A very Concise Introduction




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Chapter One:

What is Religion?


The terms religion, religions, and religious have, like everything else, a history, a history that is embedded in time and space, in history. The term religion itself has an uncertain etymology. It may stem from the root *leig meaning “to bind”. In both Roman and early Latin Christian usage the noun forms religio/religiones and especially the adjective form religose referred to the regularly repeated cultic performance of religious obligations. In the fifth century CE/AD Christians took this term over and began to use it to refer to the lives monks, monks engaged in the repeated performance of religious obligations, led in total devotion to the faith.


The terms *leig, religio/religions, and religose then are western terms. And they very much reflect their origins in Western Christian society. Europeans had contact with Jewish and Islamic cultures from the 300s to the 1400s but it was after the 1450s as trade between Western Europe and others parts of the world, Western European exploration, and, as a result, Western European culture contact with others, really began to exert a broader impact on Western European intellectual life. For many Westerners those new worlds they came into contact did not have “religion” as they defined it. Richard Eden’s A Treatyse of Newe India from 1553, for instance, the second oldest account of the New World in English, asserted that the natives of the Canary Islands, islands in the Atlantic Ocean relatively close to the Iberian peninsula and colonized by Portugal and later Spain, “went naked, without shame”, and had no “religion, or knowledge of God”. The Cronica del Peru of the same year written by the conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon stated that the natives of the Andes “observed no religion at all as we understand it”. Religion, then, as it was used in the West in the sixteenth century was defined largely in reference to Christianity, Catholic or Protestant Christianity, true religion.


As postmodernists and deconstructionists have pointed out this way of seeing religion, this way of marking or bounding “religion” off from what is “not religion”, tells us something about the historical and ideological conditions and the historical and ideological ways in which historical, cultural, and ideological boundaries are constructed through a kind of cultural language and in a cultural language grounded in positive or negative definitions. By the way, the discipline of “religion” or “religious studies” has also been impacted by these same historical and ideological contexts.


It must be remembered these distinctions arose in a historical context. They arose in a Europe that categorized the other, whoever that other was— Jew, Muslim, heretic, and so on—in exotic and sometimes demonic terms. During the Middle Ages Christians accused Jews of kidnapping and drinking the blood of Christian children, sought to cleanse “infidel” Muslims from the Holy Land, and sought to purify the church itself through the inquisition of heretics within. In the fifteenth century “orthodox” Catholics burned Jan Hus at the stake as a “heretic” and fought wars with his followers. In the sixteenth century both Catholics and Lutherans (who, like the Catholics, held to a belief that church and the state should be one) tortured, mutilated, and killed thousands of Anabaptist “heretics” while Catholic Frenchmen fought and massacred Protestant Frenchmen (Huguenots), Frenchwomen, and French children in a pogrom in Paris that. It was also at this time that the “heretic” Father Miguel Serveto de Villanova (1511-1553) was burned at the stake in Jean Calvin's Protestant theocratic kingdom on the shores of Lake Geneva for his unorthodox views on God and original sin. In the seventeenth century Protestants who themselves sought religious freedom persecuted, tortured, and executed “unorthodox” Quakers in both the Old World and the New.


Over time the term religion began to be increasingly used to describe cultural practices of particular groups or individuals that weren’t Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Judaism and Islam were, if grudgingly, accepted as “religions” in Christian ideology over time. Edward Brerewood in his Enquiries Touching on the Diversity of Languages and Religions through the Chief Parts of the World of 1614, for instance, added a fourth category of religion to the earlier three—“Idolatry”. Richard Baxter’s The Reasons of the Christian Religion of 1667 referred to them as “Supernatural Religions”.


It was not until the seventeenth century that the phrase “natural religion” began to be increasingly used by Western intellectuals to describe a Christianity that all could potentially discover through the application of ones rational faculties. John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity used the term “natural religion, in this way, for instance. By the 18th century the Enlightenment philosophe David Hume (The Natural History of Religion) was using the phrase “natural religion”, more broadly. For Hume natural religion, “the belief [in] invisible, intelligent power”, was not universal even though it was widely found around the globe. Natural religion therefore, claimed Hume, couldn’t be innate in human nature. Instead, claimed Hume, natural religion had evolved. “Polytheism”, the belief in many gods, or “idolatry”, he claimed, was the earliest form of natural religion. With this the “scientific” study of religion had begun.


