Mormon Fundamentalism and LDS Fundamentalism

In Steve Evans’s recent post “I Could Not Do It” at BCC, he mentioned the “serious aspect of fundamentalism at the heart of being a Mormon,” and then clarified,

I am using “fundamentalism” in a general sense, and not in reference to polygamist groups, although that is clearly an example of fundamentalism in action.

His comment got me to thinking that it’s too bad that, in the Mormon context, the word “fundamentalist” has come to be almost synonymous with “polygamous.” I think it would be useful if we could retain the broader meaning of the word in a Mormon context. For example, one of the (many) strengths of Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive was, I thought, that he  used “fundamentalist” to describe strains of thought and changes in the Church, and thus likely made his discussion more accessible to non-LDS readers familiar with fundamentalism more generally.

So how could the broader term “fundamentalist” be reclaimed for more general use in discussing Mormonism? How can it be used to describe approaches described by Mauss as “characterized by such beliefs as scriptural inerrancy and literalism . . . strict obedience to pastoral injunctions . . . traditionalism in gender roles” rather than just “polygamous”? Here’s a possible solution. Perhaps “Mormon fundamentalism” could be used to refer to fundamentalist thinking in any  church or organization that traces its authority to Joseph Smith, whether in or out of the LDS Church. Fundamentalism specifically inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could then be called “LDS fundamentalism.”

One advantage of this solution is that it retains the present usage: the FLDS church can still be called Mormon fundamentalists. Perhaps I’m suggesting the term be broadened a bit in this area to include other restoration movements that broke away from the LDS and the CoC that don’t practice polygamy. But the most common usage is left intact. The only real change is that now we would have a new term to refer to strains of thought within the LDS Church that push for scriptural literalism and the like without the potential confusion with fundamentalism that falls outside the LDS Church but still within the broader Mormon restoration movement.

I can see three possible classes of objections to my proposed labeling of Mormon fundamentalism and LDS fundamentalism.

First, President Hinckley once said in Conference,

I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. . . .

There is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.

This is true, but only if we take “Mormon” as referring only to members of the LDS Church and “fundamentalist” as referring only to polygamists. When we define both terms more broadly, then President Hinckley’s statement is no longer true.

Second, a solution this simple has probably already been proposed. It seems like something someone would have written about in Dialogue in, say, 1993. This very well could be. If it is, would you please point it out in the comments?

Third, a solution this simple probably has fatal flaws that I haven’t considered. This is even more likely true than that it’s already been suggested. Again, feel free to point the flaws out in the comments.


  1. What you are advocating to be termed “LDS fundamentalism” sounds a lot like what the ex-Mormon community calls “Chapel Mormonism.” I’m pretty sure Dr. Shades did a presentation on the subject at Sunstone some time ago. But that tends to be seen as a pejorative way of putting it.

    I, too, would like to see the term “fundamentalism” rescued so that it could be applied to Mormons in contexts that have little to do with people who currently practice polygamy. I’m just not sure that it’s feasible.

  2. Good thoughts, and I had similar feelings when I felt the need in my post to define my terms.

    I think it’s feasible; indeed in academic circles “fundamentalism” is not commonly used in any other way. It’s just a matter of authors being clear, as I tried to do, that I am not using a parochial or pejorative form of “fundamentalist” but am instead using the traditional definition.

    Your usage of LDS and Mormon above just follows the de facto current usage by non-LDS mormon denominations, doesn’t it? The broader umbrella use of “mormon” is something a lot of smith-founded religions have attempted for decades. Whether or not it sticks is I think a matter of population demographics. But even if we used it I don’t think we’d avoid the confusion re: polygamy.

  3. And yes, there are LOADS of mormon fundamentalists (sorry, President Hinckley!). It would have been more correct, though more lengthy and less interesting to say “The LDS Church excommunicates those who are discovered to be practicing polygamy.”

  4. I’m not eager for LDS fundamentalist to be used widely. First I don’t like any implication that scriptural literalism or traditional gender roles are the fundamentals of the religion. Second I think the term lacks precision. Is it clear which beliefs are fundamentalist and how often they occur together? Why not say scriptural literalist or advocate of prophetic infallibility or whatever else is really meant in each instance? Finally, I don’t hear many LDS looking to self-identify as fundamentalist. If popular usage continues (what I perceive as) its trend towards treating fundamentalist as a synonym for crazy or criminal, I think the descriptor will be an even tougher sell.

  5. I think the term is already used widely in Mormon contexts not having to do with polygamy. At least it is in apologetics. I agree with Steve that an author simply needs to make clear in what sense she is using it. (I tend to use lower case f fundamentalism in the general sense and upper case F in the sense of polygamous splinter groups.)

