Mormons like to think of their Church as something special and unique. They like to think they have this restored truth that gives them some unique status and outlook that others do not have. This is simply not true. In fact they share all the common elements of a garden variety mass movement.
There was once a man who worked various odd jobs and drifted around the country.He eventually became a longshoreman and during his off hours became a well known writer. His first book was The True Believer. In the book, he outlined the common characteristics of mass movements. Today we will review some of these and see how well they describe Mormonism as a common, ordinary, nothing special, mass movement.
Hoffer said mass movements usually begin with a charismatic leader who is a man of words and finds fault with the current situation.This describes Joseph Smith very well. He found fault in all other branches of Christianity and spoke of a need for a new and improved branch.Here is what former church historian, Leonard Arrington said about Joe,
“The Prophet of the Restoration has been portrayed as a philosopher, community builder, military commander, and visionary. But the rapid growth of the Church under his leadership suggests a warm and attractive personality which appealed to all ages and classes of people. Joseph Smith[was] a jovial and exciting leader. To use a word often heard today, Joseph Smith possessed charisma.”
Here is what Brigham Young said of him,
“When I first heard him preach, he brought heaven and earth together.”
What Joe was not, was a practical leader. This very well may have led to the eventual downfall of his organization except for one thing. He died in a blaze of gun fire in a jail house and his successor was Brigham Young. Brigham turned out to be a fanatic who was the ultimate man of action. He was a man who was willing to take whatever action was needed to preserve the institution he dedicated his life to. If that meant violence, so be it.His acts of violence are well known and I will not waste time here going over his colorful history. Members say he was the right man at the right time. Without him, the mass movement of Mormonism would have probably ended before it had begun. The current mantra is to “Follow the Prophet.”
Rising mass movements preach immediate hope. In the early days of the Church, many members were millennialists who thought the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen in their lifetime.
In December 1830, the Prophet Joseph Smith said the following in a letter to members of the Church in Colesville, New York:
“May you all be faithful and wait for the time of our Lord, for his appearing is nigh at hand. But [of] the time and the season, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you, for ye yourselves perfectly know that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night: for when they shall say peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman, but they shall not escape.”
As time goes on, the group glorifies the past, loathes the present, and worships the future. This typifies what we see in Mormonism today. History as defined in the Church is not about seeking for truth but to provide faith promoting stories from its past. Truth takes a backseat to other considerations.Joseph and early leaders are often whitewashed before presented to the eager followers of the Church. Here is one example of what I am talking about.
“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”
—Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect”
Things that did not fit the faith promoting history were often censored for the good of the order. The Church also loathes the current condition in the world and talks often give a stark contrast to how followers should think and behave and how wicked the world is. Currently, leaders are focusing talks on how secular society is and how followers should oppose this secularism because supposedly the group is having its rights taken away by secularism. Never mind what the facts say, the narrative is to get the members to beware of the evils of the world and stay connected to the flock. The Church also fits the third element of this quality by looking forward to the future when faithful members will go to the Celestial Kingdom after this mortal life is over.
The next characteristic of a typical movement is to have followers who have blind obedience and put faith over reason. Leaders and members have a long history of doing this. There are so many examples of this in Church history up to today. Try to point out how the Book of Mormon cannot be a historical record to a member. The evidence is overwhelming yet you will find it almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation with a follower of Mormonism. They will reject example after example and use faith to throw off reason. Even if they concede a few points, they will finish with this statement-“That does not matter because the Spirit bore witness it is true.” The thought ending cliche will close the discussion on a hundred things to question about the faith.In addition, leaders speak from the bully pulpit warning their followers about even having these types of conversations.
You will find this type of thinking in any garden variety mass movement. Nothing special to see in the Mormon Church here. I recently had a conversation with a member who rejected evolution, not because of science, but because he did not see how it could fit into the gospel plan. Now many members do believe in evolution, but the point is they often reject things simply because it does not fit their religious world view. Faith over reason!
The next characteristic is ritual and ceremony. The Church has incorporated this into the very fabric of the life of members.Baptism of children at age eight is a milestone in the life of a young person. At age twelve, boys take their place as newly crowned member of the priesthood. They can now pass the Sacrament on Sundays.Make sure they wear their white shirt and tie to the ceremony or the Bishop may ask them to sit out this week until they have the proper uniform. On all other days, members are exhorted to attend the Temple where they dress in funny clothes and engage in ceremonies and rituals borrowed from the Masons. While members think these rituals have great meaning, what they really do is bind their hearts and conform their thoughts and behavior to the group. Typical thought conforming behavior seen in any mass movement.
Blind obedience is the next characteristic in mass movements. The Church has this one down pat.Mormonism is a patriarchal religion, rooted firmly in old testament traditions. Dissidents are not tolerated. Nothing gets someone excommunicated quicker than opposing authority in the Church. This tradition started with Joe Smith and continues today. Questioning the edicts of leaders is viewed as a subversive act that undermines the faith of the group. Quotes are plentiful on this topic. Eldon Tanner said, “When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over.”
The next thing to know about these movements is they always have an enemy. The Church has thrived over the years at uniting followers against a common enemy. At times it was the United States government who opposed the practice of polygamy. At times it was members who left the Church. They were not viewed as disaffected members with real concerns but as apostates who might need to be dealt with in a violent manner. In 1838, Joe Smith and his close advisers moved to Missouri and excommunicated many of the local leaders who opposed him. In a famous talk, Sidney Rigdon spoke how these dissenters were as salt that lost it’s savor.
The salt sermon caused a great deal of demand to purge the church of any disloyal members. This included the formation of the Danites, a secret militant society for the enforcement of church orthodoxy. Two days after the salt sermon, eighty Latter-day Saints signed a statement, known as the Danite Manifesto warning the dissenters to “depart, or a more fatal calamity shall befall you.” The dissenters and their families rightly interpreted these words as threats, and they quickly left Caldwell County, Missouri.Today, members use excommunication and psychological coercion to maintain obedience. Stories are numerous of ex members telling how they have been disavowed or bullied by believing members of their family simply because they are no longer believe in the group.
The Church has a never ending list of enemies at any time; African Americans, LGBT people, and when all else fails, they have the Devil himself. They have even made him an actual person who roams the Earth with one third of the host of heaven creating havoc and turning cold the hearts of men and women.
This leads to the final characteristic we will discuss. Mass movements are usually brought down from within. This is the crux of the of the fear of leaders in the Church. Have you noticed how so many General Conference talks these days are devoted to staying in the Church and not to leave the Old Ship Zion? Now that information is at our fingertips, the Church has been having problems retaining members. Young people are not staying active as they move into young adulthood. Only about 64 percent of those raised Mormon continued to adhere to the faith when they entered adulthood, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. That is six percent less than the numbers in 2007.
The followers of Mormonism are told they are unique and special. Followers of other high demand groups across the world are told the same thing.Nothing could be further from the truth. They belong to a garden variety mass movement with elements that are interchangeable with similar groups. It is time for the followers of Mormonism to wake up to that simple truth.
“There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized.” James Randi