I have spent many years studying the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), renamed the Community of Christ in 2000. This was the most successful of any of the non-Utah variety of churches springing from the Early Mormon movement. He has long sought to differentiate itself from the much better known and more radical Utah Mormon church. Indeed, the 2000 names change was perhaps the quintessential step in differentiation.
Perhaps the fundamental ingredient in the identity of the early RLDS was that it coalesced out of a group of independently-minded people in the 1850s who had at one time or another stood up in the various factions of Mormondom and said in essence, “up with this I will not put.” Because of this attribute, the RLDS was primarily an inheritor of a legacy of dissent that had been present as a minority movement within the early Mormon church. That legacy had manifested itself repeatedly almost from the very beginnings of the church as members debated the direction of church policy, organizational structure, and doctrinal conceptions.
Because of the uniqueness of its founding, the peculiarities of its early leadership, the fortunes of its environment, and the doctrinal biases of those making it up the RLDS as it emerged in the 1850s, the group embraced and gloried in a moderate expression of Mormonism in the American Midwest. Fundamental to its Weltanschauung was a commitment to greater membership involvement in the church’s decision‑making process. When the Reorganization began to coalesce in the early 1850s and members coming out of this experience affiliated with it, the result was an emphasis on individual and congregational rights and prerogatives, an emphasis that remained strong for more than 100 years.
As a dissenting movement, the fundamental ingredient in the RLDS’s historic sense of identity, it had to forge a place for itself in relation but also in opposition to the Utah-based faction of Mormonism. This was remarkably easy to do in the nineteenth century when the group first coalesced. Plural marriage provided the most easily recognizable means of establishing an identity as a Mormon group outside of the Utah faction. Simply put, the Rocky Mountain Mormons embraced the doctrine as a positive good and publicly practiced it until forced to stop by the power of the United States government while the Midwestern Mormons rejected it as an evil prostitution of the legacy of the Restoration.
Plural marriage, with its demonstrable effects everywhere present in Utah, was an issue that resonated in the larger American population, not as an abstruse theological construct but as a concrete social issue. By standing in opposition to plural marriage but still claiming the legacy of early Mormonism, the RLDS made a legitimate place for itself in the nether world between Mormonism and Protestantism.
The easiest period in which the RLDS could forge a reasonable identity as a separate religious institution was between 1852, when Utah Mormons publicly announced that they were practitioners of polygamy, and 1890, when the LDS church announced that it would no longer sanction its practice. Because of its inflammatory nature, plural marriage provided the needed context that set the RLDS brand of Mormonism apart from the Rocky Mountain variety. When that decisive difference between the two churches was removed in 1890 it inadvertently set up the more difficult task of maintaining boundaries between the RLDS and the Mormons that were less easily grasped by both the larger community and the membership of the Reorganization.
The nineteenth century, therefore, represented something of a “golden age” for RLDS identity as the people in middle. RLDS scholar Clare Vlahos observed of this era that “The early Reorganization waited, caught somewhere in between, neither gentile nor Mormon.” Vlahos makes an important but perhaps not altogether convincing case. His conclusion that the RLDS waited and was caught as a people in between the groups implies that this happened by accident and that it was a negative position for the church.
Instead, I would assert, the RLDS membership aggressively defined an identity in this middle place. They saw it as a strength, a way to legitimacy that might not have been possible on one or other ends of the scale. Indeed, in the twentieth century as the church sought to move toward the “gentile” side of the scale and to distance itself from traditional Mormon identity it has found it increasingly impossible to ensure legitimacy as a separate institution.
Perhaps the central theme of American religion in the twentieth century has been its encounter with modernity—the changes to the sets of priorities, assumptions, and values present in larger society as a response to emerging concepts in science, technology, economics, politics, philosophy, and the overall weltanschauung. The response to modernity, according to religion scholar Martin E. Marty in Modern American Religion: Volume 1, fundamentally changed the landscape of American religion in this century.
The RLDS felt this challenge keenly, has it tried to redefine itself upon the landscape of American religion in the wake of Utah Mormonism’s renunciation of polygamy. This process took off during the years following World War II and fundamentally reshaped the nature of the institution in the 1960s and 1970s. Several factors were at play in this process. One of the important ones was the rise in the standard of living of most of the RLDS’s membership. This development perhaps did not cause but it certainly abetted a greater openness to Protestantism and accommodation to modern society than was ever present in the church before. The church as a body began to be more open to the influences of the society around it and in the process it moved into the mainstream secular world of the United States.
As the twentieth century progressed the RLDS shed more of its historic Mormon background. I shall discuss some of that transformation in future posts.