Between the 17th and 19th centuries it would be the categories of “idolatry” and “supernatural” religions that would expand exponentially in Western intellectual discourse. Westerner Pierre Martin, for instance, referred to the “gross” and “horrid” practices of the Indians as “idoloatry”. The Reverend Henry Martyn wrote of the hellish “ugly black idols” Indians worshipped. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries anthropologists—armchair and ethnographic—were delineating various types of “primitive religion”, animism, animatism, tabu, distinguishing between magic, religion, and science as stages in human social evolution, while social scientists and historians were enumerating the “great” “civilized” religions” of the world, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto.


Commentators on religion have not simply been interested in which groups were religious groups. Some commentators have focused on the nature of religious claims and whether religion is true or false. Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651) mister social compact himself, dismissed religion as “credulity”, “ignorance”, and “lies”. François-Marie Arouet better known as Voltaire, held religion to be “superstition” and saw religion as something by which one could control the dangerous masses. Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) saw pagan religions as the products of savage and immature minds, an approach that would continue well into the twentieth century in the writings of French ethnologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl. Comte argued that the hallucinations of the savage mind would be succeeded by the absolute truths of science in his and future eras. Social Anthropologist E.E. Pritchard (Theories of Primitive Religion, 1965) offered a kindler and gentler version of this approach when he argued that primitive religions and contemporary religions like Christianity were both the products of primitive mentalities. Social psychologist Gordon Allport (The Individual and His Religion, 1950), who later authored an important early study on prejudice (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954), distinguished between mature religion, religion that is dynamic, open-minded, and able to maintain links between inconsistencies, and immature religion, religion that is self-serving.


Others explored religion in comparative fashion. The Greek “historian” Herodotus compared and contrasted the religions with which he came into contact during his journeys with the “religion” of Ancient Greece. Jean Bodin, a former French Carmelite monk, compared the religions of the world in his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime of 1593 arguing that the truth claims made by all of them invalidated the truth claims of all of them. Godefrudus Carolinus’s fifty-volume work on “heathen”, and by extension Christianity—Carolinus was pointing up very subtly the similarities between “heathen” faiths and Christianity—appeared in 1651. Sir James George Frazer’s famous Golden Bough (one volume edition, 1890, twelve volume edition, 1907-1915) offers a compilation of religious tales, including tales of crucifixion and resurrection, that, like Carolinus’s work, functioned and functions to raise questions about the uniqueness of Christianity.


And still others explored religion as a psychological phenomenon. Several intellectual historians have traced the origins of the psychology of religion to the third earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times of 1711. In his “study of the mind”, as he called it, Shaftesbury asserted that religion was the product of fears, anxieties, illusions, and mass illusions particularly after natural disasters struck. John Trenchard in his Natural History of Superstition (1709) and in his “Cato’s Letters”, columns in his newspaper the Independent Whig, co-written with Thomas Gordon, argued that religious enthusiasm was the product of a fevered mind and that religion itself was the invention of frauds. The father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud, argued in his book The Future of an Illusion (1927) that religion was a form of psychopathology, a neurotic illusion that was intoxicating, childish, and potentially poisonous, and that god was a human creation in which the father of the family became the father of all families to be worshipped and dreaded. Theodore Adorno, Else Frankle-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford (The Authoritarian Personality) attribute religion, particularly fundamentalist forms of religion, to the inability of some to tolerate intellectual contradictions and ambiguities turning them, in the process, into bigots.


With the professionalization of intellectual knowledge and the rise of the modern university and the triumph of “scientific” ways of thinking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with its brought many sought to define religion “scientifically”. For social and cultural anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (Primitive Culture) religion was a belief in spiritual beings. For Sir James George Frazier (The Golden Bough) religion consists of a belief in a higher power than humans and an attempt to propitiate or please that higher power (propitiation? A form of magic?). Others looked at religion as a system of thought. The famous social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who did fieldwork, unlike armchair anthropologists like Tylor and Frazer, found, during his sojourn among the Trobriand Islanders, that those who he was observing were thoroughly logical and thoroughly familiar with concepts like cause and effect: they weeded their gardens. Supernatural explanations came into play only when logic failed. German social philosopher, student of Hegel, and influencer of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Ludwig von Feuerbach (Das Wesen de Christentums/The Essence of Christianity, 1841) saw religion as a reflection of society. The fathers of the social sciences, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, looked at religion in social and cultural, in human terms.


