Half-way Mormons: A lesson from the Puritans

John Nilsson christianity, church, doubt, faith, history, inter-faith, Mormon, religion, salvation, spirituality, testimony 25 Comments

I hope everyone enjoyed their turkey and stuffing for Thanksgiving last week.  One thing I appreciate about the Puritans, other than their fondness for a good feast, burning witches, cool hats, repression of normal sexual desires, and providing the grist for great dramas like The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, is the good sense of their descendants in religious matters.

They decided you could be a half-Puritan, which technically sounds like you’re half dirty today, but hear me out. To be a full Puritan, and originally that’s the only religious option you had as a resident of the Bay Colony unless you wanted to be reduced to basic carbon, you were expected to produce evidence of a miraculous, heartfelt conversion to the truth of the Puritan interpretation of the gospel of Christ.

The problem was, you had generations of kids who had been raised in the Puritan community who were not able to provide dramatic testimony of their conversion, which is understandable for sociological reasons. So that generation grew up and had kids and then, what the heck is a good totalizing church-culture to do?  The Half-Way Covenant was a way to soften the requirements of membership in order to maintain some sort of control over the members by dropping the expectation of public confession of conversion.  One still had to pay dues, or taxes, to support the church and community, in order to live in the community. And I suppose one couldn’t be a raging heretic, although the Congregationalists (the organizational descendants of the Puritans )today are much less dogmatic and more accepting of heretics than their great-great-great-great-grandmothers.

So could Mormons adopt a half-way covenant to stop membership losses in the United States, Canada, and other First World nations, and what would a Mormon half-way covenant look like?

Comments

comments

Comments 25

  1. In my mind this could already exist in someone who meets the qualifications of a member but who chooses not to enter into the temple covenants.

  2. The obvious answer is that they pay 5% tithing, smoke only on Tuesdays, attend church for 1.5 hours per week, and wear clothing that leaves one shoulder bare.

    In all seriousness, though, there is no possibility of a half-way covenant in Mormonism. The only covenant is “all” and the only other choice is “nothing.” Individuals may kid themselves that they can be social or ethnic or middle path, but they’re only kidding themselves. If you aren’t at least striving to live up to a covenant of “all,” no matter how short your human failings cause you to miss the mark, you’re settling for “nothing.”

  3. I knew a family that said they were striving for the Terrestrial Kingdom. I think that might be the half-covenant you are looking for. But I do think, we already have that in the church based on some people’s commitment level. It is more self-professed than confessed.

  4. 2 Banned Commenter

    “In all seriousness, though, there is no possibility of a half-way covenant in Mormonism. The only covenant is “all” and the only other choice is “nothing.” Individuals may kid themselves that they can be social or ethnic or middle path, but they’re only kidding themselves. If you aren’t at least striving to live up to a covenant of “all,” no matter how short your human failings cause you to miss the mark, you’re settling for “nothing.”

    Even members who appear to be extremely orthodox shock me with their views!

    Some believe parts of the bible are allegorical and one close orthodox friend said even that Noah could have been a localized flood. Some drink coke others differ on what is literal in the bible. Many have changed their view on the Mountain Meadow Massacre from a recent Ensign, on polygamy since Sacred loneliness and on Blacks and the Priesthood since Darius Gray and Margaret young’s BYU devotional

    I think even with the most orthodox members views can be very diverse as they get further knowledge.

    Whether we accept it or not were not all made the same and we are all buffet Mormons to on degree or another.

    “So could Mormons adopt a half-way covenant to stop membership losses in the United States, Canada, and other First World nations, and what would a Mormon half-way covenant look like?”

    I think its already happening on a grass roots level definitely!

  5. I have to comment, as I was thinking about the Puritans and the fact that they had only civil marriage, feeling that there was nothing in scripture that justified ministers marrying people. An interesting twist to consider.

  6. Another interesting twist: Puritans believed that God pre-destined individuals for salvation, and pre-destined the rest for damnation. A confession of salvation was viewed as a person’s recognizing that he or she was one of the lucky few on Earth who God had pre-destined to be saved.

    The problem was that many in the younger generations didn’t have an amazing spiritual experience that made them feel confident enough to stand up and declare he/she was one of the lucky few who were pre-destined to be saved. And yet they wanted to attend church with their family and be a part of the community.

