Boundary Maintenance

November 14, 2007

by John C.

It is well documented that the church’s intense application of the Word of Wisdom roughly coincides with its movement away from polygamy. Thus many have argued that the one, for all intents and purposes, replaced the other as the defining public characteristic of Mormonism. We have to have a marker which can be used to tell insiders from outsiders and it has to be apparent to both insiders and outsiders. Of course, polygamy never effectively did this, as not all Mormons (or most Mormons) were polygamous. Setting that aside, how distinct do we need to be?

I am studying the formation and maintenance of boundaries for ethnic groups as a part of my dissertation. These boundaries are cultural and dependent on the worldview of those in these groups. They are not necessarily significant to people outside of the group, but within it can be very significant. Think about what a Mormon is trying to tell other Mormons when they prominently drink Coke or talk about how they have a Cola-free home. Would these matters matter to those not of our belief?

What are the things that Mormons are known for today? Political conservativism? ’50’s era social beliefs? separate twin beds in the parents’ bedroom? “I can’t, I’m Mormon”? Are any of these things important to our ideas about ourselves? Why or why not?

In high school, we were asked, if we were a member of an ethnic minority, to give a presentation to our faculty so that they would know something about where we were coming from. I offered to give a presentation and my offer was accepted. I talked a little about early morning seminary and lack of coffee possibly interfering with LDS attentiveness in class. Mostly I tried to convince the faculty that we are not freaks. We think, we feel, we disagree, we ponder. We are just people. An insistence on being different can cause us and others to forget that.

In the end, we probably do need our boundaries. We draw some of who we are from how we stay within or transgress them. But it isn’t all of who we are. If you focus too much on the edges of identity, you are likely to miss the meat.


  1. Jed Woodworth suggested in one of his Times and Seasons guest posts that modesty could be an emerging boundary for Mormons.

  2. Hm. I’m not convinced with the idea that polygamy or the WoW exist(ed) primarily to set us apart from others. I think there is more to commandments and principles than just the boundaries in a vacuum. (But what do I know? I’m no scholar, and who am I to argue with Jan Shipps or Kathleen Flake?)

    But I agree that we ought not define ourselves just by our boundaries. As John mentioned, we really are just people — with lives and jobs and families and human concerns that run the gamut.

    That said, I think we might see more boundaries get more intense over time…chastity and modesty, definition and defense of marriage, traditional values and even perhaps gender roles. This may be in part about defining boundaries as identity, but I still think it’s more than that. The boundaries do get attention, and that can spark interest. But I think they also test our loyalty to God and His prophets, regardless of what other people think about it. I think they are a complex combination of at least two of the three missions of the church — we proclaim the gospel in part by our fruits (think Elder Ballard) but also we become perfected in part through obedience and loyalty to the Church (it is in that way that we retain access to the Atonement through ordinances and the gift of the Holy Ghost).

    As a passing thought, I have wondered if polygamy and our opposition to it might be a defining something if laws change to allow for various sexual and/or marital relationships.

  3. Boundaries and identity are really important to the Saints. Without the uniquenesses, we’d be just another sect of really conservative missionary oriented Protestants. We need to maintain those boundaries to keep from dissolving into the amorphous blob of conservative Christianity.

    On the other hand, many of these boundaries are practices and beliefs that the early church saw as evidences of the restoration. Now, they have become the focus of the restoration. It’s kind of sad.

  4. It could be argued that temples have emerged as Mormonism’s new boundary maintenance mechanism, since the Word of Wisdom is no longer very peculiar in a widely varying world. Jan Shipps has spoken of the “templization” of Mormonism.

  5. I think that what we are developing today is a “Mormon Lifestyle” that incorporates modesty, temple attendance, church attendance, FHE, and the Word of Wisdom as significant markers of our otherness. Within the church, we define ourselves by how adn to what degree we engage these issues, but they are all significant in how we define ourselves against the universal other.

    I am not saying that the primary reason for any of these is to establish a boundary. I am saying that it became a secondary reason (and, as Ann notes, sometimes the secondary reasons engulf the primary reasons in our own lives). Of course, the Brethren today often talk about how our lifestyle separates us from “the world,” so the secondary reason may be becoming more prominent. Even so, I doubt it will ever become the primary motivator behind any of these commandments.

  6. I agree with notherner that temple worship is a unique boundary since we do vicarious work for the dead. The work for the living does parallel other religions in that the others still attend temples and partake in ritualistic behavior. The WoW is unique but it didn’t really come into vogue until after Prohibition about twenty years after the repudation of polygamy. There are many Christian religions that have health codes e.g. Christian Scientist, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Chastity is practiced by large groups in lots of different denominations and churches. Some mega churches have thousands of members. Another defining difference is our hierarchal structure with a living prophet who receives modern day revelation assisted by Twelve Apostles. When you put them altogether we are unique because of the totality not individualistic boundaries.

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