By Jay Kernis
The toughest ticket to get on Broadway is for the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, “The Book of Mormon.” It may not be too much of a stretch to state that the totally tuneful and deeply profane religious satire is informing more people about Mormonism than anything else in popular culture today.
Created by “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and “Avenue Q” composer/lyricist Robert Lopez, the story of American Mormon missionaries sent to northern Uganda sells out every performance. That means exactly 8,752 theatergoers see the Broadway show every week. And it’s just opened in Denver and another touring company hits Chicago this winter.
In the musical, missionary Elder Price sings a stirring song, “I Believe,” to reaffirm his faith after it is shaken during his experience trying to convert a Ugandan warlord.
How much of the song is true to Mormon beliefs?
We turned to Matthew Bowman, author of the new book, The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith.
Matthew Bowman, Ph.D.
Bowman received his PhD in American religious history from Georgetown University and a master’s in American history from the University of Utah. The associate editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Dr. Bowman teaches at Hampden-Sydney College.
1. Dr. Bowman, in the song “I Believe,” the character of Elder Price sings that he believes that “ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.” Do faithful Mormons believe that’s what happened?
In a nutshell, yes. The Book of Mormon opens with a story very much like the story of Moses and the Exodus: a group of Jews flee captivity several hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Moses led some Jews from Egypt; in the Book of Mormon, God leads another group of Jews from Jerusalem right before the Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BC. Eventually they're brought to a great ocean where God commands them to build a ship, and they sail for a long time to what the Book of Mormon calls, "the promised land." It's never, of course, called "America," but Mormons today believe the American continent is where this group landed. Joseph Smith said that the people in the Book of Mormon were the only and direct ancestors of American Indians; the leadership of the church today has indicated that's probably overstated.
2. Price then sings that he believes that “God has a plan for all of us” and “that plan involves me getting my own planet.” Is one’s own planet a metaphor for what happens after life on Earth or are there planets out there awaiting Mormons?
That really depends on what Mormons you talk to. Joseph Smith's universe was a very crowded one. He believed that God and human beings are basically of the same species, and Mormons today speak of their relationship with God as that of a father and his children (and yes, there is a Heavenly Mother, a divine female, as well). God created this earth as a place for his children to, more or less, attend school: to learn math and science and poetry and morality and how to be nice to each other and eventually to graduate and one day attain a degree of divinity themselves. To many Mormons, this means more or less attaining perfect communion with God. To many others, particularly Mormons who tend to be literal-minded, it does mean continuing to create universes in the future.
3. There’s also a lyric about God living “on a planet called Kolob” and that “Jesus has his own planet as well.” That’s from the original Book of Mormon?
Neither are, in fact. The riff about Jesus getting his own planet is one point where Matt Parker and Trey Stone's particularly blunt reading of Mormon theology slips a bit too far. It's not enunciated anywhere in authoritative Mormon writings. And after all, Jesus already seems to have a planet that takes up most of his time. "Kolob" is not a planet. It's mentioned in "the Book of Abraham," a pretty esoteric work of scripture Joseph Smith produced late in his life that's packed with rather obscure cosmological references to various celestial bodies with names that sound Egyptian or Hebrew: "Kolob" is a star that's said to be near where God's throne is.
Frankly, most Mormons find all the astrological meanderings in the book of Abraham a bit confusing and strange; they're not very frequently talked about, sort of like the weird murder subplot in the second season of Friday Night Lights.
4. Elder Price also sings, ”And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!!” What actually happened in 1978, and why?
In 1852, eight years after Joseph Smith's assassination, Brigham Young announced that Mormons of African descent would not be allowed ordination to the Mormon priesthood. Given that it has always been policy that every Mormon man be ordained to a priesthood office, the decision had dire implications (and indeed reversed previous policy; several African American men had been ordained to office while Joseph Smith was alive). Not only would African and African-American Mormons be denied the priesthood, but they were also denied access to the initiatory rituals done in Mormon temple worship, which is a bit like forbidding Muslims from going on a Hajj or Jewish boys from having a Bar Mitzvah.
Brigham Young, and many other Mormons for several generations, presented various theories for why these policies were required: some followed nineteenth century theories about bloodlines and said that Africans were the descendants of Cain. Others speculated that Africans were children of God who chose before earth life to be less righteous. Such beliefs were commonly held among Mormons until the middle third of the twentieth century, and they and the policy they explained remain a blot and point of shame for Mormonism to this day.
After World War II, increasing numbers of Mormons grew uncomfortable with the policy, and in 1978, after several months of prayer and fasting, the president of the Church, Spencer Kimball, announced that he felt God had directed the policy be reversed. Most Mormons greeted the decision with joy, but the theories explaining why the policy existed in the first place were not refuted, and thus still circulated in Mormonism for many years after.
In 2006 the then-president of the Church issued a stern rebuke for persistent racism among his flock and in February of 2012, the Church's Public Affairs department finally issued a forceful repudiation of these theories after a professor at BYU recapped them to a reporter for the Washington Post. Many Mormons, however, still await a statement directly from ecclesiastical leaders.
5. And one more: Elder Price sings that he believes that “the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.” Why Missouri?
You'd have to ask Joseph Smith. He made this announcement, rather abruptly and apparently surprising to his friends, while visiting a meadow there in 1838. To be specific, he stated that this particular valley was where Adam blessed his children before he died, which would, logically, not be where the Garden of Eden was. To many Mormons, the idea reaffirms a theme the Book of Mormon inaugurated: that the Americas are a sacred place, no less holy than the traditional Holy Land, and that the United States could host the sort of utopian society Joseph Smith wanted to build.
6. Were you raised in the Mormon faith? How did you develop such a deep interest in the LDS Church?
I was indeed raised in the Mormon faith, but have gained a renewed appreciation for it as I've pursued the academic study of religion. Mormonism gives scholars like me a fascinating look at religion-making from the ground floor; studying the founding and early history of Mormonism is like getting a front row seat when Paul and the apostles were spreading Christianity across Rome or when Muhammad was leading a band of Bedouins back to Mecca. That Mormonism has flourished so powerfully in the modern world is one indication that despite some scholars' predictions of secularization, religion is not going anywhere; that it has grown in America helps us understand the culture of the United States and the fantastic possibilities for religious creativity it's offered.