Mormonism is a heretical religious movement founded in the early 19th century by Joseph Smith, Jr. It is self-described as a form of Christian Restorationism, and it encompasses over one-hundred sects, each of which tends to differ significantly from the others. The largest of these churches is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), with its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah; while the second-largest is the Community of Christ church, headquartered in Independence, Missouri. Total membership for the LDS church as of 2008 is approximately 13,000,000, with 250,000 in the Community of Christ and perhaps twenty or thirty thousand more scattered throughout the other smaller sects.
Mormonism had its formal beginning on April 6, 1830 in upstate New York, as the alleged "restoration" of the original Apostolic church. Its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., asserted that he had seen a vision in 1820 of two celestial "beings" who claimed to be God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. These "beings" supposedly told Smith that all existing churches--including the Orthodox Church--were false, and that he was to "restore" the true Church, which Smith claimed had vanished completely from the earth sometime after the deaths of the last of the Holy Apostles (Mormons give no specific date for this alleged occurence).
Attracting a host of converts, Smith's new religion also garnered a great deal of persecution, necessitating moves in turn to Ohio, Missouri (where the Mormons were brutally expelled in 1838 after a civil war between themselves and the state militia, culminating in the issuance of an order from Missouri's governor for their "extermination") and ultimately Illinois, where Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844. Smith's movement fragmented following his demise, with the majority eventually following Brigham Young to Utah. Here, the Mormons were able to finally establish themselves, planting numerous settlements in Utah and adjacent states.
The Mormon practice of plural marriage, itself a source of considerable dissension within their religion (especially between the Utah Mormons and the Community of Christ, which has always rejected polygamy), caused considerable trouble with the U.S. government until the Mormon church finally banned it in 1890. During the twentieth century, the Mormons successfully fought to project an image of wholesome, family-oriented Christianity, reaping millions of converts in the process and becoming a force to be reckoned with on the world religous scene. With the fall of communism, Mormons have extended their prosletyzing efforts into traditionally Orthodox countries, including Russia, which passed a law in 1997 designed to hamper their efforts and those of other Western sects.
Mormon Organization and Theology
Mormonism as a whole encompasses a mélange of many different religious beliefs, the vast majority of which are contrary to Orthodox Church teaching. Joseph Smith obtained inspiration from various religious movements of his time, including Campbellite, Restorationist, and Universalist. However, the foundation of Mormon belief is the acceptance of modern prophecy.
Smith and early Mormon leaders taught that any person with a testimony of Christ is a prophet. However, the LDS church is a highly hierarchial organization, with a president-prophet (usually assisted by two "Counselors") who claims to alone possess all the "keys" to prophetic power and authority. Below this president and his counselors are twelve "Apostles," who are also considered "prophets, seers, and revelators," but who do not have the authority of the church president. Beneath the Mormon apostles are "Seventies," concerned mainly with heading up Mormon missionary efforts worldwide, together with a "presiding Bishopric" mostly concerned with temporal church affairs.
A local Mormon congregation, called a "ward" (equivalent to an Orthodox parish) is headed by a "bishop" (equivalent to an Orthodox parish priest), while a group of wards occupying a specific geographical area is organized into a "stake" (equivalent to an Orthodox diocese), headed by a "stake president" (equivalent to an Orthodox bishop; the disparity between Mormon and Orthodox usage of the term "bishop" can cause confusion for the uninitiated!).
Most modern members of the LDS believe that the current president of the Mormon Church is a living prophet. Another pillar of Mormon belief is their concept of deification. Adhering to some extent to the Trinitarian doctrines stated in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils, Mormons believe that God the Father was originally a human being. However, they believe that He also maintains a corporeal form and resides near a planet orbiting a star called "Kolob" (Doctrines and Covenants, Abraham III). As stated in The Mormon Encyclopedia:
- "There is no ultimate disparity between the divine and human natures; Joseph Smith asserted that mankind is of the same species as God, having been made in God's image (theomorphism) and being eternal, with unlimited capacity." One early LDS leader proclaimed, "As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may be" (Lorenzo Snow). Latter-day Saints speak of man as a God in embryo" (under section Christology)
Deification, then, in Mormon terminology, is a system of progression by which man becomes a god. For a casual observer, this may seem similar to the Church's teaching of theosis, but this is not so. First, there is a definite distinction in the Church between God and mankind. Second, theosis is a unification between God and mankind, not the creation of an entirely separate deity.
