The Mormon Church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, was founded in upstate New York by Joseph Smith, who was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. His parents were poor and migrated to New York about 1816. In Spring, 1820, he underwent internal religious turmoil concerning the state of his own salvation, a wrestling sparked by a religious revival which moved several of his relatives to join the Presbyterian Church. Inclined to Methodism, he sought divine guidance and later claimed to have been visited by two glorious beings– God and Jesus– who instructed him not to join any established church but to wait for the true “Church of Christ” which was about to be reestablished.
According to Smith’s account, on September 21, 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to him and revealed the existence of a gospel taught by our Lord after His resurrection to the Nephites, a branch of the House of Israel, which had fled Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian Captivity (600 BC) and had settled in America prior to its discovery by Columbus. The American Indians were the Lamanites, the degenerate remnants of the Nephites. Smith stated the Angel Moroni gave him this gospel written in a book of thin gold plates in September, 1827. (Moroni had been a Nephite prophet, the son of another prophet named Mormon, who authored the account and buried it in a hill in ancient times called Cumorah, two miles north of the village of Manchester.) Smith then translated the contents from an ancient Egyptian language with the help of two divine interpreters, Urim and Thummim, and published the Book of Mormon in March, 1830 at Palmyra, New York. While translating the Book of Mormon, Smith and his assistant Oliver Cowdery were ordained first by John the Baptist to the Aaronic priesthood giving them the authority to preach, baptize by immersion, and administer the “Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” and then ordained by Sts. Peter, James and John to the priesthood of Melchisedech, empowering them to bestow the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands.
On April 6, 1830 in Fayette, New York, Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, a title to distinguish themselves with the saints of former times. Smith was the first elder, prophet, seer, and revelator. He started communities in Kirtland, Ohio; Independence and Far West, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. At both Kirtland and Independence, the Mormons tried to establish “The United Order,” a communal system of living. Suspected of being abolitionists and missionaries to the Indians, the Mormons were forced to leave Missouri when mobs began attacking them. In Ohio, the Mormons prospered, building their first temple and inaugurating their first foreign missionary work (1837). A year later, here too trouble arose, and again they were forced to flee the state.
They escaped to Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormon community grew to about 20,000. Again, they built a temple, began foreign missionary work in England, and organized their own militia and court. Soon, the climate turned hostile toward the Mormons, partially due to Mormon dissenters who had left the community, and to the practice of polygamy. Joseph and his brother Hyrum were arrested and murdered in the Carthage jail by a mob that included uniformed militia on June 27, 1844.
Brigham Young (1801-1877) assumed the Church leadership and organized a migration west across Iowa reaching the Missouri River in June, 1846. After suffering through the winter, they continued the journey west on April 7, 1847. A party of 148, the Mormons arrived in Utah on July 24 and began settling. They developed a planned community, with religious and civil functions oftentimes interwoven. In 1850, Brigham Young was appointed by President Fillmore as the Governor of the Territory of Utah. By the time of Young’s death in 1877, the Mormons had established 357 settlements in Utah which had a population of about 140,000.
The Mormons had difficulty with the federal government for the admission into the union because of religion and particularly the practice of polygamy, which had been openly practiced since 1852. Caution must be taken in speaking of polygamy so as not to exaggerate the “sexual” dimension: in the settling of the West, sometimes the fathers of families died, leaving no one to provide for those left behind; in the Mormon community, some men, even though they had their own family, would “adopt” these fatherless families, insuring their care. In 1863, Congress passed the Morrill Law which forbade plural marriage, a law which the Supreme Court upheld in 1879. In September, 1890, Church President Wilford Woodrull renounced polygamy as effective church teaching, and in 1896 Utah was granted statehood.
Given this overview of the history of the Mormon church, we can now turn to their beliefs and practices. Joseph Smith claimed to be the recipient of the revelation of this age. For the Mormons, their Sacred Scriptures include the Bible; The Book of Mormon, which is believed to be a translated pre-Columbian writing; the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains Smith’s revelations, including the establishing of polygamy; and the Pearl of Great Price, which has the lost parts of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), Smith’s writings, and articles of Mormon belief.
Mormon theology lacks a sense of the transcendent, without a clear distinction between the natural and supernatural. Mormons do believe in a personal God, but one who dwells in this time and space, and is continually self-developing and creating. Moreover, their interpretation of the Trinity is more of a tritheism (3 distinct gods– God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit– rather than three persons– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– in one God). Jesus is the first-born of God, and He created the world with Adam, one of God’s earliest “spirit children.”
Like God, humans exist in a previous spirit world. All humans leave their preexistent state in the supernatural world to enter this realm and to grow in knowledge. They then continue self-developing in this world and in the next.
Mormons do not really have a concept of original sin and a deprived human nature. Rather, each person is directly responsible for all sins. Consequently, each person must strive to become godlike, for God once was like humans are now but transformed Himself into what He is now. The Mormons do affirm that to achieve this godlike status, humans need the redemption won by Jesus. Nevertheless, the idea of free agency– the exercise of one’s free will– to do good and achieve this godlike status is fundamental to their belief.
After death, Mormons will progress depending upon the choices made in this life. Some individuals will face damnation, but most people will share eternal happiness at one of three levels: Telestial, Terrestrial, or Celestial. This life will be the optimal version of life experienced in this world, but without pain and suffering. Here one will be reunited with his earthly family. Mormons believe they will have an advantage in attaining everlasting happiness because they have the full truth of revelation; however, they also admit a greater jeopardy of damnation for the same reason. In the end, Jesus will return to the earth and gather the “Latter Day Saints” in recreating the world.
Worship services, called “sacrament meetings,” are simple, consisting of informal talks, the singing of hymns, and the distribution of blessed bread and water signifying the covenant. Fast and Testimony Sunday occurs on the first Sunday of the month where worshipers abstain from food for twenty-four hours and offer personal testimonies at the worship meeting.
In their daily spirituality, Mormons abstain from coffee, tea, tobacco, and liquor. Mormons also practice tithing and provide relief for Church members rather than resorting to government welfare. Mormonism extols optimism, self-improvement, hard work, and respect for the law. The importance of the family is highly stressed.
Temple ceremonies, known as ordinances, are more complex and highly guarded. These ordinances include marriage for time and eternity, sealing families together for eternal association, and vicarious baptism for the dead. Only those deemed worthy by church authorities may enter temples.
The Mormon church structure includes a hierarchical priesthood embracing all males deemed worthy. A youth becomes a member of the lesser Aaronic priesthood at age 12 and advances through its three stages– deacon, teacher, and priest until age 20. He then becomes an elder, a member of the Melchizedech order which contained two high ranks– Seventies, to which men are advanced after a two-year mission experience and then High Priest. (Young women may also serve as missionaries after age 21, but do not enter into the priesthood.)
(As an aside, when I was a senior at West Springfield High School, one of my friends was a Mormon. While the majority of us were very excited about applying to colleges, he indicated that he would first be performing missionary work for his church for two years. To this day, I greatly admire the zeal of Mormon young people in their commitment to evangelize. I have to wonder how many of our Catholic young people would be willing to make the same commitment.)
The local Church unit is the ward, which is led by an unpaid leader who is called a Bishop and who is assisted by two priestly Counselors. Several wards compose a stake. The stake is led by the Stake President, who has two priestly Counselors and a Stake High Council of Twelve Melchizedek Priesthood Brothers. Together they form a tribunal to adjudicate differences among Church members. At the top of the hierarchy is the church presidency made up of the First President, two Counselors, and the Council of the Twelve Apostles. The top 24 officials are known as the General Authorities.
The Mormon Church currently has about 3.5 million members worldwide