- The Power and the Peculiarity:The Paradoxes of Early Mormonism
In Graham Greene's celebrated novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), the Catholic Church in mid-century Mexico struggles to comprehend the intense hostility of a society and a state that are groping toward political modernity, over against the Church's understanding of itself as the religious and cultural center of civilization. The Church is unable to recognize that its own theory and practice of coercive hegemony over state and society are the sources of its difficulties. The protagonist of the story, the "whiskey priest," undertakes a process of religious transformation as he weighs the appropriate response to the Church's persecution and the necessity of the Church's accommodation to the realities of modern life.
There are interesting parallels between Greene's fiction and the real life conflicts surrounding early Mormonism in nineteenth-century America. Mormonism encountered and struggled to understand an unusually vitriolic reception in its native culture, a culture undergoing a contested and unsteady transformation toward democracy and secularism. The nation's response to Mormonism was rooted at least partially in the latter's pretensions to religious and political hegemony, aspirations substantially—if only temporarily—achieved after emigration to the American frontier. The subsequent accommodation and transformation of the religious identity of the Saints was slow, painful, and, at the end of the nineteenth century, only partly accomplished.
Two new works on early Mormonism help to shed light on the nature and evolution of this religion's nearly abortive entry into American life. John Turner's definitive biography of Brigham Young is the first critical account of the man who saved Mormonism from becoming a footnote in American [End Page 451] history. Turner gives us the unvarnished Young: the man who imposed his will on the confused amalgam of Joseph Smith's followers through the force of his personality—alternately kind, tender, heroic, vulgar, dictatorial, and cruelly violent. Spencer Fluhman's study attempts to understand the growth of anti-Mormonism during its first half-century through an analysis of changing rhetorical strategies and what they reveal about the evolving understanding of religion in American culture. Taken together, these works illuminate the profound paradoxes at work in the development of early Mormonism. A vulnerable and persecuted religious minority with aspirations of societal dominion and intentions to transcend and transform the mundane order, Mormons were compromised by the realities of institution building and by the frailties of very human prophets. Their religion celebrated its quintessential American identity but was pilloried as utterly un-American in its religious, moral, and political ethos.
Brigham Young was part of Mormonism almost from the beginning, converting just two years after the public unveiling of the Book of Mormon. He lived through the religion's most difficult challenges and can be credited with ensuring its survival in spite of them. Thus his life offers an intimate portrait of the movement's establishment as an American institution, more so even than the life of founder Joseph Smith. Raised in the hothouse environment of early nineteenth-century revivalism, Young's family inclined to Methodism. Young joined with Methodism as a young man, though he was always a self-reflective believer, critical of the excesses of revivalism and the short-comings of denominations. He seems to have been drawn to Mormonism by several factors. Young's family—parents and siblings—experienced religious transformations together; this was true of their migration to Methodism and also true of their collective move into Mormonism. But more importantly, Mormonism brought closure to something that bedeviled evangelical revivalism for seekers like the Youngs: sectarian competition and the religious pluralism and confusion that it engendered. Mormonism resolved these, in large part, by its recourse to primitivism, the return to the mythic beginnings of biblical religion, properly and purely ordered by...