By Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has received plenty of publicity during the 1990s, most of which was positive. From the affable President Gordon B. Hinckley to the many positive media reports generated by the media, there has probably never been a time in history where Mormonism has looked so good from the perspective of the non-LDS public.
So what might be the initial reaction of an evangelical Christian who first hears about a book entitled Mormon America? Probably, “Oh great, another favorable look at the LDS Church!” The Latter-day Saint, meanwhile, has been forewarned by his church’s public relations’ office that this book brings “a secular approach to a spiritual subject,” resulting in what church leaders apparently feel is an unfair analysis of their sacred faith. While some from both camps might never pick up this book for these reasons, both Christian and Mormon readers ought to think again.
Written by the husband/wife team of Richard and Joan Ostling, Mormon America is perhaps the finest overview of the LDS Church available today. As a former senior correspondent with Time magazine, Richard has covered Mormonism on a number of occasions, the latest in 1997 when he authored a Time magazine cover story entitled “Mormons, Inc.” and when he interviewed President Hinckley on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Joan, meanwhile, is an English and journalism college instructor who helped make this a very concise and readable book.
Although they are Protestants, the book is purposely not polemical; instead, it takes a wide-angle lens look at the background of Mormonism. Indeed, the Ostlings’ major goal appears to be to show their reader what ingredients make up the product that is the Mormon Church. Do the Ostlings succeed? Yes, they do. Totaling more than 450 pages in 22 chapters and two appendices, Mormon America overviews the LDS Church by looking at its history, unique doctrines, and even business practices. Beginning in Nauvoo in the early 1840s, the first six chapters look at a very complicated history by using a layperson’s terms. Included in these chapters are historically accurate looks at the issues of polygamy and blacks in the church.
What about the church’s business practices? The Ostlings put their noses to the grindstone in chapter seven (Mormons, Inc.) to uncover the vast holdings of the LDS Church. In fact, they estimate that assets of the LDS Church, “by a conservative reckoning, would be $25-30 billion” (p. 115). In addition, an estimated $5.3 billion a year is received through tithing dollars, “though one knowledgeable source thinks $4.25 billion might be a safer estimate” (p. 115). Although the stock market was not friendly to investors during 2000-2001, the Ostlings wrote in 1999 that the LDS Church makes about $600 million annually from its many investments. Thus, they estimate a total of about $6 billion in annual revenue, a stunning figure. In fact, according to page 124, “If the LDS Church were a U.S. corporation, by revenues it would rank number 243 on the Fortune 500 list. Mormons, Inc., lands somewhere between Paine Webber ($5.7 billion) and Union Carbide ($6.1 billion), a tad smaller than Continental Airlines ($6.4 billion), and about twice the size of Reader’s Digest ($3.1 billion).”
Knowing that Mormon critics might dispute these humongous numbers-“per capita, no other religion comes close to such figures”-the Ostlings wisely dedicate Appendix B to show how they uncovered their numbers. Although I am not an accountant, the information they present seems to make sense and appears accurate. Only LDS Church leaders, who never publicly open their books, would know for sure. Even if the Ostlings are slightly overestimating this church’s wealth, there is no debate that the Mormon Church is well organized with a vast volunteer leadership at the local level. This savings along with wise investments helps fund huge projects such as building temples around the world and maintaining a healthy advertising budget used to recruit new members.
Another interesting chapter (12) looks at the temple, which is the most sacred aspect of Mormonism. Since the book’s publication in 1999, the LDS Church has almost doubled the number of temples built around the world. The importance of temple work and its essential rituals are explained, including baptism for the dead (and the genealogical work that goes along with this), marriage in the temple (vows exchanged outside the temple to appease non-Mormon relatives and friends are discouraged), and the endowment ceremony. The Masonic background of Mormonism’s founder is also explored. The conclusion to this chapter considers the speeches given by the church’s general authorities at the bi-annual general conference. The authors accurately state, “To the non-Mormon the inspirational talks are routine, even banal. Nothing ever happens at a Mormon General Conference. No issues are discussed; anything decided in Mormonism is decided in secret, far from the eye of the membership, much less the general public and the press” (p. 202).
What about the missionaries who come to the door? Chapter 13 lets the reader know more about the preparations of these dedicated young missionaries and gives an inside look at a typical missionary day. The authors bluntly state, “Mormonism succeeds by building on a preexisting Christian culture and by being seen as an add-on, drawing converts through a form of syncretism. Mormonism flourishes best in settings with some prior Christianization” (p. 218). In other words, more than half of all Mormon converts come from Christian families. All Christian pastors who do not consider Mormonism to be a threat ought to take careful notice.
The faith’s pride and joy, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is discussed in chapter 14. Reportedly 70 percent of the school’s budget comes from church members’ tithes, meaning that students only paid $1,360 a semester in 1998. All but three percent of the faculty are temple-worthy Mormons, and the university’s mission is very spiritual: “To assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” Although they had no recent polls, a survey taken in 1973 showed that 99 percent of BYU students believed in Joseph Smith as a prophet, 99 percent in continuing revelation, and 98 percent in the divine nature of the church (p. 224). In other words, very few dissenters are walking the halls of Cougarland. The chapter also takes an interesting look at the numerous LDS Institutes, which are located in college communities all over America.
The role of the public relations department is dealt with in chapter 15, and the Ostlings make some very important observations. From its tourist centers at important historical sites and temple openings to staged pageants and media offerings such as commercials and movies, the public relations department is very conscious about the church’s image. As one soda commercial puts it, “Image is everything.” The authors write on page 248, “Much of the church’s own shaping of its past is to be expected, but the results occasionally can be unintentionally comical.”
An excellent example used to illustrate this point is how the LDS Church’s own almanac ignores the polygamous past of its first seven prophets. To take care of this “problem,” none of the wives of these men are even listed in these almanacs. If one did not know better, the uninformed reader would think that these men were confirmed bachelors. Also included in this chapter are examples of the rewriting of Mormon history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Next to the financial chapter mentioned above, this is my favorite chapter and should not be missed.
Overall, Mormon America is a book that every person, whether Mormon or not, ought to read in order to get a broad picture of a most fascinating religion. My only complaint with the book is that it does not specifically cite every fact or quotation. Rather, the endnotes merely list the major sources that were consulted for each chapter. I’m not sure why the authors (could it have been the publisher?) did this when numbered endnotes would have been very precise with little additional effort. A Mormon who wants to dispute any fact listed in the book would merely have to say, “Who says?” This wide loophole should not have been provided. Except for this drawback, Mormon America is an excellent book that every interested observer of Mormonism should buy, read, and then keep for future reference.