Like historian Matthew Bowman, I am an active participant in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Bowman’s recent overview of the history and people of the Church, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (published January 2012 by Random House), provides a different perspective on the history of the Church in America. He shares the history by discussing the people that joined the Church as believers and those that interacted with the Church from the early 1800s until today.
I consider myself fairly well read about the history of the Church in the United States, so I was pleasantly surprised by how Bowman’s perspective gave me a new view of Church history. The different personalities of the Church leaders throughout the eras of the Church’s history certainly had an impact on how the Church was administered, how doctrines were taught, how believers were encouraged to live, and how believers and nonbelievers interacted with one another.
I mentioned before (in my post on Arrington’s biography of Brigham Young) that I don’t think I would have gotten along with Brigham Young very well had I lived in the mid-1800s in Utah. As I read The Mormon People, I was once again grateful I live in the era I do of the Church’s history. Yet, reading about the various people and their strong opinions reminded me once again that regardless leader, I must personally focus my testimony of truth on my Savior Jesus Christ and the doctrines He taught rather than depending on personalities of leaders to carry my faith. Even if I’d lived in the time of Brigham Young or Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie (all strong personalities), I could have sustained them in their callings, even if I disliked their opinions on things that may not matter so much as my faith in the Savior.
Although I am glad for the new perspectives of the leaders of the Church throughout history, there were a few surprising items in the book. In his effort to expand on the changing leadership of the Church through the years, Bowman seemed to me to degrade the importance of various aspects of the Church’s doctrine. For example, he states
Correlated materials are designed not to promote theological reflection but to produce Mormons dedicated to living the tenets of their faith. ( page 199)
For clarification, correlation is the system whereby where ever you travel in the world on a given Sunday, the congregation of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) will be studying the same lesson from the same manual in Sunday school and other auxiliaries. The same manuals are used in Bolivia, in the Middle East, in Italy, and in Australia, all places where I’ve personally worshiped with other Latter-day Saints. By creating manuals that can be understood by people of all walks of life in all parts of the world, these manuals provide basic instruction in understanding and in living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But I personally don’t find that focusing on the basics in Sunday instruction lessens my personal theological understandings. Regularly, the lessons in these manuals and the classes in which I receive said lessons emphasize that my own spiritual growth and understanding is a personal journey. Does that mean the correlated lessons “produce Mormons dedicated to living the tenets” of my faith? I suppose, but Bowman’s wording makes it sound like I’m being made into a robot, and I don’t see that as the case at all.
Further, I was surprised to learn about the intellectual disputes among Church leaders in the early 1900s, with leaders publicly disagreeing about things such as evolution. Bowman indicates that the leaders of the Church today
conceive of their task largely in terms of ministry and pastoral work, consonant with modern Mormons’ conception of their faith as a way of life and a system of ethical behavior rather than a theological argument. (page 227)
I cannot imagine leaders today arguing, so apparently leaders have come to an understanding of emphasizing what is most important! However, I wished that Bowman did emphasize more frequently that Mormonism is a religion, not a way of life. There are many layers of understanding to the concepts we learn about in Sunday meetings. While I am constantly reminded of the basics in church meetings, reading the scriptures and studying them with an open mind provides me with a rewarding theological education. There is a complexity to Mormon doctrine beyond the apparent superficiality as “a way of life.”
That’s not to say that Bowman disregards Mormonism as a “way of life.” He does not write from his personal perspective, but it’s clear he understands the Mormon faith, and he puts it in context:
Just as the miracles performed by Catholic saints or the ecstasies of Pentecostalism bind other believers to the world of the New Testament apostles, these stories bind Mormons today to the world Joseph Smith experienced. For those faithful believers, the New Testament has not yet dissolved into myth; for Mormons, Joseph Smith has yet to either. (page 38)
In his beginning, Bowman indicates
Americans have admired Mormons for their diligence, their rectitude, their faith and their honesty; they have feared them for their zealotry, their polygamy, and their heresy. (page 16)
The Mormon People does not dumb down controversy. It does not hesitate to examine the disagreements among leaders throughout the 180 years of history since the Church was founded. It also does not discuss the doctrines of the Church in detail, nor provide a comprehensive look at the leaders and key players of the Church throughout that history. From my perspective, though, The Mormon People does what it set out to do: it provides a historic context for the Mormons we see in the public sphere today.
I read a digital review copy provided by the publisher via netgalley.com for review consideration.