Review: John Turner, THE MORMON JESUS

John Turner made his mark in the world of Mormon history with his well-received biography of Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet (Harvard UP, 2012). It was with a lot of anticipation, then, that he published his most recent book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard UP, 2016). This is a different type of biography. Rather than following a particular person in Mormon history, Turner followed an idea: how Mormons have conceived of Jesus Christ from Joseph Smith all the way to the present? The result is a cultural history of belief. And besides offering an intellectual genealogy of one of Mormonism’s key tenants, Turner makes an important and sophisticated argument for Mormonism’s place within the Christian tradition, as well as the Christian tradition itself.

If Mormon Jesus is John Turner’s valiant knight, then Jan Shipps’s classic Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Illinois UP, 1985) is the dragon he is trying to slay. More specifically, Turner is taking on the notion that Joseph Smith inaugurated a novel religious tradition exterior to traditional Christianity. This was an idea that has delighted both scholars and Mormons alike. Scholars, most prominently Shipps and Rodney Stark, argued that to follow Mormonism was to watch a new religious category blossom, akin to how Christianity developed out of Judaism. Such a perspective seemingly heightened the relevancy of Mormon studies. Latter-day Saints, of course, lapped this up, as they were eager to capitalize on this inflated sense of importance.

But this has always been an awkward fit for the Mormon faith, and Turner persuasively argues that it has been overstated. Mormonism can only be understood, Turner argues, within a Christian framework. Rather than a distinct religious tradition that outgrew its Christian origins, it is better understood as “one new, distinctive set of answers” to traditional Christian questions (5). Joseph Smith’s set of answers were indeed radical, of course, but the parameters of Christianity have been radically broad as well. “The prominence of Jesus Christ in Mormon scriptures, thought, and culture,” he argues, “place the Latter-day saints with than most common and common sense definitions of Christianity” (18). Even the Book of Mormon, an extra-canonical scriptural text, is “a thoroughly Christian scripture” (48), what he creatively calls “a Christian Trinitatianism with a twist” (35). Early Mormon converts didn’t so much seek “a new and different Jesus” as much as they “were seeking Jesus himself” (59). The Mormon conception of Priesthood was understood as “direct access to Jesus Christ” (72). The evolution of Mormonism’s revelatory approach to a more routinized authority—from “living oracles” who produced Christ’s words to prophets dependent on their position—embodies the Christian anxiety over hearing and following Christ’s words. And after the innovative experiments of the nineteenth century, “the LDS Chruch has firmly retethered itself to the Christian savior” through the work of James Talmage (180), a trend that only intensified in the 1980s.

This history is not just an attempt to show the Christianity of Mormonism, but also the elasticity of Christianity itself. Joseph Smith was not the first radical within the Christian tradition to test religious boundaries, and to see the LDS Church as unique hides the fact that much of Christian thought has always been, and will always be, contested. Every chapter begins with a question or issue that has plagued Christianity since its inception, and then demonstrates how Mormon ideas fit into that trajectory. Thus, even Brigham Young’s flirtation with the Adam-God doctrine and the confusion of “Jesus” and “Jehovah” figures mirrors a hardly-solved question of those two identities in Christology (203-205). Therefore, the arguments of this book are as relevant to scholars of Christianity as those of Mormon studies.

The book is arranged around themes rather than a chronology. Each chapter focuses on a particular issue like the Book of Mormon, priesthood, millenarianism, or divine anthropology. There is typically a lengthy section on Joseph Smith’s era, another on Brigham Young (which is typically the most primary source-rich, given Turner’s background on the topic), a quick foray into the systemization process of the progressive era, and then a fast (and often homogenized) overview of the twentieth century. Sometimes the focus on Christ gets lost, like in chapters 6 and 7, but overall a coherent focus on historical Christology is maintained. Besides a very exhaustive overview of Christological ideas throughout the decades, there are moments of genuine brilliance, like when Turner argues that “temple Mormonism” is “a different sort of religious culture” than Sunday Mormonism, as “there are two separate species of Mormonism within the same church” (185). And for my money, the final three chapters—on the temple, polygamy and monogamy, and race—are the most novel and important contributions of the monograph. What did it mean that Mormons imagined Jesus as, variously, a ritual priest, a polygamist, a monogamist, or an Anglo-Saxon? These theological musings reveal significant cultural tensions.

I have two primary quibbles with how the book defines “Christianity.” First, when Turner refers the Christian tradition, he almost always means “Protestant.” However, as Matthew Bowman has recently emphasized, Catholicism provides a revealing comparative context for the Mormon tradition, and it would help make sense of their insistence on things like ritual. And second, Turner primarily refers to Christianity in a purely theological, rather than cultural, sense. For Americans in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “Christianity” was more likely associated with indicators like class, race, and power, and not always merely on one’s opinion of the trinity. In the contemporary world, to argue that Mormonism should be defined as “Christian” would outrage Evangelicals more on cultural than theological grounds, though they often use language of the latter to justify the former. I doubt the sophisticated and nuanced arguments concerning historical theology in this book will convince many of Turner’s Evangelical friends.

But within the boundaries established by Turner, the book succeeds exceptionally well. The Mormon Jesus is a model monograph: concise, efficient, provocative, and thoughtful. It is the result of both an exhaustive researcher as well as a rigorous thinker. Scholars of both Mormonism and American religions who engage the book will be richly rewarded.

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