CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Modernity, Postmodernity and Mormonism

by Iain Irving
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

In recent times a new movement has arisen known as postmodernity. Postmodernity has permeated every aspect of life including the arts, ethics, politics, even spirituality and religion through influencing how we perceive truth and knowledge. It is not something that can be ignored within western culture, as it has fast become the prominent culture amongst younger generations in the west. Unlike other cultural sub-groupings that have emerged in the past, such as the punk or hippy movements, for example, postmodernity is not a fashion choice or ideology, but a cultural shift that affects the very cognitive methodology through which all decisions and judgements are made. With such a largely permeating cultural shift, conflicting with strongly held traditions, it has proven a struggle for many traditional churches to adapt. Consequently many traditional western churches have significantly dwindled in numbers, with many even dying.

Many churches have sought to appeal to this new cultural shift by adapting to meet the challenges of postmodernity. However, this has been fraught with difficulty, often leading to those individuals of a modernist mindset feeling isolated. Further to this, many believe that this shift stands in opposition to the gospel as they understand it.[1] The LDS Church on the other hand has remained strong throughout this cultural shift, with no major moves to appeal to a postmodern culture. Within Europe the Church has seen an increase in membership of 5.5% in 2008, believed to be due to new efforts in reaching ‘young single adults.’[2] Another example is the south-west area of North America[3] which is seeing some of its greatest attendance among ‘young’ members.[4] Within any LDS ward I have visited, I have found a diverse constituent of age groups, which would represent both modern and postmodern mindsets (aside from wards which were created for a specific age group). So this begs the questions, why has the LDS Church retained its appeal throughout this cultural shift? This study will seek to understand the appeal of the LDS Church to both a modernist and postmodernist audience. To do this it will be compared to the models of postmodern Church presented amongst traditional Christian scholarship, especially that of the ‘emerging’ movement.[5]

Before undertaking this task, however, we must clearly define what is meant by modernity and postmodernity. Due to the diverse nature of the terms modernity and postmodernity within a multi-disciplinary environment much ambiguity has surrounded their definitions. Postmodernity was birthed out of the modernist movement which perceived the world in an objective way, “free from preconditions or dogma.”[6] Modernity was a product of the enlightenment, moving away from what has come to be known as the ‘pre-modern’ model which held that knowledge was to be passed down through authority structures. Modernity held that truth was something that must be sought through evidence and rationale. Postmodernity however, is a further reactionary movement, recognising the limitations of modernity. This new paradigm, introduces subjectivity and ambiguity into the modern understanding of truth, perceiving truth not as absolute but individual.[7]

Postmodernity ultimately challenges how we approach epistemology. As already highlighted a major tenant of postmodern culture is the rejection of absolutism in the search for truth. This idea has been met with much contention and apprehension by the churches, believing it to be an attack on their claims to truth. However, as Drane points out:

“Though by the standards of conventional literate discourse, a statement regarding ‘what works for me’ might sound like a denial of the possibility of absolute truth, it is actually a manifestation of the search for truth- not only that, but it contains some inherent absolutes itself.”[8]

It is therefore clear that a postmodern worldview is not an attack upon truth, but rather is on a constant search for truth. Drane further states:

“it is a truth that is embodied not so much in what might be called truth structures as in particular values such as freedom, individualism, integrity, tolerance, the importance of nature, the value of spiritual connection, and the belief that people should serve others beside themselves.”[9]

It is against this new culture of postmodernity that the teaching and practice of the LDS Church will be compared.

As Drane has stated, individualism is a prominent tenant of the postmodern perspective. The LDS Church has long emphasised the place of personal revelation in the search for a personal understanding. This personal search can be seen in many LDS epistemological models, such as that referred to as Moroni’s challenge.[10] LDS missionaries are encouraged not to proselytize or argue, but to encourage their students to pray about the Book of Mormon for a personal revelation of truth.[11] Such an individualistic search for understanding would carry a strong appeal to the postmodern mindset. Further to this the LDS Church teaches that each member is capable of attaining revelations from God. James E. Faust stated that any member of the LDS Church, if worthy, is “entitled to receive revelations for… [themselves], parents for their children, and members of the Church in their callings.”[12] This again demonstrates the position of the personal search for understanding in LDS thought.

