The Bureaucratic Reform Policy That Redefined Mormon Culture

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 25 2012 5:34 PM

Saturday’s Warriors

How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.

Brigham Young (left) and Mitt Romney (right)
Brigham Young (left) and Mitt Romney (right)

Photograph of Brigham Young courtesy Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Photograph of Mitt Romney by Gage Skidmore.

The first musical about Mormons to exceed commercial expectations opened not on Broadway, but on the campus of Brigham Young University, in 1973. Saturday’s Warrior follows eight young Mormon siblings as they search for love, are beset by temptation, and learn loyalty to their sprawling and unwieldy family—with all of this scored to a tinkle-y, ’70s-pop soundtrack. Performances of the musical in Utah sold a surprising number of tickets, and productions soon popped up across the American West. A 1989 film version sold thousands of copies, and it’s estimated that some 2 million people, almost all of them certainly Mormon, have watched one performance or another.

Saturday’s Warrior—the title alludes to the latter days—was an unprecedented pop phenomenon in the small world of midcentury Mormondom at least in part because it struck with perfect pitch the tone of that Mormon moment. In the 1960s and ’70s, many Mormons were disappointed with American culture, which seemed to them to be spinning wildly out of control. The musical’s heroes urge their wayward siblings to protect themselves by embracing a rigorous code of personal morality and loyalty to the clean-cut church that teaches it. Saturday’s Warrior is, essentially, a tract from Mormon parents desperate to keep their children out of the dangerous clutches of hippies.

But Saturday’s Warrior is not only an amusing bit of Mormon cultural ephemera. It is also a remarkable relic of the midcentury bureaucratic reform effort that gradually became the defining force of 20th-century Mormonism. This program went under the vague and harmless-sounding name of “correlation.” If you’ve ever wondered how Mormons went from beard-wearing polygamous radicals (think Brigham Young) to your well-scrubbed, wholesome, and somewhat dorky next-door neighbors (think Mitt Romney—albeit with not quite so much money), the short answer is “correlation.”

Harold B. Lee.
Harold B. Lee in 1944. Lee became an apostle of the LDS Church in 1941, and eventually served as the church’s president.

Elders' Journal via Wikimedia Commons.

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The movement began in 1960, when Harold B. Lee, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS church, took over a committee formidably titled the All-Church Coordinating Council. Their mandate was to coordinate the curricula of the church’s various programs—youth organizations, Sunday school, and so on—and eliminate overlap. But Lee, a talented administrator and forceful personality, had grander visions than simply curbing waste. Over the next decade, he successfully revamped the church’s organizational chart, consolidating governance in the Quorum of the Twelve and stripping independent authority from the women’s association, the Sunday school, and the youth programs. He also established a system of review for all publications produced in the church, from hymnbooks to Sunday school manuals to periodicals. This material is now surveyed for theological accuracy and adherence to various church goals. If it is given the official stamp of approval it is deemed “correlated.”

Of course, every religion that attains considerable size must reckon at some point with outside cultural pressures and internal diversity, and most eventually find refuge in mechanisms for enforcing orthodoxy. Looked at this way, correlation is simply Mormonism’s answer to, say, the Council of Trent. While the decisions made at Trent sought to deal with the splintering effects of the Reformation and the burgeoning age of print, correlation was born in a collision between the social upheavals of the 1960s and the progressive ideals of the early 20th century.

Before World War I, Mormons enthusiastically participated in the turn of the century progressive movement, which exalted order, moral virtue, and a faith that proper education, efficient government agencies, and well-meaning volunteers could transform America’s poor and immigrants into productive, assimilated members of the middle class. Progressives were idealists, rationalists, and moralists—and the Mormons, whose theology had always rejected original sin and preached that every human being possessed the infinite potential of divine inheritance, seized upon these ideas and pursued them to the fullest. They embraced the Boy Scouts of America, Sunday schools, and youth programs designed to uplift their own. Though the Great Depression and the trenches of two world wars dampened the optimism of the original progressives, Mormons kept the dream alive.

The other place progressivism survived—in some form, at least—was in the American corporation. The ideals of the movement informed the rational, pragmatic trust in organization held by business-leaders-turned-politicians like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney (governor of Michigan and father of a teenager named Mitt). Harold B. Lee, and the midcentury Mormon leaders who aided him, were deeply influenced by the brisk pragmatism of these men, and so correlation remade Mormonism in the image of the data-driven American corporation, governed by committees, based on consensus, and institutionally conservative.