Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Mormon Methods of Proselytizing": An 1899 Outsider View

The following article by Rev. W. W. Van Dusen of Union, Oregon, originally appeared as "Mormon Methods of Proselytizing", Christian Advocate 74/12 (23 March 1899): 450.  He gives some insight into how a local Methodist clergyman in the western United States viewed the LDS Church just before the turn of the twentieth century.
That the Church of the Latter-day Saints is exceedingly vigorous and enterprising, all who dwell in the region of the Rocky Mountains are aware.  It seems certain that this organization is fully determined to possess the land and its people, if we are to judge from the hard work and enthusiasm put forth by its propagandists.  When two of these begin to operate in a community with the design of obtaining a footing - and some such design is apparent sooner or later - they go about their labors in a manner which, in point of zeal, is commendable.  They are not the persons to go about as if they wished to avoid publicity, and to make converts of the weaker members of the society merely; but they go at their work as if they fully intended to at once capture the strongest and best.  The two "elders" are usually of pleasing manners, good address, and of appearance calculated to favorably impress all who converse with them; and their pockets are well padded with the cheap literature of their publishing house, which they freely bestow upon all who will accept it.

Two of these persons knocked at the parsonage door one afternoon, and introduced themselves as "Elders" So-and-so.  We admitted them, and determined to treat them as politely as we knew how.  Upon invitation they removed their overcoats, made themselves comfortable, and then the conversation began.  They were rather slow in coming at the real object of their visit, so we essayed our assistance with a question.  We inquired as to their success.  They in turn were very solicitous as to our success, the number of Methodists in the community, our church membership, and many other matters of like kind.  We determined to learn what we could from our callers, and soon asked as to their methods of operation in a new place.  They assured us that they were calling on every family, and stating their case to all who would listen, inviting all to come and hear their presentation of the Gospel at their place of preaching.  Then, with an air of surprise, we inquired if they visited Methodists or Presbyterians in this manner.  They replied, "Yes, we visit all, making no exceptions; we wish to treat all alike."  "But," I exclaimed, "when I visit in the interest of my Church I pass by families which I know are connected with other Churches; for I do not wish to proselyte or to appear to be proselyting, and I do not try to get members for the Methodist fold who belong elsewhere, for this does not seem right to me, and surely there are enough people outside of the Churches to work upon.  How is it that you do not proceed upon this idea?"

They then politely explained that they did not wish to slight any, but rather give all the opportunity of coming to the truth, although they did not design to work an injury to other Churches in any sense.  They even told me of certain Methodist preachers (?) with whom they had worked in harmony, and with satisfactory results to all concerned.  Their spirit of fraternity was admirable.  I was thirsting for knowledge, so I begged leave to ask a few further questions.  "How do you look upon Methodists, Presbyterians, and people of similar Churches, as related to the kingdom of God?" I inquired.  "Well, we look upon them as not yet having come to the truth," was the frank and ready response.  "Do you class them with infidels?" we asked.  "No, not exactly, but yet as those who do not believe the truth as revealed."  Then we saw that with this faith they were consistent in their methods of visitation.  Next we inquired as to their faith in polygamy, and drew from them that they held to the divine right of men to live in a state of plural marriage, but that they did not now practice this faith, as they were determined to obey the laws of the nation.  They were very emphatic in their avowals of absolute loyalty to the laws of the land.  They scouted the idea that there were any persons in Utah now living in polygamy.  They were quite sure that the reports concerning Congressman-elect Roberts, of Utah, wherein he is charged with having several wives, are all base slanders, gotten up by designing Gentiles.  They maintained that their Church is taking advanced ground on the temperance question, but did not appear to enjoy close or searching questions on the subject, and they impressed us with the idea that they thought we were asking some questions not solely for information.

They claimed to accept the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon as of equal authority, and without exception any part of either book.  They were very sure the Book of Mormon is as clearly authenticated as is the Bible, and is entitled to as great consideration.  We quoted Paul as insisting that a bishop shall be the husband of one wife, and asked for a reconciliation of this Bible injunction with the Mormon idea of plural marriage.  We could hardly conceal our amusement at the attempted explanation, which was simply that Paul said "one wife," but did not say "one only," and hence a bishop might have more wives if he saw fit.  We commended them as adepts in the "twisting art," and they did not appear to be pleased.  We parted, however, as friends should, they politely inviting me to attend their services, as they had been fraternal enough to attend mine.

Their earnestness, politeness of manners, apparent faith in their doctrines and system, and their kindly appeals for a fair hearing commend them to some, and their success is thus achieved with that large class which constantly runs after some new thing and apparently enjoys being deceived.
A few brief questions for discussion:
  1. Recently, I posted another late-19th-century article from the Christian Advocate in which a different local clergyman comments on LDS missionary efforts.  How do Rev. Van Dusen's perceptions compare to Rev. Anksworth's perceptions?  Where are they similar, and where are they different?
  2. What similarities and differences are there (in style, in approach, in attitude, in belief, etc.) between the LDS missionaries portrayed in Rev. Van Dusen's article and modern-day LDS missionaries? 
  3. How does Rev. Van Dusen appear to be defining "proselytism"?  
  4. How would you assess, in modern terms, the evaluation that these LDS missionaries gave of mainstream Christianity?  In what ways is their assessment similar or dissimilar to common assessments of the LDS faith by mainstream Christians, or to common modern assessments of mainstream Christianity by Latter-day Saints?  
  5. To what extent does the encounter described in this article model fair and substantive interfaith dialogue? 

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