In recent years “Mormonism,” or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has enjoyed increased visibility in American culture, especially since the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012. Who are they, and what do they teach?
What is Mormonism?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormonism, is an American religion founded by Joseph Smith Jr. in Fayette, New York, on April 6, 1830 and later established in Salt Lake City, Utah in the middle of the 19th century. In addition to the Old and New Testaments, the Latter-day Saints affirm other texts—The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price—to be revealed Scripture. While they claim to be a “Church of Jesus Christ,” their theology is so far removed from historic Christian orthodoxy that every major Christian branch (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox) does not recognize them as “Christian” (see details below).
Mormons are known for their strong, large families and hard work-ethic. They are vigorous in international missions and as of today there are about 15 million Mormons worldwide. While there are several smaller Mormon sects, the vast majority of Latter-day Saints (98+%) are associated with the Salt Lake City Church, which originated from the followers of Brigham Young. Because of this, this essay will limit its focus to this branch of Mormonism.
A Brief History of the Origins of Mormonism
No history of Mormonism can be told without reference to Joseph Smith Jr. Born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805, Smith was known to dabble in treasure-hunting as a young man. Raised in Palmyra, New York (east of Rochester), he was deeply confused religiously due to the intense revivalism of the period as well as the competing views of the various denominations. His confusion subsided after a decade-long series of religious encounters—including visions, revelations, angelic visitations and a visit from John the Baptist. During these experiences, Smith claims to have been led by God to reject all current Christian denominations as apostate and become the prophet of a new movement that would restore the true church of Jesus Christ. Mormonism can thus be categorized as a radical version of the Restoration movement.
Smith claimed that in September 1827 the angel Moroni led him to the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra to unearth golden plates inscribed with a divine message that had been lost to humankind since they were buried there in the 4th century A.D. With the aid of special seeing stones, Smith translated the message found on these plates (which he claimed were written in “Reformed Egyptian”) and published it as the Book of Mormon in 1830. The book, which has become the foundational document for Mormons, relates the story of the descendants of an Israelite family (Lehi), who fled Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and subsequently immigrated by boat to North America. The turbulent history of the civilizations that descended from these immigrants is detailed, complete with warring populations, prophets, divine interventions, and a North American visitation by Jesus Christ, which took place after his resurrection and ascension. After a long period of decline, the final remaining descendants of these civilizations fall into idolatry but not until a faithful record of God’s people in North America has been compiled by the prophet Mormon and his son Moroni, who inscribed the message on golden plates and buried it in 384 A.D. It should be noted that archeologists do not find evidence for these great civilizations as they are portrayed throughout the hundreds of pages of The Book of Mormon. This book, together with other Mormon Scriptures (Doctrine and Covenants, The Pearl of Great Price), are understood by Mormons to supplement the Old and New Testaments. They also became the theological and historical foundation for Smith’s unique religious views.
A charismatic religious leader, Smith gathered a sizable following of converts whom he organized into a sustainable religious community. This community was persecuted wherever they went, forcing them to uproot and move often. A settlement at Kirkland, Ohio (where a group of Campbellites converted to the new religion), was followed by others in Missouri and other places, ultimately leading to the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, in late 1840. Smith’s turbulent leadership at Nauvoo—where he began practicing polygamy (he eventually married several dozen women), raised an independent militia, and began an official run for the Presidency of the United States—met with fierce resistance, and he was ultimately jailed and later killed by an angry mob in June 1844.
After Smith’s death, many Mormons found a new leader in Brigham Young (1801-1877), who led a large group of Mormon pioneers to settle in the Utah territory in the 1840s. There, Young brought more stability to 19nth-century Mormonism; he became the president of the church in 1847 and founded Salt Lake City. Young made polygamy a prominent feature of Mormonism (he had 55 wives), and prohibited blacks from participation in the Mormon priesthood and ceremonies. These two positions were later reversed: polygamy was officially abandoned by Utah Mormons in 1890 as Mormons sought Utah statehood (achieved in 1896), and the racism inherent in Young’s policies was reversed in 1978.