The LDS understanding of truth is, of course, still to be perceived as modern. Though the LDS understanding of truth is not forced upon a non-member the dogma that is presented is clearly defined in presenting an absolute of truth. In order to adopt LDS orthodoxy one must accept all the doctrines and practices that have been dictated by the leadership of the Church. Doctrine and scripture are interpreted for the Church by its leadership, leaving no room for a diversity of doctrinal understanding or interpretation. The acceptance of these doctrinal absolutes would resonate strongly with the modernist mindset.

Furthermore, similar to postmodern culture the LDS Church does not remain static in its dogma, willing to continually reanalyse itself and adapt to culture. The most prominent example of this is the introduction of black people into the priesthood.[13] This came in 1978 as many new civil rights and liberties were beginning to be granted to black people for the first time. With this the LDS Church was able to move forward and adapt, rather than remaining static within its traditional belief. The constant search for truth within the LDS Church is a prominent part of their identity.   Article of Faith 9 states that “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks takes this further stating

“we believe that God will guide his children by giving new additions to the existing body of scriptures through the prophet and the established procedures of his Church. The Book of Mormon is such an addition. So are the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, including sections 137 and 138, which were added in our lifetime.”[14]

With this the LDS Church and it members are on a constant search for new truths and further understanding. So though the perceived truth of the LDS Church is absolute, it remains absolute for only that period in time and open for change and reinterpretation in the future.

Another significant area of discussion is that of leadership. Gibbs and Coffey state that “in the postmodern culture there is strong resistance to propositional statements dropped from above, as it were, that have to be accepted without examination and questioning.”[15] They also state that “coupled with this distrust for authority structures… [they] have developed a compensating belief in themselves.”[16] Therefore the rigid hierarchies and elitist structures that have arisen within the church through modernity have caused much difficulty in the postmodern culture. Within the LDS Church strong sense of hierarchy is evident, descending from the President all the way down to the Aaronic priesthood holders (along with this the relief society also holds to a universal structure). At this superficial analysis the LDS model of leadership would hold no appeal to a postmodernist and would most likely be a barrier to many.

However, a deeper analysis of this demonstrates many elements that would appeal to a postmodern mindset. The LDS Church recognises the value of the individual demonstrating this through baptism (personal and for the dead), temple work and priesthood. It is clear that the member does not remain on the fringe of the LDS Church but is directly involved with many of the most important rituals of the Church; this would carry much postmodern appeal.  The LDS Church, in many ways, emphasises this amongst its youth. Young boys directly become part of the sacrament service, blessing and administering it, children are baptised at the age of 8 and young people are strongly encouraged to serve a mission. The strength of involvement that a young member has within the Church would make them feel, from an early age, part of the core body of the Church, rather than a fringe member.

This is further reflected in the fact that Sunday morning meetings within the LDS Church are not focused upon an individual; priesthood holders are each given the opportunity to lead the talk at the Sunday service. Furthermore, the monthly fast and testimony meeting provides a forum for anyone within the congregation to address the Church. Another distinctive move made amongst churches seeking to appeal to the postmodern milieu has been the prominence of small groups.[17] Small groups provide an open forum for discussion, where individuals can discuss and analyse topics rather than having an interpretation dictated to them. The LDS Church practices small group study as a central part of their community. Small group time is designated as part of Sunday morning ritual, either before or after the main service.  There is the ‘Sunday School’ time in which there is a forum to openly discuss the Scriptures and the membership is also divided into different groups for study, depending on the person’s position within the Church.  

Therefore, at another level, the LDS leadership structure appears to hold a strictly modernist appeal, through its rigid, clearly defined structures. However, this analysis has demonstrated that this structure still does not completely isolate the postmodernist, allowing room for individualistic expression. Therefore, the leadership structure which may initially put off any postmodernist merely investigation the Church from the outside, but would in face serve those postmodernists that exist within the Church community itself.

Another trait of postmodernity’s rejection of absolutism is the rejection of traditional metanarratives, as they accept “the relativity of all narratives.”[18]  It could be easily be construed that to reject traditional metanarrative would be an affront to the authority of the LDS Church. This would attack not only their doctrinal teaching, but also the narrative of scriptures and the official histories, which are both held in high esteem within the Church. However Drane explains that it is:

“not that it [postmodernity] has no metanarrative, but that it offers a different one than that which the West has traditionally embraced, featuring universalism, pluralism, tolerance, individual choice, mystery  and ambiguity in preference to the exclusivity, hierarchy and rationality that dominated the metanarrative of modernity.”[19]

This in many ways reflects the teachings of Joseph Smith. Despite asserting the unique authority of his Church and claiming that God revealed to him that all other Churches were “wrong” and “their creeds… an abomination,”[20] the LDS Church does not approach other faiths with hate or distain.

