I recently listened to Joanna Brooks’s fascinating interview on Mormon Stories (which I recommend, especially as a supplementary activity to reading her marvellous memoir), and was struck by one point of the conversation. John Dehlin asked Joanna if the type of identity she exemplifies—that of “unorthodox”—was something new, something that couldn’t have happened long ago. Joanna rightly pointed out her long intellectual genealogy within the LDS tradition, noting that her position is not so much new but exemplary of what many Latter-day Saints had done before her.
The idea of unorthodox figures in LDS history is an important point that deserves further consideration. It also relates to a recent focus of study of mine, Edward Tullidge, who was the topic of my MHA paper this last year. To demonstrate that this isn’t a new phenomenon, I’d like to give a bit of background to Tullidge, mostly plagiarizing my paper, and then touch on his relevance. In today’s age, when the concept of an “Unorthodox Mormon” seems to be heralded as a modern idea, it is important to note the heterogeneous history that is Mormonism.
Tullidge was a fascinating individual. Born in southern England, he was raised Methodist before converting to Mormonism, backsliding into deism, recommitting to Mormonism, migrating to Utah, taking part in the Godbeite reform movement, returning once again to Mormonism, and briefly affiliating with the RLDS faith before finally rejoining the LDS Church, this time until his death. Importantly, Tullidge narrated, documented, and defended these numerous transitions throughout his life with a broad corpus of writings that included editorials, articles, plays, poems, and books. Indeed, Tullidge can be considered Mormonism’s Orestes Brownson—a religious weathervane whose constant shifts shed light on the broader currents that tossed him to and fro. While it is tempting to dismiss him as one lacking strong convictions, whatever those convictions may be, he can instead be viewed as representative of the evolving nature of belief in general and his dynamic contemporary culture in particular.
At one point along his religious journey, he was sent on a mission to New York to defend Mormonism to the American public. It was 1866, so polygamy was in full swing, details about Mountain Meadows were leaking out, and the Church was on shaky ground with the American public and government. Tullidge was a great selection for this position: he was erudite and skilled with the printer’s pen, with background as an associate editor at the Millennial Star and publishing experience with a small newspaper in Utah. He was given financial resources and immediately made important contacts.
But he was also an odd choice: he no longer believed in several of the central theological tenets of the faith. In his first editorial, published in the popular Galaxy, Tullidge emphasized that Mormonism had evolved not into “a great church,” but “a little nation.” The church’s growth and success, he explained, were due to “manifest[ing] themselves through social and political organizations, and commercial activities,” and that by losing their admittedly “fanatical element” they were now “in common with other men.” Tullidge urged his audience that Mormonism’s theology was of no importance—in one place he stated that it was “the facts that have outgrown out of the movements of the people, not their faith,” in another that “polygamy…[and] our very doctrines of theology…are but our side issues and phases of specialities”—and he argued that what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had done was establish an international network of missionaries ready to carry forth civilization to the entire world. “Not in the history of any community,” he boasted, “have they their counterpart in this specialty.” “Empire-founding,” not theology, was the purpose of the Mormon faith.
The following is taken from my paper, “The Theology of a Career Convert: The Evolving Identities of Edward Tullidge.”
Central to Tullidge’s understanding of Mormonism during this period was a recasting of Mormonism from a theological kingdom to a secular empire; the descriptor “theocracy” rarely entered his language, having been replaced with “Mormondom,” a phrase that seemingly stripped—or at least downplayed—the movement’s theological emphasis. Indeed, when Mormonism’s religious tenets are mentioned, they are primarily used as an example of the optimism, empowerment, and “unbounded faith” Mormons gain through their movement’s worldview. The purpose of the LDS faith was to gain confidence in their message and earnestness in their purpose. Then, once the foundation for this empire-building system is in place, the cause of social regeneration could finally begin.
This was an important transition period for Tullidge, one in which he let go of Mormonism’s theological claims but still maintained an attachment to its organizing potential. It also hints to the malleability and dynamism of both the Mormon movement and the surrounding culture during the period. Tullidge’s position was located in a grey area between the orthodox persona of a traditional believers—like himself only a decade before—and the disillusioned and bitter identity of ex-members—which he ironically embraced two years later. For Tullidge, certain tenets of Mormonism and American culture provided tools for the construction of a new religious identity, an identity that may have been unique to him but a construction process that wasn’t unique at all. From his faith he took international missiology and loyalty, from the United States he took nationalism and societal reform, and from the Anglo-American world he embraced imperialism. This ideological blend, while technically within the parameters of the Mormon institution, demonstrates the extent to which personal identities and religious beliefs can vary by individual, location, and era—an evolutionary process indicative of the Age of Darwin in which adaptation is not only allowed, but necessary. And Tullidge’s evolution was nowhere near complete.
Besides mostly being fascinating in and of itself, Edward Tullidge’s Mormon trajectory is imminently relevant for another reason: he demonstrates that the idea of being an “unorthodox” member, even as a spokesperson, is nothing new. Tullidge was never reprimanded for these views: seeing the national debates over polygamy as a “Mormon moment,” so to speak, the Church sent Tullidge out to defend them, and they were not displeased with what he wrote while away. Indeed, when he returned, he was still in their good graces and received financial help as he went through a health crisis. (This good will, however, would wane as Tullidge soon became a proponent of the Godbeite reform, which blasted Brigham Young.)
Of course not everyone is like Tullidge, and Tullidge himself had lots of paradoxes and trajectories within his own belief. (Worthy of it’s own discussion, that is.) And his idea of Mormonism, just like Joanna’s, can’t be reduced to tidy categorizations. (Indeed, I’ll be dealing with that issue in another venue.) However, it is sometimes easy to forget these colorful, divergent, and heterodox figures in LDS history when confronted with the uniform, button-down, obedient image of today’s church. But there are there, and they are there in abundance. We just have to look for them.