by O. Kendall White, Jr
By emphasizing the differences rather than the similarities between God and humanity, Mormon neo-orthodoxy aligns itself more closely with Protestant neo-orthodoxy than with traditional Mormon thought. For instance, traditional Mormon theology teaches that humans were created in the physical and spiritual image of God and may themselves become gods. In contrast, Hyrum Andrus, an early neo-orthodox theologian and professor of religion at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, lamented in a 1960 address at the school the Mormon preoccupation with anthropomorphic descriptions of God. Arguing that Mormons pay too little attention to the greatness of God, Andrus urged listeners to acknowledge divine uniqueness, or God’s otherness. In fact, an emphasis on the “glory of God” generally characterized much of Andrus’s writings.
Both traditional and neo-orthodox Protestantism emphasize the Creation in order to accentuate the differences between God and humanity. As products of the ex nihilo creation, humans owe their entire existence to God who is the source of all being. In traditional Mormonism, however, God does not bring nonexistent things into being but changes existing entities into forms better suited to their [p.90] eternal progression. In other words, God’s creative act changes humans from a primal form of intelligence into beings capable of becoming gods themselves. Among a majority of Mormons, the creation story is told not to emphasize the differences between God and humanity—to reveal the profound “otherness of God”—but to demonstrate God’s love and concern for humanity whose inherent nature is to become co-creators with him.
Though Mormon neo-orthodox theologians typically accept the traditional metaphysics upon which these teachings rest, their telling of the creation story usually emphasizes the contingency rather than the necessity of humanity. David Yarn, a philosopher at Brigham Young University and one of the more articulate early representatives of this new Mormon theology, wrote:
Mortals should take no special pride in the necessity of their original being, for they share this characteristic in common with all other things which exist. Furthermore, they would have remained in that original state were it not for God’s goodness in having provided spirit bodies, the light of eternal truth, and opportunities for progression (1965, 152).
Thus according to Yarn, the necessary existence of “other things,” such as space, time, and matter, implies that no meaningful consequence can be derived from the necessary existence of humanity.
Many Mormon neo-orthodox theologians further emphasize the otherness of God by reformulating the idea of a progressing God which Joseph Smith advanced in his [p.91] later life. Like Smith, neo-orthodox Mormons believe that God was once a man who has progressed to his present status. Unlike Smith, however, they apparently believe that God is best described in terms of a synthesis of “becoming” and “being.” With possible exceptions,1 they are inclined to believe that God does not now progress in knowledge, power, or goodness. In these attributes, he is presumably absolute. Whatever “progression” he experiences is manifest only in increase over his dominions through the organization of new worlds. If he began finite, God has now become infinite. Having arrived at a point from which he can no longer progress, God possesses many, but not all, of the attributes of the classical Christian God.
When making such arguments, Mormon neo-orthodox theologians often cite the 1835 Lectures on Faith, originally printed as an introduction to one of the church’s scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants. Popularly attributed to Joseph Smith,2 these lectures described God in the [p.92] vocabulary of classical Christianity. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is unchanging and unchangeable. If he did not possess these attributes, he would not be an adequate object of worship for he would not be God (see J. Smith n.d., 36).
After quoting extensively from the Lectures on Faith, Yarn claimed in 1965 that Alma, a Book of Mormon prophet, correctly observed, “He [God] has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe in his name” (Al. 26:53). In Know Your Religion, Glenn L. Pearson, another Mormon neo-orthodox theologian of the early 1960s, and religion professor at Brigham Young University, claimed that humans are subject to law while God is not, for “God is infinite. Men are finite. God is not the servant of law but the master of it” (1961, 221). Lynn McKinlay, one of Pearson’s colleagues at BYU, maintained, in a discussion of human agency, that God knows all things and has foreknowledge of all events (n.d., 33).
In spite of exposure to, if not formal training in, philosophy, theology, and related disciplines, most Mormon neo-orthodox theologians either ignore or dismiss [p.93] conflicts between traditional Mormon metaphysics and absolutism. This erosion usually assumes the depreciation of reason in understanding God and the advocacy of a nonreasonable, “alogical” form of revelation. Thus, Glenn Pearson and Reid Bankhead wrote,
There is hardly anything more clearly revealed in the scriptures than God’s infinite foreknowledge; for every case of prophecy is witness of it. Yet many men do not believe it because their finite minds cannot grasp how it can be so if men are free to choose. If they cannot understand this, they at least ought to exercise enough faith to believe that if God says he has an infinite foreknowledge, it must be so. And if he says men are free, they must be free. And if he says both of these things, they must not conflict with each other (1962, 67).
Hugh Nibley, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and one of the more sophisticated neo-orthodox theologians, also dismissed the contradiction between Mormon metaphysics and absolutism. He wrote, in response to intellectual demands that Mormonism conform to human reason, “A good example of this [are the]…honest, persistent, and well-meant efforts to convince our seminary and institute people that God simply cannot have foreknowledge of things, since that, according to an old and threadbare argument, would be incompatible with the free agency of man” (1960, 2).
Since the human mind is incapable of grasping these and other mysteries, revelation for the neo-orthodox theologian becomes a way of both revealing the failure of human reason and of affirming the otherness of God. The crucial [p.94] point here is that the revelation of human ineptitude is employed, much like the neo-orthodox use of the creation story and the concept of human contingency, to accentuate the differences between God and humanity. By emphasizing this human ineptitude as well as the contingency of humanity and the fact of creation, many Mormon neo-orthodox theologians establish the otherness and sovereignty of God.
However, neo-orthodox Mormons depart even more radically from traditional Mormon thought in their assessment of human nature. Where traditional Mormonism emphasizes human necessity, neo-orthodoxy underscores human contingency. That Joseph Smith recognized the radical nature of Mormon doctrine and the implications it posed for the classical Christian concept of human nature seems evident. In a speech defining the doctrine of the necessary existence of humans, Smith warned that his remarks were “calculated to exalt man,” that the “very idea” of ultimate contingency “lessens man in my estimation” (1938, 353). Yet David Yarn argued that “mortals should take no special pride in the necessity of their original being. They, nevertheless, are contingent” (1965, 152).
Most Mormon neo-orthodox theologians minimize the implications of human necessity. Acknowledging that pre-mortal intelligence possessed free will in its uncreated state, Yarn explained that free will would have been lost in mortality were it not for Christ. When Adam fell, Satan “had for all intents and purposes destroyed the agency of [p.95] man” (ibid., 33). This position is extended by other neo-orthodox theologians who have claimed that intelligence is merely “undifferentiated mass” from which God creates spirits. With this transformation of undifferentiated intelligence into spirits, “conscious entities” are “born.” Not until humans reach this spirit state, which is a direct product of God’s creative act, are they “egos,” “selves,” or “conscious entities.” In contrast to traditional Mormonism, in which human essence is typically uncreated and coeternal with God, certain Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have argued that before God organized the human spirit, humanity was “undifferentiated mass” void of consciousness (see Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 [Spring 1967]: 5-6).
