Add comment August 2nd, 2014
One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church – Richard Abanes
Four Walls Eight Windows (July 2003)
Summary: Critical history of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter Day Saints (the Mormons) and their theology
Most Christians in America are at least remotely familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Their missionaries (usually friendly, well-groomed young men and women traveling in pairs) are a common sight and many would identify them as Christians with some quirky beliefs concerning Joseph Smith. However, those more attuned to apologetics could pinpoint specific doctrinal aberrations taking the Mormons far outside the accepted boundaries of the Christian faith. Yet even they would likely classify them alongside other heretical groups following the idiosyncrasies of a charismatic leader and miss historical currents giving Mormonism a unique place in American religious history.
Richard Abanes meticulously sifts through the facts surrounding the early history of Joseph Smith and his followers in One Nation Under Gods and presents one of the most complete treatments of Mormon origins yet published. The result is understandably controversial as the official mythology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is shown to be built upon fantasy, deception, paranoia, and violence. Given the largely deserved image of Mormons as respectable neighbors who uphold traditional moral norms, the untidy events of the past are quite shocking. However shocking they may be, Abanes backs up his claims with extensive documentation.
The book is divided into four sections detailing the period leading up to John Smith’s “revelations”, the development of the Church as a separatist movement in various states (and the reaction against them), the institution of a Mormon theocracy in the Utah territory, and the mainstreaming of Mormon beliefs beginning with Utah’s statehood. Abanes paints a picture of a struggling Smith family resorting to various scams to get by – including the occultism then popular in his home area of upstate New York – and how Smith imported this into what would be the Mormon religion. Evidence is given for the Mormon Church’s revising their history to substantiate early dates for later doctrinal developments and in so doing demonstrating the unlikelihood that Joseph Smith ever received a revelation from anywhere apart from his own vivid imagination.
The early years of the Mormons in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois follow a pattern: the Mormons arrive at a settlement, they attempt to dominate through numbers and institute a Mormon theocracy, they become hostile towards their neighbors after gaining control, and a reaction by non-Mormons leading to violent conflict and a resettlement elsewhere. The evidence is quite compelling that Mormon leadership engaged in illegal and unethical practices (including bank fraud and acts of violence against their non-Mormon neighbors) – even in communities where they had been initially welcomed. Thus they came to be viewed as a criminal, violent sect who thought nothing of murdering local officials. This eventually led both to their being removed under threat of force and to Joseph Smith’s arrest and death at the hands of an angry mob.
An important insight by Abanes is the Mormon belief in an imminent fulfillment of their eschatological vision. They were certain the second coming of Christ was imminent and expected all earthly authority to be handed to them. Such a belief places them as one of many restorationist churches rising to prominence in the period. All such movements wove novel beliefs and historical ignorance into a strange blend to cast themselves as the “one true church” restored. In this framework, their later doctrinal shifts become far more understandable. When the prophecies of such movements did not materialize, new interpretations (with novel doctrines to follow from their consequences) were introduced to explain away the apparent failure.
The death of Joseph Smith and subsequent relocation to the Utah territory under Brigham Young gave the Mormons an opportunity to create their ideal society. Geographically isolated, Young and other Mormon leaders quickly installed their theocracy and began a reign of terror. The elimination of possible dissenters enforced a cultic mentality and widespread distrust of outsiders. With eschatological expectations at a fever pitch, the United States government became a symbol of evil (a far cry from their current patriotic beliefs) to be replaced by Mormon rule. Revelations of their polygamy and other forms of sexual immorality, their use of violence against non-Mormons and Mormon dissenters, and the seemingly treasonous comments of Young and other Mormon leaders forced an inevitable crackdown by federal troops. The Mormon theocracy was over and the threat of the church dissolving was real.
It is in his treatment of the Mormon decision to enter mainstream American life that Abanes falters. Although his historical facts are in order, his interpretation of them relies upon dubious conspiratorial assumptions. Raising the issue of current Mormon intransigence in dealing with the historical data, he interprets it as a sign of sinister motives. However, it seems far more likely to be indecision and confusion as they must face history without alienating the faithful. While Abanes may be correct that the initial Mormon decision to fit better with mainstream America might have been somewhat duplicitous, but if so it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today, the Mormon populace has fully embraced mainstream American ideals if not mainstream American religion. The current sensitivity to outside attacks Abanes cites as a sign of cultic tendencies are just as prevalent in other religious traditions (including Abanes’ Evangelicalism) as in Mormonism and are a common reaction of a cultural minority to criticism from the larger society.
These objections aside, the exhaustive and fruitful research Abanes has put forth in One Nation Under Gods is a landmark in the study of this unique and fascinating American religion. Any future investigation of Mormon origins will need to consider the evidence Abanes presents in his book even if they disagree with his view of Mormonism. Indeed, since its publication, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been in a mode of adjustment and some confusion as the results of archaeology, history, genetics, and even Egyptology have weighed against many of the Church’s unique doctrines. With Mormons able to readily access this information through the internet, the future of the Mormon Church might be called into question. If that is the case, it will have been the work of Abanes and other Mormon critics who did the hard of investigating Mormon history that represented a turning point in Mormon history.