I have had experience after experience as a member of the Church, as well as a member of professional academic theological circles, that Christian theologians identify us as non-Christians, in part, because in 1965 Sterling McMurrin said that Latter-day Saints are Pelagians. 

As an M.D. can see non-obvious pathologies, professional doctors of divinity see the pathology of being Pelagian. 

While it may not seem vital how academic theologians regard us, in Christian religions beside our own, they advise denominational leaders, and there is definitely a “trickle down” effect from religious elites to ordinary Protestants and Catholics. 

This erroneous Pelagian-Mormon identification  matters to a Mormon running for President or a person forming a values coalition or to any of us who receive a chilly reception in professional meetings. This fact is clear to me. 

The non-Christian label is unstated out of civility, but it is an issue not yet cleared-up.   

When confronted by the issue, often a Latter-day Saint will respond by bearing witness to his Christianity.  Rarely will that convince a doctor of divinity. Assuming testimony is effective, it is still only going to get one-half the distance to the goal.  Theologians require a theological explanation.

Whether you see it as good or bad, academic theology matters, and though it is a foreign language for most of us, it is the world that the missionary Church operates in.  

Thus, here I briefly focus on the costly misidentification of Mormonism as Pelagianism.

Are Mormons Christians?

Pelagianism is a heresy of early Christianity, judged heretical for its denial of salvation by grace—a denial of grace is for Christianity the whole ball game.  A recent definition of Pelagianism explains how serious the matter is.

Pelagianism “taught that salvation could be achieved solely by upright moral behavior which was possible for every human being . . . without grace [or] Christ’s mission.”

Is the Book of Mormon Pelagian? 

There is not even a trace of Pelagianism within the Book of Mormon. I’ll look at two texts within the Book of Mormon to illustrate the point.

The first Book of Mormon text is Mosiah 2 – 4.  The second Book of Mormon text is Ether 12.  

These texts witness a graceful anti-Pelagianism. (For the ease of the reader I have omitted ellipses in the sentences from Ether 12.)

King Benjamin’s Sermon:

“For behold, are we not all beggars? 

“[Y]e have been calling on his name,

 “and begging for a remission of your sins. 

“And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? 

 “Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you.” 

Ether 12:

“And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things:

[I]f men come unto me and have faith in me,

then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”[i]

“And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus

that the grace of God the Father,

and also the Lord Jesus Christ,

and the Holy Ghost may be and abide in you forever.” 

Pelagius and the Heresy of Pelagianism

What Pelagius taught is lost in part to history, and is instead reconstructed to a significant extent from the writings of Augustine.  (See especially, “St. Augustine:  Anti-Pelagian Writings”of the series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  I have read all of the extant writings available of Pelagius.) (depressing task).

What matters, and it matters decisively for a missionary Church, is the denial of grace in Pelagianism.  To Christians everywhere, Pelagianism signifies an anti-Christian heresy, because ultimately, the heresy debunks our Redeemer’s role in our salvation. 

In short, to link Mormonism and Pelagianism is absurd.  But as I sketch below, since 1965 Pelagianism, the denial of grace, has been as a doctrinal albatross hung around the Mormon Church’s neck.

Every time a founder of a new form of Christianity justified their break, Pelagianism would be re-interpreted.  Calvin or Luther saw in the Pelagian heresy what seems to me to be a heresy growing ever darker in its denial of grace.[ii] 

The Foundations of Mormon Theology

The denial of grace is nothing to be flippant about, but just such flippancy became incorporated into a book, beloved by most Mormon intellectuals, with the 1965 publication of The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion by the late Professor Sterling M. McMurrin.  The book is truly a Mormon “classic” and from its first printing in 1965 has been a widely-read and influential book of reference on Mormon Theology.

To a Christian of a Protestant or Catholic denomination, promoting Pelagianism as a Mormon doctrine equates with the inference that Mormons are not Christians. This consequence was lost on McMurrin.  In a missionary church such carelessness is imprudent. 

What I deduce is generating the error owes to McMurrin’s jumbled-up history of the theologies of Pelagius, Augustine, Pelagianism, and Western Christendom’s doctrines of original sin.  McMurrin writes very well, with integrity, but also with a certain innocence about the world outside the classroom.  Anyway, his many good qualities created strong loyalty in his students, but still, McMurrin’s apparent clarity is anything but.  McMurrin apparently saw clarity where he could have only benefitted by seeing complexity  

If had taken Descartes’ advice to focus on the simple things, McMurrin would have noted that Pelagianism has nothing at all to do with the Book of Mormon and Mormonism  Each of the following analyzed by itself — Pelagius, Augustine, Pelagianism, and Western Christendom’s doctrines of original sin –would have made the lack of relevance clear.  In his perpetually reprinted The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, where the claim is made that Mormons are Pelagians, McMurrin assumes an either/or between Augustine and Western orthodoxy on original sin v. Pelagianism.  But there is no either or, so McMurrin, aghast at Augustine, could simple have left matters at that.

