Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The popular, colloquial name for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in upstate New York in 1830 on the basis of revelations claimed by Joseph Smith, the founding prophet. In its Christian primitivism and antinomianism, it was akin to many other "restorationist" movements, such as the Campbellites, which emerged at about the same time in the "burned over district" (Shipps 1985). From the beginning, however, it distinguished itself from cognate movements by its claims of (1) the restoration of exclusive apostolic authority or priesthood to the new prophet and his closest associates; (2) a reopened canon, with many new divine revelations through modern prophets to complement the Holy Bible; and (3) the Book of Mormon, chief among the new revelations, and the obvious source of the church's colloquial name (Arrington and Bitton 1992, O'Dea, 1957).

Historical Overview

During the first few years, the theology of Mormonism, while innovative in certain respects, was not remarkably different from that of its sectarian cousins on the "left" of the Christian spectrum of the time, particularly in its theodicy, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology. However, starting especially in the 1840s, Joseph Smith and his successor prophets began to promulgate a series of new revelations and doctrines that moved Mormonism in a sharply heterodox direction relative to the Protestant heritage from which it had emerged. Since then, mainstream Protestantism, especially the more evangelical and fundamentalist varieties, has generally been unwilling to consider Mormons as part of the Christian family, despite the continuing Mormon claims to being the one, true, authentic church of Jesus Christ, restored to usher in a new dispensation of the fullness of the Gospel.

The nineteenth-century history of the Mormon movement is probably the most turbulent of any American-born religion. Between 1830 and 1846, the ever-increasing Mormon flock moved from New York to northern Ohio, then to western Missouri, and then to southwestern Illinois, where they established their own city of Nauvoo with about 10,000 souls, plus a few others in surrounding communities (Flanders 1965). Each move occurred under pressure from severe persecution, including regular mob action, for this period was well before the "equal protection" amendments to the federal constitution passed after the Civil War. The Mormon flight from Missouri in early 1839, indeed, was in response to an order from the state governor himself that Mormons must either leave or be exterminated. While the Mormon religious claims were themselves the objects of considerable ridicule, and no doubt some indignation as well, the persecution was a reaction less to the Mormons' heterodoxy than to their real and imagined political and economic dominance, as they moved en masse from one location to another, each time claiming God's sanction for possession of their new homeland. The founding prophet Smith was finally assassinated by a mob in 1844 while awaiting trial on a dubious charge in Carthage, near Nauvoo. A year and a half later, in early 1846, the eastern U.S. chapter of Mormon history came to an end with the final Mormon exodus from Nauvoo to the far west in Utah.

Brigham Young emerged from the postassassination turmoil as the successor to Smith and proved an exceptionally able organizer with a somewhat authoritarian style. In Mormon lore, the saga of thousands of emigrants crossing the Great Plains in wagons and afoot rivals the story of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. The parallel was complete when the "promised land" in Utah, like that of Palestine, proved also to have a salty sea and a fresh-water lake connected by a river. Both geographic separation and the growing North-South strife in the rest of America conspired to provide the Mormons some respite from persecution, so they were free for a while to experiment with certain new institutions (Arrington 1958). Chief among these were theocratic government, communal economic projects, and (most notorious of all) "plural marriage" or polygamy (actually, polygyny), the latter having been already started secretly on a small scale in Nauvoo. It was these experiments, more than anything else, that guaranteed several more decades of hostile relations between the Mormons and the rest of the country, including an episode in 1856-1857 misnamed "the Utah War," in which bloodshed was actually averted by the Mormons' preemptive "commando tactics," on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by their willingness to accept a new non-Mormon territorial governor in place of Young. Nevertheless, after the Civil War, the federal government launched an escalating legislative and judicial campaign against Mormon polygamy that eventually disincorporated the church and threatened a military occupation of Utah.

