Editor's note: Click here to view the complete "At the Crossroads, Again" conference.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Methodist and Latter-day Saint historians, theologians, preachers and congregants gathered Friday in Washington, D.C., like long-lost family members becoming reacquainted.
The common roots and differences between Methodists and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were explored at an interfaith conference titled "At the Crossroads, Again," hosted by the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and the Wesley Theological Center.
The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy exists to build trust and friendship between religious traditions which are often suspicious of each other, foundation president Randall Paul said.
"Do you think it's even possible to build trust and friendship between rivals?" Paul asked attendees. "I don't think we have to go very far to see how this could benefit us with our friends and families. People are tired of religion getting hammered as the No. 1 source of conflict in the world. Our purpose is to provide an alternative forum for discussion, to be a peacemaking force in the world."
But Paul said peacemaking goes beyond searching for common ground. It includes discussion of fundamental disagreements between faith traditions.
Each of the conference's four sessions featured a Methodist and Latter-day Saint specialist. In the first session, David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, and David Campbell, professor of political science at Notre Dame University, discussed the American public's perception of Mormonism. Campbell said Mormons rank third lowest — slightly above Muslims and Buddhists — in a recent survey on public impressions of religion in America. His data also suggested that the more familiarity survey respondents had with particular Mormons, the higher favorability they reported.
"I think contemporary Mormonism has tilted too far toward (internal) bonding and has paid a price (and what) I think is an unnecessary price," Campbell said. "Over the past year I've spoken to a number of LDS audiences, and the message I try to deliver is that Mormons as a people need to do more to make connections" with people of other faiths outside of only seeking conversions.
Wilson suggested that as part of the mainline Protestant tradition, Methodists may have more public respectability than Mormons, but not without a price. Early in their history Methodists were called enthusiasts and overzealous. "We grew up with America and American culture and became very much a part of it," McAllister-Wilson said. "One of the debates we're having among Methodists now is how we can find our own identity again."
Historians Christopher Jones and Doug Strong laid the historical groundwork in the second session. Methodists and Mormon missionaries often crossed paths in antebellum America. Jones compared Joseph Smith's reported search for forgiveness and the "true church" with many other early Methodist seekers who experienced similar assurances from God in visions. Strong recounted a lengthy exchange between Smith and Peter Cartwright, a famous Methodist circuit rider.
According to Cartwright's autobiography, Smith told him "he believed that among all the churches in the world the Methodist was the nearest right. If the Methodists would only advance a step or two further, they would take the world."
Cartwright was less impressed by Mormons, reporting that his circuit of Illinois was "most infested with this imposture."
Strong pointed to strong cultural currents such as fervent millennial expectations and hope in the eventual perfection of humankind which impacted the Methodists and Mormons to varying degrees.
Jones said the fingerprints of Methodism are still detectable on the contemporary LDS Church. For instance, Brigham Young's brother Lorenzo Dow Young was named after a prominent Methodist circuit rider. Several hymns penned by Methodist Charles Wesley are still found in the Latter-day Saint hymnal. LDS missionary patterns and General Conference schedules also bear marks of influence, according to Jones.
The third session focused more directly on theological questions. Terryl Givens, a professor of religion and literature and Latter-day Saint, paired with Kendall Soulen, professor of systematic theology at Wesley, to discuss views on heaven and hell. Soulen said the key distinction between LDS and Methodist views of the afterlife is the difference between human nature and the nature of God. He said Methodists believe in an eternal difference between the Creator and the creature.
"Our creaturely identity remains essential to who we are in the world to come," Soulen said. "I am finite, wholly dependent on the Creator. God calls us out of nothing in an act of love so complete that it must be sustained moment by moment. So heaven is a growth in which we come to share more in the divine nature, but God remains great, mysterious, awesome, beyond comprehension."
Givens responded that this difference may not be as large as Soulen suggested. Although Latter-day Saints view humans as somehow co-eternal with God, this does not mean humans are not dependent on God, according to Givens.
"Mormons begin with the premise that our relation to God is one which God invited us into," Givens said. "God initiated the relationship. He looked upon our weakness and will shepherd us through the eternities to achieve the condition he enjoys."
Soulen playfully suggested that if the difference wasn't so great, perhaps Latter-day Saints might simply "give that one up."
"I'll trade you baptism for the dead," Givens responded.
During a "Dialogue among Conferees" session, about 50 conference-attendees met in smaller groups to discuss questions like "Why doesn't God just save all?" and "Does your understanding of salvation lead to any anxieties?"
Ben Sloan, a 24-year-old Methodist graduate student at Wesley, said the small groups provided a good opportunity to learn directly from other believers in a more intimate setting.
"I've found a lot of value in my world religion classes hearing about the perspectives of other faiths and denominations," Sloan said. "But I didn't know as much about Mormonism as I'd like to, so talking directly with Mormons is a great opportunity to fix that."
Sloan, who plans to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church following graduation, was also pleased with the opportunity to discuss his own Christian faith by answering questions from Latter-day Saints.
The most rousing session of the conference did not feature any theological jargon or fuzzy historical puzzles. Eileen Guenther and Kristine Haglund led the participants in a variety of traditional Methodist and Latter-day Saint hymns. These included "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," a Methodist hymn which used to be in an older LDS hymnal, and "Redeemer of Israel," a Methodist hymn in the current LDS hymnal with re-worked lyrics.
Brian Birch, who co-directs the Mormon chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, said the Foundation hopes to provide more positive opportunities for grassroots interfaith dialogue outside of the institutional LDS Church.
"We want people to become bilingual in religion," Birch said. "We want to show that there are people who can, and want to, and are very skilled at discussing their faith openly with others. Then show others how to do it."
In addition to the Mormon chapter, the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy includes an evangelical chapter directed by John W. Morehead. According to the Foundation's fidweb.org website, other chapters currently being formed include Jewish, Mahayana Buddhist, Shia Islam and Sunni Islam.
Paul, the foundation president, said the foundation eventually hopes to host a monitored website where members of different faith traditions can meet online for personal face-to-face faith discussions.
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"These are vehicles that the chapters of the foundation can use to have serious discussions about our faith," Paul said, "and we think we'll be getting something quite wonderful done. To get people talking in respectful and open ways — that's our goal."
The conference continues Saturday with sessions that include former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and Utah Valley University President Matt Holland.
The conference's co-sponsors also include UVU, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, the Claremont Graduate University Mormon Studies Council and Patheos.com.