Mormons? Who Are They?

So before we start on our journey of comparing and contrasting Mormonism and Catholicism, it would be helpful for Catholic posters to understand just what exactly Mormonism is.  This post will be adapted from another post I had written elsewhere.  This will be a very long post, so please feel free to read it in pieces and come back to it!

Overview

The “Mormon Church” is more properly known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It was officially organized on April 6, 1830 in upstate New York.  The LDS Church claims a worldwide membership of over 13 million members, over half of which reside outside of the United States.

The founding prophet of the LDS Church was Joseph Smith.  He was born in 1805 in Vermont.  About 10 years later, Smith moved with his family to Palmyra, New York (western upstate New York).  A number of years later, in 1820, Joseph Smith became concerned with his soul and religious matters.  He was reading the Bible when he happened upon James 1:5-“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”  Joseph then went to the forest near his home, and prayed to God.  Suddenly, he had what the LDS Church believes to be a pivotal vision in the history of the world.  At that moment, Smith saw a pillar of light come down from the sky.  He saw two “personages”: God the Father, and Jesus Christ.  God the Father pointed at Jesus Christ, and said “This is my Beloved Son: Here Him!”.  Joseph Smith asked which church he should belong to.  Jesus Christ then gave a very important answer: none of them.  He said that all creeds were an abomination, and that the “professors” of the creeds are corrupt.

Three years later, Smith had another important vision in Mormonism.  One night before bed, Smith beheld a pillar of light.  In it, another Heavenly being visited.  This was the angel Moroni.  Moroni informed Smith that God had something for him to do: there was a book of gold plates in existence that documented the activities of peoples that lived on the North American continent.  This account contained “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel…as it was delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants”.  Four years later, in 1827, Smith was finally allowed access to the gold plates.  These plates were purportedly written in a language called “reformed Egyptian”. These plates, once translated into English, would become what is now known as the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of groups of peoples in “the Americas” (the locations are disputed within the LDS Church itself) that originated from the Middle East.  According to the Book, there was a prophet named Lehi that lived in Jerusalem somewhere near 600 BC.  He was informed by God that the city was about to be destroyed.  Because of this, he sailed with a group of people to North America.  When Lehi died, these Hebrews in America split into two groups, named after two of Lehi’s sons: the Nephites, generally the good guys, and the Lamanites, generally the bad guys.  There were many similarities between this new civilization and that of the Middle East, with prophets, temples, wars, etc.  Each of these prophets wrote their accounts of events, many of which are found in the Book of Mormon.  They all prophesied of Jesus Christ.  Somewhere about 34 AD, after Christ ascended to Heaven according to the Bible, the prophet Nephi wrote that Jesus came to America, and ministered to the people there.  Jesus then ascended again, after which war began again in America.  The Nephites were then killed off by the Lamanites in a great battle, and the Lamanites are seen as among the ancestors of the Native Americans.  The prophet Mormon put together the works of the other prophets, inscribing them on the gold plates found by Joseph Smith.  His son Moroni, the same angel that visited Smith, then buried these gold plates.

Throughout the subsequent years, Smith set about to forming the “restored” Church of Jesus Christ, with the “restored Gospel”.  According to Mormon theology, when Jesus established his Church in ancient times, various heresies crept in.  In the end, it resulted in something called the “Great Apostasy”, a falling away from the true Faith of Jesus Christ.  The “keys” were no longer on the earth with the death of the last Apostle.  The true Church of Jesus Christ was no longer present on earth, and God’s priesthood was not present to offer the saving ordinances necessary for salvation.  Therefore, it had to be restored, and this occurred 1800 years later, when the Father and the Son appeared to the latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith.  Other scriptures besides the Book of Mormon were also revealed, including the Doctrine and Covenants  (latter day revelations documenting the restoration and other events) and the Pearl of Great Price (including the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, Joseph Smith-History, Joseph Smith-Matthew, and the Articles of Faith).

Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery were visited in the following years by John the Baptist, who restored and ordained them to the “Aaronic Priesthood”.  Afterward, Peter, James, and John also appeared to them, and who restored and ordained them to the “Melchizedek Priesthood”.  Smith continued to receive various revelations from God (indeed, the LDS Church claims that its President, or Prophet, can receive direct revelations from God to guide the church and doctrine) to formulate new doctrine.  These revelations are found in another book of Mormon scripture, Doctrine and Covenants (along with other revelations by subsequent Prophets).  The Pearl of Great Price is another book of scripture, and these four books (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) are regarded as the “standard works” of Mormon scripture.  Smith was killed in 1844 by a group of people that came to the jail where he was being held.  He was 38 years old.

