The Seven Dimensions of Mormonism

This entry applies Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion to the religion of Mormonism. These dimensions are the Doctrinal, Ethical, Experiential, Material, Narrative, Practical, and Social/Institutional.

Doctrinal

We begin with the doctrinal dimension. Doctrines form a significant part of all major religious traditions and are typically required to be held if one wishes to be a member of a particular tradition.

Much of Mormon belief is built upon the foundations of the Book of Mormon, one of several sacred scriptures embraced by those within the faith. Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (1). It is a collection of fifteen books, with each named after its original author and that includes a wide range of genres from poetry to travelogues, religious and political commentary, battle stories, and more.

Perhaps most informative concerning Mormon doctrine, although not exhaustive, is the letter called the Articles of Faith written by the religion’s founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844). This text, believed to be divinely inspired, stipulates thirteen articles and doctrines that members embrace. Although we won’t mention all thirteen of them, several are worth noting: belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ (His Son), and the Holy Ghost; that all human sin will be punished; that the atonement of Jesus is essential to salvation; that faith in Jesus, repentance, baptism by immersion, confirmation, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost are all necessary for salvation; that modern-day revelation is a spiritual gift and belief in priesthood healing and blessing; that God will continue to communicate with humankind; and that the Bible and Book of Mormon are both divinely revealed scripture.

These articles outline important aspects of the Mormon faith. The Articles of Faith also serve several important functions, which is why Mormons encourage members to memorize them. Their most obvious function is to provide a solid outline of the Mormon religion to outsiders who ask questions about Mormon beliefs and practices. They also serve an apologetic function as they enable Mormons to defend their beliefs, what they perceive to be core gospel principles, as well as God’s revelation to Smith.

According to Smith, God was once a man as we are now and is a being with a physical body. God lived on a world and was taught the principles and laws that allowed him to advance to deity. God is also the creator. He created human beings but he did not create the world ex nihilo, or out of nothing. Mormons also believe that human beings, who are created in the image of God, may become gods and goddesses through imitation of the divine.

Ethical

One spiritual and moral principle taught by the Doctrine and Covenants is for Mormons is to avoid consuming alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco (2). It is also a matter of ethics to contribute ten percent of one’s annual income to the Church and even to engage in unpaid service to the Church. The Church has welfare services system to assist members in financial need. This is provided for members who are unemployed, suffering from illness, family breakups, and for those wishing to become self-sufficient. Mormons are taught and encouraged to be self-sufficient

The Church also cares for the poor and needy, and runs projects like school feeding programs. It attempts to contribute medical and emergency supplies and commodities to healthcare professionals and patients where these are needed (3).

The Church no longer practices polygamy (4) and it is also conservative about sexual behavior (5). Sex outside of marriage, adultery, premarital sex, and pornography are strongly prohibited. Masturbation is strongly discouraged. The Church encourages honesty, purity, avoiding, avoiding vulgar language, and chastity.

Experiential

The book of Mormon is often at the center of the noumenal and experiential dimension. It is believed to exert a powerful, formative influence on every aspect of Mormon life. Historical Mormon leader Parley Pratt (d. 1857) once wrote that “As I read [the Book of Mormon], the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true… This discovery enlarged my heart, and filled my soul with joy and gladness” (6).

For Mormons, this book is a source of spiritual power and that reading it will make “come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God” (7). The power of the Book of Mormon becomes evident in its ability to assist Mormons in resisting temptation, avoiding deception, and keeping on the right path.

One cannot neglect the experience involved in worship and community. Singing hymns of praise during worship sessions make congregants feel closer to God in the moment. The weekly sacrament or Communion reminds Mormons of God’s love for them, how God has forgiven them of their sins, and urges the Holy Spirit to provide guidance and comfort. Such moves congregants to feelings of awe and appreciation.

Solidarity is experienced between Mormons when members of the Church assist each other during times of need. The ward, which is a local congregation consisting of several hundred members who meet in chapels, is the primary environment in which Mormons experience community. Wards provide support, friendship, emotional security, counseling, and mutual accountability, all of which strengthen the bond between members. Members will refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”, and they can, for some Mormons, feel like an extended family. There are also wards for those who have had similar experiences (wards for students, single adults, etc.).

Temples are reserved for Mormons who are deeply involved in their faith and dedicated to the highest Mormon ideals. Only a minority of members are deemed worthy of going to the temple and those who do have experienced a sense of peace and purposefulness.

Also important and constitutive of the experiential dimension is coming to know that Smith was a true prophet and the Book of Mormon is true through subjective experience. It is believed that God will make these truths known through a warm, positive feeling or a “still, small voice” of divine inspiration.

Institutional

Mormonism has a strong institutional dimension. The Church is hierarchical (8). At the very top there is the President. Then there is the Quorums of the Seventy who represent the prophet and the apostles around the world and implement their policies. 

