| The LDS Church in Brief
A Brief History of the Church
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church), was organized in the State of New York, USA in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, who claimed to be a prophet of God. Joseph Smith claimed to have seen an angel who directed him to a set of golden plates buried on the side of a hill not far from his home in upstate New York. The golden plates, he claimed, had writing on them, which he translated by divine inspiration into the Book of Mormon. Smith promoted this book as a piece of scripture that equaled or even surpassed the Bible, claiming it to be the "most correct of any book on earth" and the keystone of the religion he would eventually establish. Once he was finished with the translation, the golden plates were said to have been taken back up to heaven.
The Church characterized itself as a restoration of the "true church" and in fact claimed to be the only true church, which fostered a great deal of contention with the predominantly Protestant eastern United States.
As the church grew, it moved westward, its "center" moving from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and eventually to Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons were generally not well-favored by the residents of the towns they occupied, which led to persecution and eventual expulsion. Joseph Smith was assassinated in nearby Carthage, Illinois, in 1844. Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith as president and prophet of the LDS Church, moved most of the Mormons to the unsettled territory that is today the State of Utah.
Today there are dozens of churches which trace their history to the "restoration" by Joseph Smith and that embrace the Book of Mormon; many of these churches formed before or during the Nauvoo period. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is by far the largest and most well-known of these movements, and is the church most generally referred to as "The Mormon Church." Other churches derived from Joseph Smith's purported "restoration" are the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), based in Missouri. There also exist a large number of so-called "fundamentalist" Mormon groups, most of which are located in and around Utah. Many of these groups hold fast to early Mormon doctrines, most notably, polygamy. All these groups point to Joseph Smith as their founder.
A Brief Description of the LDS Scriptures
There are three main components of LDS Scripture, in addition to the King James Version of the Bible, which is considered subordinate to the other scriptures.
The Book of Mormon, the book Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from the golden plates, contains a story about an Israelite migration to the New World in ancient times, and their subsequent populating of the continent. It describes a visit of Jesus Christ to the descendants of that migration several hundred years later. Those descendants are said to be the modern Native Americans. (Click here for more information about the Book of Mormon.)
The Doctrine & Covenants contain what is said to be missing and "restored" doctrines and covenants that were lost or removed from the Bible. (The LDS Church teaches that the Bible has been corrupted by careless translators and transcribers).
The Pearl of Great Price, the smallest of the scriptures, contains various and sundry historical documents, including Joseph Smith's history and his visions. It also contains a disputed book entitled "The Book of Abraham" which was said to be the translation of some Egyptian papyrus scrolls that Joseph Smith had acquired from an antiquities dealer.
A Brief Description of LDS Doctrine and Teachings
What follows are a few key points of distinctive doctrines taught by the LDS Church, but by no means an exhaustive list of LDS teachings. These in particular are given to demonstrate how it differs from that of biblical Christianity. It should be noted that the LDS Church frequently uses terminology similar to that of biblical Christianity in communicating its doctrines, but often with drastically different meanings or connotations. This tends to obscure the fundamental differences in doctrine to the casual observer. (For a more detailed and authoritative look at LDS doctrine, we recommend you check out their online publication of Gospel Principles , which is available in the .pdf format; Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.)
The LDS Church is the only true church. This teaching is generally not publically promoted in modern times, nevertheless, the internal teachings state that the other denominations are "abominations" to God, and that the LDS Church is the only true church that bears the "restored" gospel of Jesus Christ. In recent years, however, many within the LDS Church have taken active measures to appear more palatable to traditional Christianity. Many of the doctrines which set it apart from biblical Christianity have been downplayed (though not recanted). Nevertheless, because of the gross differences between LDS doctrine and orthodox Christian doctrine, and because of aberrant LDS teachings that depart from the biblical standard, Christendom in general does not recognize the LDS Church as another Christian denomination. These distinctives, however, are becoming blurred by a growing "ecumenical" attitude at an alarming rate; due in part to a general lack of education or agreement on Mormon distinctives, or for that matter, a lack of education or agreement on Christian distinctives.
The LDS view of the nature of humanity. The LDS Church teaches that all humans existed prior to life on earth as the "spirit children" of the Heavenly Father (and his wife/wives) in heaven, and that our earthly birth came about when our spirit willingly chose to inhabit a physical body on earth.
The LDS view of the nature of God. LDS theology states that God (or more commonly referred to as "Heavenly Father") is an exalted and glorified man, that he has a physical (albeit immortal) body. It is also taught that qualifying Mormons can also become gods, just like the Heavenly Father, in the next life, and produce spirit offspring (presumably to populate another earth.). The doctrine of the Trinity as accepted by Biblical Christianity is rejected by LDS theology. The LDS Church teaches that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are "spirit children" of God, and that Jesus is unique in that he is also the fleshly son of God (conceived by a physical union of the Heavenly Father and Mary). It is also taught that Lucifer, or Satan, is also one of the Heavenly Father's spirit-children, making him a "spirit brother" Jesus.
The LDS view of the fall of humanity. The LDS Church teaches that Adam and Eve were the first "spirit children" to inhabit physical bodies on earth. Their temptation by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit and subsequent fall is characterized as part of God's plan, using the premise that had they not done so, then they would not be able to reproduce, and thereby provide physical bodies for other spirit children. It is also the teaching of the LDS Church that unless a spirit child inhabits a physical body, he cannot be elevated to godhood in the next life.
The LDS view of scripture. The LDS Church accepts the Book of Mormon as their primary scripture and the inspired Word of God, supplemented by the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. The Bible is accepted as the Word of God only insofar as it has been translated correctly. However, the qualifier attached to the Bible substantiates a belief that the Bible has been significantly corrupted over the centuries, and is therefore not entirely reliable as the Word of God.
The LDS view of revelation and prophecy. Generally speaking, prophecy is seen as progressive and changeable. New revelations are not uncommon throughout their history, and critics will point out that many of these revelations tend to be revelations of convenience in order to accommodate a particular circumstance or situation. A case in point is the revelation that allowing of African-Americans to enter the priesthood (which had been prohibited until the 1970s). Other prophecies, such as Joseph Smith's claims about what will be found on the moon, have remained (and are likely to remain) unfulfilled.
The LDS view of salvation and the afterlife. Salvation in LDS terms refers simply to the resurrection (return to life), which has been provided to all men via the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It differs from the biblical Christian view, which is that salvation is a rescue from God's punishment for sin, and the right to live eternally in God's presence. The afterlife is also viewed differently. The LDS teachings concerning the afterlife involve three levels of glory, and one is assigned to a greater or lesser level of heaven, according to one's performance on Earth. The highest level, the "Celestial" heaven, is reserved only for those who have met all the requirements of the LDS Church, including, among other things, temple marriage, and strict obedience to the commands. The LDS also teaches what is called "The Outer Darkness," which would be roughly equivalent to hell, a place of torment reserved for those who reject the gospel (as presented by the LDS Church). This is in contrast to the Biblical description of the afterlife, in which anyone who embraces the unmerited salvation of Jesus Christ will be blessed eternally in God's presence, and those who reject it will be eternally condemned in hell.
Additional Comments. Anyone who delves into Mormon doctrine, thought, and teaching quickly realizes that it is not a simple matter. A systematic theology can hardly be said to exist in Mormonism. It is convoluted, and often contradictory. Many LDS theologians and apologists have undertaken a systematic approach to defining the doctrines and theology of the Church (a notable example being Bruce R. McConkie, author of Mormon Doctrine). The LDS Church as an organization rarely gives any official endorsement of church theologians or apologists, although unofficially, as in the case of McConkie, they may be considered authorities by the general Mormon public. In addition, Church leadership are quick to skirt the more esoteric aspects of their doctrine, particularly those doctrines which are most blasphemous to Christians. For example, when asked about the man-becoming-God doctrine on a Larry King Live interview, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley evaded the question, and hinted that it was an anachronism that was generally not taught anymore. However, comments made by President Hinckley during LDS church conventions clearly indicate that this doctrine is alive and well in the internal structure of the LDS Church.
A Brief Description of LDS Practices and Lifestyle Distinctives
LDS values. The LDS Church is often praised by outsiders for their promotion of traditional family values and morality. Emphasis is placed on family and community support, patriotism, chastity, industry, humanitarianism, and respect for civil law. Politically LDS members (as a rule) tend to be conservative.
LDS restrictions. The LDS Church prohibits the use of alcohol, tobacco, and "hot drinks" which in practice is coffee and tea (and caffeine in general). The caffeine/hot drink restriction is not very well defined, and the interpretation varies, as caffeinated soft drinks are often tolerated. Strict adherents, however, will avoid any source of caffeine, hot or cold, or any hot drink, even non-caffeinated ones. This dietary restriction is also known as the "Word of Wisdom." Obedience to it is a requirement for temple-worthiness.
LDS members are generally "Sunday Sabbatarians," that is, Sundays are considered to be holy days and not to be desecrated by working, worldly entertainment, or other types of non-religious activities. The degree of strictness varies from family to family and from congregation to congregation; there is no official regulation of what is and is not acceptable activity on Sundays.
