The CoJCoL-dS: A little bit of nothing for everyone!

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):

Temperance and Cold Water: If it weren’t for the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” would anyone remember that part of the Temperance movement included a belief in abstaining from hot drinks?

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…?

Nothing.

And that is Mormonism’s biggest problem.

What Does the CoJCoL-dS Offer?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends tens of thousands of enthusiastic young adults — carefully trained in sales strategies — all over the world. Why don’t people want what they’re selling? On the flip side, if the prospect of joining Mormonism is so obviously unappealing to the average person, how did the LDS missionary program enjoy periods of tremendous success in the past?

As a long-time insider/outsider observer of Mormonism, I’ve been fascinated by these questions, and also by the question of how long the CoJCoL-dS can continue with this absurdly outdated and ineffective marketing strategy. (Note: no successful company today relies on a door-to-door salesforce — I don’t think anyone besides the really elderly remember a time when it was considered reasonable to listen to a pitch from some random stranger who shows up at your door.) The solution to the riddle isn’t entirely about their marketing strategy — it’s more about what Mormonism adds to your life (and what it subtracts).

Many people speculate that the highest leaders of the CoJCoL-dS know it’s a fraud. I disagree; I think they really believe the God exists and that He’s at the head of the church. My evidence is their random and incoherent strategies for marketing the church and running it. The leaders can’t just ask themselves how Mormonism functions in people’s lives and then (cynically) use that information to craft their program and materials to maximize members’ positive experiences in Mormonism, to inspire them to stick with it. They think they really do hold the keys to salvation and exaltation (which is a valuable enough selling point all by itself!) — and since God is running things, if they could be doing things better, then God would tell the prophet what changes they should make.

As far as retention is concerned, so much of the discussion of the church centers around whether or not the church is true. This makes sense because if its central tenets really are true (especially the claim that there’s an afterlife, and the only way to ace it is through LDS temple ordinances), then it’s a good idea to practice Mormonism. The converse, however, doesn’t necessarily hold: If the truth claims aren’t true, there may yet be reasons to continue to believe and practice Mormonism.

A lot of faith crises begin when members start wondering why Mormonism isn’t working for them; why they’re so miserable in this culture that is supposed to bring eternal joy. When that happens, it can be a relief to discover that it’s not true, and that you can stop pounding your head against the wall of trying to make it work. Of course not all faith transitions begin this way. The people for whom Mormonism “works” are somewhat less likely/motivated to start asking the questions that will lead them out the door, but sometimes they do. Such people are often inclined to construct a more nuanced faith — perhaps pick an alternate definition of “true” — in order to continue in the Mormon community and lifestyle they value.

The people following these different paths can have a hard time understanding each other. One side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to keep believing and practicing this stuff — it’s not true!” while the other side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to give up Mormonism just because it’s not literally true!” As I’ve said, the real question is whether you want to.

Mormonism clearly appeals to some people and not to others; it works for some people and not for others. Please join me in this bi-weekly series exploring what the CoJCoL-dS has to offer!