The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
Restoring the Church:
Zion in the Nineteenth and Twenty-first Centuries
Edwin B. Firmage
The Mormon people and prophets sensed from the beginning that our religion would work only in community. Peculiar Mormon teachings did not simply demand their own institutions; radical social innovations such as polygamy and the United Order required a unique lifestyle and community. We can say now in retrospect that a separate Mormon system of law and society was necessary to protect our vision against hostile government and inadequate law. Beyond that, however, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young understood that for religion to be effective it must be woven into every warp and weft of our lives. No laws of God are temporal only; all are spiritual. If this is to be, the community must allow the introjection of spirituality into the law to enliven the community with God’s spirit.
For Joseph Smith and Brigham Young this vision, in its highest level of effectiveness at least, demanded a gathered church: Zion. This vision was absolutely central for both of them, so much so that they led us into an unequal, nearly hopeless struggle. And yet long after Zion should have been obliterated by an industrial state and national markets, its institutions flourished. Mormon law and courts existed with vitality into the twentieth century. Survival demanded accommodation with the national community, even if it meant abandoning the distinctive and controversial practices of communal economics, polygamy, and theocratic government.
[p.2] With the powerful literalism of commoners, the Mormons, its lay leaders indistinguishable in education and social position from other church members, set out to make Zion a reality. Brigham exhorted with characteristic pungency, “I have Zion in my view constantly. We are not going to wait for angels or for Enoch and his company to come and build Zion, but we are going to build it” (in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1854-86], 9:28). His counselor and friend, Jedediah M. Grant, exclaimed, “If you want a heaven, go to and make it” (ibid., 3:66).
Self-serving individualism, particularly when motivated by wealth, was severely sanctioned. Like ancient Israel’s, the Mormon communal vision was all-encompassing. Looking forward to a return to Jackson County, Missouri, the center stake of Zion, Brigham warned in 1865, “If this people neglect their duty, turn away from the holy commandments which God has given us, seek for their own individual wealth, and neglect the interests of the Kingdom of God, we may expect to be here quite a while—perhaps a period that will be for longer than we anticipated” (ibid., 11:102).
The hallmark of Mormonism was and is this vital and powerful communal cohesion. The power undergirding Mormon communality is reinforced by factors in addition to the theological vision of Zion. The trek to the Great Basin and the colonial experience of settling a major part of western America welded Mormons together with unbreakable bonds. There they built Zion in mountain-encircled valleys. They had consummated one of the great migrations of American history in a self-conscious pattern of the camp of Israel. Brigham extended Zion’s tent with stakes implanted from San Bernardino to Old Mexico, throughout much of California, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico—a rugged, at times brutal experience made possible by a shared vision of Zion. The authoritarian structure inherent in such an endeavor was helpful, perhaps indispensable, and probably inevitable.
The uncoerced social affinity essential to the legitimacy of Mormon community was powerfully strengthened, not shattered, by persecution. The federal government began a half-hearted campaign against the Mormons with ineffective legislation against polygamy and then attempted to eradicate the practice by enforcing laws with heartless brutality. Simultaneously the government attacked Mormon civil rights and liberties, including the rights to serve on [p.3] juries, to emigrate, to vote, and to hold office. Finally the government waged war on Mormon society and corporate personhood by seeking to disenfranchise the church.
The effect of all this was to cement the Mormon community into an impregnable whole. Mormons survived initial persecution and developed the bones and sinews of a people, as did Israel in exodus. They grew under intense and protracted persecution and matured in isolation. But great costs were paid. The combined effect of overt federal persecution and the more thorough and irresistible subversion of Mormon society by widespread industrialization and encroaching national markets finally obliterated much that was unique. Nevertheless, a distinctive Mormon culture survived—part religious community, part ethnic group. Mormonism has powerful characteristics of both church and tribe.
The nineteenth-century Mormon experience can only be described as heroic. Our challenge as we approach the twenty-first century is to continue with equal integrity. This cannot be done by attempting to repeat the past nor by continuing traditions appropriate to continental migrations, colonization, and resistance to persecution. The courage of our founders can be approached only with the same robust vitality that empowered Mormons of the nineteenth century to break decisively with the culture of their time.
Like our individual strengths and dominant characteristics, our corporate strength of intense communality possesses a shadow that we deny at our peril. We have inherited the shadow of our parents’ nineteenth-century traditions of great strength, not simply the traditions themselves. If we recognize this we have nothing to fear; if we do not, we will descend into a parody of the past, devoid of its integrity. We must examine the characteristics of our intense communal insularity and authoritarianism, particularly as they reinforce chauvinistic, ethnocentric tendencies that are no longer valuable in our dissent from the larger national culture.