I believe that this emphasis on contingency is buttressed by an equally important departure from traditional Mormon thought—the neo-orthodox position on human nature. In contrast with the typical Protestant notion that the Fall resulted in a condition of human depravity and the Catholic concept that it led to the withdrawal of supernatural grace, the traditional Mormon view asserts that the Fall was a necessary condition for humans to realize their ultimate potential. The affirmation of the goodness of human nature follows from Mormonism’s positive view of the Fall. Brigham Young challenged the Pauline notion that the natural man is an enemy to God:
It is fully proved in all the revelation that God has ever given to mankind that they naturally love and admire righteousness, justice, and truth more than they do evil. [p.96] It is, however, universally received by professors of religion as scriptural doctrine that man is naturally opposed to God. This is not so. Paul says in his Epistle to the Corinthians, “but the natural man receiveth not the things of God,” but I say it is the unnatural “man that receiveth not the things of God” (JD 9:305).
Although acknowledging the Fall as necessary for human exaltation, Mormon neo-orthodoxy typically emphasizes the negative consequences of the Fall. Rather than quoting those scriptural verses which describe the human condition in positive terms, the neo-orthodox emphasize such passages as the following from the Book of Mormon: “The natural man is an enemy to God and has been since the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mos. 3:19). They also adopt such traditional Christian terms as “carnal man,” “sensual man,” “devilish man,” “original guilt,” “evils of the flesh,” and “seeds of corruption.” Such language points to a pessimistic view of humanity. For example, while discussing Karl Marx, Pearson observed that “anyone who rejects Christ is already condemned since that which makes him reject Christ is the inherent wickedness already in him” (n.d.b, 2).
Similarly Yarn wrote that humanity is possessed of a “rebellious, perverse, recalcitrant, and proud disposition.” But even as he described humanity as “carnal,” “sensual,” and “devilish,” he cautioned readers not to confuse this [p.97] with the “apostate doctrine of depravity.” He was not suggesting that humans are born evil. The infant is born innocent, but, as he becomes accountable, through free decisions, he refuses to accept God and submit his will to him and thus is carnal, sensual, and devilish.
However, carnal, sensual, and devilish ought not to be interpreted in the most narrow sense. These words might be most accurately and broadly understood by the scriptural phrase “enemy to God.” Not all “who have not made the covenants with the Christ are given to indulging in practices which are appropriately designated carnal, sensual, and devilish. Yet, all men, regardless of how moral and pure they may be with reference to those practices called carnal, sensual, and devilish, are enemies to God until they yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, accept the atonement of the Lord, and are submissive to his will” (1965, 129-30).
Since Mormon neo-orthodox theologians work within the context of Mormon metaphysics, their concept of the human predicament is not identical with Catholic or Protestant doctrines of original sin. They accept the traditional Mormon belief in the innocence of infants and perceive the Fall as having at least some positive consequences. Disclaimers to the contrary, Mormon neo-orthodoxy comes close to traditional Christian doctrines of human nature, though without abandoning important traditional Mormon beliefs. Hyrum Andrus, for example, defined sin in a way that is hardly distinguishable from [p.98] Reformation doctrines of original sin. John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote:
Original sin is a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all parts of the soul, rendering us subject to the Divine wrath, and producing in us those works which the Scriptures call “works of the flesh.”…[Thus,] the works which proceed from this condition, therefore, such as adultery, fornication, theft, hatred, murder, and orgies, [Paul] calls “fruits of sin,” although they are also called “sins” in many passages of the Scriptures, and even by himself (1956, 25).
In his essay “Joseph Smith’s Idea of the Gospel,” Andrus advances a concept of original sin remarkably close to Calvin’s position. Like Calvin, he observed that the seeds of corruption are “transmitted to each embryo at conception.”
The effects of Adam’s transgression and of man’s subsequent transgressions are transmitted in the flesh and are thus inherent therein at conception. It is said in a revelation that no less a personage than God explained this fact to Adam. After observing that the atonement took care of the legalities of the “original guilt,” God said: “Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.” Observe that it is when children begin to grow up that sin conceives in their hearts; and this because they are initially conceived in sin. Not that the act of conception, properly regulated, is sin, but the conditions of corruption resulting from the Fall are inherent in the embryo at conception. For a time the power of the atonement holds them in abeyance; but, as children grow up and begin to act upon their own initiative, sin conceives in their hearts. …
[p.99] From this statement it is plain that men are not merely born into a world of sin. Instead, the effects of the Fall and the corruption that has subsequently become associated with the flesh are transmitted to each new embryo at conception. As the physical body develops, these elements of corruption manifest themselves by diverting the individual’s drives and emotional expression toward vanity, greed, lust, etc. These elements of corruption are in the flesh (1961, 66).
The apparent distrust of human reason characterizing much of Mormon neo-orthodoxy serves to buttress this pessimistic concept of human nature. That sensory experience is unreliable is argued by neo-orthodox theologians who claim that the only way to acquire meaningful knowledge is through revelation (see, for example, Riddle n.d.; Nibley 1954). Consequently, they abandon interpretations of Mormon scripture traditionally used to encourage academic study. Andrus, for instance, reinterpreted the passage proclaiming that the “glory of God is intelligence”—used throughout Mormon history to encourage intellectual development—to mean that the “brilliant element” encircling God is “intelligence” (1965, 81-82); and Yarn reinterpreted the same passage to mean that intelligence refers to character rather than knowledge or learning (1965, 201-202). The scripture asserting that “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” was reinterpreted to mean that one cannot be saved without believing in Christ’s divinity. Thus Yarn wrote,
These words, as others previously discussed, have been used extensively to encourage people to seek excellence [p.100] in the traditional academic disciplines with the express intent that these were the things of which man could not be ignorant and be saved. And yet the context of this revelation, which is almost enthusiastically ignored, has little if any relation to the traditional academic disciplines, but does speak of one of the most sublime things available to mortals.
The knowledge of the truth, that is, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world, and the principles which he has revealed. Not just the principles, but he in addition to the principles does and will make men free. The point is, even with the principles, and without him men could not ultimately be free (ibid., 203-204).
Such exegeses by Yarn, Andrus, and others, while characteristic of Mormon neo-orthodoxy throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, are not representative of traditional Mormon thought. Together with the emphasis on human contingency, the denial of the basic goodness of human nature, and the formulation of a peculiarly Mormon doctrine of original sin, this depreciation of reason and reinterpretation of the role of education discloses Mormon neo-orthodoxy’s repudiation of traditional Mormonism’s optimism and reveals its affinity for a Protestant neo-orthodox conception of human nature.
The Mormon neo-orthodox doctrine of salvation also differs in tone, if not always radically in substance, from the traditional Mormon position. Neo-orthodoxy affirms fundamental Mormon belief in the afterlife but assumes a more restrictive path to salvation and greater reliance upon God. Indeed, it is this trend that tends to differentiate the [p.101] neo-orthodox doctrine of salvation from that of traditional Mormonism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the emphasis on grace, which necessitates a theocentric concept of salvation in contrast to the anthropocentric orientation of traditional Mormonism.
This is not to suggest that traditional Mormonism has no notion of grace. Both the fall of Adam and the atonement of Christ are examples of the grace of God. The Fall provided human beings with physical bodies and opportunities for obtaining knowledge and for developing moral character, while the Atonement provided for a physical resurrection and the opportunity for reunion with God. Like classical Christianity, traditional Mormonism assumes that human beings were separated from the presence of God as a consequence of the Fall; unlike classical Christianity, Mormonism declares that this “spiritual death” did not alter human nature or prevent mortals from being godlike.
