By Coke Newell
St. Martin's Press, 288 pp.
Non-Mormon readers who want to glean any accurate picture of Mormonism have two choices: wade through anti-Mormon diatribes on the one hand, or pro-LDS apologetics. In his book "Latter Days," Coke Newell, a media resource manager at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, aims to give us another choice: an accessible explanation of Mormon doctrine.
Newell promises that the doctrines presented in his book constitute "clean water," meaning that they are 100% orthodox. He also claims that although the water is "clean, fresh, [and] useable," it "wasn't bottled in Utah." But though the book comes from a secular New York publishing house and purports to be unbiased, Newell's heavily sectarian manifesto differs not one whit from those titles he criticizes as having been written "by the faithful...to the faithful."
Newell, then, is anxious to demonstrate that he's an outsider-insider to Mormonism. Although he has impressive responsibilities in the church's 28-story office building, he's also a convert, "straight out of the rock-and-roll, vegetarian, whole earth, and homeschool, homeopathic Colorado mountains." He once dabbled in Taoism and devoured Thoreau. He notes that in stark contrast with the clean-cut missionaries who converted him, his own adolescent "standard of grooming" was lax, and he listened to more Steeleye Span than the King James English of the Bible. In other words, Newell may be a Mormon, but he is cool--at least in his own mind.
Newell doth protest too much. There is very little of the hip, open-minded renegade in this book. Without Newell's own constant reminders about his Grooviness Quotient, readers would put this down to the parochial, narrow-minded, mediocre book that it is.
Newell opens the book with a promising, if incomplete, examination of Mormon theology. His determination to place theology front-and-center should be applauded, for it is the most shamefully understudied aspect of contemporary Mormonism. He explores premortal existence--the Mormon belief that premortal souls chose to be born into human bodies (this is where the titular "Six Billion Years of Mormonism" comes from). But his treatment is too superficial: He flits from one distinctive and potentially fascinating doctrine (for example, Christ is going to base his Second Coming from Jackson County, Missouri) to another, sometimes leaving the non-Mormon reader stranded with paltry information. The writing is careless and underdeveloped; especially irksome is Newell's sanctimonious tendency to lapse into Book of Mormon dialect, using transitions like "thus" and nouns like "loins."
More disturbing than Newell's flightiness, which assumes a working knowledge of Mormonism, are the anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant references scattered throughout the text. Newell sniffs that the Catholic belief in transubstantiation (by which the elements of bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ) leads to "essentially crucifying the Lord anew each time one partakes" of the sacrament, while the Great Apostasy opened the way for councils at Nicaea and Constantinople to fabricate "creeds bearing no real resemblance to the original Christian simplicity" instituted by Christ.
He sees Western history from the close of the first century to the dawn of the 19th through a distinctly Mormon lens: Men had no genuine priestly authority and true religion vanished from the earth. To be fair, this is in fact orthodox Mormon teaching, but Newell overzealously embraces Mormonism's claims to its exclusive priestly authority as an opportunity to take potshots at other religions' beliefs and history. After the Second Coming, he smugly asserts, people of other faiths will eagerly convert to the (Mormon) truth, since they will have at last realized "just whose priesthood has been duly recognized by the Savior."
Scarce mention here of Smith's frighteningly theocratic activities in the last months of his life--encouraging his thousands of followers to vote as a bloc, campaigning for the presidency, instituting the Council of Fifty, leading the largest armed militia in the state of Illinois, and undermining the freedom of the press by destroying the muckraking Nauvoo Expositor. Horrific events for which Mormons were responsible, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, are entirely absent from Newell's prettified account of LDS history.
These pious omissions are exacerbated by anachronistic claims that the 19th-century church was identical to the 21st century church. For example, Newell observes that in one partaking of the sacrament in 1830, water was substituted for wine. Fair enough, but Newell misleadingly implies that water was used forever after, when in fact the church did not universally adopt water in the sacrament until the 20th century. This is just one instance of Newell's overarching ahistorical insistence that the church is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The most damning omission, however, is polygamy. The references to polygamy, that most famous and hotly contested practice of 19th-century Mormonism, can be counted on one hand. Newell notes that polygamy was "very limited," toeing the current party line of an LDS Church that has recently claimed that plural marriage was practiced by a tiny fraction of the Saints, when many historians place the number at up to 40%. Most tellingly, Newell calls the 1890 revelation that ended (or tried to end) the practice of polygamy "a press release." History has come full circle: Today's expert media spin doctor trivializes the defining feature of six decades of Latter-day Saint history as something that can be dispatched with a press release, not a revelation from God.
Is this book "clean water"? Squeaky-clean. No doctrinal cryptosporidium in sight. Was it bottled in Utah? Oh, yes--and sanitized there, too.