The Mormons

"This Mormon Church binds its adherents with the strongest bonds known under heaven. It is at once a religion, an empire, a fraternity, a trust, and a partnership in crime."

I applied for instruction to the heads of the church, who welcomed me with so charming a courtesy that I have never of the church, who welcomed me with so Cohenim of the Salem Street ghetto. Gentle souls are these Mormon patriarchs, —soft-voiced, sunny, and smooth; and many a pleasant evening have I passed, sitting patient at their feet. Thus, little by little, I came to a comprehension of the forces both psychic and civic which go to the making of Mormon success.

The first is the force of objective authority. Trace the whole long path of religious reflection, and you find but four, sanctions for doctrinal tenet: the Roman sanction, which is the church; the Old Evangelical sanction, which is the letter of Scripture; the Progressive Orthodox sanction, which is the teaching of Christ; and the Outer Liberal sanction, which is the individual reason. And now comes the Mormon, seeking adherents. "What!" cries the Catholic "Leave my church for yours, with its divine origin, is venerable history, its gorgeous ritual, its adoration of the blessed Mother of God, for yours with a claim no sterner and a temple worship no lovelier?” Mormon missions fall fruitless in Romish lands. A shame," cries Progressive Orthodoxy, "to exalt the Old Testament to' rank with the New!" Since the beginning of the Progressive Orthodox transition, the Mormon evangelist has appealed solely to the ignorant, unenlightened masses. "Oh, pitiful imbecility! " exclaims the Outer Liberal. "No book authority for us! " You never saw the rationalist taught by Joseph Smith. But with the Old Evangelical how widely different the case! Truly, the Mormon church is the legitimate byproduct of the Calvinistic theology. Make Scripture the seat of religions authority; call the Bible, not a record of spiritual evolution, but an indiscriminate armory of proof texts; adopt an antique interpretation of prophecy; and, bless you, you are out upon the broad highroad to Salt Lake City. "Keep your Bible," says the LatterDay Saint, " believe it from cover to cover; but add the Book of Mormon, which explains its mysteries, reconciles its discrepancies, sustains its doctrines, and exactly fulfills its predictions." No other creed is so literalistic, no other church so immovably based on the letter of Scripture.

How came this so? Not, I think, by the hand of Joseph Smith. It is far more probable that Sidney Rigdon, long an intimate associate of the Rev. Alexander Campbell, framed the fabric of Mormon doctrine. For Campbell and Rigdon had formerly shared the hope of founding a new religion, and Campbell's Biblical erudition has rarely been equaled. The two quarreled. Campbell went one way to establish his "Campbellite" Disciples, Rigdon another to foist upon the world the Book of Mormon and its youthful prophet. Hence the skill which suited Mormon teaching to its purpose. Hence also its vast inclusiveness.

In this lies a further secret. The faith is a huge maw, gulping a dozen denominations. Are you a Baptist? The Mormon believes in immersion. A Methodist? The Mormon obeys his bishop. A Campbellite? The Mormon claims a yet closer return to apostolic ordinance. A Theosophist? The Mormon holds to preexistence. A Spiritualist? The Mormon hears voices from the dead. A Faith Healer? The Mormon heals by the laying on of hands, A Second Adventt? The Mormon awaits the Messiah. A Universalist? The Mormon says all will be saved. Massing his proof, he declares his peerless religion the one immutable, eternal faith, lost in the early age and restored in the latter clays, though glimmering in broken lights through all the creeds of Christendom. "Bring me from Europe or Asia," said Brigham Young, "a truth that is not a part of Mormonism, and I'll give you a thousand errors for it, if you can find them." Said a Mormon at Harvard, "Sunday by Sunday I go to service in the Appleton Chapel, and there I hear nothing but Mormon doctrine." Limited only by the broad bounds of Christianity, this faith is an amalgamated and coordinated Parliament of Religions.

Mormonism wins by breadth also by narrowness. It meets crude thought with a crude anthropomorphism. It preaches a God of bone and of flesh, in his every attribute human. And this Mormon caricature of divinity resorts for Scriptural sanction to the earlier portions of the Old Testament. The God of Joseph Smith and of Brigham Young, Mormons will tell you, is the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. Then, to reconcile so blunt a doctrine with the refinements of historic Christianity, God is made omnipresent through the Holy Spirit, and the mystery of the Trinity is solved by the assumption of three separate Persons united by a common purpose. "Pure polytheism," I said. "Yes," came the answer; "isn't it grand?" Moreover, the Mormonite realizes that the low religious instinct craves tangible evidence of the unseen. Supi Yawlat caresses the feet of her mud-made Buddha; Sister Angelique clasps her crucifix; millions of Protestants worship their Bibles; but here is a gospel declared by a living prophet, mouthpiece of God and "boss of Jehovah's buckler;" here a creed beset on every hand with visible marvels, miracles, healings, prophecies, revelations, and speaking with tongues.