The challenge for the LDS church in the twenty-first century must be to forge common bonds not to accentuate differences. Our characteristics of both church and ethnic group must be acknowledged. The characteristics of church possess the regenerative power to change our lives toward God’s image—saving grace. Those of ethnic tribalism do not.
[p.4] Military-like discipline may have been needed to colonize a hostile frontier, but it is an obstruction to conversion, not a helpful invitation to mature spirituality. Conversion occurs from the center outward; external coercion does not help the process. We need to move from authoritarian ethnocentricity to a church of Jesus and Paul. When worship of community displaces worship of God, we accentuate our idiosyncrasy by self-love and self-worship. When we worship God we proceed inward to our center and outward in identification with all the human family and all life. We love as God loves. Nevertheless, the empowerment possible only with the church in community must be preserved. The religious teachings and practices of the church can only become real in community. Outside community such teachings remain strangely disembodied—ideas that have little effect on our lives. Church without community is impotent. Community without church places itself rather than God at the center, resulting in an unregenerating tribal culture.
The church in the first century after Christ also faced this crisis, and the Pauline solution points the way for every Christian community that followed. The Christian idea took flesh in community—an intense, insular, Jewish community. For some time it seemed inconceivable that Christianity could exist outside the Jewish matrix in which it was born; but Paul had a vision. Paul came to see that the sociology of Judaism was not prerequisite to the Christian idea. Christianity could be embodied in other cultures, all culture, and Jesus, not the Jewish law, was the gateway. This vision precipitated so great a crisis in the church that the first conference in Christian history was called at Jerusalem. After much discussion the Pauline vision was accepted. The enormous struggle to realize that vision ultimately cost Paul his life, but henceforth the direction of the church was outward—to the entire Roman world and beyond.
No greater burden than the necessary core of the Christian message should be required of the community as a condition for accepting and living the Christian idea. Any Christian community exporting the gospel cannot require the investigating group to accept the sociology of the community presenting the message. The grafting culture must be given the same freedom enjoyed by the exporting group: to nourish the Christian message within their own cultural tradition.
[p.5] Of course some social practices in any culture may be antithetical to the Christian message. Other customs may be more or less conducive to Christian flowering, but each culture must receive freedom sufficient to make these experiments and reach its own conclusions. The alternative is cultural imperialism in the guise of Christian evangelization.
The dialogue within Christianity as to what constitutes the necessary core message continues in every generation and in every community where the message is introduced. The process compels openness and outwardness even in fiercely insular communities resisting every step—unless, of course, they give way to idolatrous, ethnocentric self-worship. God is then displaced with the communal self which grows in its own image, accentuating every group characteristic in perfect caricature.
This dialogue on core essentials exists not only between contemporaneous communities but also between generations within the same community. The gradual change within a believing community obscures the evidence of the evolutionary process, but the process can be seen starkly by separating the centuries.
Accordingly I would like to examine here the Mormon experience in the nineteenth century and contrast it with our situation now as we approach the twenty-first century. What follows are examples of persistent nineteenth-century practices which I believe Mormonism will have to confront as it embraces a different time and other cultures. By no means is this a challenge to the spiritual core of either Christianity or Mormonism. Rather it is an invitation to discover and distinguish our core spiritual principles from the sociological matrix in which we happen to live at a particular time and place. The former we hold and revere; the latter we change as circumstance reveals to us the wisdom of doing so.
The inherited gift of intense community has a tendency to enthrone any peculiar communal characteristic as if it were a divine absolute. This is particularly true for Mormons because of a peculiar insight that paradoxically should produce openness but if unexamined results in the opposite—the open canon. Joseph Smith believed that God could and would give revelatory messages to the world, revealing himself in every age and among many peoples. With a liberality of spirit that even now seems starkly modern, [p.6] he taught that the Jewish and early Christian scripture was holy but not perfect or inerrant and surely not complete. God had spoken and would yet speak to many groups. The result of this insight should have been and to some extent has been that we avoid the presumptuousness of creeds which tightly define and confine God and our relationship to him. Every generation and people wants to be left with great freedom to explore that awesome mystery. Such people, one would think, would never presume formally or informally to excommunicate each other—to pronounce anathema—because someone saw another way.
