Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Fanaticism Shamaticism

Posted by Matthew on February 3, 2009

Fanatics…who likes them? anyone out there? They are annoying and harmful, right? 

As a missionary in Brazil I met people more fanatical than I had ever known before. It was a relatively small set of people, but they were noticeable due to their extreme positions: lots of talking in tongues, not allowing women to cut their hair, etc. And it was hard to reason with them because …well, their positions didn’t seem reasonable and they didn’t see their positions as up for discussion.

But this isn’t just a problem among religions other than our own. Plenty of members of our church seem to get a bit fanatical about this or that, whether it is food storage, the temple, scouting–there are lots of options.

So I was thinking it would be nice to have a few scriptures to back up an anti-fanatical message. Maybe “moderation in all things” or something like that–something I could quote to combat someone’s pet-topic comment (usually shared off-topic in the middle of a Sunday School lesson). In looking around though, I was a bit disappointed. Where are those scriptures telling those crazy fanatics to just settle down? I couldn’t really think of any…And that classic moderation-in-all-things quote comes not from our Judeo-Christian tradition but rather from, where else, the Greeks.

In fact, the scriptures seem more likely to support a fanatical position than to support moderating one. Take the famous scripture Matt 6:3 “take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” This is certainly a more extreme position than most actually take.

So all of this leads to the questions: Why isn’t there more of an anti-fanatic message in the scriptures? Weren’t fanatics a problem at the time these scriptures were written? Or, is there a strong anti-fanatic tradition in the scriptures and I just have missed it?

Or, maybe, . . . are the fanatics right in how seriously they take stuff (even if–and surely, this has to be true–they get some of the details wrong). Supporting this view is the following: the closest word to “fanatic” I could think of that is in the scriptures is “zealous.” But what do the scriptures have to say about zealots? Mostly positive stuff . . . and nothing negative.

I want to say “surely the truth is somewhere in the middle–we cannot embrace fanaticism nor passivity.” But that really is just to say that I’m not drawn to fanaticism. The point of reading the scriptures though isn’t to find only what I’m already looking for.

But if your view, like mine, is that fanatics do more harm than good, how do we square this with the scriptures? Thoughts?

17 Responses to “Fanaticism Shamaticism”

  1. In some circles, Mormonism itself is equated with fanaticism. Certainly, being called “a peculiar people” takes us out of the mainstream. All the prophets, including Joseph Smith,
    were considered fanatics by their contemporaries.

    Present-day Mormons like to think of themselves as very mainstream, saying they are so mainstream that they are more “Christian” than Christians! In doing so, I believe they suppress or deny what is truly unique and “praiseworthy” in the Restored Gospel. After all, Joseph Smith had nothing good to say about the mainstream Christian denominations in his day. Unlike today’s crop of Mormons, he openly rejected normative Christianity.

    Therefore, too many Mormons begin to shun their fellow church members who take “extreme” positions. Having lived on that side of the fence for most of my adult life, I can say with certainty that most of my fellow Mormons are missing some important insights into the Restored Gospel. In taking an anti-extremist position, they deprive themselves of the rich tradition that Joseph Smith restored to the church he founded. These are notions that today’s church members shy away from.

    Anthony E. Larson

  2. cantinflas said

    Hundreds of Eagle Scouts have the scouting fanatics to thank for their own achievements. I’m not sure how moderation would help in this case. I do see the point of the post…I was surprised to hear someone in one of my wards say that if we would just not watch rated R movies we would have no problems as families in the church. I think fanatacism shows a lack of understanding of the totality of the gospel and how it is soul-centered rather than doctrine-centered.

  3. Julie M. Smith said

    I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all response, but rather a topic-by-topic one. For example, Cantiflas’s “I was surprised to hear someone in one of my wards say that if we would just not watch rated R movies we would have no problems as families in the church” could be responded to with a reminder that Pres. Kimball had a son who was completely inactive his entire life, and I doubt R movies were a problem in that house . . .

  4. joespencer said

    The scripture that immediately comes to my mind, Matthew, is Paul’s talking about those who have a zeal, but not according to knowledge. In other words, fanaticism is, I should think, a great thing; but one has to place one’s fanatical devotion in the right thing.

    Indeed, the kinds of fanatics you’re describing in the Church are fanatical in their devotion to something not essentially Mormon. These fanatics collapse all of Mormonism into a single piece of advice (R-rated movies, using lesson manuals, reading Stephen R. Covey), a single verse of scripture (God prepared plants to help with certain diseases, tribulation is for our good, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear), or a single program (Scouting, home teaching, seminary), etc. Real zeal is manifested, but not according to knowledge.

    So let’s be zealous, but let’s be zealous about what is essential to Mormonism.

  5. BrianJ said

    Joe: great comment.

  6. Jon said

    How about Jesus asking a fanatically anti- adultery mob to look into their own hearts and maybe think about the underlying purpose of rules about morality? Or Jesus reminding those who were fanatically devoted to technical Sabbath rules about the more important priorities? Or Jesus on the need to work with a flawed, ungodly government by paying taxes?

    Some aspects of Mormonism appear to demand fanatical devotion, such as the idea that one individual can be designated as a living prophet and actually hold a closer or more authentic line of communication to God than other people. However, this only leads to a requirement of fanatical compliance and conformity with that designated individual’s decrees if one limits there understanding of the living prophet idea to a simplified, comic book version of divine power and authority. Recognizing that the worldly manifestation of the designation in an individual or in specific decrees is only one, and perhaps one of its most insubstantial and fleeting facets can allow it to provide guidance to both spiritual truths and more appropriate behavior in the face of distraction and temptation.

