Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Naming the Eras in Church History

As part of my preparation as an editor for the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" contest, I've been thinking a lot about how different moments in Mormon history might have felt at the time, and about what sorts of broad patterns we might see in the next two hundred years of Mormonism's future.

As part of my research, I ran across an old blog post by Dave Banack, in which he first tried to identify the main themes we use to describe 19th century Mormon history, and then asked whether we even have a way to talk about any big patterns in 20th century Mormon history.

In the spirit of Banack's project, and as a possible brainstorming aid for contest writers, I've tried to put together my own list of possible large pattern "grand narratives" for the Mormon past and future. I've decided to post them here because I think we can all learn about the gospel by thinking about what it might have meant to different people at different times.

The big stories I see:

Early 19th Century: Becoming Saints

Banack calls this "The Restoration of the Gospel," and I agree with him that it's the main theme of early Mormon history. But if we're trying to get at what the history felt like at the time (which Banack, by the way, isn't concerned with), I prefer the phrase "Becoming Saints."

Here's why. During graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for the Joseph  Smith Papers Project and spent a lot of time poring over the minutes to early church meetings and councils, trying to figure out how different early practices evolved. And in the process, I developed a deep admiration for people who committed their lives to the idea of being Latter-day Saints without having a clear idea what such saints would look like yet. For the first generation of Mormons, I think the story of their faith was a story of feeling around and finding out what the faith would look like. They faced dilemmas and held councils to seek revelation--then had to live with the revelations, or gradually grow alienated with the movement. They made bold plans and watched some succeed and others seem to fail, yielding experience it sometimes took them years more to find a use for. And line upon line, precept upon precept, they learned what it might mean to be Latter-day Saints.

The story, of course, isn't exclusive to this period. My own aunt grew up Mormon in India at a time when the church was very young and small there, and didn't find out until she was fourteen that tea was against the Word of Wisdom. So although she already was a Latter-day Saint, the expansion of the church in her area gave her a similar experience to the first generation of Latter-day Saints. But it was the dominant story of the early period--finding out where Mormonism was headed was a central part of what Mormons did.

Late 19th Century:Building the Kingdom

Banack calls the next big story in church history "pioneers moving West," but because that tends to evoke historically narrow images of oxen teams and handcarts crossing the plains in the 1850s, I prefer "building the kingdom."

By this I mean that most Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s saw themselves as literally building up the Kingdom of God in geographical space. For most, this did involve physical movement and labor building up physical communities. Many Mormons moved west to Utah during this period. Many also moved north and south out of Utah to develop settlements from Mexico to Canada. And many who went to serve missions to gather Israel also saw themselves as gathering good ideas to help build a new culture and nation.

Salt Lake City in this period seems to have seen itself as an innovative cultural center. Though people there lived primarily by farming, they emphasized education. My great-great grandmother, Bertha Wilcken, remembers the enthusiasm for learning Spanish in Salt Lake at the time despite traditional education's emphasis on Greek and Latin. She herself later lived in Mexico and by the end of her life was splitting time between descendants in Utah, Colonia Dublan in northern Mexico, and Mexico city. We tend to remember this period as very insular, but Mormons were possibly better connected with each other in this period than at any other time.

One more family story from this period particularly interests me. My great-great-grandfather Helaman Pratt was engaged as a young man to a Miss Parks in Salt Lake who presumably knew he was likely to end up with multiple wives and had chosen to marry him anyway. But when he was called on a mission to help settle a barren part of Nevada (called, of all things, "the Muddy"), his fiance broke off the engagement. I can't really blame her--Nevada is bleak enough in our age of freeways and air conditioning. I love the story because it suggests how intimidating the land and work of civilization building could be in those days.

20th century: Leavening

Maybe it was government pressure against polygamy. Maybe it was just the growth of the railroad and the de facto shrinking of distance it brought. Or maybe we'd just learned enough from the literal building period and were ready to move on. But it does seem to me that the early twentieth century brought an end to the LDS emphasis on literally building up the kingdom of God in the American Great Basin and a shift of that pioneering energy gradually into a project I call "leavening," in which Latter-day Saints spread out into mainstream society and tried to establish the kingdom of God more in wards, branches, and families than settlements and regions.

