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Mormons, Methodists meet to consider similarities, compare cultures, theology, music

By Blair Dee Hodges

Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 10:02 a.m. MST

Terryl L. Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, discusses theological issues with some of the conferees.

, Page Johnson

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.

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