Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mormonism in 1860 vs. Mormonism Today

I was recently asked how Mormonism in 1860 was different than Mormonism today.  In response, I wrote the following and thought I would share it with you:

Mormonism in 1860 was actually quite a bit different than it is today. While modern Mormons still follow the same theology and have a similar organization, the culture of Mormonism has changed quite dramatically over the past 150 years.

Demographics: In 1860, there were approximately 61,000 members of the Church (over 15 million today), the vast majority were living in Utah Territory or other Mormon settlements in the west (over 60% today live outside the US). Foreign converts, most of which were in Great Britain and Scandinavia, were strongly encouraged and in fact expected to gather to Utah as soon as possible. As the Church had only been in existence for 30 years, nearly every member was a convert. The first generation that had been born into the church were young adults and there was some excitement over what a "born and raised Mormon" could accomplish.  Very few members were not Caucasian.

Preaching and Leadership: Mormonism was much more insular at that time, with most members living quite isolated from the outside world. Brigham Young was the prophet, and many considered him their only political and government leader as well, despite what the Federal Government had to say. Utah was just ending a period of near theocracy, where the Prophet and Governor were the same and had power over nearly every aspect of life. Church leaders did not shy away from condemning specific non-Mormon groups and teachings, and were much more direct in their manner of preaching. Preaching at that time was much more "hellfire and damnation" compared to today's "love and acceptance" style. Like today, much of Mormon preaching focused on practical life advice on topics such as family relationships, hard work, preparation, and education. However, the expectations were much more strict - modesty standards dictated being covered to the wrists and ankles; parents were advised to avoid telling fairy tales and fantasy stories to their children; and members were told to grow, cook, and make everything from scratch rather than purchase items or supplies from non-Mormons. Mormons were encouraged to develop their own clothing styles to set them apart from non-Mormons, and even developed their own alphabet called Deseret to further set them apart from outsiders. (neither of these caught on)

Mission Life: Mormon missionaries were often married, called for an indefinite period of time to leave their wives and children to fend for themselves back home. Women would not be allowed to serve as missionaries for another 30 years, although some were permitted to go with their husbands if they did not have kids. Mission life was focused on preaching, and missionaries did a lot of street preaching and cottage meetings. Conversion to the church was a huge commitment, as it often meant leaving your family and country behind. Many converts sold all they had and risked their lives to cross the plains to Utah.

Lifestyle, Organization, and Temples: While the preaching was more direct, the standards were more strict, and the expectations were much higher than what we see today, Mormon culture - especially among those in the American West - was less conservative. Attendance at Sunday meetings tended to be quite low, with most families worshiping in their homes rather than at church. Mormonism truly was a way of life, and not a Sunday thing. The Relief Society was just beginning to be re-organized at the local level, and children's Primary and Young Women/Young Men organizations wouldn't come to be for at least a decade. Most Mormons drank coffee or used tobacco, and drinking alcohol was quite common - the Word of Wisdom was just a 'suggestion' and was rarely preached about. There would be no Temples until the St. George Temple was dedicated in 1877, but members could be endowed and sealed in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City. Because the Endowment House was not a Temple, vicarious ordinances were limited to baptisms and marriage sealings (no sealing of children to parents, and no endowments for the dead). Polygamous marriages were allowed and were often arranged by church leaders. Many converts were unaware of the practice of polygamy until they moved to Utah, although they may have heard rumors from non-Mormon sources. Many Mormons, especially those in rural areas, were exceptionally poor and still trying to come back from the losses they suffered due to losing a harvest season in the Utah War two years earlier. The United Order had been considered but not yet put into practice due to the disruption caused by the Utah War. Tithing was not especially common and was not limited to money - clothing, household items, livestock, food, and land were accepted at a Bishop's Tithing Office and then distributed to those in need. The Priesthood was much more exclusive - not every man and boy was ordained, and fathers were rarely given the privilege of blessing or baptizing their own children.

Scripture and Hymns: Modern Mormons might also find it interesting to know that most 1860's Mormons would be using a copy of the Book of Mormon that did not have verse numbers. Those with verses were divided into much different chapters and verses than they are today. Mormons also tended to be more widely read and well versed in the Bible, and the Bible was referred to more often than the Book of Mormon in sermons. Additionally, while the hymn book contained several songs that might be familiar to modern Mormons, they were sung to different tunes.

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