By Robert Bernstein
“The Book of Mormon” is a Broadway musical written by the creators of “South Park”. After playing for many years on Broadway and several traveling tours, we were fortunate to have it come to Santa Barbara. Everywhere it plays it sells out, but our Humanist Society President Judy Flattery managed to snag 20 prime seats for our group.
The show is a fairly accurate depiction of life for teenage Mormon missionaries. It accurately tells the story of the religion as well, both historically and theologically. Not quite so accurate in its depiction of Uganda, where the missionary heroes are sent. It might have been better to use a mythical country name. The country mixes actual horrors like female genital mutilation with stories from different countries as well as stuff that is just made up.
The music is magnificent. It took me back to the musicals of the 1950s and 1960s where you come out of the theater singing the songs. The lyrics are just hilarious. My wife and I could not stop laughing. Be warned that there is a lot of crude language, but it mostly goes along with real world horrors.
In preparation for us going to the show, Flattery managed to snag an expert on Mormonism to deliver a most valuable orientation to the history and theology of the religion.
Flattery introduced this talk on Mormonism by noting these relevant Affirmations of Humanism:
We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
She then introduced the speaker, Professor Richard Phillips. Phillips grew up in a Mormon household and completed his required mission. He went on to receive a PhD in sociology at Rutgers University. He is now a professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
Phillips then began his talk with more of his background. He wanted to be a seminary teacher. He chose to study at a secular university so he would be exposed to challenging ideas, better arming him to defend his Mormon faith.
But that is not how things turned out. In college he studied Greek and Hebrew. He realized that secular scholars had a point. This eroded his faith and he left the church of his youth.
He became an academic of religion. He kept close ties with his Mormon family and friends. He also said that he “maintained respect for the faith”. I followed up on this after the talk.
His talk covered four parts, covering four aspects of Mormonism:
Origins of Mormonism
History and development
Contemporary situation in the political and cultural landscape
Mormonism began in the Finger Lakes region of New York, near Rochester. In the early 1800s, this was the Western frontier!
This was an era of market revolution. Industrialization. Capitalism. The Erie Canal was a big project. It was only completed in 1925. It would link the Great Lakes to the Atlantic via the Hudson River.
That project brought an influx of speculators and much economic and social upheaval.
In agrarian New York, all aspects of life were intertwined. Family, religion, commerce and community. Village life was homogeneous.
But the influx of outsiders led to religious upheaval. People were exposed to new religions. People considered changing religions.
Religious pluralism was corrosive to religious belief. Religion went from being taken for granted to being contested. One of us or both of us is wrong. We have to defend our beliefs. This was all new.
Antebellum New York was based on a parish system. You went to church with your neighbors, the same as you went to your neighborhood school.
But itinerant clergy were not attached to a specific church or geographic location. They won followers through their charismatic teachings. People began to join a religion based on taste rather than on neighborhood.
This meant that neighbors belonged to different religions. This period was called the “Second Great Awakening”.
The origin of Mormonism is murky. The founder was Joseph Smith. He was the son of a farmer and small businessman. He was from Vermont, but moved to the Finger Lakes region. Smith was concerned by this pluralism and wondered which church to join.
Smith asked God and in 1820 he had a vision. He saw Jesus and God the Father. Their message: All the churches are wrong and corrupt. He would restore true gospel. The primitive Christianity taught by Jesus.
But this story has evolved. It was only written down in 1838. Earlier versions made no reference to deciding which church to join. Historians are divided.
There is a second origin story that sounds like it came out of left field. A theological puzzle. Where did Native Americans come from?
Smith noted that Western Europeans were very smart and technologically advanced. Yet, it took until the 1500s to settle North America using their ingenuity. Native Americans were technologically inferior. How did they get there? This raised a theological problem for Smith. Maybe there were two Adams and two Eves?
It seems like a weird problem to obsess over, especially as a religious question.
The 1830 Book of Mormon offered an answer. It had influence as it offered an interesting and “satisfying” answer.
