Mormonism: A Definition through Contradiction
Mormonism is a religion colored by complexities and contradictions. The prolific Mormon essayist Eugene England called the Mormon experience “essentially, as well as existentially, paradoxical.” LDS author Terryl Givens agrees, echoing England’s sentiment in his recent book, People of Paradox.
“By proving contraries, truth is made manifest,” said Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the LDS Church. Informed by Smith’s statement, I will discuss Mormonism’s contraries in the hope of explaining the religion.
My method in this paper will follow the seven Cs of religious studies: creed, code, cultus, community, culture, confines, and consciousness. In each of these seven characteristics exist tensions that help define Mormonism.
One of the most important aspects of a religion is its creed—its set of core beliefs. The Mormon “creed,” as it were, can be found in the Articles of Faith. Joseph Smith penned a letter to the inquiring John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, articulating 13 fundamental doctrines of Mormonism. The letter was later canonized as the Articles of Faith.
The primary articles affirm the church’s belief in: God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost; free moral agency and accountability for one’s actions; the salvation of man through the Atonement and “by obedience to the laws and ordinances (faith, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the laying on of hands) of the Gospel; the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” and the Book of Mormon as scripture; continuing revelation; and the Restoration of the Primitive Church.
The Articles of Faith, though, only sketch Mormon beliefs. They omit many important teachings. We must also look to other canonical sources, like the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
The Book of Mormon purports to be a translation by Joseph Smith of an ancient American document· According to LDS lore, Smith recovered buried gold plates from a hill near his house and translated it by the power of God. The plates relate the history of a group of Hebrews who migrated from Jerusalem to America.
Mormons call the Book of Mormon the “most correct book of any on earth” and the “keystone” of their religion. The Book of Mormon enjoys this privileged position among Mormons because not only is it a test of Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities, but it also contains uniquely Mormon teachings. For example, the Book of Mormon makes the radical claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his Resurrection and spread the Gospel to ancient peoples there. Another LDS doctrine that originates from the Book of Mormon is that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne 2:25). The Fall, then, is something Mormons rejoice in rather than lament. This teaching is anathema to much of the Christian community.
But the Book of Mormon, too, is silent on a host of fundamental Mormon doctrines. The majority of distinctly LDS teachings are found in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, including polygamy and the exaltation of man (D&C 132), baptism for the dead (D&C 88:101), the plurality of gods (Abraham 4:1), and many more.
Mormon doctrine does not end with these works of scripture, however. A core tenet of Mormonism is that revelation is progressive and ongoing. God speaks through a living, modern-day prophet who—in his capacity as the “Lord’s mouthpiece”—can add to or amend church doctrines. Revelation is the mechanism by which the church was able to survive doctrinal changes concerning polygamy and the black priesthood ban, for instance.
There are, I’m convinced, contradictions within and among all these books. The Book of Mormon, for instance, is explicitly monotheistic (Alma 11:26-29). In later works of scripture, however, a plurality of gods is taught (Abraham 4:27, D&C 132:37).
The Book of Mormon also seems to endorse a fairly traditional conception of the Trinity—that God the Father and Jesus Christ are one being. “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son,”declares God (Ether 3:14). This is at obvious variance with the LDS Godhead, where these personages are wholly separate beings (D&C 130:22). These are but a couple examples.
The apparent textual contradictions among LDS canon are the birthing pains of a new theology. Joseph Smith had the difficult task of formulating the early church’s beliefs. Over his life, it seems, he changed his mind on key theological issues. The contradictions above suggest that Mormonism in its infancy was monotheistic and Trinitarian. But come Nauvoo, Smith was espousing a new Mormonism. Perhaps this just underscores the importance of revelatory reform. Mormonism has the luxury to evolve, as per progressive revelation from the Prophet.
There is another tension aside from canonical contradictions—one Mormons are more likely to confront: the perception of a widening “sacred distance” between man and God. In biblical times, it seemed that God was omnipresent. He was always manifest in the world, and his dealings with man were overt. In the Garden of Eden, God walked amidst man (Genesis 3:8-10). He even fought alongside them in battle, as was the case with the Israelites (Judges 1:19). But in the centuries following Christ’s ascendance to Heaven, a period known by Mormons as “the Great Apostasy,” God has kept hidden and man has felt very alone.
Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the subsequent restoration of the Gospel collapsed this “sacred distance” or “divine hiddenness.” As Prophet, Smith announced revelation after revelation. He also promised his members the ability to receive personal revelation. This was proof that God was again intimately involved in our lives. Now certainly, Mormons today still believe this. At the same time, however, it is hard not to notice that revelations (in both gravity and frequency) have declined in the modern era. There are exceptions—the lifting of the black priesthood ban in 1978 comes to mind. But generally speaking, what important radical pronouncements has the church made lately? I think some Mormons long to be back on the theological frontlines—I know I did.
The LDS Church is widely known for its strict moral codes. Non-Mormons often see the church’s prohibitions as weird or draconian. Others agree with LDS values and commend Mormons for living them.
In D&C 89, God revealed to Smith what is commonly referred to as the “Word of Wisdom.” The Word of Wisdom presents a dietary code for Mormons. It stipulates that alcohol and other “strong drinks” should not be ingested. The revelation also strongly advises against tobacco and “hot drinks”—a prohibition that has clarified to include drinks like coffee and tea. The Word of Wisdom promises all those who heed its advice “health in their navel and marrow to their bones,” wisdom, physical endurance, and that “the destroying angel shall pass by them…and not slay them” (D&C 89:18-21).
The second (and more important) code established by the LDS Church is the Law of Chastity. In the Endowment ceremony, participants swear to obey the law so as to guarantee marital fidelity. The Law of Chastity extends far beyond the Endowment ceremony, however. All members of the church are bound to it. The Law of Chastity not only forbids marital infidelity, but homosexual behavior, masturbation, and pornography as well. Impure thoughts that may lead to said offenses are also discouraged.
The consequences for disobeying the Law of Chastity are serious. In Mormonism, sexual impurity is the second greatest evil next to murder (Alma 39:5). Deviance from the law results in revocation of a temple recommend and other forms of church discipline, relative to the severity of the offense.
It is argued that the sexual repression caused by the Law of Chastity contributes to the brief courtships and early marriages. My parents met at a BYU dance and got engaged two weeks later! My parents recently confessed to me that one impetus for the hasty engagement was their wanting to be physically intimate, but within the bonds of marriage. That is anecdotal and unrepresentative of most Mormons of course, but it is true that Utahns marry youngest in our country.
Many Christians are sympathetic to and share LDS values, but nonetheless convict the LDS Church of “legalism”--that is, an over-emphasis on codes of conduct. This criticism also alludes to a larger theological debate concerning the saving power of works versus faith.
The debate over works and faith is most pronounced when discussing LDS rituals (cultus). “Saving ordinances” are those rituals in Mormonism that are required for exaltation. These include baptism, confirmation and the reception of the Holy Ghost, and certain temple rituals such as the endowment and marriage.
The temple is one of the most visible manifestations of Mormonism. Over 120 LDS temples are operating worldwide, with many more in either under construction or planning. Mormons give a lot of import to their temples and the rituals practiced therein. Much of the temple work is concerned with the family and its continuance in the hereafter. Marriage partners, for examples, are not joined “’til death do us part,” but instead for “time and all eternity.” Their relationship with their children, too, is eternal (provided the children live worthily).
The ordinances performed in the temple are also extended to the dead. Through living proxies, baptismal rites, sealings, and endowments can be performed on the deceased’s behalf. The dead are free to accept or decline these ordinances in the spirit world. A lot of misunderstanding surrounds these posthumous practices, so they have garnered horror and ridicule from others.
Mormons keep the specific details of their temple rituals secret from non-members and also those members not yet eligible or worthy to enter the temple themselves. The mantra many Mormons say in defense that these rituals are “sacred, not secret.” In truth, they are both. But the label of “secretive” has a special sting for Mormons, because the Book of Mormon forcefully and repeatedly condemns “secret combinations,” “secret works” and oath taking (Mormon 8:27, 40; 2 Ne 26:22; and Hel 6:22, to list just a few verses).
