Page 13, 14th November 2008

14th November 2008
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Page 13, 14th November 2008 — Jonathan Wright admires the daring and inventiveness of the Mormon
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Jonathan Wright admires the daring and inventiveness of the Mormon

church Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Lydian Bushman, Oxford University Press £6.99 Everything changed in 1896. In that year the US government granted Utah statehood and the people who had made Utah their own, the Mormons, began the transition from marginalised, detested religious eccentrics into accepted members of the American republic. Americans would always find it hard to fathom the exotic mythologies and theological speculations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but as the 20th century progressed Mormonism (now largely distanced from its polygamous past) became increasingly known for its communal, charitable spirit and its lionising of family values. As Richard Bushman puts it, Mormons became those "nice people" with "wacky beliefs".

While this was good news for members of the Mormon fraternity — and no one would want to return to the banishments and anti-Mormon violence of the church's first decades — there is something to regret in the fact that Mormonism has gained a rather bland reputation. Scholars continue to argue about whether we should see Mormonism as a variety of Christianity or as a distinct religious tradition; sociologists wonder if we should think of it as a church or as a cult — though there are not too many cults with 13 million members worldwide. Whichever side of such debates one comes down upon, however, it is impossible to deny the sheer daring and inventiveness of the Mormons' original religious vision.

It was, by any impartial adjudication, an incoherent vision: after all, it came from the pen of an unlettered enthusiast who had. little interest in sophisticated theological analysis.

Indeed. Mormons would repeatedly assert that it was the over-reliance on Greek philosophical nostrums that had robbed Christianity of its elegant simplicity during the Church's first centuries: the Mormon project was one of restoration — a completion of the apostolic mission that had gone astray.

And yet, as easy as it is to poke fun at some of the outpourings of Joseph Smith's imagination — his encounters with saints and angels, his stories of Hebrew tribes travelling to America in 600BC, his buried golden tablets — they have nonetheless continued to sustain an original and vibrant religious faith for almost 200 years. As Mormons are apt to point out, their founding myths and histories seem outlandish to outsiders, but surely the same could be said of most of the world's great religions. For those of us on the outside, it is the boldness of the Mormon vision that impresses far more than its internal logic or intellectual satisfactoriness, and it is a shame that this is often overlooked.

Joseph Smith insisted that he was constantly receiving divine revelations, that he was a bona fide prophet — all in an era when the Christian mainstream insisted that the age of revelation had ended long ago. Smith claimed that he had received new commissions (one direct from John the Baptist, another from the apostles Peter, James and John) that conferred the keys of the priesthood on him. He developed a new cosmology, and he developed the notion of a corporeal, entirely immanent God who was in the same category of being as humankind. Just as provocatively — and this was what brought so much opposition down on Mormonism's head — Smith was not content with establishing a bashful, unobtrusive religious community: his aim was to build soaring temples and erect a city in which to await Christ's imminent return.

0 f course, there is much scope to look askance at all this and to deride Smith's arrogance — his decision to pursue the path of polygamy, as only the most glaring example of how wrong he could get things, would prove a blight to the whole Mormon enterprise — but we should be careful not to dismiss the significance of his radical religious ideas out of hand.

This is a point that Bushman's book makes very powerfully and, within a very short space, he offers an elegant, even-handed introduction to this most perplexing of religious traditions. The church's history, its conflicts with government, its structures and missions are all here, and even those of us who think that Mormonism sits towards the more bizarre end of the Christian spectrum might be forced to admit that, when trying to establish a new and enduring denomination, being bizarre isn't always the worst idea.




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