How Progressive Mormons Are Actually Retro Mormons

Andrewhistory, liberal, Mormon 24 Comments

In the year 2035, how will Mormon beliefs compare to previous generations?

If “progressive” Mormons have their way, Mormon beliefs in 2035 will more closely resemble Mormon beliefs of a century earlier.

Generally speaking, today’s “progressive” Mormons are less-likely to believe obedience to authority comes above one’s own personal preferences, less-likely to believe the LDS Church’s unique Restoration claims, less-likely to be literalistic in interpreting scripture, less-likely to reject birth control, and less-likely to hold to strict traditional observances, such as the Sabbath. So when I recently reviewed a comparison of BYU students’ religious beliefs in 1935 and 1973, I was shocked to discover that BYU students in 1935 were far more “progressive” by today’s standards than their alums in 1973.

The survey data, which is presented in Armand Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, is presented for the purpose of demonstrating how Mormon beliefs took on a more “conservative” or “fundamentalist” flavor as the 20th Century progressed. For example, only 38% of BYU students believed that obedience to authority comes above one’s personal preferences in 1935. But that number had jumped to 88% by 1973, indicating that a strong culture of obedience to authority had developed by then.

BYU students also appear to have been less literalistic in their interpretation of scripture in 1935 than they were in 1973. For example, only 38% of survey respondents believed there was a personal devil in 1935. But by 1973, almost all survey respondents (95%) believed there was a personal devil. Indeed, this conversion to the idea of a personal devil was the greatest change in BYU students’ beliefs from 1935 to 1973.

In addition, BYU students were less-likely to hold strict creationist beliefs in 1935 than in 1973. For example, in 1973 the overwhelming majority of BYU students, 81%, believed that the creation did not involve evolution. But in 1935, only 36% believed the creation did not involve evolution, implying that the majority of BYU students in 1935 believed the creation did involve evolution. Similarly, in 1973 roughly a quarter of BYU students (27%) believed the creation did not take millions of years. But in 1935, only 5% held such a belief, implying that approximately 95% of BYU students in 1935 did believe the creation took millions of years.

BYU students were also less-likely to believe the Church’s unique Restoration claims in 1935 than in 1973. For example, in 1973, almost every BYU student believed: that Joseph Smith was a true prophet (99%); that Mormon authorities get revelation today (99%); and that the Mormon church is more divine than others (98%). But in 1935, those beliefs were held by 88%, 76%, and 81% of BYU students, respectively.

BYU students in 1935 were also less-likely to believe in a God who intervened in the natural course of events or who was concerned with matters such as birth control or strict Sabbath observance. In 1935, a strong majority of BYU students (75%) believed that God answers prayers by divine intervention, implying that approximately 25% of BYU students did not hold such a belief. But by 1973, nearly all BYU students (95%) believed that God answers prayers by divine intervention. When it came to rejecting birth control and holding to strict Sabbath observance, only 11% and 14% of BYU students fell into those camps in 1935. But by 1973, those numbers jumped to 42% and 54%, respectively.

In Angel and the Beehive, Mauss points out that the ecclesiastic endorsement requirement, which was added after 1935 but before 1973, might partly explain why BYU students were significantly more conservative in their religious beliefs than their alums in 1935. But even when one accounts for that consideration, these numbers seem to indicate that a conservative revolution took place in the LDS Church between 1935 and 1973, which Mauss attributes to several vocal Church leaders in the 1950’s-1970’s who exercised strong influence over Church curricula, CES, and BYU.

Mauss’ comparison of survey data from 1935 and 1973 raises some interesting questions for speculation. If this survey were conducted today, would it show that BYU students have continued to follow the conservative trend indicated in the 1973 data, or would it show a return to more the more “progressive” views held by BYU students in 1935?

And what does the future hold for the Church? By the year 2035, will Mormons be as conservative or even more conservative than they were in the 1970’s, or will Mormons “progress” in their views to where their great-grandparents were a century earlier?

What’s your prediction and why?

Comments 24

  1. Well I personally think it 35 years, it will all be moot because we’ll be at the headgates of the millennium, so you can’t divorce this elephant in the room — as we all try to do, when discussing Mormon sociology as if it was in a non-milennarial vacuum. I believe in 1935, it had been 40 years since Wilford Woodruff’s great accommodation in the Manifesto. The imminence of the second coming was more stark in those days, due to Joseph’s 40 more year revelation as well as the persecution complex that came with the hope in deliverance as the Church was trying to establish a theo-democracy in Utah. When delivery was not realized and when the great acommodation occurred, I think it put the Church into a directional quandary that lasted until the presidency of David O McKay. The great missionary effort we see today was put into place by President McKay, as well as the building of temples all around the world. That has been the phase we see ourselves in up to President Hinckley. With hindsight, we look back and realize that millennialism in the Church was premature based on their personal abuses but not in line with Revelations, and Joseph’s own prophecies in the Doctrine & Covenenants. The gospel would go forth to fill the whole earth BEFORE Jesus came and Zion was established.

    Now we’ve fulfilled the requirement of a 2,000 year span since Jesus, we’ve seen the gospel go almost entirely to the whole earth, and we’re ready for a different phase. I think NOW the direction of the Church is more clear than in 1935, and I think millennialism is again in full swing based on more realistic interpretations of scripture. If this does not come to pass in 35 more years, we may see a swing pack to a more relativistic progressivism and a reinterpretation of the mission of the Church. If the millennium does happen, then all this postulating will be moot.

  2. Andrew,

    Interesting possibilities. I won’t quibble with your use of the word progressive in this context, although by raising the issue at all I suppose I’m quibbling. (Don’t think of a pink elephant!)

    I’m glad you mentioned the ecclesiastical endorsement effect as a skewing mechanism for the religious attitudes survey. There also used to be the lesser-known, but wide-spread practice of bishops sending the “bad seeds” to BYU in the hopes the institution would clean them up.

    I don’t think we’ll see as radical of a shift in attitudes as you’ve pointed out here for two reasons: 1) the institutions set in place which gave rise to religious literalism, the obedience culture, and social conformity still exist (BYU still has the ecclesiastical endorsement, the Correlation Department is still correlating, General Authorities continue to stress themes of obedience and literalism, etc.)
    2) the internationalization of the Church will largely mean the resurgence of religious literalism, the obedience culture, and social conformity. This has happened in the Anglican Communion, for example, and in the Methodist and Baptist churches, where the international mission field church (where the church is growing) counterbalances the liberalizing trends in the United States.

    Two questions for you, Andrew: Are you seeing markers now which convince you the Church is on a trajectory back to 1935, when BYU students held beard-growing contests? AND Have you taken the international Church into account in your analysis, or has Mauss?

  3. Keep in mind that “ecclesiastical endorsement” meant something quite different in the 1970s (or even when Mauss was writing) than it does now. When I attended BYU in the mid-80s, “ecclesiastical endorsement” meant that students were simply required to get their bishop to sign off on their admission application. The modern system, giving bishops the power to effectively see that unfavored students are expelled on an annual basis, is a fairly recent innovation.

  4. “There also used to be the lesser-known, but wide-spread practice of bishops sending the “bad seeds” to BYU in the hopes the institution would clean them up.” Omigosh! I think that’s why I got sent there! I didn’t know this was some kind of covert strategy, but now it all makes sense.

    I agree with John Nilsson that BYU will continue a bastion of conformity, and probably become even more conservative over time. But, will the church as a whole retain that style? Well, I wonder what the church as a whole is really like? The two main questions I have after reading this are:
    – what would the church as a whole respond (not just BYU which may have been skewed two different ways in these two different time frames)?
    – what would the responses be in 2008 (vs. 1973)?

