Mormon Studies Classics: The Angel and the Beehive by Armand L. Mauss

Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.  257 pages.

The thesis of Armand Mauss’ The Angel and The Beehive is centered on the response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormons) to changes within society; first by becoming more entwined with its host society, or what he calls assimilation, and then conversely by rejecting society’s changes in order to maintain its distinct identity, or what he calls retrenchment.  Mauss symbolizes these contrasting ideas with the angel statue topping the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City and the beehive sculpture crowning the former Utah Hotel.  Both historic buildings sit across each other (the latter now called the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) at the LDS Church’s headquarter location on Temple Square. The two symbols are fitting contrasts of the charismatic and bureaucratic elements within the LDS Church.  Mormonism, Mauss argues, emerged from its isolationist 19th Century roots where it was often persecuted for defying social mores into the 20th Century as a fully Americanized religion in harmony with mainline Protestantism.  Mauss identifies this assimilation phase as lasting until the early 1960s before entering a retrenchment phase in which charismatic authority reemerged, bringing with it increased emphasis on obedience to modern prophets and performance of vicarious temple work, as well as a shift towards religious fundamentalist literalism in its view of scripture, traditional family life, and sanctions against intellectualism and feminism from within its ranks.

Mauss argues from a sociological standpoint that a high state of tension exists between a new religious movement and its host society, and is necessary in order for the movement to transition from the “sect” phase into an established denomination, but that retrenchment efforts are cyclical as the religious movement continues to grow.  Using the model of “pioneer stage,” “settlement stage,” and “entrenchment stage” defined by LDS historian Richard Bushman, Mauss perceives that each progressive stage involves “decreasing tension with the surrounding society” (14).[i]  Mauss observes that in a movement’s “quest for acceptance and respectability,” it runs the risk of losing its unique identity.  On the contrary, if the movement moves “too far toward an extreme rejection of the host society,” its very existence is at risk, as earlier Mormons discovered in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois (5).  Internally, increased cultural assimilation can also result in decreased tolerance for “marginality and deviance” from within its ranks as the religious movement no longer finds it necessary to “strive with its mavericks,” often resulting in the ostracism of members who deviate from its expected beliefs and behaviors (14).  Using a combination of historical analysis, sociological theory, and survey data, Mauss provides abundant and resolute evidence to support his thesis.  However, at times bias stemming from his own plight as an intellectual within a retrenched environment becomes apparent in his interpretation.  Published in 1994, Mauss’ work emerged during the height of anti-intellectual hostility from among some LDS Church leaders.  In his preface, Mauss admits he “has tried very hard not to let [his] own nostalgia, the idealization of [his] own past, intrude unduly into [his] scholarly detachment,” and that writing this book, “As much as anything . . . is an effort to help [him] understand [his] own changing relationship to the Mormon institutions and people” (xii-xiii).  Maintaining “value free” Weberian ideals while writing about anything in which the researcher is personally immersed is a difficult task and Mauss, for most part, walks this line gracefully.

The Angel and the Beehive is separated into three parts. The first part provides context for sociological concepts Mauss uses and gives an overview of the authors’ main argument, which is that beginning in the 1960s, the LDS Church entered into a retrenchment phase with the intention of recovering “Mormon institutional distinctiveness,” which Mauss postulates had “partially eroded during the first half of the century” (16).  In the second part, Mauss focuses on the assimilation process and the “Americanization” of the LDS Church by the middle of the twentieth century.  In the third part, Mauss discusses the reaction to the “erosion of Mormon peculiarity” from among LDS Church leaders and the subsequent retrenchment efforts with its resultant tendency towards adoption of religious fundamentalism (x).

