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Poverty and Polygyny as Political Protest: The Waldensians and Mormons

Poverty and Polygyny as Political Protest: The Waldensians and Mormons

By Rebecca Jean Emigh

Journal of Historical Sociology, Volume 5:4 (1992)

Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice" by C.C.A. Christensen

Abstract: This paper examines Waldensianism and Mormonism, two very different religious movements, separated by time, space, cultural, and economic conditions. The sources are a mixture of secondary and published primary sources, including church documents both in translation and the original language, and personal writings, such as diaries and letters. The treatment of these sources is not unusual, rather the contribution of this paper is a synthetic theoretical analysis of these movements in terms of the practical consequences of action.

Both movements were coherent attempts to address contemporary social issues; neither was principally illogical nor irrational, nor comprised primarily of socially disconnected individuals. These movements were neither apolitical nor solely comprised of pure political action. Instead, both became political protest movements, in addition to being religious movements, because the symbolic content of the movement was interwoven with contemporary politics: the movements’ ideological critiques implicated the larger political structure which attempted to prevent ideological change. These religious struggles were processes, becoming political movements because ideological change implied political action.

Introduction: Much political protest is easy to recognize because the participants clearly state that their goals are a redistribution of power; yet movements with different stated goals, such as religious ones, often have the same effect or intention. This paper analyzes two religious movements, Waldenstanism, a medieval heresy, and Mormonism (officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), founded in the nineteenth century United States, and locates the defiant political acts of each in specific actions of the participants practicing their religious beliefs.

Questions concerning the place of political goals in religious movements have arisen in the literatures of history, sociology, and anthropology. The academic debates have often followed three stages: 1) Marxist or class analyses of religious movements, 2) rejection of any political overtones, and 3) new efforts to reintegrate political and religious analyses. This evolution can be traced of medieval heresy and sub-Saharan religious movements. The recent debate in sociology has focused on the distinction between ‘strain’ or ‘crisis’ theory and ‘resource mobilization’ critiques a similar distinction between ‘cultural’ and ‘political’ approaches.

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