Understanding Mormonism

August 7th, 2012
The Book of Mormon, the Broadway show, is one factor influencing public perception of the LDS Church.

A June 2012 Gallup poll revealed that bias against a Mormon presidential candidate has not significantly changed since 1967. That same year, when Mitt Romney’s father, former Michigan governor George Romney, was a candidate for the GOP nomination for the presidency, a Gallup poll indicated that 19% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon candidate. The June Gallop poll indicated that 18% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon candidate. The effect of anti-Mormon bias on Mitt Romney remains unclear, however, because the recent poll also indicated that only 57 percent of Americans know that he is a Mormon. In addition, the report confirmed that although anti-Mormon bias has been consistent, resistance to black, female, and Jewish candidates has significantly lessened.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the official name for the religion commonly called the Mormon Church, has more than 14 million members worldwide.A relatively new tradition dating back to 1830, the LDS Church has beliefs and practices that are unfamiliar and often misunderstood in the larger culture. Romney’s candidacy and the current satirical Broadway musical The Book of Mormon are catching public notice and providing incentive for increased interest in the LDS faith. The press has even referred to this time in our culture as a “Mormon moment.”

The Journey Westward

In the decade after the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the founding of the LDS Church that same year, the church grew in membership to a reported thirty thousand. During this time of rapid growth, Mormons were often the objects of persecution, and that persecution was a major reason for their westward movement. Early on, the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., was tarred and feathered, and in 1844 he and his brother were murdered in an Illinois jail.

Their practice of polygamy, which they referred to as “plural marriage,” was one of the chief reasons for the animosity they encountered; but there were other reasons for anti- Mormon sentiment. The larger public regarded the Book of Mormon with suspicion and fear. Another source of conflict was the Mormon teaching that theirs was the one true church and that the historical Christian church had been false during most of its history. Moreover, other practices disturbed the general population. For example, the LDS Church reserved the term Saints for its members, and it used the term Gentiles to refer to all non-Mormons. In addition, the Mormon tendency to live to themselves in distinct communities and to restrict business ventures to other Saints was also a source of contention.

Following Smith’s death, Brigham Young rose to prominence and led the Saints on their journey to their settlement in the Utah Territory. In 1849, Mormons in the Utah Territory established a provisional region known as the State of Deseret in the Salt Lake Valley. Under pressure from the federal government, in 1890 the LDS Church repudiated plural marriage before Utah became a state in 1896.

Beliefs and Practices

The movement that Smith founded regarded the Bible as Scripture as well as three other books: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These three came about through divine revelation, mainly to Joseph Smith. The addition of these documents to the canon of Scripture results in different doctrines about God and Jesus Christ than are defined in the historic creeds of the Christian church. The Mormon Church rejects these historic creeds.

Although Mormons profess belief in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, their understanding of these persons is quite different from historic Christian belief that the three persons of the Trinity are one. Mormon teaching regards each of these three as an independent person, separate from the other two; and this teaching evoked the accusation that Mormons are polytheistic, believing in more than one god.

According to Mormon teachings, God the Father was once a human being who became God, and his firstborn spirit child was Jehovah, who was later born with a physical body to Mary as Jesus Christ.Since God was once an ordinary human male who was “exalted,” similarly ordinary human beings have the potential of “exaltation,” or deification. This understanding implies that Jesus is not the unique incarnation of God.

In Mormon teachings, human beings had a pre-earthly existence and after death will again be in the spirit world, where they can progress toward godliness. In time the spirit and body will reunite, and these Saints will undergo judgment on whether they have lived according to God’s commands. The faithful then will live with their families in God’s presence. The less faithful will live in other parts of heaven.

Another distinctly Mormon teaching is that families may endure forever. This hope is the basis for rituals such as the baptism for ancestors who died without knowing the teaching of the church. In addition, there are “sealing” ordinances to bind families together eternally. These teachings are the reason for the LDS Church’s focus on genealogy.

Other Mormons

Just as there is diversity among adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there are other religious groups that claim the Book of Mormon as part of their heritage. Although the LDS Church considers itself the official Mormon Church, some of these other groups call themselves Mormons, and still others may be influenced by Mormonism without identifying themselves as such. A number of Mormon splinter groups continue to practice polygamy, among them the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS). On the other end of the spectrum, the Community of Christ Church (originally called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—RLDS), one of the first breakaway groups, shares so much of the theology of mainstream Christianity that it has been accepted into the National Council of Churches.

Acceptance by Other Christians

Though Mormons identify themselves as Christians, most mainstream Christian denominations do not accept them as such, and require baptism for conversion.

In 1998, the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and the LDS Church held a conference in Salt Lake City to discuss differences between United Methodist and Mormon baptism. The results of that conference were summarized in a document entitled Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 2000 General Conference agreed with Sacramental Faithfulness that because of different doctrinal understandings, Christian baptism is required before a Mormon can become a United Methodist.

The delegates said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by self-definition, does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of Christian faith.” Although Mormons identify themselves as Christians, they also “explicitly (profess) distinction and separateness from the ecumenical community.”The “historic, apostolic tradition” refers to the teachings given by the apostles to the early church and continued throughout Christian history. Mormons believe that theirs is the only true church, restoring Christianity as it was after the Resurrection. From the LDS perspective, the Christian church throughout its history has been in apostasy (meaning, it has abandoned the faith).


How does our faith help us respect our Mormon neighbors and honor our own relationship to Jesus Christ? Christian faith calls us to neighborliness. Jesus taught love of neighbor, and clearly his love of neighbor extended beyond the boundary of his own Jewish faith. Such neighborly love involves respecting the other, listening, and being open to learning from people of differing faith traditions.

Some Christians fear that they are somehow betraying their faith by listening to and being open to the stories and experiences of people from other faith traditions. It is helpful to approach religious differences with the firm conviction that God is at work in the world and in other religious traditions. The resolution, “Building New Bridges of Hope” is instructive at this point: “While we as Christians respond faithfully to the call to proclaim the gospel in all places, we can never presume to know the full extent of God’s work in the world, and we recognize the reality of God’s activity outside the Christian church. It is central to our faith that salvation is accomplished not by human beings, but by God.”

Another way we can respect our Mormon neighbors while honoring our own faith is to counter misconceptions about their faith. Of course, the Mormon faith is different in doctrine and practice from our own, but misconceptions abound. We may hear that the LDS Church still practices polygamy or that Mormons believe they will get their own planet when they die. By learning more about the Mormon faith and by refusing to perpetuate myths, we are showing respect and loving our Mormon neighbors.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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