Future diversity in Mormonism is a theme of history conference

Published: Tuesday, June 10 2014 12:05 p.m. MDT

Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, responds to an audience question on his presentation about "The Council of Fifty and its Records: A First Glimpse" at the Mormon History Association Conference session. Turley and colleagues Matthew J. Grow, center, and Ronald K. Esplin, scholars working on the church's Joseph Smith Papers Project, presented the session together.

R. Scott Lloyd

SAN ANTONIO — Exploring Mormonism’s past while confronting a future in which the faith becomes increasingly diverse in culture, race and nationality occupied much of the discourse in the 40 sessions at the 49th annual conference of the Mormon History Association that convened in San Antonio Thursday and ends Sunday.

A major highlight of the non-denominational gathering of scholars and enthusiasts was a Friday presentation by members of the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints giving a glimpse into the Nauvoo-era minutes of the Council of Fifty. The council minutes are in a record that has been shrouded in mystery and has been a topic of speculation because it has remained unavailable for scholarly study until last September, when it was announced the 1840s record would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

“Sometimes we think that everything in Mormonism has come top down; we know that’s not the case,” said this year’s association president, Richard E. Bennett, Friday morning as he introduced the conference theme, “The Immigration of Cosmopolitan Thought” across borders and cultures in Mormonism.

“So much in our history has come because of the connection with, or the combination of, or the confrontation with other people’s thoughts and other feelings and other sentiments,” said Bennett, a professor of LDS church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Plenary session speaker Ignacio M. Garcia, a BYU history professor, reflected that thought as he shared his experience as a Latino Mormon growing up in a west-side barrio of San Antonio struggling to reconcile his religious faith with his ethnic and racial identity.

“In the San Antonio 4th Ward, I learned that we were all children of God, and while the world made exceptions, he did not,” Garcia said.

Such understanding was important, he said, because it made him value his life and the lives of those around him “in a landscape where we had little to make us proud.”

“It was also a way of fortifying us against the conflicts inherent in America’s race-conscious landscape that intruded even into the kingdom of God.”

The relationship between his faith and his ethnic identity was complicated, he said, by the socio-economic factors.

“We felt we knew the gospel, and we could point to our lessons and our private conversations to bolster our views,” he said, “but in the church public arena, the scriptures and the prophets often failed us because our white brothers were the gatekeepers of their meaning and always found in them ways to affirm their views — or so we felt back then. In the scheme of things back then in the church, we were simply ‘los Lamanitas’ (descendants of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon), humble people who listened, obeyed, paid what they could and always followed. We were the symbol of something important, a grand fulfillment of distant prophecy, but we were not equal citizens of the kingdom, because we had no history.”

Speaking from a non-Mormon scholarly perspective, Saturday morning speaker Jehu J. Hanciles of the Candler School of Theology at Emery University called the church “a movement that takes its worldwide presence very seriously.”

“But friends, Mormonism remains a predominately American phenomenon,” he added. “The LDS Church lags behind virtually every other major branch of Christianity in the area of inculturation.”

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