The Church is governed by the General Authorities, a group of priesthood leaders who see to the Church’s programs around the world. There is also the Presiding Bishopric, which is a panel consisting of three men whose purpose is to supervise the Church’s Earthly concerns, such as its financial management and building programs. Finally, bishops oversee chapels or wards, supervise Sunday services, and see to the ward’s volunteer ministries, welfare projects, and so on. Bishops are expected to maintain order by overseeing their wards while also working full-time in secular jobs.

The Church also has a priesthood but becoming a member is possible only for males. The priesthood is divided into the lesser, or Aaronic priesthood, and the higher, or Melchizedek priesthood (9). The Aaronic priesthood is available to boys who have reached the age of twelve. In adulthood, young men advance to the Melchizedek priesthood, which confers greater authority. The two priesthoods also perform different functions; for example, during baptisms, one holding the Melchizedek priesthood will say a prayer and confer the gift of the Holy Ghost to the newly baptized member. Those holding to the Melchizedek priesthood also provide the conferral of priesthood authority and the blessing of the sick. Those of the Aaronic priesthood consecrate bread and water during Communion through formal prayers and then distribute the items to the congregation.

Moreover, there are services held on Sundays in chapels that focus on worshiping God. There is typically a class separated by age group, which means there are also Sunday school classes and a class, the Gospel Doctrine class, for adults. In Sunday school, children will learn stories from the Book of Mormon and the Bible, and will engage in various class projects. There are also seminary classes hosted during the school day. These classes focus on various texts including the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Old and New Testaments.

Brigham Young University is a private Mormon institution (10). It has over 30 000 students and is located in Utah, United States in the city of Provo. There are smaller affiliated campuses located in Idaho, Rexburg, and Hawaii. To attend Brigham Young University one is required to embrace the Church’s strict code, which involves, but is not limited to, living a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman, and abstaining from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, vaping, and substance abuse (11). The university claims to be founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Within the institutional dimension there is the missionary program that means there is never a shortage of missionaries to spread the religion’s teachings. The Church claims that there are more than 67 000 full-time missionaries, most of whom are under the age of 25 and are serving in 399 missions across the world (11). There are ten missionary training centers that educate missionaries on how to teach the Gospel clearly to others. Missionaries also learn the language of the people they will be reaching out to and they will only venture to countries where they are allowed to teach. They will often visit homes and will meet people in the street and other public places.

There is a strong online institutional dimension. There are various websites, blogs, and podcasts dedicated to the religion. Standing out here are the churchofjesuschrist.org and Mormon.org that contain materials on the Church, scriptures, and various theological topics. There are news blog sites that distribute the latest content; for example, the Mormon Newsroom Blog and the MormonPress. There are Mormon apologetics websites like FairMormon seeking to provide answers to criticisms of the religion.

Narrative

Integral to the Mormon faith are stories told, experienced, and believed by the collective community. Important stories include Joseph Smith’s revelations, the Restoration of true Christianity, translating the Book of Mormon from the golden plates, and narratives from the Book of Mormon.

Smith’s revelations are inspiring to Mormons. At the age of just fourteen, Smith asked God which church he should join and a bright pillar of light appeared above his head. Two figures, which Smith described bearing a “brightness and glory defy all description”, appeared above him in the air and one pointed to the other saying, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” These figures were God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son. Smith asked God the Father and Jesus Christ which church he should join, but he was told to join none of them. He was informed “that all their creeds were an abomination in his [Father God’s] sight; that those professors were all corrupt.” The First Vision showed how Smith was chosen to be God’s prophet in the latter days. Integral to this vision is that all Christian churches were false, a point that motivated Smith to be God’s means through which the original church would be restored.

In another vision, a seventeen-year-old Smith saw an angel appear in his room one night. This angel was Moroni, the same individual who had buried the ancient golden plates. Moroni informed Smith that God had important work for him to do. These golden plates not only existed but also provided an account of the former inhabitants of the Americas. It was also said to provide the fullness of the everlasting Gospel. The angel revealed where the plates were hidden. They could be found under a stone on a nearby hill called Hill Cumorah. Smith obeyed the angel’s instructions and went to the hill to dig up the plates. But he was then told to return each year on that same date for further instructions. In 1827, when Smith was twenty-one, he was allowed to take the plates along with items buried next to them: a breastplate and the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim were a pair of crystals set in a metal frame like eyeglasses and were to be used to translate the plates.

According to the narrative of the Restoration, Jesus established the true Church in ancient Palestine and the Americas, but this Church fell into apostasy. The Church and the biblical scriptures were soon corrupted and thus needed to be re-established. The founding of the Mormon Church through Smith is known as “The Restoration” because he has now re-established true Christianity. Regarding the story of Smith’s translating the Book of Mormon from the re-formed Egyptian on the golden plates, this was achieved through the power of God.