Only then, in 1890, did the Mormons officially abandon polygamy, although it persisted underground for a few more decades and eventually produced sectarian schisms (Hardy 1992). In 1896, after the Mormons had also replaced their theocratic civil form of government with the regular American two-party system, the new state of Utah was admitted to the federal union (Lyman 1986). During the next century, the Mormons sought conscientiously to "live down" their nineteenth-century disrepute and to accept a more or less complete Americanization (Alexander 1986). The main Mormon preoccupations of the twentieth century were (1) the struggle to maintain a distinctive way of life while still enjoying the advantages of American assimilation and respectability (Gottlieb and Wiley 1984, Mauss 1994, O'Dea 1957, Shepherd and Shepherd 1984) and (2), somewhat paradoxically, a gigantic missionary effort to export around the world a Mormonism free of conspicuous American cultural taints.

Before the end of the century, worldwide Mormon membership had surpassed 10 million, about evenly distributed between North America and the rest of the world, but mostly in Latin America. Nearly half of all the world's Mormons, indeed, were Spanish-speaking by then. Rapid Mormon growth during the second half of the century has suggested to some non-Mormon scholars the prospect that we might be seeing the rise of the first new world religion since Islam (Shipps 1985, Stark 1984). Other non-Mormon scholars (e.g., Bloom 1992, Leone 1979) have been more intrigued by the relationship between Mormonism and American culture itself, seeing in Mormonism not only an authentic new religion but indeed a uniquely American one.

Early Social Science Literature

Very little scholarly literature on the Mormons appeared until the middle of the twentieth century. Publications prior to that time were mostly the work of journalists and travelers, who tended to regard Mormons with contempt and ridicule, usually with special and salacious attention to the institution of polygamy. Even the few publications by scholars tended to carry that same general tone. A definite exception was historian Hubert H. Bancroft's History of Utah (1889 [Nevada Publications 1981]), which even now is very useful as a balanced and reliable source on early Utah and the Mormons. Another exception was social economist Richard Ely's article in Harper's magazine (1903), which hailed (indeed, exaggerated) Mormon success in communal economic experiments and contained the startling claim that "the organization of the Mormons is the most nearly perfect piece of social mechanism with which I have ever . . . come in contact, excepting alone the German army," a much greater compliment at the end of the nineteenth century than it would have been at the end of the twentieth.

It was, indeed, the rural economic life of the Mormons that constituted the earliest focus of serious scholarly work, according to Arrington (1966), due in part to the influence on American social scientists of German social and economic historians of the fin de siècle, some of whom themselves even wrote on the Mormons. Ely himself had studied with these German scholars (and had apparently at the same time acquired his admiration for the German army). The work of Arrington and others in midcentury was much informed by the work of these few early economic historians (e.g., Arrington 1958, Nelson 1952). A second prominent theme in studies on Mormons from early on has been family and fertility, starting, understandably, with polygynous families (e.g., Young 1954), a preoccupation that has scarcely abated even in more recent times (Foster 1981, Hardy 1992). One does see, however, a broadening of interest in Mormon family life to more conventional issues later in the twentieth century, such as family governance and socialization, sex and reproduction, and spousal relationships (e.g., Heaton 1994).

Recent Social Science Literature

The relative paucity of work on the Mormons in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially beyond the foci on economy, community, and family, can be attributed partly to the hiatus in the sociology of religion more generally and partly to the shortage of home-grown Mormon social scientists during that period. From midcentury on, however, a great flowering is apparent in social scientific studies on the Mormons, most of it (but by no means all) by scholars of Mormon background. This work has retained to some extent the earlier concerns with family and community but has gone well beyond those to studies of Mormon religiosity and its consequences, Mormon political orientations and influence, Mormon public images and image-making, Mormon interethnic relationships, Mormon women and sex roles, and the general topic of the impact on Mormons of modernization and secularization (see these categories in the bibliographies and bibliographic essays of Arrington 1966, Bahr and Forste 1986, Mauss 1984, Mauss and Reynolds 1998).

