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date: 04 August 2020

Summary and Keywords

The relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—commonly called “Mormonism”—and the politics and culture of the United States is both contentious and intertwined. Historians have commonly observed that Mormonism is in many ways quintessentially American, bearing the marks of the Jacksonian period in which it was born. Its rejection of the denominational leadership of its day, its institution of a lay priesthood, and Joseph Smith’s insistence that revelation trumped scholarship and study all marked it as very much of its time and place, an America in which the authority of common people was exalted and tradition authority was suspect. And yet at the same time, Mormonism was suspect almost immediately upon its birth for those things that made it appear distinctly un-American: the divine power of its prophetic leaders, its rejection of the sole authority of the Bible, its clannishness and separatism, and its defiance of 19th-century sexual morality.

The history of Mormonism in America is in many ways a tug of war between these two impulses. At times the Mormons have embraced what makes them American, have proudly claimed elements of national identity, and have claimed that their faith most truly embodies the American creed. At other times, however, either because of hostility from other Americans or because of their own separatism, Mormons have distanced themselves from the national community and sought a separate community and peoplehood. Through the 19th century, because of the practice of polygamy and the theocratic government of the Utah territory, both Mormons and other Americans perceived a gap between their two communities, but that gap closed by the end of the century, when the federal government used force to eliminate those things Americans most objected to about the faith and Mormons began aggressively pursuing assimilation into American life. By the end of the 20th century, however, Mormonism’s cultural conservatism led both Mormons and other Americans to see that gap opening once more.

Keywords: Mormonism, religion, Second Great Awakening, assimilation, American West, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young

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