A historian, Kathleen Flake is the author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. She is assistant professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 27, 2006.
Summarize what you know about your own Mormon family's pioneer stories.
There are seven generations of Latter-day Saints in my family. My family was converted in Mississippi in 1842, ... and they go north to Nauvoo, Ill., to settle, and they're part of that long trek -- that experience of conflict in Nauvoo, the murder of [Joseph] Smith, the crossing of the [Great] Plains that includes death at winter quarters, hard physical labor. In my particular story that group of people were told to move even further, to California, and settle San Bernardino, where the father dies in exploration missions and the mother dies of an illness in San Bernardino, leaving the children as orphans.
Then they're called back to Utah to fend against [Albert Sidney] Johnston's Army. Then they get settled. They marry. Settlements occur. They build homes. They attend a dedication of the temple in southern Utah, and they're told to leave again to yet a more godforsaken place, northern Arizona, and scratch out a living there.
So there's a particular notion of life and its tragic dimension that I think is bequeathed to me, that helps me not think of God as someone who hands out simply blessings...
You said that "Mormonism is a religion that cuts, but doesn't destroy. There are casualties because of this religion."
Mormonism is a radical religion. It plays with fire. This religion manifests in a very modern world an archaic notion of communication with the divine. This fire of God's word is present among the Mormons; they believe it's present on an everyday level. They believe God talks to them. And this is dangerous in a pluralistic society where various visions of what is right and good are in competition, because Mormons will look to God to tell them what is right and good. They will look there first, and they will look there last. And this becomes then a question of loyalty: Whose law do you obey?
“For Joseph Smith, seeing God was what it was to be religious. And so he sets about duplicating that original experience for everybody else. Revelation is everything to this church. It is revelation or nothing for these people.”
They believe in a righteousness that extends beyond morality. It is a kind of an Old Testament righteousness, a covenant order within this community that serves as the basis for their ability to receive the word of God that's as old as the Old Testament. So this is a community that will judge and excommunicate. They believe they have a sense of rightness.
Everybody has their own way of describing revelation even within the Mormon community. What does revelation mean? It's not just a good feeling. The Mormon sense of revelation is different.
The Mormon sense of revelation is different. ... People believe in the spirit. Probably the most dramatic expression of their belief in modern revelation is this conviction that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that the Book of Abraham is the word of God, and that Joseph Smith, as a prophet speaking for God, could look at the Bible and add the word of God to the Bible, where God actually speaks new words in the Bible. That kind of conviction of not rephrasing, but speaking the words of God, probably gets you closer to understanding what is different about their revelation.
This is not some exercise in reading the Bible and saying, "This is what God meant." They believe they stand there and speak for God, and certainly their prophet speaks for God.
So to summarize, Mormons' emphasis on revelation is distinct in what way?
If I were to try to characterize the distinctiveness of Mormon revelation, there would be two elements to it. One is the expectation of it and the openness to all of those biblical experiences. If you were to talk to Mormons about it, you would hear them describe those experiences that would track Paul of Tarsus and Jacob and his ladder all those stories, the hearing of voices, the dreaming of dreams, the having of visions in a very modern people.
The other dimension would be the conviction that if you don't get this, you are not living the religious life. You have a mission to perform, and if you do not get direction on that through revelation, you have failed in your own religious life. The Bible is lived in all its immediacy, and God does have an expectation that you will come and talk to him about this and get this revelation. ...
And the day-to-day texture of it --
Mormonism's sense of revelation may be distinct in its ubiquitousness -- how everybody feels they can get it and that they must get it. The "it" that they're going to get is as dramatic as anything they read in the Bible: that they hear voices; they dream dreams; they have visions; and they expect in their daily walk to receive instruction if they're living worthily, that God is able to drop in at any particular time and say, "Stop what you're doing; I need you to go visit Brother or Sister So-and-so; they need help."
The assumption that God wants to do that, that it is necessary for the full living of their religious life, I think may be distinctive about the Mormon notion of revelation. That's the description on the everyday level, and I think it's important to see that on the everyday level.
I don't want to also ignore the fact that revelation operates on a very dramatic level institutionally. These are people who believe God has given them new Scripture that is as legitimate to them as the Bible is to them, and that God speaks to a prophet in the same way Moses spoke. Moses was a lawgiver, and they believe that their Mormon president is a lawgiver, and when he speaks, he speaks the law, not from Sinai, but from the Great Basin and in the same power of representing God's will on the earth.
Mormonism could not exist without revelation. The Bible is not enough for them. ... It is revelation or nothing for these people, and if they ever lose that, then they have no reason for being. Their whole message is "God speaks today."
Joseph Smith -- his complexity, his accomplishments, his contradictions, his largeness. Who is Joseph Smith to you? Tell us why he matters.
Joseph Smith's uniqueness can, I think, be understood by an analogy that I sometimes use to Henry Ford. Henry Ford wanted a car in every home. Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he'd had, which was seeing God.
So seeing God was what it was to be religious, and he sets about duplicating that original experience for everybody else, trying to come up with a system. One way to understand Smith is to say that he's trying to figure out which church is true, and he believes God comes to him and gives him this answer. And of course that becomes the model not only for finding out which church is true, but all kinds of other questions.
... One of the ways Smith is interesting is you can understand him as someone who's trying to bring Catholicism and Protestantism back together -- the liturgy of the word, the liturgy of the sacrament, and Smith is trying to weave those back together. This is a sacramental institution. You cannot be saved without the ordinances. It's also a liturgy of the word. You've got the Bible; you've got the Book of Mormon; you've got the Book of Abraham; you've got the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C]. They're Smith's own revelations. In Mormonism you can't pull those two things apart.
This is a man who is a tower of contradictions. People who adore this man and believe in him still say he is darkness and light, so many colors. What are those complexities?
Joseph Smith is a complicated figure, and I like those complications myself. To many people those complications contradict an idealized portrait of what a prophet ought to be. They forget that Moses killed an Egyptian, that Abraham lied about his wife. ...
To me it almost makes Smith's claim more legitimate that he's got this temper, because it fits with the extremity of his emotions -- how he was attached to people and how he would trust people too quickly and how he would look for people who were better trained than he, and he'd begin to lean on them, and then they'd disappoint him and turn on him, and then he'd have to do some kind of fix-up work. He was all the time saying, "OK, that revelation is complete," and then he'd come back, and he'd have another revelation. So he is puzzling.
But I suppose I would expect to find these contradictions in a human being who is trying to mediate the divine and is still human. And it seems to me too many people try to make their prophets angels. Now, Joseph Smith was no angel -- that record is out there, and it's highly debated. And his sexuality, his temper, his sense of certainty -- he was so certain at times.
You had an intriguing comment. You said that Joseph Smith was "a thorn in the side of America."
Smith was a thorn in the side of America in many ways. ... To me it is striking that just at the time when religious America is beginning to get historical about the Bible and beginning to argue, "Well, it's not so revelatory, and we need to understand it in its historical context," he writes a Scripture! And what is it? It's not these little poems of morality; it's history. And he even goes and cracks open the Bible and adds more story to the Bible.
He is all about narrative, not theology, at the very time when most of American Christianity, and certainly European Christianity, is long down this path is applying methods of higher criticism and history to the Bible.
The other thing that's interesting to me is at the time America is desiring to be homogenous in its morality, Smith says: "Let's experiment with marriages. Let's experiment with the construction of families." At the very time that the family is becoming sacrosanct and women are trying to empower, ... Smith says, "No, go back, back, and let's do this patriarchal/matriarchal family."
The other fascinating dimension about Smith is his religious ideas ... and designing a system of beliefs that became credible to people. These are huge ideas about people acting in the name of God to change themselves, their physical environment, their human relations, to welcome the reign of God on earth.... In Smith's idea you have to become holy and you have to do holy things, as guided by God, so God can return.
So this is a labor that must be imagined on the grand scale; he's planning cities of 10,000 and sending people across oceans for the preaching of the gospel. He's imagining this holy work filling entire continents and changing, filling the earth, and on the individual level, changing you to be like Jesus Christ.
What were the reasons for the persecutions of the Mormons in the early 19th century? [It wasn't just its attitude toward religion --]
I think ... the high level of fear that was expressed about the Mormons had to do with the extent to which antebellum America was wrestling with issues of power -- church and state certainly, but also regional power. Remember, this is pre-Civil War years, where they are still trying to struggle with South/North, the meaning of the frontier and how that was going to affect the balance of power in the nation.
The Mormons are out there on the frontier, and out there as a bloc. They're also out there with specific ideas that run counter to the establishment. They believe not just in a moral conformity of state and religion; they believe that religious leaders should provide the leadership for the town as well. Even the Puritans didn't believe that.
They're building cities, and these cities are meant to stay, and they're meant to govern a geographic region, and that region keeps getting bigger and bigger as their numbers enlarge. They're gathering to them all these immigrants as well. People from different parts of the region are coming in, and eventually you'll have people outside the United States. So all of those anxieties are getting aggravated by the Latter-day Saints in the way they bring together temporal, political concerns and religious, ecclesiastical concerns.
From those who were doing the Joseph Smith Papers, there's some evidence that the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri is based on an enormous land grab, which we don't often take into account. We talk about Mormons coming in and dominating the economies, but we never think of the lands they possessed on the frontier when others were seeking to do other things with those lands.
The persecution theme is important in the way Mormons think of themselves. One historian said there's no excuse for the persecution, but the Mormons were strategic in using it. How important is persecution [as] a way of forging their identity?
Mormonism's history of persecution is part of understanding who they are and who they were and how they understood themselves to be and how they present themselves in the world. There's no question about that. I think historically that persecution became a measure of their righteousness, as religious [people] are wont to do. I think that it also shored up their external boundaries against Protestant America.
I think in the contemporary world, however, persecution largely is not [of] that much interest to Latter-day Saints. They think of themselves as having won. If there's one way to understand the importance of conversion numbers to them, I think it's a sign that they've made it, that they survived, that they triumphed over adversity. But I don't think they focus on persecution itself as being a part of their present. I don't think they have any axes to grind.
I think they are a minority group that are remarkably free of complaints. I'm personally surprised by that. The way they use their history is to shore up this broader sense of this God's coming kingdom that cannot be stopped by human hand. It's part of a larger, biblical story for them.
The only complaints I ever hear are about the stereotypes. ...
But that's different from the persecution. They do not like the stereotypes. They see themselves as a modern people, as integrated into their culture, and are at best puzzled and at worst irritated, aggravated by the stereotypes that would exclude them from the major project that is American culture.
Mountain Meadows may be that moment where you can look and say, "This is where Mormonism's own checks and balances failed them, and they lost control, and they burnt to the ground." This sense of being anointed, of speaking in the name of God, having work to do, being above the law -- Mountain Meadows may be the symbol of that. And until Mormonism itself comes to terms with Mountain Meadows and how that happened, it will remain alive for them as well.
When you reflect on it, what part of the context that's always used to explain Mountain Meadows helps you understand that event?
[Historian] Juanita Brooks' explanation was a powerful one -- the hysteria over war by a group of people that have experienced war. This isn't an abstraction to them that the [U.S.] Army is coming. These were survivors of the mob action in Missouri and in Illinois, I think, and that needs to be taken into account, ... that these were people who were traumatized by the violence on the frontier; so we can't judge them by our own standards.
But by any standards what they did was horrific. And you can even say that it's horrific because you can see white people doing this with Native people. ... [But] what makes Mountain Meadows stand out on the frontier is that this is white people on white people.
And white people on children. ...
... And it's white people killing white people's babies, and it's white people killing unarmed white women. And then you have a religious people doing this. You expect religious people to act differently than you do soldiers. So all of that goes into making Mountain Meadows the horror that it was and is to us, and why we're still waiting for an explanation.
What I think gives Mountain Meadows its continuing power is our failure either inside or our failure outside the community to understand how that could have happened. And until someone does that, it will continue to illuminate.
Can you give us a sense of the importance of polygamy, religiously, to 19th-century Mormons?
I think doctrinally people miss the significance of polygamy. ... This desire to become like God included thinking about God as Father and themselves as fathers and mothers. Of course, one of Smith's teachings was there was a God the Mother as well. So this idea of becoming like God included this idea of becoming like God the Father and God the Mother. So parenting was hugely important, and this parenting occurred in these kinship structures, whereby you not only parented by giving birth, but you parented by adopting families into your family. So it's a web. It's a creation of kinship that has to do with salvation or exaltation as the Latter-day Saints would believe.
So to walk away from that was not just walking away from a sexual arrangement, which is how it was generally discussed. For Mormons to walk away from polygamy was to walk away from an entire kinship structure that not only gave meaning to their most intimate associations but also was related very directly to their understanding of how one was saved.
So this was a big deal. It was a major debate. And sometimes I think it's easier to think of if you went to another Christian and said: "The United States is going to legislate against baptism. You can't baptize anymore." Well, what would they do? They would start doing it in swimming pools; they would dig a hole in their basements. They would still baptize.
So Mormons were still performing these celestial marriages, because to them they were related to salvation. This is what gave you an endowment of power from on high through which to engender a particular kind of holy life within your children certainly, but also within this larger network of kinship. So ... before the bar of judgment, I think what Mormons think -- it is to be standing there with all their kin, not their actions, not their ascent to God's sovereignty, not their acceptance of Jesus as their savior only. The force of it is to stand there with their kin, people they love, that love them, and who will say: "Yes, this person helped me in my spiritual growth and my spiritual life. This person participated in my salvation with you, Jesus."
By your account, it was an extraordinarily dynamic turning point, a pivotal moment that helped push them into the 20th century. Now tell me your own personal feelings about polygamy.
The Mormons themselves will say that polygamy was not only not easy, but that it was a stumbling block; that it was lived poorly by many. In fact, if you look at the historical record and the explanation given by contemporaries for why the practice was discontinued, they will say because people lived it wrong. That meant a lot of hearts were broken; a lot of foolish things and cruel things were done under this system.
Did you ever have any of the questions that Valeen [Tippetts] Avery [co-author of Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Hale Smith, wife of Joseph Smith] came up with in her research? Obviously Valeen Avery was deeply troubled by its beginnings. Did you have any troubles with its messy beginnings?
There's two kinds of messiness in the beginning of polygamy. One is simply the historical record and account. We don't have an explanation of it really. We're still trying to figure out what went on between 1831 and 1844, when Smith died. The other kind of messiness is the moral messiness, and it partakes in that larger problem of Smith as a personality and the "prophet puzzle" that some people refer to. There's no question that he acted immorally within a certain frame of what morality is.
The question arises, did Smith lie to his wife? Probably so. The record seems, if you look at the dates and the marriages, if he didn't lie he certainly withheld; he certainly obscured; he certainly answered plain questions with misdirection. But we don't have enough of the dialogue to know exactly what went on between him and his wife. We do know that he had marriages that she didn't know about, and that they were women that lived under her roof, and they were her friends. ...
[And what about Joseph Smith's motivations?]
A variety of motivations inform all our conduct. Do I think Smith's revelations on polygamy can be reduced to his sex drive? No, I don't, no more than I think the Book of Mormon can be reduced to treasure hunting. It's a much more complex picture than that.
So you conclude, as many do, that this was experienced by Joseph Smith as a true revelation. Is that fair?
... Polygamy makes everyone struggle with the question of Smith as a prophet, so that's an interesting dynamic for me actually, because one typically thinks -- superficially one thinks of religion as providing answers, and Smith provides as many questions as he does answers. And that's true for the insider -- possibly a little more so for the outsider -- because to take Smith seriously raises even more questions. If you can say it is sex drive, if you can say it's treasure hunting, if you can say it's lack of education or if you can say it's megalomania, which was [Joseph Smith biographer] Fawn Brodie's [view], if you can say that, then he becomes a lot simpler. And maybe the explanation is that simple.
But I think he is a complex enough character that you need to struggle a little further than either of those. That he's God's puppet, he did nothing but what God wanted him to do, or that he was a charlatan pretender -- those two [descriptions] fail to illuminate this very complex figure.
The "Mormon problem": Can you talk about that?
Even after the Mormon escape into the West, leaving the country, they land smack-dab back into it after the war in Mexico. They are now part of the United States again in the Great Basin. ... So this time the federal government, not the state government, was trying to solve this Mormon problem, and they tried a couple of measures.
First they sent the Army out to subdue the Mormons in the West. It worked in some respects. They deposed Brigham Young as governor. But still the system rolled on the way it was. So they began to legislate against Mormon practices, and this legislation had criminal penalties attached to it. It included jailing people for being polygamous; they took away the vote from women; they disinherited children of these polygamous marriages, said that when their parents died they couldn't inherit property. ...
1890 was a terrible year for the Mormons. It began with a Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of the federal government to confiscate church property of all kinds and also upheld the Idaho statute which had taken the vote away from anybody who believed in polygamy -- forget if you practiced it. If you believed in it, you couldn't hold public office in Idaho, and you couldn't vote.
In September the federal marshal called the Mormon Church president and said, "We've got this Supreme Court decision, and we're going to confiscate your temples," and they couldn't stand that. That was the one thing they couldn't give up. . ... And in response, the church president issued a public statement that said, "I will recommend that the members not engage in these practices, and they do so at their own risk." ...
The federal agents who knew the Mormons said: "No, that's not enough. You've got to get this guy to go before the congregation of the church and have this accepted as a revelation, or everybody knows he doesn't mean it." So he presents it to the congregation at General Conference, and one diary of that day said it was a weak vote, but they sustained it.
But increasingly, what's called the Manifesto became church law. It goes from a public relations statement basically to church law. It becomes the public statement on polygamy, and of course they retreat from the practice. But the leadership of the church and certainly among the rank and file are also continuing to enter into new plural marriages during this period, and that becomes obvious in the [Reed Smoot] hearings that are held before the United States Senate beginning in 1903.
The Smoot trial was an enormously important moment in Mormon history. You've said it was like Watergate, that visible and public. Perhaps even that much of a turning point. Can you take us through Smoot's trial as a story?
As the 20th century dawned, both the nation and the Mormon Church knew they still had a Mormon problem.
In 1903 a man arrives in Washington named Reed Smoot. He is a Mormon apostle, and he's been elected to the [U.S.] Senate. Simultaneous with his election, the Protestant leadership, many of the business leaders and some of the non-Mormon political leaders, have filed a petition with Congress saying he is not fit to hold a seat in the national legislature because he represents a lawless organization.
That moment -- Smoot's arrival in Washington and the complaint that was filed by the Protestants against Smoot in the Senate -- provides the occasion for the working out of the Mormon problem. Where the Army had failed to solve it, where criminal statutes had failed to change Mormon behavior and solve the Mormon problem, this political trial does. And it was a huge trial.
[The trial] lasted for four years, with breaks of course. It involved over 100 witnesses, a 3,500-page transcript to the hearing. It was as big publicly as anything we've seen in our own day -- Watergate, Iran-Contra. It captured the public's attention on a variety of very dramatic issues -- church and state, sex, religious power, the secrecy of Mormon temples, sacramental religion. ... You couldn't be in America during these years and not know about the Smoot hearings.
What was at stake in the Smoot hearings?
The stakes were high for all the parties. For the government, they needed to get what was now not simply a church but a state -- Utah is now a state, since 1896 -- they need to get the state in line and get it to obey the law. It's a power struggle, as it's always been between the government and the Mormon Church; it's being played out in the Senate hearing.
For the Mormons the stakes are even higher probably. They are being ghettoized; they are not able to get their message outside of the Rocky Mountain West. In New York the mayor issued a regulation that prohibited Mormons from proselytizing in the street. The Southern region outbreaks of violence were fairly common. ...
In Europe governments were refusing to admit missionaries to the country. They were also refusing to allow their own citizens to emigrate to Utah; they were refusing to allow Mormon congregations to be formed or Mormons to worship. In fact, in 1901, when Joseph F. Smith becomes president of the Mormon Church, he says to his congregation, he says in his first speech: "We've got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they're doing God a service to kill us."
Now, again, they're not so much concerned at this point about being believed; they're concerned about being heard, because their reputation is so bad that good people won't give them the time of day. ... And if people won't hear that message, they might as well just pack up and go home.
Now, the Protestants bring their own concern. Polygamy is still abhorrent to them, not only a danger to home and hearth, but that danger itself undermines democracy. It is a threat to the United States government that the home is, in their terms, dissipated by this family practice. It gets to a particularly high pitch for the Protestants because they are feeling the erosion of their own power in the early 20th century. It's what some scholars [called] a time of second disestablishment. And Mormonism hasn't gone away. Protestantism has thrown everything it had at it, and it's still there. They can't get it to go away.
So you see the aggravation and the level of acrimony -- people going on the lecture circuit, wearing Mormon clothes, holding it up to public ridicule, making fun of it; having pseudoscientific lectures about how Mormons who are the offspring of polygamous marriages are deformed; speaking about them in highly racialized [terms]. You've got these cartoons that are extraordinarily aggressive; for example, the president of the Mormon Church portrayed as a convict. He's got a ball and chain on him, a bulbous nose that makes him look like an alcoholic, his eyes drooping as if he was a drunk.
At the end, in 1907, when the Senate voted to seat the senator from Utah, what did the Mormons get?
The strain of the Smoot hearing on the Mormon Church was extraordinary. Every leader of the Mormon Church was subpoenaed to testify in Washington, or "the seat of war," as they called it in their accounts. There were federal agents around the Utah area looking for Smoot's other wife. There were rumors that he had another wife, but he didn't. Their testimony was being published in the local anti-Mormon press. ...
In 1907, after four years of pistol whipping, both on the stand and in the press, you have to ask yourself, did the Mormons get what they wanted? And I would have to say yes. I think the easiest way to measure that is to jump ahead a few years, 1923.
Reed Smoot is now a senior senator, a ranking member of the Senate and the Republican Party, a counselor to the president. President Harding consults him; he is chairman of Senate Finance. He's on the War Reparations Committee, and he's invited to go to Europe, and he uses that occasion to visit with the heads of Europe and to talk to them about his church and to ask them: "Why are you treating my church this way? ... Why don't you let my church's missionaries into your country, and why don't you let us organize churches in your country?" And he's able to say to them, "Oh, we don't practice polygamy anymore; that's gone."
I think the force of that conversation can't be overestimated. And at that point, Europe opens up to the Mormon Church, and the internationalization that you see in the next 60 years -- it is the story of 20th-century Mormonism -- begins in the Smoot hearings. That moment in 1923 when Sen. Smoot goes abroad wrapped in the American flag, with his own special passport from the secretary of state, and meets with the aristocratic, the ecclesiastical and the democratic representatives in Europe, is a turning point in the internationalization of the Mormon Church. And no one could have done that but Reed Smoot.
Once the Smoot hearings were over, what are the important ways the Mormon Church made the turn into the 20th century?
As they enter the 20th century, one would expect the Mormon Church to have been exhausted by the 19th, particularly the events of 1890 and the battles over polygamy. You'd think they would have just turned and licked their wounds and tried to recover and get stronger.
But all the grief they go through to get an apostle in the Senate is really a gamble. It's designed to leverage their American identity. And what does the Mormon Church want? It wants to go abroad. And to do that, it needs to fit within this definition of citizenship, which it does through the Smoot hearings. That's exactly what gets hammered out in the Smoot hearings: What is the criteria to be a religious citizen, say, as a church? What will get you First Amendment protection? And that's being negotiated over the Smoot hearings. This shows you a Mormonism that is willing to engage in that very discussion, because what they want is to follow that flag abroad, and that's what they achieve.
The Smoot hearing set in motion a radical change in perception, and it was a dizzying hairpin turn in terms of public perception.
Mormonism's identity radically changed as a result of this set of hearings over Sen. Smoot, in part because the nation stated the terms in which it would accept Mormonism, and Mormonism began to conform to those terms. For example, acting for the common good, being a good citizen -- you see this in the testimony.
In the trial they talk about how they support earthquake victims. But you see this playing out during the Depression era, and Mormons are held up as an example of self-sufficiency and generosity. In addition, Smoot himself became the poster boy of Mormonism -- not Brigham Young, this bearded patriarch with several wives, but this man who otherwise had the appearance and the emotional impact of a Babbitt. He's very rational, and he's very boring even. In fact, in the course of his work with the customs laws of the country, he is the leading voice in arguing against allowing certain kinds of literature in[to] America, D.H. Lawrence and these other works that were considered smut.
So Sen. Smoot became the voice of this very conservative morality, and that reflected on his church. And when he was called upon to define Mormonism, much to the aggravation of some of his brethren in the West, he would present it [as] this very civil religion, Protestant kind of terms, because in many ways he felt that way about it. When he presented it that way, all of this causes a shift.
And then as Latter-day Saints began to serve in the military and that becomes part of America's experience with them, and as more and more Mormons live next door to other Americans, [and] they realize they're not this caricature that they've been seeing in cartoons or dime novels or from behind other pulpits, ... people were beginning to see Mormons as kind of like them.
[How central was LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith, who held that office at the turn of the century, to the history of Mormonism in the 20th century and the church entering the modern world?]
Joseph F. Smith was a definitive figure, not only in the history of Mormonism and its transition in the 20th century, but in drafting the blueprints for everything that followed, including such international work as you'll see done by [President] David McKay at midcentury.
All of this was anticipated by Smith as he himself becomes the first Mormon president, as a president, to go abroad. He builds the first international temple. His sights are clearly outside the U.S., even as early as the first decade of the 20th century.
And at the end of the Smoot trial, while progress has been made, there is also a crisis that [Joseph F.] Smith has to manage -- a crisis of faith in that community.
Mormonism brought all its religious resources to bear on this problem of abandoning the public practice of plural marriage, and included in those resources were, of course, modern revelation. They accepted Joseph F. Smith as an equal revelator as Joseph Smith. Those who did not were those who led to the creation today of what we call the Fundamentalist Mormon Church (FLDS), those who continue to practice polygamy. That split occurred over the question of "Was Joseph F. Smith acting as a prophet in making this decision, or is he a fallen prophet?" ... And that's where the schism began.
That's such an important revelation. It could have been a crisis for them, and yet it wasn't.
It was a crisis. And how do you explain that it was able to make that pivot without losing its balance? You can only understand that if you see that what anchored them was this self-understanding of their mission to which other things could be sacrificed, including plural marriage, and indeed the expectation, because they believe in revelation -- in fact, revelation preceded the organization of the Mormon Church. The Book of Mormon was published before the Mormon Church was organized. What's primordial? What's fundamental to Mormonism? It's the sense that God will speak to you.
Now, that may be unsatisfactory for people looking for material reasons why they succeeded. [But] I'm talking about structural components within Mormonism that give it this adaptability, because it has this rich history; it has this rich text and this tradition of modern revelation. All these things are brought to bear, to heal the breaches that were created in the course of the Smoot hearings.
Like so much else in Mormonism, the abandonment of polygamy was much more complex than it appeared. To some extent the belief in plural marriage is maintained, but it was placed in Mormon temples, and Mormons obey the law of the land. They do not practice polygamy. That's what the law required of them. That's what they did.
Did they say, "We no longer believe in this order of kinship"? No, they did not. So they did not reject the revelation; they rejected the practice. And that was a major facilitator in this transition. Now, this has become difficult as those who left the Mormon Church and continued the practice get confused with those who didn't continue the practice. But it remains the fact that doctrinally Mormons still keep this kinship model in their books. They did not reject this part of the legacy of Joseph Smith, but they did, in conformance to American law, cease the practice of it.
No one speaks to that issue about the afterlife. No one speaks about plural marriage anymore at all. There is no more theologizing on it. There is no more looking over your shoulder at it. There is no defense of it. It's not on the table anymore.
[Plural marriage was something that was so important. How is it that the religion survived that break?]
I think the answer that is most persuasive to me is that their leaving of it in many ways mirrored their entering into it. If you look back at the history of polygamy, it wasn't easy to begin. It was very hard. In addition, those who did survive the transition into plural marriage did so based on a conviction of faith, some revelatory experience. They also did so based on a conviction about their leader as a prophet of God.
I think all these things come into play on the leaving of plural marriage as well. I think ultimately, for the Latter-day Saints, the leaving of it was as much an act of faith as the entering into it.
In terms of the 20th century, was there another moment with large consequences?
... The story has to be one of internationalization and how [Mormons] managed to take what had been considered a very American church abroad to places that had nothing in common with America besides a basic humanity, and to not only to find a foothold there, but to aggregate large numbers of believers.
... They conquered Latin America in the '70s; they went to Asia in the '80s; they went to Africa in the '90s. Thousands of people have joined this church in areas that one could never have imagined -- Mongolia, Nigeria. To me it appears to be a rather unimpeded march around the world. Maybe it hit some speed bumps, but you just don't see it slowing down, and you see it driving into neighborhoods you never imagined it reaching and appealing to.
It seems to me that increasingly calling Mormonism an American religion is a stereotype and that you have to add that to the list of American stereotypes about Mormonism.
What do you think of its reach?
I got a master's in liturgical studies from Catholic University, and as I studied 2,000 years of Catholicism's missionary efforts from the point of view of their liturgy, it was only then that I realized how lightly Mormonism travels, how little it takes to create a Mormon congregation and sustain it, because remember, it's lay leadership. Lay leadership is one of the untold stories of this church. If you want to know how it travels and how it roots to indigenous cultures, you have to look at the extent to which indigenous peoples are given control of local worship.
So all this talk about hierarchy and control and power and making people do things misses this point that leadership in Mongolia is Mongolian. And yes, Salt Lake City will say: "Tithings are 10 percent. You can't charge 5 percent; you can't charge 20 percent." But the other story of 20th-century Mormonism that doesn't get told is the extent to which they do not feel in control. They're perceived to be this juggernaut of organization, but internally, my guess is they have all their fingers in the dike. ...
[So growth is creating tensions?]
Growth creates a number of tensions within Mormonism, some of them obvious -- doctrinal clarity and purity of practice and a sacramental church. But there are certain values that get tested by growth; for example, economic values. One of their core values is if you can't be equal in temporal things, you cannot be equal in spiritual things, and so they're going into parts of the world where economic equality with North America faces them with an enormous challenge.
So you look at [President Gordon] Hinckley's announcement about the Perpetual Education Fund; it grows right out of that commitment to economic equality within the church.
When the Mormon Church has a church presence in a nation, there is a commitment to that nation. And when disasters happen, the Mormon Church is there with its planeloads of clothing and food and cash. These fundamental values of Mormonism that function so well locally as family, as community, as tribe, now must function internationally.
So this mixing of temporal and spiritual ... has a particular face in the 20th century, and you see them wrestling with it. But it expresses core values that are fundamentally anti-capitalist, and that's where you see that strain of anti-capitalism still flowing in Mormonism. All those values have to be understood now internationally and on a scale that in itself constitutes a challenge.
With the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution], what were the Mormon fears about? What did they see would happen?
Editor's Note: The Equal Rights Amendment affirms the equal application of the U.S. Constitution to both females and males. Introduced into every session of Congress between 1923 and 1972, it was passed in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. Ratified by 35 states, it fell three states short of the 38 required for ratification.
They were saying what all the conservatives in America were saying. I saw nothing there that was particularly Mormon. I saw them jumping on a bandwagon, that wagon being antagonism to the ERA. Whether the Mormons had different reasons from the evangelicals and the conservatives, I don't know. What they brought was authority. What they brought was a voting bloc.
When the Mormon Church decided to officially oppose the amendment and mobilized its believers, it made a significant difference in at least three states. So I don't think they contributed anything to the intellectual argument, but they made a tremendous political contribution, if you want to call it contribution.
How did they mobilize? How do you mobilize a group of Mormon women?
Well, the first stage in the process was to designate the issue a moral issue and therefore a legitimate basis for the Church to speak out on. And then when the Church speaks and says, "We oppose the ERA," for a lot of people there's nothing else you need to do. The difficulty there is that the people may just sit home saying, "Oh, the church is against the Equal Rights Amendment; I will stay home "
I've heard stories of women who would get together based on an ecclesiastical connection; they'd say, "Oh, well, let's all go up to the state capital and put on 'Let's stop the ERA' buttons or something like that." The church is very careful on the use of its buildings for politics. The news reports about it have been quite open on that. They're very careful and don't use their own money; they use private money in these battles.
So I assume that's what happened with the ERA, what we've seen happen with gay marriage. They solicited actions by people who were in a position to make contributions, and those people made contributions. Then individuals whose affinity [was] based on a congregational connection then were exercised politically to go to the capital and to demonstrate against it. Many were sincere; I don't want to deny that. [But] again, their arguments weren't persuasive to me. ...
I would like to talk about the temple. What happens inside the temple that tells people something very important about Mormonism?
Temples matter because they tell Mormons who they are. They answer those questions: where did I come from?; why am I here?; where am I going? And they do that by telling this ancient biblical drama. It's a liturgy of putting oneself inside that story and understanding the nature of one's life in the course of telling that story. It brings an ordering into one's life that is very meaningful on a personal and cosmic level because it operates on both the level of the individual and on the level of the meaning of life itself, that drama that people participate in.
Also, temples matter to Mormons as places of revelation. Revelation can happen in the world anywhere, but there was a sense when you enter into the temple [that] that is God's house, ... as opposed to the chapel. The chapel is kind of where we go to work things out and to receive these very important sacraments of the church like baptism and the sacrament of the Lord's supper. But in the temple, that's God's house; that's where you go to meet God.
In the same way that you talk about the Holy of Holies in the biblical sense, the temple has that power. In addition, it is where Mormons construct their families. They weld these ties that they believe transcend time, and they understand that sense of relationship that's to govern their behaviors, their duties, their rights and their responsibilities to their families broadly construed, both those who have gone before them and those that will come after them.
[Can you talk about your experience going on a mission?]
... Missions are formative moments in Mormonism. I don't think my experience was unique. I was in Japan. When you sit across from someone and you have to not simply explain but demonstrate the value of this religious system, it really causes you to question what value you do find in it. And at that moment when I was trying to communicate across rather strong cultural boundaries, it strips away a lot of the things that you certainly turn to, to rationalize.
So it really does come down to that old-fashioned notion of testimony, and either you are able to testify in the name of the Spirit such that it can be understood by someone else, or you can't.
I always enjoyed the more difficult, the more abstract elements of my religion -- Mormon doctrine, Mormon thought. I just thought missions would be kind of dumb. I just didn't want to go out and talk so simply about these things, whereas I delighted in the complexity. And I learned on my mission to delight in that simplicity. I learned those fundamental principles of Christian faith -- repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. And I saw this happen over and over again, and it required me to change a lot.
I guess the one word that covers it -- it's a particularly humbling experience out there, not only because it's a lot of rejection, but you are stripped down to just you and the message, and the message is, if you read this book and pray about it, God will tell you it's true.
