A Utah-based church spreads its arms

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MORMON AMERICA: The Power and the Promise By Richard and Joan Ostling HarperSanFrancisco

Mormon America: The Power and The Promise," co-authored by Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling and his wife, Joan Ostling, won't make anyone comfortable. The Ostlings wanted to produce "a candid but nonpolemical overview written for non-Mormons and Mormons alike." Their carefully researched book, however, will elicit less than happy reactions from many Mormons, while startling the formerly oblivious into sudden awareness of the identities, beliefs, and practices of a rapidly growing church.

"Mormon America" lays out the essential components of today's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: a clearly defined theology and scripture that inspire either devotion or skepticism - and a lifestyle that stresses traditional marriage, family life, hard work, disciplined self-reliance, obedience, and subordination to church authority.

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Central to the way a reader will evaluate the significance of modern Mormonism and its increasing influence is the Ostlings's characterization of founder Joseph Smith (1805-44). Church-sanctioned literature invests Smith with the aura of a divinely inspired prophet, chosen by God to restore His true church in America. In contrast, the Ostlings describe a man of spiritual, but also disturbingly human, dimensions.

Smith was a product of America's rural frontier - spiritually inclined and bright, but attracted to divination and the occult. "Mormon America" reports not only the church's views but also dissenting scholarly opinions about the origin and authenticity of Smith's "Book of Mormon." Smith vowed that the text was a translation from ancient gold plates whose location was given to him in an angelic visitation.

That the "Book of Mormon" tells the true story of early Semitic and Christian peoples on the North American continent is a devoutly held Mormon belief, though there is no physical or documentary evidence to prove it.

A number of early Mormon journals tell of Smith's later practice of "plural marriage." He secretly took many wives - at least 33 and perhaps as many as 48. He knew it was illegal under civil law, but he pressured the men closest to him to follow his example.

After Smith's murder by a mob at age 38, his first wife unequivocally disavowed polygamy, affiliating with a "reorganized" Mormon Church, which never adopted the practice. The Ostlings devote almost two chapters to this topic.

The authors follow the early history with their in-depth report on what they call a "uniquely secretive" and "image conscious" church. They describe, among other things, the church's movement toward the American mainstream, its extensive corporate and land holdings (total assets estimated at $25 billion to $30 billion), its vast internal welfare system, its particular style of patriarchal leadership, its control over the daily existence and priorities of its member families, its worldwide missionary and building programs, and its denominational educational system - high-schoolers are required to take "catechism" classes an hour a day, five days a week, for four years.

Almost 150 major corporations, including Marriott International, Staples, Black & Decker, Times Mirror, Iomega, and Franklin Covey, have a devoted Mormon in one of the top slots. Sixteen Mormons sit in the US Congress, and one of them, Orrin Hatch, is currently running for president of the United States.

The Utah-based church is the seventh largest denomination in the US, "bypassing the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and the Lutheran Church," with a present worldwide membership exceeding 10 million.

Is the book fair? No outsiders, no matter how detached and objective, can be completely sure where the truth actually lies. Likewise, a Mormon insider's perspective is colored by the understandable bias that comes from voluntary immersion in an institutional view of the church's history and mission.

The Ostlings have presented, in a very appealing, accessible way, massive amounts of information. And, as they promised, "Mormon America" isn't a polemic. Still, both insiders and outsiders will feel uneasy after reading it. Maybe that's what the authors, who describe themselves as "conventional Protestants," are hoping for.

Church spokesman Michael Purdy notes, "Like many books that take a secular approach to a spiritual subject, this work sometimes gives scant attention to what Latter-day Saints regard as the essentials of their faith, while overrating matters of lesser consequence.... Given the authors' over-reliance on sources antagonistic to the church, we anticipate that many will be disappointed with it."

The Ostlings might respond with this statement from their introduction: "What occurs inside Mormonism is no longer merely an internal matter, and what Mormonism does is becoming vitally important to the larger culture."

*Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer in Boston.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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