When you picture the Mormon mishies pitching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a random Never-Mo, it’s hard to imagine who would find the pitch appealing. Yet it had to have been appealing at some point in the past. In the 19th century, whole congregations were converting. Wagon-trains full of converts were crossing the plains to Utah — often having made a trip across the ocean as well. So what gives?
I think a big part of it was that the United States at the time offered very real economic advantages to poor white people from Europe — even those arriving with nothing (or close to it) — so there was some psychological appeal to joining a group that offered a framework for being a part of that adventure.
But I think an even bigger part of the appeal was that Mormonism was a hip, cutting-edge movement that validated a whole lot of popular beliefs at the time. In other words, there were a lot of popular ideas floating around at the time (as there always is…), and it was appealing to hear someone say “God told me X is true!” when X was something the listener already believed. The prophet Joseph Smith provided new scriptural canonization for a bunch of stuff that (to 19th century eyes) was missing from the ancient books (which, unsurprisingly, dealt more with the pressing issues of their own days).
Here are some of the popular ideas that Mormonism validated (and that are now frozen in the amber of Mormon doctrine):
Dispensationalism: There was a popular Christian idea that all of history (as recorded in the Bible…) can be divided into thousand-year “dispensations” (culminating with “The Millennium”). In the Book of Abraham Joseph Smith came up with an awesome riff on this idea by claiming that these Biblical dispensations correspond to Kolob-days — which also had the advantage of explaining the problem of “days” in the creation. I mean, duh, obviously God didn’t create all this stuff in six ordinary days — it was six Kolob-days a.k.a. six thousand years! I love this charming belief because it fits so logically (except for the fact that changing the creation from six days to six thousand years doesn’t really make the Biblical creation story fit the evidence any better, but he tried).
Conservation of Mass-Energy: This was a cool new scientific discovery that led Joseph Smith to explain that God didn’t create spirits ex nihilo (that would be impossible!) but instead “organized” pre-existing spirit matter.
The Native Americans should fit somewhere in the Biblical worldview — like, maybe, as Lost Tribes of Israel!
The “Curse of Cain”: The corresponding Gospel Topics essay helpfully explains that it certainly wasn’t the Mormons who invented the “Curse of Cain” doctrine (that black people are black because that was the “mark” God put on Cain, and that the curse survived Noah’s flood because Ham’s wife was black) — it “had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s.” But for other random Christians, they can easily dismiss it as a dumb idea that some racist Christians came up with a few hundred years ago (and has since fallen out of favor). Sadly for Mormons, the whole story got canonized in the Pearl of Great Price — hence can’t be so easily dismissed if the scriptures are God’s word and all. This little hiccup isn’t mentioned in the essay, so I assume CoJCoL-dS is going with the strategy of “Let’s just pretend it isn’t there, and maybe no one will notice.”
And probably many others…
Unfortunately, aside from conservation of mass-energy, these ideas have mostly fallen out of favor. Some of them are downright embarrassingly offensive. So the thing that was once Mormonism’s big selling point is now a huge liability.
It’s sad because it really was a cool, central part of early Mormonism — the idea that people aren’t limited to the old texts and can study and learn and develop new doctrines. Joseph Smith was very big on the idea that people should be constantly learning and discussing doctrine. But as popular ideas fall out of favor or become discredited, it becomes a problem that God confirmed and canonized them at one point. It’s difficult to say “Oh, God didn’t really mean it about that one,” without calling this whole prophetic-revelation thing into question.
The solution that the CoJCoL-dS has hit upon is “correlation“. In essence, the top brass came up with a short list of simple gospel topics for all official teaching materials. So the distinctive 19th-century ideas are still in there somewhere, but members are encouraged to ignore/forget them by filling their church time with repeating the same simple fluff over and over (the “milk” of the Gospel, as it were) — and so avoiding all “meaty” discussions.
This strategy, unfortunately, raised a new problem. Joseph Smith had followed the Protestant tradition of rejecting Catholic pomp, with its vacuous “vain repetitions.” Joseph Smith was all about the “meat” of the Gospel. He felt that his church should be having interesting, engaging doctrinal discussions and debates instead of empty show.
So if you deliberately cut out the showy/symbolic rituals in order to replace them with meaty gospel discussions, and then later the meaty discussions are off limits — what are you then left with…?
And that is Mormonism’s biggest problem.