Sins of Christendom: A Review

Anti-Mormon literature is always a touchy subject, but Sins of Christendom: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Evangelicalism by Nathaniel Wiewora handles it deftly, putting it in a broader context of change and debate within Evangelical Christianity. 

Sins of Christendom tells the story of how and why Evangelicals handled the topic of Mormonism as it emerged in the 1830s and 1840s. A core idea of the book is that Evangelicals engaged in writing anti-Mormon literature not only to attack a rival religion, but also to use it as a proxy for discussions internal to Evangelicalism as a way to delineate acceptable behavior and belief. Topics discussed include charismatic displays of religious enthusiasm, the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, interpretation of the Bible, money making through religion, and religious fanaticism. It also discusses how Evangelicals saw aspects of Mormonism that were worthy of emulation and tried to learn from a religion they despised to outdo the Mormons. 

One of the chapters that proved very salient to current discussions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the one on relationship to the market. Joseph Smith and his fellow leaders were often accused of being poor, lazy people who were using religion to make themselves rich without having to work hard. The Kirtland Safety Society featured heavily in the anti-Mormon rhetoric of the time in this regard, but the accusations that Smith had accumulated too much power and wealth through his ministry was an ongoing point of contention from Evangelicals. Weiwora points out, however, that similar debates about making money from religion were going on within Evangelical Christianity. For example, the American Bible Society was proving controversial for making money off of selling the Bible. Critics accused them of using the word of God to enrich themselves and lowering ministers to common peddlers or setting them up for a life of crime through their merchandising in the cities. Advocates indicated that the people purchasing the Bible would be more invested in the word of God because they had spent money on it and that the money also allowed the ABS to continue its work of spreading the word of God. Later, the work of celebrity preachers continued to be an area of contention about the role of money in Christianity, just as concerns about Latter-day Saint leaders using the Church to enrich themselves has endured as a topic of discussion.

I will admit, while reading Wiewora’s work was fascinating, as a believing Latter-day Saint, it could be quite exhausting to slog through all the anti-Mormon literature that was brought up. It also proved difficult to discern what was meant as a summary of the points that Evangelicals were making in the anti-Mormon literature and what was Wiewora’s attempts at stating facts (accepting the anti-Mormon literature as basically true in most details). He does state that “the specific components and truthfulness of religious prejudice matter less than how certain evangelicals used them to further their own religious interests” (30), which would indicate that Wiewora was sumarizing, but it still created some jarring moments in the book.

I was deeply impressed by the thoroughness of Wiewora’s investigations into anti-Mormon literature in the time of Joseph Smith. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sources (both obscure and well-known) that were brought into the discussion, which signals an incredible amount of time and effort spent on researching. Wiewora also displays that he is very capable in both contexts of Evangelical and Mormon history. 

In summary, Sins of Christendom is an important investigation of the ways in which anti-Mormon literature produced by Evangelicals shaped the Evangelical movement itself, while putting the anti-Mormon literature in a broader context of tensions that were occurring in the early United States. It is fascinating to see what anti-Mormon literature says about the people who wrote it, though it is also challenging to wade through the anti-Mormon literature as a believing Latter-day Saint.

1 comment for “Sins of Christendom: A Review

  1. Thanks for the review, Chad. You made an interesting point about the book not interjecting the “real” history of Mormonism and that makes me wonder if one ought to be an expert in Mormonism to write about anti-Mormonism. Seems like it could help, but I also get that the author’s topic is evangelical not Mormons.

Comments are closed.