In the winter of 1905, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S or the "Mormons") departed Utah on two seemingly disparate missions to the east coast. One contingent went to defend their church at Senate hearings in Washington, D.C.; the other, to Vermont to dedicate a monument to church founder Joseph Smith. These forays into national politics and religious memory refashioned Latter-day Saint identity, as well as public perception of Mormonism for the remainder of the twentieth century. They also illuminate one of the quotidian mysteries of religion: how it adapts to the demands of time, yet maintains its sense of mediating the eternal.
At a time when immanent abandonment of plural marriage was sorely testing the faithful's confidence, rituals commemorating Joseph Smith's birth established three aspects of his legacy as the core of L.D.S self-conception: restored church order, divine authority, and continuing revelation. These three claims, inscribed on the Vermont monument, were given particular force by the church's new Progressive-Era uses of the autobiographical narrative of Joseph Smith's early life. Specifically, during this period the narrative of Smith's original theophany achieved the primacy once accorded plural marriage, allowing the Latter-day Saints to forget as a practical matter, the once-definitive marriage practice. This essay uses theories of narrative and myths of origin to show how uses of Smith's theophany allowed the Latter-day Saints to jettison plural marriage without destroying their identity, much less their confidence in Joseph Smith as church founder.
The L.D.S Church's use of commemorative rituals and narrative history to simultaneously adapt and maintain identity is not unique, but it is uniquely available to analysis because of the immediacy of the change and the Saints' devotion to record-keeping. Thus, the drama of LDS survival during the Progressive Era illuminates age-old religious strategies for adaptation to social norms, which strategies preserve the faithful's confidence in the timelessness of their god's moral and ecclesiastical order. More narrowly, these events in American church history are critical for understanding how the civilly disobedient Saints finally accepted the rule of federal law without losing their religion.
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