Stories from the Book of Mormon and its many heroes also underpin the narrative dimension. This book is believed to constitute a collection of writings and teachings of the ancient prophets and followers of Jesus who lived in the Americas from approximately 590 BCE to 421 CE. Arguably the most important story in the Book of Mormon is the appearance of Jesus in America. This book speaks of various groups, family feuds, battles, adventures, prophets, kings, rulers, soldiers, angels, prophets, and important missionaries. The Book of Mormon is not short on narrative.

Material

There is an obvious material dimension to present-day Mormonism. Here we are interested in the material and external forms of a tradition which can include buildings, works of art, figurines, artifacts, and many other creations.

One should acknowledge the stunning design of Mormon temples. Somewhat castle-like, these structures are adorned with spires and towers made of stone, and they appear similar to Gothic architecture. There are a dozen pinnacles and the walls feature murals. Many of the material items are symbolic; for example, the earthstones represent the Earth; the moonstones represent the human progression from birth and life to death and resurrection; the starstones represent the priesthood; the sunstones represent celestial glory; and the all Seeing Eye of God represents God’s ability to see and know all things. Some temples lack spires and others with one central spire on a square building. There is a statue of the angel Moroni, made of copper and gold leaf, holding a trumpet adorning the temple in Salt Lake City. In Switzerland, there is a sculpture of the angel Moroni on the Bern Switzerland Temple. A statue of Jesus is found in the LDS Temple Square Visitor’s Center in Salt Lake City. 

Many of the chapels in which Mormons meet lack decoration. The auditorium, the location where the Sunday services are held, is kept plain, usually in natural wood tones with no religious ornamentation. Pews are arranged in a simple pattern facing a raised platform. On the platform, there is seating for a choir and those leading and participating in the service. There is a simple table with bread and water located on the side of the platform used for the weekly Communion or sacrament.

There are also material texts. We have the scriptures in the form of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible. We also find other documents like Sunday school texts and magazines. Church publications can include lesson manuals, official policy books, and more. There are magazines for children, such as Liahona and Friend, and ones for adults, like Ensign.

There are Mormon merchandise and various consumer products. Shirts have quotes from the Book of Mormon embroidered on them. There are pillows, hoodies, vests, and outfits for infants embroidered with Mormon images and slogans. There are stickers, laptop cases, cellphone covers, diaries, mugs, carrier bags, bracelets, action figures, and board games. The Settlers of Zarahemla is one such board game based on the Book of Mormon. Other entertainment media includes films and animated videos.

Mormonism also has a strong music culture which means that they enjoy using pianos and organs. Mormons engage in drama and dance, and there is often musical training in the home. In temples meetings close with a hymn and a prayer.

Ritual

Temples are sacred spaces and therefore constitute the home to important rituals. There are Sunday services usually lasting three hours that include songs, prayers, sermons, and talks. Usually three or four hymns will be sung by the congregation and often with the assistance of a choir or small group of singers. The most important ritual performed during Sunday meetings is the sacrament or Communion. Bread and water symboling Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross are blessed and then offered to the congregation. During some church meetings, testimonies are shared. Mormons are encouraged to openly share their testimony hear the confirming testimonies of others.

Baptisms performed on a child who has turned eight occur through immersion in fonts in chapels, although baptisms can also be done in natural bodies of water. Adults who join the Church are also baptized following the same ritual.  

There is also a ritual ceremony called sealing through which spouses are married for eternity and children are bound to their parents in an eternal family unit.

Mormons celebrate Easter and Christmas, and Sundays are always set aside as holy. Mormons avoid shopping or engaging in recreational activities on Sunday. Sundays are dedicated to worship in temples and spending time with family.

There is also a private component to ritual performances; for example, in their homes, Mormons say daily prayers, read scripture, and engage in study sessions. These are often family occasions where parents and children gather to study scripture and pray. Monday is a special day for Mormon families because it brings together the family through recreational activities, games, and gospel lessons. This is known as Family Home Evening and the Church even provides a lesson manual with teaching aids and suggested activities.

References

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. The Most Correct Book. Available.
  2. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Why Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Don’t Drink Alcohol, Tea, and Coffee. Available.
  3. Latter-Day Saint Charities. n.d. Emergency Relief Efforts and Hope During COVID-19. Available.
  4. Bachman, Danel., and Esplin, Ronald. 1992. “Plural Marriage.” In Encyclopedia of Mormonism, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. New York: Macmillan.
  5. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Chastity. Available.
  6. Black, Susan Easton. 1992. Stories from the Early Saints: Converted by the Book of  Mormon. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft. p. 64. 
  7. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. The Power of the Book of Mormon. Available.
  8. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Organizational Structure of the Church. Available.
  9. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Aaronic Priesthood. Available; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Melchizedek Priesthood. Available.
  10. Brigham Young University. n.d. About. Available.
  11. Brigham Young University. n.d. Policies: Church Educational System Honor Code. Available.
  12. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. Missionary Program. Available.

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