Saturday, April 13, 2024

Nathaniel Wiewora's "Sins of Christendom"

Nathaniel Wiewora is an associate professor of history at Harding University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sins of Christendom: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Evangelicalism, and reported the following:
On page 99, I look at the ways antebellum evangelicals honed in on the physical depictions of Mormonism's golden plates as a way to express disapproval and doubt concerning Mormonism's origin story. They stated incredulity about the size, weight, and shape of the golden plates. Concluding that the plates would have weighed several hundred pounds, these evangelicals wondered how Joseph Smith would have ever been able to carry them. This disbelief over the material existence of the golden plates went along with evangelical doubt about the true authorship of Mormonism's founding writ. Antebellum evangelicals assumed the Book of Mormon had human origins, but they also thought it must have been the work of someone other than Joseph Smith.

The Page 99 Test gives an incomplete picture of the argument in Sins of Christendom. Page 99 occurs in the middle of a larger chapter, where evangelicals claimed the Book of Mormon was uncanonical. In addition to the physical characteristics of the Book of Mormon, evangelicals pointed out the ways, they believed, that Joseph Smith had copied the appearance and content of the Bible, as well as plagiarizing his revelation from preexisting sources. What page 99 does not reveal is how this detailed concern with the veracity of the Book of Mormon reveals much more than mere religious intolerance. The antebellum criticisms about the ways Mormonism used and abused scripture resonated within evangelicalism because they faced many of the same debates and dilemmas about the uses and abuses of their own sacred texts. Focused on proving that the Book of Mormon was not an ancient document, evangelicals at the same time grappled with a growing feeling that their own Bible was itself a product of history. The overlapping nature of these charges against Mormonism’s scriptural practices and internal tensions over how to read and understand the Bible allowed evangelicals concerned about how their coreligionists mishandled scripture to use Mormonism as a foil to mark out the boundaries of how one should correctly read and interpret the Bible.

Page 99 lays out the content of antebellum evangelical anti-Mormonism, but this book is really not about the criticisms themselves. My book examines how evangelicals used religious intolerance. Evangelicals responded to their initial contact with Mormonism with predictable religious animus, but anti-Mormonism had wide ranging consequences in antebellum America. Heresy hunting shaped evangelical beliefs and practices. In their earliest years of encounter, evangelicals developed a diverse and vibrant anti-Mormonism. Evangelicals simultaneously disagreed with their coreligionists over the same complaints they levelled against Mormonism. The sense that Mormonism was too similar to their own faith displayed and deepened divisions within the evangelical movement. They accused each other of being like the followers of Joseph Smith in order to define orthodox evangelical beliefs and practices.
Learn more about Sins of Christendom at the University of Illinois Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue