Latter Day Saints

The lean cats of the arches of the churches,
That’s the old world. In the new, all men are priests.

--Wallace Stevens, “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas”


LDS (“Latter-Day Saints,” aka Mormonism) is an American religion. I love America so I can’t help but have a deep appreciation for LDS. It edges out Zoroastrianism as my favorite religion. LDS captures what was special about the US in the 19th century and embodies much that is still special about my native land.


Missions: Mormons send missionaries across the globe and throughout their own homeland. The missionary as door-to-door salesman is a feature of US religion, also seen among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


The Christianities of Europe, on the other hand, are used to being the state religion. Promoting the faith has meant persecuting dissent. The days of European Christianity spreading from one convert to the next are long gone. For the last several hundred years, European Christianity has spread through conquest, not by appeal to the heart. Outside of Europe, which countries are Catholic? The ones conquered by Catholics. Which ones are Protestant? The ones conquered by Protestants. Which ones aren’t Christian? The one’s that haven’t had their cultures overthrown by European conquerors.


LDS, on the other hand, was born a stranger in its own land. Sure, part of its growth is due to high fertility rates, but its consistent growth is also due to the LDS practice of sending pairs of young men out to spread the good word. How American is that! European Christianities would send missionaries to the benighted lands of pagandom. There, they conquered religiously in the same way that European companies conquered economically and European armies conquered militarily. LDS, on the other hand, sends missionaries next door with ideas to share.


The US itself has a missionary attitude. Having found the right way to manage a country (representative democracy and free market capitalism), we are committed to taking our civil structure and propagating it across the globe.


Freedom of Religion: LDS is a faith freely adopted by free people. Old Christianities are faiths dutifully imposed upon commoners. The old Christianities have lightened up over the years, and even the Pope is for freedom of religion now that the Inquisition's shut down and it's Catholics being killed by non-Catholics instead of the other way around. But the LDS goes one better and writes the American ideal of religious liberty into its Articles of Faith.


Universal Priesthood: European Christianities are either high church or low church. High church glorifies the priest, but America is the land of equality, and priests just don’t get that much play. It violates the principle of equality to consecrate a few men as the spiritual superiors of the laity. Low church, on the other hand, is a little pedestrian. It suits egalitarianism that low church ministers aren’t ascribed elite spiritual powers, but elite spiritual powers are nifty. America is the land of pizzazz, home of Elvis and Hollywood. LDS splits the difference and makes all men priests. This suits the American ideal of equality and the taste for something beyond the ordinary. In true 19th-century style, "universal" priesthood extends only to men.


Jesus: Smith appealed to believers partly by putting forth a bold new interpretation of who Jesus was: Jehovah, a separate entity from God the Father, named Elohim. European Christianity had given us the hoary, nonscriptural tenet of the Holy Trinity. Nineteenth century US religion made bank on overturning it. On the liberal end there was the Unitarian controversy. On the conservative end were the LDS and the Jehovah's Witnesses.


Intentional Community: With lots of land and few people, the US landscape gave groups of Europeans the freedom to form their own communities and run them their way. Some of these communities were simply reactionary, such as the Amish. But others were idealistic, based on the faith that there was a better way for people to live, such as the Oneida communitty. If LDS can’t be understood as one of these intentional communities, then it’s at least similar.


Cosmic Scope: European Christianities are based on ancient, geocentric cosmologies. The Bible doesn’t address the earth orbiting the sun, the sun as a star among countless stars, or planets around other suns. LDS, however, has a modern cosmology, in which the earth is one planet among countless planets. That fits the modern view of the world better than the Biblical account does. Elohim was once a man on the planet Kolob, and men on earth can become gods in their own right by following His example. The old Christian cosmology had the universe beginning and ending with earth. Instead of resisting the modern view of the earth’s place in the universe as the Catholic Church did, LDS embraces it. It’s the first science fiction religion, beating out Scientology by a good century.


Ironically, LDS missed the next step in humanity’s coming to terms with the scope of the universe. This cosmology was invented before Darwin (Book of Abraham, “discovered" 1835; On the Origin of the Species, written 1859). It incorporates the modern understanding of how vast the universe is but not how old the earth and its species are.


Temperance: Anti-intoxicant sentiment is strong in America. Witness Prohibition and our current war on drugs. LDS embodies this idealism with its prohibition even on coffee and cigarettes.


Apocalypse: American religion is apocalyptic. Think of the Millerites and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Think of the Christians that saw World War II as the beginning of the end of the world, or those today who see the creation of Israel as the fulfillment of End Times prophecy. LDS means “Latter Day Saints.” Reference to the end of the world is in the very title of the religion. True, the “Latter Days” have lasted longer than anyone might have guessed, but that just means that these days are more latter than ever.


Occult Wisdom: The Old World has the Masons, the Templars, and the Vatican’s secret archives. Joseph Smith gave the New World its own array of secrets, such as special undergarments with secret symbols on them and various temple rituals for the universal priesthood to practice. He gave us secret knowledge of our own.


Americanism: LDS puts America first, even going so far as to locate the garden of Eden in Missouri, and to look forward to Zion being built here. The New World was something of a stumper for European Christians as it didn’t fit into the old understanding of the globe and humanity. Smith provided a new history of America, an explanation of who the "mound-builders" were, and a story that made this land the rightful homeland of the northern European race.


The US likes to bill itself as the Promised Land, drawing in people who are seeking a better life. For LDS, this was pretty much literally true. Conservatives today tout “American exceptionalism,” and there’s no religion for which this land is more exceptional.


Racism: In a way unique among modern nations, America has been defined by racism. Smith took a pre-Civil War attitude about race and wrote it into God’s plan. Racist Christians outside LDS need to contrive interpretation’s of Cain’s curse and of Noah’s family in order to read racism into the Bible. Within LDS, however, American-style racism is part of doctrine. You don’t have to do the work of reading racism between the lines.


Smith's work on ethnicity dealt with the four groups most relevant to his time and place: northern Europeans (God's chosen people), southern Europeans (wannabes), Africans (cursed to be slaves), and Native Americans (degenerate whites). Tellingly, he didn't give much attention to the vast number of Asians on the planet. They didn't figure much in the minds of his contemporaries and so didn't rate the ink.


Chicanery: Ultimately, LDS is founded on religious fraud. Religious chicanery is a colorful part of the US pageant, right up to the modern day with delightful frauds such as Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff.


Some readers may take exception to my calling Joseph Smith fraudulent instead of merely delusional. It's more polite to imagine that religious leaders actually believe their tall tales. Smith didn't. If Smith had limited himself to visions that could be categorized as delusions, then it would be hard to tell whether he was a fraud or true believer. Was Jesus making it up? You sure can't prove it if he was. But Smith didn't just spout strange doctrines. He manufactured phony golden discs and showed them to people. He "found" an ancient scroll of Abraham's tucked away with an Egyptian mummy. That’s not delusion; it's fraud. He's like the faith healer who won't even try to heal an amputee. They know it's all a show.


Smith's fraud is so clear that his previous career as a dowser isn't even worth bringing up.


Back in Europe, faith healers and Scientologists face legal restrictions and prosecution. Here they practice freely. We blend freedom of religion with freedom of enterprise, and we get Popoff.


Postscript for Saints: So if you're a saint yourself, this is a pretty harsh assessment. But then most people in the world are doctrinally incorrect, so you have plenty of company. Ultimately, what matters is not doctrine but how we treat each other.


January 2005, Aug 06, Oct 07


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