Mormon Inquiry

Mormon Inquiry

Mormon community

I’m off visiting family for a few days, which brings with it the pleasure of browsing someone else’s bookshelf. I came across Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (1978), one of the early volumes in the excellent monograph series from BYU’s Religious Studies Center. The short and intriguing lead article is an essay by noted sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah titled “American Society and the Mormon Community.” Doctrine and history make for great discussion, but what the LDS Church really offers the sincere believer in our increasingly fragmented and disconnected society is a community. Not a sense of community or some mythical “church universal,” but an actual, functioning community of fellow-believers — what Mormons often refer to as “the kingdom of God,” a reference to the Church as an earthly and human institution, contrasted with “the kingdom of heaven,” whatever comes later.


In the early fifties, Bellah spent three months in Ramah, a small Mormon town in New Mexico, doing his graduate field work. Thomas O’Dea was there as well, part of the same research project. It was this experience that gave Bellah the material for his short essay on Mormon community. After comparing the similarity of the Puritan and Mormon experience building their respective Zions and contrasting “the communitarian vision of society as knit together by the bonds of love” with “the individualist vision of society existing only for the self-interest of individuals,” he goes on to praise the Mormon community he observed in this small Mormon town in 1953.

There was an extraordinary vitality of collective life …. Most of the functions in that community were carried out by voluntary association, by getting together with fellow members of the community (which, because it was almost exclusively a Mormon town, meant fellow members of the Mormon Church) to meet whatever needs the community had.


But it wasn’t just a small-town thing that was at work here. He notes that “the basic Mormon understanding of life was clearly the ground plan for daily existence in that community” and that the Mormon plan of salvation “dominated the lives of people and gave meaning and coherence to everything they did.” He continues:

The community was valued as a place where people cared about each other, were concerned for each other. I don’t want to give the impression that there were no tensions, no gossip, no family factions as there are in all small communities, Mormon or otherwise, because all those things were there. And yet the quality of life was extraordinarily fulfilling within its own terms.


Readers may agree or disagree whether Bellah’s description of community as manifest in a small Mormon town in 1953 is still reflected in the experience of present-day Mormons in the wide variety of Mormon congregations and communities of 2009. But I think it is accurate to say that, for most active Mormons, it is still true that participation in LDS congregations and membership in the Church as a global institution offers a “quality of life” that is “extraordinarily fulfilling within its own terms.” And this seems to hold true despite quibbles or serious disagreement with the Church that some Mormons have on issues of doctrine, practice, politics, or history.

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Chris H.

posted January 2, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Thanks for this Dave. I read Bellah’s Habits of the Heart as an undergrad when investigating (and later rejecting) contemporary communitarianism. He is one of the most interesting thinkers on issues of community. I will have to track this one down.
“But I think it is accurate to say that, for most active Mormons, it is still true that participation in LDS congregations and membership in the Church as a global institution offers a “quality of life” that is “extraordinarily fulfilling within its own terms.” And this seems to hold true despite quibbles or serious disagreement with the Church that some Mormons have on issues of doctrine, practice, politics, or history.”
As an very active Mormon, who happens to be very liberal on politics and economics, I would agree with you on this.

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posted January 3, 2009 at 10:28 pm

I also think this is true. I have wondered in the past whether or not it is this sense of community, which at times can be replicated fairly easily when moving from place to place within the United States, that has been the cause for easy mobility of some of the saints in the eastern United States where I live. What I mean by this is that it seems that while others in my community often live near family and are very loath to leave their families, I have seen a great deal of mobility in many of the Latter Day Saints that I have known living in Baltimore and Boston.
I also suspect that it is this ready community that can make it difficult at times for Latter Day Saints to integrate in their own communities. If one socializes predominantly with Latter Day Saints it can make it difficult to fully develop friendships outside a given congregation.

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posted January 4, 2009 at 11:49 pm

I have to agree with PE. It seems there is almost a polarity developing among the LDS wherein intermountain middle class LDS are more likely to remain near family and keep to the same geography. Whereas more upwardly mobile LDS (often not from the West) seem more apt to be vagabonds. The socioeconomic aspect I mention may seem judgmental but there it is as I see it. Natives of the west I have known express how they’d can’t leave the mountains. I lived in Utah for Grad school and while pleasant, I can take them or leave them. And rather than an affinity for scenery I see other factors at work. Again upward mobility via education, a family bias for achievement over togetherness.
I wonder if we won’t begin to develop two groups of LDS with very different values and world-views. You can already hear comments such as “Utah Mormons” and the like. As if to identify a distinct subgroup. We are on move 4 chasing careers and feel at home away from the west and elt out of water in the west (although we still enjoyed Utah a great deal).
I worry that this can be the case.
The friends that we see as LDS peers often pass through the same places we do as we move about (Naperville, Troy, Katy, East Bay, Santa Clarita, Cambridge, DC suburbs, etc.). While many we know have never known a home outside Utah, many of these “peers” have lived in several of the places I mention.
Don’t know if anyone else sees the same factors at play.

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Your Name

posted January 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm

As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints and an individual who lives in the Rocky Mountain West and a small town, I can tell you that I can think of nothing better than getting out of my community. One of the doctrines of the church is to seek after education “or understanding” as much as we can. Small towns just about hold no oppurtunities for higher learning other then the community college. (boring). I live in Arizona and I have earned scholarships and grants to go to any of the three major public universities. I happened to choose to get an education at NAU in Flagstaff. My parents in no way could contribute to my education without going into debt. While I only live about 2 hours from this small city, I do so not to be close to my community, but to gain a great education. In fact I’m earning $3,000 a semester to pay for my expenses beyond tuition, fees, and classes. I’m being payed to go to school for doing well in highschool. I happen to like NAU immensly, but if I had the chance, maybe I would have considered going to Harvard. (haha). Its about econmics. Even in this century, money is still a factor that binds people from getting a “better” education at a “better” facility somwhere outside of their state. However, I am content. I do not think that very many places could offer a better education for the amount I or my parents paiy ($0). There is little difference in my community to that of a community in Utah and basically little difference in how my family functions. I’m not a stay-at-home retard and neither are alot of my friends in Utah. We all aspire to get good jobs just like everyone else and we all get bored of our community. But that helps us to be creative. And instead of wasting our time watching TV, we tend to to a variety of things. Hunting, fishing, outdoor recreational activities, etc. Its a heck of alot better for a balanced life in some aspects.

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