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LDS Church
Mormons wait in line to enter the Conference Center for general conference on Oct. 3, 2015.

Editor's note: This commentary from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

The question has long been raised, both by Mormons themselves and by gentile onlookers (such as I):

Are the Mormons a "peculiar" people?

The query is, of course, complicated by the several meanings and connotations of the word peculiar. Originally, it meant specifically belonging to, as the ancient Jews saw themselves as “God’s own peculiar people.” Later, the word came to mean distinctive, or special. Finally, in our own time, it has also come to carry a derogatory connotation, such as “strange” or “odd.”

Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, certainly consider themselves a peculiar people in the same sense as the early Judeo-Christian tradition, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Mormons would point not only to their unique doctrinal tenets, but to their own distinguishing characteristics like refraining from alcohol, caffeine and tobacco with the corresponding health benefits. They might also discuss their unremitting emphasis on family life, education and service to their community, with the benefits that come from those too.

But to what extent do observers and commentators on their community consider them a peculiar people in modern American life? How do other Americans regard the Mormons? Outsiders — gentiles — seem, with the passage of time, increasingly less inclined to look upon the Mormons as peculiar, as in odd. A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center shows feelings toward Mormons growing warmer, although this warmth is not yet approaching the levels of their mainline Protestant or Catholic cousins.

And, while the Tony-laden musical “The Book of Mormon” irreverently accentuates the faith’s perceived peculiarities, it is also said to simultaneously celebrate some of its strengths. The musical is littered with foul language, for example, but the Mormon characters evidently never utter them.

Undoubtedly, for Latter-day Saints, any warming toward them is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, warming is welcomed as Latter-day Saints have faced bitter persecutions in the past and yearn like all Americans to participate fully in civic life. Yet, too much warming may also mean too much assimilation, secularization or even increased worldliness.

Devout Mormons, of course, believe they must aspire to live in the world but not be of the world.

Between normalcy and peculiarity

Historians (and I am one) have come to view the Mormons as not so strange after all, but even — looking across their whole history since the time of Joseph Smith — as in many ways typical of other contemporary Americans. If they remain peculiar today, in the godly sense, it's largely because Latter-day Saints have been effective at passing down to each new generation a rigorous faith. As I emphasize throughout, this effort has been aided by the faith sacralizing marriage and family life as the highest forms of earthly or heavenly existence, which is in many ways a doctrinal legacy of plural marriage.

Indeed, from the first, the Mormon religion seemed strange and startling to most gentiles: invoking scriptures besides the Old and New Testaments, practicing plural marriage, believing in continuing revelation, revering a living prophet, and fleeing repeatedly westward. Yet, many people were won over to the cause. And, if one examines the context in which the Latter-day Saint Church first appeared and spread, much about it can look characteristic of the time and place of its origin.

In 1830, the year the Book of Mormon was published, Americans enjoyed almost complete legal freedom of religion, making theirs an unusual country at that time. Freedom of religion included not only many varieties of Christianity, but also several altogether new denominations besides the Mormons. When faced with hostile neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the church founded by Joseph Smith could legitimately lay claim to the American principle of religious freedom.

Religious diversity as well as religious freedom was prevalent. Western New York State, where Smith’s great book first appeared, was famous for its religious revivals and religious innovations. It was sometimes called “the burned-over district,” meaning that it had been repeatedly burned over by the fires of religious zealots. The young Joseph Smith was instructed in his First Vision to “Join none of them,” but eventually to found a new religion.

Historians, then, can view the rise of Mormonism as part of the broad-based rise of evangelical religion in the United States during the early decades of the 19th century. They have a name for this: “The Second Great Awakening” (referring back to a First Great Awakening within the much smaller population of the 18th-century colonies).

Many of the religious bodies, like Mormons, participating in the Second Great Awakening manifested a strong commitment to the conversion of the world, and they sent out missionaries to achieve it. Besides proselytizing, the evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, like the Latter-day Saints, embraced social reforms (including prohibitions on alcohol), they believed in “restorationism” (desiring to restore the original Christian message), and some faiths even preached visions and revelations. Many others shared the Latter-day Saint expectation that the Second Coming of Christ was not far away.

Viewed in this light, Mormons come to seem normal.

Preserving peculiarity

Yet the Mormon practice that was seen as the most “peculiar” in a derogatory sense was plural or celestial marriage, which the gentiles called polygamy. While plural marriage became the object of extreme ire among many Americans (in the late 19th century, eradicating polygamy became part of the Republican Party’s platform), the doctrinal teachings of “celestial” marriage both crystalized and sanctified marriage and family life within Mormonism. Latter-day Saints today are still "sealed" to their families for all time and eternity. This welding of faith and family has unquestionably helped the faith continue to survive from one generation to the next.

While the plural marriage past of Mormonism is still viewed by many as the most peculiar part of the religion’s history, the religious legacy of “celestial” marriage — including its fierce insistence that family life is the godly life and that marriage can unlock the highest rungs of heaven — has also unquestionably helped create its all-American, family values ethos that assisted in Latter-day Saint assimilation into 20th-century American life.

To be sure, other religious movements also tried different marital arrangements. The Perfectionists in Oneida, New York, practiced “complex marriage,” by which they meant that, within their community, each man was the husband of every woman and each woman the wife of every man. One needed permission from the whole community to consummate such a marriage. In 1879, slightly more than a decade before the Mormon Manifesto began the end of polygamous marriage, the Oneida Perfectionists voluntarily stopped their experiment with complex marriage. The Shakers practiced celibacy and relied entirely on conversions to propagate their religion. Today, the denomination has just about died out.

As some Christian religious orders have otherwise fizzled out, the Latter-day Saint tradition has persisted precisely because of their tightly knit families that are bound — indeed sealed — together. While the practice of plural marriage was abandoned, the theology surrounding “celestial” monogamous marriage is alive and well within modern Mormonism.

Polygamy, of course, was far from the only aspect of Mormonism to provoke gentile hostility. The terrible persecution the Saints endured in Missouri took place before plural marriage had become a community practice. Missouri gentiles feared Mormon settlers would reach an understanding with the American Indians instead of merely shoving them aside. And, intensely devoted to individual ownership of land and slaves, Missourians observed Mormon communality with loathing. Most white Missourians came from the Southern states, while most Mormons came from the Northeast. This in itself aroused suspicions that the Mormons might be antislavery, which many of them were.

The Mormons’ exodus to Utah in 1846 clearly reflected an understanding on their part that they would find life intolerable if exposed to still more of the violence and persecution they had already suffered at the hands of cruel neighbors, without recourse to government protection. During the next 44 years, the vast majority of Americans, including both the Latter-day Saints themselves and their gentile fellow-citizens, no doubt considered the Mormons a most peculiar people — each giving the term “peculiar” a different slant. The wise philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Brigham Young for creating Salt Lake City, “an efficient example to all men in the vast desert,” yet he mentioned this as an example of good coming out of evil.

Seeking assimilation

When President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto renouncing plural marriage in 1890, he laid the basis for reconciliation between the LDS Church and the United States, as everyone today observes. How quickly his Manifesto began to have its desired effect on gentile opinion can be seen in the speech made by Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University, when he visited Utah in 1892. Eliot was revered not only at Harvard but by his entire generation of Americans as an icon and arbiter of culture. He likened the Mormon migration to Utah to that of the hallowed Pilgrim Fathers to Massachusetts and expressed the hope that Utah, like Massachusetts, could become a beacon of religious freedom.

The comparison of the Pilgrims and pioneers is a fruitful one, and one that was once again drawn by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman when he visited Brigham Young University in 2009. Mormons are indeed like the Pilgrims, feeling at once peculiar and apart from their mother country (a shining city on a hill), but still yearning to influence the world around them. And the Pilgrim-pioneer comparison should also serve as something of a warning to Latter-day Saints. After all, New England is now almost entirely void of its Pilgrim past, and institutions such as Harvard have long since abandoned ecclesiastical ties.

Speaking as a historian and a gentile (but definitely a Christian), I have come to the conclusion that my Mormon friends and relatives can have it both ways: They can belong to a peculiar people in a theological sense — sanctifying familial life and living out a rigorous form of devotion — but no longer belong to a peculiar people in the sense of being alien to the larger American population. There will, of course, always be a tension between remaining peculiar (God’s people) and becoming peculiar (an unattractive oddity); however, Latter-day Saints now have more than a century worth of experience in finding the proper balance.

The 1903 election of Reed Smoot to the Senate as a Republican from Utah, for example, tested the acceptability of Mormonism to the larger America. Smoot had been chosen as one of the twelve apostles, and the Senate seated him but referred his suitability to a committee that spent years holding hearings on whether a Mormon could legitimately serve in the U.S. Senate. They especially investigated whether some Mormons were continuing to practice polygamy even after the Manifesto (although Smoot himself was clearly monogamous). Although the committee’s recommendation went against Smoot, 5 to 7, the Senate itself voted (February 1907) in favor of retaining him by 42 to 23.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the Mormon convert from Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid, just retired from having served as the Democratic Party leader in the Senate from 2005 to 2017. Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, currently serves as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, third in succession for the presidency.

A little over four years ago, Mormon politician Mitt Romney, a private equity CEO turned Republican presidential candidate, came up just shy of being elected president of the United States of America.

Mormons have demonstrated how, in America, a persecuted and peculiar minority can become exemplars for the nation by bringing their distinctive attributes to the public square. As John F. Kennedy declared when speaking in the Mormon Tabernacle only months before his death, Mormons are “known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country.” Kennedy put it perfectly: “As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if only we will not give up or turn back.”

So, today, using the word “peculiar” in its original, possessive meaning, Mormons are God’s peculiar people in their own view, but also, they are a thoroughly American people in the view of many others (including me). Mormons are no longer Americans despite their peculiarity but rather because their faith’s values and pioneer heritage contribute something unique to America’s moral mosaic.

Daniel Walker Howe is an emeritus professor of American history at both Oxford University and UCLA. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848."