In recent years, Mormons, once a persecuted minority, have emerged as a group with pervasive influence in society, pop culture, and politics. They run for president of the United States (Mitt Romney), hold high office (Harry Reid, US Senate), write best-selling novels turned into blockbuster hits (Stephenie Meyer), and inspire Tony award–winning musicals (2011’s The Book of Mormon).1
Their growing presence makes it necessary to understand who they are, what they believe, and how those beliefs compare to traditional Christianity.
The story of the Mormons—known more formally as the Latter-day Saints—begins in the 1820s, when Joseph Smith first started receiving visions from God. He came to believe that Christian churches had been following false teachings since 100 CE. As a result, Smith set out to restore the Church to what Jesus intended it to be.2
The Key Divergence: Open Canon
While orthodox Christians believe that God still interacts with people, they also believe in a “closed canon.” This means that the Bible is a special, completed revelation that cannot be superseded, added to, or changed.3
Smith established an open canon, which allowed him to introduce new holy books like The Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price. It also gave him and his successors room to make new pronouncements about doctrine.4 While other religions change doctrine slowly, Mormon doctrine and practice can change quickly based on a new revelation.
The Key Doctrine: Eternal Progression
Mormon leader Lorenzo Snow’s “sacred communication” summarized a key portion of Mormon belief in a short couplet:
As man now is, God once was:
As God now is, man may be.5
Christians teach that God is the creator of everything. Mormons believe “the heavenly Father is really an exalted man. He is one of a ‘species’ that Mormons call ‘gods.’”6 Individuals who follow Mormon teaching can participate in what is called the “eternal progression” and become gods themselves.7
The Key Story: Life, the Universe, and Everything
Stories help explain the world we experience. So at the risk of oversimplifying my point, let me say that comparing traditional Christianity to Mormonism is similar to comparing Star Trek to Star Wars. Both have spaceships and aliens, but they take place in different universes.
Mainstream Christians believe God created the universe ex nihilo—out of nothing. Nothing existed except God until he created everything. Mormons explain the universe as beginning with the “preexistence.” Before gods or humans existed in their current physical state, they existed as another type of matter. This matter is full of “intelligences” that have the capacity to become beings. “For Mormons, God is not eternal, matter is.”8
Father-God was one of the intelligences that progressed from spirit to a human body that “once dwelled on an earth.”9 He died, was resurrected, and now reigns from a throne near a star called Kolob as a flesh and blood god.10
Father-God, with the help of another exalted being called Mother-God, gave birth to “spirit children.” Firstborn was Jesus—some Mormon leaders have taught that Father-God had intercourse with Mary and conceived a body for Jesus—then Lucifer, and then all others that would live on earth.11 Father-God announced a plan to test all of his children on Earth, allowing some to be saved through Jesus. A jealous Lucifer led a rebellion and was punished with life on earth as a bodiless spirit. Those who “fought halfheartedly . . . were sentenced to be born mortals with black skin.”12
According to Mormon belief, Jesus lived a perfect and holy life, was crucified, and was resurrected. Jesus then came to the Americas, where he visited the Nephites, a people descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel.13
Jesus’ followers founded the church, but after the persecution of Roman Emperor Nero, false teachers led the church astray. This situation lasted until 1830 when Joseph Smith began his reform and reestablished the church.14
After death, those who have followed Mormon doctrine enjoy a state of being known as the Celestial Kingdom. They are exalted to godhood and have the opportunity to continue the cycle by creating their own spirit children.15
The Key Texts: The Books of Mormon
Mormonism recognizes four Holy Books. The Book of Mormon tells the one-thousand-year story of Israelite refugees who fled to the Americas and received a revelation from the resurrected Jesus. Doctrine and Covenants consists of instructional lectures, and The Pearl of Great Price includes the controversial reworking of the story of Abraham from the biblical book of Genesis.
The Key Practices: Daily Life as a Mormon
Mormons are perhaps best known for their unique practices.
Marriage, Polygamy, and Family
Marriage is key to both Mormon lifestyle and beliefs. According to Mormon teaching, a Celestial Marriage will last for eternity. Early Mormon leaders—including Joseph Smith—taught polygamy, but the largest Mormon denomination ended this in the 1890s.18 Mormons teach traditional gender roles and have a reputation for large, close-knit families.19
Mormons are well known for their dietary restrictions. Early Mormon leader Brigham Young told of the use of tobacco during early meetings of the brethren—and how unhappy Joseph Smith’s wife Emma was with cleaning tobacco juice off the floor.20 After consulting the Lord, Joseph returned with the Words of Wisdom, a dietary code instructing abstinence from tobacco, tea, coffee, and alcohol, as such things are not good for man. This revelation also included a directive to eat meat only in moderation.21
The Priesthood is “the power of God delegated to man . . . for the salvation of the human family.”22 Once candidates take priestly oaths, men may hold leadership roles and conduct meaningful ordinances. A significant change came in 1978 when President Spencer Kimball opened the then-white-only priesthood to men of all races.23
Mormon practice includes many private rituals. One that continues to attract attention is that of the “temple garments.” After they are married, Mormons wear simple, white undergarments to remind them of important oaths they have made.24
Are Mormons Christians?
