Neil J. Young: Southern Baptists vs. the Mormons ... an old story

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Neil J. Young is writing a dissertation in U.S. history at Columbia University on the theological tensions among Catholics, Mormons, and Southern Baptists working on shared political causes during the 1970s and '80s.]

[Re: Huckabee versus Romney.]

... This is the first time a Southern Baptist and a Mormon have battled for the White House, but their faiths have struggled with each other for years. Most Americans know little about Mormonism, aside from rumors about the sacred undergarments some Mormons wear. But for the millions who attend Southern Baptist churches, this is hardly a new discussion. For nearly the past 40 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has devoted considerable effort to teaching its members about the dangers of Mormonism. In fact, probably no other organization in the nation has played a bigger role in perpetuating the idea that Mormonism is a cult than the Southern Baptist Convention.

Ever since Joseph Smith began preaching his new faith in 1830, the Mormon Church has been branded as a cult. Mormons suffered persecution in the 19th century for their communal living, their scandalous Book of Mormon scripture, and, most famously, the polygamous marriages some Mormons practiced. Protestant Christians, especially, decried Mormon theological beliefs that God had once lived as a man and that men could themselves become gods if they lived a righteous life in the Mormon Church—a works-based notion of salvation that countered evangelical claims that grace alone could lead one to heaven. Other aspects of the Mormon faith struck Christians as no less than blasphemous heresies: the idea that God lived in the heavens near a planet called Kolob and directed his earthly church through a president who also held prophetic status and could receive divine revelations....

In the early 1980s, Southern Baptist Convention leaders discovered—much to their horror—that 40 percent of Mormonism's 217,000 converts in 1980 came from Baptist backgrounds. More than 150 Mormon missionaries had descended on the northern Georgia area alone, a Southern Baptist magazine noted warily in 1982, and they found Southern Baptists among their most promising targets. When the Mormon Church built temples in the early '80s in Atlanta and Dallas, two of Southern Baptism's most important hubs, it was as if the Mormon Church had thrown down the gauntlet in an arms race between two of the most missionary-minded faiths. Mormonism was declaring its permanent presence in the American South, where Southern Baptism enjoyed status as the de facto religion.

And the SBC got serious about tempering the expansion of what was becoming the fastest-growing religion in the world. They developed programs, trained pastors, hosted Mormonism-awareness conferences, and published articles to help spread the message to Southern Baptists that Mormonism was a dangerous cult religion they had to avoid. The SBC's Sunday School Board developed an instruction kit, "The Christian Confronting the Cults," that covered five religious groups: the Mormon Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, the Unification Church (the Moonies), and Christian Scientists. The book quickly became the Sunday School Board's top-selling item. The Baptist Film Centers even purged two films produced by Brigham Young University from its distribution lists. Neither film addressed doctrinal issues, but the Southern Baptist Convention dropped the titles so as not to appear approving of Mormon-produced messages. All of these efforts against Mormonism, an SBC magazine explained, were "to help Baptists witness to Mormons without becoming 'Mormonized' themselves."...

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