This article presents a brief overview of the Mormons; including the history and basic belief structure of the Mormon church.
Author: Rev. Shane Lems
Source: ReformedFellowship.net - The Outlook, January-February 2011, Volume 61, No.1 - Reformed Fellowship, Inc.
The cult of Mormonism is on fire. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is burning up the religious landscape in the United States. In 1800 there were no Mormons; in 1950 there were around two million; estimates today are around thirteen million. Recently the Mormon church has been brought to the spotlight through Mitt Romney’s run for president, Glenn Beck on FOX, David Archuletta’s #2 spot on American Idol in 2008, and the recent trials over polygamy that we’ve read about in newspapers and blogs. Many know about Steve Young, Brigham Young University, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and those crisply dressed young male missionaries with the shiny black name tags. Many of us have seen one of the Mormon temples spread around the world, from Australia to Korea to the Philippines to China to South America and beyond. In a word, we can’t escape the Mormon religion: it is as ubiquitous as baseball and hotdogs.
In recent years, Mormons have been attempting to name themselves Christians. “We’re Christians too” is a theme song of the Mormon missionaries. What should we make of that claim? I’m guessing that some of us would quickly agree that Mormons are not Christians in the historic sense of the term, but exactly why can they try to use that label? Should we budge an inch and let them take the name in the broad sense of the term, and include them in our larger Christian church: Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and Reformed? The answer is the strongest and loudest no you can yell next time you hear the question: Are Mormons Christians? This will become evident as we dig a bit deeper into what Mormons teach.
The following discussion has two basic parts. First, we take a historical and theological trek through Mormonism. In a point by point, straightforward manner, we will discuss the major teachings and beliefs of Latter Day Saints. After observing the “brute facts” of Mormonism, we engage in a critical evaluation, matching them up with the historic Christian faith. Also, in the second part, we learn that the inner workings of Mormonism—the nuts and bolts of their theology—are neither logical nor biblical. Much of the information I use about Mormon doctrines is found on their website, www.lds.org; what follows is but a very brief survey. I only quote official sources, and since footnoting every source would significantly lengthen the article, most of the following quotes are “googleable” (you can Google them to find the source). Please note that each quote from a significant Mormon authority can be documented and thus is part of Mormonism.
To understand Mormonism we start with Joseph Smith (b. 1805). One of the Mormon scriptures, The Doctrine and the Covenants (D&C) says, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (135:3). The late President, Gordon Hinckley (d. 2008) said, “Our entire case, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, rests on the validity of this glorious first vision. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by, is of greater importance than this initial declaration.” In other words, Joseph Smith is one of the foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He is not their savior, but without him, according to Hinckley, the truths of Mormonism would not stand.
Smith’s “glorious first vision” came in 1820, when he was around 15 years old, as a resident of west New York State. He was praying and meditating when suddenly he saw a bright pillar of light over his head. “When the light rested upon me I saw two personages,” wrote Smith, “whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.” One spoke to the young boy, pointed to the other personage, and said, “This is my beloved Son; hear him.” Smith later noted that these two “personages” were the Father and Jesus Christ: Smith saw both as distinct personages. From this revelation the Mormon church was born.
From this date on, Smith had many more visions, some of which became later Mormon scriptures, which are addressed briefly below. In 1827, after a few years of attempting to get golden plates that he heard about in another revelation, Smith was finally allowed by the angel Moroni (more info on Moroni below) to have the plates. Smith was led to a hill where he dug and found golden plates along with a mysterious translating device that allowed him to read the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic picture script that he found on these plates. Smith enlisted several people, including his wife, to help him translate the plates. While the helpers were not allowed to see the plates during translation, later these eleven witnesses signed a statement saying they did see the plates.
While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to highlight the details of subsequent Mormon history, the literal movement of the Mormon church is worth noting. The history of Mormon travels is significant for all Mormons; it is an interesting topic to study. They compare their journey to similar ones in the Old Testament. After Smith’s revelation, many followers moved from New York to Ohio to Missouri (where they say Zion was physically located) to Illinois to Salt Lake in 1847, where many still reside today. Along these lines is the Mormon enthusiasm for genealogies, though it would take us too far afield here. Again, this history is part and parcel to the Mormon faith.
The Book of Mormon
One of the foundational scriptures of Mormonism is The Book of Mormon (BoM). They call it “another testament of Jesus Christ.” They affirm and use the Bible (rightly translated); the BoM stands right next to the Bible as another word of God. Joseph Smith said about the BoM, “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 its precepts, than any other book.” Along with Smith and his revelation, the BoM is a pillar of Latter Day Saint theology and practice.
