Monday, September 10, 2012

Review of The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield

A month ago, while browsing through the shelves of our local Barnes & Noble (here in Fresno), I came across Stephen Mansfield’s The Mormonizing of America. There was a large pile of the books on the floor ready to be shelved - which made me look a little closer. Mormon books do not, in general, get inventoried in pile-sized quantities by major book dealers outside of Utah.

Glancing through the opening pages, I read how much the author enjoyed his visit to Brigham Young University, how much he benefited from discussions with Mormon scholars, and how nice the candy is at the BYU Bookstore. And to be fair, he also expressed gratitude to thinkers more critical of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons).

“This may be a fair book,” I said to myself as I proceeded to the checkout counter. At the very least it ought to be worth reading a Mormon book that Barnes & Noble has obviously tagged as a text that will sell.

And so began a very disappointing read. I do admit that Mansfield has something interesting to say when he tells of his travels among Mormons. And at various points throughout the book he shares snippets of how typical Americans encounter the Mormon reality in today’s world.

For example, we read of the friendship of a Catholic priest and a Mormon Stake President who play racquetball together. They enjoy kidding each other over individual matters of faith but, at one point in their relationship, came to a falling out. The priest finds out that Mormon ceremonies were at one time critical of Catholic priests and the Stake President is annoyed that many Catholics view Mormonism as a cult. The two eventually reconcile their differences.

Or there is the story about Hugh Riddick who teaches his grandson about the priesthood in a touching narrative where we learn of the death of Hugh’s son in battle. His boy had hoped to ordain his own son (Hugh’s grandson) to the priesthood when he returned from the war.

These are valuable additions to the ongoing dialogue between Mormons and non-Mormons in America. If Mansfield had continued along these lines, he would have written a useful book. It is his foray into Mormon beliefs and Mormon history that make his book so obviously tendentious and, ultimately, so forgettable.

I don’t mean to be spiteful. I offer my judgment as an observer of such Mormon ephemera through several decades. Mansfield says nothing that Mormon detractors haven’t said many times before. Sadly, he makes no attempt to meet Latter-day Saint thinkers on questions he decides to critique. His habit is to remind us of anti-Mormon positions without trying to understand what thoughtful Mormons actually think about such topics themselves. My experience is that such head-nodding narratives seldom endure.

Mansfield’s point is that Mormons are “better than their leaders and better than the doctrines their leaders have given them”. This sounds trendy. But Neal A. Maxwell’s point that “One will not find a perfect people with mediocre doctrines” is more substantial. And Jesus’ timeless teaching that “by their fruits ye shall know them” stands as a direct challenge to Mansfield’s thesis.

A particularly egregious example is his treatment of the Book of Mormon. As one expects, he includes the over-used witticisms of Mark Twain and gives offensive dialogue about the recent Mormon farce on Broadway. But he says nothing of the rich doctrines found in the text (a subject that we would expect from a thesis that rests on a doctrinal position). Nor does he mention the numerous external evidences of the Book of Mormon from the Old World, of the book’s many Hebraisms, or of its literary significance. What we do get is a very misguided account the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon that completely ignores Richard Anderson’s important research on this critical issue.

In one particularly misinformed paragraph Mansfield manages to claim: that there is very little evidence for the book’s claims (ignoring hundreds of serious studies), that there is no evidence for “Reformed Egyptian” (completely unaware of written Algonquin texts),  that the geography of the book is “entirely unconfirmed” (ignoring Warren and Michaela’s Aston’s remarkable findings in the Arabian Peninsula), and that there is no evidence that Native American DNA is remotely related to Semitic peoples (ignoring dozens of important observations made recently by serious Mormon scientists). Mansfield may have made a few visits and phone calls to come up with evidence for his cultural arguments. But he has certainly not visited a library with serious Mormon literature. It is obvious to me why he had to choose a small Christian company to print his book. No serious publisher would let him get away with such things.

Mansfield’s treatment of Mormon polygamy is hardly any better. He assumes that such a doctrine automatically dismisses Joseph Smith as a credible religious voice. We all know that the history of Mormon polygamy contains any kind of story one wishes to find. But as a weapon against Joseph, it hardly signifies what Mansfield wants it to.

Joseph’s delay in implementing the principle, his concern for elderly and abandoned women, the love that his wives had for him and his loving relationship with Emma are never mentioned. I doubt that Mansfield has intentionally withheld this information. He just hasn’t done his homework. He assumes that Joseph was a sinful man that will ultimately prove to be a great embarrassment to Mormons. All this to prove his point that Mormons are nice people but their history is awful.

But Joseph proves just the opposite – at least he does to millions of people (many of whom are better informed than Mansfield). We revere him and we are moved by his history. I can’t read about his own resignation to a mob that would ultimately kill him without sensing his love for Emma. She wanted him to come back from hiding and he did – knowing he would die. And the histories of thousands of other people, that knew Joseph and followed him in spite of his pecuniary weaknesses, stand as testimony against Mansfield. Joseph’s detractors have occasionally been jealous contemporaries, more often people who never knew him, almost never the thousands that knew him personally – even intimately. Mansfield’s claim that Mormonism has a history that will prove its undoing is quite frankly ridiculous, coming as it does from someone that hasn’t read the history himself. 

Mansfield’s forgettable book reminds me of Mary McCarthy’s fascinating essay written several decades ago about prejudice. She recounts a conversation she had with a Colonel in the American military while on a train ride. The man insisted that most Communists were Jews. The discussion went on for quite a while until he learned that his companion was a writer. He then became embarrassed and tried to back out of his prejudiced opinions – emphasizing that Hitler was clearly misguided. The essay is both funny and sad. Funny because the author is a good writer, and sad because it reveals how prejudiced many of us are on subjects we hardly know anything about.

So it is with Mansfield who admits that Mormons are good citizens. And I’ll admit that this is refreshing because for decades we were accused of being quite the opposite. But the truth is that such a conclusion is almost required now that most Americans have friends or acquaintances that are Mormons - and it becomes obvious that we tend to be good citizens that care about family, community and faith. To argue differently is hardly credible anymore.

Unfortunately the same is not true about unbiased Mormon history and doctrine. They are not commonly known to non-Mormon Americans. Because of this, Mansfield tries to get away with single sentence dismissals on subjects that we have deeply thought about (and written seriously about) for decades.

This may be the new trend among prejudiced non-Mormons now that we are so increasingly in the public eye. Maybe it’s an easy position to assume. But it certainly isn’t accurate. For those of you who care about our remarkable history and profound doctrines, I suggest that you talk to an informed Mormon and get a more balanced view. Reading Mansfield’s book won’t help.


The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield was published this year by Worthy Publishing. Neal A. Maxwell’s quote comes from Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward (end of Chapter One). Mary McCarthy’s essay, Artists in Uniform, is reprinted in The Best American Essays of the Century.  For the Aston discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula see Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994). A good place to start on American Indian DNA and the Book of Mormon is Michael Whiting’s DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective, reprinted in The Book of Mormon and DNA Research. Daniel C. Peterson Ed., The Neal A. Maxwell Institute 2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment