NCMO: A Brief History

ImageDuck, North Carolina—home to one of the most conservative beaches in the country—seems a strangely suitable site for modern coming-of-age stories in the Mormon single adult community. Remote, humble, and isolated, Duck Beach serves as the unofficial mecca for a host of Mormon single adult looking for love, fun—and other things too.  Duck’s transformation from agrarian community to beach resort illustrates the transition that Mormon single adults have made as marriage ages and limited promiscuity have increased while dating has decreased.  Most of all, it has acquired a reputation for that singularly Mormon innovation: the non-committal makeout (NCMO).

The creation of the Duck Beach Mormon culture has much more to do with demographic and moral shifts within the Mormon people than with the appeal of an obscure North Carolina town. Over the course of the past century, the Saints have been withdrawing from their mountain home of the Intermountain West. Eastern cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City have become major urban centers for young Latter-day Saint life.  As early as the 1870s, the Saints began attending schools such as the University of Michigan, West Point, and the University of Vermont for law school, medical school, and, obviously, military sciences.

With the migratory thrust to urban centers, the Saints were forced to adapt.  Instead of living on homesteads with tightly-knit communities, they lived in apartments with strangers as neighbors.  The Saints continued to form small congregations, but they could no longer assume Mormon culture all the time.  The new Mormon migrant was forced to develop a kind of “public Mormonism” for work/politics and private Mormonism for their friends and fellow adherents.These identities were not mutually exclusive nor was the exercise deceptive. The Saints simply acquired new languages—the language of business, politics, the arts, and technology.   Duck Beach’s Mormon visitors are made up predominantly of older, Mormon single adults engaged in professional activities.

While it might be tempting to suppose that these Saints adapted “Gentile” ways after becoming acquainted with urban life, most of the shifts in Mormon life were well underway in the early-20th-century. Single adults had been fraternizing with non-Mormons since the late 1850s when the soldiers of Johnston’s army flirted with the young Mormon women, In the 1870s, Diantha Clayton, wife of William Clayton, famously danced the waltz–famously scandalous for the men’s prolonged contact with the women’s waist.

The Necking Hey Day
The most important development in the creation of 20th-century Mormon gender relations (and America’s writ large) came from an assembly line in Detroit: the automobile.  By making the car accessible to young men across the nation, Henry Ford had given men a powerful tool for establishing a space in which both men and women could embrace a more permissive attitude towards gender relations. Men could take women to locales far-removed from the watchful eye of parents.  A spacious backseat facilitated them.

While still urged to keep their stImageandards high, Mormon couples used the new innovation to promote a new dating culture.  Consequently,“necking” experienced a brief heyday in Depression-era Utah. Advice columns in small-town Utah newspapers were acknowledging that “necking is not frowned upon. “Necking” was a pastime so common that it was listed as only one of several activities of collegiate rowdiness at the University of Utah.  One piece of doggerel spoke mischievously: “A snappy girl/Eyes of blue/Clever boy/Likes her too/Lights turned low…and there you have/a necking party.”  One column spoke of a man and woman kissing when the woman said wryly: “I don’t mind being kissed…[but] I’m mighty hungry, too and I mind being fed even less than I do being kissed.” Another piece had a man and woman kissing in a restaurant.  The owner told them to leave: “this is a tearoom, not a petshop.”

Mormon standards still remained remarkably high (by some standards, prudish), to be sure.  Genuine promiscuity would never have been acceptable by any construction of Mormon culture or doctrine.   And the old-school Mormons had their own problems with sexual morality as well.  The difference was in the publicization of the activity.    Whereas intimacy of any kind was something to write of in hushed tones to priesthood leaders, the new forms illustrated a willingness to cultivate sexuality with the opposite sex while staying clear of the uncrossable lines.

The Mormon 60s
When the youth of the necking era gave birth to the baby boomers of the postwar era, they recognized that the youth faced new problems that required new advice and new solutions.  A 1960s advice columnist bemoaned that many youth tended to think that physical attraction signaled a “go-ahead for necking.” One stake youth committee advised parents that telling their children to be “‘be sweet and clean” would be ineffective.  Instead, they should be reminded that “if they get so turned on and lose control , they’ll end up with a pregnancy and broken lives.” First date kissing could be acceptable.  The primary danger was in letting kissing “get out of hand.”  In Spencer W. Kimball’s widely-read, The Miracle of Forgiveness, he acknowledged that “necking” was a “sin in itself,” but the emphasis often seemed to be on the potential outcome rather than as an act in itself.

Whatever its dangers, necking’s prevalence was commonly acknowledged in the “Jokes” pages of the newspapers. One told of a father harangued a boy for necking with his daughter.  The boy responded sadly: “I was just carrying out the scriptural injunction to ‘hold fast that which is good.’” Another panned that “the Administration is trying to stop necking,” with the response: “First thing you know, they’ll be trying to make the students stop too.”  One editor panned an awkward young man’s date; he had been so clumsy that she thought “he learned his necking by mail.”  A Manti paper chided women for claiming to “like boys who can have fun without necking.” Why then, it asked, “are you wearing a Red Riding Hood if you don’t want a Wolf to run after you?”  In 1968, an advice columnist counseled a young man “that “necking isn’t fatal but has put an end to many a bachelor!”Image

Many of the Saints of the East attempted to retrench by becoming crack businessmen who projected an image of competence, wholesomeness, and business-savvy (see “Mitt Romney” and “The Eyrings” in the dictionary of Mormon culture, for example).    At BYU, one outsider was amazed to see that there was “no necking between dances.”  BYU embraced competitive dancing, emphasizing proper gender roles, “clever footwork” and “smooth styling”–even allowing for the historically sultry dances of the rhumba and the samba in an effort to “steer into the curve” of the increasingly powerful forces of the 1960s cultural revolution.