For the first half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints primarily moved into U.S. society, often gaining conventional respectability in business or as educated professionals (though rarely as intellectual elites). Our movement out into the country both physically and culturally was met with some caution on both sides--were we assimilating into or infiltrating the larger society?Were we blessing America or being corrupted by it?

During the second half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints expanded throughout the world, with growth concentrated in the Americas. Our emphasis to members outside the Great Basin in the 19th century had been on coming to build up the kingdom of God as an alternative to their struggling societies, but our emphasis through the 20th century has been on becoming the responsible, giving sort of people who can contribute to and elevate the societies we already live in.

This is pretty much the church as we know it. But how many of our assumptions about the church are actually based in this century's experience? Take growth, for example. The church has always believed in sharing the gospel, but we seem to identify ourselves in this century as a rapidly-growing, emerging faith. What happens if church growth slows? If our only story for the work of the church is leavening, then we've failed.

Or take the nuclear family. It's always been important in our church, but it used to be balanced more with emphasis on extended family and community. As we've moved in small family units out of settlements and across the world, that focus has been good. But will extended family and community someday be emphasized more again?

21st century: Three Possibilities

Because we're only twelve years into the 21st century, it's highly unlikely that any of my speculations will turn out to be correct. But I'll identify three possible "grand narratives" for 21st century Mormonism anyway because I think the exercise of wondering where history might take us helps us consider what Mormonism is really about.

Mormon Renaissance
In the nineteenth century, LDS leaders were very invested in the idea of developing a Mormon culture of beauty and learning. "Let Zion put on her beautiful garments" meant more than morality then, it meant that even poor farmers would be able to take part in a vibrant aesthetic life in communities organized according to divine principles. We would learn and discover and create. We would read and sing and wonder.

But while education has remained a priority throughout LDS history, an emphasis on the practical benefits of education seems to have grown dominant through the leavening period. It's been a long time since anyone was sent on a mission specifically to study art. (Part of this may come from our anxieties about whether we really are leavening society or being assimilated by society. Is artistic training today a route to expression of our Latter-day Saint values, or a route to assimilation into incompatible priorities and perspectives?)

That said, the economic success of the last century's Latter-day Saints and the creative technologies available to this generation's Saints may put us at a turning point today. There are a lot of very good writers and artists now in our church. An increasing number of them seem interested in expressing the value of our ways of seeing and thinking. Wouldn't it be cool if we could look back on this century as one where the vision of the gospel was articulated in ways that are beautiful as well as practical? Wouldn't it be cool if people could be drawn to the beauty as well as to the virtue of our lives?

Fullness of the Gentiles
The Mormon Renaissance vision is certainly rosy, so I'll counter it with a somewhat more sobering vision of our immediate future which I call "the Fullness of the Gentiles."

This future extrapolates the marked trend since 2005 of young Americans leaving organized religions (including Mormonism) into the next several decades or even through the century. What happens to a faith with lots of U.S. American history and population if the U.S. turns as secular as Europe has, or more so?

The Book of Mormon suggests that at some point, this sort of thing is bound to happen. The "Western" cultures will become wealthy and proud, and the bulk of church membership will shift into Latin American populations, which will eventually come into conflict with and defeat their longtime visitors. Some Gentiles, who are bonded with descendants of Lehi through the gospel, will prosper. Others will struggle.

I don't imagine that we'll live to see that whole Book of Mormon arc fulfilled, but I do think it's possible that future generations of Saints will look back on the 21st century as the beginning of this process. And already, the preparations seem to be under way. The church is saving and investing money carefully to help the transition from the cash-rich north into the faith-rich south. The Perpetual Education fund is helping strengthen families who may form the core of a future geographic and cultural heart of the church.

Digital Transition
A third possibility is that the late 21st century world won't have strong separate regional cultures at all so much as different preferences in online communities and media streams. While the strength of the church has always been in building physical relationships in physical space, we may look back on the 21st century as a time when we learned to function equally well as a digital tribe.

