The History of the Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue

Evangelicals and Mormons are relative newcomers to the practice of interfaith dialogue. The genesis of modern interfaith dialogue is generally traced back to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago World Fair.1 Although Christianity largely dominated the conference, nine other religions were represented. Mormons and many Evangelicals were among those groups missing, and it wasn’t by accident. For Mormons, their “representation was not wanted nor solicited by the organizers of the 1893 Parliament.”2 Even after inclusion was reluctantly granted, further discrimination caused the Mormon delegation to walk out in protest. As for Evangelicals, the identification of interfaith dialogue with liberal Protestantism was enough to keep conservatives like Dwight L. Moody and the Archbishop of Canterbury away from the event, believing the Parliament symbolized the compromise of Christianity.3 Therefore, Mormons and Evangelicals did not participate in the beginnings and early practice of interfaith dialogue due to the discriminatory exclusion of Mormons, as opposed to the deliberate avoidance of Evangelicals. Despite their differing reasons for absence, both groups have generally continued to remain aloof from this movement for most of its existence. Yet ironically, two of the most averse groups to interfaith dialogue now have among their ranks some of the greatest beneficiaries and practitioners of the enterprise in the present-day Mormon-Evangelical scholarly dialogue. Equally surprising is that dialogue is specifically occurring between Mormons and Evangelicals, two groups that pride themselves on strong proselytizing programs and that share a long history of antagonism with one another.

Several factors coalesced to cause the Mormon-Evangelical scholarly dialogue to occur by the late twentieth century. One significant factor was the loss of what many historians have referred to as the American Evangelical Protestant Empire of the nineteenth century.4 Between the years 1860 and 1926, the population of the United States grew from 31.5 million to over 117 million.5 Although Evangelicalism also grew during this time, it could not keep pace with such massive amounts of immigration. By 1890, Roman Catholicism surpassed Methodism as the single largest Christian denomination in America, and has remained so ever since.6 Further immigration during the twentieth century introduced greater numbers of adherents from other religious traditions—creating the challenging reality of religious pluralism. In addition to immigration, Protestantism’s division into liberal and fundamentalist groups further weakened Evangelical influence. These and other developments caused Evangelicals to lose their majority status comprising over half of the American population to a current level of 26 percent of Americans.7 Although their fundamentalist forbears first reacted with a separatist approach to such marginalization, neo-Evangelicals, with their commitment to cultural engagement, caused Evangelicalism to appropriate dialogue as a new method of proclamation. For Evangelicals, dialogue thereby became a means by which to negotiate the new reality of religious pluralism as a smaller group within the American mosaic of religion.8

Meanwhile, a series of changes occurred in Mormonism that brought it closer to Evangelicalism in both doctrine and practice. Although Mormonism resembled Evangelicalism when it first began in the 1820s, it quickly followed a path of radical differentiation from the dominant Evangelical culture of nineteenth-century America. Through Joseph Smith, Mormonism introduced a new prophet with new revelation and new scripture. It introduced a worldview that combined the temporal and the spiritual, uniting religion with things like economics and politics (see Doctrine and Covenants 29:34). Mormonism developed a priesthood hierarchy with the power to perform salvific ordinances, similar to Roman Catholicism. It believed in the gifts of the Spirit and the working of miracles, including the visitation of angels. By the end of Joseph Smith’s life, he had introduced the practice of polygamy and the belief that God and man are of the same species. This process of radical differentiation climaxed in 1890 when Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff declared an end to polygamy. From 1890 on, Mormonism followed a new path of assimilation into American and Evangelical cultural norms, which continues today. Besides forsaking polygamy in favor of monogamy, Mormonism also forsook communal economics for capitalism and theocratic politics for democracy.9 Later social assimilation included joining the Evangelical cause of prohibition that led to required adherence to the “Word of Wisdom”—a ban on alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee—for Mormons desiring to enter their holy temples.10 Mormonism also adopted the anti- intellectual heritage of fundamentalism, dismissing both evolution and higher criticism of the Bible.11 With the later emergence of neo-Evangelicalism, Mormonism soon found a moral and political ally within the Republican Party who supported causes like anti-abortion legislation and traditional marriage amendments. But none of these changes would have been enough to foster the Mormon-Evangelical scholarly dialogue without accompanying shifts in Mormon theological emphases.

Two related intellectual movements within Mormonism during the twentieth century brought Mormon theology closer to Evangelical doctrine than ever before. Beginning around the mid-century point, there was a greater emphasis placed on an infinite God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace. Sociologist Kendall White has called this movement “Mormon neo-orthodoxy.”12 White argues that Mormon neo-orthodoxy, like Protestant neo-orthodoxy, was a “crisis theology,” in that both movements developed out of a response to the crisis of modernity. In the case of Mormonism, White explains that “Mormons have traditionally believed in a finite God, an optimistic assessment of human nature, and a doctrine of salvation by merit. In contrast, most Mormon neo-orthodox theologians have tended to embrace the concept of an absolute God, a pessimistic assessment of human nature, and a doctrine of salvation by grace.”13 Traditional Mormonism that was compatible with modernism thereby gave way to Mormon neo-orthodoxy that was compatible with fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Observing such change, Richard Mouw wondered in a 1991 Christianity Today article whether or not an “Evangelical Mormonism” was developing.14 Building upon the foundation of Mormon neo-orthodoxy, another intellectual movement developed called “Mormon progressive orthodoxy” by religious scholar John-Charles Duffy.15 Duffy defines Mormon progressive orthodoxy as “the effort to mitigate Mormon sectarianism, the rejection of Mormon liberalism, and the desire to make Mormon supernaturalism more intellectually credible.”16 Most of the current Mormon dialogists could be classified with this new intellectual movement, although none have specifically identified themselves as such. The recognition of such changes in Mormonism has brought Evangelicals to the dialogue table in order to encourage the further changing of Mormonism. Therefore, the doctrinal developments of Mormon neo-orthodoxy and progressive orthodoxy made Mormonism ripe for interfaith dialogue with Evangelicals.

Into these prime conditions walked Pastor Gregory C. V. Johnson of Standing Together, a parachurch ministry in Utah.17 It was with Greg Johnson that the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue began. As a boy, Johnson had joined the Mormon Church with his family, but later as a teenager converted to Evangelicalism. This joint experience with both Mormonism and Evangelicalism created a natural intra-dialogue within Johnson to understand the relationship between the two religious traditions. Over time, this inner dialogue organically evolved into an outer dialogue between groups of Mormons and Evangelicals organized by Johnson. As student body president of Denver Seminary, Johnson introduced one of his professors, Craig Blomberg, to religion professor Stephen Robinson of Brigham Young University (BYU). Through their interaction with one another, and the encouragement of Johnson, in 1997 Blomberg and Robinson wrote How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation. As the first public step of Mormon- Evangelical scholarly dialogue, it received a mixed review of praise and disdain. Most of the Mormon appraisal was positive, whereas the Evangelical assessment was generally split between encouraging remarks from scholars and sharp criticism from professional countercultists.18 Johnson also began public dialogues with BYU religion professor Robert L. Millet. Before university student bodies across the nation as well as in various Mormon and Evangelical churches, they modeled the new Mormon-Evangelical dialogue over sixty times to date.

Besides their own presentations, Millet and Johnson helped organize an interfaith gathering in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City with Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in 2004, the first time that an Evangelical had spoken in the tabernacle since Dwight L. Moody in 1899. It was at this same 2004 event that Richard Mouw publicly apologized to the Mormon people for Evangelical misrepresentations of Mormonism—an action that brought great consternation among countercultists who felt Mouw was specifically addressing them.19 In many ways, interfaith dialogue represents a new alternative approach to Mormonism other than the more confrontational countercult method.20

