Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Mormon People: Making of an American Faith

The Mormon People is an objective, popular academic work on the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It does not shy away from the controversies in the history of Mormonism. However, it also does not give them disproportionate influence. The early origins of the church are put in the context of their times (early 19th century America). At that time, the belief in supernatural was common and many churches were appearing. (I was reminded of the setting of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series.)

The origin of the church with Joseph Smith and subsequent exodus to Utah under Brigham Young are well documented. Doctrinally, the church has not changed much since then. Socially and organizationally, however, the church has changed significantly. This book spends a large amount of time tracing those changes. Some areas, like polygamy are pretty well known. This book presents a neutral view of the practice. Many women struggled with it, however, many (including some of those that struggled with it) were ardent supporters. Most men tended not the be polygamous, with only those "most successful" men taking multiple spouses. And, even in those cases, there were some "spiritual" spouses who were married for eternity, yet had no intimate relations in this life.

Other areas are not commonly covered in theological studies of the church, but very important in understanding the modern church culturally. Early on, the church was more closely attuned to the progressive movement. Later, during the post-World War II era, the church was seen as a highly conservative, "model minority". While the church has retained its conservatism, today it sometimes finds itself viewed with cynical disdain. The evolution of the church culturally proceeded at its own pace, sometimes being in line with mainstream culture, while at other times seeming to turn in the opposite direction. This book helps to present the church in its cultural context.

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