I've been doing a little light Christmas reading, so as part of this I picked up a book that reads quickly called Mormon America. The work is by authors Richard Ostling and Joan Ostling. Richard spent three decades with Time Magazine in various key roles and was working with the Associated Press as a religion writer according to the back cover. Joan was an editor and writer with the US Information Agency in Wash., DC and a reporter with Press Publications in Chicago. Their goal is to provide a nonpolemical overview of Mormonism as it grows rapidly around the world and to some extent in the US (though from the book one may assume not as quickly as overseas). The book covers everything from what a Celestial Room is in a Mormon temple (page 190) to the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon bishop who was invited to speak at Pat Robertson's school in a surprising situation. I have to admit coming from a Methodist-Baptist-Community church background that the book was fascinating. I've had friends in Mormon wards and of course talked to Mormons at length about some certain issues. But a large picture of their background, struggles, weaknesses, bragging points, and such was very useful for understanding. Theologically I don't see how they can put it all together. Mormonism appears to be wrought with convenience theology, given enough US government pressure or cultural pressure they change doctrine like the wind (one of many examples given in the book includes baptism for the dead which excluded people of certain races until the US Congress and NAACP threatened a lawsuit over use of Census records). But the LDS'ers are shown in the book to be WELL organized, interested in persistence like one would not believe, and very actively out seeking people to join their group in ways one would not suspect. They are planners and administrators like you would not believe (a compliment). So while I have no sympathy for the non-orthodox doctrine they hold, still I'm impressed by some of their 20th century organization. They have a large number of PR campaigns going on at any one time. This book is not pro Mormon or anti Mormon. It does point out that image is VERY important to them, and has been since at least the turn of the last century. Large amounts of effort go into their image in each area (stake/region) and even the wards (local). The book covers issues such as racism prior to 1978 against African Americans in Mormon theology and the question everyone immediately raises, the history of polygamy. The claims before Congress and the press that polygamy was no longer being offered as a church practice after 1890 are contrasted with then presidents like Joseph Smith (same name, different than original one) being fully aware of and encouraging them in secret (contra US law). The book handles these contrasts fairly (almost understatement at times). It also addresses their non-New Testament theology every so many pages, such as mentioning how the temple building is rooted in their own ideas outside of a NT church model (the book of Hebrews shows Christ is sufficient, we no longer need temples). The life of the original President of the LDS Joseph Smith, has the good the bad and the ugly covered off and on every so many pages. As far as I can tell, he was charismatic in personality which explains his ability to lead a large number of people. The book calls him 'creative' a lot. Clearly Smith was a leader, but from a Christian standpoint a heretic. He also claimed revelations were completely binding when he made them, yet they often contradicted what is revealed in the Bible. Though you get the distinct impression that he was somewhat likeable in his early years (except for his treasure hunting with seer stones). As time went on, he started adding controverstial doctines as he got more power. He started endorsing polygamy, against his first wife's wishes for decades (she later agreed to it, then changed her mind, then agreed again). Smith started making up at the end of his life a belief in a multiplicity of Gods in the heavens all with bodies. A lot of people ditched his weird teachings or ran afoul of him and were "excommunicated" for convenience of peace in their group identity. He had an interest in protecting those who were with him very much though. But he didn't tolerate any diversity of opinion too well. Smith tried to take care of people in Nauvoo, IL and Kirtland, OH. Out of his efforts though he got into troubles, including banking fraud. He ran afoul of the MO state government, and may have let his opinions known to people, who then tried to assasinate the MO governor back then. Of course,that didn't go over too well regardless of how that went down. They were driven out of MO to IL. Lack of knowledge of economic policy that works, and how money is created, drove several of these early settlements to near insolvency. This aspect is covered largely in the work. Early Utah under his successor Young had similar problems, but Young was a clever administrator who did better with the large group. Another interesting fact, many Mormons early on were recruited in Europe (like the UK) with the promise of free land, many flocks of animals, and easy peaceful lives. Droves came to the US for the express offer, and it is unclear to me from the book if this was the only reason they came or not. The traffic from Europe dried up when economic times over there improved the authors add though.
Some of the controversial things a Mormon "elder" would never tell you stood out. Mormons conducted some return fire against settlers on their way West, killing many basically innocent people. Though of course the persecution was against Mormons before this. But it is important to realize, in their early history, they were very militarized, having a militia, guns, and a willingness to shoot back or evade the US government at other times (leaving Salt Lake when fed troops came near to make a point, of protest). Also the strange view that the US Constitution is divinely inspired is mentioned in the book. It is even such an obsession of Mormon leadership that they have gone beyond the Constitution immediately and baptized post-humously US Presidents and Signers of the Declaration of Independence in their temples. This explains why many Mormon leaders are so zealous for USA political arguing around the consitution (a la Glenn Beck style). [It should go without saying, but an orthodox Christian, contrary to Mormonism, does not view anything as divinely inspired except the original 66 books of the Bible.] The reader also learns that the LDS thinks the term "Mormon" is acceptable, but not preferred by the LDS church. Even some unexpected issues, such as the behind the scenes problems and then impressive fix to the Salt Lake City Olympic games work is included in this research book. I won't try to cover any more, but leave the decision to read the book in more context up to you.
There's so much in this book that its hard to just blog about it. I'd recommend the book to mature Christians to learn more about who it is that is trying to convert them. Probably it's not the best work for a new Christian to try and take in so many conflicting use of religious terms (temple as already mentioned is redefined, whereas in biblical theology it was strictly fitted into the Old Testament background and context contra Mormonism). However, it is not written in a lofty way as such, but I enjoyed reading it with some categories to think things through with in the background.