Mormonism: A religion of the head or of the heart?

That question is not as straightforward as you might think. Garry Wills’ Head and Heart: American Christianities (Penguin Press, 2007) reviews these two different approaches and uses them to structure his history of Christianity in America. It is an effective format that helps the reader follow developments, in contrast to most histories of religion in America which are often overloaded with doctrinal and denominational details that have little interest for most contemporary readers.

The Head. In the section titled “Enlightenment Religion,” Wills discusses how Unitarians, Quakers, and Deists emerged in the wake of the Great Awakening of 1740s. Not everyone liked what the Great Awakening stirred up: “Once men recoiled from emotional excess, they looked more carefully at how reason could be used to guide religion into more acceptable paths.” Those paths included questioning the orthodox formulation of the Trinity (hence Unitarians) as well as other tenets of orthodox Calvinism (a turn to Arminian free will doctrines). Quakers rejected orthodox practice and doctrine in favor of simple benevolence and the inner light of the Spirit (what Mormons would call personal revelation). Deism was popular among the elites of the Revolutionary era, including Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and most famously Tom Paine. Wills concludes:

It is one of this book’s theses that Enlightened religion was a blessing to this country — that it was a necessary corrective to the pre-Enlightenment religion that hanged Mary Dyer, condemned Anne Hutchinson, and banished Roger Williams.

More on that in-need-of-correction pre-Enlightenment religion below.

The Heart. In the wake of the Revolution, established denominations like the Episcoplians and Congregationalists lost ground to newer, more enterprising groups like the Methodists and Baptists. The section titles in one of the chapters tell the story: Methodists, do-it-yourself religion, escaping doctrine. The Disciples of Christ, the denomination from which Sidney Rigdon and the hundred or so early Kirtland converts came, was firmly in this camp. As religion rolled into the 20th century, the trend away from doctrine became even more pronounced: nondenominational preachers like Dwight Moody and eventually Billy Graham sought nondenominational Christian converts, who increasingly attend nondenominational megachurches preaching do-it-yourself theology like dispensationalism, the health and wealth gospel, and Second Coming dramatics like The Late Great Planet Earth (published in 1970, it has sold over 28 million copies). The focus on conversion (of the heart) started with rural Second Great Awakening revivals and continues with present-day Christian festivals in arenas and stadiums.

So is Mormonism a religion of the heart or of the head?

Two Other Candidates. But wait, we have more options. First, before the two religious awakenings gave us our present denominational constellations, the Puritans of 17th-century New England were quite happily practicing their all-encompassing approach to Christianity. This is the “pre-Enlightenment religion” that Wills referred to in the above quotation. The term is meant to be descriptive, not pejorative. It refers to the era when learning and education were seen to be fully harmonious with Christianity: before secular learning and secular culture emerged during the Enlightenment, before scholarship subjecting the Bible to critical study had been published, and well before the theory of evolution and modern cosmology provided plausible naturalistic explanations of the cosmos, life, and humans.

There is a positive angle to how the Puritans did religion: The Puritans weren’t Sunday-only Christians; they took their religion seriously. For them, religion, government, and community were all reflections of a unified Christian commonwealth, one which stressed duties more than rights, perhaps, but certainly had a strong sense of identity and mission. I tend to think Mormonism creatively adopts some features of the 17th-century paradigm, such as avoiding engagement with higher criticism of the Bible, generally discounting evolution, and at times practicing a form of mild theocracy. And don’t forget Emerson’s description of Mormonism as an “afterclap of Puritanism.”

A second alternative to head or heart is political religion as it has emerged in the recent past. Religious involvement in cultural and legal fights over school prayer, abortion, and gay marriage are obvious signs of this political turn. Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and the Religious Right familiar terms reflecting the politicization of religion in our generation. Mormonism has not been immune to this development. The ERA fight, Prop 22, Prop 8, and even the Proclamation on the Family highlight the extent to which politics and political issues now define Mormonism.

So, is Mormonism a religion of the heart, of the head, of pre-Enlightenment unity, or of modern political religion? [“All of the above” is not an allowable answer!]

13 comments for “Mormonism: A religion of the head or of the heart?

  1. Cameron N.
    March 23, 2012 at 12:30 am

    As usual, the correct answer is ‘both,’ or even ‘all of the above.’ The Gospel’s pretty amazing, there’s so much duality to everything!

  2. SimplyMe
    March 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Your question drew my mind to a quote from the film “Kingdom of Heaven.” The scene is where the young knight tells a monk that he has “lost his religion.” This is what the monk (Hospitaller) says:

    Hospitaller: I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers.

    Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness.

    What god desires is here
    [points to head]

    Hospitaller: and here
    [points to heart]

    Hospitaller: and what you decide to do every day, you will be a good man – or not.

