A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, it does not specify what counts as a religion. From its founding in the 1830s, Mormonism, a homegrown American faith, drew thousands of converts but far more critics. In A Peculiar People, J. Spencer Fluhman offers a comprehensive history of anti-Mormon thought and the associated passionate debates about religious authenticity in nineteenth-century America. He argues that understanding anti-Mormonism provides critical insight into the American psyche because Mormonism became a potent symbol around which ideas about religion and the state took shape.
Fluhman documents how Mormonism was defamed, with attacks often aimed at polygamy, and shows how the new faith supplied a social enemy for a public agitated by the popular press and wracked with social and economic instability. Taking the story to the turn of the century, Fluhman demonstrates how Mormonism's own transformations, the result of both choice and outside force, sapped the strength of the worst anti-Mormon vitriol, triggering the acceptance of Utah into the Union in 1896 and also paving the way for the dramatic, yet still grudging, acceptance of Mormonism as an American religion.

Excerpt

Preaching to a Mormon audience in 1855, Joseph Young marked Mormon identity with biblical language: “I am aware that we are a peculiar people.” Speaking in a similar venue decades later, church president Wilford Woodruff softened the reference. “The Latter-day Saints are somewhat peculiar from other religious denominations,” he told a congregation in 1892. Interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1996, church president Gordon B. Hinckley further shrank the distance between Mormons and other Americans. “We’re not a weird people,” he told host Mike Wallace. In another meeting with the press, Hinckley emphasized Mormon Christianness while preserving some distinction. “We are a part of the great community of Christians,” he explained to the Religion Newswriters Association in 1997, “and yet we are a peculiar people. … We are somewhat peculiar in our doctrine.” Just as anti-Mormon constructions of Mormon peculiarity transformed across the years, Latter-day Saints (LDS) have positioned themselves in various ways over time. Certainly the two discursive processes have not developed independently. Though the Mormon-produced Encyclopedia of Mormonism maintains that the church has “largely ignored” anti-Mormonism through the years, it will become clear to readers of this volume that LDS identity has been crafted in dynamic tension with its critical appraisals. This study offers an account of the early criticisms of Mormonism and links them with broader ideas about religion in America. It argues that Mormonism has been central in significant transitions in the nation’s thinking about religion, both as a window on the history of religion’s conceptualization and as a force in the shaping of that history. The book outlines the intellectual dilemmas faced by those who attempted to explain or categorize a controversial but vibrant new faith.

This prologue reminds readers that Mormon/non-Mormon engagement . . .

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