept under lock and key, and the like) simply did not square with the beautiful culture and obviously inspired thinkers I encountered in medieval texts. I was working as Eric Dursteler’s research assistant when he was beginning to write his JMH article “Inheriting the Great Apostasy” and was thus exposed at that point to the writings of the early twentieth-century Mormon scholar-leaders who formulated the now-standard narrative of the Great Apostasy. I have wanted to engage these issues in scholarly prose ever since, and I was thrilled when Miranda approached me about the project. Between the conference and the editing of the book, this project has provided many of the highlights of my scholarly and personal life.
2. How important is it for Mormonism to think of other forms of Christianity as being deeply mistaken?
John: This is one of the central questions that many of our book’s authors attempt to address, though it is also a question that demands a nuanced and complex answer. The 1838 First Vision account contains the sentiment, expressed by the Lord, that other Christian churches are “all wrong” and “that all their creeds were an abomination.” So the idea—albeit one hinted at more than explained thoroughly—that other forms of Christianity are deeply mistaken is found in one of the foundational texts of the LDS church. However, one may find some nuance in what appears otherwise to be a straightforward statement. The Lord singled out existing “creeds” for particular criticism, a point explored both in Standing Apart and in previous studies by LDS scholars. Though the “sects” were “all wrong,” according to the First Vision account, individual adherents to those sects are spared such a label, and other definitive texts of the restoration, especially the Book of Mormon, display a very different standard of judgment for those who do not belong to the Lord’s true church. In short, such persons remain capable of receiving revelation and performing righteous deeds, and they remain heirs to God’s promises and to the covenants made by their ancestors. In a 1978 statement, the First Presidency affirmed that the founders of the world’s major religious and philosophical systems (Muhammad, Buddha, the Protestant Reformers, Socrates, Plato, etc.) were inspired of God; their teachings provide “moral truths,” “enlighten whole nations,” and “help [their adherents] on their way to eternal salvation.” So Mormon texts contain conflicting information about the status of other forms of Christianity and other forms of religion more generally.
The Great Apostasy narrative does little with this nuance. Instead, it adheres to an unbending, binary logic. There is one true church, formed in its fulness by the Savior and restored to the earth in the same form through Joseph Smith; all other forms of Christianity (created as they were during a time of universal apostasy), and indeed all other forms of religion, are the products of humankind and are thus corrupted by human philosophies. This narrative was a product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the LDS church, and Mormonism more generally, was creating a new religious identity and emphasizing previously-muted aspects of its theology in the wake of the renunciation of polygamy. Given the challenges of that period of LDS definition and transition, such a narrative was useful. However, it has become a permanent and persistent component of the LDS mental furniture, even as the scholarly world has rendered problematic the historical interpretations upon which the narrative is based.
The key question, then, is whether the authority of those who formulated the Great Apostasy narrative overrides the evidence to the contrary offered up by the historical record, or whether there is place for new LDS interpretations of historical Christianity. Given the aforementioned nuance in LDS theology on this matter, it would seem that there is space for new understandings that remain true to the core LDS doctrine of restoration yet open to evolving interpretations of the historical record. In the process of rethinking the Great Apostasy, Mormons may discover kinship and commonality with other forms of Christianity that they had not considered previously.
3. How does this book call for a new understanding of Mormonism’s claim to be a restoration of early Christianity?
Miranda: Standing Apart invites readers to consider Mormonism as deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions and not antithetical to other forms of Christianity. The book calls into question the binary relationship that has become the standard explanation among Latter-day Saints for the necessity for Joseph Smith’s work of restoration. James Talmage stated this binary starkly in 1909: “The restored Church affirms that a general apostasy developed during and after the apostolic period, and that the primitive Church lost its power, authority, and graces as a divine institution, and degenerated into an earthly organization only. The significance and importance of the great apostasy of the primitive Church in modern times, is obvious. If the alleged apostasy of the primitive Church was not a reality, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the divine institution its name proclaims” (The Great Apostasy, iv). However, Terryl Givens argues in the epilogue of Standing Apart that Joseph Smith conceived of the Restoration less as filling a void or healing a rupture and more as gathering, linking, and building upon truths manifest throughout human histories and cultures. For Joseph, the Restoration was a revisioning and a renewal. Adopting such an attitude would profoundly alter contemporary Mormon attitudes toward their Christian inheritance and relationships with other religious traditions.
4. What questions does it raise, either as new questions, or perhaps old questions it makes more urgent?
This interdisciplinary collection brings together fourteen essays that explore the relationship between the development of Mormon historical consciousness and one of the central tenets of Mormonism—the concept of a universal Christian apostasy from its apostolic origins. A fundamental feature of LDS theology since the advent of the religion in the early nineteenth century, this doctrine generates a core tension in the question of whether Mormons are Christian because it informs the exclusive ways Latter-day Saints perceive their faith in relation to other faiths. Mormons identify themselves as Christian, but their belief in a universal apostasy leads them to reject many of the features of historical Christianity. Many mainstream Christians, however, do not accept Mormons as Christian, precisely because Mormons reject traditional Christian tenets and instead introduce new revelation, new scripture, and new forms of social and ecclesiastical organization. Standing Apart is the first book to explore the development of this fundamental Mormon doctrine and its impact on Mormon historical consciousness.
