The Most American Religion
The Atlantic|January - February 2021
Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?
By McKay Coppins

To meet with the prophet during a plague, certain protocols must be followed. It’s a gray spring morning in Salt Lake City, and downtown Temple Square is deserted, giving the place an eerie, post-apocalyptic quality. The doors of the silver domed tabernacle are locked; the towering neo-Gothic temple is dark. To enter the Church Administration Building, I meet a handler who escorts me through an underground parking garage; past a security checkpoint, where my temperature is taken; up a restricted elevator; and then, finally, into a large, mahogany-walled conference room. After a few minutes, a side door opens and a trim 95-year-old man in a suit greets me with a hygienic elbow bump.

“We always start our meetings with a word of prayer,” says Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “So, if we may?”

The official occasion for our interview is the Mormon bi centennial: Two centuries ago, a purported opening of the heavens in upstate New York launched one of the most peculiar and enduring religious movements in American history, and Nelson designated 2020 as a year of commemoration. My notebook is full of reporterly questions to ask about the Church’s future, the painful tensions within the faith over race and LGBTQ issues, and the unprecedented series of changes Nelson has implemented in his brief time as prophet. But as we bow our heads, I realize that I’m also here for something else.

For the past two months, I’ve been cooped up in quarantine, watching the world meltdown in biblical fashion. All the death and pestilence and doomscrolling on Twitter has left me unmoored— and from somewhere deep in my spiritual subconscious, a Mormon children’s song I grew up singing has resurfaced: Follow the prophet, don’t go astray … Follow the prophet, he knows the way.

As president of the Church, Nelson is considered by Mormons to be God’s messenger on Earth, a modern heir to Moses and Abraham. Sitting across from him now, some part of me expects a grand and ancient gesture in keeping with this calamitous moment—a raised staff, an end-times prophecy, a summoning of heavenly powers. Instead, he smiles and asks me about my kids.

Over the next hour, Nelson preaches a gospel of silver linings. When I ask him about the lockdowns that have forced churches to close, he muses that homes can be “sanctuaries of faith.” When I mention the physical ravages of the virus, he marvels at the human body’s miraculous “defense mechanisms.” Reciting a passage from the Book of Mormon—“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy”—he offers a reminder that feels like a call to repentance: “There can be joy in the saddest of times.”

There is something classically Mormon about this aversion to wallowing. When adversity strikes, my people tend to respond with can-do aphorisms and rolled-up sleeves; with an unrelenting helpfulness that can border on caricature. (Early in the pandemic, when Nelson ordered the Church to suspend all worship services worldwide and start donating its stockpiles of food and medical equipment, he chalked it up to a desire to be “good citizens and good neighbors.”) This onslaught of earnest optimism can be grating to some. “There’s always a Mormon around when you don’t want one,” David Foster Wallace once wrote, “trying your patience with unsolicited kindness.” But it has served the faith well.

By pretty much every measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has defied the expectations of its early observers. In the years immediately after its founding—as Mormons were being chased across the country by state-sanctioned mobs— skeptics predicted that the movement would collapse before the century was out. Instead, it became one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. The Church now averages nearly 700 converts a day; it has temples in 66 countries and financial reserves rumored to exceed $100 billion.

In the past few years, Mormons have become a subject of fascination for their surprising resistance to Trumpism. Unlike most of the religious right, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about Donald Trump. From 2008 to 2016, the Republican vote share declined among Latter-day Saints more than any other religious group in the country. And though Trump won back some of those defectors in 2020, he continued to underperform. Joe Biden did better in Utah than any Democrat since 1964, and Mormon women likely played a role in turning Arizona blue.

Scholars have offered an array of theories to explain this phenomenon: that Mormon communities are models of connectedness and trust, that the Church’s unusual structure promotes consensus-building over culture war, that the faith’s early persecution has made its adherents less receptive to nativist appeals.

Nelson attributes these qualities to the power of the Church’s teachings. “I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine,” he tells me. “It’s not what we do; it’s why we do it.”

