Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Chrisis TheologyMormon Neo-Orthodoxy
A Crisis Theology
by O. Kendall White, Jr.

on the cover:
O. Kendall White, Jr., is a Professor of Sociology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Utah and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is the author of nineteen articles, primarily in the sociology of religion. His essays have appeared in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Journal of Ethnic Studies, Journal of Negro Education, Journal of Religious Thought, Review of Religious Research, Sociological Analysis, Sociological Spectrum, and Virginia Social Science Journal. He lives with Arlene Burraston-White and their son C. A. Wood in Lexington, Virginia.

“White defines the watershed issues in contemporary Mormon theology—issues which may determine if Mormonism is to distinguish itself as the newest world religion, or whether it will find its locus within the larger Christian tradition. As far as Latter-day Saint theology is concerned, this is the decade’s most important new book.” —Daniel H. Rector, president, Sunstone Foundation

In this exciting new book, O. Kendall White, Jr., contrasts Mormon neo-orthodoxy, an emerging theological movement within the Mormon church today, with traditional Mormonism and examines the cultural context out of which Mormon neo-orthodoxy developed. While White argues that traditional Mormonism is characterized by doctrines of a finite God, the fundamental goodness of human nature, and exaltation by merit, he finds that Mormon neo-orthodoxy boldly proclaims the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humanity, and salvation by grace.

title page:
Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
A Crisis Theology
by O. Kendall White, Jr.
Signature Books
Salt Lake City, Utah.

copyright page:
Copyright 1987 Signature Books, Inc.
Signature Books is a recognized trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved
second printing 1988
Book design by Maxine Hanks
Cover design by Legume + Associates
Cover photo: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the Kirtland Temple, 1911

White, O. Kendall. Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
Bibliography : P. Includes Index
1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Doctrines.
2. Mormon Church—Doctrines. 3. Neo-Orthodoxy. I. Title.
BX8635.2.W53. 1987. 306′.6. 87-12706.
ISBN: 0-941214-52-4.

dedication page: To my parents
Thelma Clark White and Owen Kendall White
who epitomize the best of traditional Mormonism.

Preface [see below]
Introduction [see below]
01 – The Development of Crisis Theologies
02 – Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy
03 – Traditional Mormon Theology
04 – Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
05 – Recent Developments
06 – Conclusion

My interest in Mormon neo-orthodox theology began in the mid-1960s with my own religious questions regarding Mormonism. I became attracted to both the philosophy and sociology of religion and enjoyed the unique opportunity of studying with such scholars of religion in general and Mormonism in particular as Thomas F. O’Dea, Sterling M. McMurrin, Waldemer P. Read, Lewis Max Rogers, Lowell L. Bennion, and Ray R. Canning. I am profoundly indebted to each of these men for enabling me to address my interests within the context of my own religious tradition. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I was struck by parallels between certain Mormon writers and the theologies of Protestants whom I was studying and was able to convince my thesis committee, despite some skepticism from a few members, of the value of a sociological study of Mormon neo-orthodoxy as an emerging theology.

My current religious position as well as my research on Mormonism have been shaped by numerous conversations with my brothers—Bill Humphrey and Brent and Daryl White—and with my cousin, the late Glenn White. (Daryl also deserves my thanks for a cover design we were unable to use.) To them and my parents, who I am confident have heard more discussions of Mormon theologies than they [p.x] probably wish, I express my appreciation. Wayland Hand, an uncle and scholar par excellence, provided valuable criticism and encouragement for all of my Mormon research. He wanted to purchase the first copy of this book, and I deeply regret that he did not live to see it published. I have also enjoyed a wonderful life with a dear friend, a perceptive analyst of our respective Mormon backgrounds, and a wonderful critic of my research and writing. To my wife, Arlene Burraston-White, who can only imagine the depth of my appreciation, I am especially grateful.

Finally, I wish to thank Kent Robson, Daniel Rector, and Richard Sherlock for their comments and criticisms, as well as Gary J. Bergera, Ronald Priddis, Susan Staker, and the staff at Signature Books. Their knowledge of the subject matter, assistance with the manuscript, and encouragement of the project exceeded my greatest expectations. At the same time, I would not want to convey the idea that all of us necessarily see eye-to-eye on Protestant, Mormon, and neo-Mormon theology, and I alone am responsible for the discussion and conclusions that follow.