This speaks to a debate within Mormonism between its Masonic and anti-Mason influences. Some scholars, both Mormon and non-Mormon alike, who have studied the Book of Mormon believe that those passages that condemn secrecy reflect anti-Masonic sentiments that were common at Smith’s time in the late 1820s. Indeed, some early Mormons even called the Book of Mormon the “anti-Masonick Bible." And yet notwithstanding these anti-Masonic sentiments, there are also striking influences from Masonry evident in the temple ceremonies.
In March 1842, Joseph Smith was initiated into Freemasonry. Less than two months later, he introduced the temple ceremonies. It is no surprise, then, that there are parallels between Masonic rituals and LDS temple rituals. These parallels include special handshakes, blood-oaths (prior to 1990), and new names given to participants. The church and Freemasonry share symbolic imagery as well: sun, moon, and star symbols, the square and the cross, the beehive, the all seeing eye, and several others.
Community plays a central role in Mormonism. Mormons identify as a people; Mormonism in this sense resembles an ethnic group. This is a macro understanding of community in Mormonism, however. I’d like to focuse on the micro, namely the LDS ward. A ward consists of anywhere between 200 and 500 active Mormons. A ward is not merely a local congregation that meets each Sunday for religious services; it is a community. These members grow so close together that wards are often called “ward families.”
Most members of wards do more than sit and sing together in church. They teach each other’s children in Sunday school. Their kids are in the same Boy Scout troops, sports teams, and dance groups. The members invite eat dinners together. When a family moves in to a ward, they help them unload and often donate dishes and furniture. And when tragedy strikes the ward, the members mourn and pray together.
This closeness within a ward is not without costs. One consequence of “ward families” is gossip. The Relief Society, the women’s religious service in a ward, has a notorious reputation for gossip. I could share anecdotes, but the fact that church leaders have to routinely address the issue of gossip should suffice as evidence of the problem. A search for the word “gossip” at lds.org yielded 240 results!
The second consequence for ward intimacy is the difficulty in leaving the church. Many who leave the LDS Church find the transition very painful since they are breaking not only religious ties, but also social and familial ones. Leaving the church, then, is tantamount to betrayal—to friends, to family, to the community.
In leaving Mormonism, I was fortunate enough have most of my relationship remain intact. Those friends I lost in my ward were friends worth losing anyway. But others aren’t so lucky. My mother was born and raised in the LDS faith. I’ve often confronted her on why she believes in the church in the face of difficulties like the translation of the Book of Abraham and the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Just a couple months ago, my mother confided in me that she does not believe the church is true, but said she stays with it because it is the only community she has ever known. Her leaving the church would damage her marriage, and make her a pariah among the extended family, at work, and—more immediately—in the neighborhood.
Similar social pressures often prod young Mormon males into missions. I had a friend leave on a mission for no other reason (sadly) than that he’d make a more marketable bachelor in Utah as a returned missionary.
Closely related to community is culture, another important characteristic of religion. Most people only know Mormonism by its culture, not its doctrines. Mormons are perceived to be honest, hard-working, sober, friendly, family-oriented and generous—almost to a fault. Indeed, despite this image (or perhaps because of it), many people are still uneasy about Mormonism. Some may think that Mormonism's smiley façade masks a darker reality. And if Utah is any indication, this concern is not entirely without warrant.
According to a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Utah leads the country in non-medical painkiller abuse.
Utah culture is arguably one of culprits. Marked by denial, conformity, social pressure and guilt, this culture contributes to the state’s drug problem (among others). In an interview in the local documentary Happy Valley, one addict said that recovery in Utah is especially difficult because our society is so judgmental—people don’t want to be honest and open about their addictions for fear of how others might perceive them. He asked that Utahns “look in the mirror, before looking out the window.”
Youth suicide is also an epidemic in Utah. And disproportionately represented in these suicides are gay youth, who are three to five times more likely to commit suicide. Overall, Utah had the 7th highest suicide rates in the country from the years 2000-2004.
Chief among the risk factors for suicide is an unwillingness to seek help due to the stigma attached mental disorders like depression. “We have this 'All is well in Zion' kind of thing going here," Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Deseret News.
"We'd rather not talk about [depression] at all or maybe to go talk to the bishop about it," he said. "If there really is a mental health issue you need help. It doesn't work to talk to the youth leaders or ecclesiastic leaders."
In rape, too, Utah exceeds the national average. One in eight Utah women will be raped at some point in their lifetime. And sadly, few rapes will be reported.
A recent report by the Deseret Morning News found that 90 percent of Provo rapes go unreported. A BYU police officer explained, “Most Provo residents are religious and have a tendency to stigmatize discussion of sexual assault and sometimes to demonize the survivor.” And I wonder whether the rapes themselves result, in part, from our unhealthy climate of sexual repression.
It is also true that Utah is home to green jello, low crime rates, healthy residents, and the highest literacy and language fluency rates in the country. I only give focus to the state’s ills because they so often get ignored.
For most of the church’s history, Mormonism has been inescapably associated with Utah. And while I believe that there is a Mormon culture distinct from Utah culture, there is nonetheless overlap between the two. Mormonism has undoubtedly affected many aspects of Utah culture. But the distinction between Mormonism and Utah will only grow sharper as Utah becomes less Mormon and the church becomes increasingly global.
A religion’s confines—that is, its spatial and geographical location—is the sixth C in the seven Cs of religious studies. I just touched on the important relationship between Utah and Mormonism, for example. But there are still other aspects of Mormonism’s confines to discuss.
Mormons yearn for Zion, for home; they desperately want to belong. It is odd that members of a uniquely American religion like Mormonism can feel like strangers in their own land. But historically, they very much have been strangers. Persecution drove the saints from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Illinois, and finally in 1847 to Utah (what was then a distant territory). So it’s obvious that Mormons believe it is imperative that they have sacred space in which they can worship and practice their faith freely.
The idea of sacred space is incorporated into all church buildings. The temples are built very intentionally to be conducive to “the spirit” (a spiritual feeling that accompanies worship). The temples’ rooms are filled with penetrating white lights and adorned with lavish carpets and elegant furniture. Every floor in a temple is soundproofed, to ensure a still, reverent quiet. The endowment room, where Mormons receive special ordinances, is distinguished by walls painted to depict a wooded setting. And the sealing room boasts beautiful, gold-framed mirrors on either side of the room that create an endless reflection, representing the eternity in which couples and their children will continue.
Some Mormons feel that the sacred space in LDS meetinghouses has been compromised in recent decades. Virtually all LDS chapels have a basketball court. It is a curious sight, but the church wanted their meetinghouses to be more than places of worship; they wanted them to be community centers and “cultural halls.” There is a tension with this desire, however. Something as worldly as basketball can crowd out sacred space in an LDS chapel. At what point does an LDS meetinghouse feel too much like a community center and not enough like a church?
I noticed this concern when I was Mormon. In my ward, it took the form of a stigma against those families (like mine) who sat on the basketball court half of the chapel during sacrament meeting. It means they were late to church and had other priorities, like finishing watching a quarter of a football game.
And finally, the enigmatic Mormon consciousness. The Mormon mind is a congress of contradictory ideas and identities.
Mormons, out of doctrinal necessity, are a very gender-conscious people. God created man and woman and commanded them to “multiply and replenish the earth” (Moses 2:28).
On one hand, the LDS Church is an ultra-patriarchal system. Many point to the practice of polygamy as degrading to women. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, found the practice abhorrent and also harbored a deep resentment for it. Smith commanded her to accept the practice on threat of damnation (D&C 132:52). One main justification for polygamy was the bearing of children in this life and of “spirit children” in the next. Some women object to this teaching, as it seems to reduce a woman’s role to solely procreation.
The church has long since abandoned polygamy, but other patriarchal practices remain. Women are unable to receive the priesthood, for example. Another example: In the temple, women promise to obey their husbands in everything so long as their husbands obey God.
On the other hand, women can find their role in Mormonism very empowering. A case could be made that the church has historically been progressive on women’s issues. Polygamy was partly justified in order to afford women financial security, for instance. Women in the Utah territory were also the first to receive suffrage. In regards to the temple ceremonies, women are endowed with a certain priesthood power and, under the authority of a male priesthood holder, can exercise that power (and have historically). And then doctrinally, Mormons reject original sin and thus do not see Eve (or women generally) as responsible for the Fall. If anything, Eve is revered as a heroine.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Mormons are the most partisan religious demographic in America. Fifty-two percent of Mormons are strongly Republican, as opposed to only 15 percent who are strongly Democrat.
