What is Mormonism and What Do They Believe?

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Mormonism is a religion that was founded by Joseph Smith. Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, and grew up near Palmyra, New York.

When he was 14 , Smith became disturbed by the religious confusion of his time and decided to retreat into the woods. During this retreat he asked God for wisdom concerning what church he should join. He later claimed that God the Father and God the Son visited him. According to Smith, Jesus said that he should join none of the churches because they are “all wrong” and their doctrines “were an abomination” (Joseph Smith-History 1: 19). He also claimed that an angel had visited him and 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, while as a mayor and a political figure, Smith destroyed a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor because it criticized his use of power and practice of polygamy (1). This led to Smith’s arrest and imprisonment. While jailed some two-hundred men stormed the compound attacking Smith who fell to his death 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 written by Moroni’s father (the prophet Mormon) and thus contained important writings. Smith was told of a way to translate the plates and this took him three years (between 1827-1830). The golden plates were received along with stones called the Urim and Thummim, which assisted Smith in translating them from their reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics into Elizabethan English. Smith finally published the translation in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

This book became the first of several scriptures for the Mormon Church and it stood in as a final word from God to end the religious confusion of Smith’s day. Mormonism also has 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 believe that the Book of Mormon includes the details and truths missing from the Bible and that this proves its superiority. There is also the 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’ 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 believes there is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 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, they are still one in thought, action, and purpose. Mormons also prefer using the term “Godhead” to avoid confusion with the Christian concept of the Trinity. Mormon leader Bruce 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 Jesus is similar to orthodox Christianity’s (6). Mormons believe in the prophetic declarations in the Old Testament referring to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, as a first-century man, was too susceptible to pain, suffering, and temptation, as Christians also believe. Jesus worked supernatural miracles, which included supernatural control over nature and healing people of ailments. Mormons also believe that Jesus was resurrected for the sins of human beings and then received an immortal, incorruptible, eternal, and glorified body like that of the Father. Jesus’ life was perfect and worth emulating, and he will one day act as the judger of humanity.

Differences to orthodox Christianity are also important: Mormons believe that Jesus was the firstborn spirit-child of the heavenly Father and a heavenly Mother. Jesus 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 Christianity, which holds God to have been incarnated in Jesus, 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 four years later adopted the name Church of the Latter-day Saints. In 1838, it finally settled with the name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the name it is known by today. Mormons believe that God re-established the early Christian Church found in the New Testament through Joseph Smith. They believe the Mormon Church to be the “only true and living church” because divine authority was restored to it through Smith himself (7). This is known as the Restoration and the Great Apostasy, which asserts that all churches other than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became corrupted over time and have diluted the teachings of Jesus. These churches have lost access to the truth. Mormons believe that Smith restored the true church that exists in the last days prior to the second coming of Jesus.

The Mormon Church also maintains 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 the scriptures.

View of the Afterlife

Mormons believe in an afterlife. A person’s spirit existed in the pre-mortal world with God before he or she is born and will exist for 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 is 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). But given the atoning work of Jesus, 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 Jesus’ gospel. Spirits are also tormented by guilt and denied rest. The second stage of post-death judgement will occur after Jesus’ return to the Earth where he will judge humanity. Lastly, there is a three-tiered hierarchy of heavens described by Joseph Smith where spirits will go. These are exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom for faithful Mormons where one may become a god or an angel (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 (Doctrine and Covenants 76:103-104). God exists in the Celestial Kingdom. To live with God, one must accept the gospel of Jesus and live out its laws.

Membership

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claims there are 16 565 036 Mormons worldwide active in 30 940 congregations and 67 021 missionaries (9). To contextualize this number, and if these statistics can be trusted, which can be debated, there are at least two million more Mormons than there are Jews and nine million fewer Mormons than Sikhs.

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.

9. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Facts and Statistics. Available.

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