Home / Testimonies / Thomas G. Alexander

At Dr. Alexander’s suggestion and, of course, with his permission, we offer this opinion column, which he first published in the Salt Lake Tribune on 2 September 2011, as his entry for “Mormon Scholars Testify”:

Mormon Myths That Aren’t

One hopes that Eric Johnson does not misinform his students the way he misinformed Salt Lake Tribune readers in his August 28 guest column, “Battling myths about Mormonism, creating new ones.”

An analogy equating the difference between Mormons and other Christians with the difference between Buddhists and Hindus would be laughable if he were not serious. An educated person should represent the views of opponents as they would represent themselves. Johnson fails miserably.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not consider themselves Christians just because they try to be moral. As he observes, many who are not Christians are moral. Rather, Mormons are Christians because they believe in and try to practice New Testament Christianity.

The LDS Church’s prophet, Joseph Smith, restored New Testament Christianity and some aspects of Old Testament practice. As Christians, every believing Mormon subscribes to Paul’s testimony: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Mormons and other Christians believe that Christ is the literal Son of God, that he was crucified for our sins, that he arose from the dead and that through His grace all humans will be resurrected.

Since they are New Testament Christians rather than traditional Christians, Mormons do not believe in un-biblical doctrines like Trinitarianism. Would Johnson exclude from the body of Christians those believers who lived before 325 C.E. even though Trinitarianism does not appear in the New Testament?

What he says about post-mortal polygamy is essentially correct. That is, however, irrelevant to charges of the continued practice of polygamy today. The belief that Mormons continue to practice polygamy is pervasive. It is not just “some” who believe this. In part, the erroneous belief has persisted because some folks simply have not taken the time to study the matter. They are the “ignorant” whom Johnson mentions. I have run into quite a number of them.

More seriously, however, the persistence of this belief has resulted from media sloppiness, sensationalism, or dramatization. Because the media often use the general term “Mormonism” for groups that continue to practice polygamy, otherwise well-informed people frequently associate the practice with the LDS Church. Moreover, I would expect that because of LDS President Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto of 1890, President Joseph F. Smith’s Second Manifesto in 1904, and persistent teaching, Mormons would remain monogamists even if the courts overruled current law.

Unfortunately, Johnson is right in his belief that most Mormons are conservatives. He assumes, however, that a Mormon president would follow the dictates of the prophet. I ran into the same brand of bigotry in 1960. I was living in California at the time, and one of my friends said that he would never vote for John F. Kennedy because Kennedy was a Catholic. He believed Kennedy would take orders from the pope.

If nothing else, the recent public dispute over immigration should lay that argument to rest. Many right-wing Mormons have openly disputed the church’s views on the question, in part by asserting that the church leaders simply did not mean what they said. In addition, in numerous other cases of historical note, church members have ignored or opposed public policy supported by the church leadership.

Now, I understand that I may have misinterpreted some of the things Johnson has written. If so, I apologize. On the other hand, he should seek in the future to represent the views of those he opposes as they would represent them.

———————————————–

Thomas G. Alexander (Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley), is Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr., Professor of Western American History, Emeritus, at Brigham Young University. He has also taught at Utah State University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Southern Illinois University, and the University of Utah.

Dr. Alexander has authored, co-authored, edited, or co-edited twenty-five books and over a hundred and fifty scholarly articles, among them A Conflict of Interests: Interior Department and Mountain West, 1863-1896; The Rise of Multiple-Use Management in the Intermountain West: A History of Region 4 of the Forest Service; Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930; with James B. Allen, Mormons and Gentiles: A History of Salt Lake City; Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet; Utah: The Right Place (commissioned by the Utah state government as the state’s official centennial history); Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine; Grace and Grandeur: A History of Salt Lake City; The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past; edited, with James B. Allen, Manchester Mormons: The Journals of William Clayton, 1840-1842; edited, with Dean L. May, Reid L. Neilson, Richard Bushman, and Jan Shipps, The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures; edited, with Richard Poll, Eugene Campbell, and David Miller, Utah’s History; “Historiography and the New Mormon History: A Historian’s Perspective,” Dialogue 19 (Fall 1986): 25-49; “Relativism and Interest in the New Mormon History,” Weber Studies 13 (Winter 1996): 133-141; with David R. Hall, “Honest History: A Conversation with Thomas G. Alexander,” Mormon Historical Studies 8/1-2 (Spring/Fall 2007):108-135; and “Brigham Young, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Latter-Day Saint Investigation of the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Arrington Annual Lecture, Utah State University, Paper 11 (2006).

Professor Alexander received BYU’s highest faculty award, the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award and, in 2001, was given the Emeriti Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award from Weber State University. From the Mormon History Association, he received the Best Bibliography Award (1968), the prize for Best Article by a Senior Author (1976 and 1980), the Best Book Award (1986 and 1991), the Grace Fort Arrington Award for Historical Excellence (1989), and the T. Edgar Lyon Award of Excellence (1999). The Mountain West Center for Regional Studies bestowed its Evans Biography Award on him in 1991.

He was president of the Mormon History Association from 1974-1975, and has also been president of the Pacific Branch of the American Historical Association; president and fellow of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters; president of the Association of Utah Historians; chair of the Utah Board of State History; chair of the Utah Humanities Council; national president of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society; fellow of the Utah State Historical Society; and chair of BYU’s Faculty Advisory Council.

As a young man, Dr. Alexander was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany, and he later served as a bishop. After his retirement in 2004, he and his wife, the former Marilyn Johns, served a mission for the Church Educational System in Berlin, Germany. They are the parents of five children.

Posted September 2011