June 13, 1994 Volume 143, No. 24
Ezra Taft Benson had not appeared in public for two years. Toward the end, he could not leave his apartment and had to be fed by nasal tube. Yet he remained "Prophet, Seer and Revelator," the supreme authority of the Mormon Church until his death last week at the age of 94. A group of dark-suited apostles called the Council of the Twelve will gather this week in the central Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, to "set apart" a new prophet from among themselves. If tradition is a guide, they will select the chief of the council as Benson's successor and the Mormon Church's 14th president - in this case Howard Hunter. At 86, Hunter, who had open-heart surgery eight years ago and a gall-bladder operation last year, will be the first head of the Mormon Church born in the 20th century.
In spite of this gerontocracy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains vibrant. Its sedulous missionary work has made what seemed to be a quintessentially American faith extraordinarily successful both at home and overseas. The church has nearly 9 million members, up from 5.6 million in 1984. Though a slight majority (4.6 million) live in the U.S. and Canada, the Mormon Church's biggest success story of the past decade is Latin America, where it claims 2.7 million believers. "One of the major themes of 20th century Mormonism has been accommodation," says Richard Bushman, a professor of history at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon. And by doing so, it has flourished spectacularly. Although its members were persecuted nearly to the point of extinction for its advocacy of polygamy in the late 19th century, the Mormon Church is now the epitome of family values and commands an estimated $8 billion in assets even as it accumulates the annual tithes from its millions of believers. Its current challenges: feminism and historical revisionism that pound away at the faith.
That faith is an exotic mixture of innovative Americana and unconventional Christianity. Indeed, while Mormon teachers speak increasingly of "Mormon Christianity," most Christians would blanch at the actual theology. Mormon history states that Joseph Smith founded the church in Fayette, New York, in 1830 after being directed by the angel Moroni to unearth a set of inscribed golden plates. These provided him with revelations that ancient Hebrews migrated to North America around 600 B.C. Later Jesus Christ, after his ministry in the Middle East, came to preach to these lost tribes of Israel in America. The tribes eventually split into warring factions, the Nephites and Lamanites, the latter being the ancestors of the American Indians.
Smith, who was assassinated in 1844 in Carthage, Illinois, taught that the trinity is not a triune God as Christians believe but rather "three gods." Meanwhile, God the Father was once a man who achieved divinity. As church prophet Lorenzo Snow, who died in 1901, put it, "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become." In fact, Smith wrote in Doctrine and Covenants, men whose marriages are sealed and approved by the church will become gods in the hereafter.
Mormons believe in a form of spiritual pre-existence - though not in reincarnation. They have a complex system of the afterlife as well - there is a three-tier realm of glory with the highest echelon reserved for believers, the next for well-meaning nonbelievers, the last for the devil and his angels. Adherents worried about the fate of their nonbeliever ancestors can have deceased relatives baptized vicariously. Thus Mormons zealously compile genealogies so all ancestors can eventually be baptized. Meanwhile, males must become lay "priests" and serve as missionaries (currently numbering more than 48,000).
There are, however, no "priestesses." Benson said, "Adam, not Eve, was instructed to earn the bread by the sweat of his brow. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother's calling is in the home, not in the marketplace." That kind of male chauvinism has been challenged by feminists in the church. "It's an organization that can't find balance between men and women or between formal authority and individual conscience," says Maxine Hanks, a fifth-generation Mormon whose book Women & Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism claims women exercised priesthood powers in the 19th century when church followers were struggling to establish themselves in the Utah desert. "Contemporary Mormon women should reclaim their lost authority," she says. For holding such views, however, Hanks and other women have been excommunicated.
Another serious challenge comes from historians. David Wright was fired from Brigham Young University, which is run by the church, for his unpublished opinion that Joseph Smith, not ancient authors, wrote the Book of Mormon, the church's original scripture. Wright, who still professes belief in Smith as a prophet, now teaches at Brandeis University. Meanwhile, D. Michael Quinn resigned under pressure from B.Y.U. for publishing Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, which detailed Smith's involvement with folk magic and the occult before becoming the church's first prophet. Quinn had earlier published an article indicating that despite the church's official disavowal of polygamy in 1890, high officials secretly continued to practice and sanction additional polygamous nuptials. Both Quinn and Wright have been excommunicated. The very act of reporting on dissent is severely discouraged. When Lavina Fielding Anderson, editor of Journal of Mormon History, published a piece detailing the pressures faced by church intellectuals, she too was excommunicated.
Some time during the Benson presidency, the secret "Strengthening Church Members Committee" was created to monitor doctrinally troublesome writings and beliefs. Old-style polygamists have suffered as much as liberal Mormons from excommunication. Says Jan Shipps, a religious historian at Indiana University-Purdue University: "It's the steering of a middle course." That strict patrolling of dissent is likely to continue under the new leadership; it may even deepen. Next in the line of succession after Hunter are Benson's chief counselors, Gordon B. Hinckley, who will turn 84 this month, and Thomas Monson, 66. After them may come Boyd K. Packer, 69, an ardent promoter of doctrinal purity.
Still, conservatism does not rule out innovation. After all, the prophet is a visionary and given to sudden revelations. In 1978 president Spencer Kimball had one such revelation, and blacks were finally allowed to become priests of the church. It was a practical vision. Proselytizing had been proceeding apace in Latin America, where - particularly in Brazil - many new converts had African ancestors. The only groups more successful than the Mormons in Latin America are the Pentecostal and other Evangelical preachers. Kimball's revelation also gave the church another continent to conquer: Africa, which recorded membership of 79,000, a 16% growth since 1990, the highest in all the church.