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Concerning the history of Mormonism

The Cult of Motherhood

Posted by nebula0 on October 8, 2008


The men and women Puritans who settled America worked side by side in small family farms.  There was, to be sure, a division of labor, but husbands and wives normally saw each other often during the day.  The Calvinist theology they held preached that both men and women were depraved sinners desperately in need of Christ’s grace.  If anything, women were viewed as snares to men, as Eve was a snare to Adam, so that husbands needed to carefully watch and manage their wives as heads of their house.  It was women in these times who were the sexual beings needed managing, not men.  If that surprises you, it’s no doubt because you too have been indoctrinated into the cult of Motherhood.  In the cult of Motherhood, women, mothers in particular, are creatures close to the angels, pure and spiritual, and through their very presence in the household civilize their men.  How did women go from being sexual temptress to asexual angel?  And, considering this is a blog about Mormonism, what does any of this have to do with Mormonism?

The change happened primarily with the Industrial Revolution.  Men and women no longer labored side by side on their small family farms or running their small businesses from their homes, now men went to the factory or the office and the wife stayed home to tend to the children.  The doctrine of the spheres came into being: the proper sphere of men is the public one, the world of business and industry, the proper sphere of women is the private one, home and family.  Men began to imagine that Industry and Business were cruel and harsh worlds, that they had to become uncivilized warriors of sorts to go and tame it.  Yes, perhaps they put on a suit and did paper work all day, but it was a world of rough morality and cutthroat action nonetheless, suited to their rugged masculinity.  The home became envisioned as a place of rest from the rough and tumblel work place, a place with the calming influence of a loving wife.  Women now were portrayed as naturally more spiritual than men, more moral and less sexual.  The less that men had interactions with women, the more women were put on a pedestal because the more that men could erect fantasies about their wives’ purity.  The private sphere became exalted as the cornerstone of societal morality, and wives as the guardians of morality.  If men were to succeed in business, they would have to dirty their hands, their wives on the other hands, would keep their homes clean physically and spiritually.  This began to backfire when women, encouraged by slogans promoting their moral and spiritual superiority to men, began to take over their churches and enter the public sphere in order to purify society as a whole.  There was a backlash against this as the nascent fundamentalist movement reemphasized the masculinity of Christianity, but mainline Protestantism never did get women out of the church committees.  The cult of Motherhood survives and flourishes in many corners of conservative Christianity.

So, how was Mormonism affected by these changes?  As Mormons began to seek greater respectability with the larger American culture at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th C they began to embrace these trends.  The most obvious example is the Manifesto of 1890 officially ending the practice of polygamy, and the actual suppression of polygamy by the LDS church within a decade of the 20th C.  Interestingly, the practice of polygamy (plural marriage) initially had an insulating affect against the Victorian ethos of putting women at home.  Mormon women were already flaunting Victorian morality in the first place, and were excluded from respectable society for even accepting polygamy even if they didn’t personally practice it.  As a result, Mormon women fashioned their own culture, including one that gave their organization within the LDS church, the Relief Society, great autonomy.  Many polygamous wives used the freedom they had through having helping sister wives to campaign for women’s suffrage (Utah was the first to grant women the right to vote) or to go to college.  Women gave each other blessings and learned to look after one another.  That’s not to say that polygamy wasn’t a hard way of life, but a result of the way of life had unexpected benefits too.

When Mormonism began to embrace the larger culture, suppress polygamy and accept the larger standards of morality, the advances that Mormon women had also crumbled.  Mormon women were encouraged to stay at home, and the Relief Society lost more and more autonomy with time.  In short, Mormonism embraced with special vigor the cult of Motherhood.  This is partly why Mormonism is not in a position at this time to grant women the priesthood: the priesthood has to do with the nitty gritty running of the ecclesiastical organization, women have a more lofty position that shouldn’t get itself distracted with the operations of power.  The majority of Mormon men want to continue to be able to experience their wives as selfless angels doing the direct work of heaven rather than face the reality that perhaps their wives might enjoy the same kind of base pleasures such as public power that they do.

The cult of Motherhood may seem on the surface to be a boon to women.  Who doesn’t want to be seen as nearly supernaturally good by nature?  But the result has been reduced autonomy of women’s organizations and increased sequestering of women away from the public sphere.  Women who ascribe to the cult of Motherhood soon find that they have to live up to these expectations of angelic proportions, or at least make an appearance of it, and suppress whatever human urges they have for public power and increased recognition.  The cult of Motherhood does serve them in a practical sense, encouraging their men to provide for them and their children, and to protect them, in a way that perhaps would not happen if the cult did not exist.  So, women find themselves in a bind, to continue to suppress that part of them for serious respect and public recognition, or to deal with the possibility of less security, financial and otherwise, that is found with their men who especially ascribe to the cult.  This is a very real dilemma, and many rational, intelligent women have decided to opt for the security for themselves and their children in a world in which men no longer feel bond by societal constraints to stay with their ‘first’ wives and provide fully financially and temporally for their children.

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

The Paradoxes of Authority in Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on September 25, 2008


Mormonism has at its heart a tension between the concept of free agency and that of authority.  This tension plays itself out in Mormon life on all levels, between a democratic impulse and an authoritarian one, between personal revelation and the strict levels of the priesthood with their respective domains.  What makes any tension like this interesting is the fact that the practitioners are not consciously aware of it playing out, they hold fast to the notion of freedom and authority simultaneously, privileging one element or the other as the situation demands.  How did such a tension of opposites come about in a single religious system?  What is the theology which supports these ideas in a single system? What are the implications?

Mormonism was born in a colorful time of American history, and more specifically, a turbulent time of American Christianity.  As any beginning student of Mormonism is aware, it was a product of the Second Great Awakening in American religious life, a time of large revivals, a time of itinerant preachers, a time of anxiety of one’s salvation.  Joseph Smith’s account of his seeking religious guidance in his First Vision accounts all point to the confusion that this could have on Americans involved (check out the canonized version of his story here: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/contents).  The area Joseph grew up in in upper New York was known as the Burnt Out District because of the all of the revivals that had come through.  Joseph, having been exposed to the views of many preachers, became concerned about the state of his own salvation and that concern led directly to his First Vision.  These revivals were directly influenced by American values such as freedom and individual rights which preachers on the vanguard of the movement had internalized and used to rebel against Puritan Calvinism which was once so influential.  This in turn influenced the church Joseph was to form, evidenced in terms such as “President of the church” and the practice of the body of members to sustain leadership.  Joseph’s environment leaves a deep mark in Mormonism’s basic theological notion of free agency and the American value of free enterprise and ability for anyone to rise in the system finds its most exuberant expression in Mormonism’s eternal progression which allows for any person to become a god or goddess.

Joseph soon found that this impulse to freedom and rising in the ranks would have a negative effect on the cohesion of the church he founded.  Soon, not only Joseph was getting revelation, but many others in the early Mormon community were as well, and their revelations undermined the authority of Joseph.  It was at this moment that the notion of priesthood authority was refined and its proper domains categorized.  So it was that only the Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, Joseph Smith, could have revelation pertaining to the entire church (as well as the globe, incidentally).  Other church authorities could have more circumscribed authority, patriarchs could have revelation pertaining to their family, and women revelation pertaining to their own limited spheres.  Not only was this priesthood authority conceptualized to order life on mortal earth, but also to extent to the eternities and order the life of the gods. So it is that our heavenly father will always have authority over us, even if we attain godhood ourselves and women are said to become priestesses and queens to their husbands, while the men become priests and kings to God.  The domains of the priesthood find their most unit in the family structure, which is envisioned to be the fundamental order of intelligent beings throughout all eternity.

The implications of these two elements in tension, personal revelation for all on one hand, rigid church authority on the other; free agency on one hand, the necessity to enter into binding covenants to progress on the other plays itself out in interesting ways in ordinary Mormon life.  Take for instance the practice of sustaining leaders.  Mormons are asked at various meetings to show their support for their leadership and also show support for sundry callings that every active Mormon will accept. The opportunity is also available for any member to express opposition to any leader or calling during these occasions.  The interesting thing is, it is culturally taboo to express dissent to what is understood to be an inspired decision.  So it is that in all my years as a Mormon I have never seen anyone dissent, and if you ask around, many other Mormons active all their lives have never seen anyone dissent and of those who have, it is usually just once or twice that they have seen it.  The notion of personal revelation is satisfied through going through the motions of sustaining and at least hypothetically allowing for dissent, while the reality of rigid church structure through which inspired bishops and stake presidents make their personnel choices is played out in the reality that opposition by other members is very rarely expressed.

Perhaps you, readers, have other examples.  Anyone care to share?

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Are “Mormon Fundamentalists” Mormon?

Posted by nebula0 on September 5, 2008


The answer is yes, yes and yes.  Despite official disagreement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) based in Salt Lake City Utah, the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) are what they say they are: Mormons.

[Check out this letter to the media from the LDS church:  http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/media-letter]

While it is true that the majority of Mormons are members of the LDS church, this does not give the LDS church the prerogative to decide who gets to be Mormon and who is out.  The FLDS claim is that they are the ones who are truly following in the footsteps of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor and you know… it would seem they have a case for it too.  Polygamy (or plural marriage as Mormons like to call it) was a central tenant in the LDS church until the manifesto of 1890 dissolved it, on paper, and then in the early 20th C Mormons decided they really did want to do away with it in order to modernize.  It does all seem rather convenient- the US government disenfranchises all those who uphold polygamy as a doctrine, effectively disenfranchising every LDS Mormon, church property seized, leaders threatened with imprisonment, and lo and behold a revelation comes to the prophet that polygamy is over?  Bear in mind that to the leaders of the LDS church at this time the 1890 manifesto was understood to be a cover, a means of getting the US government off their backs, until a time in which they could come out of hiding again with their polygamy.  The next generation however, the generation which saw Utah become a state in 1896, forgot about that understanding and really did do away with polygamy and it was the actions of those in the first decades of the 20th C that was the direct cause of the creation of the FLDS.

All of this is to say that it is rather presumptuous of the LDS church to presume to be the sole determiners for the media who is and who is not a Mormon.  It’s gone so far as to obtain a registration of the title Mormon!  There are dozens of others groups claiming to be Mormons, and the true Mormons at that and if that fact makes the LDS church uncomfortable that is its problem.

What all this really demonstrates is the LDS church’s obsession with public image.  Instead of getting into the details of history and theology to spell out for the public exactly what the differences are about, it hires its lawyers and demands the media play the game according to the LDS church’s rules.  That is, a whitewashed history with neat categories– and don’t you dare associate Mormonism with those fundamentalists.  Perhaps this is a result of Mormonism still being, in relative terms, an immature religion, perhaps also a result of not having a paid, professional clergy who is trained to think about these matters, perhaps a result of the identity crisis Mormonism faces- but whatever it is, I hope no media kowtows to such unreasonable demands.

Posted in Controversial Topics, Historical Thoughts, Reflections | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »