Tuesday, January 7, 2014

G. K. Chesterton on Mormonism and Religious Understanding

During a significant portion of the first half of the twentieth century, noted Christian author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) had a weekly newspaper column that appeared in The Illustrated London News.  Many of these columns are worth reading today even if simply for a taste of Chesterton's infamous wit.  In the column that he had published on 13 May 1911, he treated the subject of Mormonism in response to a speech shortly before given in Nottingham by one Elder Ward.  The 'Elder Ward' in question here is probably (or so I would surmise) Elder Clarence T. Ward (1888-1961) of Boise, Idaho, who in 1911 was serving as the clerk of the Nottingham Conference (see the minutes of the Nottingham semi-annual conference of 5 March 1911, as printed as "Minutes of Nottingham Conference", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 73/10 [9 March 1911]: 150-151; and the minutes of the Nottingham semi-annual conference of 3 September 1911, as printed as "Minutes of Nottingham Conference", The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 73/36 [7 September 1911]: 572-573) as part of his mission that lasted from 1910 through January 1912 (see History of Idaho: Gem of the Mountains, 2 vols. [Chicago, IL: S. J. Clarke, 1920], 2:321).

Elder Ward's speech was perhaps a response to a great deal of concern about false rumors of LDS missionaries kidnapping English girls to force them into polygamous marriages in Utah.  Indeed, these rumors led to a government investigation, which was carried out by the Home Secretary of that time, Winston Churchill (1874-1965).  The whole atmosphere has been covered by Peter J. Vousden in his BYU Studies article "The English Editor and the 'Mormon Peril' of 1911", while several years ago the excellent LDS history blog Keep-a-pitchin-in provided some relevant excerpts from the actual parliamentary discussion of the issue ("Winston Churchill Investigates the Mormon Question, 1910-1911").  This is the context for Chesterton's meandering column of 13 May 1911, which uses the controversy as a touchstone for a more sweeping reflection on the need to gain an appreciation for religious ideas and motivations.  Chesterton's column was later reprinted in his The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1921), 182-189:
There is inevitably something comic (comic in the broad and vulgar style which all men ought to appreciate in its place) about the panic aroused by the presence of the Mormons and their supposed polygamous campaign in this country.  It calls up the absurd image of an enormous omnibus, packed inside with captive English ladies, with an Elder on the box, controlling his horses with the same patriarchal gravity as his wives, and another Elder as conductor calling out "Higher up," with an exalted and allegorical intonation.  And there is something highly fantastic to the ordinary healthy mind in the idea of any precaution being proposed; in the idea of locking the Duchess in the boudoir and the governess in the nursery, lest they should make a dash for Utah, and become the ninety-third Mrs. Abraham Nye, or the hundredth Mrs. Hiram Boke.  But these frankly vulgar jokes, like most vulgar jokes, cover a popular prejudice which is but the bristly hide of a living principle.  Elder Ward, recently speaking at Nottingham, strongly protested against these rumours, and asserted absolutely that polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890.  I think it only just that this disclaimer should be circulated; but though it is most probably sincere, I do not find it very soothing.  The year 1890 is not very long ago, and a society that could have practised so recently a custom so alien to Christendom must surely have a moral attitude which might be repellent to us in many other respects.  Moreover, the phrase about the consent of the Church (if correctly reported) has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses.  It sounds almost as if Mr. Abraham Nye might, on his own account, come into church with a hundred and fourteen of his wives, but people were supposed not to notice them.  It might amount to little more than this, that the chief Elder may allow the hundred and fourteen wives to walk down the street like a girls' school, but he is not officially expected to take off his hat to each of them in turn.  Seriously speaking, however, I have little doubt that Elder Ward speaks the substantial truth, and that polygamy is dying, or has died, among the Mormons.  My reason for thinking this is simple: it is that polygamy always tends to die out.  Even in the East I believe that, counting heads, it is by this time the exception rather than the rule.  Like slavery, it is always being started, because of its obvious conveniences.  It has only one small inconvenience, which is that it is intolerable.
Our real error in such a case is that we do not know or care about the creed itself, from which a people's customs, good or bad, will necessarily flow.  We talk much about "respecting" this or that person's religion; but the way to respect a religion is to treat it as a religion: to ask what are its tenets and what are their consequences.  But modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance.  The old religious authorities, at least, defined a heresy before they condemned it, and read a book before they burned it.  But we are always saying to a Mormon or a Moslem - "Never mind about your religion, come to my arms."  To which he naturally replies - "But I do mind about my religion, and I advise you to mind your eye."
About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by this narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories.  The wars and Parliaments of the Puritans make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that Calvinism appeared to them to be the absolute metaphysical truth, unanswerable, unreplaceable, and the only thing worth having in the world.  The Crusades and dynastic quarrels of the Norman and Angevin Kings make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that these men (with all their vices) were enthusiastic for the doctrine, discipline, and endowment of Catholicism.  Yet I have read a history of the Puritans by a modern Nonconformist in which the name of Calvin was not even mentioned, which is like writing a history of the Jews without mentioning either Abraham or Moses.  And I have never read any popular or educational history of England that gave the slightest hint of the motives in the human mind that covered England with abbeys and Palestine with banners.  Historians seem to have completely forgotten the two facts - first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be well to discover which ideas.  The mediaevals did not believe primarily in "chivalry," but in Catholicism, as producing chivalry among other things.  The Puritans did not believe primarily in "righteousness," but in Calvinism, as producing righteousness among other things.  It was the creed that held the coarse or cunning men of the world at both epochs.  William the Conqueror was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that the Church upheld his enterprise; that Harold had sworn falsely on the bones of saints, and that the banner above his own lances had been blessed by the Pope.  Cromwell was in some ways a cynical and brutal soldier; but he did attach importance to the fact that he had gained assurance from on high in the Calvinistic scheme; that the Bible seemed to support him - in short, the most important moment in his own life, for him, was not when Charles I lost his head, but when Oliver Cromwell did not lose his soul.  If you leave these things out of the story, you are leaving out the story itself.  If William Rufus was only a red-haired man who liked hunting, why did he force Anselm's head under a mitre, instead of forcing his head under a headsman's axe?  If John Bunyan only cared for "righteousness," why was he in terror of being damned, when he knew he was rationally righteous?  We shall never make anything of moral and religious movements in history until we begin to look at their theory as well as their practice.  For their practice (as in the case of the Mormons) is often so unfamiliar and frantic that it is quite unintelligible without their theory.
I have not the space, even if I had the knowledge, to describe the fundamental theories of Mormonism about the universe.  But they are extraordinarily interesting; and a proper understanding of them would certainly enable us to see daylight through the more perplexing or menacing customs of this community; and therefore to judge how far polygamy was in their scheme a permanent and self-renewing principle or (as is quite probable) a personal and unscrupulous accident.  The basic Mormon belief is one that comes out of the morning of the earth, from the most primitive and even infantile attitude.  Their chief dogma is that God is material, not that He was materialized once, as all Christians believe; nor that He is materialized specially, as all Catholics believe; but that He was materially embodied from all time; that He has a local habitation as well as a name.  Under the influence of this barbaric but violently vivid conception, these people crossed a great desert with their guns and oxen, patiently, persistently, and courageously, as if they were following a vast and visible giant who was striding across the plains.  In other words, this strange sect, by soaking itself solely in the Hebrew Scriptures, had really managed to reproduce the atmosphere of those Scriptures as they are felt by Hebrews rather than by Christians.  A number of dull, earnest, ignorant, black-coated men with chimney-pot hats, chin beards or mutton-chop whiskers, managed to reproduce in their own souls the richness and peril of an ancient Oriental experience.  If we think from this end we may possibly guess how it was that they added polygamy.
Some questions for reflection/discussion:
  1. Chesterton notes that the then-current rumors were that LDS missionaries had come to seduce English women into coming to Utah and becoming polygamous wifes.  Chesterton satirizes these rumors by envisioning outlandish scenarios that multiply wives far beyond anything actually seen in the Utah period and underscore the social respectability of the ladies in their monogamous English lives, thus highlighting the absurdity of moving from the one state of life to the other.  What are some likely reasons why such rumors began to come into existence at all?  Why did so many people find them to be credible?  What social factors were at work?  Why was it so often so difficult for LDS missionaries to dispel such rumors?
