Peter Coviello: Struggles of the 19th century persist for Mormons

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) President Russell M. Nelson, right, talks with his counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, left, during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual church conference Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Nelson has rolled out a number of policy changes during his first two years at the helm of the faith, leading to heightened anticipation for what he may announce at this weekend's conference in Salt Lake City.

For those with their ears pricked for echoes of the adventurous LDS past – the days of discovery, persecution, migration, a fraught peace – the convening of the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers strange, not always heartening, fare.

Some ironies are easy to spot. Ever since the 1995 appearance of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” LDS speakers have elaborated its claims about gender, domestic life and, above all, the conviction that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.”

Just two years ago, President Dallin H. Oaks, worrying over the legalization of gay marriage, declared that, “Even as we must live with the marriage laws … of a declining world, those who strive for exaltation must make personal choices in family life according to the Lord’s way whenever that differs from the world’s way.”

Startingly, Oaks invoked a vibrant tradition of LDS dissent — a willingness to resist “the world’s way” in the name of spiritual principle. Any 19th century believer would have hearkened to this clarion call to faith.

Of course, for those by-gone Saints, marriages ordained of God looked different. Not only between a man and a woman. Such unions could also be plural — polygamous — and men such as Orson Pratt and President John Taylor were eager to defend the righteousness of the practice, whatever the way of the declining world. This is why the Saints were long understood to be not just religious dissidents but deviants, whose marriage-defiling ways made them a menace to the great Protestant republic.

To see the contemporary church return upon others the accusations once leveled so damagingly against them makes for one of the sadder ironies of each year’s General Conference.

But the resonances do not end there. In recent years, LDS leaders have labored conscientiously to soften — though not reverse — the stringency of the church’s policies around race, gender and sexuality. Just this month, Oaks noted that, while the highest degree of exaltation belonged to heterosexual couples, queer people also have the gift of exaltation available to them, even if only to “lesser kingdoms.”

And yet such heartening practices of adjustment have strange antecedents as well. Throughout the 19th century, the Saints exemplified for many Americans a homegrown version of malignant belief. “Under the guise of religion,” Rep. Justin Morrill declared in 1856, “this people has established … a Mohammedan barbarism revolting to the civilized world” — reminding us just how easily belief-practices apart from the normatively Protestant could be condemned as all-at-once depraved, racially suspect and fraudulent.

In response to such accusations, the Saints adjusted. They pledged themselves believers in faith and family, yes, but also in a whole set of proper hierarchies: of men over women, white over black. This was the period of Brigham Young’s shuttering of the Female Relief Society, his disavowals of female authority and of the proscriptions against African-American priesthood authority that would last more than a century. Confronted with imputations of deviance, the Saints hurried to declare themselves more committed even than the Gentiles to the defining hierarchies of national life.

Press your ear closely and you can hear all this rumbling beneath the sunny surface of the church’s recent declarations. There’s the same anxious need to show the church in lockstep with the tenets of good American religion, which now include tolerance and diversity. And there’s the equally anxious need to cut a hard distinction between themselves and any group marked out, as they once had been, as deviant.

As President Russell M. Nelson noted in his closing remarks, 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s inaugural vision, which is apt. The struggles of the 19th century persist.

Peter Coviello

Peter Coviello is a professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He the author of several books, the most recent of which, “Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism,” appears next month from the University of Chicago Press.