    To me, this quote says it all. Have the wisdom to know that which is needed most at the time. Use wisdom to know that God requires us to use our head to think through each outcome of each situation and our heart to know what is the right thing to do.

  3. YvonneS
    March 23, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    It is tempting to say it is of the heart because we talk about a change of heart, of the spirit speaking to the heart and mind. Therefore the heart is seen as the center of feeling and emotion. Regardless we believe in a natural spiritual universe, that all spirit is matter only more refined. We believe all things are spiritual and tangible. I think ours is a religion of the head because without the brain that resides in the head there is no heart.

  4. Lucy
    March 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Secularism is a religion of the heart. For the answer on Mormonism, see Elder Bednar’s recently released book Increase in Learning (

  5. Bryan in VA
    March 23, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    D&C 8:2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

  6. March 23, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    In the sense that “Mormonism” can be defined as “everything that is true”, I think it would be pre-Enlightenment unity. That is the sense which most resonates with me.

    I think that other Mormons often live a religion that more closely approximates the other categories, though.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    March 24, 2012 at 5:50 am

    Mormonism began with Joseph Smith’s quest for answers to the great questions about the meaning of life and the path to happiness and salvation. The great distinction of Mormonism is our confidence that the living God gives us direct and intelligible answers. Those answers BOTH enlighten our understanding and reassure our emotions. Indeed, one of the answers Joseph received is that the purpose of our all too short mortal lives is to learn to unite our preexistent and immortal intelligence with the physical world which we experience through the medium of our physical bodies, including emotions.

    There is a consistency in the creedal description of a divinity without body and without passions. It does not appear to be logically possible to experience emotions without a “body”, at the very least a refined material body of spirit, as opposed to an immaterial God that somehow has a “substance” which can be unitarily shared among three distinct “persons”. In our stubborn refusal to accept a formulation that must ascribe meanings to words which have no correspondence to their ordinary meanings, and thus have no comprehensible semantic content, but only the form thereof, we Mormons refuse to abandon our intellect in our quest for the throne of God. In our insistemce that we are literally sprung from Him as children, we claim in nascent form all the attributes of the true God, both the intellect that the creeds leave Him, and the passions which are abundantly attested by scripture.

    Much of modern Evangelical Christianity claims to be intellectually rigorous, especially in rejecting emotional revelation such as burning in our hearts that Mormons expect and often experience, and their insistence that God communicates to mankind solely through the written word of the Bible. Mormonism points out the intellectual dishonesty of claiming you can have a purely intellectual and objective encounter with the Bible, which refuses to deal honestly with the admixture of subjectivity and personal opinion that creates the thousand sects of Christianity.

    The great innovation of the Restoration is to reunify heart and head, exemplified by a scripture, the Book of Mormon, which not only declares truth, but also argues truth, from the reasoning of Lehi on free will, to the argument of Nephi for new scripture, to the argument of Alma for an experimental path to faith, to the argument of Mormon against infant baptism. In Mormonism, mysteries are questions that invite us to ask for answers, not conundrums whose insolubility is pointed to as evidence of their divinity. And in our insistence that salvation requires a bending of our will and emotions and thus our behavior to the will of God, we avoid the literally half baked, incomplete salvation that is offered by cheap grace, which claims God has claimed us as His even if our hearts still rebel against Him.

  8. Bob
    March 24, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    The ‘Heart’ is only a metaphor. The Heart does nothing but pump blood. It does not ‘feel’, it does not ‘burn’. Emotions are felt only in your head or your body.

  9. jader3rd
    March 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    While it is true that the heart does not feel, the colloquial definition of heart does include the emotional side of our conscious, and is therefore acceptable usage in this discussion.

  10. Bob
    March 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    I understand that. But for this Post, the “colloquial definition” is false. I don’t find it an ” acceptable usage in this discussion”. Why use it if it’s a misleading myth?

  11. Adam
    March 27, 2012 at 10:00 am

    In early years? The head. The focus seemed to be doctrine, doctrine, and more doctrine. Now it’s more about feelings, so now I’d say it’s the heart. The focus now is on family and the spirit, not so much on what sort of kingdoms you might attain by doing xyz.

  12. themormonbrit
    March 29, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I think mormonism is definitely a religion of the heart. The focus is not so much on knowing the scriptures inside out or being able to give extensive talks on complicated and deep peculiarities of doctrine (much as I love that kind of stuff). The focus that the church seems to have today rests on being guided by personal revelation, listening to the spirit and virtuous emotions – love, peace and joy. This is evidenced by how uninclined mormons are toward theology, as well as the affirmation that one does not gain a testimony of the gospel through empirical reasoning (the province of the head), but through the feelings of the spirit (definitely the domain of the heart).

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