As a lifelong member of the faith, I can’t help but see a more complicated story. Mormons didn’t become avatars of a Norman Rockwellian ideal by accident. We taught ourselves to play the part over a centuries-long audition for full acceptance into American life. That we finally succeeded just as the country was on the brink of an identity crisis is one of the core ironies of modern Mormonism.

The story of the Latter-day Saints begins with a confused teenage boy. It was the spring of 1820, and the town of Palmyra, New York, was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening. Fevered Christian revivals were everywhere. New sects were sprouting, and preachers competed fiercely for converts. To Joseph Smith, a 14-year-old farm boy with little education, the frenzy was at once exhilarating and disorienting. As he would later write in his personal history, he became consumed with the question of which church to join—sampling worship services, consulting scripturians, and growing ever more concerned about the state of his soul.

The turning point in his spiritual search came when he was reading the Book of James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God … and it shall be given him.” Determined to test the thesis, he walked into a grove of trees near his family’s farm and knelt down to ask for guidance. What happened next, according to Smith, would be the catalyst for a new world religion—the literal restoration of Christ’s Church to the Earth. In his own words:

I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me … When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a cardiothoracic surgeon before becoming the prophet. He is considered by Mormons to be God’s messenger on Earth.

I don’t remember the first time I heard this story, but I do know where I was when I committed it to memory. As a Mormon teenager in suburban Massachusetts, I woke up every morning at 5:30 to attend a “seminary” class held in the bishop’s basement. This was no mark of special devotion on my part; all the Mormon kids were expected to be there, and so all the Mormon kids were, Mormonism being a religion that prizes showing up. Most mornings, we struggled to stay awake while our teacher read from the Bible, but on Fridays, we ate cinnamon rolls and played scripture-memorization games. Our teacher would hold up cue cards with verses scrawled across them, while we repeated the words over and over until we could recite them without looking. Smith’s canonized account of “the first vision” was the longest of the passages, but it was also the most important.

The power of his story was in its implausibility. No reasonable person would accept such an outlandish claim on its face—to believe it required faith, a willingness to follow young Joseph’s example. This was how our teacher framed the story, as much object lesson as historical event. Don’t believe in this because your parents do, we were told. Go ask God for yourself.

But the part of Smith’s account that always resonated most with me was what happened after the vision. Word got around Palmyra, and the community turned on him. His claims were declared to be “of the devil.” His family was ostracized. Facing pressure to recant, Smith refused. “I had seen a vision,” he wrote later. “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” In seminary, this was treated as a coda to the main event—mentioned, if at all, as an example of standing up for unpopular beliefs. But to a 21st-century teenager who was already insecure enough about his oversized head and undersized muscles without bringing a weird religion into the mix, it sounded a lot like a cautionary tale.

My own testimony didn’t come in a blaze of revelation, but in living the faith day to day. The church was where I felt most like myself. The green hymnals we sang from on Sundays, the sacramental Wonder Bread we passed down the pews, the corny youth dances in the sweaty church gym where we’d jump around to DJ Kool before closing with a prayer—these were more than just quirks of my parents’ religion. They were emblems of an identity, one I could never fully reveal to my non- Mormon friends.

At school, I laughed along when the boys in the cafeteria asked me how many moms I had, and I nodded thoughtfully when the girl I liked speculated, after the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, that she must have been an easy mark for brainwashing because she was Mormon. When the time came to apply for college, I feigned an interest in Arizona State University just so my guidance counselor wouldn’t think I was interested only in Mormon colleges.

I aimed to cultivate a reputation that sanded off the edges of my orthodoxy—he’s Mormon, but he’s cool. I didn’t drink, but I was happy to be the designated driver. I didn’t smoke pot, but I would never narc.

All this posturing could be undignified, but I took pride in my ability to walk a certain line. Unlike my co-religionists in Utah—where kids went to seminary in the middle of the day, at Church-owned buildings next to the high schools—I was one of only a few Mormon kids in my town. If my classmates liked me, I reasoned, it was a win for Mormons everywhere. In the pantheon of minority-religion neuroses, this was not wholly original stuff. But I wouldn’t realize until later just how deeply rooted the Mormon craving for approval was.

