Mormon founders ranked among most influential

LDS Church founder Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, are among the nation’s 100 most influential individuals, according to the December issue of Atlantic Monthly.

The names are ranked in priority order, with five of the top 10 being U.S. presidents – starting with Abraham Lincoln.

Smith comes in at 52, just behind Margaret Sanger, the champion of birth control and sexual freedom, and just ahead of Oliver Wendell Homes Jr, an early 20th-century Supreme Court justice whose opinions continue to shape American jurisprudence.

The next in line is Bill Gates, whom the magazine describes as “the Rockefeller of the Information Age, in business and philanthropy alike.”

Young doesn’t show up on the list until 74, squeezed between Cyrus McCormick, who invented a mechanized reaper that transformed farming, and baseball phenom George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Other religious figures included Martin Luther King Jr. at No. 8, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy (86), Jonathan Edwards. firebrand preacher of the Great Awakening in the 17th century (90), and Lyman Beecher, an abolitionist evangelist (91).

The list was created by 10 award-winning historians who each made a list and rankings.

The balloting was then “averaged and weighted to emphasize consensus – candidates received extra points if they appeared on multiple lists,” writes Ross Douthat in the magazine’s introduction.

Perhaps the biggest challenge the judges faced was how to assess influence.

“What definition would allow us to rank Americans from different careers and walks of life – to compare the influence of a great novelist with the influence of a president, for instance, or the influence of a religious leader with that of an entrepreneur?” they wondered.

It was also tough to measure the past against the present. Where, for example, do you place John D. Rockefeller in relation to Bill Clinton?

The historians further struggled with what they called the “Hugh Hefner problem.”

“Does a man who has spent a lifetime lounging around in a bathrobe, getting rich off the objectification of women really deserve a place in anyone’s Top 100?” Douthat writes.

“On the other hand, if you’re looking for journalistic giants of the last century, doesn’t Hef deserve a place alongside a Henry Luce or an H.L Mencken? And if you open the door for the man who gave us porn-on-demand, does a parade of demagogues come trooping in after him?”

In some ways, it is almost as interesting to see who isn’t on the list. For example, it is relatively free of villains – unless you count Richard Nixon (99) and pro-slavery legislator John C. Calhoun (58).

The results are hardly scientific, Douthat acknowledges, but they are “rewarding and intriguing, offering instances of both consensus and contention, and a snapshot of our national memory early in the third American century.”

No list could settle the debate about influence in the American past, he writes, “but it does offer a starting place for discussion.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday December 2, 2006.
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