Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Interview with Patrick Mason

In the current course I am teaching on "Religion in Southern Culture" at UTC, the class is reading Patrick Mason's new book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. There are about thirty students in the class and we read one chapter for each session and discuss various broad questions that come from the reading.

Dr. Mason was gracious enough to answer some of the questions that the class and I had about Mormonism in general, and the book more specifically. Below are the questions and responses by Mason.

1) How has Mormonism evolved as a religion, and does it currently reflect the traditions originally established?

This is a huge—and excellent—question, and would take a book to answer! The short answer is that yes, Mormonism has evolved significantly, but that much of its core theology and practice does reflect the original revelations given to Joseph Smith. The notion of historical change (which occurs in any institution, religious or otherwise) is lost on many rank-and-file Latter-day Saints, as there is a common perception that the church is the same in all ages. I could point to all kinds of things that would reflect both continuity and change within the tradition. One aspect of change that you might find surprising is that the current LDS Church's emphasis on the Book of Mormon is a relatively new development. Although the Book of Mormon was in many ways the foundational scripture of Mormonism, its actual content was relatively neglected by Latter-day Saints until the 1980s — it existed more as a sign of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling than a significant source of theology. Now the Book of Mormon is better known and more frequently cited than any other Mormon book of scripture.

2) What would a Mormon theocratic government look like in nineteenth-century America?

A full-fledged Mormon theocracy never really took root. There were leanings in that direction in Nauvoo, Illinois (early 1840s), and then again in the early years of Utah settlement (1847-mid 1850s). In Utah, Brigham Young was originally both prophet and territorial governor, and virtually all important decisions for the territory were made by Young and the other leaders of the church. Their explicitly political power was diminished somewhat by the late 1850s, when Young was removed as governor. In short, I don't think there was ever much of a chance for a Mormon theocracy in America, with its traditions of democratic governance and pluralism. The Mormons maintained a remarkably closed society in late 19th-c. Utah, but they had to exercise power in ways other than just politically.

3) What do Mormons believe regarding the divinity of individual persons--both men and women?

All human beings, male and female, are children of God and thus potential inheritors of God's glory. Mormons take very seriously—and literally—this notion that we are all children of God, with the potential to grow up to be like our Father. This leads to the Mormon doctrine of theosis (although Mormons don't call it that — they use terms like eternal progression), namely that human beings can become divine, even gods and goddesses, in the next life. That, in fact, is the end goal for righteous Mormons. Not in the sense of supplanting God, but inheriting all that God has and having the kind of glorified existence that God does.

4) What do Mormons believe regarding Jesus Christ, including his divinity?

Mormons firmly believe in the divinity of Christ, seeing him as the Son of God and Savior of the world. This is reinforced by not only their fairly conservative reading of the New Testament but also the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures and prophetic teachings, which are unflinching in proclaiming Christ's divinity. Perhaps the one claim that annoys Mormons the most is the false claim that they are not Christians — they will immediately react that the full name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that Christ is the central focus of their worship. With that said, Mormon Christology is different from other Christians' (who disagree among themselves on many key points), and Mormons reject many of the historic creeds of Christianity, including Nicea, Chalcedon, etc. But to say anything other than that Mormons worship Christ as the Son of God and the only path to salvation would be false.

5) What inspired you to write this book, on such a specific topic?

This came out of my dissertation, which was about violence against religious minorities in the late 19th-c. South, including Jews, Catholics, black Christians, and Mormons. I didn't expect it, but it turned out that the Mormon material was by far the most original and compelling, and so I decided to devote the book entirely to the topic. Originally the project came out of my desire to look at the intersections of religion, race, and violence in American history — Mormonism (or rather, anti-Mormonism) just kind of crept in through the back door, you could say. But I'm happy with the direction that it went.

6) What was your methodology for constucting your argument in the book?

As I said, this began as a dissertation that was essentially a project in comparative religious violence. If you ever read the dissertation (and I don't wish such a fate even on my enemies), you'll see that there exist some of the seeds of the arguments I eventually make in the book. But actually what it took was me stepping away from the project for a couple of years and giving it time to "breathe." Then, when I had decided to focus just on anti-Mormonism and lose some of the comparative focus (though I wanted to keep it in the last chapter), I went back to the archives and did more research. It was only then that some of the more important arguments in the book — for instance, the role of anti-Mormonism as an early step in the reunion of the sections after Reconstruction — began to crystallize.

7) Is not practicing polygamy (currently) being faithful to the original beliefs of Mormonism?

This is an excellent, and vexing, question, that relates to the earlier question about continuity and change in Mormonism. This is a complicated issue that I think would garner different responses from different scholars. I'll give you my take. I think that Mormon theology, even in its most robust form, can stand completely independent of polygamy. That is to say, polygamy is not essential to Mormon cosmology, let alone practice. (This is where others might disagree with me — certainly 19th-c. Mormon leaders said that polygamy was a central — if not the central — doctrine and social arrangement of Mormonism, both in this life and in the hereafter.) Marriage—and probably heterosexual marriage—is essential to Mormon theology, but I don't think it has to be polygamous marriage. No doubt, the current church's repudiation of polygamy is a departure from the late 19th century. But we need to remember that the polygamous experience in Mormon history is the minority experience. Joseph Smith revealed it to only a small cadre of his followers in the early 1840s, it wasn't openly announced until 1852, and then was suspended in 1890 (and then really in 1904) -- meaning that a full two-thirds of Mormon history has transpired after the 1890 ban. And not all Mormons practiced it in the meantime.

8) In which region in the South was there the most persecution of Mormon missionaries?

This was a pretty straightforward finding of my research — violence followed the missionaries where they went. Where there were more missionaries, there was more violence. Tennessee, Alabama, and the Carolinas were the main sites of anti-Mormon violence, because those were the states where the most missionaries were stationed. I don't fully know why missionaries were sent to some areas rather than others, but violence followed them almost everywhere they went.

9) Compared to the 19th c., what is your impression of how Mormons are treated in the American South today?

It's a completely different world. Certainly there remains anti-Mormon prejudice — not just in the South, but across America and around the world. The fact is that the majority of Americans still don't personally know a Mormon, and ignorance is the breeding ground of prejudice. Mormonism has grown tremendously in the South; as I say in my concluding pages, "Twelve of fourteen southern states (excepting only Louisiana and West Virginia) saw the number of LDS adherents increase by at least 70 percent from 1980 to 2000; in six of those states the LDS population more than doubled. . . . At the dawn of the new millennium, over half a million Latter-day Saints—approximately one in eight of all American Mormons—lived in the South." Most Mormons I know who have lived in the South report a kind of low-level prejudice, the kind that exists for anyone who is considered "different." Some of this prejudice is still perpetuated by certain evangelical churches that have formal anti-Mormon programming. But it is not violent anymore, and most Mormons report feeling quite comfortable living in the South, in part because they share a conservative moral and political outlook that is common to the region.

10) How accurate is the television series "Big Love"?

As accurate as any piece of fiction, I suppose. Of course, it doesn't document life in a Latter-day Saint family, since Mormons gave up polygamy over a century ago. I think one of the reasons for the show's success is that it dramatizes some of the struggles that any marriage and family relationship has, but it's just exacerbated by the fact of plurality within the marriage. One thing that it, and the show "Sister Wives," has done is humanizing polygamists, which I think has taken some of the edge off the traditional antipathy toward the practice. I know lots of women, both Mormons and non-Mormons, who have watched those shows and came away saying, "You know, I kind of like the idea of having sister wives," although they're quick to say they're not real thrilled of sharing their husband.

We thank Dr. Mason once again for this service to our class on religion in the South.

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