I finally secured a copy of Richard L. Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. Bushman, a historian, is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the definitive biography of Joseph Smith, as well as the Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies in the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate Univeristy in Southern California. This is the first of several posts covering some of the chapters in the book. The introductory chapter raises the persistent and somewhat puzzling issue of the widely contrasting public views of Mormonism.

Here’s how Bushman describes the positive side of the “assortment of contradictory images” that some people have of Mormonism.

Fresh-faced missionaries knocking on doors with a religious message; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcasting on Sunday mornings from Temple Square in Salt Lake City; church members cooperating to provide for their own poor; … tightly knit families teaching their children to live clean lives: All these suggest that Mormons are happy, uncomplicated, kindly, and innocent—if perhaps naive.

But there is a “contrasting set of associations” centered on Joseph Smith but extending to the modern LDS Church.

Smith claimed that an angel directed him to gold plates, which he translated as the Book of Mormon. In the 1840s, he instituted plural marriage among his followers, and in 1844, he was assassinated by his non-Mormon enemies. His successor, Brigham Young, took scores of wives after he led the Mormons to Utah in1847. Today, some people think of a powerful religious hierarchy controlling the church from the top. These less innocent Mormons are secretive, clannish, and perhaps dangerous. Frequently Mormonism is labeled a cult rather than a church. Some say it is not Christian.

The rest of the introductory chapter tries to paint a more balanced picture, responding to some of the unhelpful stereotypes and preparing the reader for the succeeding chapters on revelation, Zion, priesthood, and cosmology. Some, after reading the book, will no doubt end up retaining their fixed view of Mormonism as a non-Christian cult, or of Mormons as happy, kind, and uncomplicated. But most, I think, will come away thinking there is some basis for both views.

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