Monday, August 09, 2004

American vs. Mormon religious identity

I just finished reading Kathleen Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. It is an excellent, insightful discussion of the importance of the Reed Smoot hearings for the development of the limits of American religious pluralism, as well as the redefinition of Mormon identity within those limits. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the clear shift from 19th- to 20th-century Mormonism.

I would sum up Flake's argument this way: The real threat of 19th-century Mormonism was not polgyamy per se; polygamy was only the prime indicator of a rival governmental system (the Kingdom of God) set above the government of the nation. The resolution of this threat was the capitulation of Mormonism, which subordinated itself to the U.S. government in order to preserve its existence. The vehicle for this change was the 1903-1907 Reed Smoot hearings. Flake persuasively argues that the LDS Church, forced to give up the Kingdom and its marriage system, had to redefine itself, and did so by emphasizing Joseph Smith's First Vision and pre-Nauvoo Mormonism.

(Of course, the Church never distanced itself from Nauvoo Mormonism to the extent that the RLDS (now Community of Christ) did; I think the perpetuation of the temple ceremonies would have made such a significant shift impossible.)

Flake records that President Joseph F. Smith (sans plural wives) took a group of Church leaders back east and raised the obelisk monument to Joseph Smith at his birthplace of Sharon, Vermont. According to Flake, this was the first Church historical monument outside Utah. The group then followed some of the trail of Church history. Flake notes that while the group detoured somewhat to take in Kirtland-era sites, they did not visit any post-Kirtland sites. She sees this as an indication of the de-emphasis of Nauvoo Mormonism. I wonder, having just noticed some discussion of the Church's return to Nauvoo in the Bloggernacle (see also here), whether this return has theological significance. It doesn't seem so, given President Hinckley's apparent desire to emphasize commonalities with other Christian denominations, but I wonder...

Has Mormonism abandoned the establishment of the Kingdom of God for good, or is it just in abeyance, waiting for the time to be ripe?


  1. That's an interesting question. Thus far I've not seen that. And indeed Pres. Hinkley has been the person doing most to play up the similarities between us and other denominations. Even with respect to eternal progression, we all recall the Time article where Pres. Hinkley was trying to downplay the differences and basically do the PR spin thing. Yet the Nauvoo emphasis, the purchasing of all the land near Adam-Ondi-Ahman, and so forth suggest a strong connection to our roots. Further in smaller settings Pres. Hinkley is pretty forthright about our more unique doctrines. (On my mission he spoke for two hours on making your calling and election sure)

    It's hard to say what will happen next. In many ways, Pres. Hinkley has been running the church for most of the last 30 years. And I think he's done a fantastic job of bringing us out of our isolation. I wonder if the next president will have the task of playing up what makes us unique though.

  2. It was very interesting to me to read about how Joseph F. Smith responded to inquiries in the Smoot hearings and then had to do damage control back at home, because I was reminded of President Hinckley's interview(s) you allude to. Mixed messages...