Mormonism

Richard Abanes. One Nation Under Gods: a History of the Mormon Church. Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

Probably the only things that most people know about the Mormons is that they are interested in genealogy, that their dark-suited young missionaries, who resemble the popular image of the MIB, knock on your door just when you are getting the dinner ready, and that once they practised polygamy. This book fills in some of the gaps, and the picture painted of their founder, Joseph Smith, is one which will be familiar to Magonia readers - the status inconsistent visionary.
Smith was the descendent of a once semi-bourgeois family which had fallen on hard times and was, as the Victorians would say, on its way down into the abyss. Smith had a reputation as a local cunning man and treasure finder, a bit of a lad and something of a con artist. He started to tell a story of encountering the bloody ghost of a pirate who revealed the whereabouts of treasure, and of finding a stone which he could use to decipher some mysterious plates. Over succeeding years this bloody Spanish pirate became first a spirit then an angel, then the prophet Moroni who dictated to him a new gospel.

There are certain similarities with Bernadette Soubrious, the Lourdes visionary: both came from despised marginal families, who had fallen into the proletariat from more secure 'respectable' backgrounds, the visions started as ghost stories, and then underwent a process of sacralisation, though in Bernadette's case this was a much more rapid development.

The gospel which Smith and successors proclaim is an unusual one, which seems to an attempt to construct an American national sacred epic. There are accounts of Biblical emigrations to the Americas, indeed America was home of the original garden of Eden - the flood sent humanity to the Middle East. The New Jerusalem was to be built in the United States. The American Indians are degenerate descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, the Mormons are the new Israelites etc. Here we can clearly see the development of a specifically American national religion, the sacralisation of the new landscape by reference to the well known places of the Bible. America is no longer the God-deserted howling wilderness of the first Pilgrims.

Smith and his successors applied New World notions of boundless opportunity to their ideology also, proclaiming "as God once was we are, as God is we will be." Smith assured his followers that you could rise from log cabin, not just to president but to God. The biblical God was an "exalted man" (for a time this role was given to Adam, but was later allocated to what we would today call an extraterrestrial), a physical being and not a spirit. The notion of a physical god was one shared with Muggletonianism, but whether this was a case of direct borrowing, or both drawing on a wider pool of working class materialism is unclear. This God had at least one wife and human beings were their spirit children.

The attractions of this American ideology of self-advancement to working class people of the period is obvious; after all this was a time when the ruling class religions were very heavy on the notion of divinely appointed estates, with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Derived from folk Lamarkianism and early evolutionary theories, this notion of "eternal progression" was to feature in a number of "progressive" and working class religions, such as Universalism or Spiritualism.

Smith added an even stranger notion: to be a successful god you had to have lots of kids, both in this world and the next, to worship you and keep your status rising in the celestial realms. Though it was not explicitly stated, the idea seems to have been the more children you have the better the planet you become God of. It's the difference between choice Reticulan real estate and some slag heap off Proycon 5. Clearly we are in the realm of ancestor worship here, and it's here that the polygamy comes in (more wives equals more kids) and the obsession with genealogy (make your ancestors Mormons so they can have lots of spirit kids and be the God of something worth being the God of).

Even if you couldn't make it the kid stakes, Smith offered consolations, just being a white male gave you some brownie points, and being a Mormon gave you a heck of a lot more, you were in the top class of the top race, with all the cursed inferior races to lord it over.

This obsession with family seems to reflect Smith's need for the perfect celestial family, to replace his own not altogether satisfactory one, and lots of worshipers to boost his fragile ego. It was this need to boost the ego, which set Smith and his immediate successors on the road from being purely religious prophets to the status of dictators of their own freelance totalitarian states. It was these political ambitions, which set them on the road to conflict with the rest of America: conflicts in which both sides resorted to terrorism and ideological cleansing. For much of the nineteenth century polygamy, something quintessential unBritish and unAmerican, and terribly 'native' was the cause around which many of these ideological battles were waged.

With polygamy officially ended, and a grudging recognition that black people are human beings, today the Mormon church presents an ultra-respectable face, and buddies up to the most reactionary elements ofthe US ruling class. Its origins are now something of an embarrassment, religions after all should be founded by fully paid up Rotarians, and it now seems to be marketing itself as just another subsidiarv of the First Church of Jesus Christ Company Executive.

Abanes won't have this, and takes clear delight in rubbing the Mormons' noses in what he sees as their scandalous past. He is however not a disinterested historian, but an evangelical Christian polemicist and much of his ire is aroused by the various ideological deviations from 'correct' Christianity, i.e. Abanes' own version, and in this just about any horror story and atrocity propaganda is aired.

More secular observers might still find this book of value as the portrait of how people in a world on the brink of modernity tried to create a new mythology, one forged out of Christianity, popular occultism, classical paganism, ancestor worship and nationalism. It had progressive features, a vision of human beings transcending the bounds of their class and situation and aspiring to Olympian hights, but its obsession with nation, race, ancestry and patriarchy, and imagery of the superman foreshadowed the great terrors of the twentieth century. - Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, originally published in Magonia 82, August 2003.

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