Mormons on the March

June 05, 1994

Most Americans knew Ezra Taft Benson primarily as a former agriculture secretary given to extremely conservative political views. Yet his more significant role was as president of the Mormon Church since 1985. With his death last week, his title will pass to a new leader but not to a new generation. Firm in its patriarchy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not reflect the personality of a particular person but rather a culture built on tradition, family, self-reliance and salvation.

Those bedrock values would seem to make Mormonism a natural fit for America and, indeed, Mormonism is the most successful of this country's home-grown religious groups. Yet the history of the church amply illustrates that the relationship between the church and the wider culture has been riddled with tension. Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896 only after the church had accepted the Great Compromise -- renouncing its embrace of polygamy in return for statehood.

Even after that, many Americans continued to look askance at a religion with differences that are distinct enough to set it firmly apart from mainstream Christianity. As the historian Fawn Brodie noted, Mormonism "was no mere dissenting sect. It was . . . intended to be to Christianity what Christianity was to Judaism: that is, a reform and a consummation."

Despite its differences with mainstream American culture, Mormonism has flourished. Its membership has grown from 5.9 million to 8.7 million since 1985. Much of the growth can be attributed to the church's formidable sales force -- a missionary team of 50,000 polite, well-schooled, clean-living young people who dedicate two years of their lives to spreading the word about Mormonism.

Much of the recent growth in Mormonism has come in other parts of the world, giving the church an increasingly international flavor. Yet, given the church's American origins and a culture that seems almost quintessentially American in its wholesomeness, it is hard to imagine that it will ever completely lose its distinctive American flavor.

In fact, even though the Americanism of the Mormon Church has sometimes prompted a "Yankee go home" reaction in some parts of the world, it has also been a great strength at home and abroad. Given the turmoil in contemporary society, it is not at all difficult to see the attraction in a religion that gives a central place to the bonds of family and community. Its size, its influence and its vitality indicate that Mormonism long ago passed the point where it could be dismissed as yet another mystical sectarian experiment. As the Mormon Church embraces a new leader, it stands in a place of influence that no other indigenous product of the American religious landscape can claim.

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