What is Mormonism and What Do Mormons Believe?

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Mormonism is a religion that traces itself back to its founder Joseph Smith. Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, and grew up near Palmyra, New York.

When he was 14 he became disturbed by the religious confusion of his time and decided to retreat into the woods. During this retreat he asked God for wisdom about which church he should join, and later claimed that God the Father and God the Son visited him.

According to Smith, Christ said that he should join none of the churches because they were “all wrong” and their doctrines “were an abomination” (Joseph Smith-History 1: 19). He also claimed that an angel had visited him and had led him to golden plates hidden on a hill near Palmyra. Smith translated these plates into what is now known as the Book of Mormon. At a later point in his life, while as a mayor and a political figure, Smith destroyed a newspaper (the Nauvoo Expositor) because it criticized his use of power and practice of polygamy (1). This led to Smith’s arrest and imprisonment, and while jailed some 200 men stormed the compound. They attacked the prophet who, while attempting to avoid being shot, fell to his from a second floor window.

Religious Scripture(s)

Beginning in 1823, Smith claimed a series of revelations in which he was visited by the angel Moroni. Moroni informed him about golden plates buried in a stone box on a hill near Palmyra, which were believed to have been authored by Moroni’s father (the prophet Mormon) and thus contained important writings. Smith was told of a way to translate the plates, a task that took him three years to complete (between 1827-1830). The golden plates were received along with stones called the Urim and Thummim, which assisted Smith in translating the plates from their reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics into Elizabethan English. Smith finally published the translation in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

This text became the first of several scriptures for the Mormon Church, and stood in as a final word from God to end the religious confusion of Smith’s day. Mormonism also includes several other scriptures. The Bible (the King James version) is accepted and usable but is suspect due to its many errors and omissions as a result of its transmission process (2). Mormons, however, believe that the Book of Mormon includes these details and truths missing from the Bible, hence underscoring its superiority. Additional Mormon texts include Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of writings containing doctrine and prophecy, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Pearl of Great Price, derived from Jesus Christ’s parable of the pearl in Matthew 13, includes some biographical details of Smith’s life, Smith’s re-translations of certain parts of Matthew’s gospel, commentaries, a story of Abraham’s early life based on a translation of an Egyptian papyrus, and several articles of faith.

View of God

Mormonism holds that there is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, it also teaches that these are three separate and distinct beings with the Father and Son having perfected physical bodies and the Holy Ghost having only a body of spirit (3). Despite being physically distinct, Mormons believe they are still one in thought, action, and purpose. Mormons also prefer using the term “Godhead” as a means to avoid confusion with the Christian concept of the Trinity. Mormon leader Bruce D. Porter (d. 2016) provided clarity,

“The Book of Mormon refers in several passages to God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost as “one God,” but Latter-day Saints understand this to mean they are one in mind, purpose, will, and intention. Their unity is the same unity of which Christ spoke in his high-priestly prayer following the Last Supper: that his disciples may “be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Hence, Latter-day Saints rarely use the term Trinity, but prefer the title Godhead to refer to the three divine beings who govern our universe in perfect oneness” (4).

Mormonism’s God concept is henotheistic, which distinguishes it from polytheism. Scholar of religion Gerald McDermott explains,

“Polytheism portrays a world in which competing gods either vie for ultimate authority or have delimited provinces over which they rule. The Mormon picture is closer to henotheism, which posits a supreme God over other lesser, subordinate gods. The Mormons say that the Father is at least functionally over the Son and the Holy Ghost, and they are the only Gods with which we have to do” (5).

View of Jesus Christ

In some ways the Mormon view of Christ is similar to mainstream Christianity’s (6). Mormons believe in the prophetic declarations in the Old Testament referring to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Christ, as a first century man, was too susceptible to pain, suffering, and temptations, as Christians believe. Christ also worked supernatural miracles, which included a supernatural control over nature and through healing people of ailments. Mormons also believe that Christ was resurrected for the sins of human beings, and then received an immortal, incorruptible, eternal, and glorified body like that of the Father. Christ will act as judge of human beings, and Christ’s life was perfect and thus one worth emulating.

Differences to mainstream Christianity are also important: Mormons believe that Christ was the firstborn spirit-child of the heavenly Father and a heavenly Mother. Christ then progressed to deity within the spirit world, and was later physically conceived in Mary’s womb as the literal “only begotten” Son of God the Father in the flesh. Unlike mainstream Christianity, which holds in Christ’s incarnation, Mormons believe that he was an individual being, separate from God the Father in corporeality and substance.

The Mormon Church

The first Mormon church (called “The Church of Christ”), was founded on the 6th of April, 1830, and in four years adopted the name of the Church of the Latter-day Saints before finally settling with name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838. This is the name it is known by today. Mormons believe that God re-established the early Christian Church as found in the New Testament through Joseph Smith. They believe it to be the “only true and living church” because divine authority was restored to it through Smith himself (7). This falls within the Restoration and the Great Apostasy, which together hold that all churches other than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became corrupted over time and have diluted the teachings of Christ, and therefore lost access to the truth. Mormons believe that Smith restored the true church which lives in the last days prior to the second coming of Christ.

Mormons further believe that Smith’s successors are modern prophets who receive revelation from God to guide the church. Mormonism thus holds to the doctrine of continual revelation,

“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 1:9).

Apostolic revelation is inspired, but not infallible, and can supersede previous revelation, including that found in their scriptures.

View of the Afterlife

Mormons hold to the existence of an afterlife. A person’s spirit has existed in the pre-mortal world with God before he or she was born, and it will exist for all eternity (8). Physical death occurs when the spirit separates from the mortal body, but death is not the end of the spirit.

In the first of the three stages post-death, there are one of two places a person’s spirit enters upon death: spirit paradise or spirit prison. Spirit paradise is for those who die righteous, and whose spirit will be “received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow” (Alma 40:12). Spirit prison is for those who “died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:32). However, given the atoning work of Christ for human sin, spirits have the opportunity to leave spirit prison and enter into spirit paradise. Mormons believe that in spirit prison, spirits are taught by righteous spirits about faith in God, repentance, baptism, and other principles of Christ’s gospel. In this place spirits are tormented by guilt and are denied rest. The second stage of post-death judgement occurs after Christ’s return to the Earth where he will judge human beings.

There is a three-tiered hierarchy of heavens described by Joseph Smith where judged spirits will go to. These are exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom for faithful Mormons where people may become gods or angels (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20), the Terrestrial Kingdom for righteous non-Mormons (Doctrine and Covenants 76:75-76), and the Telestial Kingdom for wicked and ungodly (not to be confused with hell) (Doctrine and Covenants 76:103-104). God exists in the Celestial Kingdom and to live with him again for eternity people must accept the gospel of Jesus and live out its laws.

References

1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 1912. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. p. 430-432.

2. Ludlow, D. 1992. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. p. 106-107; Matthews, R. 1990. A Bible! A Bible. p. 13.

3. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Godhead. Available.

4. McDermott, G. 2008. Is Mormonism Christian? Available.

5. McDermott quoted in Carter, J. 2012. The FAQs: Are Mormons Christian? Available.

6. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. What Mormons Believe About Jesus Christ. Available.

7. Oaks, D. The Only True and Living Church. Available.

8. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. What Do Mormons Believe about the Afterlife? Available.

 

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2 responses to “What is Mormonism and What Do Mormons Believe?

  1. Pingback: An Analysis of Jehovah Witnesses & Their Beliefs | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

  2. Pingback: What are New Religious Movements and Modern Religions? | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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