Fundamentalist: The Fine Line between Religion and Cult
In the case of the Church of Latter Day Saints, fine lines are drawn in the societal perception of this group of people. Their doctrines and practices make the American public debate whether they are a religion or a cult. The largest factor in the decided public perception lies mainly in their belief of polygamy. While the Church of Latter Day Saints denounced the practice in the 1890s, fundamentalist sects formed over the subject continuing to perpetuate the connection between Mormonism and polygamy. This fundamentalist practice, along with a few doctrines, continues to keep the Mormon faith as an “outside religion” in the eyes of the general American public.
The practice of polygamy is central to the tenants of Mormon faith, extending back to the founder, Joseph Smith. Smith was not the first religious leader to support multiple wives. The Oneida perfectionist supported the practice of polygamy in backlash against the changing family norms due to industrialization (White). Families no longer needed to be large in size to help in a rural farm setting. Smith, being of a displaced farm family, soon craved a change in family life. According to White, Jr., Smith’s “personal experience of economic insecurity, death of siblings, and fragile community structure also reinforced his quest for renewing the kinship and community bonds” (White). In some sort of subconscious need for a sense of community stemming from childhood experiences, Smith begins the practice of taking multiple wives. His reasons, according to the faith, are sound. His primary argument is that it was revealed to him by God. The belief in revelations is highly respected by Mormons and is one of the most distinguishing traits of the faith (Perry). It will be discussed in further detail later. Smith also called attention to multiple Old Testament passages that promote polygamy. Yet, his final argument is what upholds this practice today, procreation. Smith argued that, “man’s righteousness is measured by the size of his family” (Anderson). A proper Mormon man was expected to extensively multiple his family in order to provide more individuals to spread the faith. After social disagreements in several states, many members of the Church of Latter Day Saints fled to western territories hoping to find; “geographical, social, and cultural isolation required to implement their radical social agenda” (White). However, as the nation grew smaller and assimilation to the mainstream culture became desirable, in addition to persecution by the Federal Government, the Church of Latter Day Saints changed one of their founding principles. Essentially, in the fight for Utah territory statehood, the Mormon Church traded their practice of polygamy.
This trade caused dissention among the ranks and multiple fundamentalist sects formed, continuing their practices in even more isolated communities. Joseph Musser, a prophet of the faith, established a fundamentalist community at Short Creek, Utah, that still exists today. There, families live in multi-wife homes where the domestic work is divided between eight or nine women, sometimes many more. The polygamous relationships are consensual and most women have little complaints about their situations. There are many reasons why the women choose to stay. Mainly, they don’t know anything else (Anderson). The religious beliefs they were raised with have been preparing them to be a plural wife. Rowenna Erikson, a plural wife who was excommunicated after speaking out against the treatment of women, says that growing up she; “sensed that [she] was supposed to be a plural wife mostly because [her] mother guided [her] in that direction. [She] didn’t really want to marry this way but [she] felt pressured and thought that this is what [she] had to do” (443). However, unlike Erikson, there are many women who enjoy their polygamous contract. To them, there is a...
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