The Mormon Presence in Canada
Increasingly in recent years historians of Mormonism have turned their attention to the question of the church’s history outside the United States, certainly a positive development as those ploughing the field begin to move beyond the hidebound story of Joseph Smith and the founding and first generation experiences of the Mormon movement to consider other aspects of the religion’s history. As I mentioned in review for a previous volume of this journal anniversaries typically spark the reconsideration of historic events in all kinds of ways, from reinactments to ceremonies to historical publications. So it is that this book was born; this exploration of Mormonism in Canada was precipitated by the centennial of the settlement of Mormons in Alberta in 1887 and a symposium that was organized to review the subject. It is from this conference that the articles published in this collection were derived.
While a subject of significance, until the recent centennial most historians did not investigate this subject extensively or with any real seriousness. The Mormon Presence in Canada is a gleaning of some of the best short research on the subject, placing emphases on the topic and serving as a partial corrective of past neglect. As a result, it is a most welcome collection of articles.
Brigham Y. Card, professor emeritus of sociology of education, at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and his coeditors, of which there are several, have assembled a set of diverse essays on various aspects of the Mormon experience in Canada between the first incursions of missionaries through the exceptionally significant settlement of Mormons in southern Alberta in the 1880s to the more recent period. Taken altogether and arranged roughly chronologically, the 17 chapters, each written by a different specialist, represent a particular aspect of Mormon history, culture, and social development in Canada during the period since the 1830s.
Some narrow and others broadly interpretive, the articles in this book are far more interdisciplinary than most works of this type, another positive trend as several social sciences and arts interchange perspectives, methodologies, and interpretive models to explain various aspects of the subject. Essays on the broad foundations of Mormonism in Canada; detailed studies of Mormonism in specific provinces; several analyses relating to the settlement process in Alberta; numerous essays on Mormon lifestyles, polygamy, family life, and folklore; an article each on Mormon economic and political behavior; studies of demographic issues; and two explorations of the nature of Mormon ethnicity, if such exists, enrich the volume. These essays represent a new appreciation for the divergence of historical study in the post-New Mormon history period.
Any collected work’s quality is uneven and this book is no exception. Some of the essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding and convincing Armand L. Mauss, “Mormons as Ethnics: Variable Historical and International Implications of an Appealing Concept,” in which he argued that Mormons should not be considered a distinctive ethnic group. While Mauss takes only a little exception to the framework of Mormon ethnicity to explain the historical development of the religion, used so convincingly by Thomas S. O’Dea, The Mormons (1957) and Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (1985), he found that the cultural differences that set Mormonism apart from the rest of society have largely withered away in the twentieth century and the religion can no longer sustain the ethnicity claim. He commented, “during the past century there has been an obvious convergence between Mormons and their host societies in North America, so that Mormons are required to reach ever more deeply into the bag of cultural peculiarities to find traits that will help them mark their subcultural boundaries, and thus their very identity as a special people” (p. 348).
Also especially challenging was Dean R. Louder’s “Canadian Mormon Identity and the French Fact,” which explores a genuine ethnic issue in Canada as it relates to the Mormon experience: the French/Anglo makeup of the nation. Using sociological tools and a perspective sharpened by personal as well as scholarly experience, Louder criticizes the Mormon church for its lack of missionary activity among French Canadians, for its neglect of French-speaking Mormons in Canada, and for its overarching emphasis on American, and therefore Anglo, aspects of its religious culture. This flies in the face of a resurgence of ethnicity officially sanctioned in Canada. “Thus,” he wrote, “the official church and, by extension, its membership deny the cultural specificity of Canada and the existence of an international church within that country” (p. 322).
Although each of the articles stands on its own and is a useful contribution, some themes and events are unevenly represented. There are no fewer than four contributions relating to Mormon polygamy, and five on the settlement of Charles Ora Card and the Mormons at Cardston and other parts of southern Alberta beginning in the 1880s. Important topics to be sure, but some other areas go begging as a result. Only Richard E. Bennett’s essay on Mormon activities in eastern Canada during the early part of the church’s history, for instance, deals with that important subject. Only Dean Louder’s contribution already mentioned considers the multi-ethnic nature of the country and its implications for Mormonism. I was disappointed to find only modest information, even though some was presented, on the political and economic activities of the Mormons in Canada.
There was also no systematic discussion of the evolution of the Mormon church’s official policy toward Canada, something which would have been a useful study for present-day policy makers in the Mormon hierarchy. Finally, one of my pet peeves, there is absolutely no mention of the history of the Reorganized Church or of any other of Mormonism’s factions in Canada. While a much less important part of the overall history of Mormonism, the Reorganized Church and probably the Strangite experience in Canada deserve some discussion in a book such as this and could have provided a useful counterpoint for analyzing church member backgrounds, relations with larger society, organizational structures, and the like.
These criticisms aside, this collection of essays is a good beginning in exploring the Mormon experience in Canada. The Mormon Presence in Canada will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike.
Originally published in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 11 (1991): 110-12.