1987. K. W.


The sociology of religion examines religious beliefs within their social contexts. Certain social conditions are conducive to specific religious beliefs: while the affluence of upper classes encourages religions which legitimize the existing social order, the poverty of lower classes inspires ethical and salvation religions. Social or cultural crises often function as midwives for the birth of theologies which project human hopes onto another world, promise future rewards for present suffering, vigorously defend existing dogmas, and deny any possibility that humans may overcome their predicament. For the purpose of my analysis, these will be classified as “crisis literature.”

This book describes a contemporary theological development in Mormonism—which I have called Mormon neo-orthodoxy—and examines the cultural milieu out of which it emerged. Affirming the fundamental doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the depravity of human nature, and salvation by grace, Mormon neo-orthodoxy may be closer to Protestant fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy than to what I and others esteem to be traditional Mormon thought. Like these Protestant movements, Mormon neo-orthodoxy is a response to the experience of “modernity”—the secularization of society and culture. Thus [p.xii] Protestant neo-orthodoxy and Mormon neo-orthodoxy are crisis theologies.

The theologies of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and German philosopher H. Emil Brunner—the principal architects of Protestant neo-orthodoxy—are similar to the Reformation theologies of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, Protestant neo-orthodoxy did not merely restate Reformation theology. Rather it reinterpreted Reformation doctrines in the context of modern life and thereby attempted to recapture the spirit and “truth” elucidated by Luther and Calvin. No other theologians, except possibly Augustine, had so clearly described the “true nature of the human predicament.” If Luther and Calvin were too literalistic in their treatment of scripture, they nonetheless recognized the profound “otherness” of God, the absolute helplessness of human beings, and the necessity of grace if humanity were to be saved from its fallen state. From this emphasis on the doctrines of classical Protestantism, Protestant neo-orthodoxy derived its name.

Until the early years of the twentieth century, Protestant liberalism, a product of the Enlightenment, was perhaps Christianity’s most promising theological development with its celebration of science and reason. Some liberal Protestants came to see God as an ideal—the embodiment of the finest human values—while others regarded him as a finite being. Virtually all liberal Protestants espoused an optimistic conception of human nature. Through moral and rational progress, humanity would solve many of its problems. [p.xiii]The Kingdom of God as a just, peaceful, and harmonious society had become a real possibility, requiring only the adequate development of reason, science, and technology. Instead of awaiting the direct intervention of Christ the Redeemer, liberalism depended on the example of Jesus the teacher. The good society would result from humans acting out the moral teachings of Christianity.

This avowedly optimistic world view was a casualty of World War I. That leaders of modern, civilized nations—supposedly far removed from “primitive savages”—could not resolve their differences peaceably convinced Barth and Brunner of the inherent evil in human nature. World War I provided them with empirical evidence of the failure of reason and moral accommodation. But if the “war to end all wars” had vanquished optimism in Europe, it was not sufficient to destroy American optimism which survived until the advent of the Great Depression. The 1932 publication of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society brought Protestant neo-orthodox theology to American shores. In a devastating critique of Protestant liberalism and secular rationalism, Niebuhr defended fundamental premises of Reformation Christianity, especially the doctrine of original sin in his pessimistic concept of human nature.

Given this reaction to the experience of modernity and the concern of Barth and Brunner with the “crisis of God’s judgment upon the world,” this new theology was also called Protestant crisis theology. Other names included kerygmatic theology, dialectical theology, theology of the [p.xiv]Word, the new-supernaturalism, and neo-fundamentalism. However, Protestant neo-orthodoxy remained the most popular name because it restated Reformation theology in a modern context, while departing from Protestant fundamentalism by accepting modern biblical scholarship and non-literal approaches to scripture.

Emerging from the optimism of the nineteenth century, Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially known today, was likewise forced to negotiate the traumas of modernity, effecting a unique synthesis of American religious and secular culture. In nineteenth-century Mormonism, Christian beliefs combined with contemporary science. Though generally assuming a posture of scriptural literalism, Mormon theology was surprisingly liberal. An optimistic concept of human potential and the notion of progress so characteristic of Protestant liberalism and American culture became the foundation of the profound “this worldliness” of Mormon theology. Proclaiming that Jesus would only return to a community built upon principles of equality, order, and justice, Mormons fused the religious enthusiasm embodied in Christian eschatology with the immediacy of secular reform. Millennial expectations became the basis of a this-worldly theology, and the energy projected by other-worldly religions onto an after-life became the basis for the collective transformation of this world. Mundane activities were infused with religious significance, and building the good society became a social obligation. A religion that could [p.xv] not save humanity in this world could hardly be expected to do so in the next. Thus, in theology and practice, Mormonism came to repudiate the discontinuity inherent in the Protestant preoccupation with divine “otherness” and human depravity.

