- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
The other factor was a practice established by Brigham Young, who perferred that at his death his successors should be chosen on the basis of seniority. By following this practice, the Mormons have acquired the oldest rulers of any organization known to modern man. To cite recent experience, David O. McKay, who was president of the church for nineteen years, died in 1970 at the age of ninety-six. His successor, Joseph Fielding Smith, was ninety-three when he took over McKay’s duties and ninety-five when he died. Smith’s successor, Harold B. Lee, was a comparatively youthful seventythree, yet survived only eighteen months in office. The present head, Spencer W. Kimball, is eighty-two. No matter how great the good will of such men, it is asking too much to expect them to comprehend the attitudes of the great majority of Americans who are young enough to be their children, grandchildren, or even erreat-ffrandchildren.
It is almost unnecessary to add that in the general drive to make peace with middle-class America, the old tendency to Mormon separatism has been replaced by an earnest patriotism. Does this mean that the modern Mormons have been fully absorbed into American society? That basic question has deeply concerned a new group of Mormon intellectuals who have become increasingly significant during the past decade. In 1966 this group founded Dialogue , a serious journal in which to thrash out the problems they faced in attempting to harmonize the faith, teachings, and practices Joseph Smith had revealed to their forefathers in the 1830’s and 1840’s, with the harshly insistent conditions of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The very first issue of this new journal started with an admirable editorial preface that declared:
“Today … most Mormons live outside Utah. … Today it is not unusual to see Mormon Congressmen in Washington, Mormon business executives in Chicago, Mormon professors at Harvard, or Mormon space scientists at Houston. Mormons are participating freely in the social, economic, and cultural currents of change sweeping twentieth-century America.”
Then, with no transition, the editorial suddenly added this assertion:
“But Mormons do remain apart from greater American society. Their experience, heritage, and tradition of years in isolation remain an integral part of Mormon belief; Mormon doctrine reinforces individual withdrawal and defiance of conformity in the face of modern convention. This new era of life in the secular world, far from the cloisters of a Rocky Mountain Zion, has created a host of dilemmas for the individual who seeks to reconcile faith and reason.”
All Americans face in some degree the problem of reconciling ancestral faith with contemporary thought and practice. But for the Mormons the problem is more difficult because Mormonism is such a complete way of life. Even though Mormons participate vigorously in the PTA, the Chamber of Commerce, local politics, business, and the professions, they still spend much of their lives in selfcontained Mormon groups. From childhood until old age they meet, talk, play, and pray in their own groups. They have their own charities, projects, entertainments. They have elaborate youth programs at high schools and colleges, as part of their campaign to hold their young people in the church (as well as gain new members) during the years when most denominations lose a high percentage of their young men and women.
Where most Americans must find their individual and often lonely ways through this confusing modern era, the Mormons can live in a warmly supportive group atmosphere, if they wish. To break with so all-embracing a pattern is a wrenching, distorting experience. For just that reason independent thinking and modern doubts have come only slowly to most Mormons. It is far easier to conform to the church’s omnipresent guidance than to challenge it. At the same time, change is coming to the world with extraordinary speed. The continued subordination of women and blacks, at a time when outside opinion has turned so drastically against discrimination, illustrates the weight of cultural lag within the Mormon community. Will the Mormons be able to work out adjustments to contemporary pressures, without sacrificing the essence of their distinctive and close-knit culture? For the moment, the answer must be in doubt, but in view of the Mormons’ record of meeting challenges in the past, it is by no means certain that they will fail.