The Universality of the Gospel


While visiting Latin America sometime ago, we heard a recent convert to the Church say: “Why can’t the Church let us organize in our own Latin American ways? Why are we expected to change our way of doing things when we join the Church? It seems to me that the elders want us to become not only Mormons, but also Anglo-Americans. Why should this be so?”

Other Latin American Mormons have expressed similar views. Whether the viewpoint expressed is correct or not is not as important as the issue raised. And it is a world question.

Are Mormonism and Americanism one and the same thing? Can Latter-day Saints of nationalities other than American embrace the gospel and live it as completely as they should, and still keep their own national identification?

The Church brings together peoples from all nations and tongues, and one of the first aspects of this contact is the common awareness of the national and ethnic characteristics of people. It should be proper, then, to consider the implications of cultural differences among Latter-day Saints.

Perhaps a definition of the term culture is the place to start such a discussion. Culture is essentially an orientation to life and to the universe. The specific concept of culture that is relevant here is limited to the beliefs, symbols, and value orientations of people. These beliefs, symbols, and value orientations represent the cultural package passed on to us as children as we become members of our respective social groups. Culture is an important aspect of man’s personality. From his culture he accepts what is important to him from the wealth of ideas presented by his group. In this sense, then, the Church also provides us with a culture.

Beliefs, symbols, and values provide man with guidelines to carry out his activities in life. They provide a frame of reference that he may use to react to life. They provide a scale of values to which he refers when he defines and implements his goals. Man’s culture, in other words, produces direction in daily decision making.

All societies have a culture. And some societies have more than one culture, for it is possible for one culture to develop within another. This is the case of Mormon culture. In considering the relationship that Mormon culture might have to national cultures, the following are some of the questions we will discuss: (1) Is there a celestial culture? (2) What is the relationship between contemporary Mormon culture and this celestial culture? (3) What is the relationship between Anglo-American culture, Mormon culture, and the celestial culture? (4) What are the alternatives available to non-Anglo-American Latter-day Saints as they are faced by celestial culture, Mormon culture, and American culture? Can they accept one without the others, or must they accept all three? (5) What changes, then, are expected from non-Anglo converts? (6) How does the non-Anglo Mormon convert achieve such change?

1. Is there a celestial culture?

On the basis of our definition of culture, it must follow that there is a celestial culture. This culture can be seen in specific ideas, organizations, and structures that are created to implement universal and eternal goals.

The Lord has revealed that his main goal is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. This cannot be done unless there develops on this earth a social organization and structure that, when perfected, will be the means for man to reach his eternal goal. Prophets have told us of eternal laws and eternal commandments, as well as of specific social behaviors that must be observed and experienced. All of these are based on eternal values acceptable to God. Specifically, values such as love, faith, trust, honesty, truth, fairness, obedience, self-control, and devotion, in their perfect manifestation, are the foundation of celestial culture.

In the Church of Jesus Christ, the gospel plan contains the eternal values that have been established by the Creator as guidelines for our conduct on this earth. These values take into consideration the eternal laws of the universe. The celestial culture is not man-made and not contradictory as are world cultures. This celestial culture, if accepted by man and completely implemented in the form of integrated social institutions, would satisfy all his needs.

It should be noted in passing that a celestial culture has probably been on the earth only during the days of the City of Enoch and possibly among the Nephites for some time after the visit of Christ to the American continent. In all other gospel periods, men have operated in part with lesser laws, but at the same time there have been great visions of the celestial culture or higher laws.

2. What is the relationship between contemporary Mormon culture and this celestial culture?

Our contemporary Mormon culture is not quite the celestial culture. We are told that we have received and continue to receive more guidelines and knowledge than all previous dispensations. But we also know that the early Saints were not quite ready to receive all that was appointed for them at the time. And Joseph Smith was explicitly commanded to withhold much of the knowledge he possessed. Nevertheless, this dispensation, manifested now as Mormon culture, can definitely be distinguished from all other dispensations, particularly in the larger amount of celestial culture revealed.

It should be understood that Mormon culture, because of secular world culture pressures, has adopted some aspects of material and nonmaterial Anglo-American culture.

3. What is the relationship between Anglo-American culture, Mormon culture, and the celestial culture?

American culture and Mormon culture are not identical, but we have been told that some aspects of Anglo-American culture can be traced to celestial culture. Anglo-American culture, in its ideal conceptualization, did not happen by accident. It is true that the great traditional humanistic concepts of liberty, equality, and human dignity were known to earlier societies, but in the United States they were actually manifest in specific social institutions. Moreover, according to Joseph Smith, American society was not purely the result of the evolution of lofty human concepts. Worthy men were foreordained by God and raised in the American colonies for the explicit purpose of organizing the fundamental bases of a society within which the kingdom of God could be established for the last time in the history of the world. (See D&C 101:77–80.) Thus, as we compare the relationship between the celestial culture, Mormon culture, American culture, and other nationality cultures, we must never forget that the Anglo-American culture is a special case in the national cultures of this world.

This is not to say that American culture, or the society derived from it, is perfect or that it works perfectly. Important and tragic deviations from its ideals have developed. But we must know that many of the principles established by the Anglo-American founding fathers have facilitated the development of basic institutions that, in theory at least, do not clash head-on with the beliefs, symbols, and value-orientations of the celestial culture. Incidentally, the several clashes between Mormon society and Anglo-American society, particularly during the early years of the Church, can generally be explained by the failure of the American people to follow their own basic precepts.

As the Mormon society became stabilized and developed a tremendously complex social structure of its own, there was less and less conflict between secular American institutions and Mormon institutions. Thus, Anglo-American culture, to some extent, can be seen as overlapping with Mormon culture and to a lesser extent with celestial culture. And while Mormon culture contains many more celestial elements, it has also integrated some aspects of the Anglo-American secular culture.

Concerning other nations, it could be said that their cultures, in theory if not always in institutionalized forms, do contain some remains of early revelations of the celestial culture. For the prophets of God have often made important impacts on societies other than the one in which they were living. In many of these societies, however, human cultures have either completely or nearly overpowered whatever aspects of celestial culture might have been there.

The relationship between celestial culture, Mormon culture, and American culture can probably be illustrated as three overlapping circles (see illustration).

The Christus and the world

There is some danger in failing to differentiate between Mormon culture and Anglo-American culture. This failure is often seen in the speeches of some Anglo-American Latter-day Saints who exalt Anglo-American society in its entirety as a divine society. Also, at church meetings they sometimes improperly overemphasize their roles as Americans when the more relevant role on such occasions might be the more universal role of Latter-day Saints. Such ethnocentrism, of course, is sometimes offensive to Latter-day Saints of other nationalities.

4. What are the alternatives available to non-Anglo-American Latter-day Saints as they are faced by celestial culture, Mormon culture, and American culture? Can they accept one without the other two? Must they accept the three?

To understand what new converts from outside the Anglo-American culture face, several additional comments on culture should be added. There is a relatively high degree of consistency within most cultures. When values are taken on that do not square with the existing cultural system, conflicts develop for the person responding to the new values. It becomes a matter of loyalties.

This is why the Latter-day Saint convert from nations other than the United States cannot simply acquire a testimony of the gospel without almost entirely reevaluating and reorganizing his own personal value system so it can fit without major conflict within the gospel culture. This reorganization of values at the individual level is a drastic change in life style for most converts. In other words, when one important aspect of our individual orientation is modified, the total individual outlook must be reconstructed so that it again acquires functional consistency and integration. A very aggressive individualist, for example, is expected to control and minimize that characteristic when joining the Church, particularly as he learns to develop concern for others and a genuine desire to serve.

A similar problem might exist at the organizational level. Inconsistent cultures develop inconsistent organizations and structures. However, for the kingdom of God on earth to be coherent and cohesive, its organization must be the same everywhere. That is why the Church, through its worldwide missionary system, has always attempted to pass on to new converts the total Mormon culture so that Latter-day Saints in every nation are using the same structure.

It is desirable, therefore, that the Mormon convert accept not only the celestial culture but also as many other aspects of the Mormon culture as necessary. As was said before, Mormon culture includes many aspects of Anglo-American culture that can be tolerated as long as they do not conflict with the celestial culture. Of course, problems can develop when over-eager and well-meaning Anglo-American Latter-day Saints expect members from other nationalities to accept some of the Anglo-American culture that may not be basically related to eternal values. An extreme example of this might be a missionary-led Fourth of July celebration in Great Britain.

