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  • Mormonism and American History: An Interview with Matthew Bowman
  • Randall Stephens

A NEW GENERATION OF HISTORIANS—SOME WITH ROOTS in the faith and others without—is plumbing the depths of Mormon history to present the complicated story of a faith that is woven into the fabric of American history. One of those is Matthew Bowman, visiting assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College. He is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012) and has written for the New Republic, the Washington Post, Slate, and a variety of other publications. Historically Speaking editor Randall Stephens recently spoke to Bowman about Mormonism in American culture and politics and the state of Mormon history.

Randall Stephens:

In 2012 there was much talk about the so-called “Mormon moment.” A popular Broadway musical and Mitt Romney’s candidacy shined a spotlight on the faith. I would be interested to hear what you made of the increased media attention on Mormonism and its history.

Matthew Bowman:

I think the Mormon moment was both more and less important than it seemed. Most Mormons I talked to seemed rather bemused by the whole thing: many of them don’t feel odd, or different, or out of place in America, and one lesson I think many learned from the Mormon moment was that much of the rest of the country does in fact find them a curious and insular group. Recent survey numbers seem to indicate that most Americans don’t feel like they learned a lot about Mormonism, but they have slightly more favorable opinions of Mormons after the attention the church got in 2012. I think that’s probably right. One under-rated effect of the whole thing is the influence the moment has had on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself. The rise of non-official Mormon voices, the negative attention that some church practices received, and other like events pushed the church to clarify some lingering issues that deserved attention. To cite only one example, in February 2012 a Brigham Young University professor repeated to a reporter some outmoded theological theories to explain the old policy that denied ordination to the priesthood and access to most worship done in Mormon temples to Mormons of African descent. Many of these explanations had to do with the notion that black people were spiritually inferior to white people in some way, and though the church reversed the policy in 1978, it never formally repudiated these theories. But after this professor appeared in the Washington Post, the church issued the first formal statement rejecting them. In the long run, the church will be healthier for it.


Why did Mormonism develop when and where it did?

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An illustration from Charles Mackay, The Mormons, or, Latter-day Saints: With Memoirs of the Life and Death of Joseph Smith, the “American Mahomet” (London, 1852).


This is a classic question that lends itself to two equally interesting answers. Mormonism, of course, got its start among those descendants of the Puritans who moved west in the 18th and early 19th centuries seeking greater economic opportunities. Joseph Smith was the son of an impoverished tenant farmer and his wife, both of whose families had suffered economic dislocation and both of whom were, in different ways, spiritual seekers. One interpretation is that Mormonism was a manifestation of Jacksonian America’s burst of religious freedom, egalitarianism, and democratic ethos. This interpretation emphasizes that the early Mormons, including Joseph Smith, were uneducated in theology, constructed a largely lay priesthood, and sought to restore the power to interpret God’s will to prophetic figures rather than a trained priestly class. Alternatively, we can think about Mormonism as a reaction against Jacksonian America’s steady erosion of traditional Anglo-American social structures. Joseph Smith, after all, created a complex priestly hierarchy, and the theology of polygamy that he and Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders developed meant that 19th-century Mormonism expressed a strongly patriarchal culture, which put white males at the top speaking on behalf of God.


Has the relationship between Mormons and the U...


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