I’ve always had a mild fascination with Mormonism. It may have started during my early years of elementary school when my brother’s best friend was a Mormon. I was young, so what I knew of their beliefs was limited to two things. First, they didn’t drink soda and, second, they believed something about getting their own something when they died (yes, it was that vague). In hindsight, I’ve been able to trace a series of touchpoints in my life where Mormons or Mormonism was always in view. As I mentioned, my brother’s best friend was a Mormon, my first crush, a girl named Tami in my third-grade class, was a Mormon, my favorite author is a Mormon, and on and on. Throughout, I’ve maintained a general curiosity about it all. I’ve never wanted to become one, but the beliefs, practices and story of the Mormon church have always been intriguing to me. How exactly did a nineteen-year-old farm boy from upstate New York convince people he was a prophet? Do they really believe they’ll become gods?
This “mild fascination” turned into an area of intense interest a few years ago, when my own studies of Christian theology and apologetics ramped up. It is often valuable when learning what is right to compare it with what is wrong. In this way, Mormonism provided a nice point of contrast since (spoiler alert) theologically orthodox Mormons will deny just about every doctrine that protestants hold dear.
So, what is Mormonism? Who are Mormons and what do they believe? Like any faith system this is not a subject that can be treated to a respectable degree in a single blog post or article, particularly because the biggest point of contention between Mormons and evangelical Christians in recent decades has been the issue of whether or not they should be considered “just another denomination” under the Christian banner. To come to an accurate understanding of the answer to that question, we need to understand the significant doctrinal differences between us. And believe me, the differences are not only highly significant, they are numerous. I plan to point out and address these differences in future posts, but for now we should cover the basics.
A Short History
The Mormon Church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also commonly referred to as the LDS Church), was officially founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. As a resident of New York in the early nineteenth century, Smith and his family were surrounded by the religious movement that we now refer to as the Second Great Awakening. It was a time when fiery preachers were making their way up and down the eastern portion of United States, giving exciting sermons of repentance that riled up the local population and reinvigorated spiritual interest and church attendance. However, while emotions ran high in the wake of these preachers, discipleship and effective doctrinal grounding to follow it up were almost non-existent. The end result in many areas was a lot of spiritual interest with little spiritual maturity and a great deal of inter-denominational bickering. Such is the environment in which Joseph Smith was raised.
As the story goes, when Joseph was fourteen years old, he began to question which denomination he himself should join, “but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 1, 1:8). Taking a cue from James 1:5, Joseph heads out into the woods alone to pray for direction. As he is praying, he looks up to find two people standing in front of him, God the Father and Jesus. Smith then proceeds to ask the question he had come to pray about and receives an answer that he was not expecting:
Five years pass and Joseph, now nineteen, is praying in his bed when he is visited again – this time by the angel Moroni. The angel tells him about a book “written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang, He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 1, 1:34). Joseph would be tasked with translating the plates into what is now the Book of Mormon. In 1830, the book would be published and the LDS church officially founded. As of today, the LDS Church boasts an overall membership of approximately 14 million people and over 150 temples around the world.
Notes from a Christian Perspective
The entire basis for the existence of the LDS church rests on the twin concepts of the First Vision account described above and the “Restoration” of the Gospel. The First Vision account, in all its talk of abominable creeds and corrupt professors, describes what Mormons refer to as “The Great Apostasy”. According to Mormon doctrine, the Christianity that was taught by Jesus, preached by the Twelve, and practiced in the first century was completely corrupted and lost shortly after the deaths of the Apostles. The scriptures were – through carelessness or intentional edits – so mutilated that the entirety of true Christianity ceased to exist on the earth. This period of universal apostasy continued until the nineteenth century when Joseph Smith was tasked by God to restore the church and its teachings, beliefs and practices.
One might question whether the First Vision is more important (some LDS leaders have said so), but to me the two are inextricably entwined, supporting and relying on each other like each pair in a house of cards. After all, Mormonism is not the only faith system that requires biblical corruption to have any claim to truth. Atheists often point to supposed bible contradictions and corrupted or mistranslated texts to write off the bible as fictional. Because the teachings of Islam are so fundamentally incompatible with the bible and yet claim to have the same origin, Muslims are forced into the position that the bible cannot be trusted if the Quran is to be taken seriously. Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses have resorted to producing their own translation of the bible in order to do “fix” passages that do not fit their theology. Gnostics and conspiracy theorists point to outrageous stories of competing or “lost” gospels in the early church that were supposedly suppressed in order to keep the fledgling Catholic church in power. While this concept is not unique to Mormonism, it is foundational to it. If it can be proven that the Great Apostasy never happened, then it invalidates the First Vision nullifies Joseph Smith’s claims to be a prophet. On the other hand, if the Great Apostasy did happen in some form, it does not prove the truth of Mormonism in any way. If the First Vision can be disproven, then Joseph Smith was nothing more than a con-man with an elaborate imagination. We could point out that the First Vision, if true, would require the universal apostasy of the Christian church (and therefore be ”more important”), but since there were no witnesses for this event besides the words of Joseph, then it relies entirely on the truth of that apostasy.
Unlike the decentralized structure of Protestantism that leaves the bible as its sole authority and thus leaves each individual denomination or congregation to govern itself, the LDS Church is very hierarchical with a heavily enforced top-down structure, similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. Based on readings of Amos 3:7 and Ephesians 4:11-12, the Mormon church concludes that God’s people must always have living, mortal prophets and apostles that will lead and guide the church. Many Mormons will bring this up in their conversations with Christians as a perk of their faith, or perhaps as a drawback of ours.
The First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Quorum of the Seventy constitute what Mormons refer to as “General Authorities”, men who are tasked with leading and guiding the LDS Church as a whole. Below those levels are the local authorities.
A Note on the Term “Elder”
Many Christians who are not familiar with Mormonism can often become intimidated by the “Elder” title that is listed on the badges of Mormon missionaries. This is due to the way we, as Christians, assign the position of “Elder” to a specific group of people, usually men, within the local church who have proven to be knowledgeable and Godly. In many local congregations, the Elders are responsible for keeping tabs on the teachings and practices of the pastor to make sure false doctrine is not creeping into the church, removing him if needed and finding a new pastor should he move on or otherwise be unable to perform his duties. Thus, in the Christian context, an Elder in the local church is a person of some authority. When Mormon missionaries come to our doorsteps and we see “Elder” on the nametag, some people will assume that these men are theological heavyweights. In reality, this is very rarely the case. In the Mormon context, an “Elder” is simply an adult male member of the church. Most of the missionaries that will come to your door are teenagers who left for their mission shortly after graduating high school. Many did not take their faith all that seriously before leaving home for their mission and have only a few weeks of training. There are exceptions, of course, some zealous young Mormons will be surprisingly knowledgeable about their faiths, but these are few and far between.
The LDS Church recognizes four written collections of scriptures that they refer to as the “standard works”: The King James Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.
While I plan to dig into the unique beliefs and practices that separate Mormonism from traditional Christianity, they will have to be handled individually. The basics of faith systems like Islam or Judaism are fairly-well understood by the average American and could be explained to an outsider to an acceptable degree within a few minutes. In contrast, many of the unique doctrines of the LDS Church are… exotic and deserve a more extensive treatment than I can provide now. Furthermore, a critical examination of the character of Joseph Smith, the nature of the Book of Mormon, LDS prooftexts from the bible and the history of the Mormon church and its teachings will need to be taken point-by-point.
Until next time…
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.