By the end of the 20th century, most modern Saints grew up in households of parents who still drew hard lines against serious sexual transgression and promiscuity.   But it was widely recognized that Mormon society had changed.   In 1973, a Bountiful regional conference hosted a dance that openly advertised a kissing booth.  While the idea of no-strings-attached affection had existed for some time in Mormon society (“sweet 16” typically meant a goal of kissing 16 boys within a year of the 16th-birthday), it had not yet become a custom acknowledged and labeled by Mormon culture.  In 2000, a student-sponsored website appeared where Latter-day Saint students could arrange for an anonymous “non-committal makeout” (known by the vernacular acronym, NCMO) (   Comedians such as Elna Baker have glamorized the life of young, single, Eastern Mormons as they seek to navigate the world of intimacy while still retaining a Mormon identity.

While many Latter-Imageday Saint youth do not pursue non-committal relationship at Duck Beach, it’s a space in which such interactions are countenanced and, in a measure, celebrated.  Mormon leaders have occasionally urged young adults to avoid the site, due to its reputation.  But the roots of Duck Beach culture reaches back generations.  As Mormons have engaged Gentile culture since 1858, Latter-day Saints have negotiated with rather than retrench themselves against norms of “Gentile” America.


Dark Angels: Batman, Mormonism, and the Byronic Hero

The horrific shooting at a midnight showing of the Dark Knight has made the fundamental questions of the trilogy all too real.  To what degree should decent people go to protect themselves? What if one of the “good guys” had been allowed to carry a gun into the theater?  Unless Americans want to embrace anarcho-capitalism en extremis, citizens need to entrust their safety to certain individuals.  But how do we decide who has the moral judgment to wield that power? The words of Commissioner James Gordon from The Dark Knight are noteworthy: Batman “wasn’t the hero we deserve.” He’s “the hero we need right now.” Who/what was the hero the people of Aurora needed? A crackshot vigilante, stricter gun laws, or federally-implemented metal detectors?

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Book of the Week: More Wives Than One

Yes, we’re going there.

Kathryn Daynes’ survey treatment of Mormon polygamy, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910 is the best of its kind.   Don’t let the relative brevity deceive you; this book has something for everyone.  Rich anecdotes, a solid argument, and groundbreaking quantitative data pepper the book’s lively prose.  Most importantly, she provides verifiable, hang-your-hat-on-it answers on the actual prevalence of polygamy in the Utah territory.  Perhaps you have even heard a quote or two from early Mormon leaders blasting monogamy and imploring the Saints to embrace polygamy now; “it’s how things work in the hereafter, so get used to it.” Yet Mormon polygamy was an inconsistently-applied system of doctrinal principles, at best.  There were success stories, broken hearts, and awkward divorces (which were ridiculously easy to get in territorial Utah–perhaps it’s no surprise that Mormons also settled Las Vegas).  If you are going to read one book on Mormon polygamy, Daynes’ book will give you everything you need to understand the most distinctive feature of Mormon life in the 19th-century.

The Huffington Post Swings and Nicks or Mormonism’s Political Neutrality, Part 2: 1846-1898

The Huffington Post recently took a stab this morning at how Mormonism would influence his views on war and peace.  I’ve seen it done worse.  Ask a Mormon how Mormonism see war.  If they gush on about Captain Moroni without mentioning the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, just smile.  You’re talking to a Mormon who has embraced American nationalism.  As Patrick Mason has argued, Mormonism offers “no consistent message” on matters of war and peace.  The broader question, of course, is: how patriotic is Mormonism? On July 24th, 2011, the Latter-day Saints celebrated Pioneer Day with a tribute to veterans of the armed services.   That Brigham Young had spoken (in typical Brigham Young fashion–with tremendous hyperbole) of cutting American soldiers’ throats only a block away shows how dramatic the Saints’ embrace of American nationalism has been.

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David Mason’s Mythological Collectivism

David Mason wrote a prominently featured piece in the Washington Post in which he argues that if Romney followed his gut (at least his Mormon gut), he would have wholeheartedly supported the Affordable Care Act for “finally catching up with the Mormon vision.” Mason then takes his readers through a quick and dirty history of Mormon collectivism from Joseph Smith through Brigham Young.  As Mason would have it, Brigham Young read the scriptures with one hand and Marx with the other.

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Mormonism’s Political Neutrality–Part One: Wild Card, 1830-1846

Joseph Smith

When Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, politics were far from his mind. His settlement had been on the frontier. Politicians didn’t visit Joseph’s Manchester settlement much. Nor did its settlers care if they did.
Even still, Joseph’s movements had grand designs. In a little log cabin in Fayette, New York, Joseph promised a small number of newly-ordinaed Melchizedek priesthood holders that Mormonism would eventually become a world religion. Most of the men had received the right to vote only a few years prior. Joseph’s religious movement was to be a populist revolution against a world order gone awry.


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The Truth: How 19th-century Mormon Collectivists Became Great Capitalists

One of the things we try to do here is show the backstory of Mormonism–the kind of story that journalists don’t really care to tell (it’s inconvenient and, frankly, often undermines what they’re trying to do).  While this response is a little slow to the match, it’s a story that hasn’t been told.

In an article published by Businessweek entitled, “How the Mormons Make Money,” the author essentially argues that Mormonism is basically a multinational corporation.  We only talk like people who believe; at the end of the day, the suits at the Church Office Building ultimately follow the God of the Almighty Buck.   Accentuating their piece is a cover image portraying John the Baptist giving Joseph Smith priesthood authority while  he directs Joseph to get rich.

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