Not so long ago, when finalising Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s new RE agreed syllabus, my thoughts turned to Darlington’s draft RE agreed syllabus rejected by the SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for RE) as unfit for purpose in April 2014. One of the many complaints levelled at Darlington’s draft syllabus was its failure to take adequate account of the religious diversity in the borough (SACRE members had in mind the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the borough, and the immense influence that the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers had had on the economic and social development of the town in the 18th and 19th centuries). But, because part of Summer 2014 had been spent in Mormon-dominated Utah, and because we have had visits at home by Mormon sisters and elders since our return, I now knew that Darlington has a growing Latter-day Saint presence. In fact, Darlington is a Latter-day Saint ward forming part of the Billingham stake, which also includes the wards of Billingham, Middlesbrough and Newton Aycliffe, and the branches of Hartlepool, Peterlee and Redcar. Moreover, there is a Sunderland stake embracing the wards of Gateshead, Newcastle, North Shields, South Shields, Stanley and Sunderland, and which includes the branches of Alnwick and Ashington. Fascinating, don’t you think? It’s so unfortunate that a disproportionate amount of attention is devoted to the so-called “world religions” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism when so many other manifestations of religious commitment exist on our doorsteps. We’re inclusive? Pull the other one!
Just for the record, here are some notes about the Mormons because it surprises me how little people outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know about them.
We walked to vast Temple Square in Salt Lake City and, after being given a talk by two female missionaries that lasted about twenty minutes, began to look around in earnest. We encircled the Temple itself, off-limits to non-Mormons of course, entered the gothic Assembly Hall, listened to an organ recital in the large Tabernacle with its outstanding acoustics, and were given a guided tour of the vast Conference Centre by an elderly man who kindly took us to rooms not generally accessible to all members of the public. The man also took us onto the roof of the Conference Centre with its excellent views in all directions. The roof has many delightful gardens, some that are formal and carefully tended and others that evoke what you might find simply by walking around parts of southern Utah where nature is left to care for itself. We also looked around the two visitor centres on the square and Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the latter a massive and very elegant pile that had been a hotel before the Mormons bought it. We examined the exteriors of Church History Library, Church History Museum, Family History Library, Relief Society Building, Church Office Building, Lion House and Beehive House, the two latter structures dating from 1854 and 1856 respectively. Lion House and Beehive House were originally the homes of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as, among other things, prophet and revelator. Brigham Young is also identified in some Mormon literature as “the great coloniser of the West”. Many of the buildings just listed, especially if they are on Temple Square itself, stand among water features, trees and flowerbeds, all of which are kept in enviable condition throughout the year. Just outside Temple Square at its north-east corner is Brigham Young Historic Park, and three blocks west of the Temple is the Latter-day Saints Business College.
It is the existence of the business college that I found quite enlightening. By the end of our day exploring Mormon Salt Lake City, I could not expunge from my mind the idea that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seems to be run like a vast multinational corporation from its headquarters in Utah’s capital. Everything appears to function smoothly and with enviable efficiency, and the Mormons with whom we interacted were admirably cool, calm, collected, polite and helpful. The fact that not one building you visit requires an admission fee is intended, I am confident, to create such a positive impression of Mormonism that non-Mormons will be tempted to convert to the faith either immediately or at some point in the future, but we were not subjected to a hard-sell routine. In fact, to extract information of substance from our Mormon hosts we had to pose the questions ourselves.
It is frequently said that, to fully understand many manifestations of faith in the US, you must interpret them in terms of business operations great or small, because so many manifestations of faith in the US are preoccupied with the generation of money. Mormons are “asked” to donate 10% of their annual income to the Church, and an article on the internet published by NBC News in 2012 estimates that the income from tithing and other donations amounts to about 7 billion dollars per annum. It is said that the Church has about 15 million members worldwide, but the NBC News article suggests that large numbers of Mormons do not contribute financially to the degree expected of them. Nonetheless, the Church “owns about 35 billion dollars worth of temples and meeting houses around the world, and controls farms, ranches, shopping malls and other commercial ventures worth many millions more.”
