Presenting Mormonism, from the inside out

May 14, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

"Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism," by Coke Newell. St. Martin's Press. 288 pages. $24.95.

It is no secret that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world.

But there is much about this church that is unknown or misunderstood. Its teen-age missionaries maintain a high profile, but its most important rituals, like the sealing of marriage for eternity and proxy baptism for one's dead relatives, are carried out in temples that are inaccessible to outsiders.

It considers the Bible the word of God, but believes in a further revelation contained in the Book of Mormon, an account of Jesus' ministry among the Native Americans in the Americas after his resurrection.

All of this has made the Latter-day Saints objects of suspicion, derision and violence throughout their history. Once the targets of an extermination order signed by the governor of Missouri, they are today more likely to be the targets of evangelical Christians like the Southern Baptists, who have led a well-publicized campaign to convert them to "orthodox" Christianity.

Seeking to publish an accessible guide to the history and doctrine of the Latter-day Saints church, St. Martin's Press recruited Coke Newell, a self-proclaimed ex-hippie Zen Buddhist vegetarian who is now a public information officer at the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City.

The intent of this book is to have an "insider" write about the church for a general audience, which Newell says in his preface is something that has never been done before. All previous histories of the church, he writes, were written by academics or journalists, by disgruntled ex-Mormons, or by church members for other church members.

It is a great premise that, unfortunately, does not succeed. The problem is that much of "Latter Days" simply reads like a Mormon catechism. Newell quotes extensively from the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of early Latter-day Saints documents, as well as from the writings of it founder, Joseph Smith, which results in long passages of monologue in pious, antiquated language.

The book's most compelling section deals with the founding and the early history of the church, a shameful history of persecution that still has not been fully told. After persecution in Missouri and Illinois, and the martyrdom of the founder Smith, the Latter-day Saints in 1846 embarked on a harrowing trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley, a journey they likened to an American Exodus to the Zion which today is Salt Lake City.

Some subjects in the book that would be of great interest to the general reader, namely the history of polygamy, are dealt with cursorily. Newell's explanation for the church practice of excluding African-Americans from the priesthood, which was reversed in 1978, is unsatisfying.

What could have been one of the book's most intriguing tales is barely told: that of Newell's own conversion to the church, what attracted him and what sustains him. He describes himself as "a convert to the faith, straight out of the rock-and-roll, vegetarian, whole earth, and homeschool, homeopathic Colorado mountains. And still into most of it."

But we catch this story only in fleeting glimpses. Too bad. It might have made this a more readable, and insightful, account.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.

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