In the ensuing years, one result of not contesting this claim is that the identification of Mormon Theology as Pelagian has increasingly become almost a truism in theological conversations I have had, including another one just ten days ago at Yale.

This matters because in the short-hand summary, if Pelagian then not Christian, damages Mormon Theology within the academic discipline of Christian thought before Mormon Theology has even had a chance to get started.  It also will damage Mitt Romney.  And it adversely impacts missionary work.  (The last is greatest.)

The Hypothetical Case of the Pelagian Nephite

To go back to King Benjamin’s sermon, assume in one instance a Pelagian Nephite.  He listens to King Benjamin’s discourse, feels truly grateful for the King’s speech, and as a result tries harder to be a better person.   

On the other hand, the Christian Nephites, after hearing their king, realizing that they were sinners, all save the Pelagian, fell “to the earth, for . . . they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state.”

“And they all cried:

“O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness for our sins, and our hearts may be purified[.]”

“[T]he Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of mind[.] . . . that we have no more disposition to do evil[.]” Mosiah 4:1-3; 5:2.

The Pelagian Nephite had not experienced the grace of God, peace of mind, and a change of heart though the Holy Spirit had led the other listeners to take upon themselves “the name of Christ.” Mosiah 6:2 

No matter how strong his will power, without the Holy Ghost working inside his heart and mind, the Nephite Pelagian is left on his own to struggle no matter now great the sermon.

Some Personal Background

Here’s my story.  One of my professors and favorite people in the world (now deceased), Professor Paul Ramsey of Princeton, caught up with me one day in 1979 in the hallway outside his office in Princeton’s Department of Religion to ask a question.

“Are Mormons Christian?” he asked. Professor Ramsey was concerned. It was an easy question, but that didn’t explain his state of concern.

He had read a New York Times article that morning that quoted Professor McMurrin saying that Mormon Theology was forthrightly Pelagian. To help shorten a long story, Professor Ramey knew enough about Mormonism to doubt that the New York Times had gotten things right. But it was McMurrin’s mistake. For Ramsey, the significance of a Pelagian belief, as McMurrin expressed it, must necessarily entail a Mormon denial of grace.

Grace or charis means many things in the New Testament, including a term for God’s global plan for us in the Cosmos, which includes the Lord’s Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection, as well as the spiritual experience of the Spirit, as well as simple the Lord’s kindness.

Mormons, the Princeton professor and I concluded, must be Christians. But all over America that day, a doubt had been planted.

Professor McMurrin’s book, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, even at a 30 second first glance, is philosophy.

His editor at the University of Utah Press, for all I know, misnamed the book as a theology. 

Whatever is the story on how the book was christened, it is a red flag when a book can be mistaken from the cover as a book on a subject that it is not.  You can misjudge a book’s cover, apparently.

Ironically, I am now back at Yale as a post-doc (though in Utah right now for a knee replacement) to finish as a book my dissertation on the Book of Mormon with special attention to McMurrin.

A Top Ten List of 10 Theses

While you need not care about this, I care about such initially apparently obscure distinctions because I’ve seen and experienced the damage done to the Church as a Church member.  It would (will) take a book to set forth all of the thinking that goes into persuading a McMurrin fan as well as a professional Christian theologian to think through the issues involved, but at least a conversation might be started by the following ten points against Professor McMurrin.

The Pelagian thesis is summarized by McMurrin in the “Foreword” to The Theological Foundations.   There McMurrin again  states unequivocably:

“Mormon theology is a modern Pelagianism[.]” 

(In this column, to pick-up the pace, I will refer to the “McMurrin theological thesis” about Pelagius as the “Pelagian thesis.”  Or at times just simply as “the thesis.”)

There are ten reasons why McMurrin’s thesis about Mormon Theology and Pelagianism are worse than misleading.

1. Outside of Latter-day Saint circles (“Mormonism”), the thesis will always be misinterpreted by good people as meaning that Mormons are not Christians. This is because what Pelagianism means as a heresy is set in stone.

2. Christian theologians will quite reasonably conclude therefore that as a foundational matter the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims its theology is Pelagian.  One can separate Pelagius as a person from Pelagianism as a heresy, but it’s the heresy label which automatically sticks.

3. There is news here: an insider’s self-branding of his own religion as Pelagian is, as far as I can determine, something unique in the whole of all previous Christian thought. Heretofore Pelagianism has always been a criticism, and been denied (only) by all Christian religions and churches.  It has never been the case that Pelagianism served as a point of departure for theology.  Why?  The charge of Pelagianism in the first instance has come from outside as an insult or criticism.