We could tell that the Church is not short of money because everything on and around Temple Square looks so immaculate, because the tours and the organ recital are free, because, if you ask them, missionaries will provide you with a free copy of “The Book of Mormon”, and because every Mormon, young, middle-aged or elderly, is dressed in sober but well-tailored clothes. But the middle-aged and elderly men are particularly interesting. They look like successful businessmen or skilled professionals such as lawyers, doctors, accountants or old school (and therefore reliable and honest?) financial advisers. It struck me that, to be a Mormon who bubbles to the top within the Church, your ability to generate money might be more important than your commitment to the doctrines, covenants, rules, traditions and conventions of Mormonism. If I am correct, or even only half correct, about this, we now have an explanation for the existence of the Latter-day Saints Business College, and an explanation for why the ugly block called Church Office Building resembles the headquarters of an immensely profitable, but somewhat secretive, multinational corporation.
The NBC News article has the following interesting quote from a University of Tampa sociologist called Ryan Cragun:
Most of the revenue of the religion is from the US, and a large percentage comes from an elite cadre of wealthy donors like Mitt Romney. It is a religion that appeals to economically successful men by rewarding their financial acuity with respect and positions of prestige within the religion.
And this is the next thing that is very obvious about Mormonism: it is a male-dominated faith in which males hold all the most senior, important or powerful positions. It subscribes to outdated ideas about gender differences and therefore assigns to males and females markedly different roles within the family, the Church and wider society itself. True, polygamy has long been outlawed among mainstream Mormons, but the patriarchal nature of the faith from its inception helps explain why such marital arrangements were once encouraged, and are still encouraged among a statistically small number of “dissenting” Mormons in the US.
By the end of the day I was of the opinion that the expression of faith that Mormonism most resembles is none other than that of the Roman Catholic Church (although members of the all-male Mormon priesthood, known variously as bishops, stake presidents or high priests, are allowed to marry). Both manifestations of faith seem preoccupied with accumulating wealth and property, both have sometimes alarming ideas about sex and gender, both are intensely patriarchal in their structure, both have rigidly hierarchical lines of command from the top, both discourage ideas or actions that do not conform with long-held tradition, and both are secretive or evasive about some of the things that inspire the most curiosity among outsiders.
Back home I learned that Mormons prefer to call themselves Latter-day Saint people, or LDS people for short. They therefore prefer to say “LDS people believe…” rather than “Latter-day Saints believe…” I also learned that bishops oversee a congregation, stake presidents oversee a group of congregations in a particular geographical area (such an area therefore resembles a diocese in some Christian denominations) and priests divide into two types, Aaronic and Melchizedek. Inevitably, I found the last point, with its echo with Judaism in the distant past, very interesting.
But back, briefly, to the buildings themselves. The Assembly Hall dates from 1882 and has been conceived in a most appealing gothic style with white spires and stained glass windows. The organ in the Tabernacle is enormous and generates an awesome sound. The Temple itself was built between 1853 and 1893 and, from certain angles, presents onlookers with an impressive collection of pretty spires, themselves in a muted gothic style. One of the spires is crowned with a gold-coloured statue of Moroni. The Conference Centre has an auditorium with no columns obscuring views of the stage, but it nonetheless seats 21,000 people. When you remember that the roof has a garden with four acres of flowers and trees, and a waterfall cascades down the south façade, you begin to realise that the structure is a remarkable engineering feat. North Visitor Centre has an imposing 11 foot marble Christus statue that Mormon families love to stand in front of so they can have their picture taken (the walls and ceiling of the room containing the statue have a vast mural of the universe as a backdrop), two art galleries, an interactive map of Jerusalem, interactive exhibits on scriptures and revelation, and the “God’s Plan for His Family” exhibit. It is here that it becomes apparent that Mormons see the world through the perspective of prosperous white male heterosexuals. Some of the paintings depicting scenes about important events involving Jewish people in the distant past are more often than not full of men, women and children who look as if they originate from England, Germany or Scandinavia rather than the Middle East. This said, such people are suitably dressed in clothes that might have been worn by extras in old biblical epics such as “Ben Hur”.