It’s the Sex, Stupid


America has been the birthplace of lots of new ideas, including new religions. One of those was Mormonism, the brain-child of Joseph Smith, in the 1820’s. Not satisfied with just being the religious leader, Smith decided, about twenty years later, that God had told him to take multiple wives.

Not everyone was given such an order – only men in good standing with the church ( i.e., with Smith) – but the group became known as polygamists and consequently weird and cultish.

In 1844, with Smith deciding to run for President of the United States ( a little like Jesse Jackson doing so in terms of realism), a group of former Mormons started writing stuff against him.

Not one to be delighted with criticism, Smith gave the following order:

To the Marshal of said City, greeting.
You are here commanded to destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor, and pi the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the Expositors and libelous handbills found in said establishment; and if resistance be offered to your execution of this order by the owners or others, demolish the house; and if anyone threatens you or the Mayor or the officers of the city, arrest those who threaten you, and fail not to execute this order without delay, and make due return hereon.
By order of the City Council,
Joseph Smith, Mayor

Joseph, it seems, wasn’t much on freedom of expression. I bet he used to say that “constructive criticism was welcome, but griping will not be tolerated.”

As a result,  the state arrested him and jailed him and a mob who didn’t like Mormons in the first place stormed the jail and murdered him.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

That unhappy event led to a bit of a crisis of leadership, and the group pretty much split up, with the largest faction heading west to Utah (eventually) with Brigham Young at the helm. And thus we have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But before we got to the choir, we had 1890. That was the year that the United States government put its foot down on Mormonism’s neck. They could have a church and pretty much run a territory and give up polygamy, or they  could be taken down.  Their choice. It was a serious problem.

Here’s a quote from 1869, by Wilford Woodruff:

If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right. We just can’t do that, for God has commanded us to build up His kingdom and to bear our testimony to the nations of the earth, and we are going to do it, come life or come death. He has told us to do thus, and we shall obey Him in days to come as we have in days past.  (JOD 13:165 – p.166)

Can’t do it, he said. Just can’t do it. It would take down our religion. God told us to screw every woman in sight and we have to obey.

But then Mr. Woodruff became the president of the church and suddenly God was saying something different (from the Official Declaration I of September 1890).

There is nothing in my teachings to the Church or in those of my associates, during the time specified, which can be reasonably construed to inculcate or encourage polygamy; and when any Elder of the Church has used language which appeared to convey any such teaching, he has been promptly reproved. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.

What we had here was some old white guys who wanted to control the bodies and lives of their women without any pesky interference from any outside government.  They were the government. They ran and ran and finally got to Utah and thought, “Now, at last, they will leave us alone and these women will do as they are told.” That’s a paraphrase, but it’s essentially what they had in mind.

So what does this old history review have to do with anything?

Well, there are parallels here.

American fundamentalism is not “that old time religion.” It’s actually fairly new, even younger than Mormonism. Despite the fact that I was taught in my childhood Sunday School classes at Fellowship Baptist Church, Taylors, SC, that the True Faith was embodied in Baptist doctrine and therefore fundamentalism could trace its roots right back to the Acts, it’s just not true.

William Jennings Bryan

And like any new religion, it’s had a rocky road. Almost as fast as the ink was dry on the famous “Fundamentals,” this new(ish) religion had to deal with public ridicule in the Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925. And after that, it sort of retreated into itself.

When I was a girl, the fundamentalism I knew was not particularly political, or even very public. I had no idea about which political party was “approved” or whether anyone in our church voted or not, or if they did, who they supported.

But what I did know was that girls and women needed to know their place and get in it and stay there. I was told repeatedly as a young teen that I lacked a “meek and quiet spirit”. It certainly wasn’t a compliment.

Controlling women in terms of their roles as wife, mother, “helpmeet” (does anyone else hate that expression like I do?) was a common sermon topic. Fundamentalists were not polygamists, but the double standard was loud and clear.

I experienced it as a teenager. But I also experienced it as an adult. Nothing at all had changed by the time I was married, a parent, and in my early forties. I can’t think of a single change in their thinking during those decades with the possible exception of becoming just a wee bit more forgiving of women wearing pants instead of skirts.

[As an aside, Mormons have a history of racism, too.]

But another thing that I was taught was that psychology was a tool of the devil. Mental illness was a spiritual problem. Depression? Spiritual problem. Insomnia? Spiritual problem. Have a C-section? You guessed it. Spiritual problem. (Exact words: “Hasn’t God had to punish you enough?” with “punish” referring to a C-section.)

Anything that doesn’t go right is a spiritual problem. And that means that all problems have spiritual answers, and they are all found in the church. As a result, the pastor becomes the go-to person for all of life’s decisions.

When I was in nursing school, a man in our church decided he’d been “called” to the ministry and moved his family to Missouri to go to Bible college there. While there, he developed a profound case of schizophrenia and was brought back to South Carolina and admitted to the state mental hospital in Columbia.