5. What questions do you feel your work has done the most to settle, or made the most progress on?
John: The book is divided into two sections, organized around the two main questions the work attempts to answer. The first section settles a question, while the second raises new ones.
In the first section, the authors explain how and why the Great Apostasy narrative was formulated. This section builds on Eric Dursteler’s landmark piece “Inheriting the ‘Great Apostasy,’” first published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2002. Eric was kind enough to rework that article for inclusion in this volume, and Christopher Jones, Stephen Fleming, Matthew Bowman, Miranda Wilcox, and Terryl Givens (in the book’s epilogue) enhance our understanding of the “narrative of the narrative” so to speak. Briefly, the book demonstrates that there was no coherent or consistent narrative of apostasy in the early church. Early Mormon authors wrote about the abhorrent state of Christianity while at the same time praising and borrowing ideas from other Christian sects, particularly the Protestant sects to which they adhered before converting to Mormonism.
The Great Apostasy narrative was a product of Mormonism’s era of transition (as Thomas Alexander has called it): that is, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or the church presidencies of Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith. As the church was transitioning away from polygamy as the definitive practice of the faith, church leaders wrote extensively about other doctrines in an attempt to provide greater coherence to doctrine and practice and to locate new organizing principles for the faith as a whole. This era witnessed the publication of many of the works that comprise what may be called the “non-canonical canon”—extra-scriptural texts that are considered authoritative on central points of doctrine and practice (e.g., the books that missionaries are authorized to take with them into the mission field). Alongside such core tenets as the atonement and the Word of Wisdom, the authors of the transition period laid out in great detail the narrative of the Great Apostasy, demonstrating in the process the need for a restoration of covenant and truth after many centuries of wickedness, tyranny, and stagnation.
The chapters in the second section of the book explore limitations of the Great Apostasy narrative and offer alternate ways of narrating and interpreting historical periods that Latter-day Saints have viewed as fully or partially apostate.
- Cory Crawford suggests that reading the Hebrew Bible as an unharmonized compilation of competing, multivocal narratives provides a model for Latter-day Saints to accept multiple, authoritative, competing historical narratives, particularly with respect to cycles of historical apostasy.
- Matthew Grey contrasts superficial binary generalizations in Latter-day Saint narratives about Jews at the time of Jesus with the complicated cultural reality of intertestamental Judaism.
- Taylor Petrey questions the Latter-day Saint notion that the original purity and unity of the apostolic church were replaced by contaminated diversity, and he proposes that Latter-day Saints could more profitably study early Christian communities in terms of hybridity and the performance of identity rather than searching for anachronistic parallels.
- Lincoln Blumell examines the primary documents of the Council of Nicaea to understand the theological, cultural, and political context of the composition of the creed often cited by Latter-day Saints as evidence of ecclesial and doctrinal apostasy; he concludes that the fourth-century bishops shared many theological concerns with Latter-day Saints, though they reached different conclusions about the nature of Christ.
- Ariel Bybee Laughton models how LDS scholars might build on Hugh Nibley’s legacy of posing provocative disciplinary questions while engaging the LDS community in academic conversations about early Christianity by offering a comparative case study of the ways that discourses of heresy were employed against Arian Christians by Ambrose in the late fourth century and against Mormons by American evangelicals in the early twenty-first century.
- Spencer Young argues that the LDS characterization of the Middle Ages as a period of spiritual darkness is inadequate given the complexity and richness of religious experience among medieval Christians; he examines the oft-disparaged practice of indulgences in the context of the Catholic theology of salvation and compares it with the LDS practice of performing ordinances for the dead.
- Jonathan Green examines how the belief in an apostasy is reflected in the treatment of texts from an earlier age and in questions asked about the past. He traces similarities between Mormon textual practices and those of some other groups, and argues that the Mormon belief in apostasy has affinities with the views and concerns of outlier Protestant reformers, such as Caspar Schwenckfeld, though less so with the more famous Luther or Zwingli.
- David Peck traces the similarities between the conception of covenantal pluralism in the Qur’an and in LDS scripture and teachings and suggests that Mormonism has the potential to develop an equally charitable conception of other faiths in the past and present.
- John Young concludes this section of the book by contending that Latter-day Saints should take a much longer view of providential history to see that LDS theology is heavily, and often unwittingly, reliant on theological formulations that pre-date Joseph Smith; he traces the development of the doctrine of Christ’s Atonement to demonstrate the persistence of God’s inspiration through centuries once considered dark and apostate.
6. How far do the various chapters come from a shared set of premises, and what are some of the tensions between the views or approaches they take?
Most previous publications by Latter-day Saints about historical apostasy have either been authored by non-specialist ecclesiastical leaders or by scholars working outside their areas of training. In contrast, the contributors to Standing Apart are disciplinary experts and none currently serve in high-ranking ecclesiastical positions. As a consequence, the contributors of this volume draw on their scholarly expertise, and they address issues of methodology and historical complexity as insiders of their respective disciplines, not as apologists.
Since the authors are trained in different disciplines, the book offers a variety of perspectives and approaches. The interdisciplinary nature of the book was by design. We are committed to the scholarly enterprise of exploring possibilities rather than offering a definitive solution. Our individual work was guided by shared concerns as John and I have outlined in previous questions, and these themes generate coherency among our respective arguments.