Because of this optimistic assessment of human nature, traditional Mormonism does not emphasize the grace of God. In contrast with orthodox preachers who quote Paul’s “by grace are ye saved,” most Mormons rely more on James’s “faith without works is dead.” There is a significant absence of Pauline theology in traditional Mormonism, though Mormons often quote Paul. Mormons do quote Paul’s moral exhortations, but typically reinterpret his concept of grace to mean that humanity will be physically resurrected through the gracious act of God.
The traditional Mormon doctrine of salvation is set [p.102] apart from classical Christianity by its emphasis on merit and insistence upon the perfectibility of the individual. Individuals must participate in various sacraments, such as baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit, and temple endowments, must obtain the necessary secular and religious knowledge, and must develop the requisite moral character to become like God. In contrast with classical Christianity, Mormonism emphasizes human rather than divine responsibility.
Retaining the sacramental element of traditional Mormonism’s eclectic doctrine of salvation, neo-orthodox Mormons redefine the meaning of knowledge and the notion of moral development. Knowledge becomes more like traditional Protestant conceptions of belief, and character development is replaced with a doctrine of spiritual regeneration. These changes, which are consistent with neo-orthodox thinking on God and human nature, extend the Mormon neo-orthodox departure from traditional Mormon theology.
Neo-orthodoxy displaces the traditional Mormon imperative to seek knowledge, both secular and religious, to be saved. Thus, Yarn drew a dichotomy between “secular” and “redemptive” truth, with only the latter being necessary for salvation. He wrote,
To call some truths secular does not mean they are valueless. It means they have a different value from those called redemptive. We know secular truths do have value for mortals. They may have value for post-mortals, and probably do, but to what extent they are needed we do [p.103] not know. Redemptive truths have value not only for mortals but are essential for post-mortals if they are to fulfill the true purpose of their being (ibid., 193).
Rejecting the notion that the gospel embraces all truth, Pearson argued that since the scriptures contain the gospel but not all known truth, “the gospel is not to be defined as all truth” (1961, 41-42):
He who teaches that secular education and cultural attainment are part of the gospel, is either mixed up in his vocabulary or else on a foundation of sand. There are very excellent reasons for obtaining secular education and cultural attainment; but their acquisition does not constitute obedience to the gospel (ibid., 52).
This position implies a discontinuity between natural and supernatural realms that is generally foreign to traditional Mormonism. Many Mormon scholars have recognized the propensity of traditional Mormonism to reject a distinction between sacred and secular (see Arrington 1969; O’Dea 1957; McMurrin 1965). In traditional Mormonism, the continuity between the natural and supernatural is maintained by incorporating spheres usually regarded as secular into the sacred (such as the family, economics, and politics). By sacralizing the secular, traditional Mormonism tends to deny the secular; everything becomes religious. And all knowledge—natural, physical, moral, and spiritual—is essential to salvation. On the basis of these assumptions, the majority of Mormons claims that their religion embraces all truth.
The neo-orthodox break with traditional [p.104] Mormonism on the nature of character development is similarly significant. Consistent with its faith in the goodness of human nature and its emphasis on the continuity of natural and supernatural orders, traditional Mormonism emphasizes the performance of good works. Defects in character are eradicated by behavioral changes. The individual stops being a sinner by repenting and by not committing specific, actual sins; there is, of course, no other kind of sin. Through such actions, along with participation in the necessary sacraments and the acquisition of the requisite knowledge, humans may hope to realize Jesus’s admonition that they become “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
An apparent lack of concern for the gradual development of character through the performance of good works characterizes Mormon neo-orthodoxy. Its doctrine of salvation requires a sudden, permanent, and total regeneration of human nature. Moral behavior is secondary to a surrender of will through “spiritual rebirth.” The central task for the sinner is to put off the “natural man” and become a saint through the atonement of Christ. The “transition from the realm of the natural to the spiritual,” wrote Andrus in the 1960s, “is required of all men, if they are to obtain the good life here and salvation in the world to come” (1965, 78). Failure to obtain and follow the Holy Spirit, which is essential for this transition, condemns one to “do the will of the flesh, by reason of the corruption which is therein” (ibid.).
Mormon neo-orthodox theologians typically [p.105] conceive of the turning away from specific sins not as an act of repentance but as a reform or moral change. Humanity needs a fundamental “regeneration,” as Yarn wrote, to be “changed in the inner man” (1965, 74). Only through a “spiritual,” not a “moral,” change can humanity be saved. Pearson explained,
One must repent “towards God.” A reform is not enough if spiritual salvation is the goal. The intent must be to make oneself worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Repentance, in this sense, is a theological term, describing an act of compliance in the struggle to be saved, while reformation is an act inspired by an intelligent desire to improve one’s lot in mortality (1961, 134).
Andrus also argued that human nature requires a thorough transformation. Liberals unfortunately try to “circumvent” this requirement “by stressing ethics and ideals without emphasizing that man must be regenerated by the powers of the Holy Spirit to achieve the Christian life” (1965, 90).
Certainly the neo-orthodox attempt to integrate Pauline theology with its classical Christian doctrine of grace into traditional Mormon metaphysics is understandable. But even exponents of this reconciliation have acknowledged that traditionally Mormonism has radically revised much of what Paul said. Pearson thus wrote,
You know that we very often in the church nowdays think that Paul meant that the grace brought about the resurrection and that everybody would be resurrected by grace, but you notice that Paul said you are saved by grace through faith and you don’t have to have faith to have [p.106] the resurrection and so we know Paul was speaking of another salvation other than the resurrection (n.d.a, 27-28).
This affinity with Paul has led most Mormon neo-orthodox theologians to emphasize the atonement of Christ in contrast to the life of Jesus that characterizes traditional Mormonism. Most Mormons point to the life of Jesus as the key to salvation and to perfection. Challenging (and thereby acknowledging) traditional Mormon practice, Pearson declared, it “is a grave offense to think that the mission of Jesus Christ was any other than the one involving his death” (1961, 108). Thus, to Mormon neo-orthodoxy, like Reformation and neo-orthodox Protestantism, the cross of Christ is more important ultimately than the life of Jesus.
The Cultural Crisis
During its first sixty years, Mormonism faced a series of profound social crises which threatened its very physical survival. Antagonists even succeeded in mobilizing resources of the United States government to eliminate the Mormon menace. Expectedly, this produced characteristic apocalyptic and martyrological theologies (described in chapter 2). In the twentieth century, such overt threats have been absent as Mormonism has successfully accommodated itself to American society. Rather, Mormonism has been challenged by cultural crisis, which undermines the cognitive foundations that endow social structures and behaviors with [p.107] meaning.3 This cultural crisis has helped to produce Mormon neo-orthodox theology.
Secularization, which was associated with the rise of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, refers to the loss of social influence for religious thought, behavior, and institutions. Secularization is largely a result of increasing functional rationality in economic and social life (e.g., bureaucracy) and the rationalization of thought (e.g., science) accompanying social differentiation. At the very least, secularization in twentieth-century America has helped to create an environment of religious pluralism where churches, like economic enterprises, must compete with one another (Berger 1967, 126-53).
No longer monopolies, most religious groups, by adapting to the pluralism of secular societies, have adopted bureaucratic structures, formulated goals reflecting a preoccupation with results, and conceptualized problems in terms of public relations. That Mormonism has adapted to secularization at the institutional level is evident in its elaboration of a hierarchical structure which relies on professional administrators to carry out routine operations, the [p.108] “rationalization of result-oriented administrative procedures,” and the “dominance of bureaucratic logic in such areas as public relations, political lobbying, fund raising and financial investments in the secular economy” (Shepherd and Shepherd 1984b, 32).
In an insightful content analysis of Mormon semi-annual General Conference addresses from the beginning of the church to 1980, Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd found compelling evidence of the impact of secularization on the sermons of Mormon officials. They tested hypotheses derived from Peter Berger’s analysis—which assumes a greater flexibility of beliefs, a diminishing preoccupation with the supernatural, more concern for personal morality and family issues, and a tendency to embrace standard tenets of the general religious tradition—and found a pronounced trend in each of these predicted directions since 1920. Yet, they also reported that Mormonism retained considerable sectarianism with “a perceptibly renewed concern about the encroaching dangers emanating from the values, life styles, and political directions of the secular world” (Shepherd and Shepherd 1984a, 145-46). Thus, in spite of Mormonism’s adaptation to secularization, the Shepherds rejected Mark Leone’s assumption that the appeal of modern Mormonism derives from “doctrinal flexibility” (see Leone 1984; cf. White and White 1981; Shepherd and Shepherd 1984a, 10-12). The Shepherds concluded that
perhaps the primary appeals of Mormonism in the modern world are not so different from what was offered by [p.109] the vision of the Mormon kingdom in the nineteenth century: authoritative centralized leadership, moral certitude, a strong sense of community identification, and active involvement in a transcendent cause. Like other conservative religions in modern society, Mormonism functions largely as an alternative to the confusing diversity and moral ambiguity of modern secular life (1984b, 40).
If Mormonism has succeeded in adapting to secularization at the institutional level and shown remarkable accommodation regarding some beliefs, its efforts at resisting secular society in other respects remain a hallmark. The Mormon emphasis on personal morality and family issues reflects resistance to secular trends as much as accommodation. Accommodation is implied when a religious movement retreats to these areas as its sole or primary concern, but resistance is involved when stands on personal morality and family issues contradict secular trends. While many Protestant denominations accommodated the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s by further accepting divorce, sexual relations outside of marriage, and cohabitation, Mormons reaffirmed traditional sexual norms by embracing premarital chastity and repudiating birth control, recreational sex, and abortion (see Mauss 1976; W. Smith 1976; Christensen and Cannon 1978; Christensen 1982; Rytting and Rytting 1982). Mormons have also rejected secular concerns over the population explosion and trends toward smaller families, greater equality among the sexes, and the redefinition of gender roles (see Bush 1976; Heaton and [p.110] Calkins 1983; White 1984; White 1985; White and White 1982a).
Such resistance was anticipated in E. E. Ericksen’s early social scientific study of Mormonism, The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life (1922). Dividing Mormon history into three stages of “maladjustment” involving confrontations with (1) non-Mormons, (2) nature, and (3) “new thought and old institutions,” Ericksen saw the final stage as a conflict between Mormonism and secularization. This cultural crisis would intensify as the Mormon educational level increased and heretical ideas were introduced into religious circles. Ericksen predicted an increase in apologetics with the express purpose of “justifying the Mormon dogmas.” He wrote:
This peculiar rationalizing has developed side by side with heresy which it is constantly endeavoring to silence by argument. Besides a large number of books written with this aim, the church theological classes are making use of this line of reasoning. The old institutions and traditions are thus fortified on the one hand by sentiments and on the other hand by a well-developed system of theology.
Opposed to these conservative Mormon theologians stand those who are effectively bringing about a readjustment in both thought and sentiment. These people do not present direct opposition. They tend to shift the attention to more vital problems of the day. They emphasize the present rather than the past, the immediate rather than the remote, the concrete rather than the abstract (ibid., 98).
Following this tradition, Catholic sociologist Thomas [p.111] O’Dea subsequently argued that “Mormonism’s greatest and most significant problem is its encounter with modern secular thought” (1957, 244). In a special foreword to a new edition of Nels Anderson’s Desert Saints, O’Dea observed:
The urbanization of the Wasatch Front area of Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Provo, the development of modern business and the creation of modern tastes for consumer goods and an affluent life, the rigidification of church organization into older patterns not necessarily appropriate to new conditions, and the inevitable secularization of Mormon life are all in advanced stages of development. All the problems of modern society—from juvenile delinquency to the mounting toll of highway deaths—are now to be found in the kingdom of the Saints. Moreover, Utah has three universities which confront young Mormon minds with modern thought. Impersonalization of life, religious crisis and doubt, and a search for new values and new identities can also be found (Anderson 1966, xviii).
Certainly, the impact of modernity on Mormonism has intensified with education. According to O’Dea, education has produced within Mormonism a “‘transmission belt’ that would bring into Zion all the doubts and uncertainties that, in another century, were to beset the gentile world” (1957, 225). In addition, increased contact with the outside world has produced further interest in new lifestyles, social relations, patterns of thought, and institutional forms. Specialization has encouraged secularization by limiting the function and influence of religion. In Utah, as well as the nation, greater power has accrued to government, education, and science, dislocating individuals and collectivities [p.112] with vested interests in the older, more sacred social patterns. Those so dislodged become, according to Daniel Bell, the “generational dispossessed” who resist modernity (1963). Through the 1950s and 1960s, many Mormon leaders and emerging neo-orthodox theologians expressed a desire to isolate their community from the growing influence of government, science, and education as well as the encroachment of new lifestyles and social movements.4
The social movements and emergent life styles of the 1960s challenged fundamental American customs and beliefs. Racial and minority group confrontations revealed deep-seated racism; a false sense of prosperity became evident with the rediscovery of poverty; the unrelenting war in Vietnam convinced many at home and abroad that America was immoral and imperialistic; the entrenched bureaucracy of political and educational institutions was evidence to many young people that the United States was no longer democratic; and the realization that modern technology—the culmination of fundamental American values—had created an environment which endangered human survival shocked many Americans. If some people tended to see a new world emerging out of this social milieu, others saw the disintegration of their culture.
That many Mormons would be among those who [p.113] found these changes threatening is not surprising since Mormonism had, by the end of the 1930s, incorporated fundamental American social and political values in its theology and religious practice.5 The Puritan work ethic, for instance, may have become secularized in the “spirit of capitalism,” but for Mormons it had been resacralized in the doctrine of eternal progression (see White 1980). Perhaps even more significant, however, were the beliefs Americans and Mormons shared concerning the destiny of their country and its role in world affairs. Mormonism buttressed its nationalism with religious meaning and fervor through revelations and a post-millennial theology in which America becomes the Promised Land and where the Kingdom of God must be established in preparation for Jesus’ second coming (see Hansen 1974; Heinerman and Shupe 1985; cf. Gottlieb and Wiley 1984). Thus, America was not merely the future capital of the world, but, in the meantime, the guardian of liberty, freedom, and justice.
This is the context in which Mormonism’s political conservatism and marked anti-Communism, in addition [p.114] to its neo-orthodoxy, may be best understood. Throughout the post-World War II Cold War era, Mormon president David O. McKay defined the conflict between Communism and Christianity as the major struggle (see McKay 1964). Mormons attended few General Conferences without listening to warnings of the dangers of “godless Communism” and “creeping socialism,” while the efforts of apostle Ezra Taft Benson, and others, to identify the church with the John Birch Society invited increased public scrutiny (see Gottlieb and Wiley 1984, 75-79). Elder Benson, in particular, seldom missed an opportunity to warn of the Communist take-over of America—a process which had begun with the reforms of the New Deal (see Benson 1961).
