Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience
Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002
This is the summary of a study I conducted in 1999 among French LDS on the perception they held of their American born and led Church. I had given a public lecture on the Church at the University. About 15 LDS had mingled with the general public, ready to pounce on me at the slightest error or criticism. When I finished they congratulated me for my objectivity but complained that I had only spoken about American LDS, and not the French ones. This is how I decided to study them as I had other American born NRMs, by analysing the relationships between the surrounding culture and the religious group itself, notably its doctrine.
I set up a research program and organized three pluridisciplinary conferences to focus on how religious groups adapted to the transatlantic passage. We looked at the diasporas of European and African religions that settled in the Americas, and the reverse migration of religious groups or movements leaving the Americas to evangelize the Old World, in order to address the metamorphoses religions undergo when challenged by a new environment. We tried to determine how their chances of survival and growth depended on the strategy they chose in a foreign culture.
Regarding Mormonism, my hypothesis was that since it was profoundly marked by American history and culture, either it had toned down some of its identity markers in order to be accepted here, or its French members had a special feeling for the United States that would support their leap of faith. I was somehow wondering how Europeans could convert to a religion I had myself refused to convert to when I was approached by missionaries for I found it too typically American. I had then converted to the study of it, which tied in perfectly well with my study of American history and culture.
Brief history of the French missions
The fact that Mormonism had been extremely slow in gaining converts in France because it had been found so foreign corroborated my hypothesis. The French mission started in 1849 but did not really catch on, most of the 337 members registered in 1853 being from the Channel Islands. The French LDS president Louis Bertrand despaired: "...Nothing can be hoped from the unfaithful French: they are all spiritually dead", he wrote to Brigham Young. The mission was closed and reopened several times. In 1946 it reopened but was strongly criticized by the media and the public. The Church gained recognition when the National Archives granted it permission to microfilm records in 1958. The sixties saw the growing increase of converts, as in all NRMs. There are now about 30,000 members. Though the number is steadily growing, it is lower proportionally than in most other Western European countries.
I wanted to know how French LDS related to the American leadership, the missionaries and various specifically American tenets, how they felt as French citizens within that foreign Church. To what extent was Mormonism becoming inculturated in the land of the French paradox? I discussed my project with a member of the local stake and convinced him to help me pass out questionnaires, that I checked with him. He accepted, then refused, and finally accepted. He distributed about 130 questionnaires, 36 questions each, and a dozen ones with questions targeted at American missionaries, in our area, in Paris and in a community near Germany.
I received 35 questionnaires filled out by French LDS and five American missionaries responded. A lot of LDS did not want to answer since they thought I was a government spy in spite of my explanations and my credentials in the introduction. Some of those who did answer were rather aggressive for they hated my inquisitiveness that according to them was not interested in the proper questions and they endeavoured to guide me unto the right path.
Though the number of filled out questionnaires was not very high, I also discussed the matter at length with several LDS who did not fill out questionnaires, notably on the bus ride taking us through the night to the Madrid Temple before its consecration. I debated the issues as well with a number of French people who had been contacted by LDS but had not converted.
My LDS respondants represented a good sample of French provincial and Parisian middle class, with a great range of levels of education (end of high school to last year of university), of occupations and ages, men and women. My questions centered on:
1st: their contacts with a Church of American origin, and its appeal.
2nd: what relationship did they entertain with their non-LDS friends and French society in general?
3rd: their perception of the place held by the United States in the doctrine.
1st issue: their contacts with a Church of American origin, and its appeal.
How they had encountered the Church. Had they been influenced by the nationality of the early missionaries? Why had they joined it? Had the "American Dream", success, wealth and material comfort, exerted some attraction on them? Was America the major force behind Mormonism?
Most LDS had come from Catholicism (themselves or their parents before joining the Church), about a third had been evangelized by missionaries, mostly American ones. If some said that it was better to be taught in one's language, many said there was some definite pleasure in speaking to foreigners. Missionaries themselves felt that their being American was a plus in trying to get people's attention.
2/3 of the respondants denied the fact that the Church's being American had had any appeal on them, and they would have joined it whatever its national origin. This type of answer expressing a clear denial of any kind of appeal emanating from the United States recurred constantly, but was belied by various explanations to other questions as we shall see. The reasons most gave for joining the Church: they had received a testimony asserting this was the true Church restored. Many respondents criticized my not leaving enough blank space to answer this question. We French do not dare ask intimate questions of that order, but obviously this is what people wanted to talk about and they wrote long pieces on their innermost motivations. It is a rather usual phenomenon with recent converts, or even old time members of highly proselytizing groups. Yet, I am convinced that we must also take this as a sign of their being influenced by the American custom of testifying publicly on one's faith.
