Mormonism seems to be growing in popularity and prevalence. But what exactly is it?
Imagine this: You’re in the kitchen making dinner for your family when the doorbell rings. You weren't expecting company. Who could it be?
Peering out the peephole, you see two teenage boys wearing white button-up shirts and ties. On their shirts are black nametags that read “Elder.” Behind them is a pair of bicycles.
The young men are Mormon missionaries. They provide a face for a religious group that has, in less than two hundred years, gone from a persecuted minority to a force in pop culture, politics, and world religion.
How did this transformation happen? How do Mormons relate to Christians and other religious groups?
The Birth of a New Religion
In the 1820s, the Industrial Revolution and a religious movement called the Second Great Awakening rearranged the American cultural landscape. Out of this seedbed of change came a man from rural New York named Joseph Smith, who claimed to have a special revelation from Jesus Christ.1
When a teenager, Smith prayed that God would show him the right church to join. That night, Father God and Jesus visited him in physical form. They told Smith that no existing church was the true church.2
In the coming years, Smith continued to have miraculous experiences. This included the visit of an angel named Moroni, who led Smith to a buried box full of golden plates covered in writing. Some accounts say that Smith placed the plates along with a “seer stone” in a hat to help him translate.3 The stones told of how Israelite refugees had escaped to the Americas and received a visit from the resurrected Jesus Christ. In 1830, Smith’s translations were published as The Book of Mormon.
In the name of restoring the true church, Smith gathered converts around western New York. The fledgling movement gathered steam when a minister in Ohio led his entire church to accept Smith's ideas. The new religion set up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and made Kirtland, Ohio, the home of the first Mormon temple.4
Innovation and Violence
The next decade brought both innovation and conflict for the young religion. Smith continued to revise The Book of Mormon and write subsequent religious texts. He proclaimed that Mormons would live under communitarian economic policies and would build a literal kingdom of God.5 Smith claimed to receive ongoing revelation from God.
Mormonism was a clear departure from historical Christianity. One of the religion’s most unique and controversial teachings was polygamy (plural marriage), which made many non-Mormons uncomfortable. Smith also stated a clear intention to build a self-governing kingdom. These declarations would create tension for decades to come.6
Economic pressure and violence eventually forced the Mormons to flee Ohio, first to Missouri and then to Illinois. In 1844, Smith had the printing press of a dissenting newspaper destroyed. Mob violence erupted, and ultimately Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed.
Into the power vacuum stepped Brigham Young.7 Young led the charge to establish a permanent home in the territory that would eventually become Utah. Mormons established Salt Lake City and colonies from Canada to Mexico.
Young became the governor of the Territory of Utah, but his unwillingness to accept non-Mormon appointees raised the ire of President James Buchanan. War was narrowly avoided, but the United States government continued to use the issue of polygamy to put pressure on the fledgling kingdom. In 1890, the new Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff officially ended the practice of polygamy. This opened the door to Utah's admission into the Union in 1898.8
Mormonism has since made a steady move toward mainstream American culture. This came at the cost of “some of their most distinctive institutions and beliefs: economic communitarianism, plural marriage, and the political kingdom.”9 Instead, they became more known for their strict behavioral codes, such as abstaining from alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
Mormons have worked hard to present themselves as sincerely focused on family values and education. Perhaps the biggest shift took place in 1978, when then-Mormon President Spencer Kimball declared “the priesthood,” a lay office then only available to white men, open to males of all races.10
Is Reconciliation Possible?
Another key shift has been the attempt by the church's leadership and academic scholars to be recognized as a part of mainstream Christianity. In 1998, Mormon scholar Stephen E. Robinson coauthored How Wide the Divide? with evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg.
Traditionally Mormons have taught that the Bible is only reliable when translated “correctly."11 They publish a highly annotated edition of the King James Bible, as well as an edition translated by Joseph Smith. Robinson seems to contrast the conventional Mormon approach by claiming “there is not a single verse of the Bible the Latter-day Saints do not accept.”12
But key distinctions remain. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians adhere to beliefs found in traditions like the Apostles’ Creed. This creed refers to God as “creator” and “maker of heaven and earth.” This is a clear delineation that acknowledges God as a separate being beyond humans and creation. Robinson highlights the Mormon doctrine of Eternal Progression, which teaches that God the Father and Jesus are human beings who became gods. Mormon teachers capture this with the phrase “as man is, God once was; as God is, man may be.”13
Despite these differences, some reconciliation does seem to be taking place. During the 2012 election, famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham’s campaign unofficially encouraged Christians to vote for the Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney.14 Richard Mouw, the president of the evangelical institution Fuller Theological Seminary has also promoted dialogue and research between academic institutions.15
From Broadway to the White House
In June 2011, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story titled “Mormons Rock!” The article discussed the proliferation of Mormonism in pop culture and politics.
College-aged Mormons dedicate two years of their lives to missionary service. Glen Beck, a Mormon convert, hosts an influential talk show. The 2011 Broadway musical The Book of Mormon won nine Tony awards, including Best Musical.16 Mormon Governor Mitt Romney won the nomination for the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The religion has become impossible to ignore.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now claims 29,014 congregations with 14,782,473 members worldwide.17 However, despite the growth of Mormonism in pop culture and the religious landscape, it remains to be seen how mainstream America and the world will embrace this burgeoning movement.