If Mormon officials such as President McKay and his first counselor J. Reuben Clark, Jr., were less preoccupied with Communist infiltration, they nonetheless encouraged the activities of Apostle Benson and BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson by identifying Communism as America’s most serious challenge. Interpreting the statements of church leaders as a mandate for implementing his conservative political agenda at BYU, Wilkinson tried to suppress student dissent with threats of expulsion, denied public forums to speakers and topics he termed “liberal,” and intimidated some members of his faculty through covert surveillance and partisan hiring, firing, and promotion practices (Bergera and Priddis 1985, 173-226).
Wilkinson’s general reaction to modernity could [p.115] hardly be more explicit than the litany of evils he presented in a 1966 Brigham Young University commencement address:
In our day
1) when the Supreme Court has severely restricted prayers in schools;
2) when secularism is rampant on our campuses;
3) when students (fortunately just a minority) openly proclaim their defiance of our government and give aid and comfort to the enemy by burning their draft cards and promoting strife and disorder in protest against American soldiers in Viet Nam, who are there to liberate the Vietnamese people;
4) when presidents of universities sit supinely by and allow students, in complete disregard of property rights, to seize and control university buildings, thereby giving encouragement to flouting the law;
5) when educators and ministers are teaching that “God is dead” and that there is not authentic objection to “free love”;
6) when teachers and nurses degrade their professions by employing the coercive tactics of a labor union;
7) when civil disorder and defiance of law are carried on and tolerated under the guise of “academic freedom” and civil rights;
8) when, in short, the people of our country, for the solution of their problems, have chosen to rely upon the mandate of government and minority violence, rather than upon God and the sweat and toil of their own brows, we at this University still believe in and adhere to the simple instruction of Brigham Young (1966, 3-4).
While the Vietnam War divided American society, it only strengthened the resolve of Mormon anti-Communists. “Drop these suicidal ‘limited political [p.116] objectives’ and launch a massive military campaign,” declared Elder Benson. “Topple the Hanoi regime, and dictate rather than negotiate the peace terms” (1969, 11; see also Rector 1969; Bergera and Priddis 1985, 183). Even in ostensibly nonpolitical speeches, Wilkinson could not resist the temptation to condemn “creeping socialism” and the New Deal (see 1967, 11). For Wilkinson, his mission as BYU president lay in the recruitment and preservation of a patriotic faculty who would teach “correct economic doctrines” to save the American free enterprise system from “threatened extinction” (see Bergera and Priddis 1985, 173-226).
During the 1960s, these and other politically conservative Mormons enjoyed the support of several neo-orthodox theologians, some of whom appear to have been just as vocal in their denunciation of modern society as in their explication of theology. While the anti-Communism of the John Birch society appealed to some Mormons, its excesses offended others. Consequently, Mormon neo-orthodox theologians Hyrum Andrus, Reid Bankhead, and Glenn Pearson—all of whom more or less embraced Birchist ideology—had to be reminded at BYU not to “interject their personal opinions and feelings in the classroom” (Bergera and Priddis 1985, 196). Pearson, in an unpublished paper on “Socialism and the United Order or the Law of Consecration,” denounced further democratization in the United States because
the franchise may be used as a means to introduce measures which will slowly, but inexorably deprive the [p.117] citizens of their property and productive will. These measures consist of such things as the destruction of sound money (so that inflation may be used as a form of taxation), the establishment of a graduated income tax, government regulation of prices and production, free compulsory education, government owned postal service and other businesses, and various types of government insurance, etc. (n.d.b).
Elsewhere, Pearson, perhaps the most politically vocal of all neo-orthodox theologians, asserted that God never intended that the United States should have a “social security program” (n.d.a, 15), while his BYU colleague Daniel Ludlow perceived the modern “welfare state” as a concerted attempt at moral disintegration to ensure that America would not realize its post-millennial destiny. Ludlow suggested that if he were Satan he would “hamper, and if possible, I would destroy the judicial system of every country on earth, because that is the system that has been given the responsibility for upholding law and order. And particularly I would set my sights on America, and I would do everything I could to destroy this bastion of free agency and free enterprise” (1970, 6).
Most neo-orthodox theologians were not mere advocates of free enterprise but appeared to posit laissez-faire capitalism as the Christian social ideal. Arguing that private enterprise is inherently more efficient, Chauncey Riddle claimed that if government had to “compete with private enterprise on an equal basis and pay the consequences [out] of its own funds, it would go down the drain rather [p.118] rapidly” (1965, 9). Pearson condemned public welfare programs as “legal plunder” (1967b) and even denounced democracy itself (1967c). His reaction to modernity was apparent in his lamenting the loss of religious control over education with the development of the public school system. Denying the fundamental tenets of Christianity, public schools promoted a “state religion” perpetuated by public school teachers as “state supported clergy.” Undergirding this state religion “is the ethic of socialism and democracy.” Evidently democracy is evil because it is inherently “wasteful,” “graft-infested,” “compulsory,” encourages “public robbery,” and is a “paradise for bureaucrats” whether falling under the guise of the “New Deal,” the “Fair Deal,” the “Great Society,” “civil rights,” or “state welfare.” No “Christian who understands Christianity and democracy,” he wrote, “can believe in democracy” (ibid.).
Few issues provided a more visible symbol of the confrontation that gave rise to the development of Mormon neo-orthodoxy than the denial before 1978 of the Mormon priesthood to blacks. O’Dea, who had argued in 1957 that the church’s strength and success derived from its capacity to adapt to its environment, contended in 1972 that the race issue had come to symbolize the Mormon encounter with modernity. Revealing all the “strains and conflicts” that he had previously identified with the secularization of Mormonism—literal versus critical interpretations of scripture, unquestioning obedience versus democracy, and political conservatism versus social idealism—O’Dea claimed that [p.119] this issue would be the ultimate test of Mormonism’s ability to come to terms with modernity. This was the only instance in which O’Dea questioned the likelihood of Mormonism’s adapting meaningfully to its environment.
Before the 1978 decision to admit black males to the priesthood, the issue had become the source of considerable conflict within the Mormon community (see White and White 1980; Mauss 1982; White and White 1982b; Mauss 1981; Bush and Mauss 1984). Prior to the emergence of the civil rights movement, internal conflict had become apparent when church leaders considered establishing a mission in Cuba in the 1940s. Concerned about racial purity, they sought the advice of Mormon sociologist Lowry Nelson, who had done extensive research in Cuba. In June 1947, Nelson replied: “It would be better for the Cubans if we did not enter their island—unless we are willing to revise our racial theory. To teach them the pernicious doctrine of segregation and inequalities among races where it does not exist, or to lend religious sanction to it where it has raised its ugly head would, it seems to me, be tragic. It seems to me that we just fought a war over such ideas” (Nelson 1985, 337; see also White 1972, 40-41). This exchange ended when the First Presidency shortly reiterated that the priesthood denial originated in revelation to Joseph Smith and a warning that they were not “too impressed with the reasonings of men, however well founded they may seem to be” (ibid.). In 1951, the First Presidency issued an official statement declaring that the church position remained as it always [p.120] had, that the priesthood denial was a product of revelation and not a capricious policy of the church (ibid.).
That the decade of the 1950s was characterized by increased conflict within the church is evident from arguments defending segregation by some Mormon officials (see White 1972, 45-46) and specifically by Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith’s admission that church leaders had received “a flood of correspondence from all parts of the Church asking how it is that” the church “teaches a doctrine of segregation” (J. F. Smith 1958, 184). While leaders became more and more defensive of the church’s racial policy, the die had been cast in the Nelson correspondence: the ban was a direct result of revelation and only through revelation could it be rescinded. Consequently, any criticism of Mormon racial practice was interpreted as an attack on the authority of the church itself. To reject the church’s position was to deny revelation, and this was tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of the institution.
Politically conservative Mormon leaders vigorously defended the priesthood ban and sometimes segregation. Apostle Benson, for example, charged that the Communists were “using the civil rights movement to promote revolution and eventual takeover of this country” (in Turner 1966, 255). And Ernest Wilkinson, upon learning that the president of Stanford University had severed relations with BYU, declared that “in his man-made wisdom, he rejects one of our revealed beliefs” (1970, 7).
Most, if not all, neo-orthodox theologians embraced [p.121] the official position on blacks, and some of them produced elaborate apologetics to defend it. For example, Daniel Ludlow argued that the protests were not sincerely motivated criticisms of Mormon racial practice, but were a concerted effort to destroy freedom of religion in America (1970, 9). In his defense, Chauncey Riddle insisted that the church could only change under direction from God and that “we will not trust ourselves, we will not trust simply our reason, we will try to serve the Lord” (n.d., 11). Hyrum Andrus presented an argument that combined two explanations. Claiming that blacks were descendents of Cain, who was “cursed with a black skin” and denied the priesthood, Andrus asserted that the priesthood ban was a result of something blacks had done in their premortal existence. Cain’s lineage was preserved beyond the Flood by Ham, a son of Noah, who had married a black woman (Andrus 1967, 400-407).
Hugh Nibley entered the controversy. Responding to Lester Bush’s 1973 seminal analysis of the ban, Nibley identified Bush’s lengthy article as “indispensable” but “strangely irrelevant.” Like previous apologists who emphasized the awesome responsibility associated with the priesthood, Nibley came to the conclusion that for blacks the priesthood denial was actually a blessing not a curse.
Nothing sounds more brutal and direct than Brigham Young’s, “The negro must serve!” But what is so bad about serving in the light of the Gospel? “The son of [p.122] Man came not to be served, but to serve,” meek and lowly, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected…need we go on? His true followers will take up the same cross, “In this world ye shall have tribulation,” for “if the world has hated me, it will hate you.” The greater the tribulation here the greater the glory hereafter, while he who is exalted in this world shall be abased in the next. If we really took the Lord’s teachings seriously, we would be envious of the Negroes (1973, 76).6
Nibley also alluded to the Mormon belief that a child who dies before reaching the age of accountability (usually eight years) automatically inherits a “celestial glory.” He concluded that “very few present-day priesthood-holders” would reach the Celestial Kingdom; however, those who did would be among millions of blacks since “the vast majority of Negroes who have lived on the earth have died as little children” (ibid.). Even the inordinately high infant mortality rate that has plagued the black community appeared to demonstrate the ironic benevolence of an inscrutable God.
If this seems unreasonable, then Nibley has succeeded with his basic point. Denial of the priesthood to blacks was not rational and could not be evaluated in “worldly terms.” [p.123] Like the gospel itself, the priesthood ban was one of those supreme ironies that are never what they appear to be. Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, Nibley reminded Mormons:
It is the very contrariness and even absurdity of the Christian teachings that provide, for him, the highest proof of their divinity—this is no man’s doing. In the efforts of every President of the Church to explain our position to the world, as presented in Dr. Bush’s study, we see the admission that this thing is not the invention of those men—they are embarrassed by it, and they all pass the acid test for honesty when they refuse to put their own opinions forth as revelation—which in their case would have been an easy thing to do (ibid., 74).
Presumably, according to Nibley’s argument, the more absurd a belief or practice the greater its claim to truth. Nibley’s apologetics functioned much as those of other neo-orthodox theologians—they reinforced the literal interpretation of scripture, encouraged unquestioning obedience and acceptance of authority, and helped to perpetuate the conservatism O’Dea had identified as indicative of Mormonism’s growing incapacity to come to terms with modernity.
The race issue, which reflected Mormonism’s encounter with modernity, was intertwined with the church’s experience with secular education. No issue would become more significant than secular education for contemporary Mormonism’s cultural crisis.
The modern study of religion implicitly challenges the underlying premises of older, more sectarian approaches to religion. In the modern study of the Bible, for instance, [p.124] the scholar approaches the text as he or she would any other literary work. The Bible receives no special immunity simply because it is the Bible. The modern biblical scholar seeks to put aside theological prejudices in an attempt to reconstruct a text as close to the original as possible or to answer the questions of who wrote the document, to whom was it addressed, why, when, and within what context.
While some scholars study religious beliefs to understand their origins, relationship to behavior, functions for individuals and society, or to assess their truth-claims, others examine religious institutions to ascertain their origins, functions, patterns of development, and relationships to other social, political, and economic institutions. The discoveries from disciplines not directly concerned with religion may be perceived as threatening to religious world views. This occurred in physics with the Copernican revolution and in biology with the Darwinian revolution and the development of evolutionary theory. Though neither had any actual bearing on the existence of God, or even the question of human nature, they became sources of controversy among many Christians.
Nor was Mormonism exempt. No sooner had the push toward accommodation occurred in the early twentieth century than the issues of biblical criticism and biological evolution appeared among the Saints. That a significant cultural crisis would emerge on the heels of the resolution of the Mormon social crisis is not surprising given [p.125] the historical value of secular education to Mormons. The faith that traditional Mormonism expressed in education logically followed from its metaphysics, its conception of human nature, and its “this-worldliness” that required the saints to “gather” to Zion to “build” the Kingdom of God in preparation for Jesus’s second coming. Not only would knowledge and education ameliorate social ills, they would vindicate Mormon claims to truth. Indeed, traditional Mormonism’s propensity to deny the distinction between sacred and secular is a result of its sacralizing of the secular. This means, of course, that the pursuit of knowledge typically considered secular was a sacred obligation. This emphasis on secular education helps explain the remarkable educational achievements of the Latter-day Saints.7
By stressing the importance of secular education, Mormonism has transformed an external crisis into an internal crisis. On the one hand, the church encourages secular education, even defining it as essential to salvation; on the other, secular education often dilutes Mormon orthodoxy and challenges its institutional forms. In the first instance, secular education constitutes a commandment; in the [p.126] second, it poses a threat. Yet, the church itself sets the stage for a fascinating drama: many young people who later leave the church go to college convinced that they are following a divine commandment only to discover that their newly acquired ideas may make them unwelcome in church. In a sense, the church finds itself in the awkward position of potentially sowing seeds of discontent by creating a “transmission belt,” to use the language of O’Dea, “that would bring into Zion all the doubts and uncertainties that, in another century, were to beset the gentile world” (1957, 225).
This crisis has elicited varied responses from Mormon leaders. Some have retained considerable confidence in education, and they have either attempted or encouraged the reconciliation of science and religion. The Mormon presidency in 1921, for instance, apparently endorsed the intent and sincerity of biblical critics. Commenting on the Jonah story, they agreed with “higher critics” that “the purpose and intent of the book are excellent and have several very grand lessons. These constitute the balance of the work. It is of little significance whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book to write what is set forth therein” (in Bergera and Priddis 1985, 50).
