It’s easels more than evangelism that makes a difference.
Mormonism is a hot topic nowadays. Newsweek magazine recently highlighted its vitality, evidenced in politics and business—think Harry Reid, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Steven Covey. But it also animates the Twilight vampire novels of Mormon Stephenie Meyer. Many attribute this vitality to Mormon missionaries evangelizing the world. But vitality of faith might have more to do with easels and artists.
Mormonism has become the fourth-largest religious denomination in America. Founded in 1830 as an upstart faith in upstate New York, it has grown to over six million members domestically and about 14 million worldwide. It’s tracing the same growth curve as the Early Church, according to historian Rodney Stark, a professor at Baylor University. Stark says the ancient church’s growth was like a flywheel—slow at first but accelerating to about 40 per cent per decade over its first 260 years. “The Mormons, thus far, have traced the same growth curve,” he writes.1
This vitality is often attributed to Mormon sacrifice and service. The Mormon faith requires nearly every member to contribute to the common cause. Mormons worship together for hours on Sundays, perform spiritual and economic outreach to members of the Mormon community, and pay a tithe (ten percent of their income) to the church. Missionaries bicycle or backpack around the world doing two-year evangelistic stints. In the Newsweek story, Walter Kirn notes how these characteristics are uncommon in many modern churches. “In an age of spiritual consumerism, when many people regard religion as a therapeutic lifestyle aid, faith is often expected to serve the individual. For Mormons, it’s the other way around.”
Mormonism vitality is also attributed to how it animates businessmen. David Neeleman, the Mormon founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways, donated most of his salary to a fund for needy employees. Management guru Stephen Covey has sold millions of books translating core elements of the Mormon faith into a method for becoming a “highly effective” individual. There is however another aspect of Mormon vitality often overlooked. Tens of millions of readers devour the Twilight vampire novels of Mormon Stephenie Meyer. The Book of Mormon swept this year’s Tony Awards. Mormonism has a history of investing in the arts, and this might more fully explain its vitality.
When Brigham Young led his Mormon flock to Utah, he instructed them to first build a Temple that would be used only by Mormons for worship. The second project was to build a cultural center for the performing arts that could be used by the entire community. Both projects employed Mormon artists who had trained in Paris in the 1880s, writes David McCullough in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
Calling themselves “art missionaries,” Mormon artists enrolled at the Académie Julian—one of the most elite art institutes of that day. “Their expenses were provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in return for work they would later contribute, painting murals in the Temple at Salt Lake City.”2 Brigham Young viewed the arts—where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is only the most visible example—as an ally for faith. Indeed, sociologist Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for Religion at Princeton University, points to surveys indicating “people with greater exposure to the arts were more interested in spiritual growth, devoted more to it and more regularly engaged” in practicing their faith. It seems the most vigorous people of faith embrace the arts as “allies, not adversaries.”3
Mormonism’s ongoing investment in the arts accounts for much of its vitality as well as its vision. “The artist picks up the message of cultural and technical challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs,” wrote media specialist Marshall McLuhan. “He, then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is ahead.”4 Mormon artists serve as cultural antennae, sensing the direction of the cultural winds. For example, they have helped Mormon leaders deflect the therapeutic drift of American religion.
It is ironic that while Mormonism’s influence is increasing over its 181-year history, “the history of the conservative faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination,” writes James Davison Hunter.5 The modern American faith community in particular has tended to emphasize evangelism over easels. There are exceptions to the rule. Makoto Fujimura heads up the International Arts Movement. Charlie Peacock and the Art House is helping artists develop songs and music for the common good. Fujimura and Peacock represent a better understanding of faith—one that includes evangelism as vital for people to come to faith but easels for producing a vital faith.
1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), p. 14-15.
2 David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 411.
3 “Feeling God’s Spirit Through the Arts,” Washington Post, February 5, 2005, B9.
4 Marshall McLuhan, The Man and His Message, George Sanderson and Frank McDonald, eds. (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1989), p. 6.
5 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: Three Essays on the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibilities of Christianity in the Contemporary World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 28.