In this moment when Mormonism is thrust under the national spotlight by Mitt Romney's candidacy, Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of America 1815-1848 provides a perspective on this peculiarly New World religious variation. Howe's portrait of the emerging sect in the 1830's includes this intriguing description.
I had never been exposed to the idea of the Book of Mormon as literature before.
I was also struck by the parallel between Muslims and Mormons in this regard: both religions deny that their scriptures can be read in any way except as direct revelation from God, without human intermediaries. Most Christians and Jews assume human authors assembled/wrote their sacred books. A belief in direct revelation creates an unyielding edifice for a faith. Yet such religions have found that they needed mechanisms to interpret their divinely revealed books in different societies. Most Muslims have empowered a class of law-interpreters who are scholars -- not in any way sacred, but wielding authority. Mormons created a hierarchy led by a President/Prophet who can lay down the law within the denomination, for example by ending the religious admonition in favor of polygamy and re-interpreting Mormon scripture to permit persons of African descent to assume male religious authority. Living traditions of all sorts require such interpreters, but obviously those that claim to derive from holy books written directly by God have a harder time steering new courses.
Mormons played a political role in Howe's period -- in fact hostile reactions to their political activity played a part in the persecution that drove Mormons to emigrate to Utah -- the absolute back of beyond in its day. The early Mormons tried to use their votes to protect their charismatic prophet and their right to their novel faith.
The prophet Joseph Smith then planned to run for President in the 1844 but was lynched by anti-Mormons, setting off the move to the far west. Howe describes the paradox that resulted from Mormons' successful departure from the rest of the United States:
This year we'll be deciding whether the Mormon Romney -- the white patriarch with good hair -- is the prototypical "American" -- or whether a skinny mixed race guy with big ears can be just as much an icon of who we are. It's interesting that Romney's Mormons have always embodied and embraced "Americanism" while seeming foreign to their fellow citizens.
Other posts about What Hath God Wrought: Speed, communications and hope, Elections: Rousing the sluggish, and Doubling down on whiteness.