This is the third and final installment reviewing Richard Bushman's Just finished Mormons & Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion (U. of Illinois, 2001), a collection of essays and book excerpts edited by Eric Eliason, a BYU English prof. In a world where media misinformation and even comedy shows define truth for a disturbingly large segment of the US population, it's important to have reliable resources at hand. This book seems to be intended as a supplementary text to accompany an undergraduate religious studies course on religion or on Mormonism, with essays by a wide variety of LDS and non-LDS scholars from several fields. [I wonder if the book is used for any courses at BYU?] Surprisingly, the only one of the essays I'd read before was "Is Mormonism Christian?" by Jan Shipps. I'll comment on a few of the essays, although I could easily discuss every one of them (sorry, this is a hobby, not a profession).
In the first essay in the volume, "Soaring with the Gods: Early Mormons and the Eclipse of Religious Pluralism," Richard T. Hughes opens with, "To understand the genius of early Mormonism, one must first recognize that Mormonism was a profoundly primitivist tradition." The term "primitivist" here refers to the urge to restore the essentials of the early (or "primitive") Christian church. Those who had this mentality are often called "seekers," and Hughes suggests that Joseph Smith, after being told in vision that all churches were wrong, became a seeker. Hughes likens Smith to Roger Williams, but whereas Williams died a seeker, Smith became a prophet and established a church that claimed the authority to actually restore what all those seekers were seeking. In the balance of the essay, Hughes traced the authority issue through to his conclusion that "early Mormons ultimately rejected the ideal of religious pluralism as that ideal had been understood by most Americans."
I enjoyed the 20-page excerpt from Terryl L. Givens' Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, which explored what might be termed the social construction of heresy and how strange it is that American Christians have directed that charge at Mormons: "Given the American tradition of innovation and independence, and of hostility toward authoritarianism and conformity, attacks of heresy in general, and Mormonism's 'heresies' in particular, seem odd." He notes the irony that the LDS claims that were (and are) the focus of Christian criticism "were beliefs absolutely central to Christianity" (or at least to the New Testament version thereof) such as "the prophetic calling, heavenly visions, miracles and spiritual gifts." It's a different perspective on the whole heresy thing than I've read elsewhere. I look forward to reading the rest of Givens' book at some point.
As a third essay, I have to mention Rodney Stark's "The Basis of Mormon Success: A Theoretical Application." Stark, you will recall, authored a classic 1984 essay on Mormonism, "The Rise of a New World Faith," in which he suggested that if then-present growth rates continued, there would be 260 million Mormons by 2080. In the present essay he repeats that claim, noting that LDS membership growth rates over the last 15 years have actually outpaced his earlier projections. "Consequently, I am convinced that by late in the twenty-first century the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be a major world religion." [Just as an aside, I note that if 13 million Mormons put 50,000 full-time LDS missionaries in the field now, there might well be one million full-time LDS missionaries serving by the end of the 21st century.]
Stark's empirical approach, combined with his refreshingly open attitude about LDS institutional strengths and successes, makes his work on Mormonism a real pleasure to read. A couple more quotes from his section on the "LDS Ethic": "In my judgment, Latter-day Saint success is rooted in theology." You don't hear that everyday. And: "LDS theology also stimulates achievement in very direct ways, for it places a premium on rationality and intellectual growth."
The bottom line is that Eliason put together a very nice collection of essays and book excerpts. I'm surprised the book isn't better known (I only stumbled across it on Amazon about six months ago). I think the average Bloggernacler would find it an informative and enjoyable read. You don't even have to buy it yourself; just put it on your Amazon wish list and the relatives will do the rest.