One of the distinguishing marks of the restored church is its universality. Its mission is to make one of mankind and little by little provide the means for the elimination of dysfunctional cultural and other differences between men on this earth. To accomplish this, the restored church provides the institutionalized means for men not only to acquire the characteristics necessary to become equal citizens in the kingdom of God but also to eventually achieve even that unity and affinity which emphasizes cooperation and eliminates all competition between men. Thus, converts are faced with the demand not only to accept a universal standard but also to give up some of the dear national traditions which, after careful examination, might prove to be inconsistent with the values of celestial culture.

5. What changes, then, are expected from non-Anglo converts?

In this dispensation, the restored church has been cast in an Anglo-American sociocultural context. This means that although the gospel is universal, the type of social organization developed to take it to other nations is by necessity Anglo-American. This in itself should not be offensive to any true Latter-day Saint. Careful study will show that at other times in the history of the world, the revealed gospel was cast in a Jewish, or Nephite, or Israelite sociocultural context and that at that time those societies had a similar task of teaching the gospel to others. But the gospel is universal, and all men from all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples should be able to recognize it. It is highly probable that as the gospel is accepted, men of other nations will have to experience greater changes than the average Anglo-American convert.

To illustrate the type of change that converts might have to experience, let us take the example of Latin American converts—at present, incidentally, the largest group of converts in the world outside the United States. Referring to Latin America, we are aware, of course, of the important differences between the various Latin American countries. However, in describing and comparing value orientations, we have chosen a classification of a sufficiently high level of abstraction to permit the generalizations we need to make. Our purpose is to illustrate in a general way some of the problems Latter-day Saints from other nations might have in adjusting to the changes precipitated by their knowledge and acceptance of the restored gospel, especially as it comes to them cast in Anglo-American forms. To appreciate the cultural differences and thus the possible problems involved, this classification of five cultural value-orientations will be presented here to help us organize the discussion.

These value orientations are possible choices that people make as they behave and select patterns of social interaction. In terms of these value orientations, we should first see some important differences between Latin American and Anglo-American culture. After this, we can consider the similarities in value orientation between Latin American, Anglo-American, and Mormon culture and thus appreciate the possible dilemma faced by Latin American Latter-day Saints. The five value orientations are: (a) achievement—ascription, (b) affectivity—affective neutrality, (c) universalism—particularism, (d) specificity—diffuseness, (e) collectivity-orientation—self-orientation.

a. Achievement—ascription: Is the orientation of a society to reward people for what they do or for who they are? In the United States, reward on the basis of achievement is most typical, while in Latin America reward is often given on the basis of ascription. Thus, in Latin America a man may derive a lot of status and possibly many opportunities simply because he is the son of an important man, even though he himself may not have achieved much on his own. In the United States, on the other hand, the son of an important man who fails to achieve can be easily considered a failure in spite of his background.

b. Affective neutrality—affectivity: Does the value orientation in a society encourage men to act because of the consequences of the action or do they act impulsively? In the United States, the culture tends to emphasize the value of self-control, of working for long-term goals, and of evaluating alternatives on the basis of consequences. In Latin America, in general, impulsiveness, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and spontaneity are rewarded in interpersonal relations. This makes Latin Americans spontaneously attractive people who tend to resent what they perceive as “calculating” Anglos.

c. Universalism—particularism: Universalism refers to a view of the universe based on rules, laws, and principles. Particularism refers to a view of the universe based on personal relationships. Thus, in the United States where universalism is taken for granted, rules are accepted as useful tools to attain one’s goals. In Latin America, rules, laws, and principles are to be avoided if at all possible. Goals are most generally achieved through people rather than through rules. While in the United States rules are often seen as protection from injustice, in Latin America rules tend to be used as weapons against strangers or disliked acquaintances. For friends, relatives, and generous people, rules may be waived or ignored.

d. Specificity—diffuseness: Does a culture encourage people to be responsible for the total kinship or mostly for the immediate family? Is the range of family obligations unlimited or does it have some restrictions? In the United States, the range of responsibility is quite narrow and includes few people beyond the immediate conjugal family. In Latin America the range is very wide, often including the entire extended family—parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, as well as married siblings, uncles and aunts, and even distant cousins.

When diffuseness is the rule, as it is in Latin America, the burden of proof, after one has been asked for help, resides in the person who has been requested to help. If for some reason he cannot help, he must prove it. And he is expected to feel bad if he cannot help.