Throughout the years, the LDS Church has encountered persecution.  It has also believed in and practice various doctrines that I will discuss in this blog, such as polygamy and a ban of black males from the priesthood.  As the LDS Church sees itself as the true Church of Jesus Christ restored on earth, and that there was an apostasy, there are various differences between “traditional Christianity” and the LDS faith.  Some of them include:

  • the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate Persons that are one in purpose
  • Jesus Christ not only has a glorified body (as Trinitarians believe), but God the Father also has a glorified body of flesh and bones (some LDS prophets have taught that God the Father was once a man that progressed to Godhood)
  • God the Father is married to the Heavenly Mother
  • continued public revelation with more scriptures
  • proxy ordinances for the deceased.  Those that were not baptized by the authority of the LDS Church int his life may receive baptism, as well as the other “saving ordinances” (baptism, confirmation, Melchizedek priesthood ordination for men, Endowment, Sealing/Eternal Marriage)
  • Temples, open only to those that have a “recommend”, where they perform baptism for the dead, other proxy ordinances for the dead, the endowment, and sealing (eternal marriage).  Temples are distinct from meetinghouses, where they have Sunday worship services and other activities
  • Three degrees of Heaven: Celestial (highest), Terrestrial, Telestial
  • the pre-mortal existence.  We existed before we were born as literal spirit children of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.
  • exaltation, or the belief that we can become gods (various differences between exaltation and the tradition deification or theosis)
  • the Word of Wisdom, a health code that includes a prohibition against the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea

LDS Priesthood and Church Structure

The LDS Church therefore sees itself as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), the restoration of Christ’s Church, possessing God’s priesthood, and that it is only through participating in the ordinances offered by that priesthood that we may receive eternal life, return to live in God’s presence, in eternal families, becoming gods.

The LDS priest, as mentioned, is divided into two: the Melchizedek, or higher, Priesthood, and the Aaronic, or lesser, Priesthood.  The priesthood is conferred, by laying on of hands by one in authority, on LDS males beginning with deacons at age 12, teachers age 14, priests age 16, and elder age 18.  The offices of the priesthood are:

Aaronic Priesthood

  • Deacon
  • Teacher
  • Priest
  • Bishop (who is also a high priest)

Melchizedek Priesthood

  • Elder
  • High Priest
  • Patriarch
  • Seventy
  • Apostle

Organizationally, at the top is the First Presidency.  comprised of the President of the Church, and two Counselors.  The President is frequently referred to as “the Prophet”, and receives revelation for the entire Church.  Below them is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  The fifteen men that comprise the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are sustained as “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” by members of the faith.  Below them are various Quorums of the Seventy (currently 8, each able to hold up to 70 members, though none have that many).  Below the Seventy is the Presiding Bishopric, comprised of the Presiding Bishop and two Counselors, who are the presidency of the worldwide Aaronic Priesthood.  The First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, First and Second Quorums of the Seventy, and Presiding Bishopric together are referred to as “General Authorities”.

Local Organization

At the local level, members are organized into “wards” (equivalent to a Catholic parish).  Each ward is presided over by a Bishop (similar to a Catholic priest) and two counselors.  Males also participate in “quorums” based on their priesthood ordination.  Adult males are part of the Elders Quorum or High Priests group.  Adult women participate in Relief Society.  Each group has a President and Counselors over it (I was Elders Quorum President).

A group of wards in an area are organized into a “stake” (like a Catholic diocese), presided over by a Stake President (like a Catholic Bishop) and two Counselors.

Sunday Worship

The worship in an LDS chapel on Sundays is similar in style to more “low church” Protestant churches.  There is “Sacrament Meeting”, equivalent to Catholic Mass.  Sacrament Meeting begins with announcements, followed by a hymn.  Then there is an opening prayer, followed by any ward business (such as announcing a person being called to serve in a position, someone being released from a calling, a confirmation, etc).  Then there is a Sacrament hymn (LDS refer to Communion as “the Sacrament”), and the administration of the Sacrament.  A white table cloth covers the bread and cups of water (LDS use water inside of wine or grape juice), and is uncovered.  Aaronic priests or higher then say the LDS Sacrament prayers over the bread and water (noting that this does not include the use of Christ’s words at the Lord’s Supper, and LDS do not accept a belief in the Real Presence), and it is then distributed to members at their seats, as they pass it to each other.  Following this, members of the congregation that have been previously assigned give “talks” or sermons on specific topics.  There may be a hymn in between talks.  The meeting then concludes with a closing hymn and a closing prayer.

