The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman

Subtitled “The Making of An American Faith”, Bowman traces the formation of the Mormon faith beginning in 1831 to present-day challenges facing the church. Each chapter, excluding the introduction, is divided into a series of time periods and typically written around a particular theme (i.e. migration to Salt Lake, rise and fall of plural marriage, formation of a global church).

One of the controversies often thrown around about this religion is that Joseph Smith was a uneducated treasure hunter. Bowman’s explanation of this in the context of evangelism in the 1800s in America was particularly fascinating, and I appreciated that he did not shy away from discussing and acknowledging this tool to dismiss the Mormon faith. Furthermore, he explains how complicated The Book of Mormon can be and uses that as a case against the idea that Smith wrote the book himself.

“We are given a monetary system, a scale of weights and measures, and a mathematical system that appears to be base 8 rather than base 10. It is an enormously complicated work, written in archaic English vaguely reminiscent of the King James Bible, dense and often repetitive to a degree that often turns off merely curious readers. But the book is self-consciously written to be read.” (pg. 25)

Those who had seen Broadway musical about Mormon missionaries are probably familiar with the line “And in 1978 God changed his mind about black people” in the song “I Believe”. Bowman also delves into the controversy surrounding the church over the exclusion of people of color from holding the priesthood or participating in certain religious ceremonies and explains it both in the context of the time and as a person-to-person conflict. The later is contrary to my understanding of this particular ban and certainly something I can share with my religion class this semester.

According to Bowman, after a black man named William McCary was baptized and ordained, he “almost immediately began to challenge Brigham’ Young’s authority, claiming prophecy and aggressively pursuing polygamy with white women” (pg. 176), which would have been perceived as inappropriate regardless of faith at this time in America. McCary was quickly excommunicated, and “soon afterward Brigham Young and Parley Pratt began to teach that Africans were the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, and subject to the curse God had levied in punishment for the crime” (pg. 176). In 1853, Young publicly declared that Africans could neither hold the priesthood nor participate in temple ordinances, which is necessary for endowment and exaltation. The ban was lifted due to both outside pressure on the church and the anger of converts outside of the United States, particularly in Nigeria, who felt that The Book of Mormon was a divine revelation but were angry to learn they could not fully join the church.

This anger also feeds into the final two chapters of the book which focus on this idea of “correlation” and the creation of a global church. Correlation, which I understood to be the same lesson taught across the global on the same day, is argued by Bowman to be a process that emphasizes the authority of the church, deemphasizes theology “in favor of a strict moral code and conservative doctrinal beliefs about scripture the supernatural, and the creation of the earth” (pg. 191). Bowman makes it appear as though a fundamental understanding of the Mormon scriptures and tenets are set aside in favor of creating people who bound by a sense of community or a way of life rather than religious beliefs.

This idea rears its head again in Bowman’s explanation of the differences between traditional Christians and Mormons, which he argues rests largely on the understanding of the creeds. To traditional Christians, Jesus must be one with God the Father in order to avoid the corruption that felled Adam and Eve yet at the same time must be fully human in order to atone for the world’s sins. For Mormons, according to Bowman, this contradiction does not exist (pg. 230). In this explanation, though, Bowman states:

“To most Mormons, consonant with their general lack of interest in theological consistencies…” (pg. 230)

This phrasing made me wince because it comes across as both dismissive and counter to what I thought this book was setting out to do. Several people in my religion class discount Mormonism as a real religion, and I know this problem is pervasive even in the United States. To state that, as a people, Mormons are uninterested in theological consistencies makes it sound as though Mormons are mindless robots following the whims of their church leadership rather than rooted in a sound religious tradition. Not at all the feeling you want to give readers who might already perceive this faith as a cult.

It’s fine to emphasis a religion as a way of life, and I do believe that the two do often go hand in hand. But without a discussion of the doctrines of the faith (other than polygamy), this book becomes more about the people of the church rather than the religion itself. Perhaps not the best introduction to the Latter-day Saints out there and thus not the book I would recommend to my classmates who are eager to learn more. And perhaps the reason why I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would.

Side Note: Am I the only one who thinks books about religions should come with a disclaimer page identifying the author’s religion? There is something almost off-putting about reaching the end of a book only to discover that the author is associated with, or has left, the religion they are writing about. In this case, Bowman is a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as the Mormons).

That is not to say that Bowman did not paint a fair and accurate presentation of his religion. I’m simply leery that an incentive exists for people active in a religion to sugarcoat the history of their faith just as there is an incentive for those who left the church to air their grievances. I guess this is subject area where one must always read with a grain of salt.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Bowman, Matthew. The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. New York: Random House, 2012. Print. 336 pgs. ISBN: 9780812983364. Source: PaperBackSwap.
Book Cover © Random House. Retrieved: February 25, 2013.
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2 thoughts on “The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman

  1. Thank you for your thoughts, Christina. As a Mormon myself, I’d agree this wasn’t the best book for an overall picture of the religion as a religion. The title of “Mormon PEOPLE” is a somewhat accurate picture of what the book did, though. It really did focus on how the Mormon way of life became just that.

    I personally was a bit frustrated with the lack of emphasis on doctrine. I am not a “mindless robot” and I did also feel there was some what of an undercurrent suggesting that. Although Bowman is an active Mormon, so I don’t think it meant it in a negative light. Yet, as comments on my blog post emphasized, living according to doctrine also becomes a way of life. So it does all fit together.

    Have you read Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling? He is also a Mormon historian, and that is a biography of Joseph Smith.

    Apparently, Random House asked him to write this book too, but he declined and suggested Bowman write it. Which I found interesting. I guess Bushman is trying to pass along the torch of Mormon history for the populace on to a younger author.

    (Sorry for the extra long comment)

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    1. No worries on the extra long comment. I starting blogging in order to have discussions and thus love extra-long comments. 🙂

      You’re right — the title should have been a bigger clue of what the book is about. I guess my frustration came about from the emphasis on this faith being a way of life rather than a religion. It seems counterproductive given how people continue to doubt the validity of the Mormon faith.

      The manifestation of religion in your life could be a huge determinant of your behavior, and I did read the comments on your post about how doctrine does become a way of life. But I bristled under the suggestion that Mormons act SOLELY because they are told to behave in a particular way rather than because of a religious doctrine or faith system. I would imagine that an emphasis on a way of life rather than doctrine would open a door to an exodus from the faith because people — unless they are mindless robots — would begin to question why they are acting in a certain way…

      I haven’t read Rough Stone Rolling but I will add it to my TBR list. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Like

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