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Finding Oneself Among the Saints: Thomas F. O'Dea, Mormon Intellectuals, and the Future of Mormon Orthodoxy

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Thomas F. O'Dea's classic The Mormonsidentified “Mormonism's encounter with modern secular thought” as perhaps the church's greatest problem. In line with secularization theory, O'Dea predicted an attenuation of traditional Mormonism, and an adaptation and gradual liberalization of Mormon theology as the literal interpretation of Mormon origins “dissolved” in the solvent of modernity. O'Dea's views on the crisis facing Mormonism were based, in part, on ethnographic field work in Salt Lake City in the summer of 1950, as interpreted by a modernist Catholic sociologist. A review of his field notes suggests that key informants who “hosted” much of O'Dea's research activity were liberal Mormon academics who defined the church's traditional theology as a problem. This viewpoint agreed with O'Dea's preconceptions about the “education and apostasy” dilemma. A comparison of O'Dea's published “reading” of his field notes with the notes themselves suggests the plausibility of alternative readings. One such alternative is offered here, an interpretation of the interplay of education, Mormon theology, and Mormon intellectualism drawn from O'Dea's field notes, but with a different emphasis from that of his essay. Finally, reverting to a modernist perspective, I offer some hints from survey research suggesting that the predicted liberalization of Mormon theology has yet to occur.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Howard M. Bahr is Professor of Sociology at Brigham Young University.

Publication date: 01 September 2008

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