Maybe Mormon.org and indexing service aren't just tangential church initiatives, but the beginning of new modes of connection and worship. I very much doubt the heart of our church experience will move away from the physical sacrament service, but it may well be that much of our work becomes centered on the internet (or whatever we call the successors to today's primitive digital experience).

22nd century: Three Possibilites

Again, the point here is not to accurately predict what will happen, but to think about the gospel more deeply but considering what might happen to the church.

World Crisis, Church Emergence
It is no news that the current course of the world doesn't look sustainable spiritually, socially, or environmentally. But I'm not predicting an immediate collapse. In a hundred years, though? It seems plausible--and even probable-to me that we won't change our current culture quickly enough and will end up with a period of chaos rather than a smooth transition into another way of living.

In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark suggests that it was during times of crisis, whether from plagues or other instability, that the communal and service-oriented values of early Christians were most attractive to their pagan contemporaries. Difficult times compelled many to search for a more sustainable truth.

I certainly don't hope for the day when the world is compelled to be humbler. And LDS life after a collapse of the current world system would be demanding and difficult. But I do wonder whether our current membership growth will prove minimal compared to the growth of a strong, well-organized communal faith during a time of deep struggle and instability. Right now, people can value personal freedom and choose to eat, drink, and be merry. Cultural values may shift when a good job is feeding pigs slop.

The true emergence of the church as a major world religion may only come after significant world crises leads people to reconsider the role of a church in their lives and their societies.

Second Gathering
In the 20th century, the earlier project of literal gathering was put on hold to give the gospel another chance to bless the whole earth. But is a second gathering coming a few centuries from now? Where would it be to and what would it look like? What would get it started and once gathered, what sort of cities would we build?

I'm intrigued by the idea that we might turn to a literal project of Zion again, because thinking about the possibility requires me to speculate about what that project would entail, and what a saint might have to sacrifice or struggle with in the process. 

Assimilation and Amnesia
I like to think, of course, that if the call to gather again came today, many Latter-day Saints would listen. I like to think that if hard times hit the world, our traditions of communal interdependence would lay a foundation for enough organized cooperation to carry us through the crises.

But sometimes, I have my doubts. Are we in the church still humble enough to accept the revealed gospel? Or have we become too absorbed into an individualistic, consumer-driven culture to sustain the cooperative culture of the church through the generations to come?

When I hear people take it for granted that they're smarter and better than our forebears and our leaders, I wonder. When I hear people lose patience with the roots and trunk of our faith's tree, I worry.

I saw an interview recently with the legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. He called on Africans to do some "heritage preservation," to gather and share the stories of their forbears rather than looking only to the latest trends from the wealthiest countries. He said that if African artists don't do something to preserve and transmit their heritage, the day may come when their descendants say, "you know, they say we used to be Africans once."

I have seen enough strong, solid Saints to believe we'll be around long into the future. But that thought from Hugh Masekela still struck a chord with me. What if we do keep assimilating?  What if we spend more time wishing that church culture were like some more sophisticated alternative than delving into the richness of what we have?

Will the day come when many of our descendants are saying, "they say we used to be Mormons once"?


  1. Interesting read. I won't comment on the 22nd century or even the 21st. Your 19th century makes a lot of sense, and i would put the end of the "building the kingdom" at the time polygamy was banned (1890-1904). I would suggest, though, that the 20th century as a whole cannot really be considered one era. I would indicate at least two periods, roughly divided by World War II. During the second period is when the international church really comes to prominence. It's just a thought.

    1. It's true that in most countries outside the U.S. and Europe (or at least Germany, which is the country I know most about), the church really takes off after WWII.

      That said, I think the main story of what the church is doing is fairly consistent through the 20th century. In most of the 19th century, we're building an alternative to existing societies. In the 20th century, we refocus on blessing existing societies as in the NT metaphor of leavening.

      While the geography shifts, I'm not sure the focus does in the same way as between the other "eras."

  2. Speaking of the Renaissance and the beginning of us as a serious moral and cultural force, I hope we don't end up like the early Christian church. If people leave the church,



Related Posts with Thumbnails