In 2004 hundreds of Mormons crowded into the Provo Tabernacle and listened intently as a speaker (who was not a Mormon) declared: “We have sinned against you.”
Was this Bryant Gumbel apologizing for his remarks belittling the BYU Cougar’s 1984 NCAAF title? Was it Jim McMahon asking humble forgiveness for consistently sitting on the Wyoming stands for BYU homecoming games?
Richard Mouw, creating dialogue with the Mormons
No, it was noted evangelical scholar Richard J. Mouw, President of the Fuller Theological Seminary. Here is the context of his remarks:
Over the past half-dozen years I have been a member of a small group of evangelical scholars who have been engaged in lengthy closed-door discussions about spiritual and theological matters with a small group of our LDS counterparts. We have not been afraid to argue strenuously with each other, but our arguments have been conducted in a sincere desire genuinely to understand each other-and in the process we have formed some deep bonds of friendship. I know that I have learned much in this continuing dialogue, and I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you.
Beyond the rush of news articles handicapping Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations is an unnoticed but significant thaw in the troubled relations between Evangelicals and Mormons.
The Big Freeze
Of course, before the thaw there was the freeze. In truth, the two religious movements share similar roots in the early 19th century revival period. However, while the predecessors of American evangelical thought like Ralph Waldo Emerson were calling for the return of ancient prophets in 1836, the Mormons were being forced out of Missouri and Illinois and anointing their own prophets. The motives behind the Mormon ouster were generally competitive (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew to 100,000 members in less than 15 years) and economic (Nauvoo, Illinois had a population rivaling Chicago in 1844).
The Mormon persecutions which forcible drove the Latter-day Saints from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah have lasting impact today but only within the Mormon Church, and not for the reasons you think. Today, most Mormons are first generation converts. Mormons revere and honor the trials our forbearers encountered; those that were forced upon them (i.e. Hauns Mill Massacre) but also those they chose to endure (e.g. handcarts to the Wasatch front).
While this first religions rift ended in physical separation the second rift started with theological banishment from Christendom. In the 20th century Evangelical Protestants found a huge numbers rallying to the endearing message of pastors on the lecture circuit. Meanwhile, Mormons left their Wasatch haven to vie for converts and make an impact on the world. By 1950 the Mormon Church had over a million adherents. Anti-Mormon literature was sparse but rising.
By 1981, Mormons numbered 5 million with 2 million world-wide adherents. Together with the growth of non-traditional religious groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists) a good body of literature grew up around “cults” and how to avoid their “traps.” While the impetus for the anti-Mormon/anti-cult movement was competitive, the attacks were doctrinal in nature. In short, Mormon doctrine didn’t jive with traditional evangelical interpretation of the Bible. While some of these were genuine disagreements (the nature of God) other debates wallowed in accusations.
For example, Evangelicals have long accused Mormons of placing too much emphasis on their own works for salvation (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” – Ephesians 2). In turn, Mormons have accused Evangelicals of simple aural salvation ignoring the works that would be evident in the believer (“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” – James 2).
Evangelicals relied on early works to dispute Mormon teachings and rally others against Latter-day Saint missionary efforts. Meanwhile, Mormons were spreading their scholarly wings beyond Brigham Young University, building a large body of literature defending their beliefs, and earning qualified recognition in religious academia. And this is where our story begins.
A Dialogue Begins
In 1996 a very unlikely pair of scholars attempted an unprecedented feat: a book on Evangelical and Mormon beliefs. The “unprecedented” and “unlikely” part is this: one scholar is Evangelical, the other Mormon.
In one corner: Craig Blomberg (Ph.D., Aberdeen), professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and the author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels and Interpreting the Parables. In the other corner: Stephen Robinson (Ph.D., Duke), professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and the author of “Are Mormons Christians?” and “Believing Christ”. Under the traditional rules of engagement, the gloves would come off and the rhetoric would fly long and hard.
Astoundingly, and to the chagrin of many a rhetorical boxer, the book was a courageous attempt at “listening” to the other side, and explaining one’s own beliefs. In their book: How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, Blomberg and Robinson tackle six general topics: the Scriptures, God and Deification, Christ and the Trinity, and Salvation. Each author took up his pen for half of each chapter, discussing their respective religion’s viewpoint, responding to perceived “misconceptions” that the other side has, and co-authoring a conclusion to each topic.
The book dispelled common “caricatures” about each movement that have grown increasingly un-Christian over the past decade. Most importantly, the book became the first major dialogue between a recognized Evangelical scholar and his Mormon counterpart.
As Robinson points out in his introduction: “Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals do not understand each other very well, and much of what we say about each other is untrue.” He notes that previous dialogue “has been dominated by those on both sides having the least training or the worst motives.”
Referring to the popular board game Trivial Pursuit, Blomberg finds these past misunderstandings and misinterpretations understandable:
If an immensely successful game company cannot distinguish between nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mormonism [referring to a card in the game indicating that Mormons still practice polygamy], and if many in the popular press cannot distinguish between Jim Baker and Billy Graham, is it any wonder that grassroots Evangelicals and Mormons in churches around our country seem similarly confused? [pg23]
To return to our original point of doctrinal contention, Evangelicals see Mormons placing too much weight on the works we must perform to be saved, while Mormons see Evangelicals elevating grace to where no works are necessary. In reality, the two see nearly eye-to-eye on the issue, but couch their language in differing terms. As Robinson notes:
Unless Mormons and Evangelicals make greater efforts to investigate what the other means… we shall remain, to paraphrase Twain, two peoples divided by a common language. [pg 14]
Soon after its publication, a prominent head of an evangelical organization declared the book to be “an abomination”. Evangelical bookstores started boycott efforts against the publisher. Still others wondered aloud: “Are we to be seeking this kind of dialogue?” Deseret Book, the Mormon Church-owned publishing powerhouse, pulled its backing from the project which was originally intended to be a joint publication with InterVarsity Press. Clearly, this was new ground for all the parties involved. The boat was definitely rocking.
