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?