Former Mormon president Gordon Hinkley has said, “Once upon a time people everywhere said we are not Christians. They have come to recognize that we are, and that we have a very vital and dynamic religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.”25 But, in light of the things mentioned here, it seems clear that Mormon beliefs diverge greatly from traditional Christian doctrine.
Despite disagreements, all major Christian denominations recognize the Bible as the Word of God and affirm the statements in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Drawing from their own texts, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrives at a different picture of Jesus and a very different picture of God. Instead of one God, Mormons accept the idea of many gods. Instead of being the creator of all things, God is a created being of flesh and blood.26
Many would sum up traditional Christian beliefs in the words of the Apostle Paul: “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”27 Mormon teachings state something with similar words but a different meaning: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”28 Individuals earn their way to the “celestial heavens” by being a part of the Mormon Church and fulfilling their prescribed rituals.29
Mormonism has many laudable aspects. Mormons are recognized as people of compassion, discipline, and strong family ties. Still, the Latter-day Saints do not fit exactly into the traditional, orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. Instead, the Mormon faith should be thought of as a new religion with a growing impact around the world.30
- Walter Kirn, Newsweek, “Mormons Rock!” last modified June 5, 2011, accessed October 17, 2013, http://mag.newsweek.com/2011/06/05/mormons-rock.html.
- Klaus J. Hansen, “Mormonism,” in Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd ed., vol. 3 (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2005), 6192–6195.
- Throughout the first few centuries after Jesus' resurrection, the church established a canon of books that they believed could be traced back to Jesus’ first followers. Excluding minor disagreements between denominations, this canon has been considered “closed” by traditional Christians for centuries. You can read more about this in our article “What Is the History of the Bible?”
- Ridenour Fritz, What’s the Difference: A Look at 20 Worldviews, Faiths and Religions and How They Compare to Christianity (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2001), 138–141.
- “Chapter 5: The Grand Destiny of the Faithful,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified 2011, accessed October 17, 2013, https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-of-presidents-of-the-church-lorenzo-snow/chapter-5-the-grand-destiny-of-the-faithful?lang=eng.
- Fritz, 138.
- Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse,” Mormon Literature Database, accessed October 17, 2013, http://mldb.byu.edu/follett.htm.
- Ridenour, 163.
- Smith, http://mldb.byu.edu/follett.htm.
- Erich Robert Paul, “Scriptural References to Astronomy,” The Encyclopedia of Mormon, last modified 1992, accessed October 17, 2013, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Astronomy,_Scriptural_References_to.
- Ridenour, 139. In 1978, the Church released a statement titled “Official Document 2,” (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/od/2) which officially lifted the ban on those of African descent obtaining the priesthood. However, the issue of race remains divisive, and has featured prominently in Mormon education as recently as 2012. See Max Perry Mueller, “Is Mormonism Still Racist? Comments from a BYU professor stir up a troubling past,” Slate, March 2, 2012, accessed October 20, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/03/mormon_church_and_racism_a_new_controversy_about_old_teachings_.html.
- "Chapter 42: 3 Nephi 15–17," Book of Mormon Student Manual, (2009), 312–16, https://www.lds.org/manual/book-of-mormon-student-manual/chapter-42-3-nephi-15-17?lang=eng.
- Todd Compton, “Apostasy,” The Encyclopedia of Mormon, last modified 1992, accessed October 17, 2013, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Apostasy.
- Ridenour, 141.
- “Articles of Faith,” The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints website, last modified February 12, 2012, accessed October 20, 2013, http://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/a-of-f/1.8.
- Kathleen Flake, “Latter-day Saints,” Encyclopedia of Religion in America, vol. 3, (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010), 1218.
- Hansen, 6192.
- Gordon Hinkley, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified September 23, 1995, accessed October 17, 2013, http://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation.
- Brigham Young, “Journal of Discourses,” Mormon Research Ministry, last modified February 8, 1868, accessed October 17, 2013, http://jod.mrm.org/12/157.
- “The Doctrines and Covenants: Section 89,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified February 2, 2011, accessed September 17, 2013, http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/89?lang=eng.
- Joseph F. Smith, “The Importance of the Priesthood,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified 2010, accessed September 17, 2013, http://www.lds.org/manual/the-latter-day-saint-woman-basic-manual-for-women-part-a/women-in-the-church/lesson-11-the-importance-of-the-priesthood?lang=eng
- Hansen, 6194.
- Carlos Asay, “The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward of an Inward Commitment,’” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified February 2, 2012, accessed September 17, 2013, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1997/08/the-temple-garment-an-outward-expression-of-an-inward-commitment?lang=eng.
- Gordon Hinkley, “Are Mormons Christians?” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified February 2, 2012, accessed September 17, 2013, http://mormon.org/faq.
- Ridenour, 145.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Romans 3:24.
- “The Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 25:23,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, last modified February 2, 2012, accessed September 17, 2013, https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/25.23?lang=eng.
- Ridenour, 145.
- The membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah—consists of about 15 million people.
- Photo Credit: Natalia Bratslavsky / Shutterstock.com.