Over time, however, Mormons developed an idea of a de facto infallibility concerning prophetic pronouncements. The authoritarian tendencies developed in our early community building were inappropriately transferred to doctrinal areas and ecclesiastical government. Although Joseph Smith denied any notion of infallibility or inerrancy, even for the biblical canon, we have come perilously close to believing in the infallibility of the comments of LDS religious leaders, however casual and unexamined.
Like any other religious community, we can all too easily see God’s benediction upon, perhaps even his hand in creating, our every social more. Our group customs—for example, our predilection for conservative politics and classical, marketplace economics—become hallowed, divine. If this process continues unchallenged and unexamined, we begin to worship ourselves, not God. We enthrone every social peculiarity as being revelatory. We defend and accentuate every custom and cling to them through time. Customs of a particular time and place, perhaps defensible or at least understandable near the time of origin, become increasingly grotesque as we carry them into another age.
A painful example illustrates this phenomenon. Early Mormons originally came in large numbers from New England and the East. These displaced Puritans carried with them healthy notions of abolitionist sentiment. In Missouri some blacks were evangelized, baptized, and ordained to priesthood office like other converts. Understandably, slave-owning Missourians were frightened. As a self-defensive measure of preservation in an increasingly violent environment, the Mormons agreed to desist from evangelizing among slaves. Over time, probably unevenly at first, the ordination of blacks to priesthood office ceased.
[p.7] In time the origin of the policy was forgotten. Given the Mormon belief in continuing public revelation, we increasingly bestowed upon this expedient practice a revelatory status. Later Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders made perfectly indefensible statements to justify the practice long after its evolutionary origins were lost. A wretched theology of sorts grew up around a practice that was antithetical to Christian teaching. Paradoxically an early Mormon insight was lost—that abolitionism and Christian equality were consistent with God’s universal parenthood and our universal brotherhood and sisterhood—and a belief in continuing revelation was turned on its head.
Although that practice has now thankfully been reversed, its history is a good study in the potential dysfunctions of the community. Our notion of revealed truth must be moderated, indeed bounded, by the realization that we perceive God’s will through the filter of our own subjectivity, our imperfection, our humanity. Without this insight, that which should liberate imprisons: outworn practice becomes new dogma, more rigid, not adaptable to changing circumstance. When the concept of revelation is joined by a notion of prophetic infallibility, a dogmatic system is born that eventually becomes excessively authoritarian, ironically imprisoning a people in the past when the revelatory notion was meant to free them from the past.
Similarly we have adopted a means of succession to the presidency of the LDS church based on length of apostolic tenure which insures that this vital office once held by the youthful Joseph will almost always be held by someone of extreme old age. Yet no authoritative doctrinal precept mandates this. Over time custom hardened into rule, and now church government is enfeebled at senior levels in the Council of the Twelve and the First Presidency. Nothing in church doctrine forbids an emeritus status for members of the Quorum of the Twelve. This would insure younger leadership in the Council of the Twelve and in the person of the president of the church. Apostolic succession to the presidency still based on tenure could continue but with individuals at least a decade younger assuming the presidency. Or better yet, members of the Council of the Twelve might select the president from among themselves.
At this point another early Mormon characteristic with its accompanying twentieth-century shadow appears: We accept a [p.8] greater degree of authoritarian leadership than would most people living in a modern industrial and democratic state. Undoubtedly this authority is legitimate. It is uncoerced, flowing naturally from a group as homogeneous and communal as ours.
But a religious community must also respect individuals even as it preserves the core beliefs of the community. We believe in uncreated intelligence: a soul sovereign and co-eternal with God: “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn.… Ye were also in the beginning with the Father.… Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.… Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:21, 23, 29, 31). This should allow—demand—an enormous respect for each other’s belief, our individual vision, even in community. Prophetic leadership should consciously decry any notion of infallibility of leader or scripture.
If we believe this then egalitarian dialogue should be encouraged with full heart. This would include searching, open, and honest examination of our history and our scripture. “Honest” and “faithful” history would be the same. Mormon teachings and practices would be discussed and opinions sought at all levels. The profoundly energizing Mormon practice of lay priesthood would be lived more fully than it is currently, with even less distinction between clergy and laity. Theological notions or church practice would be discussed with great openness in every class and quorum. Any creed-like attempt to confine God to something as tiny as our minds would be greeted with good humor. Authoritarian pronouncement would be made infrequently and with caution. All women would be invited into full priesthood participation with every quorum and office in the church open to them. No doctrine of which I am aware forbids this. The absence of feminine spirituality in the councils of church government is a loss of such enormity in Christian history as to be impossible to overstate. With other Christian traditions Mormons must no longer ignore this open wound.
