MORMONISM, with its history of homegrown prophets, frontier battles, utopian experiments and latter-day conservatism, is perhaps the most "American" of religions. During the course of 150 years, the Church of Latter Day Saints has evolved from a persecuted, polygamy-practicing cult into a powerful, well-entrenched bureaucracy whose spiritual and economic influence extends well beyond church headquarters in Salt Lake City. As it has grown from a small, outlawed bnd of seekers into organized prosperity and respectability, the church has absorbed the most basic values of Wall Street as well as Main Street. Mormons are among the most vehement defenders of the sanctity of God, home, business and country.

The current image of Mormon orthodoxy is perhaps best epitomized by the singing Osmonds: the large, well-to-do, clean-cut American family, seemingly preserved in aspic from the 1950s. Behind this gleaming image, however, as authors Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley set out to demonstrate in America's Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power, is a complex church hierarchy that aspires to control not only the moral but political and cultural values of its members.

The visionary side of Mormonism is more than counterbalanced by a worldly practicality. As Mormon historian Fawn Brodie lamented in her controversial biography of church founder Joseph Smith, "perhaps the most vigorous tradition transmitted by Joseph Smith was the identification of God with material prosperity. . . . Financial wizardry has come to be looked upon as equally important with spiritual excellence among the qualifications for church leadership." Mormon leaders, frequently working within a shroud of secrecy, currently control a vast financial empire as well as a religious network that extends down from the elite Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to the local "stake" (parish) and family level.

At its best, the church functions as a supportive, loving community from which its members derive a strong sense of identity and belonging. At its worst, the church can function as a kind of authoritarian system that stamps out nonconformity and dissent. As Gottlieb and Wiley express it, "For many both inside and outside of the church, the distinction between orthodoxy and authoritarianism is at best a fine line. The strict behavioral codes; the willingness and desire to internalize and obey leadership signals, even in the name of free agency; and e strong identification with patriarchy in the home and hierarchial rankings in the church all reinforce an authoritarian culture."

LOYAL church members, as Gottlieb and Wiley demonstrate, can be mobilized at very short notice. Whether the state of emergency is caused by flooding or imminent passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, Mormons make excellent volunteers in defense of their territory. Mormon activists, in fact, predate such conservative religious groups as the Moral Majority, in their attempts to influence political issues. Gottlieb and Wiley fail to demonstrate, however, the impact of the church, both positive and negative, on individual members. Their intent is to expose the political and financial machinations of Mormon leaders rather than to explore the meaning of Mormonism to the individual worshipper. Non-Mormons would find it difficult to understand, after reading America's Saints, why church members remain loyal to a system of belief that can be so costly in terms of time, money, and individual freedom.

Historically, loyalty to the church has been particularly costly for women. Free-thinking, independent Mormon women, from Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith's first wife, to Sonia Johnson, the recently excommunicated ERA activist, have found little respect within the church hierarchy. In their new biography of Emma Hale Smith, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery attempt to restore Emma's reputation, which had been maligned ever since her husband's death by a number of Mormon leaders and historians. Initially, according to Newell and Avery, Emma aroused hostility among Mormon brethren for her resistance to her husband's "revelations" concerning the necessity of plural marriages. Rumors abounded that Emma had knocked her close friend Eliza Snow down the stairs when she discovered that Snow, who had been secretly wedded to Smith, was pregnant by the prophet.

As Smith continued secretly to court her female acquaintces, friends, and friends' daughters, acquiring some 16 wives within a period of a year or two, Emma alternately accepted and denounced her husband's multiple espousals. It was evident that Smith's divinely ordained philandering caused her great pain. After the prophet's death she insisted that she had been Smith's only legitimate wife, and she attempted, with her son Joseph, to eradicate polygamy from a newly organized church. Those efforts aroused great hostility from church leaders, who sought to blame her for Joseph's death. Yet her own reaction to the new doctrine of polygamy had not been unique. Initial reactions of Mormons who left written accounts of the time described "shock, horror, disbelief, or general emotional confusion." Brigham Young himself, the great organizer who took control of the church after Smith's assassination, confessed, of his reaction to Smith's plan for a new order of marriage, "It was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time."

Newell and Avery do succeed in creating a favorable portrait of an intelligent, generous woman trapped by love and circumstance in a situation she could neither tolerate nor abandon. However, despite the impressive welter of detail they have compiled, the writers remain essentially noncommital about Smith himself. Was he, as other writers have speculated, with regard to his practice of polygamy, suffering from a mental disorder, or perhaps impelled by an insatiable desire for sex, a fathomless lust for power? Was he a great impostor?

Dorothy Allred Solomon inspires similar questions in her memoir In My Father's House, an account of life in a polygamous household. And similarly, she leaves them unanswered. The polygamist in this case is her father, Rulon Allred, the patriarch who was murdered in 1977 by the crazed leader of a rival polygamist sect. In a poetic style that ranges from fresh to overripe, Solomon recalls a childhood that was essentially happy, despite her family's isolation from mainstream life. Allred's 28th child, the first daughter born to Allred's fourth plural wife, Solomon had no lack of companions to play with or alternate mothers to turn to. (Allred was content with seven wives until his sixties, when he began to accumulate several more.)

As Solomon grows up, she never really questions the "Principle" of multiple marriages that sets the Allreds apart, forcing them to move frequently to evade the law, that eventually sends Allred to jail. The first perception that the "Principle" is not perfect comes when she realizes that her mother's ill health may be due to her secondary position in the Allred household: "My mother's nervous illness became a critical part of our lives, but for years no one made a connection between her failing health and the pecking order. . . . Men and women both seemed blind to the unrest and suffering born of constant comparison and subtle competition." At one point, after her own marriage, she even contemplates encouraging her husband to take a second wife rather than indulge in a covert affair.

Unfortunately, despite her awareness of the pain and suffering caused by her father's insistence on the Principle, and despite her discovery of the need to find her own way to God, Solomon persists in regarding her father as a martyr to religious freedom. Even as he begins to take more wives in his waning years, spreading himself thinner and thinner among previous wives and children, he maintains a saintly glow in Solomon's eyes. Still, In My Father's House serves as a remarkable testimony to a religious faith that can take root in the strangest and harshest of circumstances. It also attests to the universal hunger for order and community, the need to belong, that has sustained the Mormon church through years of persecution and prosperity.