Saturday, 18 September 2010

Meet the Mormons beyond the Zion Curtain

Previously we looked at the extent and reach of the Mormon kingdom and found it concentrated in the American Mid-West. People who minister in that kingdom, based in and around the American Rockies, sometimes think of themselves as working “behind the Zion curtain” where the Mormon population can be as high as almost 70%. But we ended by asking what about the rest of America, where the Mormon population is between 0-2%, and indeed the rest of the world where it is substantially less than 1%?
Simply comparing the way we experience Mormonism in the UK and the way it is experienced behind the Zion curtain we see significant and helpful differences.

Mormon Culture

Within the Mormon kingdom non-Mormons are in a minority and, even in those places where they are not, there are enough Mormons around that they might feel they are. Here is where you meet Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon; where your plumber, mechanic, estate agent (realtor), maintenance man, schoolteacher and dentist are all likely to be Mormons and equally likely to be a local Mormon Church officer of some kind.

Here you will be met with Mormonism at every turn, from the missionary “guides” in temple square, Salt Lake City and the ubiquitous temples and meeting houses throughout the state, through the tens of thousands arriving twice a year for the Mormon conferences, to the regular news and media reports based around Mormon lives and events behind the Zion curtain. Here Mormonism is as much a cultural phenomenon and a political animal as a religion. People and places are named for Book of Mormon people and places and not for nothing are local Mormon chapels called “wards.”

Mormon America

In wider American society Mormonism has a cultural significance in that Mormons are integral to American history and the opening up of the American West. Mormonism has embraced American culture as no other church; ironic when you think that its founders were considered treasonous in their declared aims. Mormons today guard jealously their role as “the” American religion, reflecting (conservative) American values.

While you will meet Mormonism in its many and varied colours behind the Zion curtain, here in the UK your experience will be quite different. They will, of course, want to share the same message, but you don’t have any of the historical/cultural/political baggage to deal with. In the UK Mormonism goes back to 1837 but, since the 19th century saw a mass migration to “build Zion” in America, that history has had no impact here.

It is not until the 1960’s that Mormonism saw any significant growth in the UK with numbers in 1960 at 16,000, growing to 66,000 in 1965 and 68,000 in 1970 (Truth Will Prevail, a history of British Mormonism, pub.1987 by the Mormon Church. See here for how to read these numbers, i.e. with caution) The UK church is still heavily dependent on Salt Lake City for funds to keep itself going. Mormonism here is inconspicuous unless you drive past one of the two temples, London and Preston, or a Mormon lands on your doorstep or approaches you in the street.

Mormon Politics

Mormons have been politically engaged much more than conservative Christians until recently. From the early twentieth century, when Reed Smoot became the first Mormon senator in 1903, to today Mormons have been well represented in national and local politics and a Mormon, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts ran for the Whitehouse in 2008 and is considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012.

By comparison, Mormon politicians across the world are thin on the ground, amounting to no more than about half a dozen. In the UK there is one Mormon in the House of Commons. Terry Rooney was an MP for Bradford North from 1990 to 2010 and David Rutley was elected member for Macclesfield in 2010. Yes, in America Mormonism is in so many ways a force to be reckoned with, from the block vote they represent and that brings presidents to Salt Lake City, to the integral role they play in American society today. In the United Kingdom, and in the rest of the world, this is not so.

There you will meet heated debates about California’s Proposition 8 and the questionable role of Mormonism in funding a political initiative; polygamy will be a reality with breakaway Mormon groups practicing polygamy in closely guarded compounds no more than a drive away; you will have Mormon history thrust at you in pageants, open days at historical places and re-enactments of Mormon historical events. Any ministry will be bound to address these issues behind the Zion curtain; we don’t need to.

What about the Internet?

Many people inform themselves about Mormonism via a Google search these days and that can be very helpful. I hope you realise that as you read this. The Internet brings these issues to our homes wherever we live and we will be much more aware of them than would have previous generations. And if you are an enthusiast for Mormonism, American culture and politics in general then this is a great help. But if you want to simply talk about the gospel then none of this counts for much beyond the Zion curtain.

Even Mormons in the UK will have little or no knowledge of those things that exercise Mormons in Utah and wider American society beyond what they might pick up, like you, on the net. Challenging a Mormon, missionary or member, here in the UK about the minutiae of Mormon history, the controversies of Mormon politics, or the peculiarities of American Mormon culture is not necessary.

We simply need to know a thing or two about the relevant claims of the Mormon Church and a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ. What are some good basic guidelines for witnessing to Mormons? What is the Mormon attitude to Scripture and apologetics? How can the Bible help us in witnessing? How do you hold a conversation with a Mormon? That is what we will do next, look at what we might encounter when we Meet the Mormons.”

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