By not decreasing authoritarian tendencies within Mormonism, we risk spiritual and moral infantilism or at best adolescence—a dependence on others for inner spiritual and moral structure which prevents our own robust maturity. Notions of lay priesthood assume that for most purposes we need no intermediary between ourselves and God save Christ. One may be our spokesperson, to be [p.9] sure, at the pulpit or before the altar. But he or she acts for us all. On another occasion we might be the voice. No difference in kind exists. This is the mature form of Christian belief that can take us into the next century, growing in likeness of God, not ourselves.
How do we get there? Perhaps the Pauline example contains the key. A burgeoning church spilling beyond our mountain enclave will face challenges in crossing each frontier. With each barrier we cross, we will become more a church and less an ethnic group. If simultaneously we maintain our core beliefs, our communalism will remain intact but more refined.
This growth will bring with it paradox. As we attempt to save our brothers and sisters in the Third World, perhaps they will save us. As Mormon missionaries evangelize people in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, we constantly will be forced to decide what portion of our message is social custom from Kanosh, Kanab, and Kanarraville, or the essence of Christianity.
Our lay priesthood is an enormous advantage. We cannot impose foreign clergy on native communities for long. At the very least, we should train native lay leaders and ordain them within months. We cannot impose full religious and cultural imperialism on a community in which the entire congregation at every level of leadership is governed from among themselves. If we listen, they will teach us.
The issues will be many: African or Tongan drums in religious ceremonies, forms of dress and food, appropriateness of practices or teachings in a radically new environment, marriage customs. Poverty in the Third and Fourth Worlds will be our great teacher. Our cultural notions of the government’s role in a nation’s economy will be called into question and appropriately discarded by many nations. Our wealth blinds us; their poverty may remove the scales from our eyes. A core Christian gospel will emerge, “these necessary things,” uncluttered with our own sociological baggage.
Similarly as Mormonism enters Communist countries in Eastern Europe and eventually China, we will find that our own enthnocentric notions, however dear to us, are not essential to the gospel’s core.
Within our own country the growth of Mormonism in large urban areas among diverse racial and ethnic groups will force a dialogue upon us and within us. The result, I hope, will be a [p.10] different sort of community: richer in texture, more diverse, less authoritarian.
Perhaps we can enter into interfaith dialogue with our Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters, not seeing them primarily as potential converts but as disciples like ourselves. We might give more attention to converting ourselves to the truths they possess. Mormonism’s influence for good in the world will be much greater, I suspect, among the many who remain firmly attached to their own religious tradition rather than within the relative few who join our faith.
We trivialize God when we see all history pointing toward New York in the 1820s. Our own community becomes too short, too narrow, too thin. Sociologist Robert Bellah’s “community of memory” must extend for us before the nineteenth century (see Bellah, R. Madsen, William Sullivan, A. Swidler, and S. M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart [New York: Harper & Row, 1985]). In the next century as our Mormon community moves outward into Africa, South and Central America, and Asia, we will likely expand in time as well. Mormons who think that God ceased to speak some time after the first century of the Christian era and resumed dialogue with us in the nineteenth century ignore centuries rich in the continuing story of God’s relationship with us all. That bleak picture of utter apostasy is hardly brightened by seeing a few preparatory acts as God’s prologue to the Restoration.
Alternatively we can choose to see God’s message in the writings of Christian fathers and mothers through the centuries as wonderful messages complete in themselves. A vital sense of continuity is lost for Mormons, who generally are closed to such literature and history. The Latin and Greek fathers, the writings and meditations of Christian mystics from the first century to the present, reformers within and without the dominant church of a time and place: all reveal the mystery of God’s relationship with us.
Beyond Christianity the Jewish tradition, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and the Islamic tradition have a richness to offer us. We may gain invaluable richness from an inward journey, not into cultural ethnocentricity but to the center of our own soul. We Mormons have excelled in the outward journey as colonizers and organizers, making deserts blossom, but too many of our hearts may remain an arid desert. Christian and non-Christian mystical traditions have [p.11] much to share with us, more in corrective ways than as replacements for our traditions. Taken alone the mystical tradition could result in an other-worldliness divorced from human need and social action. Equally true social activism shorn of direction from our spiritual center could produce even greater injustice. A dynamic balance between spiritual meditation and action for social justice is the ideal.