    This raised an interesting situation: if God pre-destines people to be saved, and pre-destines people to be damned, then it’s not really someone’s “fault” that God didn’t elect him/her to be saved. And if that’s the case, why shut people out who want to be part of the community all over something that really isn’t their fault. In other words, a person who was pre-destined to be saved, or a person who was not pre-destined to be saved, was essentially “born that way”. (Sound familiar?)

    So the Puritans provide an example of how people with a deterministic world view, rather than a free-will world view, will inevitably come to this type of conflict and resolution. But those who have a free-will world view don’t see this type of conflict, because they believe people have agency and control over their actions and the ability to strive for salvation.

    Which is why the whole debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage really comes down to whether you have a deterministic world view where people are born with inclinations they can’t change and can’t control, or a free-will world view where the individual has the ability to chose and change and control.

  7. Post
    Author

    Or a worldview where people are determined to act freely.

    What is the teaching of the LDS Church on this issue? Are we free or determined in our actions?

  8. I believe the structure of the LDS Church prevents it from having this type of “Mormon half-way covenant.” That is a good thing though, because the Puritan’s method is treating the symptom and not the actual cause – in this case why less people are having these spiritual manifestations.

  9. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

    We believe in a world view of free thinking but that world view stops internally if we cross taboo doctrinal issues. Times change though as Jaunita Brooks was from what I understood close to loosing her membership for her blunt disclosure of history and now much of her studies have been praised and are used in our current understanding of the Mountain Meadow Massacre. The same is true with Fawn Broddie in No Man knows my history- Richard Bushman used much of her research in Rough Stone Rolling.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/video/flv/generic.html?s=frol02s771q115

  10. It’s been said, but I’ll say it again. At least I hope it’s so. A half-way “covenant” is no covenant. Seems to me that Revelation 3:16 is relevant here (“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth”).

    That said, I realize fully that we have different levels of commitment in different things as well as different levels of doctrinal emphasis. Because our experience is unique, we are given quite a bit of “latitude” as long as we are on the right side of moral issues. Even temple worthiness can be maintained pretty easily, IMO. But expressly compromising for the sake of retaining slackers sounds off-putting.

  11. I think love can be expressed, for example by not being nit-picky about little things. Jesus’ example of telling the adulterous woman, “neither do I condemn thee – go and sin no more” is one way. What Jesus did there is, he pretty much saved her life and then gave her a loving admonition.

    Coming from me, the same admonition might not be as well received, so I’d have to be gentler about it. I can be kind to a person without expressly condoning actions that I consider out of bounds for me.

    I guess the word “slackers” is loaded. Would it sound different if I had said, that I would consider it ill-advised to specifically create a setting where you can “opt out” of things we teach are essential, for those who don’t want to commit their best efforts? (Don’t we kind of have it already? I mean, if I want to, I can get away with a lot of stuff, unless I start really making waves…)

  12. 14. Velska

    I agree with you completely. I have always felt that because the Church presents its core teachings in a way that is “non-negotiable” it helps keep the foundation of the Church and its theology strong. However, if someone does have a legitimate concern about a teaching or principle aside from being a slacker I do view that in a completely different light (as you might).

    I don’t see The Half-Way Covenant as the Puritan’s place for slackers, but rather a place to segregate younger members that had not experienced spiritual manifestions or other confirmations they could testify of. I am sure some of them were slackers, but I would think that sociological factors contributed greatly. Keep in mind I have done no research on this personally, so may assumptions are only based on this short post.

    I believe the LDS Church has already taken steps towards helping its members that have lacked a strong testimony. Since its organization leaders have explained that testimonies don’t always come in miraculous experiences. They have also recognized that within the Church there are great differences in a member’s commitment level.

    What I do think is lacking are resources for those that simply disagree with a particular teaching or have very deep questions. The standard Bishop response of bearing testimony and counseling the member to pray about it doesn’t always work. I know this personally. I wish there was more that could be done, however I understand how difficult it is because I have no clear solutions to present.

  13. What is a covenant? It’s a binding agreement between two parties, in this case, the individual and the church. Some may say between the individual and God, but I don’t think that’s what is being discussed here. When the church excommunicates, it is because that person no longer feels bound to the church. It’s always a question of loyalty, at least I think so. Fawn Brodie and B.H. Roberts said remarkably similar things, but B.H. Roberts said them while still desiring to be bound to the church, and Fawn Brodie did not.