4.  It is my conclusion that McMurrin was highly subjective and enthusiastic about the thesis without admitting it in this book.

5.  It is a justifiable and reasonable inference that McMurrin had the privileged insights Mormons call “testimony.” But this was an insufficient basis for McMurrin to generate the conclusions he did.

6.  McMurrin was never a serious scholar of theology, though, as a philosopher of Mormonism, I admire Professor McMurrin’s work.

7. McMurrin engaged in an illicitly minor amount of historical research.

The fruits of not attending sufficiently to the role of historical theology within any other type of theology leads to misstatements such as the following:  

“[F]or a long time to come,” he concludes in Theological Foundations, “the Mormon theologian must work within the . . . unique and uneasy union of 19th-century liberalism with 4th-century Christian fundamentalism.” 

8.  Theology is done by and for a church, in repentance.  This is a difference from philosophy. 

9.  Mormon theology is characterized by continuing revelation, prophets and apostles, and therefore by change and motion.   McMurrin could admit as much but never saw apparently that these characteristics required attention in and of themselves. 

For example, there was in settling the Great Basin Desert a theological “stretching” of Mormon doctrine to emphasize pre-existing Mormon beliefs of how decisive disciplined effort can be.  Then it was truism of the time that “too much work never killed a man.”  Today, given the role of nervous energy in succeeding on Wall Street, too much work can indeed kill a man.  The pioneer era “stretching” never crossed into Pelagianism because grace was a daily gift relied on for survival.  Today, the life and death role of effort has become a life and death threat from too much effort, and change in doctrinal emphasis can accompany through prophets and apostles the change and motion in this particular reality. 

10.  It makes no sense to take critical aim at the Brethren, but Professor McMurrin engages the Brethren “foundationally” and not in any thoughtful way. 

His theological differences with the Brethren were approached much like a car-smashing contest at the Utah State Fair, with flippancy.

On the Atonement, Professor McMurrin attacked Elder James E. Talmage: “Here in the work of one man is a confused combination of the entire gamut of atonement theories.”   But as C.S. Lewis has pointed out, as disciples of the Lord we do not care nearly as much about a theory as instead of the fact of the Atonement for our –yours and mine — salvation.

Hence the futility of McMurrin’s statement of a need to “release the Mormon religion from the tyranny of the past [of Christian theology],” a statement that I simply find incomprehensible. To begin with the fact of the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830 was per se a release from just those past theological tyrannies.

10.  Theological Foundations would have been a much better book if it had been entitled merely, Theological Insights.  Using the term “Foundations” brought the book into a reference category where it does not belong.

Despite these defects,  the Pelagian thesis has become part of a mentality, a Christian “Funk & Wagnall’s” understanding towards the Church, resulting in the conclusion that Pelagianism is one component of Mormon theology as proclaimed by the Mormon Church (because from the outside, you see, McMurrin is seen as an independent insider).


McMurrin wrapped-up  Augustine’s counter-arguments with the Pelagian heresy in a way that could only make Pelagius look good.

  McMurrin then elided Pelagianism into Mormonism.   What he neglected to notice is that his motive for making this mistake, namely, Augustine’s doctrines of original sin, are not the issue. 

This distinction applies for both Mormons and the Eastern Orthodox.  Neither Pelagius nor Augustine is a choice.  In sum, Professor McMurrin did not need to opt for Pelagianism just because he saw Augustine’s arguments in the conflict as cruel and false.

For example, in The Orthodox Way, Bishop K. Ware of Eastern Orthodoxy explains (to cite one example, that “Orthodoxy does not envisage the fall in Augustinian terms, as a taint of inherited guilt” (at p. 77).  Orthodoxy does not have a Pelagian stain in the West because of its third way in approaching this constellation of issues.

Both LDS theology (see II Nephi chapter 2) and Orthodoxy (see the work of Georges Florovsky another of my professors at Princeton, like Professor Ramsey) know Adam’s original sin as affecting the entire race, but not biologically.  As a result, both Eastern Orthodoxy and the Book of Mormon chart a course without needing to embrace either Augustine or Pelagius, or any of the “-isms” that have followed those two names ever since, seemingly attached through all of Christian theological history. 

(C) 2010 Ashby D Boyle II

[i]  Moroni here is quoting the Lord.

  Also, the scripture just cited has the form of a Kantian hypothetical imperative.  

This is relevant because the logical point made by “if/then” is a consistent teaching that God’s grace is not to be mistaken for “cheap grace,” a phrase from the Protestant martyr, Dietrich Boenhoffer.  “Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance.”  Accord Alma 5.

[ii]   Incidentally, salvation by grace is not what another on-going debate is fighting about, the works v. faith debate.  Whether works or faith are more decisive, both operate under an assumption of salvation by grace.