I don’t find the survey surprising, but I think it glosses over Mormonism’s rich history of political diversity. In The Mormon Quest for the Presidency, we read about several LDS presidential candidates who ran on surprisingly liberal platforms. Consider Joseph Smith. For his time, Smith held some very progressive ideas. He campaigned on the abolition of slavery and a blanket pardon for and release of all prison inmates. Today, Senator Harry Reid, a practicing Mormon, is the Democratic leader in the Senate. And the Udalls are a LDS family who are also prominent in contemporary Democratic politics.
Integral to the Mormon identity is a profound sense of persecution—dare I say a martyrdom complex. Being a “peculiar people” and being persecuted for it allows Mormons to connect with their pioneer forbearers, who suffered violence back East and weathered fierce blizzards moving west. The balance between being “mainstream” and “peculiar” in LDS consciousness is a difficult and delicate one. This difficulty was explored by historian Kathleen Flake’s book, The Politics of American Religious Identity, when during the Smoot hearings the church had to disavow polygamy in order to be integrated into the mainstream, while emphasizing other uniquely Mormon teachings like the Godhead and the First Vision to preserve its peculiarity.
Mormons have earned their reputation for being wholesome, but they are hardly prudes. Unlike puritanical Christians, Mormons have a lust of life. The Articles of Faith encourage Mormons to seek after “virtuous,” “lovely,” and “praiseworthy” things. D&C 58:26 asks Mormons to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause…” We see this zeal in Mormon participation in the arts.
Music and dance are almost sacrosanct in Mormonism. Mormonism’s contribution to music is best embodied in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is world-renowned and has performed for several U.S. Presidents. And about the LDS tradition of dance, Terryl Givens says the following in the PBS documentary The Mormons:
"Because we believe that God the Father, as well as Jesus Christ, are physical, embodied beings, that elevates the body to a heavenly status…And so dancing, I think, is in many ways, just an emblem or a symbol of a kind of righteous reveling in the physical tabernacle that we believe is a stage on our way to godliness itself."
Mormons also celebrate the mind. “The glory of God is intelligence,” says D&C 93:36. Mormons, then, put a special emphasis on education. The church even manages several universities, with the flagship being BYU Provo. Interestingly, Mormons are among the only demographic for whom religiosity increases with education.
At odds with the Mormon emphasis on education is a definite anti-intellectual streak among Mormons. A lot is revealed about the Mormon mind in how they deal with criticisms of their faith. Many Mormons’ beliefs are immune to reasoned argument. Like my mother, they belong to the church for its community and emotionalism. When confronted with criticism, they retreat to their personal, spiritual experiences. This is often coupled with a dismissive attitude toward reason and science.
Over the years, church leaders have taught members to be wary of the “philosophies of men.” They are also admonished not to trust in the “arm of flesh” (D&C 1:19). This message is shared with church educators, too. Boyd K. Packer infamously told a group of church educators at BYU, “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”
The most profound conundrum in the Mormon consciousness is that Mormons belong to a hierarchical and authoritarian church, yet one that has remarkably individualistic qualities (a reflection of the individualism of the Jacksonian era).
“Obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel…Unquestioning obedience to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction — whether it be recorded scripture or the words of modern prophets — to be worthy of obedience.”
But Mormonism—in theory, if not in practice—also affords members enormous freedom. As stated in the Articles of Faith, people are endowed with moral agency and are not held to account for “Adam’s transgressions.” Agency is central to the LDS understanding of the “war in heaven” and Christ’s “plan of salvation.” Joseph Smith also told his followers that they had the ability to receive personal revelations for them and their families. This can create (and at times has created) a tension between the members and church leadership.
Millions of people with disparate beliefs and from different backgrounds profess to be Mormon. It is because of the complexities and contradictions in Mormonism that such a diversity of people and beliefs can claim the same faith.
By “proving the contraries,” we gained insight into the LDS faith. The “truth” about what exactly Mormonism is, however, has not quite been “made manifest.” It still eludes us. And that for me is precisely Mormonism’s intrigue.