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Sep 05 2012

Mitt and the Flexibility of Mormonism

Laurie Miner writes an interesting article in the LA Review of Books about Mitt Romney and the historical flexibility of Mormonism. Like Mitt, the Mormon church has reversed itself on a number of major positions — an odd thing for a church that claims to have a direct line to an eternally unchanging God.

Like candidate Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints possesses a remarkable adaptability that keeps it alive and thriving. In a pinch, its talent for survival will trump its doctrine. At its founding, the church stipulated that marriage equaled monogamy, then there was polygamy, then a whole lot of polygamy, then the church was back to monogamy. For a very long time people of color were let nowhere near the church’s holy offices; suddenly, in 1978, they were welcome. The church has reversed itself on other doctrines as well, such as Adam being God (which he was under the leadership of Brigham Young), and the idea of “blood atonement” — in which a sinner’s crime is so unpardonable that his only recourse for salvation is to give up his life (i.e. be killed, another of Young’s ideas). To understand the church’s malleability and general ethos, let us take a brief tour of its roots, its founding.

The story of Joseph Smith in its particulars has no relation to that of Romney. What they share is an ability to shape-shift without anguish, a refusal or inability to see those shifts as hypocrisy, and what looks like a full belief in whatever they are saying, until it comes time to say something else. Also, they both ran for President.

And this I did not realize: originally, the Mormon church was committed to monogamy. Polygamy only came later, then, out of political necessity, they went back to monogamy:

The Book of Mormon reflects Smith’s view of matrimony at the time of his own first marriage. “Hearken to the word of the Lord,” says one of Nephi’s good brothers, “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall none.” Smith himself left no room for ambiguity on the subject when, in February 1831, he wrote a revelation that said: “Thou shall love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”…

One of the first people with whom Smith shared his vision of a new patriarchal order (which promised every worthy man 10 virgins) was Parley Pratt, great-great grandfather to our own Willard Mitt Romney. In a way, polygamy would bring about the end of both men: Pratt was murdered in 1857 by Hector McLean, the original husband of Pratt’s 12th spiritual wife Eleanor McLean.

For a while the practice was kept secret from non-members and wives (including Emma), as well as from the bulk of the Mormon community, which in Kirtland numbered about 15,000. By the early 1840s, other Church leaders were also practicing polygamy, in an off-the-record, private-club kind of way. The new way was adopted by most of the Quorum of the Twelve, an apostle-like set of advisors to the prophet. But polygamy did not sit well with at least one of the 12, Oliver Cowdery.

Cowdery had been one of Smith’s closest allies; he was one of the three scribes who wrote the Book of Mormon while Smith dictated from the golden plates. Lately, though, Cowdery had felt pushed out by Sidney Rigdon as the prophet’s consigliere, and, the idea of plural marriage repulsed him. He wrote to his brother about Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair with Fanny Alger.” (Crowdery was ex-communicated in 1838 but returned to the fold after Smith’s death.)

In the meantime, Smith secretly married at least 20 women before he shared the revelation of a “new and everlasting covenant” in1843. In that message, Lord God again gave specific instructions, down to the names of the people involved. “And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me,” said God. And God added the threat that now more frequently came with Smith’s revelations: “But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”

There’s a lot more. Fascinating article.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    Considering that Joseph Smith was as big a con man as L. Ron Hubbard, it would seem that Mormonism is no better then Scientology as a cult.

  2. 2
    Michael Heath

    God again gave specific instructions, down to the names of the people involved. “And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me,” said God. And God added the threat that now more frequently came with Smith’s revelations: “But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”

    Having God use the vernacular of the King James Bible should be obvious evidence to anyone with a brain that Mormonism is a con.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    Michael Heath, #2: Having God use the vernacular of the King James Bible should be obvious evidence to anyone with a brain that Mormonism is a con.

    Heh.

    I’ve never understood why Joseph Smith didn’t just “translate” those tablets into the contemporary English of his time. The faux King James English in the Book of Mormon (yes, I’ve read it) struck me as rather flat and stilted and fake.

  4. 4
    busterggi

    Mitt’s god is a flip-flopper which make Mitt a godly man by Mormon standards.

  5. 5
    lofgren

    I’ve never understood why Joseph Smith didn’t just “translate” those tablets into the contemporary English of his time.

    For the same reason that ancient Romans in modern movies inexplicably speak with British accents.

  6. 6
    coragyps

    “Having God use the vernacular of the King James Bible…”

    What?!! You think he spoke Hebrew or one of them other furrin languages? Of course God spoke English from 1611! It’s the authorised version!!

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    Polygamy only came later

    Well, it was the easiest way Smith could get at all the fine young worshipper-girls. Any religion that has the revelation that its leaders need to bang your daughter, out to raise suspicions.

  8. 8
    abear

    I’ve never understood why Joseph Smith didn’t just “translate” those tablets into the contemporary English of his time.

    It came to pass that was the way it came to pass.

  9. 9
    raven

    Despite some xian hatred of the word, evolution, they evolve and quite rapidly at that. Fundie xianity evolved from xianity into right wing extremist politics, supply side economics, and gibbertarianism within the last half century.

    Since they aren’t anchored in reality, there isn’t anything to keep them from changing.

  10. 10
    alanchristensen

    I used to be a Mormon. Hell, I was born into and didn’t have much choice. Winer fails to mention in no polygamy-polygamy-no polygamy thing that Mormons LIED about practicing polygamy, then LIED about not practicing it anymore, then LIED about the reasons it was practiced, then LIED about having nothing to do with modern polygamists. It’s all part of the Mormon belief in “lying for the Lord.” They think it’s okay to lie if it brings people to God or protects the church from its real or imagined enemies. So, naturally, Mitt has similar ideas about lying, whether it helps maximize profits for his company and investors, or it helps him save the country from liberals, or it prolongs his political career.

  11. 11
    Gvlgeologist, FCD

    “Like Mitt, the Mormon church has reversed itself on a number of major positions — an odd thing for a church that claims to have a direct line to an eternally unchanging God.”

    Well, if God can’t change his mind, who can?

  12. 12
    marcus

    @1 slc1 “Considering that Joseph Smith was as big a con man as L. Ron Hubbard, it would seem that Mormonism is no better than Scientology as a cult.”
    This occurred to me a recently also, the main difference really, (besides the bizarre particulars of their respective fantasies)IMHO,is that Mormonism has longer history.

  13. 13
    Gregory in Seattle

    It is a bit more egregious than that.

    The command for “plural marriage” is found in Doctrine and Covenants 132. D&C is a collection of alleged prophesies made by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as “Prophet, Seer and Revelator”, i.e. God’s chosen representative and the only living being with a direct phone line to the Almighty. The “revelation” was recorded on July 12, 1843, 12 years after Smith married his second of many wives.

    In this “revelation,” polygamy is called “a new and an everlasting acovenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can creject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.” Funny, ain’t it, how God changed his mind about this “new and everlasting covenant” a few years later when it became politically expedient to do so.

  14. 14
    d cwilson

    For the same reason that ancient Romans in modern movies inexplicably speak with British accents.

    If Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that British accent = evil.

    Yeah, I know. That’s my second Star Wars reference in as many days.

  15. 15
    d cwilson

    alanchristensen @10:

    One thing I’ve heard is that the LDS church spends a lot of time buying up documents (like records of Joseph Smith’s fraud conviction) and other artifacts that could be embarrassing to the church. This has resulted in them being taken in by forgers on more than one occassion. It seems dishonesty has a long history in LDS.

    Chiroptera @3:

    A lot of the Book of Mormon was plagiarised from the King James Bible. I imagine that he kept to that style as best he could because that’s what his contemporaries thought holy books should be written and to give it some coherence.

    But given that the book describes Native Americans riding in chariots, using coins, and growing crops that didn’t exist on the continent before the arrival of Europeans, I’d say Smith’s writing style is the least of its problems.

  16. 16
    Chris A

    @abear #8

    As an unfortunate person who was raised soaked in LDSness, that sentence made me twitch. I salute you.

    I had to read the BoM (Mark Twain: “Chloroform in print”) so many times that “And it came to pass” is indelibly burned into my cortex.

  17. 17
    Chris A

    @d cwilson #15

    Never mind horses, steel weapons, shining cities from coast to coast, all in North America; the lost tribe of Israel using Egyptian…really it just keeps going and going.

  18. 18
    grendelsfather

    For a good take on the history of Mormonism, read Jon Krakauer’s book “Under the Banner of Heaven.” I really don’t understand how anyone can believe this stuff if they know its history. Of course, that is probably true for all other religions, too.

    http://www.amazon.com/Under-Banner-Heaven-Story-Violent/dp/1400032806/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346868769&sr=8-1&keywords=under+banner+heaven

  19. 19
    TGAP Dad

    I was just about to recommend Krakauer’s book when I saw grendelsfather beat me to it. I HIGHLY recommend this book, especially for the non-believer who doesn’t understand Mormonism.

    For an insider’s account on the polygamous Mormon cults (FLDS) see Escape by Carolyn Jessop, and/or Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall

  20. 20
    eric

    Heath:

    Having God use the vernacular of the King James Bible…

    Chiroptera:

    I’ve never understood why Joseph Smith didn’t just “translate” those tablets into the contemporary English of his time. The faux King James English in the Book of Mormon (yes, I’ve read it) struck me as rather flat and stilted and fake.

    While I agree with Michael Heath on the substance of his post, I’d point out that the KJV was itself non-vernacular and ‘faux.’ The translators intentionally chose forms of speech already considered old at the time. One example is thee and thou vs. you. At the time of its writing, ‘you’ was the newfangled vernacular and ‘thee’ was what your grandpa said.

    So, in a way, Smith was just doing what earlier mainstream christians had already done: intentionally using old language to make it sound more authoritative.

  21. 21
    richardstratton

    @d cwilson #15

    “One thing I’ve heard is that the LDS church spends a lot of time buying up documents (like records of Joseph Smith’s fraud conviction) and other artifacts that could be embarrassing to the church. This has resulted in them being taken in by forgers on more than one occassion.”

    Wikipedia has an article on the Mark Hoffman affair, perhaps the best known example of this.

    -TTm

  22. 22
    lancifer

    My parents were suckered into the Mormon Church when I was seven. I had to go to “Primary”, a kind of Mormon bible school/ scouts, every Tuesday after school.

    I used to pop the chain off of my bicycle on the way home from school to have an excuse to be late for the van that picked the kids up for this little indoctrination camp.

    I can still sing the weird little songs they used to brainwash us,

    The Golden plates lay hidden
    Deep in the mountainside
    Until God found one faithful
    In whom he could confide

    Still gives me the willies.

  23. 23
    lancifer

    It should be noted that although Mitt claims to believe this batshit insanity, President Obama claims to be a Christian.

    Having read the Book of Mormon I can say that while it is poorly written, and as Mark Twain says and Chris A has noted, “Chloroform in print” it contains no more insane nonsense than the bible which it apes.

    How depressing that the only two candidates with a real chance of being President both claim to believe this horse shit.

  24. 24
    lcallen3

    As a kid in the early 60′s I remember a news report that the Mormon church had invested heavily in the Coca Cola company at a time when my few Mormon friends couldn’t drink Coke, tea, coffee or any other drink with caffeine, all being classed by their religion as the biblical “Strong Drink”. Within weeks there were meetings at the local Mormon churches changing the Church’s position. Nothing like profit to bring about a new vision from the Lord.