In 1922 Mormon philosopher E. E. Ericksen reflected on the status of these beliefs in the twentieth century. In the first social-scientific study of Mormonism, Ericksen argued that repeated conflicts with non-Mormons and with nature had shaped the development of nineteenth-century Mormonism’s social ethics and theology. Similarly, twentieth-century Mormon theology reflected further accommodation to the larger, surrounding society. Some of the most fundamental concepts of nineteenth-century Mormonism were reinterpreted to meet new social realities. Thus a concept like the Kingdom of God, which originally referred to the ideal society that the newly “gathered” Saints would build, became the church or an other-worldly institution to be established in an indeterminate future. That which was originally concrete and real had been mystified and relegated to the realm of metaphysics.

However, these theological innovations, though demonstrating Mormonism’s capacity for adaptation, failed to reveal the depth of the problem. For Ericksen, accommodation had also produced a conflict between “new ideas and old institutions.” Apologists defending the new dogmas had already emerged, and church officials had begun to differentiate Mormonism from modern, secular society. [p.xvi] This cultural challenge to the beliefs that give meaning and purpose to social order would persist through the next several decades. In the post-World War II era, it would become the principal preoccupation of Mormon leaders and would encourage the formulation of Mormon neo-orthodox theology.

Mormons have traditionally believed in a finite God, an optimistic assessment of human nature, and a doctrine of salvation by merit. In contrast, most Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have tended to embrace the concept of an absolute God, a pessimistic assessment of human nature, and a doctrine of salvation by grace. As early as 1962, LDS educator George T. Boyd called the attention of his colleagues to a new “Mormon” concept of human nature. There would be little reason for writing about “the moral nature of man,” he declared, were it “not for the fact that within recent years there has been a negation of man…in both religious and secular circles” (1962, 1). Both a “revived Protestant Fundamentalism” and an “agnostic naturalism” imply that the “moral nature of man is somewhat of an illusion.” While each school of thought has had some influence on the church, Boyd argued that

only the former, which paradoxically enough seeks to honor God by debasing man whom he created in his image, finds any influential expression or hearing within the Church.

This neo-Calvinism which with increasing frequency zealously proclaims the depravity of man has much in common with the doctrine of Saint Augustine who was [p.xvii] one of the chief creators of the original heresy. And, as the doctrine of Augustine tells us more about Augustine than it does the original teachings of Christ relative to God and man so this recently revived negative doctrine of human nature may tell us more about its formulators and defenders than it does about the Mormon doctrine of man and, perhaps, should be ignored. Nevertheless, while such negativism may be a corrective to a superficial liberalism it does represent a threat to Mormon orthodoxy and an obtrusion on established Mormon thought (1962, 2).

In his 1965 lectures on Mormon theology, subsequently published as The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, Sterling M. McMurrin, a philosopher at the University of Utah, characterized Mormon theology as a Pelagian heresy because of its emphasis on free will, its optimistic evaluation of human nature, and its doctrine of salvation by works. He detected, however, a “kind of Jansenist movement in Mormon academic circles,” with its preoccupation with human depravity and divine grace, that seems “dedicated to the celebration of whatever Augustinian elements may be discernible in the scriptures” (1965, 66-67). In a subsequent lecture, McMurrin argued that this contemporary effort to recast human nature in pessimistic terms suggested parallels with Protestant neo-orthodoxy:

Although Mormonism has known little of the social and personal failure that has contributed to the success of neoorthodoxy, for the past two decades it has, in common with American and European religion generally, become increasingly conservative in theology. The most interesting facet of this conservatism is a noticeable tendency, [p.xviii] especially in Mormon academic circles, to deny the traditional liberalism of Mormon theology by favoring a negative description of human nature and the human predicament. This tendency is more than a criticism of the excessive optimism that has been characteristic of liberalism. It appears to be grounded especially in a strong appetite for traditional orthodoxy that is whetted by a reading of The Epistle to the Romans and a taste for those occasional passages like the Mosiah “enemy of God” statement which appear in the Mormon scriptures. And it is aided and abetted by the predilection of the orthodox for whatever demeans humanity for the glory of God. But that Mormonism reflects Christian orthodoxy in its treatment of the Bible, and its acceptance of many of the dogmas central to traditional Christianity, does not invalidate its essentially liberal character which is defined by its concepts of man and God. A departure from this fundamental liberalism is a departure from the authentic spirit of the Mormon religion (1965, 111).

