Reading the last section of Arrington and Bitton's The Mormon Experience, I was struck by how quickly the epic phase of Mormon history ended in 1890 when active conflict with the US government effectively ended. Their discussion of "The Modern Church" in the last third of the book begins with a chapter on "Creative Adjustment," then three chapters looking at the finances, the institutional structure and growth, and the diverse membership of the Church in the 20th century. The Mormon experience in the 20th century reads a lot more like a standard denominational history than did the colorful and unique 19th-century Mormon experience. Which brings to mind the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." To be a Mormon in the 19th century was interesting. Things are different now.
Chapter 14, "The Temporal Foundation," gave some interesting financial numbers, laying out total Church expenditures of $72,794,306 for 1958, as disclosed in published financial statements, itemized by program. That was the last year the Church published official financial statements. If I had more time, I would estimate 2004 expenditures by translating that to 2004 dollars and, holding per capita expenditures constant, scale expenditures up for the numerical growth of the Church between 1958 and 2004. Maybe another time.
Instead, I'll note the nice discussion of the Church Welfare System (CWS), which ironically was named that rather than Church Security System (which sounded too much like FDR's Social Security). I'm surprised how little discussion of the CWS there is in the B'nacle or LDS forums more generally, given how large a system it is and how much good it seems to do for those who receive benefits and for those who get out and contribute volunteer labor. Thanks to CWS, city kids like me get to do farmish things like picking apples from real apple trees and manning the production line for a peach-canning operation for one shift. As programs go, this seems to be a real winner for the Church and its members.
Chapter 15, "Institutional Responses," chronicles how a growing church handled the challenges of international membership and coordination of tens of thousands (as opposed to hundreds) of local units. If the story sometimes reads like a variation of "enter the bureaucrat," it is fair to realize that the personal touch or charismatic leadership gets problematic in an organization of five million active participants. I'm no fan of Correlation, but franchising works as well in religion as in retailing. It's nice to walk into an LDS chapel anywhere on Earth (and I've been to church on Sunday in an awful lot of strange places) and feel at home.
Chapter 16, "Group Personality: The Unsponsored Sector," talks a lot about education in general and about Mormons who have achieved success in business, academics, or government. What I found interesting was how dominant the Mormon contribution to agricultural science was in the first half of the 20th century. Widtsoe, for example, played a key role here, but so did dozens of other LDS academics, building off of the amazing Mormon achievement of getting crops (or really anything) to grow in the Salt Lake Valley, which didn't look like a promising bet in 1847. The Intermountain West used to be called The Great American Desert, you know. Irrigation was necessary, of course, but so was experimentation in crop selection, development of better strains of crops, fertilizers, timing, and all that sophisticated farming stuff. Nice work, pioneers.