    Others commented on what was happening in the church and BYU in 1935 and 1973, but obviously, the influence of what was happening in the country and the world are also relevant and would have a cultural impact on people’s religious views. In 1935, most Americans didn’t know who Hitler was yet, people had just barely come through the depression, and all were unaware that in six years they would be in an unprecedented global war. In 1973, the sexual revolution was still going strong, young Americans were concerned about the Vietnam war, and Nixon was being ousted after the Watergate scandal

    So, here’s a theory. When the world is more black and white and naive, the church is more gray and jaded. When the world is more gray and jaded, the church is more black and white and naive.

  5. Graet post Andrew.

    “If “progressive” Mormons have their way, Mormon beliefs in 2035 will more closely resemble Mormon beliefs of a century earlier.”

    I think it is important to emphasise doubts/strength of beliefs rather than orthodoxy.

    Some say for a religion to survive it must maintain orthodoxy. The LDS church is doing a great job at this and is throwing lots of money into the propaganda machine it has hired. It is trying to combat the online communities and critical scholarship through cautious openness and honesty, for which I commend it.

    However….when people are not innoculated against “whacky” beliefs that are found in our history it can be hard to deal with.

    Does this show that the church’s heavy shift to “public relations” (propaganda) is and has worked? I think there is an element to it.

    To be honest Andrew…I see the shift to ultra-orthodoxy that we had over the 60s to 90s as regressive.

  6. I came to BYU as a freshman in the early 90’s. I hated it and did not come back, partly because I found the overwhelming conservatism distasteful. Ironic though it may be, I’m back now as a faculty member and I see a lot more progressive voices, a much better environment. Still a long way to go of course… I don’t know if this is just seeing what you want to see, but that’s my impression, and I would say that soon BYU will be more liberal than the church members generally, especially in Utah county.

  7. John (#2), if I had to guess, I’d say that if the same survey were conducted today, the results would be much closer to those of 1973 than 1935. I don’t know if they’d be MORE conservative since it’s almost impossible to get more conservative than 1973, but if there’s been any movement in either direction since then, I don’t think it’s been a big one. Bear in mind that’s based on my personal observations when I attended in the mid-90’s.

    I’m not sure about the international church angle. I recently read that 65% of Church members are first-generation converts, so it will be interesting to see whether that creates more standardization and correlation to indoctrinate newcomers, or instead infuses a wide variety of new perspectives and beliefs into a Church now dominated by converts.

    Hawkgrrl (4), not a bad theory at all.

    Steve (5), to be clear, I’m using the word “regressive” in the strictly apolitical dictionary definition, i.e., a return to a former state of affairs (such as the one that existed in 1935). In the political sense, the word “regressive” is usually equated to conservative because the former state of affairs was more conservative. But as explained above, the opposite is true in Mormonism because we were more liberal in 1935 than in 1973, which ironically means that becoming more liberal is a “regression” or return to a former state of affairs in the LDS Church.

    I was also intrigued by Bro. Mauss’ observation that it was not until 1994 that the Church had a President who was born in the 20th century (Howard W. Hunter, born 1907).

  8. Does the Mauss book have lists of the exact questions asked? Were the same questions asked both groups?

    I echo hawkgirrl in reminding that, as things go, 1973 was quite a long time ago. In fact, the 35 years since then almost equals the 38 years between surveys – and I think you could argue that the church has changed at least as much in those years. I would think we would want to see a similar survery done now, at BYU, to extrapolate much of anything about the future … of BYU. (One thing I think is fairly certain is that BYU will be graduating a smaller percentage of the those in the church who’ve received ‘higher education’, and that in itself is bound to limit the impact of BYU itself going forward.)


  9. My wife, conducted a survey on BYU students’ views on evolution in 2001 (as an undergrad student). She surveyed between 50-100 senior-year students in seven different academic departments. And she surveyed a 700 student Bio 100 class of freshmen for comparison purposes.

    The freshman class was all over the place.

    But the majority of all other departments were very receptive and favorable toward to evolutionary science. The “hard science” departments were overwhelmingly pro-evolution. But even departments like Political Science, Business and Engineering were very favorable. The only holdout was Elementary Education, which had a largely negative view of evolution.