The sociology of religion has worked in the shadows of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim ever since. One contemporary sociologist defines religion as a system of beliefs and practises around sacred things, distinguishing in the process the sacred, the realm of the holy that includes the worship of gods and supreme beings, from the profane, the realm of the everyday. Another sociologist updating the definition of religion for the postmodernist age defines religion as shared stories that guide how we humans live our lives.


There have thus been many ways in which social scientists have looked at religion, some of them more normative in form that descriptive, but the dominant way religion has been conceptualized by social scientists since World War II is the one that distinguishes between substantivist notions of religion and functionalist notions of religion. Substantivist or substantive approaches have largely focused on what religion is. They tend to emphasise the institutional—churches, synagogues, mosques, shrines, pilgrimage routes, statutes, paintings, icons, religious books and legal codes—and the cultural—religion as beliefs, patterns of action, value systems, a belief in supernatural beings. For Melford Spiro (“Religion, Problems of Definition and Explanation” in Michael Banton, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, 1966), for instance, religion is a system of thought embedded in organisations. Functional approaches have tended to focus on what religion does. They tend to see religion as a meaning system, as a system of symbols, a creator of moods, motivations, and memories, collective memories in humans. For Clifford Geertz, one of the foremost purveyors of a functionalist approach to religion, religion is a cultural system which creates, for those on the inside, a shared community of meanings, a shared ethos, a shared value system, a shared worldview. For J. Milton Yinger (The Scientific Study of Religion, 1970) scientific humanism, Marxism, and other non-supernatural philosophies are cultures of meaning just like religion.


Trying to escape the limitations of both substantive and functionalist approached sociologist Ninian Smart casts his net more broadly. He argues that that religion consists of seven dimensions: the practical and ritual, the experiential and emotional, the narrative and mythic, the doctrinal and philosophical, the ethical and legal, the social and legal, and the material. Another attempt to escape the iron cage of substantivist and functionalist definitions of religion is that of Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge in their The Future of Religion. For Stark and Brainbridge religions are organized groups that offer general compensators grounded in supernatural assumptions. Religions, in other words, tell members that if they follow their religion they will be rewarded in the future. Stark and Bainbridge’s notion of religion is grounded in the assumption that humans are rational, that they seek rewards and try to avoid what they see as costs. For some this rational choice approach to religion is its biggest plus, for others it is its biggest minus.


Stark’s and Bainbridge’s definition of religion and magic seem to be ideal types. One wonders, however, whether they are such ideal types for Stark and Bainbridge that they have become ideological. Do Stark and Bainbridge put up such an ideal type wall between religion and magic that they fail too notice that every form of religion has a bit if not quite a bit of the magic in them?


Vignette: Is Mormonism Christian?

Mormons were, in many ways, what Jews were to the Mediaeval era and beyond, what Protestants were in some Catholic countries after the Reformation, what Blacks were to many in the era when Europeans dominated the slave trade and beyond, and what communists were for much of the twentieth century, an “exotic other”. Mormons, of course, didn’t see themselves as “exotic”. They considered that their Church, as Church revelation proclaimed, was the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth. For many early nineteenth Christian ministers, journalists, and intellectuals, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, were both “unorthodox” and “heretical” and it was certainly not the one true church upon the face of the earth.

Anti-Mormon literature, literature critical of Mormonism, began just a few years after the incorporation of the Church of Christ in 1830. In 1834 Eber D. Howe, the publisher of the Painsville (Ohio) Telegraph, published Mormonism Unvailed, or a Faithful Account of that Singular Imposition and Delusion. In Mormonism Unvailed Howe described the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith as one of the “vilest wretch[es] on earth,” dismissed the Book of Mormon as a “fabrication” aimed at the “lowest…passions” and claimed that it could not have been written by an illiterate like Joseph Smith. According to Howe it was really Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite minister who had converted to Mormonism and who had become a prominent figure in the Church in Kirtland, Ohio, who actually wrote the Book of Mormon and suggested he had based it on a romance by Solomon Spaulding entitled “Manuscript Found.”

It was not only outsiders who raised questions about whether Mormonism was a fraud or not. Ex-members or dissidents of the Church also played a role in the formation and diffusion of “anti-Mormon” discourse. Included within Mormonism Unvailed were nine affidavits collected by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated and dissident Saint, who, during travels in New York State had published these affidavits in the Ohio Review of Ravenna. In these affidavits a number of individuals who knew Joseph Smith when he lived in New York swore that the “Mormon Prophet” had been involved in money digging.

