A Sociology of Mormon Kinship

The Place of Family Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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Kristeen Lee Black
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Edwin Mellen Press
    , May
     2016.
     572 pages.
     $219.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781495504549.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 1995, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—also known as LDS or Mormons—codified its official modern pronouncement of the ideal family in the document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” or the “Proclamation” for short. This ideal vision of the heteronormative, nuclear family is a cornerstone of contemporary Mormon teaching and belief; it is common to have a framed copy of the “Proclamation” hanging in the living rooms of Mormon homes.

In A Sociology of Mormon Kinship, Dr. Kristeen Lee Black presents the thesis that the lived reality of Mormon practice points to a much broader understanding of family and kinship than that which is delineated in the official “Proclamation.” Black’s sociological perspective points to three major causes for this more expansive lived interpretation: theology, history, and social structure.

LDS theology includes doctrines of family relationships, not only here on earth, but also in a premortal existence as well as in the afterlife. “Family is not just the cornerstone of society, but the foundation of eternities” (406). Even God is understood as having a wife; in LDS teaching, heavenly parents beget spirit-children (humanity). The family is also a necessary element for salvation, as only those who are married in the temple can attain the highest level of heaven in the afterlife. Mormon rituals, such as Family Home Night, emphasize the importance of a strong family, while genealogical research and baptism on behalf of deceased ancestors create a mental blueprint and practice which allows for an emotive connection to kinfolk beyond the immediate nuclear family.

Mormon history also creates the context for this larger, more flexible interpretation of family. Early Mormons often faced persecution, creating alienation from non-Mormon relatives; thus, the Church itself substituted as a surrogate family for many believers. The early practice of polygyny among nineteenth-century Mormons sought to ensure that all women were provided for, thus enlarging the concept of what it means to be a family and to care for one another.

Finally, the structure of LDS bureaucracy creates channels for demonstrations of care and love. The Church is divided into wards by population—a ward being both the geographic region as well as the congregation living within that territory. Wards contain at least two hundred LDS members. By Church decree, wards are not allowed to grow larger than eight hundred members. Usually, three wards will use one church building, but in areas with fewer members per square mile, a family may travel many miles to their assigned church building.

Congregants do not select their congregation—these are assigned based on their home location—relationships, such as friends, are not self-selected but ascribed as with family. Members of the ward not only refer to one another as “brother” and “sister,” but each member is assigned a duty or “calling” by the local bishop to care for others in the ward in a particular way. This assigned service to the faith community facilitates the creation of emotional bonds between congregants. Thus, an “ethic of care” in ward families actually provides the cohesiveness and habitus of Mormonism, far surpassing the doctrine of family found in the “Proclamation.”

By delving into each of these causes of the enlarged interpretation of kin, A Sociology of Mormon Kinship becomes a congregational study of living religion. The ward family, consisting of a variety of members from diverse backgrounds, constantly practices an ethic of caring and loving other members as well as the greater community. In serving God by serving others, Mormonism becomes a way of life. This living religion goes far beyond the official theological dictate from Mormon hierarchy.

Black ably proves her thesis through field ethnography influenced by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, sociological insight influenced by Pierre Bourdieu and others, extensive and detailed interviews, narrative analysis, and participant observations of many facets of family and ward life. In addition to this qualitative approach, Black is well aware of the quantitative studies on Mormonism, and she correlates these studies with the scholarly literature on Mormonism.

Black not only produces a unique study of keen insight into the dynamics of the ward family, but does so utilizing an insider/outsider perspective. She was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah at the customary age of eight years old. Raised in the Church, she and her family became progressively less involved in Mormonism. She eventually left the Church and had her name removed from official membership records. Black is well aware of both the pitfalls and benefits of this insider/outsider experience for the scholar and relates the various nuances to the reader.

A Sociology of Mormon Kinship contrasts with and enhances the average scholarly works that emphasize Mormon theology and doctrinal positions. It includes several appendices, a detailed glossary, a reference list of source material, and an index. These additional materials are helpful and stimulating. A Sociology of Mormon Kinship provides keen insight for anyone interested in understanding the lived reality of Mormon religion and the family.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is instructor of sociology at Rhodes State College.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristeen Lee Black received her Ph.D. from Drew University in the field of Religion and Society. Her work focuses in Congregational and Mormon Studies. Cited most often as an ethnographer, her work appeals to a diverse range of disciplines, Dr. Black currently resides in Oakland, California. This project explores the social structure and social construction of family within LDS congregations and argues that ward families are special types of kinship networks. Ward families are woven together by an ethic of care that enables their members to consider fellow congregants as family. Although this capacious idea and lived experience of family is in direct contrast to the official Church rhetoric of family as found in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," the phenomena of ward families illustrates how applying an extended and flexible idea of family in group settings produces caring and cohesive communities.

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