With about 11 million members worldwide and over five million in the U.S. alone, Mormons make up one of the larger American denominations, just ahead of Episcopalians and Pentecostals. Based in Utah, the Mormon church, which prefers to be called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS), has used its army of young missionaries to spread its beliefs across the country and around the world. They have also joined with non-Mormon groups to fight against drug use, abortion rights, and equal rights for women and gays and lesbians. Their conservative, “pro-family” beliefs make them close in spirit to fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian groups. And yet many of those same groups repudiate the Mormons as a kind of cult, because LDS teachings about Jesus, and some of their other beliefs, are radically different from mainstream Christian doctrine.
Among other things, Mormons believe that after the first disciples of Jesus died, their followers immediately entered into error, and so God withdrew his Church from the earth. They refer to this as the Apostasy, or general falling away from the truth, and believe that Jesus Christ began to restore His Church to the earth only in 1820, through the Prophet Joseph Smith. For Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ has now been restored to the earth, and the authority of God exists in the Mormon church today, just as it did in the “original Church.” Mormons accept not only the Bible but also the Book of Mormon — Another Testament of Jesus Christ, as the word of God. But because it was first published in 1830 and has no connection to the original Christian tradition, the Book of Mormon is not considered by most Christians to be revealed truth.
Mormons disagree, and fully believe that their founder, Joseph Smith, received a genuine revelation from both God and Jesus Christ. At the age of 14, while living in Palmyra, New York, Smith received his first vision. God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared before Joseph as separate entities and told him that the Christian denominations already in existence were in error and that he should avoid them. Three years later he began receiving visions of an angel identified as Moroni, son of Mormon, who revealed the location of golden tablets that contained the history of two early American tribes. Following Moroni’s directions, Smith said he discovered (along with a breastplate similar to those worn by ancient Israelites) a set of golden plates on which four ancient American authors had written new accounts not contained in the Bible, but in an unfamiliar script, and two “stones in silver bows” called the Urim and Thummim. Referred to in the Hebrew Bible, these were apparently devices that the high priest consulted to discern God’s will. Smith claimed that with the stones and God’s help he was able to translate the unknown writing on the golden plates into English. He also found a set of brass plates on which another author had recorded certain genealogies.
More visions followed in succeeding years, as Smith proceeded to translate the script he found on the plates. (The nature of the original script and the validity of the translations has never been verified by a third party, as the plates no longer exist.) In 1830 Smith published the Book of Mormon, a Bible-flavored account of God’s intervention in the history of America’s ancient inhabitants, said to be descended from the Israelites and other Biblical tribes who crossed the sea in barges from the Tower of Babel to become the ancestors of the American Indians. Jesus Christ himself figures in the 500-page text, which so enraged the local Christians that Smith and his followers were forced to flee to Ohio, Missouri, and finally to Illinois, where Smith began a campaign to become president of the United States. In 1844, after Smith and his brother destroyed the presses of a newspaper that had opposed Smith’s candidacy, they were lynched by a mob.
Brigham Young succeeded Smith and in 1847 led most of the sect to the Salt Lake basin in Utah, where he found a permanent home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (so called by Smith because he claimed to be returning Christianity to its original state). Besides their unorthodox beliefs regarding Scripture, the Mormons also infuriated other Christians by their practice of polygamy, or “plural marriage,” which they based on the fact that the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon had practiced it. Joseph Smith and his closest associates, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, sanctioned and regulated the practice in the early years. But in 1890, church President Wilford Woodruff “received a revelation that the leaders of the Church should cease teaching the practice of plural marriage.” Known as the Great Accommodation, this reversal helped to win statehood for Utah. (In 1985 Michael Quinn, a Yale-educated Mormon scholar, discovered evidence that Mormon leaders continued the practice secretly for another 14 years. The Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints, a splinter group of Mormons centered around a descendant of Joseph Smith in Independence, Missouri, rejected polygamy early on. They are still active with over a quarter of a million members.)
Many LDS beliefs are consistent with traditional Christian teachings. Mormons believe, for instance, that God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to be the savior of humankind. Through Christ’s “atonement,” humanity can be saved if they obey God’s laws and ordinances. Apart from the early practice of plural marriage, Mormons have embraced a moral code similar to the most conservative Christian sects: coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and extra-marital sex are strictly forbidden, and members are expected to tithe, giving one-tenth of their income to support church activities. Yet, as noted earlier, much of their dogma is unique. The LDS church teaches a doctrine of continuous revelation, meaning that the Book of Mormon and two other works, Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, are considered legitimate additions to the Bible (no other Christian sect recognizes the validity of those works). They also believe that before birth, humans live with the “Heavenly Father as one of His beloved spirit children.” Humans do not have a physical body during this pre-birth existence, but incarnate because they need “a chance to gain experience” on their own, “away from His presence, but with the ability to communicate with Him and receive help. So He sent you to Earth, hoping that you would return to Him and receive everything He has to offer you.”* Mormons also believe in a complex level of spiritual worlds in the afterlife. Marriages that are performed in the Church’s temples, and have been officially “sealed by priesthood,” are said to continue after death, when earthly families are to be reunited in the afterworld. Finally, LDS teaching holds that God and Christ are separate deities of flesh and bone, and although the Holy Spirit has no physical component, the three are one in purpose.
The church expects two years of missionary service from male members when they turn 19. Women are allowed but not encouraged to be missionaries. As in the Roman Catholic church, Mormon women have begun agitating for the right to become bishops–the Mormon equivalent of priests or ministers–an office that is currently closed to them. Paradoxically, a long-established Mormon doctrine holds that the spiritual parents of humanity included a female as well as a male deity, a belief that is emphasized by a still-popular hymn written in 1843 by Eliza Snow, a major church figure who supported equal rights for women. The hymn, “Oh, My Father,” includes the lines,
“In the Heavens are parents single?
No. . . .
Tells me I’ve a Mother there.”
In recent years, amid the growing cry for equal treatment of women within the church, its leaders have severely disciplined or excommunicated several Mormon scholars and feminists. A revelation from God in 1978 ended a policy of exclusion of African Americans, who are now regarded as full members of the LDS and are eligible for consideration for ordination. The LDS church continues to be one of the fastest growing in the world, with several thousand meeting houses and 106 formal temples worldwide. And the Book of Mormon is among the ten most popular books in America.
* Taken from the Official Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: http://www.lds.org