Every December I find my Mormon Tabernacle Choir tape and listen to the beautiful sounds made by that well-trained and dedicated group. Whenever I see television commercials produced by the Mormons, I am inspired and touched. And when two young, attractive and friendly Mormon missionaries came by my house last fall, I was impressed by their enthusiasm about their church and their commitment to sharing the Mormon message.
Most Americans have had these same encounters with Mormonism. And they assume that because Mormons teach some of the basic principles of the Christian faith and because Mormons are committed to moral living and family values, Mormons are Christians.
But the question must be asked: Is Mormonism part of the Christian faith and tradition? To answer that puzzling question, we must examine the church's history and teachings.
The Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith Jr., who in 1820 as a 14 year-old boy began praying about which church to join. In answer to that prayer, God the Father and Jesus Christ both appeared and told him that the church originally organized by Jesus Christ was no longer on Earth.
God commissioned Smith to restore the "true church," and during the next 10 years, heavenly messengers—including an angel named Moroni—visited Smith and showed him an ancient book, which he translated and published as The Book of Mormon.
On April 6, 1830, Smith organized the church in Fayette, N.Y. Intense controversy followed these events, yet Smith gained a following. Local hostility forced him to move to Kirkland, Ohio, in 1832. Persecution followed, but Smith succeeded in building a temple where his followers could worship.
In January 1838, the Mormons were forced to flee Kirkland, and they moved to Nauvoo, Ill. In Illinois, Smith prospered. He ran for president of the United States, established a private army, built a well-planned city, elaborated on his theological views, introduced new religious practices and married over 49 women—and at least 12 of these women already had husbands. Smith also allowed his close followers to practice polygamy.
Just as he had experienced in New York and Ohio, Smith was once again subjected to persecution in Illinois. He was eventually arrested, and on the evening of June 27, 1844, a mob attacked the jail where he was held, and Smith and his brother were murdered.
Smith's successor, Brigham Young, led the group to settle in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1847. This city continues to be the denominational headquarters for the Mormons. The group continued to practice polygamy until 1890, when the Utah territory was forced to ban the practice in order to be granted statehood.
Although the literature of the church and the church's official Web site portray Mormon theology as similar to orthodox Christian theology, a close reading of The Book of Mormon reveals some teachings that fall far outside the realm of orthodox Christianity.
These unorthodox teachings include:
· the belief that all people can become gods and goddesses in the celestial kingdom;
· the belief that God the Father was once a man but progressed to become a god;
· the understanding that Jesus was first procreated as a spirit child by the Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, and was later conceived physically through intercourse between the Heavenly Father and the Virgin Mary;
· the belief that eternal life must be earned through obedience to all the commands of the Mormon Church;
· the belief that the Bible has been corrupted but The Book of Mormon is divinely inspired; and
· the teaching that baptism may be performed for those who have already died.
Given the addition of these unorthodox beliefs to the basic teachings of Christianity, the three major denominations in the United States—the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church—have publicly stated that Mormon teachings do not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith. Thus, they say, Mormons should not be recognized as Christians.
Despite the lack of acceptance by these major denominations, the Mormon Church has thrived. The Mormons currently have more than 11 million members worldwide, and nearly 6 million of those members live in the United States. The church has 60,000 missionaries in 162 countries, has more than 100 temples worldwide, and has published more than 100 million copies of The Book of Mormon in over 93 languages.
Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.