John G Turner
Harvard, hb, £25.00
Talking With Mormons
Richard J Mouw
Eerdmans, pb, £7.99
Mormons are one of the fastest growing religious groups in the world. Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House cast light on their beliefs and raised the question of whether they can be described as ‘Christians’, a designation to which they believe they are entitled.
Two figures are important to understanding Mormons: Joseph Smith, the prophet who started the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and Brigham Young, who took over when Smith was killed and led the Mormons to settle in Utah.
A Mormon historian, Richard Bushman, recently produced a life of Joseph Smith and now John Turner has written as superb biography of Brigham Young. Turner is not a Mormon. His previous work was a life of Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and with this second book he stakes his claim to a place in first rank of American church historians.
Young, like Smith, came from a struggling family. He belonged to the Reformed Methodists and the origins of Mormonism lie in American revivalism. In the early years speaking in tongues and other ecstatic practices were common among Mormons. To this was added the Book of Mormon, a book that claimed to tell the story of Israelites who travelled to America just before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and of the visit to the Americas by Jesus after this Resurrection. The American Indians, known to Mormons as Lemanites, were said to be descendents of the Israelites.
Although Mark Twain described the ‘Book of Mormon’ as ‘literary chloroform’ the idea that the Indians were the lost tribes of Israel had been discussed before Smith in America and such speculation caught the popular fancy. Together with revivalism and a new scripture, Smith added a whole new set of ‘temple rituals’, some of which showed Masonic influence. God was understood in materialist terms and human beings were said to be destined to become gods themselves.
Young was faithful to Smith, less of a prophet but loyal to temple rituals. Although happily married, he followed Smith’s teaching about polygamy and Turner speculates that he may have been the ‘most married man in America’.
While Smith was still alive Young went as a missionary to England where he was distressed by the conditions he saw. Many early Mormons came from England, including Mitt Romney’s ancestors who hailed from Dalton-in-Furness. In the light of the allegiance of contemporary Mormons to capitalism and the Republican Party it is interesting to read that the naked capitalism Young saw in England horrified him.
The American frontier is often identified with rugged individualism but clearly one of the appeals of Mormonism was that it offered a community that fostered interdependence among its members a time when there was no social welfare and the state struggled to provide even law and order. British immigrants who had to push their handcarts to Utah at least had a church to provide a sense of belonging in strange land. Mormons emphasised the permanence of family ties and the doctrine of baptism for the dead offered comfort to people upset by orthodox Protestant teaching that their unbelieving relatives were eternally lost.
Turner may be too gentle on Young. There seems little doubt that he knew of the Mountain Meadow Massacre in which 120 ‘gentile settlers’ were killed and may even have ordered it. But Turner does bring his subject to life and help his readers to understand an important figure from an age very different to our own. Buried in this book is the script for a marvellous film.
Richard Mouw is devoted to theological dialogue with Mormons and in a short book sets how to say why evangelicals should not view such dialogue with suspicion.
The Mormon Church is not afraid to change. It has moved on from polygamy and allowed blacks to become full members. No one now would defend Brigham Young’s teaching that Adam was God. Like Mouw I have Mormon friends and have no doubt they are Christians. Mouw suggests that weaknesses in Calvinism opened the door for both Smith and Mary Baker Eddy to reduce the distance between human beings and the divine. Unfortunately they did so by trying to close the gap in ways that are theologically unsound and unfaithful to the Christian tradition. What is hopeful is that theological debate continues among Mormons.