  2. Chesterton observes that Elder Ward gave assurances that "polygamy had never been practised with the consent of the Mormon Church since 1890".  Chesterton goes on to say that he finds it quite likely that Elder Ward is being honest, and that this disclaimer should rightly be disseminated to the public.  Historians of polygamy in the post-Manifesto period, however, have shown that there were indeed hundreds of polygamous marriages performed by church authorities after 1890, and that even a majority of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (as it was then constituted) took additional plural wives after the 1890 Manifesto was issued (see, for instance, discussion in B. Carmon Hardy's book Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage).  Of course, by the time Elder Ward was speaking and Chesterton was writing, the Second Manifesto of 1904 had already been issued by Joseph F. Smith, and new polygamous unions had waned tremendously.  How likely is it that Elder Ward knew about post-Manifesto polygamy?  If Chesterton had been aware of post-Manifesto polygamy, how might he have written this column differently? 
  3. Chesterton raises two principal objections to Elder Ward's assurances.  One of these objections is to the careful phrasing about the "consent of the Mormon Church", which Chesterton objects "has a little the air of an official repudiating responsibility for unofficial excesses".  Chesterton goes on to lampoon this sort of strategy as here implemented.  In recent years in LDS-Evangelical dialogue, one major concern of many Evangelical parties is the seeming fixation of LDS participants on plausible deniability over whether some teaching is 'official' doctrine or not, with distantly secondary regard as to whether the teaching is believed or even true.  How has this dynamic played itself out within Latter-day Saint history over the past century?  What sorts of factors would lead one to place such a premium on the 'official'/'unofficial' dichotomy?  What are the advantages and disadvantages to such distinctions in the context of interfaith dialogue?  What criteria are often used?  What do they highlight, and what do they obscure?
  4. Chesterton's other objection is that it has only been two decades since the supposed end of polygamous practices, and at any rate, a modern implementation of such a practice must be reflective of a very different underlying moral atmosphere; and if the moral atmosphere itself is really quite different (even "repellent"), there is little cause for assurance in merely the removal of one symptomatic practice.  Does Chesterton have a good point here?  And what is it that makes Chesterton (or other non-Latter-day Saints) regard polygamy as "intolerable" and "repellent"? 
  5. Chesterton goes on to discuss a larger issue.  He argues that much historiography of his day, and much public understanding, deliberately avoids an emphasis on the 'theoretical', the understanding of a belief-system as a coherent whole that grounds the particular motivations for actual practices.  Chesterton gives several other examples, as with a history of Puritanism that avoids mentioning John Calvin.  Has the situation improved at all in our day?  Is our society more or less prone to identify the primacy of worldview issues, even religious issues, in understanding the actions of individuals and other entities?  
  6. Chesterton raises the point that "modern tolerance is deafer than intolerance".  By this statement, he means that what passes for 'tolerance' of the modern sort is often a mentality that insists on bracketing out people's actual beliefs, insisting that they be checked at the door so that we can relate to one another as bare humans or bare citizens.  However, as Chesterton points out, this is actually quite disrespectful of those beliefs; it fails to take them seriously.  Indeed, at least 'intolerance' takes the beliefs of others seriously enough to treat them as serious beliefs ought to be treated: to identify them and to seek to understand their consequences.  In light of these points, what should we make of now-modern trends toward religious pluralism, relativism, and pragmatism?  How should Latter-day Saints regard others who insist on prioritizing modern 'niceness' and 'tolerance' toward their beliefs, so that everyone is 'fine' so long as everyone keeps their beliefs to themselves and pretends that everyone agrees with this policy?  How should Evangelicals regard Latter-day Saints who take the same approach as a defense mechanism against the possibility of religious critique (and, sadly, I have met many such Latter-day Saints)?
  7. Chesterton admits that he does not have an especially astute understanding of the intricacies of Latter-day Saint theology, but he identifies its central tenet as the inherent materiality of God, and thus connects the sensation of such a belief with the determined obedience of the Latter-day Saints during their pioneer treks.  Chesterton also senses something archaically Hebraizing in the religious atmosphere cultivated by Mormonism.  Has Chesterton assessed LDS beliefs correctly?  By speaking of a Hebrew or Oriental conception, does Chesterton mean to imply that the LDS outlook actually replicates how a pre-Christian Jew might have viewed the world?  (And, if Chesterton does mean this, is he right or wrong?)  Chesterton suggests a disconnect between the LDS religious atmosphere (as he conceptualizes it) and that of the New Testament.  What aspects of the New Testament might have suggested this to him?

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