    Interestingly, almost nobody in ANY department (except a few scattered freshmen) believed in a “young earth” view.

    So, at least among educated Mormons, it’s kinda looking like evolution is becoming pretty-much fait acompli.

    Admittedly though, it was a very small survey conducted for an undergraduate research project. So take it for what it’s worth.

  10. “I recently read that 65% of converts are first-generation members of the Church”

    Shouldn’t that percentage be a little higher? 🙂

  11. Alexander – “soon BYU will be more liberal than the church members generally, especially in Utah county.” Isn’t that like being the skinniest kid in fat camp?

  12. So do you suppose that Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith are symptoms of this or promoters, coming hard on the heels of Talmage and Widtsoe?

    Another major influence at BYU was the fact that uber-conservative Ernest Wilkinson had just run the show for twenty years, enough time to eliminate any “liberalizing” influences from the faculty.

  13. Thomas (8), the exact questions are not reprinted in the book, so I’m not sure whether they were exactly the same, so I suppose we have to rely on Mauss’ integrity in reporting the results.

    Neal (13), those individuals you mention are likewise mentioned by Mauss as promoting a more conservative theology and practice within the Church.

  14. Hey Andrew,

    I don’t doubt Mauss’ integrity – I just wondered. It would be interesting to read how those questions were asked.


  15. Pingback: Henry Eyring, Mormon Scientist and supporter of Evolution « darwinian remiix

  16. Terribly interesting post yet again, Andrew. I too think that today’s church would be closer to the 1973 survey group. I don’t think there is necessarily a resistance to different opinions, just mostly a lack of exposure to them (you have to be fairly open-minded to consider the possibility of truth in a story of angels, gold plates, plural marriages, etc.) And yet, many Mormons tend to look no further than Church-published materials for history, theology, even for day-to-day religious devotional practice.

    “Progressive” voices find their expression in the fringes, and the Internet has provided an extremely convenient way of reaching a far greater number of kindred spirits than ever possibly previously. But we’re 16 years into the World Wide Web, and we’ve only seen big gains in LDS-themed forums in the last 2-3 years at best. Even so, those who read and contribute to discussions on the Bloggernacle represent a minuscule portion of Church membership. Most are oblivious of our existence, and when they do find out, are suspect of our motives. Awareness is a slooooooooooooow process for such a large organization, and activism requires a step even further.

    And yet, is there perhaps a quiet sea-change occurring in the final years of the first decade of the 21st century? Maybe. And perhaps it will continue to “progress” (or “regress”, if we use the 1935 survey as evidence) in part because of increased visibility and participation on blogs like MM. As readership and participation increases, we’ll hopefully see more open dialog (but hopefully not “open” in the recent leadership training meetings sense, complete with canned “roundtables” with people speaking “ad lib”) and less authoritative language coming from the pulpits. High-minded, maybe, but these forums are the one place for me that seems to operate outside the construct of local priesthood oversight, where ideas and actions don’t have bearing on worthiness to serve in local callings.

    I certainly hope a change is afoot at BYU, at least. Like Alexander I was slightly frustrated by the extreme homogeneity of conservative thought on campus while I was there, and became even more frustrated with it after leaving BYU for grad school, wishing more BYU students could experience academic college life outside of the bubble, then return, report, and influence the bursting of said bubble. University students deserve, even crave to be challenged with ideas that are not their own. It is one of the greatest failings of an otherwise fantastic educational experience at BYU that students are afforded little opportunity to confront their beliefs head-on, wrestle with them in all their contradictory, messy glory, and emerge stronger, wiser, more tolerant, more accepting, and more compassionate as a result. It would be interesting if a sociologist could take it upon him or herself to look beyond the 1935 survey results and delve into the academic life of the university in that year to discover what was being taught, how it was being taught, etc. that could shed further light.

    Not to threadjack this post, but Alexander: what made you go back to BYU? Right now I’m interviewing for a faculty position on campus and would like to hear your take on it all. My wife would love to go back to Utah, but I’ve got reservations.