On the first Sunday of each month, LDS have “Fast and Testimony Meeting”.  This meeting follows the same format as above, except instead of the talks, members go up and share their testimonies as they are moved to.  This follows fasting for two meals prior.

After the Sacrament Meeting, members go to Sunday School.  Various classes are typically taught at the same time, though most will attend the Gospel Doctrine class.  In this class, members study out of one of the LDS scriptures, based on a yearly rotating schedule.  Other classes may include marriage preparation, temple preparation, mission preparation, Gospel Principles for new members and investigators, family history, etc.

Following Sunday School, members divide based on gender, and go to their respective quorum or group meetings (i.e. Elders Quorum for men and Relief Society for women).  In total, Mormons meet for 3 hours each Sunday.

Temples

When people think of Mormonism, quite frequently they picture the Salt Lake Temple.  Temples are a very important part of the LDS faith.  As mentioned, LDS go to their meetinghouses for Sunday worship.  They also have over 100 temples throughout the world where they go for special ordinances, or rituals.  Temples are regarded as very sacred houses of God.  Therefore, only LDS members with a special “temple recommend”, given after interviewing with local church leaders (basically asking if they believe the teachings of the Church and are living the standards of the faith), are able to enter after a temple is dedicated.  Temples are not on large spacious interior, but are divided into different rooms for different functions.  There is a baptistry where baptisms for the dead are performed, believed to offer those that died without valid (i.e. LDS) baptism the opportunity  to accept or reject the restored gospel.  There is another room where confirmations for the dead are performed.  LDS also go there for the Endowment.  Basically, this is a presentation of the Plan of Salvation, beginning with the Creation and the Fall.  Members make various covenants, don sacred clothing, etc.  The Endowment culminates in the Celestial Room, which symbolizes God’s presence.  There, members sit and pray, meditate, read scripture, etc.  There are also sealing rooms, where members are married for eternity.  The temple symbolizes the pinnacle of the faith for Mormons.  It symbolizes returning back to God’s presence, as an eternal family.  They look forward to the day when they can go to the temple and receive the Endowment and Sealing for themselves (necessary for eternal life), as well as offer all the saving ordinances to their deceased ancestors.

General Conference

Mormons gather together twice a year (in April and October) to listen to their leaders speak.  This is a two day weekend conference, where LDS believe they hear the inspired words of their prophets, apostles, and other leaders and authorities.  Hymns are also sung throughout, and information is given, such as the membership numbers of the Church, new temples, etc.  Although the Conference takes place at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is broadcast to church buildings around the world, and is also available to view live on the internet and on TV.  Members do not go to regular church services during that weekend.

Conclusion

Wow, that was long!  I hope you stayed with it, or came back to finish reading it, and that it gave you an overview of what the LDS Church is about.  This blog will talk more about specific components of LDS belief and practice, critique them (or praise things that are great!), and compare them to Catholicism.

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5 Responses to Mormons? Who Are They?

  1. randommeditations says:

    Very nice overview.

  2. Danielle says:

    This was very very helpful! I am actually doing a comparison of the same thing but less of practice and more on belief. I am reading through the book of mormon! Eventually, after learning more, I want to compare the D&C with my catechism so I can clearly see the difference in doctrine. So yeah, this is very helpful!

    • Thank you Danielle!

      As for your studies, I think that it’s good that you’ve endeavored to read the LDS scriptures to have a better understanding of their beliefs from their own perspective (also, I hope that this isn’t interrupting your personal Catholic devotional practices!).

      I’m not sure if it makes sense to compare the D&C to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, since they really aren’t the same thing. While I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most of the uniquely LDS beliefs are revealed and/or contained/referenced in the Doctrine and Covenants, more than in the Book of Mormon, it isn’t a systematized “catechism” per se. Perhaps you may be interested in reading the Gospel Principles manual. This is used during the Sunday School hour of LDS Sunday services, in a class for new members and investigators.

      https://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles?lang=eng

  3. Pingback: A Great Experience: The Church, God’s Flesh, and The Scripture | things shiva taught me

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