The BoM is the history of a people from around 2000 BC to AD 421. It is roughly the length of the Bible, sounds exactly like the KJV, and reads mostly as history, but some theology and doctrine is found in it as well. In the BoM, some Jews from the kingdom years in the OT fled persecution and made several trips to Central America (though the exact location is disputed within Mormon scholarship). When in Central America, the Nephites and Lamanites (the two main people groups—Jewish peoples) set up massive civilizations. The BoM says that their cities covered the lands and the people numbered as the sands on the seashore (Mormon 1:7). While in Central America, they built ships, synagogues, sanctuaries, and temples; they had shields, compasses, silk, armor, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and elephants, among other things (cf. Ether 9:17–19; 15:15).
In the BoM, destruction—earthquakes, storms, and darkness—came to Central America when Jesus died in Jerusalem (around AD 34; cf. 3 Nephi 11:1–12). This destruction killed many wicked people in Central America, and the resurrected Christ appeared to those who remained. The resurrected Jesus taught these Central American people the Sermon on the Mount, the institution of the Supper and baptism, and so forth. He then ascended into heaven.
Later on, in the 5th century AD—still in Central America—a Nephite named Mormon gathered all the plates of the history of his people (dating back over 2000 years) and summarized them into one set of plates, and his son Moroni buried them around AD 421. These plates are what Smith found, what the now-angel Moroni showed him, which is now called The Book of Mormon. Along with the BoM, the Mormon church recognizes the Doctrine and the Covenants (D&C), the Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible rightly translated—all these are their scriptures. Smith recorded many of his prophecies in the BoM, D&C, and the Pearl of Great Price before he was murdered in 1844 (note: these three books also contain the prophecies/revelations of other significant Mormon leaders and prophets).
Mormon World History
“Long ago you and I were born as spirit children of God, and naturally, a Goddess, actual beings of glorified human form and substance.” This is the way one Mormon author explains the eternal period of existence before creation. Before creation, Mormons teach, God the Father (Elohim) had some sort of physical sexual intercourse with a goddess who then gave birth to spirit children. The first born spirit-child was Jesus, whose brother was Lucifer. People are also spirit-children, the offspring of Elohim. In the words of another Mormon authority, “Before you began your life on earth, you lived with your Heavenly Father as one of his spirit children.”
Brigham Young (d. 1877) the second president of the Mormon church (Smith being the first) wrote, “We were first made spiritual, and afterwards temporal.” In other words, before people had physical bodies, they existed as spiritual entities. In fact, not only did spirit-children exist before creation, so did the “elements.” And these elements are eternal (D&C 93:33). There was “stuff” or material or matter or intelligence—something—that is eternal, that had no beginning. Of course, Elohim and other gods (male and female) are eternal as well. Brigham Young said, “How many Gods there are I do not know, but there never was a time when there were not Gods.” We discuss below the Mormon teaching of “gods.” For now, simply note that before creation, there was/were 1) God/gods, 2) spirit-children, and 3) unorganized matter or “elements.”
Concerning creation, Mormons teach that the gods created the world (including God/Elohim as the leader). Smith taught, “In the beginning the head of the gods called a council of the gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people in it.” Gods created the world out of preexistent matter in a manner similar to the way that construction workers make a house. Mormons strongly deny the ex-nihilo (creation out of nothing) teaching of historic Christianity. Additionally, J. F. Smith (d. 1918), the tenth president of the Mormon church, declared that Adam in his spirit existence helped form this earth—he said “perhaps Noah and Enoch” did as well, “and why not Joseph Smith?” Mormons also teach that God created the world out of love, so that his spirit-children would have a place to dwell, a place wherein to progress to salvation. Mormons teach that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, a plan that we were involved in before creation itself.
Adam and Eve were historical people. They were, with us, spirit beings before creation, but they were the first humans on earth. They lived in the Garden of Eden, which Mormons teach is in Independence, Missouri. Eve sinned by eating the fruit; Adam committed a transgression when he ate. Note the terminology: Adam didn’t sin; he transgressed God’s law, and Adam’s transgression opened the door of salvation. He said, “Blessed be name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy” (Moses 5:10). Adam fell that man might be and progress in this life, on this earth (2 Nephi 2:25). In a mysterious way, the fall was a fall upward, and Adam did the right thing by eating the fruit. Also fundamental to Mormon doctrine is their absolute denial of original sin: it is written in their foundational document, Articles of Faith. That is, since Adam’s transgression was not a sin, there is no sin to pass down to his descendants.
