Pioneer Day is a time for Mormons to reflect on the contributions and sacrifices their forebears have offered to the faith and the building of Zion. In Utah, fireworks flood the skies with brilliant flowers of light in remembrance of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. This year fireworks of a different kind have lit up online news sources and discussion boards too. The story of these fireworks is one of tension between two communities of Mormons: doubters and the staunchly faithful.
On July 21, the New York Times published an about Hans Mattsson, former member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy and Area Authority, who, after his stint in church leadership, began investigating in earnest the questions members had addressed to him in his role as a leader. His curiosity was piqued when, according to his report, a visiting apostle claimed to have a manuscript containing all the answers to difficult questions, which subsequently failed to appear. Mattsson alleges that his inquiry into the manuscript’s fate was met with a curt rebuke.
Mattsson became active in an unofficial community where doubting members could gather to discuss their questions. In 2010, another seventy, Marlin K. Jensen, and Church historian Richard Turley (co-author of Massacre at Mountain Meadows) traveled to Sweden to answer these members’ questions. Yet another seventy, Elder Kopischke, was reportedly present to challenge the doubters to reconcile with the LDS Church or resign their membership after some soul-searching. A handful of disillusioned members chose to resign. Mattsson, shocked and hurt by the apparent ultimatum, said that he was not prepared to make a final decision.
These events have sparked a great deal of discussion online and elsewhere. The core issues of this discussion concern the role of community and education in fostering faith. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the LDS Church experienced a period of explosive growth, placing unprecedented demands on a faith that had long been primarily American and English speaking. Church educational materials were standardized and simplified in an attempt to accommodate large numbers of new converts across the world. Soon, these educational materials looked more like missionary lessons covering the bare essentials of a faith that has many distinctive teachings and a colorful early history.
The uncomfortable contrast between the missionary efforts of Mormonism and the insider’s experience of the community, however, is not a new thing. Indeed, even the insider’s experience of the Church has varied by time and place. Nineteenth-century European converts were sometimes shocked to find upon immigrating to Utah that saints in America were practicing polygamy. Not a few of these converts left their new faith once they confronted this unexpected revelation. Brigham Young, Mormonism’s second prophet, taught esoteric doctrines about Adam and God, still poorly understood today, which were generally omitted from contemporary discussions with outsiders. These esoteric doctrines also found uneven application in Mormonism’s temple rituals. Some temples featured the so-called “Adam-God doctrine” in the endowment ritual, others did not.
In the twentieth century, an effort to streamline Church organization and functions in line with the structure of Mormonism’s priesthood—called Correlation—brought greater consistency to the official teachings of the Church. Myriad questions regarding the history and doctrines of the faith, however, have not received the kind of systematic official treatment older religious traditions have cultivated over centuries. There is no official Mormon catechism or creed. There are no “Church Fathers” whose teachings provide meat for the bones of the scriptural canon. On the whole, LDS Church leaders are drawn from the ranks of professionals and successful businessmen, not academics, philosophers, and theologians.
Depending on individual personality, this lack of systematic doctrinal definition can be liberating or confusing. The authority vested in the Church’s hierarchy naturally prompts members to ask leaders for clarification on intellectual and religious issues, but the faith’s traditional aversion toward creedal statements and catechisms results in the Church’s resistance to providing such clarification. The LDS Church instead prefers to promulgate the basic message of salvation and provide access to authorized sacred ordinances. Members are free to formulate personal views according to their own spiritual understanding so long as they do not publicly contradict the basic teachings of the Church or challenge the authority of its leadership structure.
Regardless of how one rates the success of Mormon education in the faith, at present some sense a growing crisis of faith in the LDS community. The precise meaning and seriousness of this crisis is difficult to gauge, but it is hard to deny that something significant is happening in regards to the Mormon faith’s definition of community and doctrine. Efforts of a few Church authorities and scholars to reach out to a small but significant number of doubters attest to an official awareness of the problem. The disillusioned see a church in freefall. Defenders see one more of a long series of buffetings that date back to the Church’s earliest years—just another bump in the road in a history with an upward trajectory.
The difference now, if such is to be identified, is one of both timing and technology. Not only do Mormons have easier access to information about the Church’s past and the arguments of its critics, but this is all occurring in the context of a rise in vocal secular criticism of religion in general, which has come in backlash against a visible religious fundamentalism and extremism in the global community. The last decade has seen sometimes humorous (e.g., South Park), but often ignorant (Christopher Hitchens), bigoted (Bill Maher), and sometimes even unsettlingly angry (Lawrence O’Donnell) criticisms of the Mormon faith in popular books, films, and television media. The leadership of the LDS Church itself was surprised by the level of popular anti-Mormon sentiment in response to the candidacy of Mitt Romney.
For LDS people, the most crucial factor in dealing with doubt and criticism, as anthropologist David Knowlton points out, is community. The strength of Mormonism has long been its emphasis on community. In recent times, however, the Church has sought to cultivate members’ allegiance primarily through individual faith commitments. Knowlton further observes that, while Correlation enabled the Church to organize its operations on a massive scale, the resulting systemization may have come at the cost of the strength of local bonds between members. Standardization of everything from teaching materials to building codes and even congregational recreation has perhaps eaten away at the fostering of local initiative and sense of community.
Still, the staunchly faithful continue to express their allegiance to the religion in traditional ways. One way to express allegiance to the Mormon community is through personal statements of loyalty to the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, its current leaders, and, for some, pioneer ancestors. When LDS author Juli Caldwell to the NYT’s article on Mattsson in the online periodical Meridian Magazine on Pioneer Day, she wrote passionately about the sacrifices of early Mormons for their faith. Her spirited expression of loyalty and pride in the face of continuing media scrutiny is understandable, but it also stands as an example of how the contemporary LDS community sometimes falls short in its efforts at reaching out to those who doubt.
Particularly striking is the fact that Hans Mattsson and his fellow Swedes are completely absent from Caldwell’s response to the Times piece, which was largely about Swedish members’ struggles with doubt. Instead, Caldwell recounts the history and sacrifices of the nineteenth-century pioneers who settled Utah and soldiered on in the face of outsiders’ ignorance and bigotry. Caldwell’s narrative arc is one of persecution that begins with forced migrations and massacres, and ends in the most recent example of Goodstein’s Times article. For Caldwell, the persecutions of old continue today in the mainstream media’s war against the Mormon faith. In this war, the Mormon faithful are unjustly assaulted by “accusations” of polygamy, racism, and violence.
Goodstein might be surprised by Caldwell’s characterization of her article, since its apparent purpose was to report on the questions of Swedish Mormons like Mattsson who doubt their faith. Goodstein was not writing in any detail about Mormon polygamy, racism, or violence, although these topics were listed as sources of doubt. Caldwell, however, seems intent upon demonstrating her knowledge of Mormon history in order to put the lie to what she sees as the Times’ depiction of Mormons as ignorant lemmings who follow their leaders blindly. Caldwell’s characterization the NYT article is debatable, and the nature of her response raises its own questions.
One might fairly ask: Does Caldwell’s knowledge and faith invalidate Mattsson’s unawareness and doubt? Is the disparity between these two Mormons in knowledge and comfort regarding Mormon history and doctrine simply the result of differences in personal effort and faithfulness, or are there other factors involved? Do today’s Mormon faithful stand with Mormon doubters as much as they stand against external critics, or are doubters lumped in with external critics? While history plays an indisputably important role in the Mormon religion, what kind of history ought to be taught in such a community of faith?
I do not intend to scold or make an example of Juli Caldwell. Her upset is certainly understandable. I think, however, that her response does represent one facet of a complex phenomenon in this age of Mormon doubt, wherein a memory of past wrongs and external enemies can overshadow the struggles of fellow Mormons. According to Caldwell’s brief bio at Meridian Magazine, she “lives on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.” While I do not know her personally or know her genealogy—presumably she is a Hiatt who married a Caldwell—the information she provides evokes an image of generations-old commitment to Mormonism. I will now say something about this image and the demographic behind it, understanding that it does not necessarily define the person behind the authorial profile.
Caldwell is an old Mormon name. Caldwells came across the plains in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable. There were Caldwells in the Willie handcart company, which was caught in harsh winter weather and lost numerous of its members to exposure to the elements. Some of my ancestors came across the plains in the Martin handcart company and endured similar trials during their trek to Zion.
The Martin and Willie handcart companies experienced tragedy in no small part because of failures of leadership. Leaders make mistakes. The faith and community of the members of the handcart companies, combined with the efforts of Church leaders in Salt Lake, thankfully prevented complete disaster (otherwise, I would not be here). Were it not for the efforts of all, the loss of life would have been much higher than the unacceptable losses that did occur. In the midst of the crisis, recriminations or blaming past persecutors would have done nothing to prevent a greater tragedy.
In my opinion, the experience of these handcart companies contains important lessons for the perceived crisis of the present. The hundreds who died in the frozen weather of the plains did not cause the LDS Church as a whole to perish, but the lives of these dead were no less precious than those of the survivors. Those who did survive managed to do so because of the united efforts of pioneers (survivors and deceased alike) and leaders. Many of the members of these handcart companies were not at Kirtland or Haun’s Mill, and they did not enter into polygamy, but the sacrifice of these pioneers is honored all the same.
The current wave of doubt and disaffection in the LDS Church requires the same combined effort and sense of community that brought past generations of Mormons together and kept them together. It is necessary to find ways to address these challenges that speak to all Mormons, not just those who read voraciously, have pioneer ancestry, or remain completely loyal in the face of every challenge. The survival of Mormonism itself may or may not depend on the response to this present crisis, but the state of the community’s soul certainly does.