Mormonism demystified

By JAN SHIPPS, Other Views
Published December 8, 2007

Mormonism is a distinctive way of life as well as a unique way of being Judeo-Christian that is deeply satisfying to the people who are active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Mitt Romney's candidacy for the presidency is making it obvious that many Americans regard this faith tradition with suspicion.

One thing that is not suspicious about Mormonism is its social dimension. Active members of the LDS Church live the same sort of conventional moral lives that are lived by conservative Protestants, devout Catholics and observant Jews. They obey their own dietary laws; they care passionately about the well-being of their families; they tithe and render incredible amounts of volunteer service to their church and to the community; and they worship in a three-hour block of services on Sundays. The mystery of Mormonism is not the exemplary way Latter-day Saints live, but what they believe.

When the Church of Jesus Christ was organized in western New York in 1830, it differed significantly from neighboring churches. Its members believed that theirs was the restoration of the church of the New Testament in a special way. Their understanding was that a "Great Apostasy" had removed the church from the Earth at the end of the Apostolic Age and they were its restoration.

Their leader was Joseph Smith Jr., whom they believed to be a prophet. Smith was responsible for bringing forth the Book of Mormon, a new scripture he said was a translation of characters engraved on golden plates that, among much else, told of Jesus bringing the Christian gospel to the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. This event, which the Book of Mormon said occurred after Christ's crucifixion, is the basis for the book's current subtitle, "Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

The new church accepted the Book of Mormon as holy writ. They also believed that their priesthood was a restoration of the priesthood of ancient Israel, and they came to believe that they were a restoration of Israel, as well as the early church. This made them the chosen people. They built temples in which they performed "ancient ordinances," including baptism for the dead, marriage for all time and eternity and plural marriage (polygamy). The practice of polygamy was ended in 1890 when Utah became a state.

Mormons hold other distinctive beliefs. Rather than accepting the Trinitarian Godhead of father, son and holy spirit, they believe that the father and the son are "separate personages" and that the Holy Ghost is separate from both.

Members of the LDS Church also reject the notion that God created the world out of nothing. Their position is that God organized the world out of "existing element."

Nothing differs from traditional Christianity more than the Mormon understanding of the afterlife. Protestants and Catholics alike believe that after death people go either to heaven or hell. Mormons, however, believe that multiple kingdoms exist where people who have lived on the Earth go after death.

Progressively these kingdoms are the Telestial, the Terrestial, and the Celestial, and those who merit admission to the Celestial Kingdom have an opportunity for eternal progression toward godhood. Latter-day Saints describe this process as becoming "like God," but the conservative Evangelicals who regard Mormonism as a cult connect the LDS belief about the afterlife to what an early church president said: "As man is, God once was; as God is man may become."

The charge that Mormonism started as a cult is accurate in that it began as a form of the Judeo-Christian tradition in much the same way that Christianity, which also started out as a cult, began as a form of Judaism. But when cults "grow up," they become cultures in which it is difficult to separate the social from the theological.

Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is a well-known non-Mormon scholar on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.