    And I too disagree with Pres. Hinckley’s characterization that there is no such thing as a Mormon Fundamentalist. There is indeed, in both senses of the word.

    I don’t think what you propose works. First of all, the CoC rejects the term “Mormon.” Second, LDS fundamentalism retains ambiguity, as to whether it means general fundamentalism or polygamous splinter group fundamentalism. Third, since LDS and Mormon are in most contexts synonyms, an author would have to explain the intended difference in each case anyway, at least until it had been used sufficiently that the distinction in usage caught on.

  6. For what it’s worth, the Associated Press style manual, the one more or less followed by nearly every newspaper in the country, recommends against using “fundamentalist” except with the groups that use the term to describe themselves. That’s because of its pejorative connotation.

    I think the word can still be useful, though, if and only if you know your audience. And that’s part of the problem with the term. I am sure that neither Jack nor I would describe the church she attends as fundamentalist (I’d reserve the term for something like the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches), but there are those who would call her church fundamentalist simply because it “upholds celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage as the Christian standard.” Who else but a fundamentalist would have such a notion?

    The terms “theologically conservative” and “theologically liberal” can also have some use, although their meanings in politics muddy the water considerably. And I’m not sure those terms would have the same meaning in the LDS context as they do in a Protestant one. But they might.

    A few years ago in the bloggernacle it was common to use the terms “iron rod” and “Liahona” Mormons. I’m not sure why those terms fell out of disfavor. Perhaps they’re unfairly exclusionary.

    So if I were looking for a good, convenient shorthand term to use for what the original post refers to as “LDS fundamentalism,” and what I might call my “more rigid” brothers and sisters, I’m not sure what I would use.

  7. Such a distinction would be helpful, Ziff. I think I just tend to use “orthodoxy” when I really mean “fundamentalism” to avoid the polygamy reference, but that’s not entirely satisfactory either.

  8. Thanks for your comments.

    Jack, thanks for the pointer. I had forgotten the chapel Mormon and internet Mormon labels, but you’re right that “LDS fundamentalists” is trying to describe a similar (although perhaps narrower?) group.

    Steve, yeah, exactly. I should have been clearer that I was just trying to borrow what seems like a common usage of LDS vs. “Mormon”. And I think you’re exactly right that if people are just clear about what they’re talking about when they say “fundamentalism” then it doesn’t really matter what other term goes with it.

    Brian, you make a good point that “fundamentalist” has a lot of negative baggage. Regarding the issue of precision, though, I do think the term (or some other alternative) might be useful so long as what are thought of as fundamentalist beliefs tend to co-occur together more often than not. Now whether they do or not is an empirical question. I have no data. I think they might, but of course that’s more than likely just the confirmation bias at work. 🙂

    Kevin, good point. Really if this distinction were going to work, it would require a large number of people to start using it similarly around the same time to push it into common enough usage that everyone would know what you were saying when you said one versus the other. It seems unlikely to happen, as you observe, (Maybe I need to look back at Gladwell’s The Tipping Point!) and the fallback position of requiring writers to just clarify at the beginning what exactly they’re talking about when they say fundamentalism.

    Eric, good points about the lack of precision of the term. I can see why the AP wouldn’t want to go with it because, as you and Brian both point out, it has very negative connotations.

    Emily, that’s a good alternative. At least it’s not seen as so negative. After all, many people want to be orthodox!

  9. Ziff,
    It’s so good (and rare) to see you writing a non-statistical post! Fabulous.
    In your comment, this jumped out at me:

    “it would require a large number of people to start using it similarly around the same time to push it into common enough usage “

    So is this a call to action? If so, I can write a post at Exponent about fundamentalists. (We’re putting the “fun” and the “mental” in fundamental)
    I think I usually use the acronym TBM (true believing mormons) when I refer to LDS Fundamentalists, although I think the latter is probably narrower and more strident than the former. Not to mention, most non-bloggers have no idea what TBM means.

  10. Thanks, Jessawhy! I guess I wasn’t so much issuing a call to action as observing that I doubt any such term would catch on without enough people using it to make sense to at least some hearers. What I really need, more likely, is for a more influential blogger like Kiskilili–coiner of “chicken patriarchy“–to come up with a better term and popularize it. 🙂

  11. I read this one from top to bottom & had trouble trying to understand it. Does Fundamentalism – apart from polygamy mean reintroducing the United order, Fast days on Thursday & putting “white & delightsome” back in the Book of Mormon?
    I’m puzzled.


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