Holy Envy? Things I Appreciate About Mormonism

Oftentimes, over at Catholic Answers Forum in the LDS-related threads, there can be a heavy emphasis on pointing out the issues that non-LDS have with the LDS faith.  Some posters seem to always bring up negative issues, and seem to be incapable of not making emotional arguments and vilifying Latter-day Saints.  For them, there is always some negative, ulterior motive behind LDS participants there, things that the LDS Church does and says, etc.  If someone says something admirable or appreciative about Mormonism, they will quickly insert something negative into it.

So, in this post, I thought it would be nice to talk about things that I appreciate about the LDS faith.  While doctrinally I find nothing that I wish the Catholic Church had (and I find that my time as a Latter-day Saint helped me to appreciate Catholic teachings more, and actually understand things that I didn’t understand when I left Catholicism for Mormonism, such as revelation and prophets), there are certain practical matters that I think many Catholics could learn from.  With that said, many of these items are not limited to Latter-day Saints; it’s merely the example I use as it comes from personal experience.

“Holy envy” comes from Krister Stendahl, former Bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden, Professor of New Testament, and Dean of Harvard Divinity School.  He died in 2008.  To him, “holy envy” meant that we can look at other faiths and find things that are admirable and meaningful that may not necessarily be found in your own faith.  There are five main areas of Mormonism that I appreciate:

  • Emphasis on Scripture Study– LDS leaders heavily emphasis reading the scriptures (which of course includes, in addition to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants).  Whether in General Conferences, in the Ensign Church Magazine (the latest issue has an article on the matter-“Scripture Study for Family Strength“, local leaders, etc, Latter-day Saints are encouraged to read and study their scriptures every day.   Practically every LDS congregation has a Sunday School hour where members read from and learn principles from their scriptures (each year is devoted to a specific volume of scripture).  I’d venture to guess that LDS tend to read their personal copies of their scriptures more than Catholics do.

 

  • Emphasis on Personal Revelation-Revelation is a concept that is very important in Mormonism.  While I think that there are misunderstandings with how LDS view the Catholic understanding of revelation, both faiths believe that God still speaks, and that He can speak to us individually.  However, Latter-day Saints are well known for their emphasis on personal revelation and finding answers for oneself through prayer.  LDS missionaries encourage “investigators” to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to know whether it is true.  Mormons go to the temple to receive guidance from God on difficult or important matters in their lives.  Practically every General Conference includes a talk or two about how to receive personal revelation.  The latest issue of the Ensign Church Magazine has three articles on the topic: “Opening Our Hearts to Revelation“, “In His Own Time, in His Own Way“, and “The Leader’s Road to Revelation“.  Mormons quite frequently talk about how they prayed about something and believe that they received an answer from God to help them.

 

  • Young Adults in Church-As someone in their 20s, I really appreciated the “Young Single Adult” (YSA) scene in the LDS faith.  It was nice to be around young people that not only attended church every Sunday, but were active participants and leaders in the running of the congregation (I was a member of a YSA ward, or congregation, which is comprised solely of single adults between the ages of 18 and 31.  Once you turn 31, you are asked to attend the conventional, or “family” ward).  Seeing young adults go to church for 3 hours, many times more (such as for ward council, “linger longers” after, etc) was great.  Now, Catholic parishes on university campuses, or near universities also tend to have large numbers of young adults attending and participating in the life of the parish.

 