Where Howe and Hurlbut led others followed. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed and the Hurlbut letters included within it were immensely important in their time and remain influential even today. Both provided the template for “anti-Mormonism” as a subgenre of Christian polemical literature that goes back to the beginnings of Christian polemics in the first century of the current era.

Anti-Mormon writers who came after Howe generally repeated the claims about Mormonism and Smith made in Mormonism Unvailed and sometimes added their own accusations into the mix. Methodist minister and abolitionist La Roy Sunderland, like Howe, claimed in his Mormonism: Exposed and Rejected that Mormonism was false and blasphemous, and that, like Howe, the Book of Mormon was based on the Spaulding manuscript. John Bennett’s History of the Saints; or an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism, a tract by another excommunicated and dissident Saint, borrowed the money digging and Spaulding arguments from Howe and Hurlbut and added a charge of “spiritual wifery” or polygamy into the mix. Anglican minister Dr. John A. Clark’s Gleanings by the Way repeated the Spaulding charge maintaining that if Rigdon was not the one who got hold of and copied Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found” it had to have been Smith. Clark’s book also contained an interview with Smith’s New York collaborator Martin Harris.

While most nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Mormon writers were indebted to Howe and Hurlbut many also added new wrinkles to the anti-Mormon faith over these years. Theologically conservative Origen Bachelor’s Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally pointed out errors in style, reasoning, and historical fact in the Book of Mormon. Arranging his book in categories such as “Barbarisms,” “Improbablilities,” “Abusurdities,” and “Contradictions in Fact,” Bachelor, writing rather ironically in the style of Thomas Paine’s iconoclastic and rationalist Age of Reason, argued that the language of the Book of Mormon was New England colloquial, denied that the “Mormon Bible” was consistent with the Bible, claimed that the book was a ridiculous imposture, and argued that Smith was a “liar.” Anglican minister Henry Caswall’s The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century; or, The Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons claimed that Smith was a “low juggler” lacking education and character who interpreted “…Scriptures according to his own fancies.” leading “…his followers into the lowest abyss of mental degradation.” Pomeroy Tucker, who knew Smith, Harris, and Oliver Cowdery, another prominent early Mormon leader and who had read proofs of the Book of Mormon, claimed in his Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism: Biography of Its Funders and History of Its Church that Smith was a vagabond given to telling tall tells and drinking whiskey. John Gunnison’s The Mormons; or, Latter-day Saints in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake argued that it was Joseph Smith not ancient Americans who wrote the Book of Mormon.


In the mid to late nineteenth century, with Mormons ensconced in their kingdom in the valleys of Utah practicing polygamy, and into the twentieth, accusations about the dark side of Mormonism began to increase exponentially. Mark Twain in his Roughing It asserted that Young was a monarch and that Mormons had committed the massacre of a wagon train at the Mountain Meadows. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes 1888 novella Study in Scarlet depicted Mormon Utah as a land where residents were terrorized by Mormon leaders and where those critical of the Church disappeared. Ex-Mormon John D. Lee accused Brigham Young in his Mormonism Unveiled of 1877 of ordering the Mountain Meadows Massacre and accused Young and Mormon leaders of using assassins, the “destroying angels,” against its enemies. Ex-Mormon “Wild” Bill Hickman confessed to being one of these “destroying angels” and carrying out murders on the orders of Brigham Young. Bruce Kinney’s Mormonism: The Islam of America of 1912 asserted that the Book of Mormon was based on a second Spaulding manuscript, accuses Mormon leaders of financial impropriety, accuses Mormons of “blood atonement,” of engaging in secret ceremonies which, if divulged, required “horrible penalties,” accuses Mormons of moral perversity through their practice of polygamy, of polytheism, of interfering in political life, of hypocrisy, and accuses Mormon fathers of killing those of their children trying to escape the “thralldom” of Mormonism. McKinney’s book adds an orientalist motif to the anti-Mormon subgenre by making explicit through its title that Mormonism was the Islam, the false exotic religion of polygamy and sexual licentiousness, of America. McKinney, “evangelical” Christian and “Patriotic Christian” citizen of the “American Republic” that he was, regarded Mormonism, like Islam, as a false religion, Smith like Muhammad as a false prophet, and the Book of Mormon like the Koran as a false scripture. Presumably he expected his readers to make this connection as well.

