Mattson-gate continues on. Some are already over it. And that’s fine. But some aren’t. And they deserve a hearing too. The latest response to Mattson’s New York Times editorial is a complaint about the Correlation Committee. Why do they exist? Isn’t it just a bunch of boring guys in suits keeping us from exploring the truth of our history on our own terms?
We all want to think that The Correlation Committee is some kind of secret government pulling the strings of the information machine, perhaps a more corporate looking version of Opus Dei in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Niall Ferguson has argued that for all its obvious moral failings, the British Empire was generally a “good thing.” It established infrastructure, modern forms of governance, and the modern free market economy. Yes, it had its moments where petty leaders got carried away with imperial hubris. But all in all, he is glad that there was a British Empire.
As a Mormon historian, I wonder if I should feel similarly about the Correlation Committee. Some good histories of the correlation committee have already been presented, and I’m not going to attempt to recap them here. But one thing is clear: the rise of the idea of doctrinal correlation is growing in tandem with the Mormons adaptation to American society. Before the federal government arrived at the brink of destroying Mormonism as a social system, the Mormon people existed not as systematized body but as a chain of semi-autonomous units spreading throughout the Utah Mormon corridor. Doctrinal ideas were generally not enforced unless they had some kind of bearing on church authority. For example, in the late 1860s and early 1870s, a group of Mormons following after the teachings of William Godbe began to criticize Brigham Young’s economic protectionism. The “Godbeites” also took to a form of worship known as Spiritualism–seances, talking with the dead, “Crossing Over.” You get the picture.
The federal government’s attack on the plural marriage left church leaders and the Mormon community scrambling for identity. Big business capitalism (especially mining corporations) had been the leading plague facing the 1870s Saints, and now they were being forced to eat it. Having failed to uphold their marital system in the face of American expansion, the Mormons saw that survival required adaptation. Joseph Smith had long ago been told to make friends with “mammon,” if only so the Saints could acquire loans from Jewish bankers. Now it was not only wise for the Mormons to play by Americans’ rules; it was necessary for their survival.
The new era forced the Saints to incorporate the prevailing American values of corporate America. The economic penetration of American capitalists into American territory required it. Once the polygamy raids threatened to decimate the Mormon hold on Utah properties entirely, they were left with no other options. When you’re the weak party on enemy turf, you play by their rules. It ensured them ownership of their property at a time when they came very close to losing. Sealing power that had been decentralized was now consolidated into the First Presidency’s office; they couldn’t risk allowing some rogue sealer to continue the practice. Distancing the Church from lingering pro-polygamy sentiments called for a revision of how priesthood and doctrinal authority were defined.
As with sealing practices, individual units had traditionally run their own affairs and used their own materials, only relying on top leaders during major disciplinary disputes. My own grandfather produced a proto-For the Strength of Youth for his southern California ward. But the freewheeling practices of old-school Mormon speculation didn’t fit with the new culture of organizational consolidation. They were also increasingly aware of Mormonism’s spread into Latin America and whether the doctrine could stay pure there. In the early 1960s, missionaries in El Salvador basically looked like New England salesmen–bolar hat included. Globalization and Americanization–two conventionally competing paradigms–conspired to create a modern, streamlined Church in which doctrine could be winnowed, refined, and packaged for all audiences–not just the Orson Pratts or the B.H. Roberts of Mormonism.
If I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the Correlation Committee, I would have a fairly long list of questions to ask them: “Why was Brigham Young portrayed as a monogamist?” “Why was the translation process depicted sans the seer stone?” “Why isn’t there a more straightforward discussion of Joseph Smith’s polygamy?” “Why do you describe Official Declaration #2 as a groundbreaking revelation rather than what it was–a restorative correction?” These are basic things. They’re not “deep doctrine.” They’re not weird ideas. They’re not attempts to make church leaders look bad. It’s truth, unadorned. I get it, I would tell them; we’re a global people now who have to Catholics generally have long gotten over the fact that Popes have made some bad calls. Obviously, we’ve been on the religious scene for only 180 years now, but if we are who we say we are, can’t we have some higher ambitions for ourselves? The Saints are big kids now; we can take it. We need to take it. Maybe we can start out slow; that’s fine. But we need to start. And we’d rather take our medicine from a well-trained doctor committed to curing the body of Christ of ills rather than the guy on Market Street and Vine looking to make a buck. Or worse.
But before we even got to that, you know what else I would say? I would thank them for being the bouncers at the bar, for going to all the work of finding the “inspirational” stuff. I happen to enjoy it. Joseph Smith has some very moving comments in the Joseph Smith manual. Brigham Young’s rough-hewn commitment to Joseph Smith’s legacy surfaces through the pages. And those pages have done a lot of good. Do I trust them to be scholars of history? No. The Church does, after all, have a team of crack historians for that. And heaven help them all to see eye-to-eye.
In the meantime, Saints would do well to respect the curriculum without going beyond what it claims for itself, recognizing that it might have overlooked something or might even perpetuate a partial mythology that deviates from the documented sources. Mormonism has always been a collective endeavor, and it’s as much our responsibility as it is The Suits for us all to work together to understand the Saints’ past future.