The Author’s Corner with John Turner

image001John Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Mormon Jesus?

JT: For years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many Christians insist that Mormons are not Christians even though Latter-day Saints so consistently and fervently demonstrate their devotion to Jesus Christ.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Mormon Jesus?

JT: Rather than a “new religion,” Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity. In visions, revelations, scriptures, hymns, doctrine, rituals, and artwork, Latter-day Saints have imagined and encountered a Savior who is both distinctly Mormon and utterly Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read The Mormon Jesus?

JT: I try hard — albeit without much success — to teach my daughter the differences between “needs” and “wants.” You don’t need to read this book, but you should want to because in its pages you’ll find men and women seeing Jesus Christ in visions, listening to their Savior’s words, wondering if they are his biological descendants, and creating beautiful paintings and statues of him.

One also has to consider the reasons for the LDS Church’s survival and growth. In part, it’s because Joseph Smith and his successors addressed questions of longstanding concern to many Christians: which is Christ’s true church? Does Jesus Christ, or does God, still speak to his church? How? What did Jesus look like? When will Jesus return?

Certainly, the Latter-day Saints introduced beliefs and practices that set them apart from their surrounding Protestant religious culture. Still, thinking about Mormonism as a new chapter within the longer story of Christianity opens up new ways to understand the LDS Church’s past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JT: Due to deficiencies in talent and height, professional tennis did not pan out.

I fell in love with history gradually. Thinking back, my attraction to history began through the narratives of the Bible, which were far more interesting than the sermons I heard in church. I also had great history teachers in both high school and college, and they introduced me to books — such as Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints — that in turn stoked my imagination. In terms of my focus on U.S. History, I had great professors who wove together literature, history, and theology in their own study of the American past.  

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m working on a history of Plymouth colony. Having started my career with a study of post-WWII American evangelicalism, I’m hoping to get to late antiquity or so by the time I retire.

JF: Thanks, John!  Great stuff.