Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Mormon Exceptionalism

As previously mentioned, my accident in early May forced me to abandon my plans of doing light construction work this summer and to adopt an alternative form of employment. As a result, I have been working for an organization based in UNC-Chapel Hill’s library system called DocSouth, which stands for “Documenting the American South,” since mid-June. The organization’s goal is to preserve and make publicly available the texts and images that best capture southern history (so naturally, they hired a transplanted Yankee to determine what artifacts best represent southern life). If you are into history, I would encourage you to visit their website—it’s a great resource: www.docsouth.unc.edu.
The long and short of my new employment is that I spend 25 hours each week reading slave narratives and writing summaries of them, so that DocSouth users will be able to determine which texts they want to read in full. In the course of my work, I’ve learned a lot about nineteenth-century American culture, especially religious culture, and with the evidence I’ve found in my employment, I would like to address what I think of as the myth of Mormon exceptionalism.
It seems to me that most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints erroneously believe that most of the doctrines revealed by God to Joseph Smith are unique truths available nowhere else in the nineteenth-century. Now—before I draw cries of blasphemy, let me clarify: I do believe that the LDS church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30), and several of the doctrines that Joseph Smith taught really weren’t available anywhere else. But most of the things Joseph taught were being taught by other preachers—the real difference between Joseph and his contemporaries was not a matter of doctrine but a matter of priesthood.
This is what I mean by the “myth of Mormon exceptionalism”—that members of the LDS church believe that doctrines such as the Word of Wisdom, temple building, and temple washings are evidences of Joseph’s divinity in and of themselves. I often hear faithful and well-meaning members say something to this effect: “I know that the Church is true because in the Word of Wisdom, Joseph revealed new and unique guidelines for a healthy diet that medical science is only now recognizing as optimal,” or “I know that the Church is true because it preaches a fullness of the gospel, combining things from the Old Testament (temples) and things from the New Testament (sacrament).” But if either of these things are reliable indicators of Christ’s true church, several other sects from nineteenth-century America have an equal claim on divine authority. Let me provide you with one example.
In 1829, a man named Robert Matthews decided to stop shaving. He grew out his beard, adopted the name Matthias and claimed “to possess the spirit of the Father--he was God upon earth, because the spirit of God dwelled in him” (Vale I.42). As the official receptacle for God’s spirit, Matthias declared that he had come to restore God’s “kingdom” (Vale I.79). The headquarters for that kingdom would be in the west, where members of the kingdom would build “a temple, or rather twelve temples, forming one great whole, which should, in splendour and magnitude, when finished, exceed that of Solomon's” (Vale II.52). Though these temples were as yet unbuilt, Matthias encouraged members of his kingdom to participate in their ordinances in preparation. Members were washed and anointed by members of their own sex; these washings and anointings were “performed as a ceremony, accompanying a covenant or engagement” and were “done expressly in preparation” for the marriage covenant (Vale II.21). Matthias also had a law of health—Matthias would “eat plain good food, but not pies, and drank no wine; he abstained also from pork” ( Vale I.44). He drew his membership from a local “Holy Club” that “partook of plain food only, abstaining even from butter, tea, and coffee” (Vale I.25).
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. In 1820, Joseph Smith claimed that he saw God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ in an open vision. He consistently referred to the church organization which he instituted as the kingdom of God. Smith built two temples and his plan for the city of Zion included a series of twelve interlocking temples. In the days leading up to the Kirtland temple’s dedication and in the Kirtland temple itself, Joseph instituted the practice of washings and anointings, and being “washed and cleansed from all […] sins” was preparatory to being married and “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:52-53). Smith also revealed a dietary code that prohibited “hot drinks”—coffee and tea—and encouraged the consumption of plain food, especially fruits and grains (Doctrine and Covenants 89:9).
I am not attempting to belittle the magnitude of Joseph Smith’s contribution to the religious world in this comparison—after all, believers in Matthias's divinity disbanded in the late 1830s, while Smith’s church has thirteen million members world wide in 2008; Matthias left behind no written record, while Smith left behind almost a thousand pages of new scripture. Clearly there is a difference between the theology and impact of both men, but to suggest that the doctrines Joseph Smith taught have more credibility because they were unique or unknown, is to miss the point.
When the LDS church was founded in the 1830s, the average citizen would have been hard pressed to find anything exceptional in Smith’s claims—even heavenly visions were commonly reported. The Mormon church and Mormon doctrines are not exceptional because they compare favorably to contemporary religions; they are exceptional because they are true.

(PS-If you're interested in learning more about Matthias, you can find the full text of Vale's account in DocSouth's North American Slave Narratives. Vale constructs his account from the eyewitness testimony of Sojourner Truth, who was Matthias' personal maid for two years. You can find another example of a religious experience comparable to Joseph's here.)

1 comment:

Latter-day said...

Nice post. Interesting stuff. I was with you until your concluding line: "other aspects of mormonism have their roots in nineteenth-century culture"

Mormonism doesn't have roots in 19th century culture. Its roots are divine. The fact that others were similarly inspired only says that the Spirit was doing its job, not taking its lead from others.