Losing the Battle?
A year later in 1997, two evangelical scholars published an article in a scholarly journal entitled: “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?”. In it they examined anti-Mormon literature and Mormon apologetics. What did they find? Well, in their own words:
Mormonism, has, in recent years, produced a substantial body of literature defending their beliefs… In this battle the Mormons are fighting valiantly. And the evangelicals? It appears that we may be losing the battle and not knowing it.
Their purpose in publishing the article was hardly to concede the battle. Indeed, their efforts were “to serve to awaken members of the evangelical community to the important task at hand.”
With this article, these two scholars, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, walked away from traditional anti-Mormon approaches working from ignorance. Instead, the authors actually visited Mormon scholars at BYU and elsewhere. They read the major works on both sides of the debate and presented their findings openly and honestly. Their approach was seen by many in the LDS community as a fresh step in right direction.
Owen and Mosser start their article by demolishing several myths that have been persistent among Evangelicals regarding the Mormon Church:
- “There are, contrary to popular evangelical perceptions, legitimate Mormon scholars.”
- “Mormon scholars and apologists… have, with varying degrees of success, answered most of the usual evangelical criticisms.”
- “There are no books from an evangelical perspective that responsibly interact with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings”
- “The sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably while evangelical responses have not… We are losing the battle and do not know it.”
- “Most involved in the counter-cult movement lack the skills and training necessary to answer Mormon scholarly apologetic”
From the Mormon perspective these were unprecedented and stunning admissions. Many members can speak to the frustrations involved in defending the church from debunked century-old attacks. Anti-cult literature will frequently insert whole sections from 19th Century anti-Mormon tracts and call it a day. Still others will dabble in psycho-analytics around Joseph Smith and early church members. Up until Owen and Mosser, there were very few critiques that had addressed Mormon scholarship and apologetics at all.
The New Mormon Challenge
Fast forward to 2002, Messrs. Owens, Mosser together with noted conservative author Francis J. Beckwith publish a lengthy volume, The New Mormon Challenge to address the growing Mormon movement.
It was within the first paragraphs of the forward that Richard J. Mouw first made the admission we began with saying that he is “ashamed of our record in relating to the Mormon community.” He continues: “[By propagating] distorted accounts of what Mormons believe… and bearing false witness against our LDS neighbors, we evangelicals have often sinned not just against Mormons but against the God who calls us to be truth tellers.” Needless to say, he had my ear, more importantly my respect. As Mormon apologist Dan Peterson noted, the tone is “light years” from the usual garb.
As the forward states: the tone of the essays: “is a laudable attempt to set the record straight.” The editors, we are told, “have approached this project with the intention of talking to Latter-day Saints, not at them” (399, emphasis theirs). The authors recognize the past polemical mantra that has dominated the interfaith discussions to date:
[We] are not interested in doctrinal dispute for the sake of dispute. We are not interested in attacking and tearing down the beliefs of others like some sort of bellicose theological terrorists.
However, beyond the courtesy and rapport of the authors are serious disagreements with Mormon theology. “Mormonism’s challenges are real and can be dismissed only at a cost evangelicals are unwilling to pay” says Carl Mosser.
From this viewpoint, Mosser has taken an unprecedented step in his critique. He suggests that fellow critics should abandon century-old doctrinal odds and ends and focus on contemporary Mormonism. This would be a welcome change as many anti-Mormon books are lathered in quotes from second-hand hearsay and steeped in urban legends that they refuse to correct. Addressing Mormonism as it exists today and accepting that what we say we believe, we actually do believe, are exciting prospects to say the least. As Mosser states:
It is only common sense that our critiques of Mormon thought ought to be critiques of what Mormons are actually thinking. After all, are not actually held beliefs the ones that will hinder or facilitate true knowledge of God? Besides, when we insist that Mormons ‘really believe’ the traditional synthesis when many do not, our credibility is called into question.
Let me pose a quick analogy to sum this up:
In my high school drama program we had two types of celebrations after a big production. One was a boys vs.girls all out war with shaving cream, water balloons and general mayhem. The other was dubbed “the gentleman’s war”. In essence, you chose an opponent, put on your best Sunday suit, placed an old rug underneath your feet and calmly took turns pouring produce, pies, and pastries over each other. An egg in the shirt pocket, a cream-pie down the pants, Ragu Spaghetti Sauce and molasses on the head – and you took it like a man.
The advantage of the gentleman’s war over an all out mêlée was twofold. First, you had a deeper respect for your opponent which encouraged you to bestow only the finest weapons. Secondly, you had less of a chance of losing your two front teeth, which is what happened to someone my senior year and promptly ended the fighting tradition for good.
The newfound dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals has left the mêlée in favor of the gentleman’s war. While it can get messy and sticky at times, the general tenor of the battle is wholly improved and marks a significant thaw in their relations.
Of course this is at the academic level. But the breach in the wall is large enough where a dialogue can begin in the grassroots. Is there discomfort among Evangelicals about Mormons? Yes. Is it insurmountable? No. After all, as someone noted, if common religious bonds were the only yardstick, conservative evangelicals would have to choose Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney’s religion and faith should not be a stumbling block for evangelicals looking for leadership in this country. In short, let the dialogue begin.