In the first three chapters, Mauss details the assimilation process leading up to the middle of the twentieth century.  Mauss writes, “If survival is the first task of the [religious] movement, the natural and inevitable response of the host society is either to domesticate the movement or destroy it” (4).  He places the historical marker for the beginnings of Mormonism’s assimilation phase at Utah’s long achievement of statehood towards the close of the 19th century, an achievement that came at the cost of its unique institutions of “polygamy, theocracy, collectivist economic experiments,” and anything else that was “flagrantly un-American” (22).  Mauss details the “astonishing success story” of how the Mormons achieved respectability despite “almost universal national contempt” by becoming models of “patriotic, law-abiding citizenship” at the behest of Church leaders whose government of the church began to shift away from charismatic prophecy towards a “collective, collegial, and bureaucratic” system (23).  Survey data collected by Mauss in the 1960s shows clear similarities in Mormon religiosity lying “somewhere between the moderate and conservative Protestant levels,” with Mormons surveyed in Utah “showing somewhat higher levels of belief” than those in California on such unique Mormon doctrines as the “visions of Joseph Smith” and the “exclusive prophetic role of the contemporary Mormon prophet” (38).   Chapter four continues the survey analysis comparing educational levels, occupations, demographics, and political views between Utah and California Mormons as well as comparative data collected by sociologists Charles Glock and Rodney Stark in 1968, which quantified religiosity within Catholic and ten Protestant denominations.  During the surveyed period, Mormons faired as “well within the mainstream” on most social marks and centrist to moderate in political views compared to the other Christian faiths (58). The fifth chapter examines the “peculiarity” of Mormons in the midcentury when compared with other Christian denominations.  The question of Mormon ethnicity frequently comes up as Mormons have attempted to construct identity and shared cultural narrative.  Mauss asserts that taking pride in “one’s own ethnic heritage” is a recent by-product of the American civil rights movement and pushes back on the idea of a unique Mormon ethnicity, noting that there are “Mormons of all shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, and geographic origins” (62, 64).  Similarly, he dismisses the frequent comparisons Mormons tend to make between themselves and Jewish culture, arguing that proselyting efforts continue to infuse the LDS Church with cultural diversity whereas Jewish growth “comes almost totally from natural increase,” which maintains a “fairly homogeneous ethnic subculture from one generation to the next” (65).  While some may suggest that Mormons are best defined as “a people” rather than a church or a religion, Mauss sides with historian Jan Shipps and sociologist Rodney Stark in labeling Mormonism “a new world religion” not an ethnicity (66).  On the other hand, religious education programs introduced by the LDS Church aimed at young adults, such as Institute and Seminary, as well as the weekly Family Home Evening program, while showing small signs of increasing religiosity, have contributed to an increase of religious identity.

The sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters move from assimilation into retrenchment and the adoption of religious fundamentalism among Mormons.  Mauss draws on the work of Phil Barlow’s 1991 publication, Mormons and the Bible, to analyze the varying approaches Mormon leaders have taken to the Bible, which includes an increasingly literalist hermeneutic since midcentury.  Barlow’s research revealed the “Mormonization” of the King James Version of the Bible as well as a “renewed emphasis upon the Book of Mormon” took place (86).  During this retrenchment period “Mormon particularism” which Mauss states is “seen especially in the notion of the Mormon church as the one true church” rapidly expanded (87).  This period also presents an enlarged emphasis on family genealogy and temple work, as well as the LDS Church’s missionary program.  More recently, the introduction of FamilySearch genealogical software and the reduction of missionary age requirements shows continued focus on these areas which stem from the retrenchment period.  As well, the LDS Church’s youth education programs began to promote increasingly conservative religious ideas, even openly opposing organic evolution theories, and its instructors were given ultimatums to “teach the pure gospel and nothing else,” counseling faculty who didn’t care for the lack of academic freedom to resign.[ii]  Rhetoric against the welfare state, communism, unionism, feminism, and abortion all propagated during this period.   In the eighth chapter, Mauss outlines “five retrenchment thrusts” initiated directly by church leadership: modern prophets and continuous revelation, genealogy and temple work, missions and missionary work, family solidarity, and religious education.  Mauss concludes that with these five initiatives, “The church appears to have arrested, if not reversed, the erosion of distinctive Mormon ways” (140).

Chapters nine, ten, and eleven, offer updated research from the mid-1960s to 1990, once again measuring Mormon religiosity in comparison with the wider American religious landscape as well as to its own past.  Some political demographic research is also presented, showing the continued embrace of social conservatism among Mormons.  Survey results show that Mormons have “grown somewhat more ‘religious’ since the sixties, in comparison with non-Mormons,” but that on social issues Mormons “remain at least as conservative as they were in the sixties” with the exception of increasingly liberalized views on civil rights issues, including women’s rights, “except where they seem to conflict with child-rearing roles” (156).  Finally, chapter eleven discusses the enlargement of religious fundamentalism within Mormonism which manifested itself through efforts to correlate all auxiliaries, curriculum, and manuals under the direct oversight of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.  Organizations such as the women’s Relief Society, which had long enjoyed autonomy, were placed under control of the priesthood.  Mauss writes, “[Correlation] reinforces, however unintentionally, the classical fundamentalist tendency towards unquestioning obedience, rote learning, and indoctrination in preference to understanding” (165).

Chapter twelve concludes The Angel and The Beehive by speculating on the future of Mormonism.  Mauss envisions the continual growth of Mormonism as a global religion, comparing Mormonism’s emergence from Christian Protestantism to Christianity’s emergence from Judaism two millennia ago.  Mauss foresees increasing cultural pluralism as the LDS Church continues to establish itself globally and relies on local members from various ethnic backgrounds for leadership roles rather than exporting leaders from Salt Lake City.  With this expansion of cultural identities within Mormonism, values that are centered in American social customs will be challenged as Mormonism assimilates into the value systems of non-American cultures.  The narrative of Mormonism will likely continue to be “reduced to a small number of basic and indispensible doctrines and principles” which would “link Mormon communities around the world into one universal religion” where “each cultural community could adapt and embroider the core in accordance with its own needs” (209).

The surveys that Mauss were able to conduct for this study were unprecedented in scope and access.  While the importance of Mauss’ data collection and analysis cannot be overstated, the currency of the data, collected in the mid-1960s with some follow-up in 1990, does make the Angel and The Beehive feel dated to a reader in 2014.  Much has taken place within the Mormon religion since this book’s publication, some of which confirm Mauss’ theory of a continuing emphasis on global expansion and cultural pluralism (see the “I’m a Mormon” media campaign, for example), while at the same time the “five initiatives” which came out of the retrenchment phase continue to be emphasized.  In 2011, Mauss issued a 42-page update to The Angel and the Beehive in Dialogue, which brings his work into the 21st century, however no new data was collected for this supplemental publication.  Mauss believes that the LDS Church is again entering into another assimilation phase, this evidenced by increased media publicity garnered from President Gordon B. Hinckley’s media-friendly administration, California’s Proposition-8 campaign, as well as the popularity of satirical Broadway production, The Book of Mormon.  Since Mauss’ 2011 update, the LDS Church has continued to make assimilationist gestures with its website promoting kindness towards the church’s LGBT members www.mormonsandgays.com while seeking to protect its own interests with a recent campaign for religious freedom.  The LDS Church has also taken steps towards increasing historical transparency in the Gospel Topics section of the church’s official website and CES youth curriculum.  Likewise, the Joseph Smith Papers has continued to garner academic accolades as an award-winning documentary editing project.  Most recently, the church’s General Young Women’s board has expanded to include international representation.

As integral as The Angel and the Beehive is for understanding the shifts within Mormonism from a sociological perspective, it is not entirely without its flaws.  A few key historical moments for Mormonism, such as the Senate hearings for the seating of Reed Smoot in the early 20th Century, are absent from Mauss’ historical survey, despite being commonly regarded among scholars as a landmark moment in Mormonism’s shift from distrusted Utah sect to respected American faith.  Also, Mauss’ interpretation of his data tends to consistently place Utah Mormons in poorer light than their California counterparts, revealing Mauss’ bias that Mormons living outside of the corridor are proportionately more enlightened.  This is an unfair characterization as diversity among Utah Mormons is arguably greater than what is depicted.  More work needs to be done to show the variety of Mormons both globally and inside the “Mormon panhandle.” The Angel and the Beehive remains a foundationally important work, but it is better supplemented with other, more recent, work done in the field of cultural and social history.  Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity (2005), Greg Prince’s David O’McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism (2005), Martha S. Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums (2005), Thomas G. Alexander and Stephen J. Stein’s Mormonism In Transition (revised edit. 2012), Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible (revised edit. 2013), and J.B. Haws’ The Mormon Image in the American Mind (2013), all add to the important groundwork of The Angel and the Beehive by further exploring Mormon identity and transition in response to the changing American landscape and globalization.


[i] Correspondence between Richard L. Bushman and Armand L. Mauss, September 10, 1989 and September 24, 1989.  Personal files of Armand Mauss.
[ii] See Joseph Fielding Smith’s publication of Man: His Origin and Destiny, which was incorporated into CES curriculum in the summer of 1954.  The ultimatum given to CES faculty was issued by Apostle Mark E. Peterson.

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