Conference in Brussels on Mormonism and Exoticism

By Christian Euvrard

Christian Euvrard ( is the director of the LDS Institute of Paris.

Editor’s note: We print this article on an academic conference in Brussels because it involved many colleagues in Religious Education and because it represents an important outreach effort between LDS and non-LDS scholars. The conference was cosponsored by James Faulconer, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU, and Baudouin Decharneux, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

An exceptional group of scholars gathered in the prestigious venue of the Royal Academy of Belgium on May 23–25, 2013. Professors from BYU–Provo, BYU–Idaho, and Utah Valley University (UVU) were joined by scholars from Belgium (CIERL: Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Etude des Religions et de la Laïcité or from the UCL: Université Catholique de Louvain), France (GSRL: Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités), and the Netherlands (University of Tubingen), a total of twenty-five presenters. This conference was organized thanks to an encounter between Professor Baudouin Decharneux, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and me, through a common friend, Jorge Varela, former student of Decharneux and my esteemed colleague in Seminaries and Institutes. But the project went one step further when BYU professor James Faulconer invited Decharneux to lecture at BYU in the spring of 2012.Faulconer wrote that “Professor Decharneux had a very good experience. He brought his college‐age son with him, and when he returned wrote to me that his son was thinking about applying to study at BYU. As a result of his good experience here, Baudoin suggested that we jointly sponsor a conference on Mormonism at his university. As a Richard L. Evans Chair, I agreed to contribute a substantial amount toward the conference. Baudoin received further funding from the Royal Academy of Belgium.”[1]

Titled Mormonism and Exoticism, the conference brought together specialists in theology and the history and sociology of religion to seek to understand the attraction that makes Mormonism—a community largely unknown to the world—“exotic.”

The conference opened on Thursday evening with an introduction to the topic. Baudouin Decharneux discussed the writings of English explorer Richard Francis Burton in The City of the Saints, Among the Mormons and Across the Rocky Mountains to California, published in 1861. Decharneux showed how a certain view of Mormonism as different and strange was constructed through this work. From Burton to Arthur Conan Doyle, from Jules Verne to Albert Robida, the nineteenth century is full of works of fiction depicting the Latter-day Saint community as bizarre, strange, or peculiar. After all, the Saints themselves insisted on being considered as “a peculiar people,” and their worldview distinguishes between “Saints” and “Gentiles.” Over the years they have been considered so different that some sociologists even proposed considering the Mormons as an ethnic group of their own.

If we take the concept of “continuing revelation,” for instance, it appears that Joseph Smith not only revisited the Bible but also the whole principle of revelation. My presentation argued that this concept of a Restoration was not only a return to the past but also a dynamic innovation, as seen through different facets of the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The first session on Friday morning centered on the way Mormonism is viewed in Belgium. Cécile Vanderpelen, of the CIERL, examined the representation of the Mormons among the Catholic Belgium elites, between 1920 and 1945, particularly on occasion of the visit of the Belgium monarch to Utah. Anne Morelli, director of the CIERL, illustrated the attitude of the Belgium government, with its policy of stigmatization of “sects,” through the example of the Mormon faith today.

“Exoticism” is always the fruit of a comparison: what we know and what we discover. People are naturally ethnocentric and tend to consider that different is not good. Governments, media, and consequently populations want to know which religious groups are “good” and which are not. Scholars are often confronted with such requests. Chrystal Vanel, of the GSRL, Paris, studied this comparative approach, comparing Mormonism with Islam.

Brian D. Birch, director of the Religious Studies Program of UVU, examined Latter-day Saint doctrines as being “at the margin of Christian theology.” In Birch’s view, the LDS discourse has developed concepts of grace, the Trinity, and doctrinal authority, trending away from more exotic theological dimensions. Next, Wilfried DeCoo, professor emeritus of the Antwerp University and BYU, noted the different criteria for defining a religious group: ontological, historical, and doctrinal, through the media, in hermeneutical terms, and from an individual point of view. Then Fred Woods, professor of Church history at BYU, proposed a conceptual look at the societies of Zion and Babylon, based on sacred texts and personal experience.