Mormon Theology Proper
Mormon theologians and scriptures teach that God is loving, compassionate, caring, and powerful. In general terms, Mormons speak about God the same way Christians do. However, there are extreme differences. For example, many Mormon theologians teach that God progresses. Smith himself said, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man. . . . we have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see . . . he was once a man like us. . . . here then is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves.” Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said—now famously—“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” In fact, “God . . . has flesh and bones,” Smith wrote elsewhere. In summary, Mormon theology holds that God was a man like you or me, who progressed to be the God that he is now. Orson Pratt even taught that God continues to progress in knowledge and power.
One other significant aspect of Mormon theology proper is that God is subject “to the laws which govern . . . even the most refined order of physical existence.” In other words, since God is at least in some real sense a physical being (remember he had some kind of physical sex with a goddess); he is subject to the laws that govern physical being. Since he has a body like people, he is confined to certain limits of physical existence—he has parts that take up some kind of space. Of course, he has to progress, since he is not outside of the laws of progression. This progression in Mormon theology even touches God’s fatherhood: Mormons teach the fatherhood of God ad infinitum. Smith: “If Jesus Christ was the son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that he had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father?”
Finally, concerning theology proper, Mormon theology is not Trinitarian: “Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. . . . I say that is a strange God anyhow . . . three in one, one in three! It is a curious organization. . . . All are to be crammed into one God according to sectarianism [read: Christian theology]. He would be a giant or monster,” Smith preached. Another Mormon publication says, “We declare it is self-evident from the scriptures that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate persons, three divine beings.” In other words, there is not one God, but three Gods—three different and distinct beings who share the title “God” but not the substance or essence of a single being. To reword the historic Christian Athanasian Creed: the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Spirit is Lord: yet these are three Lords, not one Lord.
The Doctrine of Man (Anthropology)
We have already noted the creation and fall of man: it is a historical fact in Mormonism. Again, we learned that Adam’s fall was not a sin, but an upward sort of transgression, which resulted in the possibility of spirit-children to take on human bodies, Adam and Eve’s many descendants. There is not a huge gap between God and man in Mormon theology. Joseph Smith said, “We say that God himself is a self-existent being. . . . Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? Man does exist on the same principles. . . . The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal with God himself. . . . The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. . . . The first principles of man are self-existent with God.” Even more boldly, Mormon theologian Bruce McConkie said, “Man and God are of the same race.” In other words, humans and God are on the same being-scale; God is only exalted and higher on the scale or ladder. There is no Creator/creature distinction in Mormon theology. There is a difference, but it is not an ontological or metaphysical essential distinction, just one of progress on the same scale of being.
Another thing to note about Mormon anthropology is again the teaching of progression. Man can by faith and obedience—as we note in a few moments—attain godhood, in a way similar to God’s progression to godhood. This has everything to do with the Mormon doctrine of salvation: how people attain godhood. We return to this topic after briefly examining the Christ of Mormon Christology. For now simply note that as God progressed to where he is now (and where he will go as he progresses still), man follows in the progression stage.
The Doctrine of Christ (Christology)
Jesus is Jehovah, the Son of God, the Savior; hence the name of the church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He is a loving and caring Savior, the firstborn of all spirit-children. He was a spirit-child of God and a goddess—before us, but with us—in the stillness of pre-creation time. Lucifer, or Satan, is a spirit-brother of Jesus (and in turn, humans). According to one Mormon writing, “Both the scriptures and the prophets affirm that Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our heavenly Father, and, therefore, spirit brothers. . . . Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother.”
Jesus “was not begotten by the Holy Ghost,” according to Young. Joseph F. Smith said, “Christ was begotten of God. He was not born without the aid of Man, and that Man was God” [emphasis mine]. God the Father had intercourse with Mary, and the result was Jesus’ conception. She was still a virgin because she didn’t have sex with an earthly man, but a progressed God. Jesus, after God’s prior progression, also progressed by obedience and faith. Jesus was saved by his faithfulness. According to McConkie, Christ “is a saved being.” Again, progression is key: God, man, and Jesus progress to salvation and godhood.
Mormons teach that Jesus is the only Savior, and apart from him there is no salvation. Many Mormon authorities sound similar to Christian teaching about Jesus as Savior. Through his suffering at Gethsemane and the cross, Jesus saves people. Actually, according to www.lds.org, “Through the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, all people will be resurrected—saved from physical death.” This general salvation that Jesus accomplished is a free gift from the Savior to all humans. Yet this universal resurrection as gift is by no means a resurrection to eternal blessedness in the highest degree—some are raised by Jesus as gift only to wind up in some semi-blessed state.
The Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)
We’ve already touched on salvation in the sections on the doctrine of man and the doctrine of Christ; now we tie those themes together. According to the Mormon text Gospel Principles, exalted Mormons “will have everything that our heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have: all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge.” Men become [a] god according to Mormon soteriology: exalted people (saved people) will share some of God’s essential or divine attributes (characteristics). Notice yet again the theme of progression: men climb the ladder of being to the attainment of godhood, or exaltation.
How does a person attain this salvation in Mormonism? By faith in Jesus Christ: “the fundamental principle of our religion is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” as one Mormon president said. Of course this means repenting and trusting, but in Mormon theology, the definition of faith includes faithfulness. According to McConkie, “Faith . . . includes good works. . . . Works are part of the definition of faith, and without them there is no faith.” “Faith is a gift of God bestowed as a reward for personal righteousness.” To be saved means to trust and obey, for there’s no other way to attain godhood in Mormon theology (see D&C, 132:20–21). It is clear then that Mormon soteriology is completely at odds with the “faith alone” teaching that many orthodox Christians hold so dear. One Mormon teacher wrote, “The sectarian doctrine of justification by faith alone has exercised an influence for evil since the early days of Christianity.”
According to www.lds.org, “Those who have been baptized and have received the Holy Ghost through the proper priesthood authority have been conditionally saved from sin. In this sense, salvation is conditional, depending on an individual’s continuing in faithfulness, or enduring to the end in keeping the commandments of God.” Faith is essential for salvation, but not enough; you must keep the commandments of God to climb the ladder to godhood. Though it is another topic, Mormonism teaches levels of glory: the celestial, the terrestrial, and the telestial kingdoms. “The glory we inherit will depend on the depth of our conversion, expressed by our obedience to the Lord’s commandments. It will depend on the manner in which we have received the testimony of Jesus.” In summary, the more faithfulness a person shows, the higher he or she will climb on the ladder: the top of the ladder is the celestial kingdom, where humans reign as gods over their own kingdoms, wives and all.
The Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)
When Joseph Smith found the golden plates in 1827 (which resulted eventually in the BoM), it was the restoration of the gospel and church of Christ. God reestablished his church on earth through Smith and the plates. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a continuation of the Church of Christ in the New Testament, according to Mormon theology. Smith received his revelation because there were no true churches on earth. In fact, in his vision he was told that all churches of his day were apostate. Thus, the Mormon church is the only true church on earth (D&C 1:30) and there was no drop of gospel-truth from the early days of church history until the American Joseph Smith was used by God to rekindle the church. Many early Mormon authorities (Smith, Young, Taylor, etc.) often said that Christianity was a tool of the devil, a bag of stinking falsities. As an interesting side note, some Mormons will give the Reformers a nod for their attempt to take the church back, though Mormons will say they fell quite short.
For Mormonism, the doctrine of ongoing, or progressive, prophecy and revelation is central. As we saw earlier, some of the fundamental truths of the Mormon church are Smith’s revelations in the 1820’s, along with other revelations of later Mormon teachers and prophets. In fact, in 1829, Peter, James, and John appeared to Smith and a friend of his and gave him the keys of the kingdom and made them apostles. In this way, the Melchizedekian priesthood was officially restored. There are still apostles and prophets in the Mormon church—fifteen total, including the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Prophets . . . receive revelation for the church;” the Scriptures are not closed; the canon is open and dynamic, always progressing, always becoming. Revelation can change, as with the change in the stance on polygamy and with the change in the stance against black people holding the priesthood. In a word, Mormon theology holds that divine revelation and prophecy is still going on and fluctuating from the Old and New Testament times. This is why the Mormon church has several scriptures, not just the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Another aspect of Mormon teaching that goes hand in hand with the doctrine of the church and ongoing revelation is the internal voice of the Holy Ghost, which assures a person that the Book of Mormon is true and that Smith was a true prophet of God. In fact, if you look at nearly any copy of the BoM, you will see on the inside flap somewhere a phrase that suggests reading the book and earnest, intense, heart-felt prayer will result in the Holy Ghost testifying that these things are true. Joseph Smith said this internal call is unmediated—that is, without book or voice, but God directly communicating to a person without external means. I’ve had several discussions with Mormons where they always end on this note: “I know it is true because I prayed it and the Spirit told me” (or something similar). This is one of the highest validations for Mormons concerning the truth of their religion: they will look you in the eye and in some way explain that they have a warm feeling deep down inside that Mormon teaching is true. For Mormons, you cannot question this revelation, because it is internal and unmediated.
Rev. Shane Lems
(MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor and
church planter at the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, WA