Today we know that the Native Americans arrived over the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age around 14,000 years ago. They walked across, some continuing all the way to the Tierra del Fuego.
But this was unknown in the early 1800s. According to the Book of Mormon (BOM) (as explained by Phillips and in this Wikipedia entry):
Lehi was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during the reign of king Zedekiah (approximately 600 BC). Lehi was an Israelite of the Tribe of Joseph, and father to Nephi, another prominent prophet in the Book of Mormon. Lehi and Nephi led their family out of Jerusalem, and across the sea to the “promised land” (the Americas). He is also the namesake of the modern-day city of Lehi, Utah.
Lehi gave important teachings to Nephi, which Nephi recorded on metal plates.
Lehi had another son Laman. Nephi was righteous, but Laman was wicked. They formed two nations. The Lamanites were dark-skinned. They wiped out the Nephites. The Native Americans are the descendants of the surviving Lamanites.
Joseph Smith somehow found these metal plates created by Nephi. This was the basis for the BOM. The original BOM was not much like the current BOM. It was all about the origin of Native Americans.
On April 6, 1830 Mormonism officially began. It was not very distinct from other Christian sects. It was similar to the Methodist religion in the area. Smith claimed to be in direct contact with the Divine and wrote down his revelations.
He gathered followers and established a settlement in Cleveland. This was the real Western frontier. With Smith as their leader, they ran into trouble. They were clannish and antagonized the locals.
In this era before credit cards and banks it was hard to get enough cash for transactions. There was no shortage of goods, just cash, which had to come from far away.
Smith’s church helpfully printed its own money, valued at exactly the same value as the dollar. It could be used in their stores as a dollar proxy. But Smith couldn’t resist the temptation to print more money than the actual dollars their money represented. This caused a run on the bank and a currency collapse.
People were understandably very angry and Smith’s Ohio community collapsed. They moved to what is now Kansas City, MO. Once again they ran into trouble with the neighbors. The Mormons were Abolitionists, opposing slavery. This didn’t sit well with the slave people of Missouri.
The Mormon church practiced economic communalism. Earnings were pooled, then doled out equally. This created distrust among the neighbors. But the biggest concern was their block voting.
The Mormons were able to get candidates to promise favors to them. It was all about their own self interest.
The Missouri settlement was abandoned. They created a new settlement in Illinois, which they named Nauvoo. From the Hebrew for “new” or “modern”. There they practiced polygamy.
Phillips noted as a sociologist that charismatic leaders often practice polygamy. He gave David Koresh as an example. “God wants you to have sex with me.”
Some would argue it is just Smith instituting his philandering. Others claimed it was about building a dynasty. No one knows when it started or how many wives Smith had. His wives were known to range from 14 to 40s in age.
Rumors began to fly. Defectors printed a newsletter “Nauvoo Expositor”. Smith ordered the destruction of the press. This was a bridge too far. He was arrested and put in jail.
But a mob assassinated Smith and his brother, before the trial could take place. This was in 1844, just 14 years after founding Mormonism.
There was no clear succession plan. Smith was not expecting to die. Mormonism split into fragments, some of which still exist. Some followed Smith’s son.
But most followed Brigham Young. He led his followers outside the border of the US at that time to the Salt Lake Valley. What is now Utah. That area was left alone during rising tensions before the Civil War.
They practiced polygamy openly. Since everyone was of the same religion, they reestablished the parish system. Remnants of this still exist today.
But the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 ended polygamy. This led to schisms. There are still modern polygamists around St George.
Phillips went on to talk about Mormon theology. It has unique innovations different from other Christian sects. Mormons do not accept the Trinity. God has a body and mind separate from his son Jesus. They are essentially humans.
Mormonism teaches that people live before they come to Earth. They live with their Father in heaven. When people come to Earth, there is a veil of amnesia about this pre-mortal life.
Before the Earth even began there was a conference in this pre-mortal life. The Father wanted humans to come down to earth in bodily form. There were two plans for how to accomplish that.
The plan of Jesus was for humans to have free will and see if they could pass the test of following the Ten Commandments. The plan of Satan was to force everyone to return. These competing plans led to a civil war in heaven.