The Friday afternoon sessions examined Mormon doctrines. James E. Faulconer of BYU showed how Mormonism, unlike most Western religions, does not find its cohesion in common beliefs, but through a shared narrative and through its trust in the reliability of “continuing revelation.” The LDS faith could be better described as an “orthopraxy” (what should be performed) rather than an “orthodoxy” (what should be believed).

Joachim Hernandez-Dispaux, professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain, studied the doctrine of the visit of Jesus Christ to the spirit world (1 Peter 3:18–20). Dana M. Pike, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, considered the exotic Song of Solomon in the canon of Mormon scripture. Shon D. Hopkin, assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, examined two contrasting viewpoints within Mormonism. On one hand, Mormons believe in a universal apostasy and the necessity of a complete restoration of gospel truth and authority, leading to a possible antagonism with other faiths. On the other hand, they “expect, look for, appreciate, and uphold the beautiful truths that are found in all other faiths.” Mormons are located somewhere along this spectrum, but this tension can be a dynamic dimension in considering their relationships with others.

The next session focused on the dimension of the sacred in the LDS faith. Walter E. A. van Beek, chair of the Department of Anthropology of Religion, Tilburg University, created a fascinating perspective when describing initiatory ceremonies among different African tribes. He described the relationship between the “secret” and the “sacred,” arguing that what you discover through the initiation is yourself in relation to the teachings and traditions of the group. With this background, several presentations explored the temple theme.

For David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, the study of sacred space can serve as a focusing lens on the meaning of forms and symbols of a religious tradition. Mormons have created “several forms of sacred space, including Zion, temples, meeting houses, and Church historical sites.” These demonstrate the continuity with ancient traditions, confirming the claim for Restoration. But, at the same time, LDS “sacred space reflects the dynamic process of change as Mormonism confronts the modern world.”

Gerald Hansen Jr., professor of political sciences at BYU–Idaho, showed through several examples that most features of the LDS temple ritual can be compared to similar practices in world religions. Fabien Nobilio, collaborating with the CIERL, studied the question of the Mormon baptism of the dead, proposing various interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:29. Alonzo L. Gaskill, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, explored the LDS practice of wearing sacred ritual undergarments and the implications of that practice. He compared this ritual behavior to similar practices found in Orthodox Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and among certain Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Marriage and family life are central to Mormonism. George Ryskamp, professor of history at BYU, explored the nineteenth-century temple experience; Melitón González Trejo, a former Catholic, and Rachel Cope, assistant professor Church history and doctrine at BYU, presented the views of Edith Turpin, an English convert who immigrated to Utah and defended the practice of plural marriage in her letters. Michael A. Goodman, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, examined the apparent paradox of Mormonism’s family philosophy, a blend of conservative gender roles with a high percentage of highly educated women. Finally, Ralph C. Hancock, professor of political philosophy at BYU, brought the topic on a philosophical ground, arguing that the belief in eternal families, a core doctrine of the LDS faith, shapes every aspect of the Saints.

The final Saturday sessions were devoted to relationships between the Mormon faith and modernism in such fields as education and politics. Scott C. Esplin, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, followed the educational changes and societal shifts in the battle between LDS and public schools in Utah, while Mary Jane Woodger, professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, examined Abraham Lincoln’s interaction with the Mormons. J. B. Haws, assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, compared George Romney’s campaign in 1968 with those of Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. He showed how the public perception of the LDS Church has changed over time and examined the reasons. Finally, Jorge Varela, coordinator of Seminaries and Institutes in Spain, demonstrated how the course of life of an LDS man or woman can be compared to a real initiatory experience.

This conference showed, once again, the richness of Mormon studies. Not only the quantity and quality of available documentation makes it particularly pertinent, but the relative youth of the movement, coupled with its present dynamism and global presence, make it an exemplary topic in the field of religious studies. One comment was made over and over: We need more studies on the international Church. Otherwise, the mass of documents from the US will tend to generalize and universalize what might be only the reflection of a sample of Saints that is no longer representative of the majority!

In the meantime, a book with chapters based on the different presentations of the conference is being worked on. We propose that similar symposia and conferences be held in the future throughout Europe and elsewhere, in close collaboration between LDS and non-LDS scholars. The secret of success lies, we believe, in the balance between “insider” and “outsider” scholars.


[1] James Faulconer to Brent Nordgren, e-mail, April 30, 2013.