Claims that Smith was an illiterate money digger and sexual deviant, and that the Book of Mormon was written by Smith or based on another manuscript have continued to find traction with twentieth and twenty-first century critics of Mormonism. The ex-Mormon converts to evangelicalism Jerald and Sandra Tanner have been trying to convert Mormons from their false faith to evangelical Christianity since the 1960s through historical and rational means, by, in other words, reprinting works critical of Mormonism from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishing important and embarrassing documents relating to LDS history, and publishing their own criticisms of Mormonism through their Utah Light House Ministry (formerly Modern Microfilms) in Salt Lake City including one on the connections between the Spaulding manuscript and the Book of Mormon.

The Tanner’s publications range across the entire array of Mormon criticism from claims that Smith was a treasure hunter to claims that Mormon temple ceremonies were borrowed from Freemasonry to a list of changes that have been made by the Church to the Book of Mormon and the Mormon Temple ceremony to an exploration of changes made to Mormon doctrine over the years to claims that Smith plagiarized the Bible when he wrote the Book of Mormon. Where the Tanner’s differ from their nineteenth century forebears is that while they engage in polemics and evangelical apologetics the Tanner’s have done extensive work in Mormon primary documents and have grounded much of their work in this primary source material. The Tanner’s work is one part polemics and apologetics and one part academic analysis.


Probably the most controversial of modern day “Anti-Mormons” is Ed Decker. Decker, an excommunicated Mormon, convert to evangelicalism, and director of Saints Alive, an anti-cult organization, made two films documenting the “evils” of Mormonism, “The God Makers” (1982) and “The God Makers II” (1993). Both films draw on the nineteenth century legacy of Anti-Mormonism but add a mid- to late twentieth century twist to the accusations. In “The God Makers” and “The God Makers II” Decker accuses Mormonism of being non-Christian, of changing Scripture, of manipulating its own Scriptures, of being a cult, of destroying families, of sexual abuse, of abuse of women, of child abuse, of undermining mental health by holding members to unobtainable ideals, of exploiting its members, of occultism and Satanism, of political intrigue, of controlling and manipulating the media, and of being a potentially dangerous mega-business and financial giant that could undermine American democracy, a criticism that is as old as conspiracy theories about Jews and Masons. Decker and company also resurrect accusations that Smith was involved in treasure digging. “The God Makers II” closes with accusations of sexual immorality, including bi-sexuality, on the part of “The Brethren,” the Mormon leaders in Salt Lake, including Church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley.


In some instances academics haven’t been much kinder to Joseph Smith. Historian and Mormon dissident Mormon Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography of the “Mormon prophet” Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, originally published in 1945, argued that Smith began his religious career as a manipulative megalomaniac. Over time, claimed Brodie, Smith came to believe his own hype, and became convinced that he actually was a prophet communing with the divine in the process becoming someone who was increasingly unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Additionally, claimed Brodie, Smith’s sexual excesses played a major part in his actions and were instrumental in his downfall.


Historian Alice Felt Tyler writing in 1944 saw Joseph Smith as a con man. Historian Louis Kern writing in 1981 interpreted the Mormon practice of “the Principle” of polygamy as Smith’s personal response to the familial and sexual ambiguity of early nineteenth century. Historian Charles Sellers writing in 1991 portrayed Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith as a fraud and a trickster, and suggests that LDS theology, with its characteristic patriarchalism, resulted from a kind of “male panic” caused by the economic dislocations in family structure that were again brought about by the transformations wrought by the Erie Canal.

There is, of course, an irony at the heart of a lot of this anti-Mormon Christian apologetics and polemics. Many conservative Christian critics draw on naturalistic or materialistic arguments to condemn Mormonism by pointing out the inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon, changes in Mormon doctrine, Smith’s involvement in treasure hunting and so on. However, if they applied these or similar criticisms to their own brand of Christianity with its literalist and ahistorical conception of the Bible, its historical and ideological variability, its less than perfect past and present, it too would likely be find historically wanting. Additionally, if we wanted to play strictly on the theological level, the criticisms that the LDS has changed its scriptures and its doctrines are simply irrelevant since Mormonism is grounded in a belief in continuing revelation, a belief in dynamic revelation. Evangelical Christians, in other words, despite their turn toward secular historical and social scientific approaches to Mormonism—aspects of modernity with its de-magicification or secularization have created a hybrid sacred and secular culture among evangelicals—are judging Mormonism on the basis of their own ideological or theological system which asserts that revelation ended with Jesus and the New Testament.