LDS requirements. The members of the LDS Church are expected to faithfully attend church (in some cases attendance is taken and absence is noted); they are expected to pay a strict 10% tithe of their income; young men are expected to serve two years on a "mission," the location and logistics of which are determined by the Church.
LDS structure & hierarchy. The LDS Church is organized by wards (individual congregations) and stakes (groups of wards in a particular area, often using a common meeting or "stake" house). A member is assigned to a ward based soleley on where he/she lives in a community. Each ward has a leader known as a bishop. The stake is led by a stake president. (No women are allowed in the priesthood or bishopric of the LDS Church, or in any of the higher church government positions, however there are women's organization within the church that are led by women.)
The LDS church does not have "pastors" or "ministers" in the sense that most Christians would think of them. The leadership, administration, and teaching in the LDS Church at the local level is done on a volunteer basis, i.e., there are no paid clergy or staff members. This is a fact that many Mormons take as a point of pride over most traditional Christian churches that have paid clergy or staff (this is viewed by Mormons as a sign of corruption). However, the higher positions of leadership within the LDS Church are indeed paid positions, with many material benefits.
Sunday church services generally consist of a time of singing hymns, a sacramental meal, and sharing of "testimonies" by the ward members (each member is encouraged to participate in the "bearing one's testimony", which is a statement or a reflection that affirms the person's faith in the LDS Church and in the prophet). There is no "preaching" in the sense that traditional Christianity thinks of it, but individual members and/or leaders may be called on to share or teach during church services. Children and youth are taught scriptures and LDS principles in separate classes.
LDS temples. The LDS temples are a focal point of the LDS religion. Temples are where the religious rituals, most of them secretive, take place. People are baptized, "sealed", and married, in the temple ceremonies. LDS members also practice "Baptism of the Dead" where deceased individuals are baptized by proxy in order to secure the opportunity to join the Church for the deceased in the afterlife. Access to the temples are restricted to those who have been deemed worthy by their church leaders, and have been given a "temple recommend." Worthiness is generally determined by the bishop or stake president based on overall lifestyle, being up-to-date on tithing and other requirements of the Church.
LDS missions & missionaries. Young men, generally out of high school, are expected to serve two years on a mission. While this is not an official requirement for advancement in the church, it is generally an unwritten expectation. Latest estimates are that only about one-third of young LDS men actually go on missions, usually just after high school. The mission place is determined by the Church with little or no input on the part of the would-be missionary or his family, though the family must incur much of the expenses related to the mission. The location may be in North America or anywhere in the world. Missionaries work in pairs, are well-dressed and groomed (usually in a suit and tie), and their objective is to teach others (often door-to-door) about the Church and to encourage people to embrace the Book of Mormon and be baptized into the LDS Church. While on a mission, the missionaries are often subject to certain restrictions, which include limited contact with their families. They are also prohibited from spending any time on their own; they must always be in the presence of their companion. Those young men who return successfully from their mission typically are viewed with esteem and respect, and often receive official and unofficial "perks" within the church. They are also well regarded as "elegible bachelors" among the young unmarried women.
While most missionaries are young single men, young single women are also permitted to go on a mission, if they so choose. Sometimes couples will serve together on missions, typically after retirement.
LDS Marriage and Family. Marriage and family life are extremely important in Mormonism, not just as a social construct but as a doctrinal one. A "Temple Marriage," also known as "Celestial Marriage" is viewed as necessary for the highest levels of exaltation in the afterlife, and as a result, it is the goal of every ambitious, forward-thinking Mormon. Converts to the church who are already legally married will often undergo a religious marriage ceremony called a "sealing" in the temple, once they are both considered "temple-worthy". A common phrase in the church is that "Families are Forever" meaning that the blessings of eternity are intended to be shared with one's earthly family.
Polygamy and Mormonism. Originally, it was taught that "Celestial Marriage," was by definition plural marriage. Polygamy was taught as a doctrine by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and many other church leaders. It was viewed as a necessary practice for exaltation, and that it was a central tenet of Mormonism. However, under pressure from the U.S. Federal Government, the church began to abandon polygamy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. "Celestial Marriage" was thus redefined as "Temple Marriage" in order to remove the polygamous requirements. Today, the mainstream LDS Church rejects the practice (though interestingly enough, not the doctrine), and excommunicates anyone found to be practicing polygamy, and generally dislikes discussing the subject, which many consider to be an embarrassing relic of the past.