Mormons Mark Milestone Year at Peak of Influence
Bundled against the biting cold, Joseph Bagley Shumway trudged down the road his ancestors called the “street of tears” to the banks of the frozen Mississippi River.
At its icy shore he stopped. It was from this very spot at the end of Parley Street that a ragtag band of 11,000 Mormons--persecuted, shunned and stripped of possessions--began fleeing Nauvoo and surrounding Hancock County 150 years ago this month.
It was Shumway’s great-great-grandfather, Charles Shumway, who took the first wagon across the Mississippi on orders from their prophet, Brigham Young, and headed across the American prairie for Utah, a promised land where “the saints” hoped to prosper and practice their beliefs without fear.
Now, on the 150th anniversary of what historians call the Mormon Exodus from Nauvoo, located 120 miles west of Peoria, Shumway had come here with hundreds of other Mormon pioneer descendants to find out what his forebears had been up against.
Their presence here this month--the kickoff for a series of commemorations over the next 1 1/2 years--is seen as a testament to the survival of a faith that, instead of foundering on the banks of the river in 1846, has flourished.
Today, the 9-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been more robust or influential in the society that once scorned it.
“I think we were considered a fringe,” said Shumway, 37. “But I think there are other people who have now taken up more extreme positions, so I think Mormons are viewed as a moderate religion in America.”
A great theological divide still separates Mormon beliefs from orthodox Christianity. Mormons still believe that the early Christian church fell into apostasy shortly after the death of the original 12 apostles and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true New Testament church.
But when it comes to traditional American values of hard work, home and family, non-Mormons increasingly are placing Mormons firmly in the American mainstream.
“When you can’t tell the difference between the cult and the culture, it’s no longer a cult,” said Jan Shipps, a Methodist and professor emeritus of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
In many ways Shumway is the new Mormon exemplar--a successful St. Louis physician and a respected member of his community, in addition to being a family man and active in his church.
“As society around us has changed we have become representative of some of those basic, traditional American values that are kind of eroding in other places,” said Bill Hartley, a church historian at Brigham Young University. “We’re still kind of quaint in a lot of places, but in the [American] mainstream I think we’re recognized as fairly hard-working, respectable people.”
Latter-day Saints emphasized family values long before they became the political rallying cry of social conservatives. Their insistence on a moral code as simple as it is unbending is respected far beyond the shadows of Utah’s mountains.
The church’s growth has been impressive. Since 1985, the church’s reported membership has almost doubled to more than 9 million adherents. Later this month, the church will announce that for the first time in its history, more than half of its 9-million-plus members reside outside the United States. There are 4.6 million Mormons in the United States, including 800,000 in California.
Since 1960, there have been more converts won to the faith than born into it.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was able to sink deeply the stakes of the tents of Zion!” Elder Hugh W. Pinnock proclaimed to a packed Sunday worship service at the Nauvoo ward.
But even as the church celebrates its fealty to basic Mormon dogma and its triumph in the face of religious persecution, historians say that the church has survived not simply because of its missionary zeal to win converts but because it has made concessions to the larger culture--and continues to make accommodations to this day.
As recently as December, in a move to cast themselves in the Christian mainstream, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed its logo so that the words “Jesus Christ” are in larger type than the rest of its name.
Indeed, even the term Mormon is increasingly falling out of use, according to church officials. They would prefer to be called latter-day Christians.
“Mormons as a group have taken that Mormon label and driven it to the point where we’re believed to be non-Christian,” said Bill Price, a San Diego businessman who is serving as a full-time volunteer and spokesman for the church here. “Yes, we’re adapting and, yes, we’re trying to say a stronger message,” Price said. “But don’t put the label on us as Mormons and not call us Christian.”
Shipps, the professor of religion, said following a period of isolation in the inner-mountain West before Utah’s statehood, the church has increasingly looked like other churches.
“They are preserving their distinctiveness through the temple and the Book of Mormon and their claim that they are the restored church,” said Shipp, “but their public face is increasingly Christian.”
Such accommodations have been made throughout the church’s history, particularly in confrontations with the federal government.
To gain statehood, Mormon-dominated Utah outlawed polygamy in 1890 after a “revelation” by its then-president and prophet Wilford Woodruff. In the aftermath of the U.S. civil rights struggle, the church dropped its bar to blacks becoming Mormon priests in 1978.