Among all of the efforts of Greg Johnson and Robert Millet, the most significant one has been a semiannual scholarly dialogue that has continued since 2000. The first meeting occurred at BYU. Among the first Evangelical participants were “Greg Johnson; Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary; Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary; Craig Hazen of Biola University; David Neff of Christianity Today; and Carl Moser, at the time a doctoral student in Scotland. On the LDS side, participants included [Robert Millet], Stephen Robinson, Roger Keller, David Paulsen, Daniel Judd, and Andrew Skinner, all from BYU.”21 After various changes over the years, today’s Evangelical team is without Carl Mosser but has added James Bradley of Fuller, Dennis Okholm of Azusa Pacific University, Douglas McConnell of Fuller, Chris Hall of Eastern University, and Bill Heersink of Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Robert Millet is the only original face on the Mormon side. He is now accompanied by Spencer Fluhman, Grant Underwood, Camille Fronk Olsen, Richard Bennett, Rachel Cope, and J. B. Haws—all from BYU. Brian Birch of Utah Valley University and Philip Barlow of Utah State University have also joined the Mormon team. In addition, guest scholars were invited at times to make special presentations. Robert Millet explains that participants would come “prepared (through readings of articles and books) to discuss a number of doctrinal subjects, including the Fall, Atonement, Scripture, Revelation, Grace and Works, Trinity/ Godhead, the Corporeality of God, Theosis/Deification, Authority, and Joseph Smith’s First Vision.”22 The underlying question in all of these discussions has been whether or not Mormonism qualifies as Christianity or represents some other religious categorization. The meetings have been held “not only at BYU and Fuller, but also at [the Mormon historical sites of] Nauvoo and Palmyra, [as well as] Wheaton College, and at meetings of the AAR/SBL.”23 The regular meeting or trip has generally been in the spring or summer, with the AAR/SBL meeting in the fall.

The Mormon-Evangelical dialogue is creating a new kind of dialogue with the inclusion of evangelism alongside the traditional purposes of learning and understanding.24 This effort to unite mission and dialogue has been called many names by Evangelicals who have demonstrated a stronger inclination towards evangelism within the dialogue. Richard Mouw has most recently labeled this negotiation “dialogic evangelicalism.”25 Such innovation is the reason why one scholar calls the Mormon-Evangelical scholarly dialogue a modern- day experiment in “conservative pluralism.”26


1Martin Forward, Inter-religious Dialogue: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001), 28.

2Reid L. Neilson, Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 144; see also Davis Bitton, “B. H. Roberts at the Parliament of World Religion, 1893, Chicago,” Sunstone 7, no. 1 (January–February 1982): 46–51.

3John P. Burris, Exhibiting Religion: Colonialism and Spectacle at International Expositions 1851–1893 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia), 151.

4See George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 11.

5Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 361.

6Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 121.

7The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic, February 2008,” Pew Research Center, entry posted February 25, 2008,

8See Burris, Exhibiting Religion, 150.

9See Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 1–2.

10See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 261–64.

11See Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 157–95.

12See O. Kendall White Jr., Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).

13Ibid., xvi.

14Richard J. Mouw, “Evangelical Mormonism?” Christianity Today, November 11, 1991, 30.

15See John-Charles Duffy, “Conservative Pluralists: The Cultural Politics of Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue in the United States at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2011).

16Ibid., 132.

17Greg Johnson, interviews by author, Salt Lake City, UT, January 13, 20, 27, 2011; February 10, 22, 24, 2011; March 3, 2011; December 21, 26, 2011.

18For a good summary of both Mormon and Evangelical reactions to How Wide the Divide, see Matthew R. Connelly and BYU Studies Staff, “Sizing Up the Divide: Reviews and Replies,” BYU Studies 38, no. 3 (1999): 163–90.

19See Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1–4.

20See Duffy, “Conservative Pluralists,” 43.

21Robert L. Millet, “The Mormon/Evangelical Dialogue: Retrospect and Prospect,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Montreal, Canada, November 7, 2009).



24See Duffy, “Conservative Pluralists,” 132.

25Mouw, Talking with Mormons, vii.

26Duffy, “Conservative Pluralists,” 3.