  25. 25
    Modusoperandi

    lancifer “How depressing that the only two candidates with a real chance of being President both claim to believe this horse shit.”
    To be fair, only one of them manages to be a secret Muslim as well.

  26. 26
    lofgren

    If Star Wars has taught us anything, it’s that British accent = evil.

    How do you get that? The main bad guy has an American accent and one of the main good guys has a British accent. (Two if you count Irish as British and Qui-Gon as existing.)

  27. 27
    Michael Heath

    eric @ 20,

    Thanks for the informative post.

  28. 28
    geneexpression

    hey, this is razib. don’t see anyone mentioning this:

    an odd thing for a church that claims to have a direct line to an eternally unchanging God.

    this is NOT the mormon view of god. one reason they’re called non-christians. mormons think that gods (yes, plural) may have been mortal men who were exalted. in other words, they have a vision of a progressive god and revelation. mormonism actually comes out of a pretty ‘liberal’ new england christian milieu, though its social views are traditional-right wing today.

    anyway, i think it is important not to confuse mormonism for mainstream christianity, and claim it’s contradictory because of the less well understood differences between it and christianity.

  29. 29
    ricko

    lofgren: ” (Two if you count Irish as British and Qui-Gon as existing.)”

    No.

    Irish is not British.

  30. 30
    d cwilson

    lofgren:

    How do you get that? The main bad guy has an American accent and one of the main good guys has a British accent. (Two if you count Irish as British and Qui-Gon as existing.)

    You’ve never heard that meme? Wow. People have been talking about that one since the first movie came out.

    It comes from the fact that most of the imperial officers (especially in the first movie) were played by British actors and later reinforced in the new trilogy where many of the main villains (Darth Maul, Dooku. Palpatine) were played by British actors.

  31. 31
    Didaktylos

    There’s a very simple and practical reason why so many screen villains are played by British actors. To make a career in acting in the US, the main qualification is good looks. A good looking idiot can play a convincing hero. To play a convincing villain requires some actual developed skill in the craft of acting.

    And on the main subject of this topic: one of the Discworld books (I think it’s “Monstrous Regiment“) features a religion whose sacred text is published in ring-binder format …

  32. 32
    democommie

    “It’s all part of the Mormon belief in “lying for the Lord.” They think it’s okay to lie if it brings people to God or protects the church from its real or imagined enemies.”

    Well, I don’t know if it’s considered to be a Godwin…You know who else holds that belief–that’s right! Mittmoroni is a secret muslim!!

    “anyway, i think it is important not to confuse mormonism for mainstream christianity, and claim it’s contradictory because of the less well understood differences between it and christianity.”

    So, what you’re saying in that sentence is that LSD Moronism is not “christian”? I’m okay with that, just don’t tell the RNC’s abwehr that little secret–it will definitely fuck up the “sell” they’re doing to the sheeple.

    We can agree that the GOP and Mittmoroni are lying fucking assholes, though, right? They have at least that much in common.

    “How depressing that the only two candidates with a real chance of being President both claim to believe this horse shit.”

    I’ll take false equivalencies for a buck3-80, Alex!

    Yeah, they’re exactly the same, except that Mr. Obama is not making any promises to any batshit lefty KKKristian fringe (if in saying, “fringe”, you mean the controlling partner in the GOP’s current circlejerkfuckfest) about outlawing alla the stuff they DON”T LIKE. Sure, they’re just like each other.

  33. 33
    Zugswang

    Thing is, every religion must change, not out of basic decency or a willing shift with the times, but out of a survival instinct. Only the newest faiths can ever claim to never waiver from the original doctrines of their beliefs. Just about every Christian denomination is far different than in the days of Augustine, and today’s Islam is far different than in the time Al-Ghazali was alive. But damn it, if they don’t love to pretend.

    And as the world’s religions continue to lose ground to secular thought in their spheres of influence, they will change much more regularly. Those that don’t will simply become something of historical interest, and not much else. I mean, how many Shakers do you know today?

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