Notwithstanding an embarrassing and controversial incident at Brigham Young University in 1911, in which one professor was fired and two resigned for teaching evolution and biblical criticism, a number of Mormon leaders have expressed sympathy, if not open support, for [p.127] evolutionary theory. Apostle John A. Widtsoe’s “scientific theology,” which included implicit acceptance of organic evolution, emphasized an underlying harmony between revealed truths and scientific discoveries (see 1952; 1960). His works enjoyed considerable popularity; in fact, it is not uncommon today to hear Mormon scientists respond to queries with Widtsoe’s answers. Moreover, Mormon scientists, often with impressive academic records, are typically held up to the youth as examples of men and women who have pursued secular education while retaining their commitment to Mormonism.
In contrast, the public response of most Mormon leaders to this cultural crisis has tended to be anti-intellectual. These men are convinced that Mormon theology needs no rational elaboration or defense. To write a column such as Widtsoe’s “Evidences and Reconciliations” was to admit that reformulation is necessary. Assuming a posture similar to the Protestant fundamentalists in their confrontation with modern science, the anti-intellectualism of these Mormons discounts the need to come to terms with secular thought. Only that knowledge from science that conforms with their religious presuppositions is acceptable.
While the most vocal representatives of this anti-intellectualism among ranking Mormon authorities during the past two decades have been Ezra T. Benson, Bruce R. McConkie, Mark E. Peterson, and Boyd K. Packer, the twentieth-century tendency toward anti-intellectualism [p.128] received its basic articulation and legitimation from the late J. Reuben Clark, Jr. As a counselor in the First Presidency from 1933 to 1961, Clark employed his status to remove people from positions where they might encourage a more intellectual development of Mormon theology (see Quinn 1983, 172-95; Bergera and Priddis 1985, 60-65). Addressing faculty of the church’s educational system, he said that Mormon youth are “not doubters but inquirers, seekers after truth. Doubt must not be planted in their hearts. Great is the burden and condemnation of any teacher who sows doubt in a trusting soul” (1938). Teachers were informed that the primary criterion for teaching was not scholastic achievement but a testimony, a conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel.
No amount of learning, no amount of study, and no number of scholastic degrees, can take the place of this testimony, which is the sine qua non of the teacher in our Church school system. No teacher who does not have a real testimony of the truth of the Gospel as revealed to and believed by the Latter-day Saints, and a testimony of the Sonship and Messiahship of Jesus, and of the divine mission of Joseph Smith—including in all its reality the First Vision—has any place in the Church school system. If there be any such, and I hope and pray there are none, he should at once resign; if the Commissioner knows of any such and he does not resign, the Commissioner should request his resignation. The First Presidency expect this pruning to be made (ibid.).
Denying teachers in the church school system the right of academic freedom, Clark asserted twenty years later that “there is no academic freedom where spiritual matters [p.129] are concerned. The scriptures and the words of the prophets and the President of the Church control and are the last word” (1958, 18). The general membership had received a similar warning seven years earlier. The June 1945 Ward Teacher’s Message to all Mormons made matters explicit.
When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the Kingdom of God (“A 1945 Perspective”).
Mormon neo-orthodox theologians typically express such anti-intellectualism in response to contemporary Mormonism’s cultural crisis. Chauncey Riddle—whose distinctions among physical, social, and intellectual persecution correspond roughly to my distinction between social and cultural crises—argues that intellectual (cultural) challenges are the most serious. He wrote:
As bad as physical and social persecution can be, I think that intellectual persecution is the most devastating. The former are by nature opposition from outside, and as such they may actually serve to strengthen the Church. But the intellectual attack also works within the Church. It divides and dilutes us when it comes from members (1975, 81).
If Riddle failed to perceive the enhanced social cohesion and theological elaboration that may follow from institutional responses to heresy, he nonetheless identified the [p.130] intellectual challenge posed by secular education. Though Pearson and Yarn claimed that secular education is of limited value, Nibley even doubted its significance for ameliorating contemporary social problems.
The way out is not to be found in the self-consoling merry-go-round of philosophy, the heroic self-dramatization of literature and art, or the self-reassuring posturings of science and scholarship. Men have tried everything for a long time and the idea that their condition has improved rests entirely on an imaginary reconstruction of the past devised to prove that very proposition. Not that the theory may not be right, but at present we just don’t know; and for a world in as dire a predicament as ours, that can guarantee no long centuries of quiet research ahead and seems to need some quick and definite assistance if it is to survive at all, it might pay to consider what Mormon and Moroni have to offer (1969, 439-40).
Aware of the threat posed by secular education and more sophisticated in academic matters, Mormon neo-orthodox theologians during the 1960s and 1970s typically defended the divine character of the scriptures, repudiated biblical criticism, denied the theory of organic evolution, rejected the epistemology of science, and embraced revelation and the authority structure of the church as their criteria of truth. Thus, Pearson informed readers during the late 1960s that science had created a generation of “arrogant worshippers at the shrine of reason” (1967a) while secular education had produced the public school system to promulgate an atheistic “state religion” (1967c). People without the spirit of revelation, Yarn laments, are left to rely on [p.131] “their own feeble reason” (1965, 170-80). “One of the great mistakes of the ages has always been that when men have lost revelation,” according to Pearson, “they have turned to the human mind for understanding” (n.d.a, 2). In response to a critic, Pearson wrote:
I think we must decide whether we accept the human mind of [sic] the divine mind. In other words, to what do you turn for your proofs? Or do you turn to the educated consensus? When it comes right down to it, there are only two epistemological systems possible to follow. One is revelation. The other is some consensus or another. Philosophers talk a great deal about the authoritarian method, the methodology of faith, intuition, cohesiveness, coherence, etc. God reveals from the whole to the part. Man reasons from the part to the whole….Let first things be first, do you really believe with all your heart that the Book of Mormon came the way Joseph Smith said it did? (n.d.b, 3).
In The World and the Prophets, one of his polemics against nonrevelational approaches to knowledge, Nibley wrote:
Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity (1954, 122).
For Nibley, reason has been substituted for revelation, the [p.132] university for the church, the doctorate for the priesthood, and academic robes for the ordinances of the gospel (1960, 8).
Anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism have tended to permeate Mormon neo-orthodoxy, especially during the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Reacting to social differentiation and secularization, politically conservative Mormon leaders and neo-orthodox theologians found threatening the redefinition of America’s role abroad, expansion of government with the development of the “welfare state,” racial conflict, and secular education. These phenomena continue to underlay much of the cultural crisis confronting contemporary Mormonism.
Psychological and Theological Responses
The loss of meaning, purpose, and direction accompanying a cultural crisis provides an excellent context for religious experience, including revelation. It constitutes a “limit situation” in which cognitive perspectives and ordinary mental processes fail so that individuals consequently experience a profound sense of inadequacy, an inability to cope with the situation. The crisis itself, as was the case in Protestant neo-orthodoxy, can be both an important pre-condition for revelation and an element of it. Thus Emil Brunner argued that the imbalance occurring during a crisis is the “most important point of contact for the Gospel message” (1939, 234).
[p.133] A poignant account of personal experience with such a crisis appeared in Chauncey Riddle’s description of his graduate education. Encountering a professor who boasted about destroying faith, who attributed much of the evil in the world to religion, and who assigned all virtue in human progress to the development of reason and empiricism, Riddle remembered:
Well, frankly I was devastated by that onslaught. There I was, a graduate student, well schooled in Latter-day Saint theology, happily Mormon all my life, a defender of the faith and successful sufferer under physical and social persecution—but devastated. He had made me realize that I did not have a personal testimony of revelation. All I had was an intellectual awareness of what others said about our religion. That realization shook me, for I realized that I might have been wrong.