The lily-white complexion of the church--while still reflected in its highest leadership--has become a rainbow of races and cultures, particularly overseas because of the church’s proselyting missionary successes.
On some issues the church is decidedly conservative. It vigorously opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. It has aligned itself with some other churches in opposition to abortion, and has joined an interfaith coalition to fight pornography. It is a believer in--and practitioner of--free enterprise, a major change from its early days when church leaders attempted to build a communitarian economy in Utah.
Although the church does not disclose its finances other than to say its budget is in the black, it is reportedly worth billions of dollars, according to unofficial and admittedly outdated published estimates.
The church has extensive business holdings, including the Beneficial Life Insurance Co., mortgage banking, farm and other land holdings, as well as a television station and daily newspaper in Salt Lake City, and 17 radio stations, among them KBIG-FM in Los Angeles, and KOIT-FM in San Francisco. Moreover, every Mormon is expected to give 10% of their income to the church.
The changes and accommodations the church has made over the years have paid off in terms of acceptance.
Forty-three percent of 1,007 adults surveyed in July by the Barna Research Group Ltd. of Glendale said Mormons had a positive influence on American society, compared to 28% for Muslims, 21% for Scientologists, 29% for Buddhists and 14% for atheists. Christians and Jews scored 85% and 58% positive ratings respectively.
Some of this rise in esteem may be due to greater public awareness of the church’s reputation for taking care of its own as well as offering significant help to others.
It is not unusual to see local Mormon congregations, called wards, and their regional dioceses, called stakes, joining with other religious groups in feeding the poor and caring for others in need. Recently, one of the church’s canneries packed food for a U.S.-based Muslim relief organization to be sent to refugees in Bosnia.
Still, in some ways, the church remains defensive.
Of concern to Mormons is the contention by other churches that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christian.
While church spokesmen welcomed the results of the Barna poll, they grated at its categorization of Mormons as non-Christian.
“Everybody likes to have a Mormon next door as a neighbor, as long as they don’t try to proselytize you,” said Martin Marty, a sociologist of religion at the University of Chicago. “They are moderately conservative, familial, female-submissive, clean, honest, tidy, patient. . . . They do appeal to a kind of American majoritarian interest.”
But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a member of any Christian interdenominational organization, such as the National Council of Churches in Christ or the National Assn. of Evangelicals.
And it is unlikely to be any time soon, according to the Rev. Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian and associate general secretary for Christian unity with the national council’s headquarters in New York.
“We would tend to see that they are outside the circle of orthodox Christian teaching,” she said.
“That’s not to say we want to be any part of Mormon-bashing,” Lindner added. “We respect their tradition and their witness. . . . As a matter of ecumenism we don’t challenge the faith assertions of others.”
Still, the Barna poll found that “born again” Christians looked less favorably on Mormons than unchurched Americans.
Those differences occasionally surface, as they did 10 years ago when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was prevented by Baptists from performing in a Houston auditorium, according to Mormon spokesman Keith Atkins in Los Angeles. Since then, the choir has been allowed to perform there.
The church also faces internal pressures. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not been immune to calls for the admission of women to the Mormon priesthood, and pleas for greater academic freedom when it comes to Mormon studies.
In the last several years, there have been several highly publicized excommunications of Mormons who went public with their protests.
Still, cries for reform within the church are faint and there is no indication of a groundswell among rank-and-file Mormons for change. In the decades ahead, Marty of the University of Chicago predicted, such cries will inevitably become louder.
But on the banks of the Mississippi this month, it was a time of reflection and celebration by the faithful rather than anticipation of possible struggles ahead.
They shared stories from the diaries of their ancestors and gathered around bonfires. Among those speaking was Gaylend S. Young Jr., whose father was a grandson of Brigham Young.
“These people lived by miracles,” Young said, standing on a stage in Montrose, Iowa.
“There were many who died along the way. One was . . . wee Granny Murdock from England. . . . Before she died she said, ‘Tell my son, John Murray Murdock in the West, that I died with my face turned toward Zion.’ This was their faith.”
Others wept happily during a Sunday service as they sang a favorite Latter-day hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” which told the story of the arduous trek West.
And Joseph Bagley Shumway, the St. Louis physician, took the hand of his 6-year-old son, Hyrum Smith Shumway III.
Together they stepped off the Illinois shore onto the frozen river from the foot of Parley Street. They didn’t stop until they reached the Iowa shore.