I know that too often church history after Joseph Smith gets shortchanged. I think there are a few reasons for this. Mostly, it’s just that Joseph is such a powerful figure it’s hard to look at anything else. Another reason, at least in the church, is that we focus on church history through and by the D&C, and the D&C gets really sparse after Joseph’s death. But I found myself falling into the same trap as I organized my class. Unit 1 was about Smith, and then we did an entire unit on “everything else.” My reasons for doing so are basically academic-and are based on Max Weber’s idea of institutionalizing charisma. Even the devout Latter-day Saint must admit that, compared with Joseph Smith, his successors to the prophetic office were not as dynamic as he.
Joseph was a religion creator. He produce voluminous new scripture, created new societies (or at least really tried to), organized a new church, and supervised the creation of missions, the building of temples, and generated a new unorthodox Christian theology. What he did not do was systematize any of those things. When he died there was authority, ritual, scripture, theology, and teaching, but in no way was it organized. He just produced-and produced rapidly. It stood to the future generations of Latter-day Saints to wrestle with and organize his prolific prophetic career.
To this end we used Matthew Bowman’s brand-new The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. We skipped the chapters on Smith and picked up immediately after his death. The students found Bowman’s book quick and easy to read and, while a little less scholarly than the others we had read, it was a great book to use for this portion of the class. I was glad Matt pointed it out to me before the class started, or we would have ended up using something like The Mormon Experience by Arrington. The one complaint I had about Matt’s book, and having listened to interviews with him it’s not something I actually blame him for, is that the last chapter focuses too much on the church in the U.S., when the future of Mormonism clearly lies outside of the states. But a few articles helped supplement him there, and it worked out really well.
Overall, the students seemed more “ho-hum” about this unit of the course. The angelic visitations and revelations definitely dropped down in frequency, and looking at how charisma (Joseph Smith) was institutionalized (prophetic office and personal testimonies) and how the theology was more systematized is more history than religion, and their response reflected that.
Also, at the beginning and end of this unit we had visits from some of the local missionaries (the sisters assigned to Georgetown) and the LDS Georgetown chaplains-in-residence, Dr. David Rowberry and his wife Janis. Dr. Rowberry is the local CES director as well as being a chaplain at Georgetown. The sisters in the DC mission are definitely the church putting it’s best foot forward, because of the DC temple visitor’s center. Their visit reflected what I thought was a very positive experience that I had while serving as a missionary in Poughkeepsie, NY, and visited a class on Mormonism at Vassar. The much more mature and experienced view of Mormonism from the Rowberrys was also a welcome addition to the class.
The final papers were quite fun this time. They could have either written a short paper on one of the LDS church presidents (discussions on them were also somewhat lacking in Bowman) which had to include some sermon of that prophet, or write a newspaper article about the LDS church, the catch being that it had to be written at least 50 years in the future.
Let’s just say that the students who took the second option were overwhelmingly positive about the prospects for LDS church growth in the future. We did read Stark’s projections, and while we are ahead of even his high ones right now, the growth rate is slowing down significantly. I pointed this out to them, several times, but I think they just remembered the big 260 million Mormons by the year 2080 projection and just ran with it.
Amusing future developments in Mormonism from the papers included:
- An Official Declaration giving women the priesthood.
- An Official Declaration rescinding “multiply and replenish” as a commandment, because the worldwide human population had grown too large. This was about a decade after the Word of Wisdom was expanded to ban meat due to worldwide food shortages.
- The beginning of a BYU center on transhumanism and transhuman science.
- The Pope releasing an encyclical declaring LDS full Christians.
- Local worship styles encouraged in the church by the first non-American president of the church (from Africa).
- December 23rd being declared a Mormon holiday to celebrate the birth of Joseph Smith.
Somewhat surprisingly, not a single one of them wrote a future article that said the LDS would be fully accepting of homosexual marriages sometime in the future. So all this on top of every student basically saying that Mormonism’s growth rate would be extremely high. (I promise I told them Stark’s predictions were showing significant signs of no longer holding true, despite the “so far so good” aspect of his article we read.) Overall, I think their reaction to this unit was mostly ho-hum because, of all the units, this was the most where what we covered was a lot of info-dumping, instead of wrestling with things like angelic visitations and new scripture.