And as Americans await the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, more and more attention will be trained on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, headquartered there. In November, the Public Broadcasting System broadcast a documentary biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith called American Prophet. A new book, Mormon America, debuted in stores in December.
The video produced by Lee Groberg, a Mormon, presents Joseph Smith's story in response to America's religious and cultural diversity. As a result, he treats Smith's mission and the Mormon message as American phenomena. Mormon America was written by Protestants, Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling and his journalist wife, Joan. While it focuses on contemporary Mormonism, the authors write extensively on the 19th Century American history that is entwined with the story of the Latter-Day Saints.
Both works hew closely to traditional Mormon study, emphasizing it as an indigenous faith. And most Mormons agree with this perception.
Yet it is obvious that Mormonism's American period is drawing to a close.
As increasing numbers of Mormons live outside the United States -- the outside-to-inside proportion is already more than half -- the ties binding Mormonism to the nation are apt to be eroded.
An important part of Joseph Smith's original message was that time began in Missouri, and the end times would likewise commence there - and so, the blending of nation and religion was inevitable. But even though Smith's revelations located the Garden of Eden in Missouri and specified Christ's return would occur there, from the beginning the Latter-day Saints took their message far beyond the nation's boundaries.
Before the middle of the 19th century, the Mormon message was carried around the country, to Canada and England, across the Europeancontinent and to the Near East. Soon thereafter it was carried to theSouth Seas and Asia. Converts from outside the United States were instructed to travel there to await the coming apocalypse with other Mormons.
When the end-times were indefinitely delayed, the significance of the United States as Promised Land intensified. America became a magnet to converts, and the Latter-Day Saints flourished.
But the Mormon community didn't blend into the surrounding culture. Instead, the Latter-day Saints were so radical they stood at America's outer limits, so far out they were often in conflict with the nation.
The Saints were members of the Church of Jesus Christ. But it was no ordinary Christian church, for its members believed the literal blood of Israel flowed through their veins. They were chosen, set apart, a peculiar people to whom the church and ancient priesthood had been restored. Also revealed to them, they were certain, were ceremonies that when performed in Mormon temples endowed them with power from on high.
Among these mandates were marriage and sealing ordinances uniting men, women and their families for eternity. But a shocked nation soon learned that Mormon temple rites sometimes did more than create eternal nuclear families; they also sanctioned creating families in which men married more than one wife.
The U.S. government refused to accept the claim that polygamy is an ancient family pattern sanctioned by Christianity. As a price for Utah statehood, the Latter-Day Saints surrendered the practice.
But their real capitulation to the American way came after the turn of the century when the church hierarchy acknowledged Mormons would have to live "in the world." Since then, the Latter-Day Saints have worked hard at establishing themselves as something other than a bizarre and eccentric religious movement. Throughout the twentieth century, they have found a way to situate themselves and their church in America, and they have worked out their relationship to the national culture.
Now members' attention is turning outward toward Saints across the world and inward toward their own families. More and more, temple ordinances connect the inside and outside. As family members are united for eternity in identical ordinances, except that they are performed in different languages. This common experience of constructing eternal family dynasties provides Latter-day Saints with a culture-transcending identity. And whatever their national background, these rituals also cement the allegiance of Mormons throughout the world to their church and to each other.
Never again is the connection between the larger Mormon community and the United States (or any other nation) likely to assume an importance like that between Mormons and Americans in the twentieth century.