When specificity is the rule, the burden of proof resides in the person who requests help. In borrowing a car or tools, for example, the borrower must show that he does not have another alternative available. On the other hand, if the would-be lender decides to decline the help, he does not necessarily have to apologize.

e. Collectivity-orientation—self-orientation: Does the value orientation in a society encourage people to be individualistic and independent or to solve problems by cooperation? The Latin American has some difficulty in working with committees and in entering in long, careful discussions of problems. Consequently, he has some difficulty in putting the interest of the group first. Anglo-Americans, on the other hand, see great advantage in sharing common concerns and in avoiding individual solutions, particularly on issues where community support is needed.

These value orientations explain to some extent the type of personalities typically found in Latin America: the impulsively generous, easy-going, emotionally involved, personalistic, informal individual, almost enjoying breaking rules and deeply distrustful of formal organizational demands. By comparison, the typical middle-class individual from the United States tends to appear cold, detached, and efficient, taking life almost too seriously, too passively involved in following detailed rules, but generally working well with others in formal situations.

The differences in the value orientations listed above provide a general idea of the challenge of introducing Mormon culture to people in other societies.

In some areas of Latin America, particularly in the urban centers where industrial development is often quite advanced, the patterns of value orientation are already undergoing radical changes, and the differences there are less extreme.

For Latter-day Saints, the implications of all this are very significant, for Mormon culture comes to them with the claim to universality but in much of the dress of the national Anglo-American culture.

And yet, Mormon culture is not exactly like Anglo-American culture. Mormon culture values achievement and affective neutrality (which reflect emphasis on achievement and self-control as well as on deferred gratification), universalism (which reflects emphasis on efficiency in goal attainment as well as a view of the universe ruled by laws and a scientific approach to search for secular knowledge), and collectivity-orientation (which reflects the tendency to solve problems through the total community or at least through the total community of believers). But, because of its greater perspective on life due to direct revelation, Mormon culture values diffuseness or a wide range of responsibility for the extended family and even mankind. Interestingly enough, it is this last value orientation that is often a source of frustration in the Mormon community, since the average Anglo-American social institution tends to value specificity, or a narrow range of social responsibility, for others, even relatives. Thus, Anglo-American culture emphasizes the small conjugal family, while Mormon culture emphasizes the large, close-knit family.

It is this Mormon culture, as well as the social organization that develops from it, that the Latin American convert is challenged to accept—often at the expense of changing some of his traditional ways.

As mentioned before, the more urbanized and industrial the background of the convert, the easier it is for him to accept, adjust, or change to the Mormon value orientation.

6. How does the non-Anglo Mormon convert achieve such change?

The most effective way to change behavior is through actual interaction. Man changes in the measure that he is interacting meaningfully with others. While the process of conversion is undeniably a personal religious experience, the process of accommodation within the Church is a slow process of change through meaningful and rewarding group interaction. To describe this process, we can again use the five value orientations and show how activity within the Church leads to new expectations, how it rewards the individual for conformity to such expectations, and finally how it consolidates conversion. Our experience among Latin American Latter-day Saints provides some concrete illustrations.

a. Achievement—ascription: Typically it is through interaction with the missionaries that the new convert visualizes a new perspective on work. Latin American values grant little dignity to manual work. Recent converts usually express surprise at missionaries’ carrying packages, cooking, washing dishes, ironing their shirts, etc. These young men are usually involved in these activities without losing face or their dignity. And because of the personal relationship, imitation is facilitated.

Soon the new convert becomes acquainted with the leadership hierarchy within the Church, a hierarchy that basically rests on achievement. As he becomes involved in the demanding life expected of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he realizes that within the organization things get done and that those who serve are given rewards in terms of both formal and informal status. Moreover, he is told that his status in the kingdom of heaven also depends on his willingness to serve and work here on earth.

The new member, particularly one of middle-class background, who might be oriented to expect status by ascription, eventually becomes accustomed to the possibility of having a branch president with less education and less occupational status than himself. On the other hand, the lower-class convert is nearly overwhelmed by new possibilities for actual upward mobility in a social group where ascription is not the basis for status.

b. Affective neutrality—affectivity: It is difficult for an impulsive person to get things done through channels, particularly in Latin America, where impulsivity is often attractive in a person and therefore socially rewarded. But leadership roles in the Church teach self-control and the consideration of consequences of actions. In church work, members learn that the house of the Lord is a house of order. Then they observe that Church officers to be effective must plan and consider the future. This process teaches the individual to think in terms of consequences and thus control impulsivity.