Half of the respondents refused the reference to the American Dream as an incentive, yet the other half disagreed and replied that that was a major factor of conversion, but, and this was consistent throughout my investigation, they had never felt its attraction themselves, it was mostly the young, or some not fully enlightened converts who had succumbed to its charm. They also admitted that those who converted to Mormonism as a means to "benefit from Americanism" did not remain for long within the Church, or that they changed their viewpoints after realizing that life in America was not really better than in France. Obviously for Western Europeans, the situation has evolved in the last half century and it came out from my various discussions that right after WW2 the American Dream was the major conversion factor.
Two former French missionaries in Tahiti where as they put it "there is a chapel every 5 miles et 14,000 members out of 120,000 inhabitants", reported that the local saints were extremely attracted to the United States and felt that joining the Church would bring them closer to it. In the French island of La Reunion, near Madagascar, seven missions are French out of 14 and if at first the locals see the Church as French they quickly perceive its americanness.
One LDS told me that when he saw the first missionaries (the mission reopened in 1946) he had then thought they were part of the Marshall plan package... They were part of the package indeed. Last year in Paris at a Church festival and conference I heard a major French authority of the Church proclaim that WW2 had been a marvelous gift. This fell on my French ears as the worst negativism I had ever heard but I was the only non-LDS listener. Nobody reacted. The man went on: of course a lot of people had suffered but that war had sealed the definite victory of the US which had thus allowed the Church to follow American soldiers and baske in the limelight. The power of its motherland had forced the reluctant allies to accept Mormonism along with reconstruction.
In this respect it was interesting to see that some of my respondents went as far as saying that they hated the US and its crass culture before becoming LDS, but now they had taken a liking for the country since they could then see its positive points (proving thereby that in spite of what French LDS try to believe, one cannot separate a religious group from its surrounding culture)
However most French LDS felt the same love and hate relationship or gratitude and suspicion vis à vis the Americans in general as the non-LDS French, but declared liking their American friends, just like non-LDS French as well. Some LDS did say even LDS Americans were condescending and they were in fact trying to show them that the Church was American no more.
2nd issue: what relationship did they entertain with their non-LDS friends and French society in general? Were they being ostracized? How did they explain the extremely slow inroads of the Church in France?
Generally today French LDS are not the butt of jokes or sarcasms. One reason I think may be that in France one does not talk much about religion in general and many people would not be aware of working with a Mormon. In spite of what French LDS try to prove, Mormonism is overwhelming still perceived by the general public as an American group and not many people will imagine that there can be French Mormons. When they do find out, they usually ask questions on polygamy and the microfilming of birth records.
To my question, "why do you think the French do not convert easily to Mormonism, do you think it may due to their suspicion towards the United States", respondents explained that the French were too materialistic, proud, individualistic, selfish, unruly, spiritually dead, or too intellectual, sometimes too strongly Catholic. They were extremely severe with their fellow-countrymen, and did not think their lack of interest for the Church stemmed from any mistrust towards the US.
3r issue: their perception of the place held by America in the Book of Mormon and the doctrine, notably the 10th Article of Faith: "We believe that... Zion (New Jerusalem) will be built on the American continent". Did it hurt their feelings as French citizens? How did they interpret the fact that the gathering of the Saints was gradually abandoned at the end of the 19th, and would they leave everything to go to the US if need be?
The majority of the respondents were not bothered at all by the special place America held in God's Design and said that the New Revelation had to have a specific location and thus the United States was like Palestine for the Hebrews, no more no less. Yet, most also found clear arguments to support God's decision. America was young and pure.
Yes they would migrate if a new revelation told them to do so, but they would do so reluctantly, and in fact most confessed they did not think it would be in the near future. Visibly the millenarist call had waned, but we have known this for a long time.
The answers to my questions on this issue showed that in spite of previous affirmations letting on a sort of indifference towards the US as a country, a sort of rival of France, when doctrinal requirements were at stake, French LDS highly valorized the United States and found God's choice perfectly deserved.
I also asked my respondents to define the most typically American characteristics of their Church. One third did not see any and consistently refused to see any link between the Church and the US beyond the mere historical foundation. The others quoted a variety of features definitely not French such as the family evening, American missionaries with their accent and their uniforms, the minute cataloguing of information, the democratic, participative and easy-going organization, the celebration of American feasts, cookies, openness and tolerance... One must also add that the paraphernalia used by American missionaries, who still form the majority of missionaires in France, includes slides and video on the United States, American traditional dances and free English lessons.
Nevertheless respondents explained next that these characteristics would soon be limited since there were more and more non-American LDS. These would of course catch some of these American positive features but would also replace others by their own national mores. They all approved the new policy of the authorities favoring more and more autonomy. Soon the Church should no longer be reconizable as American. One missionary said "As French members become ready to serve in positions of more responsibilit it will start to eradicate the myth of the 'American Church' and people will be more open-minded." French LDS concluded that the Church would be no more American than the Catholic Church was Roman, which is clearly a short sighted remark since outside of France it is called Roman Catholic Church, and since the fact that the Vatican is in Rome does bear tremendously on everything within and without the Church.
This survey, though conducted on a small corpus, led me to conclude to the acclimation of Mormonism to France, at least in the perception French LDS had of their Church. Practically the majority of answers demonstrated they felt the same attachment to France as non-LDS French. Yet, unlike American LDS, they are not super patriots. This can be explained by the general mistrust of patriotism in France, but also by the flaws LDS perceive in a motherland still rather suspicious of their new Church. By joining it, French saints go from no religion or from a very routinized one that requires hardly anything from them, to a very demanding one. They isolate themselves from what they perceive to be the negative aspects of French society (just like all LDS in the world) and have created their own Mormon culture that takes precedence over their national identity, and that is unlike what one hears about American LDS.
Like most French and Western Europeans all the respondents (but clearly not all French LDS) did not feel lured to the American mirage of wealth and happiness. This is easily explained by the high standard of living due to the efficient work ethic on our side of the Atlantic as well. French LDS do not feel the urge to migrate, but in this regard also they are traditionally French. They all refused to be seen as belonging to an American Church, but maintained their Church was the primitive Church restored, and not attached to any particular nation.
Bruce A. Van Orden, the author of Building Zion: The Latter-Day Saints in Europe, observed that since it was very hard to evangelize the French, the major efforts of the missionaries in France bore on immigrants who make up about a third of urban LDS communities. I have not yet been able to study their own perceptions in order to find out whether the appeal of the Church is for them the same as for my respondents or whether they see in it an integration into the dreamland of most immigrants.
A last point needs to be stressed. My respondents consistently refused to see a link between politics, culture and religion. Yet American LDS, like any missionary throughout the world, carry their country in their baggage and not just their holy Scriptures, mainly when the Scriptures they carry celebrate the special blessing God granted to their own country. Missionaries are ambassadors. Their success in evangelizing the crowds will not just bring about spiritual success, but also economic and political advantages for their homeland. Strangely enough French LDS do not want to admit that much. They stress that the Church's policy has been to refuse to export the American way of life, and they quote as an example the replacement in the missionary guide to Europe of baseball by soccer. In an editorial of Church News (Review, March 2, 1996), one could read "The principles of the Gospel are not American...A Kenyan can adopt the principles of the Gospel and remain a Kenyan, rooted in his own culture." This is indeed a far cry from the early policy of the Church that sought to impose its own standards on the whole world and that even LDS referred to as the Macdonaldization of the world through its mormonization.
It is a fairly well-known fact now that the Church has been conscientiously erasing in its primary teachings all the characteristics that could be perceived as too weird or too American. One of my respondents, an American missionary, clearly did not know all the tenets I was referring to and claimed I was mistaking the Mormons for the Jehovah's Witnesses. Another one explained that they were not supposed to speak about those tenets in their own mission.
All this has made my own questionnaire sound even more irritating to French LDS. Yet there is a specific point that contredicts the official toning down. It is a doctrinal issue that at first may seem detached from everyday life but ultimately bears on the politics of the Church at large. I am referring to the function of the American continent in the Restoration of the Primitive Church and the Latter-Day gathering of the Saints, a function closely intertwined with Manifest Destiny. French respondents declared they were rather indifferent to the US as a country, but they glorified its special role as the land chosen by God. Such an adoption of the American nationalist creed definitely places Mormons, whatever nations they live in, within the sphere of influence of the United States. This is neither new nor strange. This has always been the essence of missions. What is unusual however is the reluctance, or rather the refusal of my LDS respondents to acknowledge it. For the Church of Salt Lake City this refusal is a major success. By denying that it is anything but the true Church these LDS testified to its almost complete inculturation in France.
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