Mormonism must be done away with by the thousand influences of civilization, by education, by the elevation of the people.
—Robert Green Ingersoll, 1884*
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come a long way since the “Great Agnostic” could recommend to a newspaper reporter that the “influences of civilization” should simply sweep it away. Of all the creeds to emerge from nineteenth-century America—among them Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Spiritualism—only Mormonism shows serious prospects of becoming a world religion. Starting from a handful of enthusiasts just over 180 years ago, there are now some fourteen million Mormons worldwide, and that’s counting only those in communion with the “orthodox” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) headquartered at that spectacular temple in Salt Lake City. For better or worse, most Americans have stopped regarding this still-highly demanding faith as a cult. As I write, two Mormon candidates are mounting serious campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination. A surprisingly sweet satire of Mormon mission life by South Park impresarios Trey Parker and Matt Stone is the most sparkling hit on Broadway. The pundits who gush about this being the “Mormon moment” may be on to something.
But what does it mean that this religion that took shape in an upstate New York village in the early 1800s would attract pioneer adherents willing to suffer so much for a creed that, in the eyes of others, was so transparently born of chicanery? What does it mean that today contemporary Mormons draw identity and meaning from a church that so little resembles the one Joseph Smith Jr. inaugurated? What can the Mormon experience teach us about the processes by which people of faith come to attach boundless confidence to some propositions and not others? Does free inquiry survive in the controlling atmosphere of the LDS church? Finally, how do religion Mormon-style and the growing American tradition of unbelief intersect? What is it like to leave Mormon beliefs and heritage behind? How can secular humanists and Mormons most constructively interact?
I’ve been fascinated by Mormon history since I first began to nurture doubts about the Catholicism of my birth. Here was a religion whose relatively well-documented beginnings lay not two thousand years in the past but in my own country and in my own language, amid a landscape of familiar social and cultural institutions. By coming to understand Mormon origins, what insights might I glean about the processes by which other, older religions came to be?
After years of avocational reading and research, I strongly suspect that Joseph Smith Jr. conceived his homespun faith as a conscious fraud but later, fatally, came to believe in his own messianic pretensions. (Other interpretations are possible, as several of this feature’s contributors will demonstrate.) If early eighteenth-century Americans, knowing something of science and something about standards of evidence, could dedicate their lives to the Book of Mormon’s fantastic teachings—if Mormon pioneers would brave mob violence and aching privation, striking off time and again into unforgiving wilderness even though many of them had been there, watching firsthand, as Brigham Young and Joseph Smith before him made most of it up—if a new religion can spring from such unlikely soil, what does that tell us about the processes by which any religion might have arisen? If today’s LDS church can be accounted for without once imagining that there really were golden plates, then how much more confidently can we suppose that Christianity can be understood without any need to presume that there really was a Jesus, much less that he rose from the dead?
The articles that follow examine issues like these from a variety of perspectives. Brian Dalton, better known in comedy circles as Mr. Deity, chronicles his modern-day journey away from Latter-day Sainthood. Religion scholar Robert M. Price searches for Joseph Smith on the spectrum of prophets, tricksters, and shaman figures who have animated religion and legend since ancient times. I offer a portrait of pseudonymous journalist Obadiah Dogberry, one of the stranger sidebars to the history of Joseph Smith’s church. Social scientists Michael Nielsen and Ryan T. Cragun explore the prevalence—and the price—of free inquiry within the straitlaced LDS subculture. Psychologist James Alcock ponders Mormon epistemology in light of the faith processes of other creeds. And Mormon-turned-atheist blogger and author C.L. Hanson mulls what Mormons and atheists can—and do—have to say to one another
* “Politics, Mormonism, and Mr. Beecher.” An interview with the Denver Republican, January 17, 1884. In The Works of Ingersoll (New York: Dresden Publishing, 12 vols., 1900), Volume VIII, p. 164.