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.
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
(This section is concerned with the organization and theology of the Utah LDS church, which encompasses over 95% of the world's Mormons. While the Community of Christ church is similarly organized, its theology and beliefs differ rather sharply from LDS Mormonism in many respects, as do the beliefs and organization of the smaller sects.)
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. Most modern members of the LDS church believe that their current president, Gordon B. Hinkley (as of 2008), is a living prophet, and the sole person authorized to speak definitively for God on the earth today. 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!).
Another pillar of Mormon belief is their concept of deification, which they refer to as the "Doctrine of Eternal Progression." This doctrine bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, as explained by the Holy Fathers of the Church. In diametric opposition to the Trinitarian dogmas of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils, Mormons believe that God the Father was originally a human being, who was spiritually "begotten" by another "god" (and his "godess" wife) who had lived before him. "Eloheim" (the Mormon name for God the Father) lived an ordinary human life on another planet, and by following that world's version of Mormonism, he gradually "progressed" to "become" a god.
Having attained to "godhood," this "Eloheim" and his wife (or wives) were able to create and populate their own world--namely, ours--with pre-existent spiritual offspring who, by coming to earth and taking human flesh, embracing and living the Mormon religion, and "enduring to the end" in the same, could themselves "progress" to "godhood," where they could begin the process anew. It should be noted that the Mormon doctrine of "pre-existence" of spirits, by which we all are alleged to have existed "spiritually" in heaven prior to our birth on this earth, was specifically condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
The Mormon Encyclopedia states this "eternal progression" doctrine succinctly:
- "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 emphatically not so:
- First, there is a definite distinction in the Church between God and mankind, between the Creator and His Creation. God is eternal, and existed for eternity prior to (and entirely separate from) His creation. The incarnation of the pre-eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity as Our Lord Jesus Christ, was a unique union between God and His creation, which had never existed before. Mormonism, on the other hand, teaches that only matter and intelligence are eternal (not God), and that all of the "gods" essentially "evolved" in the same fashion, from physical matter.
- Second, the Orthodox Church clearly teaches that the Holy Trinity has always existed precisely as one God: "the Trinity, One in essence, and undivided." Mormonism, on the other hand, not only teaches a multiplicity of potentially millions or even billions of "gods;" it equally teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in "purpose" only, and most emphatically not one in essence or hypostasis (as the Orthodox Church teaches). They are three "gods," say the Mormons, and not one in anything except a common purpose and mindset. This is diametrically opposed to Orthodox Christian teaching.
- Third, Theosis is a unification between God and mankind, not the creation of an entirely separate deity (or dieties).
For the Orthodox, 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); 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 Mormonism claims to focus on salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ, exaltation goes far beyond this. All mankind, say the Mormons, 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 who will be exalted to the highest of the three "degrees of glory" which comprise the Mormon vision of heaven. Only those exalted to this highest, "Celestial glory" will become "gods" and go on to create their own worlds. Those in lower degrees, while enjoying a blessed and happy state, will still be limited in their "progression" and will become "servants" to those in the highest "degree."
The Mormon hell is limited to those who have apostasized from the Mormon religion, broken their oath of secrecy about the Temple rituals (see below), committed murder after becoming a Mormon, or committed other very serious offenses.
To attain to the "Celestial glory" (and thus, Mormon "godhood"), one must be baptized as a Mormon by "true authority" (meaning a regularly-ordained member of the LDS church), confirmed by "true authority," and then receive certain "Sacred" or "Higher" ordinances that can only be had within a Mormon temple. While Orthodox Christians tend to use the term "temple" to refer to any Orthodox Church building, Mormons use this term only for specific structures specially dedicated as "temples."
Within these structures, Mormons practice (for themselves, or on behalf of others):
- Baptism for the Dead, where proxies act on behalf of deceased persons who are then "baptized" into the LDS church; names are obtained from geneological research, for which the Mormons are world-famous. This practice was rejected by the Council of Hippo and the Third Council of Carthage, and St. John Chrysostom associated it with the heretical Marcionites. St. Clement of Alexandria indicated that Baptism for the Dead was a doctrine also particular to the Gnostics.
- The so-called "Endowment," where initiates are taught the "fullness" of Mormon doctrine on such subjects as the "plurality of Gods," the Mormon version of creation, and the process by which one may "progress to godhood." Additionally, participants take a solemn oath never to reveal anything that goes on in the temple, as well as oaths to faithfully abide by all of the Mormon teachings. This ceremony essentially becomes a "contract" between the Mormon "god" and his adherents, by which they promise to obey his laws and earthly leadership, and he in turn promises to advance them to "godhood" upon their resurrection. Many elements of this ceremony were stolen from the rituals of the heretical Freemasons, and Joseph Smith (who had been a Master Mason himself) was expelled from membership in that fraternity as a result.
- Marriage for Eternity, where participants, upon receiving their "Endowment," are married "for time and all eternity." This is seen as an indespensible requirement for "godhood." The Orthodox Church has traditionally rejected this concept.
"The Great Apostasy and Apostolic Succession"
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. Since most Mormons tend to follow the erroneous Western viewpoint that posits Roman Catholicism as the "ancient church" (rather than Orthodoxy), they are often surprised to hear that Orthodoxy even exists, much less that it predates Roman Catholicism and all other Christian sects. But no matter, say they; the original Church of Christ--whatever its name might have been--"fell away" completely sometime after the Apostolic Age. In doing so, it lost all right to perform sacraments, consecrate priests, or otherwise act in the Name of God. And from that moment until 1830, say the Mormons, there was no true Church of any kind anywhere on the earth.
While Mormons offer no specific date for this alleged event, they largely tend to believe that it had been accomplished by the time of St. Constantine the Great and the calling of the First Ecumenical Council in A.D. 325. Essentially, Mormons reject the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, by professing that while it may have once been the Church founded by Jesus Christ and promulgated through his Apostles, it long ago ceased to be so. The Orthodox Church, which at this very moment traces its unbroken succession to the Apostles themselves and alone teaches the fullness of their doctrine and practice, ergo is in apostasy according to the Mormons.
Mormons point to New Testament scriptures that they assert as speaking of a complete apostasy of the entire Church, as proof of their assertions. While Orthodox Christians would agree that these passages did indeed speak of apostates to come (such as Arius, Nestorius and Paul of Samosata, for instance), they emphatically reject the Mormon interpretation (advanced to varying degrees by nearly all Protestants) that the entire Apostolic Church would fall into heresy. In St. Matthew 16:18, our Lord clearly states that the "gates of hell shall not prevail" against the Church He Himself founded, and which the Mormons themselves agree indeed existed (but which they claim to have been subsequently lost).
Mormons believe strongly in the concept of Apostolic Succession, which they refer to as "Priesthood succession" or "Priesthood lineage." However, since they recognize no church prior to the establishment of their own in 1830, they trace their succession to one of four "exalted beings," who they claim visited Joseph Smith on two separate occasions in the 1820's, just prior to their church's founding.
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 (which Smith referred to as "Reformed Egyptian") on tablets of gold and buried in a hill near Manchester, New York. 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, though Mormons themselves sometimes try to connect the two.
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 the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, called Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites, from about 2200 B.C. to A.D. 421. It claims that at least some of the American Indians are descended from various groups of Near Eastern peoples (mostly Jews) who immigrated during pivotal periods in Israel’s history.
Smith claimed that many of these people were openly-practicing Christians, before the birth of Jesus Christ, with a functioning church organization that mirrored that later taught by the Holy Apostles, administering baptisms, confirmations and the Holy Eucharist eons before the coming of the Savior. The book even claims that our Lord came to visit these peoples Himself after His Ascension--after raining down several days of death and destruction on the apostates and other evildoers among them. About four-hundred years after this alleged event, the godly "Nephites" were destroyed by the evil "Lamanites," who became the principal ancestors of the Native American peoples.
Interestingly, over 3,000 changes have been noted between the Book of Mormon currently published by the LDS Church, and the original edition published by Joseph Smith. Most of these changes were made by Smith himself, in later editions of the book printed during his lifetime. Of potential interest to Orthodox Christians are passages in I Nephi 11:32, where our Lord is originally referred to as "the eternal God," but is now referred to as "the son of the eternal God;" and I Nephi 11:18, where the Theotokos is originally referred to as "the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh," while today she is referred to as "the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh."
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.
Mormons also accept as Scripture the "Doctrine and Covenants," containing 138 revelations and two "Official Declarations" allegedly given to Joseph Smith and his successors; together with the "Pearl of Great Price," containing the "Book of Moses" (a rewrite by Joseph Smith of the first part of the Book of Genesis), the "Book of Abraham" (a purported account of the Holy Patriarch Abraham, containing references to multiple "gods" in the act of creation, rather than one God), and various other texts by Smith.
Additionally, Joseph Smith rewrote the entire Bible "by inspiration" during his lifetime, making substantial additions to the text, deleting the Song of Solomon entirely, and otherwise shaping its text to conform to his own teachings (including an alleged prophecy of his own coming). While this text was never officially adopted by the main LDS church (it was adopted, on the other hand, by the Community of Christ), portions of it appear in the "Pearl of Great Price" and as footnotes in the official LDS editions of the King James Version of the Bible (still the "official" LDS version).
Mormonism and Polygyny
Plural marriage was practiced by early Mormon church leaders. Many sources say that Smith had as many as twenty to thirty wives, while Brigham Young counted fifty-two. 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), though the main LDS Church excommunicates anyone advocating or practicing it. Other Mormon sects practice 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 still 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, especially since even mainline LDS members are required to affirm the propriety of polygamy when it was authorized by their church (prior to 1890).
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.
- The regular Mormon meetinghouses are generally called "chapels" or "stake centers."
- I Timothy 4:1, II Timothy 3:1-5, Acts 20:28-31, among others.
- The Mormons claim these beings to have been St. John the Baptist, and the Holy Apostles SS Peter, James and John.
- See, for instance, the Smithsonian Institutes' offical statement on the Book of Mormon, at http://www.irr.org/mit/smithson.html.
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1994, 685 pages, ISBN 1-56085-056-6; Appendix 6, "Biographical Sketches of Officers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, 1830-47" pp. 607-608).
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)