Transitional Mormonism, Part 2: An Earlier Transition

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 11.37.26 AMWhat do I mean by “transitional Mormonism”? (Part 1 is here if you missed it.) I take the idea from the title of Thomas Alexander’s award-winning book Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, now in a 3rd edition. Alexander was a BYU professor, and wrote this as part of a commissioned 16-volume history of the Church that did not come to fruition. This time period was a particularly tumultuous one both for the LDS Church and America, with major intellectual, social, scientific, and technological changes. Among other things, the “modernism crisis” with Darwinism/evolution, “higher criticism,” and the rediscovery of the ancient near east  led to the creation of fundamentalism (an intellectual response to the crisis) as well as Pentecostalism (a spiritual response.)

The LDS Church existed in the same environment, and many major changes to policy, doctrinal understanding, and LDS culture happened during this period Alexander chronicles. These changes discomfitted many LDS, who reacted in a variety of ways including both intellectual and actual schisms. For those not well acquainted with LDS history, I would characterize this period as the bridge between “Joseph Smith’s church” and the “modern church.”

What are these discomfitting changes? To pick a few major ones Alexander covers well and hold my interest

  1. The ending of (mainstream) lived polygamy
  2. The beginning of geneaological research and the associated centrality of the temple. That is, until this time, it seems the importance of learning about your ancestors and doing their temple work and sealing was not understood; consequently, most Mormons (including Apostles) were endowed, married, and then didn’t have any theological motivation to return. Once Wilford Woodruff put an end to the idea of “adoption” and emphasized geneaology, the need to attend to proxy ordinances greatly increased.
  3. The codification/standardizing of the Word of Wisdom and its elevation to a temple recommend question. Among others, see Mike Ash “Up in Smoke” and Edward L. Kimball, “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards”
  4. Doctrinal regulation/centralization 

I suspect Mormonism has now entered a similar transitionary period as the one Alexander describes from 100 years ago. Certainly, Mormonism is always changing in some way or another so in a later post I’ll explain why I think we’re into another major transitionary period and why. I’ll also describe a parallel transition that I suspect is informing LDS leadership. In the meantime, check out Alexander’s book.

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11 thoughts on “Transitional Mormonism, Part 2: An Earlier Transition

  1. Interesting comparison. Although I doubt that too many lasting splinter groups will emerge from the Monson LDS church and other LDS sects (I mean there is Denver Snuffer and a few others, but I doubt that they will have any lasting impact as did some polygamist groups emerging 1890-1930). It seems the transition that is taking place is a polarization between the Iron Rods (who are the mainstays who fill the callings and are the LDS church’s supporting pillars) and the Liahonas (a good number of whom appear to be headed out the door). I don’t think it is unreasonable to predict an LDS church that is slower growing (and declining if not moribund in many parts of the world such as Western Europe, and particularly Scandinavia) and whose active members are increasingly conservative in their outlooks. I think that middle path apologetics, which appears to be what you are doing in part, will be increasingly rejected by both Iron Rods who will view it as pernicious flirtation with apostasy (plus, they tend not to read blogs or engage in deep thought about LDS history, but thrive on the groupthink and tribalism ever present in LDS chapels) and by Liahonas who will view it as mental gymnastics (at least that is the impression I get from reading ex-Mormon and NOM blogs). The middle path is becoming increasingly hard to tread down in today’s LDS environment. I just don’t see the younger generations pursuing this path. They either leave the LDS church altogether or maintain a sort of blissfully ignorant orthodoxy.

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    1. I guess I and some fellows I know (IRL) are just misfits then. But we’re okay with that.. given that roughly half the church or more goes inactive or disaffected, it sure makes sense that you will witness a lot more of the 2 poles than the middle path people, but there sure are a lot of us middle pathers lurking about..

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      1. (Replying to Steve) That’s not the transition I see or am discussing. I’m focused on hierarchical change, as was MiT.
        I resist description of propounding some kind of “middle way.” I think that terminology has been too tainted by John Dehlin, and he and I have little in common in terms of what we’re proposing.

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      2. It is interesting that there really are some big differences in the leadership now as compared to just a decade ago when Hinkley was still alive. Many of the brethren then simply had much more direction connection to that era MiT covered. Monson for instance as a young apostle was involved in the discussion to restore blessings back to Richard R. Lyman. Many were alive when the excommunication of that apostle happened. That means in a real sense the battles of polygamy were real to them. There was that direct connection to that last transitionary period. Contrast this to most today who don’t have that connection except through history or through the politics of some of the groups in the 1970’s. The generation getting called now grew up more in the era of FARMS and the end of the McConkie era. That’s a pretty significant shift.

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      3. Of course that isn’t the transition you see. You are too lost in a world of nuance and mental gynmastics to see plain writing on the wall (that goes for Clark Goble, too, who has become quite the mental contortionist over at Times and Seasons, which barely gets any views and comments these days, largely because no one can understand what he is talking about). The funny thing is that Dehlin was once a middle pather like you who was too intellectually honest for Iron Rodders, who eventually booted him out. (More evidence to support my belief that the LDS church is retrenching). He apparently struck a nerve in Mormonism and gained a name with his in-depth interviews and honest explorations of Mormonism. Plus, far more people have heard of him than you. This little post of yours got what, like 7 comments? By contrast, the ex-Mormon subreddit just topped 40,000 subscribers. MormonLeaks has media attention throughout the US. I give the Mormon believing middle pather blogosphere about 10 more years, tops. The only people who read your stuff are middle-aged like-minded folks, and maybe a few old folks who want to try to be “open-minded” (and by open-minded I mean it in the middle pather non-open-minded sense). No one in the younger generation can understand your fine hairsplitting nuance, for one. And if they can make some sense out of it, they aren’t buying it. Nibley-like mental gymnastics is in decline, fast.

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      4. Hi Steve, I’m 29. I’m not a fan of Nibley-esque mental gymnastics either, but I don’t see that in Ben. He is a very helpful source for accurate biblical scholarship and as a plus he speaks in a way that doesn’t put off TBMs. We haven’t yet heard him explain the transition he is speaking of, and I for one am interested to see where his thoughts go. Personally, I don’t think the “polarization” you might find today is as common or bad as it was in the 80’s and 90’s, and I at least imagine to myself that today’s best LDS scholars are simply not engaging in either side of polemics, but rather are asking and following more interesting questions, and engaging more often in the broader world of scholarship where our polemical debates seem parochial and don’t really interest outsiders..

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      5. I like to alternate between more technical philosophy posts and more accessible ones. If you have questions or think something’s not clear I’m more than willing to explain it.

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    2. Honestly I really hate that iron rod / liahona taxonomy. It’s even worse than the chapel Mormons vs. internet Mormons taxonomy some critics seem to like to use. I just find them pretty misleading. Also both fall into the same trap that the traditional right/left taxonomy in politics does – it reduces a slew of very different issues to a single one dimensional taxonomy.

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  2. It’s a valuable book, but dull as dust to read. For a much more engaging discussion of how the Church transitioned, try Armand Mauss’s “The Angel and the Beehive” or Prince and Wright’s “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.” These two books describe the forces that have shaped the modern LDS Church and are page-turners in comparison to Alexander’s valuable history.

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