During the next few weeks I went through an experience for which I can think of only one word as a representation: hell. I was assailed by doubt, by fear, by loneliness; I began to wonder if I were sane. Through this time I kept two promises I made: I continued to go to Church, and I continued to read ten pages in the scriptures each night; but those things became an agony to me. And I prayed. Oh, how I prayed to know for myself if there were such a thing as personal revelation.
Then—thanks to our good Master—it came. I began to feel something special in my breast. I began to recognize certain ideas that appeared in my mind as being different from my own thoughts. These new ideas told me how to interpret passages of scripture, how to understand things formerly incomprehensible to me, even to know the future. But I could tell the difference. Here was the iron rod. I had hold of it. The restored Gospel was true! (1975, 82).
[p.134] Human inadequacy could hardly be more explicit than in Riddle’s conclusion that “without Him I am nothing” (ibid.). And, of course, the sensations of contingency and powerlessness, which the crisis experience intensifies, become not only a statement of the human predicament but also an epiphany of the greatness of God. Even the desire to know God grows out of the awareness of one’s contingency and powerlessness. “He begins to realize his own inadequacies as well as God’s greatness,” wrote Yarn, “and desires within his soul to draw near unto God and know the power and sweetness of his presence” (1965, 66).
Crisis also discloses the intensity of human guilt and reveals humans as sinful. Of salvation, Pearson wrote:
There has to be down payment of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Who has a broken heart and contrite spirit? One who is stripped of pride and selfishness. One who has come down in the depths of humility and prostrated himself before the Lord in mighty prayer and supplication. He has realized the awful guilt of his sins and has pied for the blood of Christ to be made a covering to shield him from the face of a just God. Such a one has made the down payment (1961, 169).
The mistrust of human reason and sensory experience, which can accompany the crisis situation, is obvious from our discussion of the Mormon neo-orthodox concept of human nature and its anti-intellectualism in the face of secular education. The neo-orthodox theologian celebrates human nonrationality in order to establish a premise for divine revelation, as well as to discredit critics. Since all [p.135] data must be interpreted from “a matrix of presuppositions,” Riddle posited personal revelation as the foundation for human life. Ignoring the fact that whatever is experienced as revelation also rests upon similar presuppositions, he wrote:
So we are persecuted for personal revelation in a world that prides itself on “hard” evidence, on objectivity, on the strength of consensus. As a philosopher of knowledge, I can only shake my head. For now I know and can prove that there is no such thing as evidence apart from a matrix of presuppositions, that objectivity is at best consensus, and that consensus is often but a public relations job. Every scientific system begins with unproved postulates. Every person founds his life on articles of faith. But what a blessing to be able to ground faith on a rock—on personal daily revelation from our Savior (1975, 83).
Riddle’s description of human nature clearly demonstrates disdain for reason and sensory experience.
Man … is cut off from knowing truth, and in the absolute sense, or final sense, he is cut off from determining by his own reason or by his own senses what the ultimate moral values of the universe are …. In this predicament the only way out that is reasonable and consistent is to seize upon the hand that is extended by the Lord and to be grateful to be lifted out of that predicament through the power of the gospel and the ordinances of the priesthood (n.d., 13).
Human beings cannot extricate themselves from this predicament but must rely on an external force, for only by the gracious act of an absolute God can they be saved. However, this dependence upon external authority is [p.136] not limited to God. Indeed, the neo-orthodox theologians tend to express similar deference toward officials of the church. While Riddle would place his trust in the church rather than himself, Yarn, in a statement illustrating the psychological security typically accompanying submission to authority, claimed that “when one loves the Authorities and sustains the Authorities, he is given peace and satisfaction of spirit which can come in no other way than being in harmony with God’s anointed ones” (1965, 86). And Pearson argued that one should follow the church even if he believes it to be wrong. Speaking of a person ideally committed to the church, he wrote:
When the inspiration of the Lord to his prophets or other authorities has resulted in a decision, he will support it even if he feels it is wrong or there is a better way. If he can he will get an assurance through prayer that it is right. If he cannot get such an assurance he will support the Church policy because the Church is the hope of the world (1961, 232).
Such conviction of contingency and powerlessness encountered during crises gave rise to the profound nonrationality and authoritarianism embodied in much of Mormon neo-orthodoxy, especially as articulated during the 1960s. Reliance on external authority naturally follows from the incapacity to trust oneself. If the neo-orthodox theologians found in modern Mormonism’s cultural crisis a revelation of human inadequacy, they also discovered the solution in an all-powerful God who could save them from their predicament. The very sensations experienced during a [p.137] crisis became the fundamental elements of their theology, and feelings of contingency and powerlessness were generalized to describe the human condition. No longer limited to specific situations, they became defining qualities of human nature itself. The crisis experience was nothing less than a revelation of basic human nature. Given such inadequacy, dependence upon external authority is not surprising. A coherent theology integrating the doctrines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and salvation by grace helped to reduce the anxieties of living in modernity.
1. Andrus, for instance, in his Doctrinal Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price, attempted to reconcile the idea of a progressing God with Christian absolutism. Suggesting that God knows everything and has all power within his domain, he maintained that there are realms above God that God will attain through advances in knowledge and power (1967, 507).
2. The authorship of the Lectures on Faith remains in question, with many scholars attributing most, if not all, of them, not to Joseph Smith, but to close associates Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams (see Arrington 1969, 4; Gentry 1978). For my purposes, it makes little difference who wrote them. If Joseph Smith did, as most neo-orthodox theologians apparently assume, then he clearly reversed his position on the absolute nature of God in subsequent work. See J. Smith 1938.
3. Some non-Mormon scholars find the vitality of contemporary Mormonism results from its ability to adapt to its environment (see, for example, O’Dea 1957; Leone 1984). While much of the scholarship on twentieth-century Mormonism has concentrated on the church’s successes, Mormon accommodation has not been without conflict. Sometimes the emphasis on success can lead to insufficient attention to the conflicts.
5. O’Dea went so far as to suggest that Mormonism is America “in miniature” and “presents a distillation of what is peculiarly American in America.” He argued that this relationship between Mormonism and America justifies the study of Mormonism as a means of better understanding American society itself. In other words, Mormonism is conceived as a microcosm of the society with many of the larger strengths and weaknesses more graphically manifest. See his foreword to Anderson 1966. See Arrington 1966 for a similar argument regarding Mormon economic experience.
6. Nibley’s response is characteristic of Mormon apologists who found the terrible responsibility of the priesthood to border on a curse when they defended its denial to blacks, or when they continue to do so with regards to women who, like black men before 1978, cannot hold the Mormon priesthood. On other occasions, the blessings of the priesthood and the opportunities it provides to act in God’s name are stressed, as frequently occurs in Mormon priesthood manuals and meetings.
7. Judging from the frequency of the appearance of Utahns in American Men of Science, Who’s Who in America and Leaders in Education, E. L. Thorndike concluded in 1943 that Utah produced more eminent persons per capita than any other state. More recently, Kenneth Hardy’s 1974 analysis of the social origins of American scientists and scholars found a disproportionately high number from Mormon and Jewish backgrounds.