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Overview of Mormonism

Mormonism is an ancient religion that was restored in the early 1800s. Mormonism is an unofficial name used to refer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also called Mormon Church). Mormonism refers to the doctrines taught by Joseph Smith and the succeeding prophets and leaders of the Church, but those doctrines are believed to be eternal and part of the original gospel preached by Jesus Christ.

Mormonism is defined as a branch of Christianity, encompassing numerous religious denominations, but Mormonism is generally associated with the theology and subculture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most people who are members of the Mormon Church prefer to be called Latter-Day Saints instead of mormons. Other generally acceptable terms are LDS, Saints, and Mormons. Also, a few people view the terms Mormon and Mormonism as offensive.

The term "Mormon" derives from The Book of Mormon, that was published in 1830 and that more recently was subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to highlight the importance of the information about the Savior that is contained in the book. The Book of Mormon is accepted by the Mormon Church (LDS) as scripture along with the Bible.
Mormonism also refers to the doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and the succeeding prophets and leaders of the Mormon Church. It views human life as one of the stages in the eternal progression of intelligent beings who are God's spirit children. Men and women are allowed to choose whether to accept or reject Christ's gospel, teachings, and covenants. Mormons believe that the Church's teachings as truly Christian and they were restored to earth in its original purity by Christ himself through Joseph Smith. For this reason they usually refer to the Church as the "Restored" Church.
Mormonism includes in its theology many doctrines that are shared by many other Christian churches in different degrees. Mormons believe in a personal God who is concerned with his children; Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and he came on the earth to preach the gospel, establish His Church, and perform the infinite Atonement. Men and women need to repent, be baptized by the proper authority, and continue to keep the commandments to be saved.
Continuing revelation is probably a distinctive characteristic of Mormonism and it’s another basic doctrine of the Mormon Church. The value of marriage and family is of the highest importance among Mormons and genealogical research is a distinctive mark of this religion.

 

 

"Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life." (The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 31:20)


by W. John Walsh

The term Mormonism describes the Christian religious, cultural, and institutional tradition associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the official designation of the religion "established on April 6, 1830, at Fayette, New York, under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith." (1) The Church considers itself "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth" (2) and "the kingdom of God on the earth, a divinely established institution through which God accomplishes his purposes pertaining to the salvation of his children." (3) The Church does not claim to teach a new form of Christianity, but instead restores the ancient teachings of Jesus Christ which had been lost from the earth through apostasy. (4) Each word in the official name of the Church bears special meaning:

"‘The Church of Jesus Christ’ indicates that Jesus Christ stands at the head of the Church, and that his gospel, teachings, and divine authority constitute the fundamental basis of the Church. The term ‘Saints’ is in accord with New Testament usage connoting a member of the covenant group (Acts 9:13, 32, 41; Rom. 1:7; Phil. 1:1) It has no direct relationship to the connotation of ‘saints’ as used in Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions. The term ‘Latter-day’ indicates that the Church was restored in the last era of human history prior to the second coming of Christ and also distinguishes today's Church from the ‘Former-day’ organization established by Christ during his mortal ministry in Palestine. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a divinely restored embodiment of the original Church of Jesus Christ, and the appointed guardian of its doctrine, authority, and divine mission." (5)

Since "the headquarters and central administrative offices of the Church are [presently] located in Salt Lake City, Utah" (6) and the denomination originated in the United States, the Church has been called an "American religion" by some people. (7) However, Mormonism is actually a worldwide religion with more members outside of the United States than inside. (8) The "Church was organized with six members" in 1830, (9) but there were almost eleven million members as of 2000. (10) Unlike many other Christian Churches in the modern area which are slowly deteriorating in membership, Mormons have a growing and vibrant faith. (11) Some religious sociologists have "predicted that the LDS Church will become the next major world religion." (12)

The term Mormonism is derived from the man Mormon, an ancient American prophet who is believed to have lived approximately 310-385 A. D. (13) "The Book of Mormon bears his name because he was the major abridger-writer of the gold plates from which it was translated." (14) Since Latter-day Saints alone among Christians include "the Book of Mormon [as] the word of God" (15) along with the Bible, nonmembers of the tradition nicknamed members of the Church as "Mormons" and their faith as "Mormonism" to distinguish it from Protestantism and Catholicism.

Nonmembers of the Church often designate members of the Church as Mormons, but members of the Church typically refer to themselves as Latter-day Saints, with LDS being an abbreviated adjective applying to things associated with their distinctive world view (e.g., LDS morality standards). "By referring to themselves as Latter-day Saints, members of the Church reaffirm their historical tie to original Christians (the Former-day Saints of the New Testament) but differentiate the two time periods." (16)

While members of the Church have designated themselves as Latter-day Saints from the beginning of their existence, (17) they also reluctantly accepted the Mormon and Mormonism designations as well, even though they were created by outsiders to the tradition, since they were deemed as comparable to other Christian religious traditional and denominational terms such as Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Lutheranism, etc. (18) However, in recent years, conservative Protestants have increased efforts to exclude Latter-day Saints from the Christian umbrella. They have tried to redefine the Mormonism designation as something distinct from Christianity. In other words, conservative Protestants have suggested Mormonism is one thing and Christianity in all of its myriad forms is something else. (See Are Mormons Christians?)

