Two Dispassionate Looks At the Latter-day Saints
THE MORMONS, by Thomas F. O'Dea. University of Chicago Press, 289 pp. $5.
Much has been written about the Mormons since Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in upstate New York a century and a third ago, but most of this writing has been marred by an all too obvious lack of detachment. The past several years, however, seem to have opened up a new and welcome era of objectivity.
This new objectivity is another indication that time has healed most of the wounds of conflict between the Mormons and the rest of America. America's modern acceptance of the Mormons may be mainly a result of the average American's lack of religious conviction, but in any case this acceptance is a far cry from Mormonism's unpopularity in the last century In addition to the increasing objectivity of non-Mormon observers, the abolition of polygamy and the increasing growth and acceptance of Mormonism have meant a lessened Mormon sensitivity to examination of their society.
Mulder and Mortensen's Among the Mormons is an excellent example of this new objectivity. Although both the editors are Mormon in background, they have written a book whose tone is remarkably detached.
Their anthology contains an invaluable collection of the experiences of largely non-Mormon observers who have come into contact with Mormonism in all stages of its history. The editors have uncovered some extremely worthwhile material.
Mulder and Mortensen have also garnered brief accounts of Mormonism from a lineup of 19th century notables: Horace Greeley, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who called Mormonism an "after-clap of Puritanism"), John Greenleaf Whittier, and Mark Twain. The latter's revulsion at the concept of polygamy melted at his first sight of the "poor, ungainly and pathetically 'homely' creatures" that were the Mormon wives. "No," Twain wrote, "--the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure--and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations would stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence."
Twentieth century commentaries are also included and form some of the most interesting material in the book, especially those of Juanita Brooks, Dale. L. Morgan, Samuel W. Taylor, and Wallace Stegner whose eulogy to Salt Lake City concludes the volume. Indeed, the major complaint one can find with Among the Mormons is that the accounts are concentrated too heavily in the earlier periods of Mormon history, giving the book an overly academic tone.
However, this is the first book of its kind, and it is one which succeeds in capturing the drama and the color of Mormonism. One of the main reasons for this success is the extremely well-written editors' introductions to each account, which seem to bear Mulder's stylistic imprint.
While not so colorful as the anthology, Thomas O'Dea's The Mormons is the most astute sociological analysis of this society yet written. O'Dea has as much knowledge and sympathy for the Mormons as any non-Mormon could be expected to have; his only fault is that he has not lived long enough among different groups of Mormons. Quite obviously, his perception of Mormonism is that of the "Wasatch Strip"--Salt Lake City and adjoining areas. He does not show sufficient awareness of Mormonism in the cities on the periphery of Mormon Country, in the rural areas, in the East, and abroad. O'Dea's analysis portrays brilliantly the intellectual movements and conflicts in contemporary Mormonism, such as the tension between Mormon belief in a strong education and the fear of contamination by secular thought. His discussion, however, suffers from too great a reliance on the views of a relatively few Mormon intellectuals.
Nevertheless O'Dea's research has been comprehensive. He has a good understanding of the Book of Mormon and of Mormon theology and history. Indeed, he devotes too much space to a mere chronicle of Mormon history. But O'Dea realizes two essential things about the Mormons: that their values and experience have been peculiarly American, and that the Mormons are not merely a religious sect, but a distinct society. Although O'Dea does not make the connection, these are the two principle reasons for the continued success of Mormonism.
In his lucid writing style, O'Dea paints a vivid picture of contemporary Mormonism. Despite its conflicts, he maintains, the Mormons display a greater agreement on basic questions than any other group in the country. He thinks that while gaining a new respectability the Mormons have preserved their peculiarity and vitality, and that they have good prospects for the future. There is no reason to believe O'Dea's analysis faulty; perhaps one measure of Mormonism's vitality is the growing intellectual concern it is receiving, a concern exemplified by these two recent books. Read in combination, O'Dea's book and Among the Mormons provide an excellent introduction to the last existing native religion to emerge from the American forntier.