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Mormons as Part of the Pluralist Kaleidoscope

By: Tona H - October 12, 2012

So when I created my fall course on American religious pluralism I built it around five units. In this post I thought I’d share those, and invite conversation about where Mormonism shows up in my course or where it could be discussed in a similar course.

Unit 1: Introductory Concepts and Documents
What is religion? What is a religion? What is pluralism as distinct from religious diversity? This unit was built around those questions and a bundle of key documents that define the American religious mainstream or that we could refer back to throughout the term. In retrospect, we needed more time with these documents – this unit was too short.

The documents were (and by the way, what would you have put on this list?) – Winthrop “Modell of Christian Charity” (1630), Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1739), George Washington “Letter to Touro Synagogue” (1790), Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1863), Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1864), Norman Corwin, “Benediction” to On a Note of Triumph (1945), Dorothy Day, excerpt from The Long Loneliness (1952), and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963). I wanted a spine of American Christianity as the “mainstream” – the civil religion idea – against which religious “others” had to define themselves, but I also wanted a mix of voices from different racial, gender and denominational backgrounds.

Unit 2: The “Myth” of American Religious Freedom
This unit’s focused on David Sehat’s book, read in big chunks over about 2 weeks. His narrative follows religious dissenters rather the way that Howard Zinn does with political and intellectual dissenters, although Sehat’s book is really more of a legal history as it traces the notion of religious freedom through Supreme Court cases in particular. His chapter on unconventional religious groups in the 19th century and on the legal and social persecution they experienced does mention Mormons and the Reynolds case. To supplement this and give some fodder for discussion about marriage and gender among new religious movements of the 19th century, I provided three primary sources for discussion: a one-page document from the Women’s Exponent of 1879 written by “Blanche Beechwood” (a pseudonym for Emmeline B. Wells?) which makes a spirited pro-womanist defense of plural marriage, Thomas Carter’s 2000 article for the Winterthur Portfolio, “Living the Principle,” on the domestic architecture of polygamous LDS families in Utah, and an 1870 article for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated magazine that takes readers on a tour inside the mysterious “Oneida Free Lovers” community.

Unit 3: Worcester’s Religious Landscape, Then and Now
This unit is considers the urban religious landscape in two time periods: the 1890s, when religious pluralism of world faiths became a recognizable reality with the arrival of the “new immigrants” and a subject of academic study following on the World Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition… and the current era, when our city is being transformed by our own newcomers in the wake of post-1965 changes in US immigration law. I’m drawing heavily on Roy Rosenzweig’s book on Worcester’s working class 1870-1920 Eight Hours for What We Will (dating myself here, it was a grad school classic in my day – is it still?) because even though he’s writing about labor and social history, in Worcester he can’t do so without talking about religion, since it is a city balkanized into ethnic, linguistic and religious neighborhoods each anchored by a church. What my students (many of whom are from here) notice is the persistence of those characteristics even today, albeit overlaid by new communities of more recent arrivals. During this unit the students are creating profiles of local congregations and then creating entries in a digital history archive.

Unit 4: Case Study – Religion in the Civil Rights Movement
During this unit, we look at something that history students will have encountered many times before, in hopefully a new light, as a case study to demonstrate that you don’t understand American history in its complexity until you consider religion. And truly, when you look at the campaign for black civil rights through a religious lens, it becomes a different story. The book we’ll use here is David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope, although it’s very dense intellectual history, hopefully supplemented with songs, photographs, sermons, etc of that era.

Unit 5: Religious Pluralism in the Contemporary Era
Here is another place where Mormonism is likely to show up, since it will be post-election by then and whatever the outcome we can do some Monday-morning quarterbacking about religion in politics and public life in an election year. We’ll be reading Diana Eck’s book which stresses the unremarkable presence of religious communities of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists across America and what that means for both religious tolerance and pluralism in an era of heightened conflict between faith and non-faith. As she puts it elsewhere, “East and West are no more… ‘Christendom’ and ‘the Islamic world’ have no identifiable geographic borders. There are Sikh mayors in Britain and Muslim mayors in Texas. The Buddha would smile at the collapse of our reifications. Recently Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington spoke of the new geopolitical reality of ‘the West and the rest’ and proposed that ‘civilizational identity’ will have a major role in the coming political realignment. He contends that the Confucian, Islamic and Hindu worlds will be forces to reckon with. But where exactly are these worlds? With mosques in every major Western city and a thriving panoply of Asian-American subcultures, it is difficult to know what he means. It is precisely the interpenetration and proximity of ancient civilizations and cultures that is the hallmark of the late 20th century.” [1]

What I think will be interesting is if in this brilliant kaleidoscope of religions, Mormonism will look like just another of Christianity’s 31 flavors to students who are encountering them all primarily through the present-day experience and not as a 19th century hothouse flower. Maybe that’s all to the good; it might be evidence of the legacy of South Park and the Book of Mormon musical to have rendered Mormonism as merely strange-as-any-other color in the shifting pattern. Seen from the 19th century, Mormonism and Oneida and Shakers show up as somewhat bizarre aberrations, but seen within the globalized religious landscape that is America today, Mormonism hardly nudges the Richter scale of exoticism. At least here in New England. Your mileage may vary.

[1] Diana Eck, “In the Name of Religions,” The Wilson Quarterly Autumn 1993 17 (4): 90-100, p. 100.

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4 Comments

  1. Just to confirm: “Blanche Beechwood” is Emmeline B. Wells, per Mel Bashore’s list of identified pseudonyms.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 12, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  2. This is great, Tona. Please do keep us updated on how things progress this semester.

    Spencer Fluhman’s book seems especially relevant to what you’re doing with Mormonism here.

    I do find it interesting, though, that it looks like Mormonism’s otherness surfaces primarily because of its 19th century practice of polygamy. The period of Mormon history that I study–pre-Nauvoo (and pre-polygamy)–includes no shortage of Mormons as dangerous outsiders and religious others, but none of that is connected to plural marriage.

    Comment by Christopher — October 13, 2012 @ 9:15 am

  3. In reading through your unit 1, I wondered if your students would have enough background to recognize the theology in the various items, e.g., Lincoln’s second inaugural or would they just recognize religious sounding language?

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 13, 2012 @ 10:41 am

  4. The latter, definitely. In an ideal world this course would be a Part II, but in lieu of that I think a longer first unit may be needed to build in that kind of background. Maybe Sehat’s argument could be dropped/abbreviated and Unit 2 drop out in favor of spending much more time with the basics of American Judeo-Christian theology. I’ll canvass my students at the end of term and see what they think,

    Comment by Tona H — October 14, 2012 @ 6:06 am