Though occasional discussions of this emerging theological phenomenon have appeared in the writings of some Mormon scholars, no systematic analysis of it occurred before 1967 (see White 1967, 1970, 1971a, 1971b, for discussions of Mormon neo-orthodoxy that fail to address its social and cultural context). This book, which attempts to describe both Mormon neo-orthodox theology and the cultural crisis underlying it, also incorporates insights from recent Mormon scholarship dealing with the post-World War II period through the 1980s—the time of origin and formulation of Mormon neo-orthodox theology.

That this theology is primarily a post-World War II phenomenon has been reinforced by historian Thomas G. [p.xix] Alexander in his seminal analysis of “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine” published in 1980. However, Alexander convincingly argued that during the initial period of the formulation of Mormon doctrine, 1830 to 1835, Mormon beliefs differed little from those of American Protestants. Tempered by the perfectionism of the Methodists, the Mormon doctrine of human nature tended toward depravity, while its absolutist and trinitarian concept of God reinforced a notion of saving grace provided by the death and atonement of Jesus Christ (see also Lyon 1975). As prevalent themes in the Book of Mormon, these were apparently beliefs of the earliest Mormons.

From 1835 until his martyrdom in 1844, Joseph Smith increasingly emphasized the finite nature of God, a more optimistic view of humanity, and a doctrine of salvation by merit (Alexander 1980; Lyon 1975). This was Smith’s theological legacy that at the hands of the most prominent Mormon theologians—B. H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and James E. Talmage—became the synthesis of traditional Mormonism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even popular mid-twentieth-century conservative theologians like Joseph Fielding Smith, who seems not to have appreciated fully the implications of Joseph Smith’s radical departure from Christian orthodoxy, embraced the metaphysics, the optimistic concept of human nature, and the doctrine of salvation (exaltation) by merit of traditional Mormonism. Joseph Fielding Smith’s conflicts with Talmage [p.xx] and other traditional Mormons were largely a result of his excessive scriptural literalism.

That the traditional synthesis generally came to be equated with Mormonism is acknowledged even by Mormon neo-orthodox theologians. Both the early and recent generations of neo-orthodox theologians have found themselves battling popularly held views celebrating the goodness of human nature, equating grace with physical resurrection, and demanding that human beings “work out their own salvation” (see Andrus 1961; Yarn 1965; Toscano 1983, 91; Olsen 1984; Voros 1985). Contrasting “redemptive Mormonism” with the “humanistic view,” the former being comparable to neo-orthodoxy and the latter to traditional Mormonism, J. Frederic Voros, Jr., a recent neo-orthodox theologian, claims that the “popular hegemony of the humanistic view is nearly complete” and that today “most public church teaching is merely an attempt to inculcate moral precepts.” The writings of the Apostle Paul, according to Voros, are generally “dead letters to these Church members” (1985, 1-2).

My use of the term “Mormon neo-orthodoxy” is admittedly arbitrary and may not satisfy everyone. Though my initial usage did not imply a return to early Mormon thought, the analyses of Alexander and T. Edgar Lyon have convinced me that Mormon neo-orthodoxy is similar to Mormon theology of 1830 to 1835. In this sense, it may be conceived as a return to the earliest “Mormon” beliefs and, consequently, as an authentic expression of Mormon theology. [p.xxi] However, and this is a fundamental point, it does not represent a return to the theology that Joseph Smith left as his legacy—the theology that became the foundation of traditional Mormonism (see chap. 3).1

Some readers may also find my characterization of “traditional Mormonism” too broad. Certainly the historical development of Mormon doctrine does not lend itself easily to generalization. Different teachings have been variously interpreted at different periods of time, although most originate in some form or another in the theology of Joseph Smith. Some “official” doctrines—such as the so-called Adam-God doctrine, plural marriage, and the priesthood ban on blacks—have been discarded, if not repudiated, since [p.xxii] they were first announced more than a century ago. Others, such as the identification of God the Father as Elohim and Jesus Christ as Jehovah, only emerged after the death of Joseph Smith. Still, certain core doctrines, including the finite nature of God, the goodness of humanity, and salvation by merit, have persisted in the Mormon church at least since the 1840s. The synthesis of these three basic doctrines into a coherent theology is what I refer to as “traditional Mormonism.”

To arrive at my observations and conclusions, I have examined books, articles, papers, and speeches of the Protestant and Mormon neo-orthodox theologians, including some officials of the Mormon church. Occasionally I obtained information from personal conversations with theologians following public addresses or during meetings with small discussion groups. I have made no attempt to assess the distribution of neo-orthodox ideas among Mormons generally or within the academic community. Hence, I make no claims about the proportion of Mormons committed to either traditional Mormon or Mormon neo-orthodox beliefs.

What I do examine are the social and cultural origins of Mormon neo-orthodox theology. I am particularly interested in the impact of “modernity”—the challenge to religion posed by secularization. However, this book should not be read as an analysis of the truth claims of the theologies it discusses. Nor does it adopt either a primarily theological or historical approach to the subject at hand. Rather, it is an exercise in the sociology of religion designed to identify [p.xxiii] environmental factors influencing the development of the theology. It also briefly discusses some implications neo-orthodoxy may pose for the future of Mormon theology and religion. Some readers may find a certain amount of overlap from one chapter to the next, but given the complexity of some of the issues under discussion, I believe that some repetition is necessary.

In order to understand the conceptual framework for my analysis, chapter 1 presents a general discussion of the relationships among social and cultural phenomena and the emergence of religious beliefs. While it introduces readers to some of the classic issues in the sociology of religion, it also develops a theory of crisis theologies. The distinction between social and cultural crises—the former constituting a threat to the physical survival of the group, the latter a challenge to the belief system that infuses social order with meaning—enables us to identify four distinct theological types: apocalypticism, martyrology, apologetics, and neo-orthodoxy. The remainder of the book is devoted to describing and analyzing the latter.

Chapter 2, on Protestant neo-orthodox theology, presents the basic theological tenets of this reformulation of Reformation theology—its preoccupation with the otherness of God, the depravity of human nature, and the necessity of salvation by grace—and describes the cultural crisis underlying it. Arguing that an understanding of this cultural crisis is essential to an understanding of the development of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, this chapter also serves [p.xxiv] as a model for the analysis of Mormon neo-orthodox theology in chapter 4.

Chapter 3 describes what I have broadly defined as traditional Mormon theology. Incorporating the general optimism of American culture and Protestant liberalism, the Mormon synthesis formulated during the 1840s, and elaborated during the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, proclaimed a metaphysics that requires a finite God, the fundamental goodness of human nature, and a doctrine of salvation based primarily on merit. The radical perfectionism embodied in Mormon doctrine (that is, the possibility of mortals becoming gods) provided a foundation for the intellectual and social activism—the profound this-worldliness—so characteristic of the Mormon religion.

It is from this liberal optimism that Mormon neo-orthodox theologians typically dissent. Their theology, which contains significant parallels to Protestant neo-orthodoxy, is described in chapter 4, which also presents an analysis of the cultural crisis confronting modern Mormonism. The anti-intellectual and authoritarian reactions of some Mormons to secularization are incorporated into a theology that doubts human capabilities and requires inordinate dependence on external authority. From premises of human contingency and total helplessness, the doctrines of divine sovereignty and salvation by grace follow logically. Like their Protestant counterparts, Mormon neo-orthodox [p.xxv] theologians proclaim a “good news” that sounds much like the basic tenets of Reformation theology.

Chapter 5 examines a new generation of Mormon neo-orthodox writers. During the past eight years, several theologians have advanced concepts of God, human nature, and salvation that depend on original sin, human depravity, and the necessity of grace. Explicitly challenging the traditional Mormon preoccupation with works, their doctrine of salvation, which emphasizes “justification” and “sanctification,” contains a language that is foreign to Mormon religious discourse and which is even closer to the Protestant tradition than that of their theological predecessors.

A conclusion summarizes my argument, discusses some implications of Mormon neo-orthodoxy for Mormon theology and religion, distinguishes between the social ethics of Protestant and Mormon neo-orthodox theologians, and suggests a primary reason why neo-orthodox ideas may gain greater currency among contemporary Latter-day Saints.


1. Although I use the term “neo-orthodoxy” to suggest an affinity with the tenets of the Protestant movement, this relationship should not be overstated. Mormon neo-orthodoxy differs from Protestant neo-orthodoxy in at least two significant ways: Mormon neo-orthodox theologians tend not to take modern biblical scholarship seriously, while Protestant neo-orthodox theologians do; Mormon theologians generally are scriptural literalists, while Protestants are not. Such differences may imply that “Mormon neo-fundamentalism” would have been a preferable term. However, fundamentalism has a special connotation to most Mormons; it refers to dissenting groups from the church that continue to practice polygamy. While “Mormon crisis theology” offered some appeal, I rejected it because Mormonism has been plagued by crises throughout its history, as reflected in its early teachings and in the later adaptations. In the end, “Mormon neo-orthodoxy” seemed to present the fewest difficulties. I should note that only rarely will any two Mormon theologians, whom I classify as neo-orthodox, agree on all aspects of their theology. What they do seem to share is a belief in the depravity of humanity, salvation by grace, and the sovereignty of God.