[See Part 1] Unlike most works of LDS history, which generally follow a narrative approach in telling the Mormon story, The Mormon Experience adopts something of a thematic approach, quite explicitly in the later sections of the book. But even in the earlier sections, readers unfamiliar with the storyline of LDS history in the early period will be adrift at times. The Kirtland to Far West to Nauvoo sequence, for example, is not easy to follow in Mormon Experience, although the Nauvoo period itself is well discussed. But the strength of this approach is that the authors can actually raise and address historical questions that other accounts never really get to.
IN CHAPTER TWO, the authors seriously address the question of why Mormonism had such appeal to hundreds, later thousands of men and women who joined the fledgling church, often at no small cost to themselves and their families. There were many other new religious movements in this religiously active period, but most petered out quickly and the rest remained marginal to the American religious scene. How did the Mormons manage to turn out differently?
Arrington and Bitton offer seven factors or claims (in p. 27-40) made by Mormons that made a difference: (1) Restoration - Mormons claimed priesthood and authority beyond the standard Christian allotment, "a recognizable variation of the primitive-gospel theme . . . [assuming the] apostasy and corruption of Christianity, the need to return to pure biblical practices" (p. 28). (2) Biblicism - Mormons made good use of the Bible, "persistently logical in presentation and appealing to 'common sense,'" but "strikingly literalist, contemptuous of 'spiritualizing' the prophecies" (p. 30). (3) The Book of Mormon - An indisputably unique factor. (4) Modern Revelation - The revelations recorded by Joseph and shared with the membership had a significant impact on believers raised reading the books of Bible prophets. (5) Eschatology - Mormons weren't just dreamy premillenarians, they actually had a plan -- build it (the Kingdom) and He will come (to Missouri, then to Nauvoo, later to Salt Lake). Mormons built cities. (6) "Mythic Potency" - From Mircea Eliade, referring to meaning and importance evoked by means of myths or sacred histories. (7) Religious Authoritarianism - Yet democratic at the same time, as the near-universal male lay priesthood empowered rank-and-file Mormons as well as directing them.
Arrington and Bitton didn't simply narrate steady Mormon growth and success in attracting converts, they recognized it as a development that required an explanation, then sketched factors that might provide an explanation. To provide an explanation beyond "it was God's work" smacks of the dreaded naturalistic perspective, but the authors are so plainly speaking from a faithful perspective that the authors' approach does not provoke the standard defensive response.
In later chapters, they performed a similar inquiry into other puzzles of the early period. Why did Mormons seem to attract persecution in every locale they settled in? This, from ministers and leading citizens as much as from frontier riff-raff that might have been expected to be surly and mistrustful of amibitious newcomers (see p. 46-53). Later, the authors examine what they call the paradoxes of Nauvoo (see p. 70+). In five years, the Mormons turned it from an Illinois swampland into "one of the largest and loveliest -- and yet strangest -- cities in America" (p. 70). Then, within five more years, non-Mormon citizens of Illinois had chased out the Mormons and gutted the city. A strange tale indeed.
HOPEFULLY THESE COMMENTS show that Mormon Experience tries to grapple with the Mormon Experience as a series of historical questions or problems rather than as a simple linear account. In Part 3, I'll look at the discussion of what the authors call "creative adjustment" during the key 1890-1920 period.