    But I also agree with what Jeff said earlier on, that we really determine our own covenant level (rather than having a menu of covenants to choose from).

  14. I’m not sure. Many churches use the word covenant, and it means different things in different times and places. It usually starts by meaning a binding oath and ends by meaning something like a creed (a dusty piece of paper on a wall that has no bearing on the practical day-to-day realities of lay members).

  15. Half-Way Mormons? Sign me up!

    I keep talking to my family and friends about petitioning SLC to approve a “River Trails Less Active 1st Ward”. It would be common place for your meeting to start 45 minutes late with your birkenstock wearing bishop apologizing, between latte sips, for not having enough donuts for everybody because the line at Starbucks was backed up for a block.

  16. I have wondered if we should have people trained in relationship skills counseling people full-time as backups for bishops and stake presidents. These people could give advise on how to evaluate your concerns about doctrine, or more importantly, policy.

    Let me explain. I tend to think that the Scriptures are ethical/moral guides more than doctrinal declarations. The basic doctrines of Christ’s divinity, Atonement etc. are not so rigid, really, in that there are different ways of interpreting them. For example, when we say “infinite Atonement”, just how inclusive is it and on what condition? You can parse this for the rest of eternity. Is adultery wrong? This is easier to answer. If your answer to the latter is no, but I don’t feel inclined to do it anyway, does that mean that you shouldn’t be a member? Not if you asked me… (and I realize nobody’s really asking!)

    I really am inwardly more conservative than appears here, but I always start softening approach when drawing a line in the sand.

  17. I’ve discussed this with friends in the “acknowledge Christ as your Redeemer and your saved, permanently” doctrine. They find no need to require specific actions from their members. Once you’re in, you’re in. The LDS Church, on the other hand, does have requirements. In my opinion, active faithful members are always striving for obedience, but few of us are as constant as we would like to be. Some quit striving because it’s too hard. The Lord doesn’t have half a covenant, but sometimes that’s all we are willing to make.

  18. Perhaps our scriptures already contain some sort of parallel to the Puritans’ distinctions between total and halfway testimony. D&C 46:13–14:

    “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

    “To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.”

    Some have said that the second spiritual gift listed here is merely a preparatory gift of some sort, something to keep you going until you gain the other gift. I’m not sure how it works, but I do know that there are people who will claim to have the one gift and others who will claim to have the other. And according to this scripture, that’s OK.

  19. You say:

    “In all seriousness, though, there is no possibility of a half-way covenant in Mormonism. The only covenant is “all” and the only other choice is “nothing.” Individuals may kid themselves that they can be social or ethnic or middle path, but they’re only kidding themselves. If you aren’t at least striving to live up to a covenant of “all,” no matter how short your human failings cause you to miss the mark, you’re settling for “nothing.””

    Actually, you are right and wrong at the same time.

    To keep a covenant is to perform one’s duty and do what one has promised one would do. This has nothing to do with what one believes. Keeping the commandments in the Church has nothing to do with belief or testimony of whatever subject. One should not have to believe in the Book of Mormon as a historical document to be a keeper of commandments. One should not have to believe the prophet is the one and only true to keep commandments. The fact is, there are very few things in Mormonism that require specific beliefs in anything in particular to be faithful to commandments and covenants. To be a half way Mormon would be someone who keeps commandments and covenants, but is a closet heretic. Nobody can force a closet heretic to believe anything, and if he is doing his duty, nobody can take away his temple recommend. And furthermore, if he is doing his duty, God will not punish him for being a closet heretic either!

  20. “Nobody can force a closet heretic to believe anything, and if he is doing his duty, nobody can take away his temple recommend. And furthermore, if he is doing his duty, God will not punish him for being a closet heretic either!”

    Very well said Joe Bob!!!

  21. “So could Mormons adopt a half-way covenant to stop membership losses in the United States, Canada, and other First World nations, and what would a Mormon half-way covenant look like?”
    Can’t see why you need to even contemplate it. Mormonism,if it works don’t try to fix it, but you don’t like paying the full tithe just pay a fifth (ha,ha).

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