    Mr. JoeSpencer, could you summarize what you think is fundamental and unique to Mormonism? You have written some very insightful comments that reflect careful scholarship as well as sincerity, and so I would be curious as to how you might sum that up.

  7. joespencer said


    I think this is the most important question we can be asking. And to some extent, I suppose we could say that the essence of Mormonism is to be constantly asking this very question! Of course, because I think it is such a vital question, I have at least a few preliminary responses as well (though I’m quite open to whatever other possibilities others might see!).

    At the very least, I think we can identify as being essentially Mormon whatever is structurally distinct about Mormonism. It seems to me that this would imply at least (perhaps at most?) two things: (1) Latter-day Saint scripture; (2) the events of the Restoration. At the very least, then, it seems to me that we should be zealously committed to (1) the truth of the scriptures, implying that we should be zealously committing to understanding them in all honesty, and (2) the truth of the unique events that found(ed) Mormonism, implying that we should interpret everything else in the world in light of those events.

    Now, of course, it seems to me that there would follow from these serious pursuits a series of other points for zeal: a careful, wide-ranging reading of scripture will begin to yield doctrines and truths to which one should dedicate oneself completely; and a careful, wide-ranging rereading of the world (and scriptures!) in light of the events of the Restoration will yield other (or similar) doctrines and truths to which one should dedicate oneself completely. But what those truths and doctrines are, I think we are all in the process of unfolding a bit at a time.

    Does that get us anywhere?

  8. NathanG said

    I think I would add that we should be zealous in emulating the life of our Savior. This will require dedication to studying the life and teachings of the Savior so we may know what we are emulating. If we have great zeal without an anchor in the Savior we are in danger looking beyond the mark.

  9. larryco_ said

    Anti-fanatical scriptures, huh? How ’bout Matt. 19:12 “there be eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom’s sake. He that is able to receive it let him receive it”. Wait, that one’s not very good. How about Luke 14:26, “if any man come to me and hate not his father, mother, wife, children..he cannot be my disciple”. ooh, that’s not a good one either. Maybe in the Old Testament…

  10. BrianJ said

    “use boldness, but not overbearance”
    Alma to his son Shiblon

    That’s a pretty good example, no?

  11. Matthew said

    Thanks all for the comments. They made for interesting reading. Related to the thing I was looking for specifically–scriptures against fanaticism–I appreciate Joe, Nathan and Brian’s recommended scriptures: Rom 10:2, Jacob 4:14, & Alma 38:12.

    It seems like the conclusion is that I do need to moderate my anti-fanatical position. When someone displays “great zeal” I cannot reject their actions merely due to the fact that I feel they are “over-the-top”. As per Brian’s scripture we shoulnd’t overbear, and as per Nathan’s we must stay focused on Christ, and as per Joe’s we must ensure that zeal is founded in the truth, but taking those things into account, the scriptures simply don’t suggest that we be moderate in our approach to the gospel.

    So to all the fanatics & zealots out there who aren’t overbearing, are properly focused on Christ & whose zealousness is based in their knowledge of the truth, go for it!

    (I’m doing my best…but I admit to being still a little uncomfortable with this.)

  12. joespencer said


    A year or so ago, I presented a paper in Virginia on the “Four Discourses” of Mormonism, which is in part an attempt to disentangle fanaticism from fidelity. If you’re interested in reading it, it is linked to on my user page at the wiki.

  13. BrianJ said

    Matthew: might it be helpful to identify why you are bothered by fanaticism? I can see a few reasons (speaking for myself). Fanatics are bothersome because:
    1) their zeal leads to recklessness, which just creates PR/other messes for the rest of us,
    2) their exuberance creates unreal expectations for other members—shoes too big for most to fill—causing those who follow to “run faster than they are able,”
    3) they address others (i.e., me) with a condescending, judgmental tone, disregarding my faithfulness or considering it substandard,
    4) their outstanding example calls me to repentance for my lackadaisical approach to the Gospel.

    There are probably more reasons, and not every fanatic fits all four complaints listed above.


  14. NathanG said

    Good luck Matthew. Your last thoughts made me laugh.

    Brian, I like #3 when I’m feeling like a fanatic.

  15. Matthew said

    #12 Joe, thanks I’ll take a look.

    #13 Brian, all of this plus my concern that by being a fanatical people makes missionary work that much harder because we then seem so different from the investigator that becoming like us seems too big a jump. In fact this isn’t an issue just for non-members. It is an issue for members as well–so maybe that makes it some combination of your 2, 3 & 4. (The important feature of 3 is how it is perceived, not necessarily how it is intended.)

    #14 NathanG :) Good!

  16. joespencer said

    Matthew, I think, in your brief response to Brian’s #13, you’ve put your finger on what is most concerning about fanaticism, and so on the vitality of sorting out the sharp distinction between fanaticism and fidelity. I have a good deal more to say about all this, but I don’t know when I’ll have the time. More soon.

  17. Matthew said

    A recent article on Mormons in politics reminded me of this topic which I want to come back to some day. And I liked the definition of fanaticism there and the way he used the story of Abraham to discuss. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuley-boteach/are-mormons-any-weirder-t_b_1116390.html

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