"The most American religion" | Mormon integralism, pt 2
On the 19th century roots of the LDS commitment to mutual aid
The following is part two of “Mormon integralism,” a series on learning from the institutional success of the LDS church. Click here for part one.
Mormonism has been called “the most American religion” for, among other things, its providential view of the US constitution and its account of Jesus Christ visiting the Americas following the Resurrection. Less appreciated is the stamp of Mormonism’s origin in the most transformative period in human history, namely the Industrial Revolution.
In 1820s America, the First Industrial Revolution and the Second Great Awakening were in full swing, stimulating Protestant reform movements that sought to ameliorate the evils of society standing in the way of the Second Coming. Joseph Smith arose out of this milieu, and was exposed to religious revivals as a teenager after moving with his family to rural western New York in 1817. Smith would claim to have a special revelation from God just three years later, the first in a series of visions that culminated in the Book of Mormon and his founding of the Latter Day Saints movement in 1830. In 1838, by which time the movement had attracted hundreds of followers, Smith announced that his nascent church would henceforth be known as the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” or LDS Church for short.
Charity never faileth
The LDS church’s 19th century pedigree is reflected in its continued commitment to poor relief and mutual aid. The social transformation unleashed by the First and Second Industrial Revolutions led to dramatic improvements in standards of living, but also brand-new forms of risk and market volatility for workers and businesses alike. No longer consigned to agriculture, individual workers suddenly had novel forms of employment in which to specialize, from railroad construction and nascent forms of manufacturing, to innumerable other burgeoning goods- and services- producing sectors. This rapid diversification created demand for similarly diverse forms of human capital, generating new, idiosyncratic employment risks. With workers leaving the farm for new opportunities, the kin- and family-based social support networks of the agrarian epoch became untenable. The mid-to-late 19th century thus gave rise to thousands of fraternal societies, what sociologists sometimes call “fictive kin-networks.” Just like the Friendly Societies of England, these fraternal orders provided their members with comradery, but also a wide range of services, from rudimentary forms of social insurance, to mentorship and job training.
Joseph Smith explicitly modeled the early LDS Church’s structure and rituals on these fraternal organizations in general, and Freemasonry in particular, helping to entrench Mormonism’s strong commitment to mutual aid. This included establishing the Female Relief Society in 1842, a benevolent society that gave women an important institutional role in the Church, whose members went about “exchanging services among Relief Society members, soliciting donations for the needy, and identifying needs among the families in the community.” Purported to be “one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world," the Relief Society remains an integral part of the LDS Church to this day.
Consistent with Freemasonry’s goal “of identifying good men and giving them the opportunities and resources to become better men,” Smith described the objective of the Relief Society as “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” Read literally, one could interpret this edict as simply reflecting the imperative of any growing religion to win converts, consistent with the missionary orientation for which Mormonism is famous. Yet the Mormon concept of salvation is far more of a continuum compared to conventional Christian doctrines, requiring not only adherence to particular beliefs or the performance of various sacraments known as “saving ordinances,” but also a life-long commitment to resist the temptations of the world and live the most Christ-like life that one can.
Ensuring that those who need poor relief go on to become better men and women is thus something of an understatement. Indeed, Mormonism teaches that those who reach the highest level of salvation, known as “Exaltation,” will themselves live on eternally as literal gods, becoming one with Jesus just as other Christian denominations hold that Jesus is one with God the Father. As Smith explained in the King Follett sermon, delivered to some twenty thousand of his followers in 1844, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret.”
Relief and rehabilitation
Smith’s claim that ordinary men have divine potential resembles the concept of theosis or deification in Orthodox Christianity, but otherwise has no direct antecedent. Nonetheless, given the era’s accelerating pace of technological change and Smith’s belief that he had ushered in the final dispensation (hence the Latter Day Saints), he may have simply been extrapolating from mankind’s evident and growing mastery over the natural world. As the Mormon economic historian Mark Skousen testifies,
“Progress prior to 1830 was slow and plodding. Afterwards, it was dramatic. … Was this all co-incidence? Or was it related to what the Mormons call the restitution and the fullness of times?”
The Mormon belief in the perfectibility of mankind (including with the aid of technology) follows from their rejection of the standard Christian interpretation of original sin. As Smith wrote in the Articles of Faith, a listing of the fundamental doctrines of Mormonism, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Christ’s sacrifice on the cross represented an Atonement for the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, creating the possibility for the faithful to transcend physical death. While mankind remains fallen in the sense of being vulnerable to sin, Christ’s Atonement means those who repent can have their sins forgiven, and in that sense be “saved.” Yet this salvation is of a very general sort, and potentially available to all but the “son of perdition,” i.e. followers of Satan. To achieve Exaltation, in contrast, requires obeying God’s commandments while continually working to overcome one’s sins, rather than treating sin as an inevitable feature of the human condition. Those who succeed will reach the highest form of salvation and be Exalted. As the popular Mormon quote attributed to Lorenzo Snow in 1837 puts it: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”
The worldly implications of Mormonism’s take on original sin are profound. The perennial debate between “structural” and “individual” causes of pathologies like addiction and poverty provides a useful analogy. Perhaps alcoholism runs in someone’s family, whether due to a genetic predisposition (an unavoidable “original sin”) or environmental influences beyond one’s control. Without denying these factors, and understanding that people make mistakes, Mormons nonetheless come down strongly on the side of personal agency. In the Mormon worldview, there is no sinner who can’t overcome their sin; no addict who can’t achieve sobriety; no one in poverty who can’t achieve self-sufficiency, and so forth. As such, the LDS Church’s commitment to poor relief arises not only from the theological commitment to charity shared across Christianity, but from an essentially rehabilitative view of human nature. That commitment manifests quite literally in the network of drug and alcohol rehab centers overseen by the LDS Church, which complements Mormonism’s strict prohibition on the consumption of addictive substances. The Church’s approach to poor relief is no different, as shown by their simultaneous provision of educational and employment services considered necessary to lift individuals out of poverty altogether.
A firm foundation
To be sure, these aspects of Mormon theology are not strictly unique. The reform movements that emerged during the Second Great Awakening all embodied a similar commitment to meliorism, or the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. This included the U.S. temperance movement, in which the Latter Day Saints were particularly active. What distinguishes the LDS Church, however, is the degree to which this otherwise Protestant ethic was given “a firm foundation” in a hierarchical priesthood structure, which then imposed a correspondingly strict (as opposed to pluralistic) attitude toward scriptural interpretation.
While Mormonism has had its share of schisms (most famously over the practice of polygamy), the structure provided by LDS Church has helped to reinforce a high degree of theological continuity across space and time. This has no doubt been key to Mormonism’s rapid growth in membership, given the well-established finding that “strict churches are strong.” The integration of personal belief within the context of an organized community, which is itself embedded in a larger corporate structure, has thus helped Mormonism maintain a commitment to worldly improvement without succumbing to the secularization crises affecting many of today’s more liberal denominations, much less the near total collapse in mutual aid societies. On the contrary, by some measures Mormons are the most conservative major religious group in the United States today.
In the next post, we’ll move into the 20th century, and take a look at how the LDS Church adapted to the New Deal and the rise of the modern welfare state. Until then, be sure to subscribe!