The Church that Joseph Smith set about building was almost achingly American. He held up the Constitution as a quasicanonical work of providence. He published a new sacred text, the Book of Mormon, that centered on Jesus visiting the ancient Americas. He even taught that God had brought about the American Revolution so that his Church could be restored in a free country— thus linking Mormonism’s success to that of the American experiment. And yet, almost as soon as Smith started attracting converts, they were derided as un-American.

A charismatic figure with gleaming blue eyes and a low voice, Smith taught a profoundly optimistic theology that stood in contrast with the harsher doctrines of his day. But what made him most controversial was his commitment to establishing a “new Jerusalem” in the United States. The utopia he envisioned would be godly, ordered, and radically communitarian. As the Mormons searched for a place to build their Zion, they were met with an escalating campaign of persecution and mob violence.

In New York, Smith was arrested at the urging of local clergy. In Ohio, he was tarred and feathered. By the time the Mormons settled in Missouri, they were viewed as enemies of the state. Their economic and political power made local officials nervous, as did their abolitionist streak. (Though the Church would later adopt exclusionary policies toward Black people, many of its early members disapproved of slavery.) Residents complained that the growing Mormon community had “opened an asylum for rogues, vagabonds, and free blacks” in their backyard. Mormon leaders responded with their own incendiary rhetoric.

The tension came to a head on October 27, 1838, when the governor issued an “extermination order” demanding that all Mormons be driven out of the state or killed. A few days later, a militia descended on a Mormon settlement about 70 miles northeast of Kansas City and opened fire. Witnesses would later describe a horrific scene—women raped, bodies mutilated, children shot at close range. By the end of the massacre, 17 Mormons had been killed, and homes had been looted and burned to the ground.

The violence was justified, in part, by the portrayal of Mormons as a degenerate, nonwhite race—an idea that would spread throughout the 19th century. Medical journals defined Mormons by their “yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage” and “thick, protuberant lips.” Cartoons depicted them as “foreign reptiles” sprawled out over the U.S. Capitol. At one point, the secretary of state tried to institute a ban on Mormon immigration from Europe.

For a time, Smith and his followers retained an almost quaint trust in America’s democratic system. Even as they were forced to flee Missouri and resettle in Nauvoo, Illinois, they were convinced that the Constitution guaranteed their freedom of religion— and that if they could simply alert the nation’s leaders to what was happening, all would be made right. In 1839, Smith led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to seek redress for the Mormons’ violent expulsion from Missouri. In a meeting with President Martin Van Buren, the prophet presented a vividly detailed list of offenses committed against his people. But the president, fearing a backlash from Missourians, dismissed his appeals. “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,” Van Buren said, according to Smith’s account.

The experience radicalized Smith. Stung by the government’s mistreatment—and under siege by a growing anti-Mormon cohort—he took on a more theocratic bent. In Nauvoo, he served simultaneously as prophet, mayor, and lieutenant-general of a well-armed Mormon militia. He introduced the ancient biblical practice of polygamy to his followers, eventually marrying at least 32 women himself. He even convened a group of men to draft a replacement for the U.S. Constitution, which they believed had failed them.

Still, the Mormons’ innate Americanness made them self-conscious theocrats—constantly establishing new councils and quorums designed to disperse power and hold one another accountable. Though the Church was hierarchical, it was infused with checks and balances. Congregations were led by a rotating cast of volunteers. Decisions were presented to congregants for ratification. “All things shall be done by common consent in the Church,” read one Mormon scripture.

In 1844, Smith launched a quixotic presidential bid to draw attention to the Mormon plight. He campaigned on abolishing prisons and selling public lands to purchase the freedom of every enslaved person in the country. America, he wrote, should be a place where a person “of whatever color, clime or tongue, could rejoice when he put his foot on the sacred soil of freedom.”

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