Smith stated that all men have the right to “worship how, where, or what they may.”[21] This statement would have been considered radical in 19th century America, in which, by Smith’s testimony, “there was much confusion and strife among… different denominations.”[22] Gibbs and Bolger explain that “in their relentless pursuit of order, [modernist] Western cultures sought to assimilate people by making everyone the same.”[23] They go onto explain that this modernist attitude led to those unable to conform to the cultural norm being excluded, thus leading to many feeling isolated and worthless by the culture.[24]In January 2009 the LDS Church in Australia responding to an invitation from the Australian Human Rights Commission issued the report “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century.” This report clearly reflects the views of Gibbs and Bolger stating that the LDS Church:

“firmly believes in the process of communication and cooperation between the faiths. We believe that intolerance, criticism and lack of respect for the beliefs of others is at the core of many of the ills of modern society including in our own country.”[25]

 The religious tolerance of the LDS Church is reflective of that which has become prominent in postmodernity.

As briefly mentioned earlier, the LDS church have taken small, but active, steps to appeal to young adults. One such move has been the opening of ‘outreach centres’ specifically designed for young people. This program began in 2008 with four centres being opened within LDS Institute buildings across Europe, with 15 more being in development in Germany and Scandinavia. These provide young people with both a place to both relax, as well as learn about the Church.[26]  Such a centre can provide young people with an experience of the Church built within community. With the distrust of social institutions and traditional hierarchies, community plays an important part important within postmodern culture.  Gibbs and Coffey argue that “education and exhortation are not sufficient… rather, it requires the creation of new forms of common life.”[27] In providing young people with somewhere they can go, not just to be taught, but to engage in activities, or even just relax, with people of their own age-group the LDS Church is catering to this need. According the Deseret News’ 2009 Church Almanac, through these ‘outreach centres a shift has occurred from “80 percent of YSA [Young Single Adult] converts [becoming] less active” to “80 percent of YSA converts [being] retained.”

In conclusion, it must be reiterated that the LDS Church by no means can be referred to as a postmodern expression of Church. It in many ways does not cater to a postmodern culture, retaining traditional leadership structures and autocracy. However, as this study has demonstrated, the postmodern mindset is not completely isolated in these models. In fact in some areas, such as the LDS Church’s tolerance of other religions and their focus on spirituality they are distinctly postmodern. The question that needs be answered here is, why spirituality and tolerance became the focus of Smith’s Church rather than a traditional modernist perspective?

The LDS view of religious tolerance was radical, but can be seen as distinctly reactionary to the persecution that Smith and the Mormons faced. This is seen evidently in the ‘Wentworth Letter’, in which the Articles of Faith are drawn, where the persecution of the LDS Church plays a heavy role.[28] Therefore, this could be seen as an appeal to persecutors identifying the passive nature of the Mormon Church to encourage them to do likewise. The focus on spirituality could easily be seen as part of Joseph Smith’s conceit that he could stand amongst theologians and argue as an academic. So instead of arguing with a modernist model he called people to accept his word on faith. These theories, however, remain purely speculative; we can never fully understand Smith’s motivation.   

Yet we know that these practices, today, allow the LDS Church to gain strength amongst the postmodern milieu. It is evident that the LDS Church holds an appeal to postmodernity without rejecting its modernist model. As postmodernity grows within western culture (and possibly throughout the world) the LDS Church will need to react further. The ‘outreach centres’ in Europe demonstrate moves towards that and I believe that over the years to come the LDS Church will make further conscious moves towards a postmodern appeal. However, for the time being the LDS Church is remains strong, seeing much growth and remains accessible within the current dichotomous cultures of modernity and postmodernity.


Books and Journals

Abbott, S. ‘Will We Find Zion or Make It?: An Essay on Postmodernity and Revelation.’ Sunstone Vol. 17 No. 3 Dec 1994. pg. 16 -24

Anon. 2009 Church Almanac. Deseret News. Salt Lake City. 2008

Avis, P. A Church Drawing Near. T&T Clark. London. 2003

Best, T. ‘Church Union: an Answer to its Post-Modern Despisers.’ Ecumenical Review. Vol. 56 No. 1 Jan 2004. pg. 118-127

Carson, D. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. Zondervan. U.S.A. 2005

Cheesman, G. Hyperchoice: Living in an Age of Diversity. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester. 1997

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Book of Mormon; The Doctrine and Covenants; the Pearl of Great Price (Triple Volume). Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Salt Lake City. 1981

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Preach My Gospel. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Salt Lake City. 2004

Cray, G. ‘The Post-Evangelical Debate.’ The Post Evangelical Debate. SPCK: London. 1997. pg. 1-18

Dawn, M. ‘You Have to Change to Stay the Same.’ The Post Evangelical Debate. SPCK: London. 1997

Drane, J. The McDonaldization of the Church. Darton, Longmann, and Todd. London. 2000

Duffy, J. ‘Can Deconstruction Save the Day? “Faithful Scholarship” and the Uses of Postmodernism.’ Dialogue. Vol. 41 No. 1 Spring 2008. pg. 1-35

Gibbs, E; Bolger, R. Emerging Churches. SPCK: London. 2006

Gibbs, E; Coffey, I. Church Next. Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester. 2001

Glasser, A. ‘An Introduction to the Church Growth Pespectives of Donald Anderson McGavran.’ Theological Perspectives on Church Growth. Conn, H (ed.). Dulk Foundation: U.S.A. 1976

Sampson, P. ‘The Rise of Postmodernity’. Faith and Modernity. Sampson, P; Samuel, V; Sugden, S (ed.). Regnum Books International: Cumbria. 1997. pg. 29-59

McGavran, D. Understanding Church Growth. Eerdmans: U.S.A. 1978

Tomlinson, D. The Post-Evangelical. SPCK: London. 2002

Webber, R. Ancient-Future Faith. Baker Books: U.S.A. 1999

Wotherspoon, D.W. Awakening Joseph Smith: Mormon Resources for a Post-Modern Worldview. PhD. Dissertation, Claremount Graduate School. 1996


Wakeley, A.B. “Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st Century.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Australia). Post Date Not Given. http://lds.org.au/pdf/news/NewsMedia/2009/AHRC%...- Date Accessed 12/4/09

Faust, J.E. “First Presidency Message: Communion with the Holy Spirit.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Post Date Not Given. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/ index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf... Date Accessed 10/4/09

Myatt, A.D. “Can Joseph Smith Save Us From The Evils of Modernity? A critical assessment of the post-modernist turn in Mormon apologetics.” Myatt.net. Post Date Not Given. http://www.myatts.net/papers/PoMoMormon.pdf- Date Accessed 5/4/09 (Originally given as a talk for the Society for the Study of Alternative Religions, Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting- Nov 18th 2004)

Oaks, D.H. “Scripture Reading and Revelation.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Post Date Not Given.  http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354...- Date Accessed 10/4/09

Smith, J. “Gospel Classics: The Wentworth Letter”. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Post Date Not Given. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2 354fccf.... Date Accessed 20/4/09

Thomas, J. “The Place to Be.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Post Date Not Given. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=f318118dd5.... Date Accessed 12/4/09

[1] E.g. Carson, 2005

[2] Anon, 2008, pg. 174

[3] Which comprises Oklahoma and Texas; plus major parts of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico; as well as smaller portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas California, Colorado and Utah.

[4] Anon, 2008, pg. 181

[5] For an alternative perspective, on postmodernity in Mormonism please see Duffy (2008) which discusses the emergence of postmodern thought in Mormon ‘faithful scholarship.’ Wotherspoon (1996) outlines the postmodern appeal of God and godhood in Mormonism (for a response to this work see http://www.myatts.net/papers/PoMoMormon.pdf- Date Accessed 5/4/09). Abbott (1994) analyses how the revelation of truth and knowledge appeal to a postmodern mindset.

[6] Tomlinson, 2002, pg. 64

[7] Cheesman, 1997, pg.22-28

[8] Drane, 2000, pg. 172

[9] Drane, 2000, pg. 172

[10] Moroni 10:3-5

[11] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2004, pg. 39

[13] See D&C Official Declaration 2

[15] Gibbs; Coffey, 2001, pg. 206

[16] Gibbs; Coffey, 2001, pg. 72

[17] Gibbs; Bolger, 2006, pg. 109-110

[18] Webber, 1999, pg. 104

[19] Drane, 2000, pg.134

[20] JSH 1:9

[21] AoF 1:11

[22] JSH 1:8

[23] Gibbs; Bolger, 2006, pg. 118

[24] Gibbs; Bolger, 2006, pg. 118

[27] Gibbs; Bolger, 2006, pg. 223-224