And then you stand with that person until they try it ... -- and if it doesn't work, then it's still OK; you just move on. But that experience, in terms of a coming-of-age experience, it changes you, but also in understanding the dynamics of faith and its nonrational power.
I've never found anything as intellectually stimulating as Mormonism, and I've been a lawyer, and I have a couple graduate degrees.
I've never had any trouble pushing up against the questions. I think the problem comes when you push against church management and you do so publicly; that's where the questions and problems come. When you're not taking no for an answer [it] is perceived as dangerous to the community, and that's where you see it get difficult. It has never gone there for me. It has probably come close a couple of times. I've had people in the rank and file be upset with me. I've had a bishop or two be worried about me teaching a Sunday school class. But I don't really go to them for answers. This is my problem. I think where they have answers they give them to you, and where they don't have answers they don't. ...
This is my take on what's happened to intellectuals in the 20th century. I think it's a question of internationalism. It used to be, the 19th century, you could teach anything you wanted in a Mormon Sunday school class, and it didn't faze anybody. Mormons were about how you lived your religion, not about what you thought about your religion. Smith's own flights of imagination about religion doctrine were such that a lot of Mormons were doing that.
What happens in the 20th century is the need to correlate these doctrines to come up with something that can go on the road easily. So there begins to be a concern about orthodoxy. But that concern for orthodoxy is really about fundamental areas, not the areas where intellectuals tend to do their thinking. I can hear my friends arguing with me about this, but I think that's pretty true.
I think what the Mormon Church leadership needs -- the leadership expects its life members to not rock the boat because they don't want to think about the United States. They have too many fires burning everywhere else, to mix my metaphors. And so when fifth-generation, sixth-generation Mormons run around asking how many angels can stand on the head of pin, or why is that bad guy over there doing something over there and why aren't you doing something about it, then they just want them to fix the problems themselves. That's why everyone has revelations -- just go away and fix it, and meanwhile I've got to go figure out how to build a chapel a day for the next foreseeable future; I have to figure out how to get out of some country or into some country. They don't want to think about the American church.
I think when you talk about intellectuals, you're talking about American members. Who are these American members? They are the children of the pioneers.
There is a low tolerance for conflict in Mormons churches. There are avenues for settling conflict, but it is not a place where you debate. And these are Sunday school classes; they are not like classes I teach at Vanderbilt. So I think if you go to these classes believing they will be intellectually rewarding, you will be disappointed. But if you're an intellectual, lead with intellectual methods in the Mormon system, you're going to be disappointed; you're going to be bored, because the Mormon exercise is about holiness. It is not about thinking through answers to questions in a certain way.
Is there anything you could find out about the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith that could change your faith?
My faith is in God, not in the Mormon Church. My faith is in the God that the Mormon Church has introduced to me, both by experience and by all these other things that I've talked to you about: ordinances, texts, experience. There is a phrase in the Book of Mormon, when it talks about the progress toward faith, and you're at the end of that progress, and he says, "Oh, is this not real? " -- not "Oh, is this not true?," but "Is this not real?" There is a sense of reality here that I suppose does manifest itself as an inoculation against some of these issues. It sounds a tautology in a way. But yes, if God told me to get out of here, I'd be out of here in a second.
[Would your faith be affected if you found out that Joseph Smith was deceptive, deceiving?]
My faith is about me, not about them, and what I've experienced through this system. You know that wonderful line in the Old Testament, "Will you, too, go away?," when he doesn't feed, when the multitudes realize that he does not have more bread, when he doesn't give them what they want. Where would I go? Now people may offer me options.
"Mormonism is so young, it has nothing to hide." What are your thoughts there?
Mormonism is not only so young; it's so modern, so written about, so scrutinized; it's extraordinary. I think the worst of it is, for me, it works. It works on its own terms in a particular way that appeals to me. It delivers. I have personally witnessed the delivery of that power that Smith said he had.
... You're not asking me, "Do I doubt?" Of course doubt is the beginning of knowledge. There are things I doubt, I question. I've never found myself stopped in any of those questionings. When I have, with all my legal training and all my religious training, pursued questions, it has always been a very intellectually satisfying endeavor. And on a faith level, pragmatically, it's worked.
Does Mormonism's culture of certainty make it hard to express doubt?
I've had lots of people come and have a conversation with me about doubt and to go to their bishop and talk about doubt, depending on the personality of the bishop. But the good thing about the personality of the bishop is that it's going to change in five years; you're going to get another bishop. He's not the Mormon Church.
The [phrase] "I know." It is very powerful and very distinctive, and it is the condition that people strive for.
I think the other thing that affects me, for me the church is so clearly an add-on to the Gospel. The Gospel came first, and then you have this structure. I assume this structure is going to offend me, disappoint me, abandon me, cause me all kinds of problems. What keeps me coming back is the substance. So I assume there are going to be these problems. Maybe I express it kind of insensitively, ... because of course people are going to have this experience in Mormonism. It's a sharp-edged tool, as Joseph Smith used to describe it.