In response to these attacks, the Church has recently made special efforts (19) to remind people that, as attested by their official name, the faith is a Christian denomination and that "Jesus Christ is personally the Head of the Church, leading and guiding it by revelation." (20) This is consistent with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s explanation that "the fundamental principles of [the LDS] religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it." (21) (See Teachings About Jesus Christ home page)

The Church teaches that "the family is the basic unit of the kingdom of God on earth." (See Teachings About Marriage and Family Relationships home page) (22) All Church programs and instruction are designed to help the family as a unit progress towards eternal life. Church leaders have summarized efforts at bringing eternal salvation to families as three principal missions:

"—To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;

—To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation;

—To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.

All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and his Son, Jesus Christ, in their grand and glorious mission ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.’ (Moses 1:39.)" (23)

The Church hierarchy is also designed to aid the organization in carrying out its’ mission. LDS congregations, "usually numbering between 200 and 600 members," (24) are called wards. "Wards are usually organized according to geographical boundaries, and all members living within those boundaries belong to the same ward." (25) Congregations with less than 200 members are usually called Branches. "Stakes are an intermediate unit of organization between Church headquarters and the local wards [or branches]." (26)

While "the Church is governed by priesthood authority," (27) it depends upon local members of the congregation to lead worship services instead of employing professional priests or preachers. Lay participation and leadership is "one of the important defining characteristics" (28) of the LDS religion. Instead of a select few being ordained to the priesthood as in some denominations, "all worthy male members of the Church" (29) serve in various priesthood callings or positions in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All worthy men and women in the Church are expected to serve in varioius capacities which help the Church succeed in its "mission, as a church, [which] is to bring people to a knowledge of Christ and thus avoid all unnecessary suffering," (30) both in this life and in the life to come. Latter-day Saints believe some of these blessings and knowledge are received through priesthood ordinances, which when worthily performed are conduits of divine grace and power.

Ward leaders are supervised by stake leaders, who in turn are supervised by priesthood officers designated as General Authorities, who are "delegated general administrative authority..." (31) "In order of precedence, the General Authorities include the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, quorums of the seventy, and Presiding Bishopric." (32)

The President of the Church, the presiding officer of the First Presidency and thus the Church as a whole as well, is the highest official in the organization and is considered God’s "earthly spokesman," (33) as well as the "senior apostle" (34) of Jesus Christ upon the earth. As the "earthly representative" (35) of the Godhead, the President of the Church leads the organization on a day-to-day basis and is "the prophet, seer, and revelator who is authorized to direct the affairs of the Church throughout the earth." (36) For Latter-day Saints, the President of the Church is what Moses was to ancient Israel and Peter was to the New Testament Church combined into one.

The Church has "a more extensive and more open canon of scripture than those accepted by other Christians and by Jews." (37) (See Scriptural Writings home page) In addition to the King James Version of the Bible, Latter-day Saints accept the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as scripture. These four works are collectively called the Standard Works and are the "measuring yardsticks" (38) for Church doctrine and instruction. Furthermore, Latter-day Saints accept continuing revelation and believe Church leaders have the necessary authority from God to add to the revealed canon as needed. As one Church leader noted, "The restored Church of Jesus Christ is founded upon the rock of revelation. Continuous revelation is indeed the very lifeblood of the gospel of the living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…." (39) (See Prayer, Fasting, and Revelation home page)

A few distinctive LDS beliefs and practices include the "continuation of the marriage covenant, and the family as a unit" after death; (40) the strong desire for "having large families and rearing them righteously;" (41) Sunday as "a day set apart for rest and spiritual renewal;" (42) sexual "abstinence before marriage and fidelity within"; (43) a "special health code" called the Word of Wisdom; (44) and an interest in "working on their family histories." (45)

Mormonism is a "way of life" (46) and not a Sunday-only religion. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to "dedicate [themselves], [their] families, [their] substance, [their] time, [their] talents, and everything [they] have upon the face of this world" (47) to furthering the purposes of God. While Sunday worship services only last three hours per week, "a typical family is likely to spend many hours each week in Church-related activities, meetings, and service." (48)

(See Welcome page)


Notes

(1)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(2)  Doctrine and Covenants 1:30, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.

(3)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(4)  When discussing the writings of the apostle John, Orson F. Whitney discussed the great apostasy as follows: "Already [when the Book of Revelation was written] were the signs of the apostacy, that "falling away" which Paul had predicted, beginning to show themselves in the Christian church; already were its disciples turning away their ears from the truth and turning them unto fables. The days when they would not "endure sound doctrine" were approaching. They were therefore reminded of their condition, admonished of the consequences of pride, sensuality, worldliness, and the neglect of their duties as Saints; and John was told to "write" what the Spirit said unto the churches. But the warning seems to have been unheeded. The "falling away" continued, the apostacy gradually went on, Christianity became worldly, wealthy, proud, luxurious, corrupt, until finally it lost its spiritual gifts and graces. The Gospel was perverted, the Priesthood taken away, and the church was left with an empty "form of godliness," "denying the power thereof." Christianity paganized itself in order to be popular with the Roman world and escape persecution. It became so popular that the emperor himself--Constantine--became a Christian. But that hour, so seemingly auspicious, was not so in reality. It was the hour of the church's decay; and from that time, though many good men and women remained in it, Ichabod has written upon its towers; its pristine power and glory has departed. Hence the necessity for the Gospel's restoration in the latter days." From an address given in 1896 and transcribed in Collected Discourses, Vol. 5.

(5)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(6)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(7)  For example, Count Leo Tolstoi, a Russian diplomat, author, and philosopher referred to Mormonism as the American Religion because it originated in New York. He noted "Catholicism originated in Rome; the Episcopal Church originated in England; the Lutheran Church in Germany, but the Church to which I refer[ed to as the American Church] originated in America…" LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Ch.29, p.413

(8)  See Membership Distribution section of the Church’s Media Guide.

(9)  Woodruff, Wilford, The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1946, p.109 - p.110.

(10)  The 1999 Statistical Report listed 10,752,986 members. See April 2000 Conference Report in May 2000 Ensign Magazine.

(11)  See National Council of Churches’ data on membership distribution as reported by Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service in Contra Costa Times on February 17, 2001. Some people have suggested that liberal, main-line churches have been losing members during the past few years, due to the extreme liberalism expressed in their teachings, while conservative movements like Mormonism and Evangelical Protestantism have been growing in strength.

(12)  "Vital Statistics" Tim B. Heaton, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(13)  Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981, pp. 469, 480.

(14)  "Mormon" Phyllis Ann Roundy, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(15)  "Articles of Faith", Pearl of Great Price, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981, p. 60.

(16)  "Latter-day Saints (LDS)" Robert Bennet, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(17)  For example, in 1842, Joseph Smith wrote "Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness…" D&C 128:24

(18)  For example, "We call ourselves Christians, that is, we Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Mormons, we all call ourselves Christians." John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1987, p.75-76.

(19)  The text of the First Presidency letter of 23 February 2001 reads in part: "As the Church grows across boundaries, cultures and languages, the use of the revealed name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (D&C 115:4), is increasingly important in our responsibility to proclaim the name of the Savior throughout all the world. Accordingly, we ask that when we refer to the Church we use its full name wherever possible. While this official name is not being shortened, the contractions ‘The Church’ or ‘The Church of Jesus Christ’ are acceptable. We discourage referring to the Church as ‘The Mormon Church,’ ‘The Latter-day Saints Church’ or ‘The LDS Church.’ When referring to Church members, we suggest ‘members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ As a shortened reference, ‘Latter-day Saints’ is preferred, but ‘Mormons’ is acceptable. We of course will continue to use the word Mormon in proper names like The Book of Mormon or Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and as an adjective in such references as ‘Mormon pioneers.’"

(20)  "Head of the Church" Burns R. Sabey, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(21)  Smith, Joseph, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1938, p. 121.

(22)  Kimball, Spencer W., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 331.

(23)  Kimball, Spencer W., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 434.

(24)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(25)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(26)  "Stakes" Stan L. Albrecht, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(27)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(28)  "Lay Participation and Leadership" Paul H. Thompson, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(29)  Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 2, Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.

(30)  "Adversity" Romney, Marion G., Ed. Rulon T. Burton, We Believe, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1994.

(31)  McConkie, Bruce R., Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 309.

(32)  "General Authorities" Marvin K. Gardner, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(33)  Maxwell, Neal A., A More Excellent Way, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1973, p.28.(34)  Kimball, Spencer W., Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1973, p.314.

(35)  Benson, Ezra Taft, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988, p.140.

(36)  "The President of the Church" J. Lynn England and W. Keith Warner, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.(37)  "Canon" Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

(38)  Smith, Joseph Fielding, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.3, p.203.

(39)  Kimball, Spencer W., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 443.(40)  Smith, Joseph Fielding, The Way to Perfection, p. 253.(41)  Kimball, Spencer W., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 325.(42)  "Sabbath Day" William B. Smart, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.(43)  Church News, The Conference Issues, April 11, 1992, p.18.(44)  Kimball, Spencer W., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 554.(45)  Benson, Ezra Taft, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 179.(46)  McKay, David O., Gospel Ideals, p.311.(47)  Young, Brigham, Journal of Discourses, Vol.1, 1852, p.199 - p.200.

(48)  "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" Bruce Douglas Porter, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

 

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