Exaltation is explained as becoming, through the sacrifice of Christ, a co-inheritor with Jesus in all that the Father possesses (Romans 8:16-17); that as children of God we are enabled to become one with God as Jesus is one with God, inheriting the same divinity and perfection they enjoy, eternally acting under their guiding influence and authority.
While the primary focus of Mormonism is on salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ, exaltation goes beyond salvation. All mankind will be saved from death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it is only those whom God judges as obedient and faithful, who receive specific saving ordinances (which will be offered to every person that has ever lived), and who fully accept the atonement of Jesus Christ before the judgment will be exalted.
"The Great Apostasy"
Like many Restorationist heresies that arose in the early 18th and 19th centuries, Mormons believe that the Church entered an age of opprobrium several years after its founding. In their belief, Joseph Smith was called by God to restore the Church after praying about the correct denomination to join. He was then told by God to reject all of them, because none was correct.
Essentially, Mormons reject the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church through their profession that it never was representative of the faith founded by Jesus Christ and promulgated through his Apostles. The Orthodox Church, which as of this very moment traces its unbroken succession to the Apostles themselves, ergo is in apostasy according to the Mormons.
Book of Mormon
In 1823 Smith claimed to have a visitation by an angel named Moroni, who told him of a chronicle of ancient history which was supposedly engraved in an ancient Egyptian dialect on tablets of gold and buried in a nearby hill. Smith was also told that he would be the instrument to bring this knowledge to the world. He allegedly obtained these plates in 1827 and supposedly translated them into English via the use of two seer-stones which he called the "Urim and Thummim" (Hebrew for lights and perfections). These stones are not to be confused with the Old Testament Urim and Thummim, the stones on the High Priest’s breastplate used to relay messages from God to his people.
This translation became The Book of Mormon, which is revered as another testament of Jesus Christ by Mormons. The monikers referring to the church as "the Mormon Church" or "Mormonism" and its members as "mormons" are derivations from the name The Book of Mormon. The book purports to be a religious and secular history of groups the inhabitants of the Americas, called Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites, among others, from about 2200 B.C. to A.D. 421. It claims that at least some of the Amerindians are descended from various groups of Near Eastern peoples (including Jews) who immigrated during pivotal periods in Israel’s history.
Smith claimed that many of these people were Christians before the birth of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, connections between the history and civilization portrayed in The Book of Mormon and evidence found by archaeologists in the Americas is debatable. Evidence of items like horses, elephants, cattle, barley, wheat, steel swords, chariots, shipbuilding, and other Old World paraphernalia has not been found to exist in the Americas until the advent of the Europeans. Evidence of these people, the gold plates, or the "seer-stones" has yet to be found.
Mormonism and Polygyny
Plural marriage was practiced by early church leaders. Many sources say that Smith had as many as twenty to thirty wives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the mainstream Mormon sect, practiced polygyny until 1890, when they ended the doctrine to ensure Utah’s statehood. Today about 70% of Utah is Mormon and around 60,000 practice polygyny (5% of Utah Mormons). Also, there are other Mormon sects practicing polygyny secretly all over the world. Despite the huge publicity campaign the LDS Church has constructed to dissuade people from associating them with polygyny, Mormons and plural marriages are commonly associated in contemporary culture. While such a practice may have been given up by the mainstream, there is no doubt that Mormonism and the unholy practice of plural marriage remain closely entwined.
The Orthodox Church condemns all forms of plural marriage as an unnatural practice.
- "LDS Church says membership now 13 million worldwide", Salt Lake Tribune, June 25, 2007.
Sources and External Links
- The Official LDS Website
- Wikipedia: Mormonism
- To Those Who Are Investigating Mormonism by Richard Packham (Packham is a former member of the LDS)
- HBO’s Big Love (Big Love is a television drama portraying Mormon polygamists living secretly in modern-day Utah)