The Latter-day Saints and the Resilience of Faith

My friend Robert Millet has been talking about his faith in relation to other expressions of the Christian faith for decades now, and I salute him for his contributions to fostering a better understanding. He has taken the initiative with me and others to engage him and other Latter-day Saints leaders in conversations about our similarities and our differences.

His essay here in Respectful Conversations is no different. He quotes both from church leaders and the New Testament to highlight the importance of prayer, service, worship, and the study of scriptures in the lives of Latter-day Saints. He also underscores the centrality of service to others, which the Latter-day Saints do as well as, or better than, most Christian groups.

As a historian of religion in North America, I’ve long been fascinated with the Latter-day Saints. (I’m sure, out of long habit, I will lapse into referring to them as “Mormons,” even though I know the current president is trying to stamp out that appellation. I mean no disrespect, but I also note that previous church authorities have launched similar initiatives, and yet the terms “Mormon” and “Mormonism” keep resurfacing.) I often remind my students that, aside from the obvious fact that the plethora of Native American religions are indigenous, Mormonism (there I go again!) is the first and certainly the most successful indigenous religion in North America.

My fascination with the Latter-day Saints is due in part to their resilience. Here you have a tradition that was widely reviled and persecuted in the nineteenth century; I doubt very much that the Supreme Court’s Reynolds decision would stand today, for example. And yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only persevered, it flourished, and it became by the middle of the twentieth century one of the religious groups most associated with patriotism and American values (it probably didn’t hurt that the Mormons consider America’s charter documents to be divinely inspired).

One thing that I find so admirable about the Latter-day Saints is the strength and durability of their faith – and I hope that my comments here will not be viewed as dismissive or condescending; I don’t mean that at all. When you look objectively at the controversies surrounding the Spaulding manuscript or Joseph Smith’s sexual history or the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the Book of Abraham, for example, you might reasonably expect that many of the faithful would simply walk away out of disillusion or even disgust. Some surely did so, but most remained loyal to the tradition. I have to believe that a true, authentic, and abiding faith played a role.

Despite my appreciation for Mr. Millet’s contribution, I wish he’d said a bit more about some of the distinctive characteristics of the Latter-day Saints. I know he’s spent his career trying to build bridges to various Christian groups, but one of the glories of religion in America is its diversity. As someone who harbors deep reservations about ecumenism, I’d love to hear more about what distinguishes Mormonism – uh, Latter-day Saints – from other Christian groups.