Our view and use of scripture could expand as well. Overwhelmingly we now see the Bible as a proof text, using isolated passages to prove a particular teaching, and pass this off as pastoral instruction in scripture. What loss. This is strange too because formally we do not accept the fundamentalist belief in scriptural inerrancy, nor do we see the scriptures as a source of priesthood empowerment as in the Protestant tradition. As we sense our own need for real nourishment, we may move toward non-dogmatic, non-apologetic study of the Bible simply to gain the richness of its real message.
We would aid this process greatly by diminishing our monopolistic use of the King James version of the Bible. This beautiful English translation is a treasure beyond price. But thousands of documents are now available and have been for decades which the King James translators did not have. And our language has changed dramatically. If we want the scriptures to come alive for us and for our children, we should embrace new translations. Again it is strange that a people who rejected Protestant fundamentalism toward scripture in the nineteenth century should seek so avidly to board a ship in this century that is so clearly sinking as is this form of scriptural fundamentalism, relegating scriptures to the status of an icon: something to be venerated but not understood. Our choice of a Bible translation too must turn outward. If not we remain cut off from much dialogue in biblical research and from greater meaning and sensitivity in biblical education. Of course Joseph Smith used the King James translation; what other translation would he use? After one wades through all the rationalizations for our current practice, this is the fundamental reason for retaining this translation, and it is not sufficient.
I suspect that even something as central and sacred in Mormon teaching as the role of the family will come under scrutiny as we move into the next century. It seems reasonable to believe that loving [p.12] family associations formed in mortality may continue in the resurrection. But retaining the absolute centrality of the family in our beliefs can cause us to miss a much bigger picture. Millions of single and divorced people can be hurt, feeling that they are only marginally involved in church participation. It is possible to make an icon of the family as easily as a particular version of the Bible.
Jesus in his own life and teachings revealed a much grander vision. In almost every example of family association in his life and ministry, Jesus taught us to transcend the family. The family relationship was often used by him as a negative example—that is, he taught that if our sense of love and obligation did not move beyond family and blood relationships, we had not yet perceived his message. When his family found him in the temple, he responded to Mary’s mild rebuke by saying that he was about his Father’s business—not theirs (Luke 2:41-50). When informed that his mother and brothers were outside, he told a crowded room that his disciples were his family (Matt. 12:46-50). In an intentionally harsh statement so we would not miss the point, he responded to a disciple’s request to bury his father, “Let the dead bury the dead” (8:21-22). There is no reliable historical evidence that Jesus ever married. His disciples forsook all and followed him (I hope they did not desert their families, but the record does not clearly demonstrate that they did not).
The journey outward is not so much toward individualism, though that is part of it. The individual must be free from coercive, demeaning authoritarianism if he or she is to mature spiritually into responsible autonomy. If the community is too insular, this process of individuation can take place only by breaking outside. The journey outward, however, is primarily a journey into larger community, larger in time and space. We will come to identify ourselves with Christians beyond the Mormon experience, those living now and those who have gone before. With believers in traditions other than Christianity, we see similarities in the human quest that are more fundamental than our differences. Part of this recognition may come as we travel inward on the meditative journey to our own center or outward as we graft into our community of memory others from radically different cultures.
Jesus’ life and message transcended community, race, gender, nationality, tribe, even family. If we trivialize this message, we violate the first commandment by some form of self-worship. [p.13] Ethnocentricity indeed has power. Religion in community is the spiritual word embodied. But ethnocentricity alone is communal self-worship. The refining process of God’s grace is in the true religious experience with God at the center.
Jesus broke traditional bonds. He recognized that his message would set children against parents, brothers and sisters against their kin. But the same message has the power to bind them up again, united across differences of race, gender, nationality, religious traditions even through time. His parable of the Good Samaritan; his teaching of having no place to lay his head or to lodge; his refusal to eat or converse only with “good people”; the first great crisis of Christianity, that of resolving Jewish and Gentile Christianity through the Pauline paradigm—all point the way.
Jesus preached and practiced a transcendent message of self-love, love of neighbor, and finally love of enemy. Neighbor and enemy combined such that no one was excluded from our love. On our inner journey of Christian meditation, on our outer journey to transcend race, gender, and nationality, Mormonism must and will overleap the mountain redoubt that nurtured us in our infancy. With the Puritans across the continent in an earlier age, with Joseph and Brigham, Augustine and Paul, we continue our search for the City of God.[p.15]