The Complicated Relationship between Mormons and Jews

Latter-day Saints patterned themselves after biblical Israel, and used its traumas to explain their own.

The sun over a Latter-day Saints compound in Texas. Mike Terry/Deseret Morning News/Getty Images.

The sun over a Latter-day Saints compound in Texas. Mike Terry/Deseret Morning News/Getty Images.

Response
July 23 2020
About the author

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate Studies and the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.


Before dawn on October 24, 1841, Orson Hyde scaled the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem. There, as the sun rose, he wrote and recited a prayer, which said in part,

O Lord! Thy servant has been obedient to the heavenly vision which Thou gavest him in his native land; and under the shadow of Thine outstretched arm, he has safely arrived in this place to dedicate and consecrate this land unto Thee, for the gathering together of Judah’s scattered remnants, according to the predictions of the holy Prophets—for the building up of Jerusalem again after it has been trodden down by the Gentiles so long, and for rearing a Temple in honor of Thy name.

In imitation of Jacob and Joshua, he then built a small pile of stones in commemoration of his dedicatory prayer. Then Hyde descended the mount and headed for a ship that would bear him to Europe, and ultimately back to the United States, where he made his way to Illinois. Until 1846, Nauvoo, Illinois served as the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the Mormon or LDS church) and Orson Hyde there stood as a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in service to Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, president, and prophet.

In this passage, at least, Hyde expresses the “Christian Zionism” that is the subject of Wilfred McClay’s essay. The phrase describes a Christian confidence that the restoration of the nation of Israel confirms God’s particular relationship with the Jewish people as evidence of God’s salvific relationship with all humanity.

But that is not the whole story. Let us return to Hyde on the Mount of Olives, and see the rest of his prayer:

Let Thy great kindness conquer and subdue the unbelief of Thy people. Do Thou take from them their stony heart, and give them a heart of flesh; and may the Sun of Thy favor dispel the cold mists of darkness which have beclouded their atmosphere. Incline them to gather in upon this land according to Thy word. Let them come like clouds and like doves to their windows.

Hyde did not only dedicate the Ottoman territory then called Palestine for the restoration of the nation of Israel; he dedicated it for the preaching of his gospel and prayed that the very Jews who would rebuild Jerusalem would recognize the truth of Joseph Smith’s Christian restoration.

 

We find ourselves here before the great conundrum at the heart of Christian Zionism: the tension between particularity and universality. McClay’s essay is admirably layered with caveats and void of overgeneralization, but he is confident that this great conundrum can be managed, a feat premised upon a resuscitation of what McClay calls the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” a bulwark alliance for religious faith and moral traditionalism standing against secularism. I am less confident.

The “Judeo-Christian” tradition is, of course, itself more created than natural, premised on a reading of widely variant religious traditions that deliberately emphasizes their commonalities. It rose to prominence in the early cold war as a way to promote unity within the United States against secular totalitarianism, particularly the Soviet Union. The term “Judeo-Christian” was largely a product of mid-century intellectuals like Will Herberg, Jacques Maritain, and Reinhold Niebuhr, all of whom understood (though the Catholics rather hesitantly) that Christianity shared with Judaism the animating concerns of human dignity and moral discipline, and moreover that the sustenance of democracy would afford man the freedom to nurture religious life. To do that, and to give vitality to the Western democracies, these thinkers tiptoed around the theological particulars that divided them: issues of salvation, sacrament, and afterlife. For the American politicians who invoked it—and it was largely an American production—the “Judeo-Christian tradition” affirmed what President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly declared: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.”

For Eisenhower—and perhaps for McClay—deep concern for democracy and the sacred origins of human equality were sufficiently important to minimize differences of theology and sacrament. But I think the complicated relationship between Mormonism and Judaism (and Protestantism too, for that matter) illustrates something of my skepticism of the movement.

 

Mormonism was born in the United States, and it was brought to the world by Joseph Smith. In one sense, he was but one of many Christian restorationists in 19th-century America. But his theological vision was unique. Where many other Christian reformers sought to return to what they imagined to be the simplicity of New Testament religion, stripped of what they regarded as baroque accretions of Roman Catholicism and gloomy theology of the Reformation, Joseph Smith’s church sought not to purify but to complicate Christianity. Other restorationists went universal, and appealed to the saving power of faith alone; Smith, by contrast, drew on the Hebrew Bible to fashion a doctrine of salvation rooted in priesthood and particularistic sacrament that would earn the scorn of the American Protestant establishment.

Looking to Hebrew Scripture Joseph Smith built temples, designed ritual clothing, and instituted washings and anointings. He ordained priests and high priests to preside over these temple rites and Christian sacraments, and he traced their priestly lineage back to Aaron and Melchizedek. He dictated new scripture in which biblical figures like Moses and Enoch testify of the mission of Jesus Christ. He mandated sacred undergarments and instituted polygamy, citing the precedent of Moses, Abraham, and Jacob. He designated his father as patriarch to the church and charged him to deliver blessings like those of Isaac to Jacob and Esau and Jacob to Ephraim and Menashe in Egypt, and in those blessings Joseph Smith, Sr. and all the patriarchs who have followed him in the church name the recipient a member of one of the tribes of Israel.

For these and other reasons, historians are right to understand Joseph Smith’s project as an effort to Christianize the Hebrew Bible. Like the Puritans that McClay invokes, Latter-day Saints looked to biblical Israel to explain their traumas to themselves. Consistently the church’s economic and political separatism and later its devotion to polygamy alarmed and alienated Protestant Americans, as did the Mormons’ conviction that God had ordained land in Jackson County, Missouri as the site of the New Jerusalem, dedicated to the faithful. As more and more church members settled in Jackson County tensions with their neighbors escalated and led to a spiral of violence that would ultimately drive the church first to Illinois and then to the Utah Territory.