The result was that Satan and a third of the beings in heaven were cast into hell. Phillips noted that there are other anachronistic parts of Mormonism that are related.
That some fighters in this heavenly civil war didn’t fight valiantly enough. They were sent to Earth as the descendants of the cursed murderer Cain. This is where Black people came from, according to Mormonism. Only in 1978 were Blacks allowed to join the church.
Mormons believe that there is only one true church. It is imperative to join this one to get back to heaven. And this involves certain rituals.
One is “Endowment”, involving ritual underwear that must be worn at all times. Mormons must be married and the marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Their idea of heaven does not involve a fiery hell. There are three degrees of “glory”. The wicked go to one level, but it is still glory. Good believers of other religions go to the “terrestrial” level. But only good Mormons go to the “celestial” level. They become like God. They create their own worlds. God was once human; humans can become God.
Mormonism is unique in US history. A religion that dominates an entire state. 3/4 of Utah residents are Mormon. They were able to ban Pornhub in the state. Everyone in Utah is prohibited from working on Sunday. You can’t even mow your lawn.
Provo is very dense with Mormons. People have to be wary of what they put in their shopping carts. Including coffee, which is banned in the religion. It is coercive.
What about the Book of Mormon musical? It focuses on the young missionaries. 18-19 year old boys. All young Mormon boys must do a missionary mission for two years. They are sent all over the world. The conversion rate is quite low. It is more about helping the missionaries stay in the church than it is about conversion.
Even with the low conversion rate, there are 17 million members, scattered across every inhabited continent. It is a wealthy religious group.
Phillips then took questions.
He was asked about the retention rate among younger members. In the 1990s they had a better retention rate than most religions. Salt Lake City is a nice place to live. Many people moved there from LA and other places. Now it is only about half Mormon. This accelerated young people leaving Mormonism.
When Phillips was 19, he didn’t want to go on the mission. There is a lot of social pressure. Who wants to go to Guatemala for two years and knock on doors? But no young women would date you if you didn’t.
But now half the neighbors are not Mormon. This opens up other opportunities.
Growing up he was told that drinking always leads to alcoholism. But he went off to college and met nice people who had liquor in the house and were not alcoholics.
Mormonism is becoming like other churches. If you don’t like it, you can leave.
Cheryl said she went to the Salt Lake City church to do genealogy. She suspects she was added to their database without her consent.
Phillips said this is probably true. They do “salvation” rituals for people born before Mormonism was invented or for others who never had a chance to convert. They are probably doing this for your ancestors.
Another member asked about his departure. Phillips said it took a decade to completely leave. His mother is in her 80s and she still thinks it is just a “phase” he is going through. He tried to keep some belief, but found it impossible to believe in any religion.
He was asked why Mormons are all Republicans. It is cultural, not theological. It is about being anti choice and against gays getting married.
Judy Flattery brought up the “60 Minutes” piece on 5/14/23 about suspicious finances of the Mormon church. David Nielsen managed their investments with the highest ideals. But he resigned when he saw they had accumulated $100 billion that they were not using.
Phillips said this is tied to their apocalyptic beliefs. That in the end times, that money will be needed to carry on operations. Like the end-timers who hoard guns and food, the Mormon church sees this as prudent management, not greed.
I asked what he meant about still having respect for the religion. He said that the religion has practical benefits. He and his friends didn’t drink or smoke pot or become juvenile delinquents.
I compared this to my own upbringing. My father was an atheist research biologist. He taught my brother and me the dangers of smoking and drinking to excess. That worked for us.
Ron asked how modern Mormons deal with modern evidence about Native American ancestry. It seems that the Mormons updated their unusual history to allow that there was a mix of Lamanites and the people who crossed the Bering Strait. Smart people are very good at inventing ways to believe things that are wrong. It is a feature of some personalities.
Judy Flattery asked about the Book of Mormon show. Phillips said the Book of Mormon show has been good for Mormonism. Any publicity is good publicity.
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/