The Regional Influences on Religious Thought and Practice : A Case Study in Mormonism's Dietary Reforms
University of Massachusetts Amherst
While commenting upon the challenges of studying the history of religious figures and movements, Richard Bushman once said, "Everything we know in this life is seen through someone's eyes. All a historian has to work with is the way this person saw it ... The purpose of history is not to find out what really happened but to collect the ways human observers have described what they think happened. We [as historians] look at the world through other's eyes." This thesis seeks not to argue the veracity of any particular religious doctrine, but rather strives to understand the historical development of certain Mormon beliefs by looking through the eyes of those who helped form them. Mormon doctrines are often regarded as impositions made by Joseph Smith onto docile followers. Such an interpretation fails to recognize that lay members were just as influential in the development of Mormon doctrine as was the founder of the religion. Joseph's revelations did not emerge ex nihilo. Joseph engaged the world and people around him and his environment shaped the doctrines forming in his mind and continued to do so once they were taught to his followers. This study will examine the origins of Mormonism's dietary code, known as the Word of Wisdom, and the sect's doctrines concerning the body. Both of these tenets of Mormonism were shaped by the environments in which they emerged. The regional environments which influenced to evolution of the Word of Wisdom are central to this study. In the case of the Word of Wisdom, Joseph first began teaching the doctrine in Kirtland, Ohio, an area of constant reform movements and moral activism. Conflicts within the Mormon Church reflect the tensions of Ohio settler's reformist culture primarily located in the region known as the Western Reserve. This study will also look at the tensions within the Mormon community itself. These tensions involved leader responses to the Word of Wisdom, conflicts over church power structures, and the fallout from the Kirtland Bank's failure in the financial panic of 1837. As the main Mormon Church body moved from Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and eventually Utah they adopted attitudes toward the Word of Wisdom that reflected the new environments in which they found themselves. In Missouri the Word of Wisdom emerges in official charges in church disciplinary courts. However, an examination of these courts indicates that the Word of Wisdom was merely one indicator of a more serious power struggle within church leadership structures. Missouri temperance, which was relatively temped, did not influence church affairs nearly as much as struggles within church leadership itself. In Illinois Mormonism's doctrine of the body also affected the ways in which the Word of Wisdom was implemented as it influenced the ways in which Mormons conceptualized health, godliness, plural marriage (polygamy), procreation, and their identities as a people. Simply put, context is everything and this study tries to show that the study of the teachings of any religious group should not be done piecemeal because each doctrine is shaped by and in turn shapes the other doctrines with which it is associated.