Religious “true believer” intellectuals and polemicists weren’t the only ones to get in on the “are Mormons Christians” game. Some more “secular” intellectuals and academics answered the question of whether Mormonism was Christian in the affirmative. Apologists and polemicists have not, at least since the rise and expansion of academia in the twentieth century and the diffusion of modern scientific ways of seeing with their emphasis on classification and objectivity, been the only ones to debate the question of whether Mormonism was Christian or not. Intellectuals and academics, individuals, in other words, who generally didn’t see themselves as apologists and polemicists, have waded into the debate on how to classify Mormonism as well.

Some have answered the question of whether Mormonism was Christian in the affirmative. Pioneer historian of American Christianity and American reform movements and evangelical Presbyterian Robert Baird, who once claimed that Mormonism was “the grossest of all the delusions that Satanic malignity or human ambition ever sought to propagate,” divided American Christians into evangelical and non-evangelical categories, with the former being the “true” brand of Christianity putting false forms of Christianity like Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Swedenborgians, Unitarians, and others in the latter category. Non-Mormon or “Gentile” Sociologist and theologian H. Richard Niebuhr saw Mormonism as a denomination that arose out of the radical wing of the Christian frontier movement in the United States. Mormon historian Klaus Hansen saw Mormonism as a type of kingdom or theocratic Christianity. Gentile historian Mark Noll saw Mormons as Christian “outsiders” along with Millerites, Roman Catholics, Oneida Perfectionists, African American Protestants and Immigrant Protestants.


Others have answered yes and no. Gentile historian and religious studies scholar Jan Shipps distinguishes between historical, apologetic and polemical, and theological approaches or empirical and normative approaches to the question of whether Mormonism is Christian or not. For Shipps Mormonism historically is to Christianity what Christianity is to Judaism, both are new religious movements that were characterized by similarities and differences to and from their religious forebears. Gentile Sociologist Rodney Stark agrees categorizing Mormonism as a “new world faith.” Fawn Brodie made a similar argument in her biography of Joseph Smith.


Others have given an unqualified no to the question. Catholic sociologist Thomas O’Dea maintained that Mormonism was a new religion in the making. Gentile historian Mario DePillis calls Mormonism a new religion. The Yale cultural and literary Gentile critic Harold Bloom sees Mormonism as the prototypical American religion. It is prototypically American, he claims, in that it, like its current major rival for dominance of the American religious scene—the Southern Baptist Convention—and other rivals such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses (both the children of Adventism), reflect in its doctrines the American emphasis on individualism. For Bloom, Mormonism is a form of Gnosticism with an American twist. Mormonism, in its theology, maintains that a part of the individual precedes the divine, namely, human intelligence. Mormonism, hence, like other “American religions” universalizes or generalizes the American tradition of rugged individualism drawn from European thought and actualized in the frontier environment of nineteenth century Western America. For Bloom then, Mormon theology is an aspect of Joseph Smith's extraordinary creativity, specifically his theological imagination, as this interacted with the cultural stuff of his environment. It is this creative prophetic imagination of Smith that distinguishes the religion he founded from other forms of the American faith. Like Bloom non-Mormon religious studies scholar Catherine Albanese sees Mormonism as an American sectarian religion with doctrinal forms that distinguish it from Christianity. For Gentile historian John Brooke Mormonism is a product of the extreme occult and hermetic fringe of the sixteenth century Radical Reformation, a fringe that mixed Christian restorationist motifs with alchemical hermeticism though he says he cannot provide any empirical proof for this claim.


While they may differ on their answer to the question of whether Mormonism is Christian, Baird, Noll, Shipps, Bloom, Albanese, and Brooke agree on one thing: regardless of whether Mormonism is Christian or not it is an “outsider” or “marginal” religion. As to why the debate over whether Mormonism is Christian has become so important to conservative Christians at the end of the twentieth century Shipps argues that the contemporary debate is all about identity and group boundaries and group boundary maintenance. The tendency of conservative Christians to categorize Mormonism as non-Christian at best and a “cult” at worst, marks off “Bible believing” and “born again” Christians from those who are not and marks off Mormonism for Mormons who believe themselves or their church Christian and for those conservative Christians thinking about becoming LDS as non-Christian other.


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