I remember being really confused about this. I was in the middle of my psych training at that same mental hospital. Although I never saw the man during his stay there, I couldn’t understand why, if the problem was spiritual, the pastor hadn’t somehow dealt with it. I, of course, was pursuing an education in a medical field, but somehow, he was supposed to be treated differently.

And there was never a question but that the pastor was intimately involved in the man’s commitment. Everyone always called the pastor, first thing, if anything happened. Everything was a spiritual problem. Therefore, the pastor was the doctor who fixed it all.

And that means that when I got that visit from Don after graduating, and I called my mother, nobody even thought for a second that we might need to find some sort of legal authority and report the incident. Nope. She called the pastor. It seemed normal.

And I bet that after thirty years or more of polygamy, Mormons thought of it as normal, too.  It was just the way things were. More than one wife? Of course. Report crimes, especially those involving sex and/or women, to the pastor instead of the police?  Naturally.  Call the pastor when you feel depressed instead of your doctor?  Yep.

But even as Mormons practiced their bizarre religion, there were dissidents. Some of them even got a printing press and started blogging, er, writing pamphlets.  Former Mormons. Former fundamentalists.

Some were content simply to wage a battle of words. Smith, who like Bob Jones III about a hundred and fifty years later, didn’t like anyone who disagreed with him, had the press destroyed.

But notice that the 1840 assassination of Smith and the 1890 Manifesto spanned a fifty year period. The dissidents didn’t like polygamy – the control and subjugation of women by the church. They didn’t win the battle for fifty years, and even then, they didn’t win completely. Polygamy is still alive and well in Utah among splinter groups of Mormons.


The GRACE report, and the controversy about Bob Jones University isn’t about a college. It’s about a religion and its future evolution. Fundamentalism has weathered its Scope trial (the media assassination of one of its standard bearers – William Jennings Bryan), but it is now facing a stand-off with government.

This is enough to make fundamentalists everywhere either fighting mad or scared shitless. They are afraid of government. They don’t like anyone telling them anything about anything, ever.


It’s not the first time this has happened to fundamentalism, of course. During the 1970’s, we were involved in a church in Southern Pines, NC, that I have dubbed “The Fundy Church From Hell” that got into a legal brawl [Note: PDF file] with the state of North Carolina over teacher accreditation for our Christian school.


I was someplace in this crowd along with my husband. [I am sorry, America. I am so sorry. I was so very wrong.] In that particular clash between religion and government, the solution was for us to lobby the state legislature vehemently until they changed the law to suit us. North Carolina went from being one of the most heavily-regulated states in the union in regard to credentials for private school teachers to being one of the least-regulated states. Before we were finished dragging the state back to the 19th century, a private Christian school teacher had to be 18 years old and a high school graduate, period.

And stuff like this has happened from time to time all across the nation. I use that example because I was there.

There is a difference right here between the Mormon situation and the current fundamentalist one. Mormons are mostly a monolithic group. A few splinter groups exist, but they are small. Fundamentalism is one giant bundle of splinters. No monolith exists.

There was a voice for Mormonism in the president of the church. He spoke, and to the church members, it was the voice of God, something like the Pope speaking to the Catholic church. But there really is no such office in fundamentalism.

In the years since my deconversion and exit from religion, I have watched as former fundamentalists have morphed gradually into what we called “new evangelicals.” Our pastor always referred to them as “new evangelicals, with the emphasis on the ‘jelly’.” They were considered people who were perhaps “saved” (but maybe not), and certainly spineless and very much out of the will of God.

I’ve wondered, as I’ve watched from outside, if evangelicalism would become more fundy-like, or if fundamentalism would become more evangelical as the flirting, dating, and subsequent, almost inevitable marriage occurred. I’ve thought it’s been mostly evangelicalism veering sharply right as fundies came into their ranks bringing their fundamentalist world-view with them. And I still think that’s mostly the case.

But this is a turning point, maybe. Perhaps we’re going to see fundamentalism become kinder and gentler and a teensy bit more “liberal.”

Or maybe not.

Maybe they will become defiant and insular and retreat like they did after the Scopes trial.

Regardless, I think this is fundamentalism’s 1890 moment. Mormonism met the challenge of change, and even though pockets of splinter Mormons still practice polygamy in Utah, and even though there is reasonable evidence that at least some of Utah’s law enforcement folks turn a blind eye to it, the church as a whole moved from being a new, weird cult into a much more mainstream, if still way too conservative, Christian denomination.

Can American Christian fundamentalism do the same thing?

I’m not sure.

Read again what Wilford Woodruff said in 1869, before he knew he would have to eat those words:

If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does, then all would be right. We just can’t do that, for God has commanded us to build up His kingdom and to bear our testimony to the nations of the earth, and we are going to do it, come life or come death. He has told us to do thus, and we shall obey Him in days to come as we have in days past. (JOD 13:165 – p.166)

Substitute “counseling” or “our independence” or “our right to manage our own affairs” (meaning “our right to do with our women as we please”) for “polygamy” and those words could be spoken by almost any fundamentalist leader I’ve ever known.



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