Changing the Past to Shape the Future

13 May

LDS scholar Ken Driggs notes how the way we view our past, and how this has changed, has set the course for the present and future course of mainstream Mormonism:

In a 2007 Mormon History Association session on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Gene Sessions, a professor of history at Weber State University, commented: “What happened in the past means nothing. What people think happened in the past means everything.” One recent historian has observed, “A new future requires a new past.” Beginning in 1890 and lasting for a generation or two, both the LDS leadership and the majority of the membership yearned for a new future. At that point in time, the LDS Church had been the object of what one non-Mormon historian called “one of the most sweeping episodes of religious persecution in American History,” made possible by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions which, depending on your point of view, either emasculated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment or saved the nation from religious anarchy.

This new future required making peace with the larger American society. Long-held practices and beliefs were put away, defenses were lowered, some people were allowed to pass into obscurity, unique beliefs were modified, some episodes were denied, rituals were changed, and assimilation with limits not yet defined became the goal. It was a bumpy transition; but once it began, there never was much doubt that the Church was moving away from its isolated nineteenth-century identity. But toward what?

Mormon teachings and practices that were modified during this process included:

• Polygamy and the definition of celestial marriage
• Temple rituals and garments
• Adam-God teachings
• Economic cooperation or United Order living
• Millennial thinking and the kingdom of God
• The temporal gathering
• Adoption of the King James version of the Bible

LDS sociologist Armand L. Mauss wrote of this peacemaking process: “Mormons were required to give up polygamy, theocracy, collective economic experiments, and any other flagrantly un-American institutions, and thus to abandon the path of charismatic peculiarity, except at the relatively abstract level of theology.” Our whole relationship with the “Gentile” world was reworked. Religious communities draw a circle in the sand around themselves, establishing requirements for those who stand inside the circle with membership in the group, and those who stand outside the circle without membership. In short, what it meant to be Mormon inside the circle was redefined.

While not the exclusive crafter of this change, Heber J. Grant came to be its most visible embodiment. He went from being a post-Manifesto polygamist as an apostle to being a Church president committed to monogamy and assimilation. In 1918 Grant succeeded Joseph F. Smith and presided for twenty-seven years until his death at age eighty-eight in 1945, longer than any other Church president. During Grant’s administration, the Church moved from toleration of polygamy hold-outs to actively driving them out of the circle.

One University of Utah graduate student in 1963 described Mormon fundamentalism as a “protest to adaptation.” While certainly a majority of Mormons had grown weary of the conflicts with the larger society, some dissenters sought to preserve the old ways, and some were in positions of religious authority. They grumbled and fought change from within until they died or were driven out by the striving for a new future that Grant represented. In a way, the Church insured that these fundamentalists would metastasize. By the 1930s they emerged as an annoying voice in opposition, challenging the big church’s version of whether, how, and why this change came about.

One of the things I stumbled across in studying this subject was that in 1930 the LDS Church published Latter-Day Revelations: Selections from the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As its title states, it was an abridged version of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the four Mormon canonized texts. It contained forty-one sections, some of them abridged, and did not include Section 132 on celestial marriage. Prepared by James E. Talmage, an educator, scientist, and apostle, the book was published in English, Spanish, and Norwegian. Fundamentalist Mormons leaped on the book as an example of the Church’s continuing efforts to jettison unique Mormon doctrines. The Church quickly retreated, withdrawing the book from sale.

In 1941 an essay in the fundamentalist Mormon monthly magazine TRUTH pointed out that, in addition to omitting Section 132, Section 85, which predicted a time when one “mighty and strong” would have to set the Church “in order,” had also been omitted. “These two revelations apparently constituted a thorn in the side of the leaders of the Church who had repudiated and surrendered the principles involved.” TRUTH then noted sarcastically that omitted revelations “were considered obsolete and of no ‘enduring value’, and hence were omitted from Dr. Talmage’s book.”

To some extent, change in the LDS Church was possible because it came through the Prophet, often given emphasis by “Thus saith the Lord.” That kind of institutional authority makes it easier to effect change, although LDS Church presidents have never had the power to act without seeking consensus. And the pronouncements of past prophets are often brought out by dissenters to challenge those of modern prophets.

In George Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984, one of Big Brother’s aphorisms is: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The Prophet controls the past for the great majority of believing Mormons, not by destroying or altering historical records, but by articulating an institutional past that most casual listeners are prepared to believe. “Plural marriage ended in 1890” is an obvious example.

LDS sociologist Armand Mauss has described the Mormon experience as alternating periods of “assimilation” and “retrenchment.” He suggests that the Church was anxious to emerge from cultural “disrepute” and emphasized assimilation until the 1960s when the pendulum began to swing back. “Faced with assimilation, Mormons have felt the need since the sixties to reach ever more deeply into their bag of cultural peculiarities to find either symbolic or actual traits that will help them mark their subcultural boundaries and thus their very identity as a special people.” He calls this a “predicament of respectability.”

Writing in 1994, Mauss examined how the mindset of Church lead- ers influences Mormon doctrine and culture, but he did not consider the dilution effects of a flood of converts on the LDS community, even while noting: “New converts between 1986 and 1990 accounted for more than three-fourths of all baptisms.”

When I was born in 1948 there were just over a million Mormons on the whole planet. They were overwhelmingly a Rocky Mountain West community. That changed in my lifetime, ignited by David O. McKay, driven harder by Spencer W. Kimball, and greatly accelerated by Gordon B. Hinkley. Hundreds of thousands became millions. The LDS Church recently sent out the one-millionth missionary and claimed a membership of thirteen million. We changed from a denomination where the great majority of members were born, raised, and indoctrinated in the Church to a world where they are just a fraction. The great majority of members I encounter today are relatively recent Baptists, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Catholics. They bring their past religious experience and beliefs into the Church and do not have a lifetime of Mormon religious education.

I was born in North Carolina and have lived most of my life in the Deep South. When I was a boy and young man, the people in my branches and missions were, like my father, largely part of the post World War II Mormon diaspora, raised and instructed in the Church. What I heard at church seemed to reflect that religious indoctrination.

Now in mid-life, I attend growing wards and stakes in the Deep South. The members are largely former Baptists. Fewer than half the adults sitting around me grew up in the Church. What I am taught in sacrament meeting and Sunday School now is very different from what I heard as a boy and a teenager. It is more protestant and less “Mormon” than what I knew growing up.

The full article can be read here –

Ken Driggs – A New Future Requires a New Past


Posted by on May 13, 2010 in History


2 responses to “Changing the Past to Shape the Future

  1. anthonyelarson

    May 15, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Growing up in the church in a lifetime that is a little longer than Driggs’, I can substantiate his claims completely. I watched as Mormonism and what it meant to be Mormon was redefined over time. I grew up in a very different church than the one I attend today, and the disparity is glaring.

    Elder McConkie, before he died, belabored and bemoaned in numerous talks the fact that “sectarian notions” had found their way into the LDS world view, further substantiating Driggs’ assessment.

    I was born and raised in Salt Lake City. The First Ward was my home ward. It was not uncommon for a general authority to show up unannounced in a sacrament meeting, where the time would be turned over wholly to him. Those where the days when a Sunday evening Sacrament Meeting could routinely go over two hours. Many of those sermons were etched in my young mind and heart.

    My personal interest and study of prophecy and its interpretation is reflective of the attitudes and interests of a 1950s era Latter-day Saint, when the subject was foremost in members’ minds and discourse. Contrast that with today where the subject is largely ignored. When it’s brought up at all today, it is only tangentially and briefly. It’s always treated superfluously, as though it has little bearing on the gospel.

    This is a remarkable about-face for a church whose founder was regaled with Old Testament prophecies about the Second Coming by an angel named Moroni, a fact seldom, if ever, noticed in present discourse.

    It’s hard to believe today, but in the 1960s and 70s, a lecture on prophecy by Cleon Skousen was the biggest drawing card in a BYU Education Week curriculum. I know; I was employed by the university to record those talks. Later, when I published my own books on the subject, I could not get my foot in the Education Weeks door. And simply because I had published books on the subject, my applications to teach on other gospel related subjects were rejected as well. In the span of my lifetime, the subject had become verboten, and because I wrote and spoke about prophecy, I became a pariah in the very church that had inspired me to begin my work years before.

    As a result, sharing the results of my lifelong research into prophecy has proven nearly futile. Only the tiniest minority with the church has any interest in prophecy. What I have discovered and taught would have been received with enthusiasm and rejoicing my most members 60 years ago. Today, it finds almost no traction among church members.

    What a revelation to discover that the very church that had set me on that path in my youth had taken a detour in the interim. What a surprise to discover that what was mainstream then has become marginalized today.

    So, I echo Driggs’ declaration: Don’t try to tell me the church never changes. I’ve seen in happen before my very eyes.

    Anthony E. Larson

  2. Emily A.

    September 5, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Very interesting thoughts. Thank you for sharing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: