"Methodist Jan Shipps" is how I am sometimes identified when I am quotedabout some aspect of Mormon life and history. That is a proper description. Although I have spent nearly four decades being interested in, doing research on, and writing about the Latter-day Saints, I am a lifelong Methodist.

Given these dual allegiances, it is not surprising that my attention wascaught by an issue that others didn't notice at the recently concluded General Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was an agenda item calling for delegates to decide how to handle situations in which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want to join the United Methodists.

The Mormon question is of much less interest to a majority of the peoplefilling Methodist pews at the beginning of the 21st century than how church law ought to deal with homosexuality. But for two reasons, one practical andthe other more complicated, the outcome of the Mormon question was a matter of much concern to me.

The practical reason was straightforward. As a student of modern Mormonism, I knew that those who hold LDS priesthood authority have clear instructions that turning Methodists (and other Christians) into Saints calls for teaching such candidates the so-called six missionary lessons and then re-baptizing them,even if they have already been baptized. At the same time, I knew that themembers of many Protestant groups, including my own, lacked clearinstructions about what to do when the tables are turned.

I first recognized why Methodists needed guidelines for responding when Latter-day Saints indicated a desire to join the Methodist church when I was drafting a chapter on religion in Salt Lake City. I talked with Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic clergy in the Utah capital, as well as with a number of LDS bishops of Salt Lake City wards. From them, I learned about the "circulation of the Saints" in this Mormon metropolis.

Because more members are annually added to the LDS Church through conversion than through natural increase, I did not find it particularly remarkable when the LDS bishops told me that maybe a third of the Saints in their wards were former Protestants or Catholics. But I was startled to learn that the situation was reversed in many of the city's Protestant and Catholic congregations. I was told that precisely the same proportion--maybe a third--of the members in some of the city's non-Mormon congregations were former Latter-day Saints.

As informal as these findings were, they convinced me it would behelpful to my own church to figure out how to respond when a Mormon wishes to become a Methodist.

The more complicated reason for my concern was that there was so much contention over what the church ought to do regarding homosexuality that more conservative delegates than usual had been elected to the 2000 General Conference. I was afraid that this turn toward conservatism might cause my church to join the Southern Baptists in charging that Mormonism is "counterfeit Christianity." Had United Methodism gone in that direction, I would have been distressed, in part because such charges are mean-spirited and in part because they are simply wrong.

Here it will be helpful if I put on my historian's hat.

Throughout the 19th century, the "Mormon Problem" bedeviled thenation's churches and the national government. Consternationprevailed about what Saints believed, but their practice of polygamywas the main problem non-Mormons had with this religious movement. When the LDS Church ended polygamy at the end of the century, the nation's anxiety about theLatter-day Saints gradually disappeared. Instead of being seen as a threat to American religion, Mormonism became a somewhat provincial faithwhose adherents didn't smoke, drink alcohol or caffeinatedbeverages, and "took care of their own."

But as LDS membership started to increase in the middle of the 20th century, and as Mormon chapels and temples started appearing practically everywhere, non-Mormons once again started taking notice. This time, however, the Mormon problem was not so much what Latter-day Saints did but what they believed.

In addition to a variety of books claiming to reveal the disturbing truthabout Mormonism, two scary films made by ex-Mormons appeared inthe 1980s. Describing Mormonism as a non-Christian cult, these graphicvideos were featured in many conservative Protestant congregations. Thencame the "Mormon Puzzle," which the Southern Baptists produced when theyheld their annual convention in Salt Lake City in 1998. This film carriedthe "counterfeit Christianity" message

In 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held their annual convention inSalt Lake City; while they did not produce a film or accuse Mormonism ofbeing a cult, the matter of Mormonism's standing as a Christian church wasone of the major agenda issues.

Methodists were the next mainstream Protestant body to confront the Mormonquestion. The outcome of what happened at the Conference pleases me. Most ofthe deliberations were carried on behind the scenes, and what theconference did was to accept guidelines clarifying the difference betweenMormonism's Christian Restorationism and the Christian faith manifested inCatholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy. and various Protestant denominations.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus