So American, yet so foreign
Two centuries later, Mormons still battle misinformation and mistrust.
By WES ALLISON and SHERRI DAY
Published June 3, 2007
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries Jeff Snelson (left) and Zachary Mettra greet Adell Montgomery outside his Tampa home. They are used to slammed doors.
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Elders Zachary Mettra (left) and Jeff Snelson go door-to-door in Tampa. The two men are missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
TAMPA -- Sam Glover was sitting on his front porch one evening last month, enjoying the breeze, when two clean-cut young men approached with a proposition.
How would he like to visit their church and learn more about Jesus Christ?
Glover eagerly agreed and made an appointment to come by their Carrollwood church the next day.
It was only later that Glover realized the men, who introduced themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were Mormon missionaries. They were looking for converts to a religion as American as baseball, but often seen as from outer space.
"That's a Mormon?" asked Glover, 23, eyeing the men as they knocked on neighboring doors in northeast Tampa. "Aren't they the ones that have more than one wife?"
This is a battle the missionaries, Zachary Mettra and Jeff Snelson, fight daily, and that Mitt Romney is facing on a national scale as he seeks the Republican nomination for president: misinformation, bad press from fringe groups and a persistent sense, as old as the religion itself, that something about Mormons just isn't right.
In a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 30 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president.
Asked in a Gallup poll this year to describe how they viewed Mormons, 18 percent of respondents mentioned polygamy -- more than any other answer -- even though the church disavowed it more than 100 years ago. Other descriptions included weird and secretive, but also hardworking and family-oriented.
"There's a split image about Mormonism. One is that it's the essence of America, that Mormons are good citizens, they're patriotic, the religion was founded here, the Book of Mormon takes place here," said Richard Lyman Bushman, a professor of history emeritus at Columbia University and one of the nation's leading Mormon Church scholars.
"But in the 19th century, people couldn't stand to have them living next door. People say, 'All right, you seem nice, but what about this other side?' And that breeds mistrust."
Just look at the first time a Mormon ran for president. He was charged with treason, then killed by a mob in his jail cell.
An American religion
From its creation in 1830, the Mormons have never been just one more church softball team in the league of American religions.
Their beliefs, which share many aspects of Christianity, constitute much of the divide, religious scholars say.
Mormons consider themselves Christians, expressing full belief in the Bible and its rites, such as baptism. They also accept Jesus Christ's virgin birth, his crucifixion and his resurrection.
But Mormons hold that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are three separate entities, not a single Trinity. They also say their church is the reincarnation of the original Christian Church, which they believe turned away from God's teachings after the deaths of the Twelve Apostles.
As they tell it, God restored the church through Joseph Smith of Palmyra, N.Y.
Through a series of visions in the 1820s, young Smith was led to the Book of Mormon, inscribed in an ancient language on golden plates. He translated it with the aid of special glasses.
Considered a sacred text on par with the Bible, the book tells the story of ancient tribes who wandered America for thousands of years and were visited by Jesus after his resurrection.
In 1829, Mormons believe, John the Baptist and the apostles Peter, James and John conferred the priesthood on Smith. He built the faith on revelations he continued to receive.
The church still teaches that God reveals his word through its living prophet, president Gordon B. Hinckley, and 12 apostles.
The Mormon Church also believes that family bonds endure in the afterlife.
"Those are claims which are very exciting and appealing to those inclined to believe, and very blasphemous to those who do not, " said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of religion at the University of Richmond.
"So in either case, the church tends to polarize, because it's not a lukewarm, mainline Protestant denomination that plays it safe."
Exiled and alone
But there is more to the Mormons' peculiar status among American religions than just their beliefs. Mormons also developed a cultural distance, fired in a history of persecution and reinforced by the faith's propensity to look inward.
Shortly after Joseph Smith and a small band of followers founded the church, they went looking for a home.
But over the next 15 years, from Kirtland, Ohio, to parts of Missouri to Nauvoo, Ill., they were never home for long.
At each stop, they prospered and grew. But then nonbelievers came to fear the Mormons were gaining too much control and forced them out, often violently.
Frustrated, Joseph Smith announced his own campaign for president in 1844. Illinois authorities arrested him for treason, and a mob broke into his cell and shot him to death.
The Mormons would soon head to Utah. But even out there, peace remained elusive.
When the church made public its doctrine of plural marriage in 1852, many Americans saw the members not only as different, but also as dangerous. The Republican Party ran against the "twin evils" of Southern slavery and Mormon polygamy.
The church banned polygamy in 1890. Still, the taint remains.
"In 1890, Mormons felt that the walls were down, and now we could be regular Americans like everyone else," said Bushman, the church scholar at Columbia. "But at the same time, there's this lingering feeling among Mormons that there's this suspicion and this uneasiness."
What's in a name?
It's small wonder the Mormon church, based in Salt Lake City, takes pains to control its image.
In media accounts it insists on being called, at least once, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to emphasize its connection to Jesus.
Church leaders also run television marketing campaigns that showcase the faith's strong emphasis on family and morality. Its latest directs viewers to a Web site, www.mormon.org.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has launched his own offensive as he runs for president, discussing his faith in speeches and interviews.
Instead of differences, he focuses on the shared values between Mormons and evangelical Christians, the core of Republican primary voters.
Romney has overcome the questions before, winning election as governor of Massachusetts, a state with few Mormons.
But neither he nor the church can control Hollywood. Shows like HBO's Big Love, about polygamy but not Mormons, are an irritant. Church members also are bracing for the June release of September Dawn, a film about the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when Mormons slaughtered a wagon train of pioneers.
The movie purports to answer whether then-leader Brigham Young ordered the attack. Most Mormons believe he didn't. But like Romney, they would rather just look to the future.
Rejection, no sting
Searching for converts in Tampa, Mettra and Snelson say they're often mistaken for Jehovah's Witnesses, the police or even the CIA, thanks to their uniform: white dress shirt, dark slacks, tie. Some kids think they're the Men in Black, from the movie about aliens living secretly on earth.
Like Joseph Smith, they are used to hearing doors slam. They try not to take it personally.
"They're not rejecting us," Mettra said. "They're rejecting Jesus Christ, which is who we represent. We just keep knocking."
Times researcher Mary Melstrom contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577. Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.
[Last modified June 3, 2007, 01:19:23]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]