Roots of Modern Mormonism

Roots of Modern Mormonism is complex and insightful, innovative and challenging . . . and troubling. This attempt to analyze Mormonism from the perspective of cultural ecology is the first major study on Mormonism in a number of years to come from a nationally recognized scholar outside the Church and one of the few studies on Mormonism to employ anthropological field techniques. Dr. Leone applies understanding of the Church gained from temporary residence and study in the Little Colorado River area in south central Arizona to reveal several fundamental characteristics about post-pioneer Mormonism. His basic thesis is that Mormonism is fundamentally dynamic, pragmatic and relativistic and that its successful and radical adaptation to the twentieth century is a function of an essentially individualistic ideology. Examining how tithing, stake conferences, church courts, and testimonies have allowed Mormons to adapt to changing conditions in the world around them, Leone concludes that Mormonism maintains an appearance of authority, stability, and confidence primarily by discouraging the development of professional theologians and historians from among its ranks who would identify contradictions in its doctrines and significant alterations in its practices. As a result, Mormons wear theological and historical blinders to protect themselves from the realization that they have become, not the Kingdom of God as they originally intended, but only one of many religious minorities in the United States. In short, Mormonism’s adaptability is a function of its deceptiveness—making the Saints think they are working for God when the Church, in practice, is subject to Mammon.

Before such a critique of Mormonism could be accepted, several elements of the analysis must be clarified or corrected. First of all, in his effort to make a point, Leone commits some glaring errors. Consider, for example, the following: “The nineteenth century regarded Mormonism as the perfect American religion and a microcosm of America” (p. vi); Church leaders in the twentieth century “separated the church as an institution from the welfare of its people” (p. 163); and “. . . most Mormons, especially older ones, can report virtually nothing about the past” (p. 209). These statements fly in the face of some of the most well-documented aspects of Mormon history and culture. Furthermore, obvious internal contradictions detract from the analysis. On successive pages, Leone declares,” Mormon society does not suffer from the ‘old age’ problem as much as the rest of the country does,” and “. . . Mormon elderly are displaced, like the elderly everywhere” (pp. 178–79). Consider also, “Mormons . . . bestow most of the meaning in their lives within the institutional framework of Mormonism,” and “Mormons create their own theology and philosophy in the literal sense. . . . They do their own thinking” (p. 168). Finally, “Whenever Mormons get together, they are invited to talk about all aspects of their faith and church and they do so without a structure which actively prescribes the right answer to any question,” and “Sunday School for the children corresponds to the divisions of grade school, with the teacher trying to elicit spontaneous, extemporaneous responses that nonetheless coincide with what the manuals indicate is an appropriate way of answering” (p. 188).

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 20:2
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