Beliefs and Practices
On the surface, the LDS presents itself as Christianity. They claim to worship Jesus Christ, who is divine and who is the savior of the world, one whom people can trust for salvation, pray to, and ultimately commune with in heaven. This all sounds like mainstream biblical teaching. Yet when we peer beneath these exterior, surface comments, we find core teachings that are heretical and vastly removed from all historic branches of Christian theology. Here is a sampling of their views:
- The embodied Gods of Mormonism: Mormons reject the doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining rather that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate beings. In fact, Mormon theologians, along with numerous statements from their own scriptures and early leaders, advance polytheism (the view that there are multiple gods) as well the fact that God has a body. The Doctrine and Covenants (130:22) states that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also.” Mormonism thus rejects two fundamental teachings of Scriptural Christianity: that God is one (Deut 6:4), and that God is spirit (John 4:24). This alone places their view outside of the Christian faith.
- On Salvation: Mormons teach that that salvation is made possible by Christ’s suffering. But Mormon salvation, known as exaltation, goes beyond this and takes place when an individual becomes a god (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20). Once individuals are exalted, they can, along with their families, partake of all that God is in the afterlife. Exaltation is possible only through strict obedience to Mormon teachings and practices.
- On Church History: Mormons believe that shortly after Christ’s ascension and the New Testament period, the church immediately lost its way and fell into a Great Apostasy, losing the entirety of the Gospel as it was originally taught. Because of this, they believe that every Christian tradition (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) has descended into grave error. The Latter-day Saints alone constitute the only restored church.
- Marriage: Mormons believe that marriage is not just for this lifetime but is a covenant bond that lasts for eternity. The Mormon “celestial marriage” ceremony can only be performed (or “sealed”) in dedicated Mormon Temples (there are 142 of these temples worldwide). Bonds sealed in this life last forever thereby ensuring that entire families will be eternally united in the celestial heaven, the highest degree of heaven in Mormon theology. This emphasis on the family bond extends not just forward in time but can extend backwards as well. For example, one’s own non-Mormon ancestors can be given the chance to accept Smith’s teachings in the afterlife through proxy baptism, or “baptism for the dead,” where a Mormon is baptized on behalf of a non-believing ancestor. This, Mormons teach, grants that relative a chance to embrace or reject the Mormon message. This is why the Latter-day Saints are so concerned with genealogy.
Today, the LDS claims to have just over 15 million members worldwide in roughly 30,000 congregations. There are 142 Mormon Temples in roughly 45 countries where marriages, baptisms for the dead, and exaltation ceremonies are conducted. Mormons place a strong emphasis on missionary activity. Most Mormon young men are expected to spend two years in missionary service in their early 20s, a point that accounts for their high number of missionaries (currently 83,000) and their growth (they have grown from one million in 1947, the year Mitt Romney was born, to 15 million today).
- Official Name: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”
- “Latter-day Saints” – Mormon Scriptures (see list below) tell of the narratives of original saints centuries ago. With the restored church under Smith, we have the saints of the “latter days.”
- “Mormon” – the name of the early North American prophet, who, Smith claimed, helped compile the Book of Mormon. Followers of Smith and The Book of Mormon are often called “Mormons.”
- Founding “Prophet:” Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844)
- Mormon Scriptures added to the Old and New Testaments:
- The Book of Mormon
- Doctrine and Covenants
- The Pearl of Great Price
- Prominent Mormons Today:
- Mitt Romney (b 1947) – 2012 Republican presidential candidate.
- Stephen Covey (1932-2012): author of the best-selling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
- Orrin Hatch (b 1934): senior US Senator from Utah.
- Harry Reid (b 1939) : senior US Senator from Nevada.
- The Osmonds – popular singing group of siblings in the 1960s and 70s.
- Other Branches descending from the Latter-day Saint Movement:
- Community of Christ – formally known as the “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” A more liberal branch of the Latter-day Saint movement. 250,000 members today.
- There are numerous Fundamentalist groups that trace their lineage back to Smith’s Latter-day Saint movement. Many of these groups still practice polygamy.