The Mormon preoccupation with genealogy and family histories, furthermore, has made available an enormous cache of cross-generational data for historical demographic studies, including the relation between genetics and morbidity, producing several federally financed projects based at the University of Utah (e.g., Bean et al. 1978, 1980). Many other potentially interesting aspects of Mormon culture have, however, been slighted in the social scientific literature. These include anthropological topics such as myth, ritual, values, folk religion, and syncretism. A few works by anthropologists nevertheless have appeared, starting with those derived from Kluckhohn's five-cultures project at Harvard in the 1950s (e.g., Vogt and Albert 1966, O'Dea 1957) and the early work on Mormon folklore by Fife and Fife (1956) as well as a few more recent works (Leone 1979, Wilson 1976). Other neglected topics include organizational governance and control, intellectual history, dissent and defection, education and its impact, crime and deviance among the Mormons, and, perhaps most conspicuous of all in a rapidly growing international religion, any scholarly work to speak of on Mormons outside the United States (in any language). To be sure, there is a smattering of work on these topics, but very little.

Readers wishing to know more about peaks and valleys in Mormon studies might wish to consult the bibliographical works cited earlier. A useful sampling of late-twentieth-century social science research on Mormons will be found in the anthology edited by Cornwall et al. (1994). Those wishing to pursue scholarly studies of the Mormons would also do well to consult several periodicals privately published by Mormon scholars, which are generally well refereed and free of church control: Brigham Young University Studies (published since 1959), Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (since 1966), Journal of Mormon History (since 1974), and Sunstone magazine (since 1975). These publications are quite eclectic and are not devoted exclusively to social science, but they tend to contain many articles in the social science genre. An important general source on a great variety of Mormon topics is the Encyclopedia of Mormonism , published in 1992 by the Macmillan Company with the cooperation (and thus the influence) of the Mormon Church.

Armand L. Mauss


T. S. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986)

L. J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958)

L. J. Arrington, "Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century," Dialogue 1(1966):15-132

L. J. Arrington and D. Bitton, The Mormon Experience , 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)

H. M. Bahr and R. T. Forste, "Toward a Social Science of Contemporary Mormondom," BYU Studies 26(1986):73-121

L. L. Bean et al., "The Mormon Historical Demography Project," Historical Methodology 11(1978):45-53

L. L. Bean et al., "The Genealogical Society of Utah as a Data Resource for Historical Demography," Population Index 46(1980):6-19

H. Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992)

M. Cornwall et al. (eds.), Contemporary Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994)

R. T. Ely, "Economic Aspects of Mormonism," Harper's 106(1903):667-678

A. Fife and A. Fife, Saints of Sage and Saddle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1956)

R. B. Flanders, Nauvoo (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965)

L. Foster, Religion and Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)

R. Gottlieb and P. Wiley, America's Saints (New York: Putnam, 1984)

B. C. Hardy, Solemn Covenant (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)

T. B. Heaton, "In Search of a Peculiar People," in Cornwall et al., q.v . (1994): 87-117

M. P. Leone, Roots of Modern Mormonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)

E. L. Lyman, Political Deliverance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986)

A. L. Mauss, "Sociological Perspectives on the Mormon Subculture," Annual Review of Sociology 10(1984):437-460

A. L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994)

A. L. Mauss and D. I. Reynolds, "Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Social Science Works on Mormonism," in Comprehensive Bibliography of Historical Works on Mormonism , ed. J. B. Allen et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998)

L. Nelson, The Mormon Village (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1952)

T. F. O'Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

G. Shepherd and G. Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984)

J. Shipps, Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985)

R. Stark, "The Rise of a New World Faith," Review of Religious Research 26(1984):18-27

E. Z. Vogt and E. M. Albert, The People of Rimrock (New York: Atheneum, 1966)

W. A. Wilson, "A Bibliography of Studies in Mormon Folklore," Utah Historical Quarterly 44(1976):389-394

K. Young, Isn't One Wife Enough? (New York: Holt, 1954).

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