  17. Steve S: I’d be happy to tell you about why I came to BYU in spite of my experience as a student, but I’m not sure how to do that without derailing this discussion any further, and I’m not sure how to contact you via a different venue unless the blog administrators can send you my email or something.
    What I can say relevant to this post is that I want to influence students – to be one of the “progressive voices” yet still a believing one. Not that I want to indoctrinate students but just be an example of someone who values personal inspiration and/or critical thinking over obedience to authority, recognizes that the church and its leaders are not perfect, is a democrat, studies evolutionary biology, etc. and still is generally happy and so far able to coexist with some of my coreligionists that would find such views an anathema. I’m in the life sciences and we have some fantastic evolutionary biologists, as well as people like Bill Bradshaw (just retired) and Duane Jeffery who are tremendous, enlightening influences.

  18. Alexander,

    Your wish is my command.

    Steve S, check your inbox.

    Happy to facilitate the discussion further!

  19. In 2003 I left the LDS Church–not because I rejected Classical Mormon theology (the theology/philosophy of mid-18th century Mormonism) but because the LDS institution had rejecetd it in favor of Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy (aka, late 20th century LDS theology fixated on being “Christian”).
    In 2004 I converted to Reform Mormonism–which take the theological paradigm of the King Follet Discource as its foundation rather than the LDS Church’s restorationist claims. Progressive, inclusive and revering the individual, Reform Mormonism represents (in my opinion) the future of Mormonism.

  20. The content of this article is indeed interesting. If I may hazard some suggestions, A great deal of this article would be well represented by a bar graph, and it may be expanded by researching the history of CES over this period and the Religion faculty at BYU in particular. If my information is correct, there was a time when a great number of the Religion faculty at BYU did not take the Book of Mormon seriously as book of scripture.

    There is an interesting correlation with the time span covered by this
    study with the faith represented in my own family. There was a lack of
    practiced faith in the 2nd and 3rd generation removed from me which
    began to change in the early sixties.

    My prediction is that polarization between the faithful and the
    progressive will increase. There will be a an increase in vehement
    denial of God, Satan, and the very existence of good and evil. At the
    same time there will be an increase in individuals who are practiced in
    working miracles.

  21. I feel like it’s inappropriate to use the BYU student population as a model for the LDS church as a whole. The culture is quite different there from what you’d find in other populations of Mormons in other parts of the United States let alone the church worldwide.
    Good statisticians know that you can’t survey a small microcosm–such as BYU–and make an inference to a larger population or the entire church. It requires a random sampling of the whole population. And it doesn’t seem to take into account all the different factors that would contribute to the changing beliefs.

  22. I don’t think that data from two and only two years can really give great insights to overall trends. This article reeks of confounding variables. Other comments cite the fact that BYU used to be the place where people got shipped to “shape-up,” which tells me that other lurking variables are probably at play as well. What about the types of students that BYU attracts over time as their reputation gets better? What about changes in their admissions requirements and a greater emphasis on returned LDS missionaries?

    Not only are the data they’re using not robust, but they’re also making comments on the church in general by looking at a university that, while being operated largely by church officials, is full of it’s own variation and idiosyncrasies independent of what’s going in the church as a whole.

    It’s interesting to ask the question, but these opinion stats don’t give compelling evidence that we have become less “progressive” as a group, whatever the author means by the loaded term.

  23. I am a progressive Mormon and i favour the present trend where the Church is aware of the historical discrepancies and are willing to shift towards a theology that reaffirms a salvation equivalent to the evangelical understanding of salvation by grace through faith. I favour what the Church is doing in shelving the 1844 King Follett Sermon, the Heavenly Mother concept and the plurality of gods. Salvation for the Dead is unique to Mormonism and ought to be retained. I long for the day for the Church to catch up with mainline Christianity in affirming evolution as a valid theory and to wake up to the fact that we are now doing theology after Darwin.

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