It would probably be nice if the Latin American Latter-day Saint could keep his spontaneity. But after holding important positions in his ward or branch, he soon realizes that spontaneity often gets him in trouble. Many branches in Latin America have gone through tremendous upheavals. Sometimes members establish very close personal relationships that, when not kept up, may develop into real feuds during which polarization takes place within the world congregation.

c. Universalism—particularism: Most of his life, the Latin American has obtained opportunities through others around him. He assumes that those close to him are obligated to help. If he wants a job, he passes the word to his friends. If he wants any type of government service, his best chance is to find some friend or acquaintance who can provide this for him. By the same token, any position he takes carries with it the obligation to help those who have helped him or could potentially help him.

Consequently, when the Latin American convert acquires an important position in the Church, he might be tempted to use it as a means to express this value. Experience in the Church, however, teaches that universalism is more efficient. One sister who had been recently named Relief Society president related an incident that illustrates the point. When she was called to become president, she immediately thought of calling her sister as first counselor and her best friend as second counselor. But before the convert had made her decision, the mission president’s wife acquainted her with the call’s expectations, and she came to realize that if she wanted to do a good job, she must choose counselors on the basis of something other than just a personal relationship. Thus Mormon culture affects the organizational structure, which in turn affects behavior and produces the desired change.

d. Specificity—diffuseness: As mentioned before, diffuseness is the only one of the five value orientations we have mentioned here where Anglo-American Mormons and Latin American Mormons might be in agreement. In practice however, this agreement is tenuous because of the ambivalence Anglo-American Mormons feel about it, since American society tends to favor specificity while Mormon culture tends to favor diffuseness.

Family and friendship obligations in Latin America have a wide range. It is difficult for the Latin American to say no. Missionaries and mission presidents often cringe at seeing Latin American members, who financially can ill afford it, help some relative whom they themselves perceive as being unworthy of such sacrifice. To complicate matters, Latin Americans can quote a large number of scriptures concerning brotherly love to support their behavior, while Anglo-Americans can only say that surely there must be wisdom in all things.

This area still presents a problem, because the difference here is one of degree, not of kind, and the Latin American eventually finds—particularly if he comes to the United States—that most of the time the Mormon value of diffuseness is not exactly the Latin type.

e. Collectivity-orientation—self-orientation: Latin Americans tend to be very individualistic. Teamwork is not typical to them, as group status is not viewed as highly as personal status. In the Church, however, this lack of group responsibility tends to give way to a real fellowship as the convert realizes the implications of eternal and literal brotherhood, the intrinsic worth of all men, and the irrelevancy of strictly human status differences.

Individualism is probably one of the values hardest to lose. But through deep involvement and meaningful interaction, and especially through the realization that status in the kingdom of God is not a scarce commodity but is something available to anyone who is willing to serve and obey the eternal and universal commandments, the Latin American Mormon goes through the process of necessary change. And as he does, he increasingly receives the inner assurance that the premises he has accepted while making these changes are not only self-evident but also rewardingly true.

The challenge to the convert of accepting the revealed part of the celestial culture as it comes to him in the form of Mormon culture and mixed with aspects of the Anglo-American culture is no small thing. If men alone in their own wisdom were attempting the process, they would most probably fail. But the miracle is that a kingdom of equal citizens is being organized with men of all nations, tongues, and peoples. It is the kingdom that has been set up “without hands.” And this kingdom is rolling and is actually covering the earth. As it does, it teaches all men that they are brothers, children of the same eternal Father, and that the artificial barriers, which in their ignorance they have created between them, must ultimately disappear.

[illustration] Art by Richard D. Hull

Dr. DeHoyos, coordinator of graduate studies for Lamanite students at Brigham Young University, is also president of the Spanish-American Branch (Utah Stake) in Provo. He formerly served as stake mission president in Indianapolis Stake and was a high councilor for eight years there. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at Michigan State University in 1961.

Sister DeHoyos received her Ph.D. in sociology from Indiana University in 1967. She teaches Sunday School in Edgemont Fifth Ward, Edgemont Stake. Dr. and Sister DeHoyos have coauthored several articles in scientific journals. The couple have three children.