Return to About Mormons home

Social Relations with Non-Mormons

by Darl Anderson, David K. Udall, and Eleanor P. Jones

The social milieu of the Church in modern times may be compared to that of the New Testament Church. In each situation, a peculiar people amid multiple religious traditions and structures engendered hostility.

In and around Palmyra, New York, prior to the organization of the Church, the Smith family was welcomed in the community. But the announcements of new revelation, new scripture, and direct communication with God engendered a negative social reaction. Within a year, the family and all other members of the Church moved from that area. None returned for nearly eighty-five years. Similar hostilities developed in other areas (see Anti-Mormonism; Persecution). The missionary outreach of the fledgling Church extended into England, Scandinavia, and western Europe, where churches were mostly state-controlled, and alternative faiths were oppressed. To listen to, sympathize with, or join the Latter-day Saints often meant that one would be disowned by parents and relatives, socially ostracized, fined, jailed, or even in some instances threatened with death. The resulting stream of LDS emigrants to Church settlements in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois was so extensive that even in the melting-pot atmosphere of America, they were often confronted immediately with suspicion and opposition.

Following its withdrawal from New York, the Church established its headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio. There the vigorous missionary thrust continued to bring into the Church many people with commitment and dedication, leaving little time in their lives for social relationships with those outside the Church, who often shunned friendly overtures when they were made. The reaction of many churches was strongly negative to the LDS influence, and the typical responses of Latter-day Saints was to draw closer to each other for mutual protection and support. Communication was sporadic and fleeting at best. Misunderstandings grew.

Under divine command, the Church relocated in northern Missouri, where rapid growth multiplied tensions and frictions. The specter of growing LDS economic and political power in five counties amplified the social stress. There was also the complication of "apostates," or dissidents, who often joined anti-Mormon coalitions. The "old settlers" and the new LDS ones were polarized. The Church's social and political difficulties in Missouri culminated in Governor Lilburn Boggs' infamous Extermination Order and resulted in some 1,500 LDS families being forced to abandon their farms, homes, and other possessions and flee for their lives into Illinois. There, a new LDS gathering place called Nauvoo was founded.

For a time Nauvoo was a community almost unto itself. Its singular status, the inclusive character of its life patterns, and the extension of the religious vision into all aspects of culture were stabilized by a strong self-sufficient charter and even a militia, the Nauvoo Legion. Many visitors came to view the new city, and efforts to promote cultural and intellectual exchange increased. Joseph Smith and about 1,500 other Church members joined the Masonic lodges in Nauvoo and nearby Keokuk and Montrose to promote fraternal relations (see Freemasonry in Nauvoo). However, once again the old settlers outside the Church clashed with the LDS settlers, and hostilities grew.

Driven westward, the Saints settled in the Great Basin, where comparative freedom and peace enabled them to pursue their social, intellectual, and spiritual goals. For several decades social exchange and the development of intercultural relations with those outside the group were limited. The Church was the leading influence—social, political, economical, and educational. Relative calm and cooperation prevailed until tensions mounted, primarily over the practice of plural marriage. A half century passed before this issue was resolved, and in 1896, Utah Territory in the Great Basin became a state (see Utah Statehood).

In the twentieth century, congenial relations have developed between the Church and other groups and institutions throughout the United States and the world. Church membership has become increasingly diverse and widespread, and new motivations for communication, goodwill, and cooperation have arisen. The needs of modern society have cried out for improved relations among faiths and people worldwide. The critical need for efforts and participation that unite churches and social organizations has become more apparent. Problems relating to the hungry and homeless, the illiterate and underprivileged, the drug-addicted and abused, and the victims of disintegrating family life have increased on a worldwide scale. The relative stability of LDS society is attractive to many who seek leadership and example. Latter-day Saints and their neighbors have increasingly recognized common ground and common causes. They participate extensively in such groups as Boy Scouts, chambers of commerce, service clubs, the YMCA, the United Fund, local school systems, and a variety of professional and benevolent civic organizations (see Civic Duties).

Although social relations of Church members with others are generally much more congenial in the late twentieth century than earlier, some sources of friction persist. Some negative responses continue to arise in other church communities because of LDS missionary efforts, with Latter-day Saints sometimes accused of being aggressive in both religious and nonreligious contexts.

[See also Social and Cultural History; Daily Living home page; Interfaith Relationships home page]

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 4, Social Relations With Non-Mormons

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons