Jan 16, 2016

New Church Problems: Mormonism

Mette Ivie Harrison 

Huffington Post

January 16, 2016

The Mormon Church is a fairly new religion, not quite 200 years old. It was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, and though Mormons believe that it re-established the original church of Christ, and in fact that resurrected beings in the form of Peter, James, and John, John the Baptist, Elijah the Prophet of the Old Testament, and Christ Himself, appeared to guide and to restore priesthood power, there are many problems of the Mormon Church today that are typical of newer religions, which older religions no longer struggle with.

These problems include:

1. Image and visibility
2. Demands to be included among other world religions
3. Justifications of past wrongs
4. Re-writing of history
5. Frequent excommunication of dissenters
6. Missionary work 
7. Pressure to have large families
8. Becoming world-wide
9. In-fighting among the faithful
10. Creation of a "canon"

Because Mormonism is such a new church and is still quite small in comparison to Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism, it is constantly still trying to brand itself properly in the media. There was the era of asking to be called "LDS" rather than Mormon and the current era of the full church name "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," a mouthful that even the faithful sometimes do not use. The Mormon church also strenuously objects to any attempt to paint it as less Christian than other Christian religions--despite the fact that it also takes pride in castigating mainstream Christianity for its "apostasy."


There is the problem of famous and infamous Mormons who pop up in media coverage, and the need to decide if they are allowed to "represent" Mormonism. Ammon Bundy, the Church decided, could not be allowed to use Book of Mormon references without comment. The rest of Mormonism did not want to be conflated with his own interpretations of the faith that used to be proud of Donny and Marie Osmond. And there is still the need to correct false impressions that the mainstream Mormon church still practices polygamy--or that Mormons have horns.


Justifying past wrongs and rewriting history are also common practices of newer religions. Once a church has been long established, small inconsistencies or even big ethical problems of the past seem less of a derailment. But claims that Joseph Smith was a pedophile have to be dealt with in a church that relied so heavily on his authority to re-establish the "one true Church." In the 70s and 80s, the Mormon church worked by telling members not to listen to "anit-Mormon" literature and refused to address questions of Joseph Smith's problematic relationships with women other than his wife, Emma. Now the church has come out with an essay admitting the undeniable historical facts, but explaining them in terms of Joseph Smith's vision of polygamy. There is a fine line between calling Joseph Smith the prophet wrong and suggesting he might have misunderstood God's full intent. It's a line the official stance is trying to straddle.


Much has been made of the recent excommunication of dissenters like Kate Kelly of Ordain Women and John Dehlin of Mormon Stories Podcast. The Mormon church, because it is still negotiating its own image, feels it cannot afford the negative publicity such dissenters bring. The Catholic church also excommunicated far more often in its past than it does today, with a longer history and sense of security in its own identity. While I personally may disagree with these excommunications, on a more objective note, they make sense to me because the church is still desperate to contain everything Mormon under the umbrella of the Quorum of the Twelve.


Missionary work and the pressure to have large families (including the practice of polygamy) are also common strategies of new religions to grow their membership. Mormons have been fairly successful at "branding" their missionary force with suits and white shirts and ties, along with the standardized white on black missionary tags. If they were not so iconic, the "Book of Mormon Musical" could not have been so successful at parodying them.

There is an interesting tension within many small religions as they grow to move away from an insular identity and a geographically restricted location to a world-wide identity and a geographically diverse church. Practically, this means translations of scripture or conferences (something Mormonism has done well since the early 20th century with its extensive missionary force and language learning). On a more philosophical level, it means looking at parts of the Church that cannot be translated and changing them or modifying them for different locales, from white shirt requirements that seem very Western to not shopping on Sunday in places where food isn't refrigerated.

This week, as Elder Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve insisted that the new policy excluding gay married couples and their children from sacraments within the church, I thought again of the importance of the creation of a canon for any church. As a Mormon, I have watched as certain texts have moved from "canon" status to non-canon status, such as Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McKonkie. I watched as the "doctrine" of excluding black members from priesthood ordinances was reversed, and then became a policy that was racially motivated, not from God at all.


I once wrote that "The Family Proclamation" was church doctrine and then was corrected by someone who argued it was only a statement, that it hadn't been voted on by common consent of the church, nor added officially to canonized scripture, as other official proclamations (including the one rejecting polygamy) had been. Joseph Smith's translation of the Bible became doctrine when it was added to the printed scripture of the church, but before that was difficult to access for lay members.

In the interim, it's easy for members to be confused about what is and isn't "canon" or "scripture" (Mormons often say that General Conference talks and the church's official magazines are scripture, but General Conference talks are sometimes edited before being printed, so what does this mean?). It makes sense that there would be in-fighting among members about what is and isn't official doctrine, from political questions about the church's official position on abortion, to the non-position on evolution that changed from some years ago when the church rejected evolution. While there are songs and other references to Heavenly Mother, the church officiallysanctioned members who publicly prayed to her some years ago, but now has an essay about Her status doctrinally.

I'm a faithful, though wildly unorthodox member who is also curious to see what happens next, though I suspect I will not last long enough to see Mormonism change from a new religion to an old, established one with no more chip on its shoulder.



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