Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book: The Mormonizing of America

I received an email a few weeks ago asking if I would like to review a new book out titled The Mormonizing of America. I had a few reservations about it, but knowing that the current political campaign would feature a Mormon, it seemed like a good idea.

Of course, one can hardly doubt that this book would not be coming out, now, if it were not for that same campaign. Be that as it may, this subject is timely. Whether or not this book is timely is what we need to consider. And we’ll give author Stephen Mansfield a pass on making a verb from a noun in “Mormonizing.” There’s grammar police out there who will get him for that.

The first real memory of Mormonism I have is the commercials that formerly aired during The A-Team and other great television classics. Their commercials were positive, family-friendly, and perfectly suited to good guys who could save the day without actually shooting the bad guys. Later on, I learned a little more about the religious beliefs of the Mormons. That required time spent learning a little of their history.

Which leads us to the difficulty with Mormonism: it is, truly, a recent religion. It is one of the few religious groups to arise fully in the printed-word era, and is a fully home-grown American religion. That has to couple with the growing pains and the development of doctrine which occur when any group coalesces into a religious movement.

As an example: what are now the Methodists started as an effort to strengthen the Anglican church. Now, though, the two are quite separate. Even historically within Christianity, we see how the early church started with some traditions and then shifted across the years.

Mormonism has gone through, and continues to go through, some of those same growing pains. It is easy to find evidence of what was said by Mormon leaders and originators, but it can be somewhat challenging to determine if those beliefs are currently held by either the LDS Church at-large or specific Mormons. The near-veneration of their leaders complicates the issue, as most Mormons will reject a belief presented by an historic leader but will not state that leader to have been wrong.

As such, the tracing of Mormon history is illustrative, but can leave us with questions. Has the LDS Church abandoned their racist teachings of the past or are they just hiding them? It is difficult to be certain.

And we now have a Mormon standing for President of the United States. (As an aside, this shows, I think, the angst with President Obama. In few other elections would a Mormon have even been considered, but the “Let’s drop President Obama” cries are such that almost any religious background would be considered.)

What will that impact be?

Mansfield’s book, The Mormonizing of America, attempts to partially answer that question by examining the history of how Mormonism came to be, and how it came to be an accepted part of the United States. This is a religious group, after all, that at one point had an armed militia that was considered a threat to national security. Is this just a long game conspiracy to rule the country?

Mansfield does not attempt to give a hard answer to that question. His work, overall, allows for that possibility but does indicate the unlikeliness of it. Instead, he sees the growth of Mormonism as the “Fourth Abrahamic Religion” coming into the foreground.

That is one of the important keys I see in this book. Mansfield makes clear the truth that Mormonism is not Christianity. It is not even a subset of Christianity, but it is its own religion. Mormonism, in religious academic terms, is a “cult” as it uses parts of another religion, Christianity, and redefines them into its own meaning. It is not, any longer, a “cult” in the weird sense of the word that many of us think of.

Mansfield’s research and information appears on point. It aligns with my own reading of the Book of Mormon and the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, and my own understanding of American history. I must admit that most of my information has come from non-Mormon sources, so the official history that Governor Romney holds might be different.

Still, Mansfield appears to have done his research well. His material comes across as anti-Mormon at points, but the real history of Joseph Smith, Jr., was a difficult one. Most of the “anti-Mormon” information is simply leaving quotes without explanation or extended excuse. While some of those quotes might need more context, they stand well on their own.

This book provides a fairly well-rounded outsider’s look in at Mormon history and theology. It is far from complete. You will not find an adequate theological apologetic contra Mormonism here. You will also not find a complete historical correction to the claims of Mormonism regarding pre-Colombian America.

For a short primer on Mormonism in America, this book makes a good start. A deeper study would be advisable, but this book should get you asking the right questions.

If you’d like more information, check this interview with the author.

Note: This book was given to me in exchange for the review.

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