American Fundamentalism

The Mormons are on their way to becoming a world religion - debate

Heidelberg, Germany
February 11, 2002
Die Welt

by Gerhard Besier

The "biggest event in the history of mankind since the resurrection of Christ" was a vision received in 1820 by the young Joseph Smith. Such is the founding myth of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. This is the denomination to which over 70 percent of the 2.2 million people who live in Utah belong, as do practically all the people of rank. With one fell swoop the winter Olympics in Utah's metropolis of Salt Lake City has put the American God-state into the limelight of public interest.

The Mormons currently have 61,000 missionaries active; with their help the denomination has since 1984 doubled its membership worldwide to 11.3 million, 38,000 of them in Germany. The Mormons are on the fast track to becoming a world religion.

The religious zeal that burns in them should be seen with the background of the great religious awakening that occurred in America in the beginning of the 19th century. The Great Awakening breathed new life into old religious denominations and led to the appearance of seers and prophets as well as to splinterings and new establishments. Joseph Smith was the lead figure of his spiritual uprising. With his visions he founded perhaps the most American of all religions native to the USA.

On September 21, 1820, an angel named Maroni appeared to Joseph Smith. The angel introduced himself as the son of Mormon, who was said to have been a prophet in America in the 5th century after Christ's birth. It is said that Maroni led Smith to a hill where he told him to dig. The treasure seeker found a stone box, prophet spectacles and several inscribed gold plates. With the help of his spectacles Smith could read the ancient writing and dictate the text to a scribe. After the translation was done he had to give the angel back the glasses and gold tablets. In 1830 he published his transcription under the title of "The Book of Mormon." Believers regarded it as a new revelation of God, a holy book of the same origin as the Bible.

The Book of Mormon told the Biblical legend of emigration to the new Promised Land - in America: 600 years before the birth of Christ, Lehi, a citizen of Jerusalem, received from God the instruction to flee with his family into the desert and to build a ship on the Red Sea. With that he sailed to the west coast of America. There Lehi's sons Nephi and Laman were the fathers of two peoples. While the Nephites were loyal to their beliefs and therefore remained light-skinned, the Lamanites fell away from their beliefs and thus received the darker Indian skin as punishment. After his resurrection, Christ also appeared to the Nephites, founded his own church, and promised them that he would once and for all return to America someday. Mormon wrote the story on the gold plates and transferred them, after the Nephites were defeated in the last great battle against the Lamanites, to his son Maroni. He buried them and 1,400 years later showed Joseph Smith where he hid them.

With his ever more numerous adherents, Smith had to move and move again from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. His opponents took offense at polygamy. In 1844 he was killed in a hand-to-hand fight. Whereupon his successor Brigham Young, the American Moses, organized the second great exodus of the faithful. The pious pioneers settled down near the Great Salt Lake and created a blossoming cultural landscape from the inhospitable area - their Promised Land. When the territory was integrated into the USA in 1850, there were again problems with polygamy being openly practiced. It was not until polygamy was stricken from the books that Utah could become a US state in 1896. Although the Mormons forbid having many wives in 1904, the stolid believers still practice the divine principle as of today.

In 1978, Smith's revelations were changed in order to expunge the racist aspects from his teachings. Since then men of color may also be priests. Women are fundamentally excluded from the sacred function. As of today they are still subordinate to men and can only be "recovered" by their men.

Nevertheless this religion personifies basic American values like diligence, self-confidence, pragmatism and progress. In particular the teachings of the Mormon "ever enduring progress," a kind of permanent deification, answers the American quest for progress. Although most Mormons think of themselves as Christians, the traditional churches soundly reject this self-valuation. In matters of life management the Mormons have clearly outdone the competition. Nicotine, alcohol and sex outside of polygamy are taboo. The 2,350 athletes, 9,000 journalists and 1.5 visitors from all over the world can expect a dry climate without smoking accoutrements and other diversions.

There is some irony to the Americans displaying their variety of religiosity to the world in these times when secular Europe characterizes the term "fundamentalism" in mostly negative terms.

Gerhard Besier is a Professor of Church History at the University of Heidelberg.

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