Fellow-Citizens with the Saints : Mormon Conversion Narratives and the Rhetoric of Religious Identity
Idaho State University
Conversion narratives represent powerful instances of identification with a religious community. As tales of crossing ideological boundaries, conversion stories function to define and reinforce religious group boundaries and encourage gratitude for the blessings of membership. This rhetorical function is especially important when those boundaries are perceived—or constructed—as being under threat.
As a newer religion born in the competitive American religious marketplace, Mormonism represents a valuable—and largely overlooked—case study in the rhetoric of religious identity. In this dissertation I argue that Mormon conversion narratives celebrate those aspects of Mormon identity that best fit the community's desired self-image. The transformation of the pre-conversion self into a superior post-conversion persona indirectly celebrates some aspect of the LDS community's self-conception.
In chapter one I analyze the differences between early and latter accounts of the First Vision—the foundational conversion narrative of Joseph Smith—and argue that the 1838 account represents the emergence of a Mormon conversion discourse that emphasizes distinctiveness, chosenness, and epistemological certainty amid a chaotic sectarian world.
In the remaining chapters, conversion narratives are organized according to the pre-conversion persona to demonstrate how each type of transformation highlights some aspect of Mormon identity. The "seeker" persona discussed in chapter two demonstrates for the audience how Mormonism provides answers theological problems. Religious switchers, discussed in chapter three, celebrate Mormonism's ability to convert those previously committed to other faiths. The "sinner" narratives of chapter four highlight Mormonism's wholesome lifestyle as having the power to transform the sinner's life. Chapter five deals with what I call testimony narratives—conversion stories of lifelong Mormon—and shows how such narrators adopt the convert's persona to affect a personal spiritual revitalization. In chapter six I discuss the international expansion of Mormonism and argue that international conversion narratives serve Mormonism's desired self-image of an institution destined to fill the world. I also assert that conversion narratives of blacks were used, institutionally, to ameliorate the church's racist image before and after the 1978 reversal of the policy denying priesthood offices to blacks. In the concluding chapter I suggest that current trends in Mormon conversion discourse seem to deemphasize theological distinctiveness and embrace Mormonism as a distinctive social identity and happy lifestyle. Finally, in the last chapter I discuss the dissertation's pedagogical applications, proposing a course in spiritual autobiography.