Weekend Reading: The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield
There can be no arguing that Mormonism is, as Newsweek put it last year, “having a moment.” But why? What has led to this? Answering questions like these is the goal of the new release by Stephen Mansfield, The Mormonizing of America (2012, Worthy Publishing). Mansfield is a former pastor. He has authored several books including: The Faith of George W. Bush, The Faith of Barack Obama, The Search for God and Guinness (reviewed here), and The Faith of the American Soldier.
In The Mormonizing of America, Mansfield gives us a sketch of the history of Mormonism, a look at their basic doctrines, and some of the challenges facing the modern Latter-Day Saints (LDS) church. He does this while managing to avoid the trap of the book simply being a negative, Mormon-bashing diatribe. He is honest about Mormonism, but he is graceful. Mansfield speaks the truth plainly and clearly, but respectfully. I think this is one of the books strongest features.
Another strong feature is how Mansfield puts Mormonism into its context. In telling LDS history, he doesn’t simply tell the odd story of its founder, Joseph Smith. He describes the historical context that helped make the religion what it is.
Frankly, the book was worth reading for its introduction. In it, the author moved past simply describing the faulty doctrines of the LDS church, and described the experience of being part of the church. I had honestly never figured out why someone would want to be part of a religion built on such a faulty view of history and outrageous theology. It isn’t about the doctrine, it is the experience.
I simply want to make three observations:
Mormonism must deal honestly with history. Their history is checkered, at best. It is a past that is full of questions and concerns. Joseph Smith has been regarded as a criminal, a con-man, and a manipulator. This is true of him both before and after his revelations. It is a history of violence. It is a history of constantly changing theology. When Mormonism began, it often looked more like a radical form of Pentecostalism than the buttoned-down religion we see today. Not only do they need to deal honestly with their own history, but also with their view of world and American history. DNA evidence has proven there is no relationship between Jews and Native Americans. When Smith discovered the golden plates that contained what he translated into The Book of Mormon, he claimed the language on the plates was Reformed Egyptian. This is a supposed language that has never been discovered anywhere else in the world. And his claim that angels took the plates away when he was finished translating leaves the language unavailable for verification. He also claimed horses were in North America before Columbus when all evidence is to the contrary. Those are just some of the historical fabrications the religion was founded on.
There is no authoritative LDS theology. Joseph Smith established the church. He was succeeded by Brigham Young. Young had a number of revelations that superseded Smith’s teachings. And so their doctrine has changed throughout their history. In fact, a constantly changing theology is rooted in their theology. They teach that from its earliest days the church became corrupt. When Smith had his revelations, the proper priesthood was restored. The head of the LDS church is also regarded as a prophet, and a living prophet trumps a dead prophet. By and large, members of the LDS do not know or study theology to any great extent. They are taught how to live. There are not many LDS theologians at any level. For the most part, Mormonism is an experiential religion. They do not witness based on doctrine, but on testimony.
Mormonism is a uniquely American religion. This is true not just in the sense that it began here, but that it is tied into the culture and fabric of the United States. One of the reasons Mormonism is so interesting right now is the fact the Republican nominee for the office of President is an active, practicing Mormon. Many are concerned that he may take orders from Salt Lake City rather than from the United States Constitution. I find this unlikely. And if he does, the orders are not likely to conflict with the Constitution. This is because the LDS church views the United States Constitution as an inspired document, just like the Book of Mormon and the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, they view it as more accurate than the KJV Bible!
At this year’s Republican National Convention, Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan made the comment that Mitt Romney’s life has prepared him to be President. From a Mormon perspective, nothing could be truer. Mormonism builds this into its followers. Progress, family, education, and patriotism are keys to success in American culture. They are also the emphases of Mormonism.
The Mormonizing of America was a joy to read. I found it incredibly helpful in understanding the religion—not just the doctrine, but the history and culture of the LDS church. I believe that as a part of our American society, Mormonism has reached a critical mass and is here to stay. It is imperative that every Christian have some understanding of the religion of people they will encounter on a regular basis. Because Mormonism is such a religion of experience, simply pointing out flaws in its history and theology will not convert most. The only way to witness to individuals in the LDS church is to share the gospel—and to share the gospel in a loving, understanding way. This can only be done when we have some understanding of the Mormon culture. The Mormonizing of America is a great resource for this. I highly recommend it.