By the time they left what was then the United States for Utah, the saints had come to understand their journey west as a new Exodus. Brigham Young, who rose to the head of the church after the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844, dubbed the wagon train to Utah the Camp of Israel, and divided it into companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds, following the numeration in Exodus 18. Parley Pratt, among the most prolific and fiery of the apostles, denounced the American government, asking “When Will the ungodly, lying, Gentiles begin to loose their Power and cease to Rule; and We who have now spent half of our lives for them be privaledged [sic] to turn from the Gentiles and go in full power to the Remnants of Joseph and Israel?” The Latter-day Saints achieved separatism, a strategic and even existential necessity in those years, by identifying themselves as Israel fleeing the wicked Gentile nations.

 

Thus, while Mormons were alienating other American Christians, they were also cultivating an affinity for Israel that was simultaneously imitative and supersessionist. That could, and in time would, lead to tension with Jewish people. In 1979, the president of the church visited Jerusalem in order to dedicate a small garden that the church had paid for on the site of Hyde’s dedicatory prayer. On that occasion, he also stated that the church intended to lease land nearby in order to build a large complex to house students from the church’s Brigham Young University. Some Israelis were in favor, viewing the venture as akin to other evangelical institutions, but many more were opposed to the physical presence of the LDS church in Israel. For them, Mormon use of the language, concepts, and theology of the Hebrew Bible was exploitative, and the church’s desire to build on the Mount of Olives seemed like Christian colonization of Israel.

One ultra-Orthodox (ḥaredi) publication declared “[t]he Mormon organization” to be “one of the most dangerous, and in America they have already struck down many Jews. At the present the Mormons are cautious because of the tremendous opposition their missionary activities would engender, but the moment their new center is completed, we won’t be able to stop them.”

These tensions have persisted. More recently, the church’s practice of vicarious baptism—in which relatives of dead people are baptized by proxy for the deceased—has attracted protest and controversy. What is behind this practice? Latter-day Saint theology holds that baptism must be performed by proper priestly authority in order to ensure salvation, and that baptism is contingent upon the free will of the person being baptized, even if that person is dead. Though Mormons have been counseled to perform baptisms for their own ancestors, in practice the ritual has been largely unregulated, and enthusiastic lay members of the church have often ventured outside their own family lines. So, when it came to light in the 1990s that thousands of Jewish people, including Maimonides and Anne Frank (as well as many other victims of the Holocaust) are on record as having been baptized by proxy, there was an outcry. The church promised tighter control of the ritual but admits such attempts have not been completely successful.

And as awkwardly as the Mormon faith sits with Jewish tradition, similarly vexing difficulties abound in its relationship with the more universalistic construction of America’s “Judeo-Christian” credo. These tensions are easiest to see by returning to 2008 and 2012, when Mitt Romney contended for the presidency.

Romney faced skepticism from the public that his faith allowed him a place in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He knew it, and consciously bid for inclusion in America’s ambient moral consensus. Invoking the phrase “Judeo-Christian” to describe his faith, he told the country that he was “shaped by the Judeo-Christian values which I have and hope that those will hold me in good stead as they have so far.” Romney could make such a claim with a straight face because of the costs he and other of his co-religionists had already paid. Throughout the first 80 years of the church’s existence, its Protestant neighbors assailed it less a religion than as a threatening foreign nation which undermined American liberty and threatened to corrupt its morality. To gain admission to the America’s spiritual consensus, the Mormons did what was required, sacrificing much of what was distinctive about their tradition: its commitment to economic separatism and communalism, its unique marriage practices, its belief that its people should build a material and geographic Zion governed by their prophets. Incidentally, although several of these features of ancient Israelite society are no longer practiced even by the most observant of Jews, these were among the practices that Mormons drew most directly from the Hebrew Bible.

 

By the mid-20th century, church leaders graced the cover of American magazines as icons of self-reliance and good citizenship. But by the time of Mitt Romney’s acceptance of the Republican nomination in 2012, a great deal of evangelical skepticism remained. The Mormon integration into the Judeo-Christian consensus has been only partially successful. And that partial success is a stress test of McClay’s analysis of faith in America and it suggests a limit on McClay’s hopefulness.

Were the Israeli Ḥaredim wrong to fear Mormon spiritual colonization? Perhaps not. Are American evangelicals wrong to see in Mormonism an existential theological opponent? Perhaps not. Were those 19th-century Latter-day Saints like Parley Pratt wrong to rage against the Protestants who led the destruction of the unique community of their Zion? Again, perhaps not.

I here affirm McClay’s final point: religious faith must always lead back to particularity. It is precisely because that is correct that I feel compelled to emphasize the costs of consensus—of asking Jews and Christians to set aside the local, the unique, the prickly distinctiveness of our traditions in order to join a Judeo-Christian consensus. Even when that consensus is targeted at goals that religious Americans share, nevertheless the demands of conformity to an abstract notion of religion will tempt us to abandon our own daily practices and unique, redemptive ways of life.

It is in that localism that the LDS church’s finest strengths emerge. Its heritage of intentional community, economic cooperation, and moral conviction continues to fuel its particularity, and to offer a model for a vibrant religious life on a scale smaller than what the Judeo-Christian tradition promises, and one that equally sustains the religious diversity that frames the American constitutional tradition.

The story of the Latter-day Saints reminds us that at times, the project of building broader alliances has subordinated religious particularity and distinctiveness in the pursuit of even those worthy ideological goals. McClay’s vision is hopeful, but I suspect some Latter-day Saints might see it as bearing the same homogenizing spirit that they have faced before. And regardless of one’s sympathies in that struggle, we must consider the costs involved in the waging.

More about: History & Ideas, Jewish-Christian relations, Mormonism