Am I taking the Mormon too gravely? Perhaps. For today the appeal of Mormonism is less doctrinal than material. It dangles loaves and fishes before hungry mouths. It promises fertile lands in fee simple to the peasants of Scandinavia and the miserable crackers of Georgia. It says to the ragged outcasts of Darkest England, "Come with us to happy Utah: you find no want there; there is plentiful work for all, there is wealth for honest labor." And yet, originally, the power of Mormonism was unquestionably the power of doctrine. It entered American life at a period of intense illiberality. The air was full of schism. The sects teemed with recalcitrants. The time was ripe for the establishment of a church so broadly comprehensive as to welcome the malcontents of all Christendom.

Mormonism has from the first depended for its very life and heart throb upon ceaseless campaigns of propagandism. Aside from the lure of its doctrine or the gaudy fascination of its pledges, it triumphs by main strength. Two thousand youthful 14 elders " roam through "the world," seeking whom they may convert. They sprinkle the earth with tracts; they pass from cottage to cottage, teaching and preaching; they travel at their own expense, " without purse or scrip." When they can, they live like. Napoleon's army, "on the country." So, considering their numbers and their zealous labor, the marvel is not that they bring home adherents; the marvel is that they bring so few.

Here, then, are the forces that fetch men to Utah. See now what keeps them there, and keeps them loyal. Missionary service seals the soul for the object of its devotion. Nearly every young Mormon that is, nearly every young man, and now they are sending young women also goes out to toil and to suffer for the faith. And there is in all this world no confirmation of a faith like that of abuse, and contumely endured in its service. Tithing has also its power. Drop, year by year, a tenth of your income into the coffers of your church, and you learn to love it.

Again, enormous strength lies hid in the extraordinary acoustic properties of Mormonism. A pin let fall in a hat can be heard clean across the great Tabernacle; likewise the whisper of the First President is audible in the remotest gulch or canon of the kingdom. What with his two counselors, his twelve apostles, his presidents of the stake, his bishops, his seventies, his elders, and his teachers, the whisper passes down from ear to ear, changing from English to Swedish, from Swedish to German, from German to Danish, a miracle of tongues and interpretation of tongues,—till perchance it comes, harsh and sibilant, through the keyhole of your kitchen door to the maid with her hands in the dough. Or back, up that ladder of listening ears, goes the whisper of the teacher, to be heard in the president's office. The German government is paternal, but an ill parent compared with this; Tammany Hall a superb organization, but lax beside Mormonism. The ward heeler, that dread bogyman of city politics, what now is he? A petty amateur. This Mormon church boasts the grandest ecclesiastical, political, commercial, and industrial machine on earth! Are quarrels brewing? The church will stop them. Is schism afloat? The church will check it. Is wealth to be gained? The church stands behind the counter with Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution. Is Gentile competition becoming alarming? The church bids its people trade with one another. Are the rills of irrigation like to be wasted? The church sets just the hour and minute for the farmer to open the trench. Are votes to be polled? The church gives commands. There have not been forty scratched ballots in forty years. Are there poor to be fed? The church will feed them. Consequently, whoever once enters so complete a freemasonry finds it not only exceedingly difficult to get out, but also exceedingly desirable to stay in..

Besides, in the day when this iron order was welded, the doctrine of blood atonement had its hideous red part to play. Said Brigham Young: "There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world or in that which is to come; and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would e perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins, and the smoking incense would atone for their sins; whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them, and remain upon them in the spirit world. I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it a strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them." Now one of these unforgivable sins, from which men might be saved by assassination, was the sin of apostasy from the Mormon church. "Rather than that apostasy should flourish here," bellowed the prophet Brigham in a mighty discourse, "I will unsheathe my bowie knife, and conquer or die!” Such was the temper of the Mormon Bismarck.

But the main cohesive force is polygamy. Here is once more the philosophy of Benjamin Franklin's " We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately." With an appalling uniformity, it is polygamists who rise to ecclesiastical eminence. Such can be trusted. Such will stay put. This Mormon church binds its adherents with the strongest bonds known under heaven. It is at once a religion, an empire, a fraternity, a trust, and a partnership in crime.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In