  • Religious Education and Activities-Formal Catholic religious education many times tends to end in the teenage years, after Confirmation.  While most Catholic parishes and cathedrals have a host of liturgies and devotions, which are indeed a form of religious education (I’m sure LDS that have attended the temple understand the concept of learning through ritual), there tends to be a lack of formal religious education classes for adults, excluding of course the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), which is for “investigators” of the Catholic faith.  Most LDS congregations on Sundays have Sunday School for about an hour, as well as Priesthood/Relief Society meetings for about another hour where further religious education is received.  During the week, many areas, especially those with many young adults that are “college-aged” (i.e. 20s), have “Institute”, classes on specific topics offered either on a college campus or at a church building.  For example, in my area this summer, there are classes on Teachings of the Living Prophets, the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Mormon, Old Testament Minor Prophets, and Doctrines of the Gospel.  These are opportunities for more in-depth study than would be found in Sunday School, as well as a social opportunity.  I loved having these ways to study my religion with others, especially people around my age, in formal church settings.  In addition, I loved all the activities that are available to socialize with members of the congregation, as well as other members in the area.  Whether it’s stake conference, YSA regional conferences (oh the church dances…), barbecue or ice cream after church (“linger longer”), Family Home Evening activities every Monday, monthly ward temple trips, etc, there is always something to do if you’d like.
  • Missionary Work-Mormons are well known for their missionary work.  Young men (and, less often, young women, as well as senior couples) going around with their characteristic name tags are a well known sight, at least in the United States.  Young men are strongly encouraged to serve a full-time, 2 year mission.  It is admirable that young people give up part of their youth to preach their faith, full time, instead of doing what many other young people would be doing at that time.  Further, all members are strongly encouraged to participate in missionary work, and are taught to be “member missionaries“.  Whether it’s sharing a Mormon.org profile, giving a friend a Book of Mormon, going out with the full-time missionaries, trying to help an inactive member come to church, etc, Latter-day Saints emphasize the importance of helping all come to their faith.  While the Catholic Church certainly has converted much of the world, and various Church-affiliated organizations aim to bring people to Catholicism, such as Catholics Come Home, there is something that can be appreciated by Latter-day Saints going out two by two to convert people, as well as the culture surrounding missionary work and how all members participate in it.
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New York Times Article-LDS Area Authority Seventy Expresses Doubts

It seems that many LDS (Mormon) blogs and forums are discussing this article, so I thought that I’d bring it to the attention of those that read this blog.  On July 20, 2013, the New York Times published the article “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt“, which discusses the experiences of Hans Mattsson, who served in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Area Seventy over Europe from 2000-2005.  The article is a great read, and I encourage all to take a look.

In addition, the transcript for the Fireside for Disaffected Swedish LDS, mentioned in the article which included Marlin K. Jensen, LDS Church Historian until 2012 and emeritus General Authority, as well as Richard E. Turley, Assistant Church Historian, can be read here.  Also, the Mormon Stories podcast blog interviewed Hans Mattsson, and the interview can be listened to here.

Many of his points resonate with the experiences of many disaffected Latter-day Saints, including myself.  In my case, I did extensive reading, and prayer, prior to my decision to leave the LDS Church and come back into full communion with the Catholic Church.  I read all of the Standard Works, searched LDS.org for various Conference talks on different topics, read many books and articles, including much of Hugh Nibley’s works (including The World and the Prophets, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, and Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity).  I’ve read many articles on FAIR and FARMS.  Etc.  I really was looking for help in understanding the difficult issues related to doctrines, ecclesiology, the Book of Mormon, etc, and focused on reading both sides to make an informed decision.  Some of the issues that Mattsson tried to grapple with, as mentioned in the NYT article, were also issues that I thought about, including Book of Mormon archaeology, how the Church presents historical matters, such as the translation of the Book of Mormon, the priesthood restriction of blacks until 1978 (until that time, black LDS males were not allowed to be ordained to the LDS priesthood (a major issue since the priesthood is given to worthy males beginning at age 12, and LDS love having the priesthood in the home, having fathers baptize and bless their children and spouses, etc), and black males and females were not allowed to enter temples to receive the blessings of the Endowment and Sealing (necessary for exaltation, full salvation in Mormonism)), etc.  Mattsson’s points included:

■ Why does the church always portray Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates, when witnesses described him looking down into a hat at a “peep stone,” a rock that he believed helped him find buried treasure?

■ Why were black men excluded from the priesthood from the mid-1800s until 1978?

■ Why did Smith claim that the Book of Abraham, a core scripture, was a translation of ancient writings from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, when Egyptologists now identify the papyrus that Smith used in the translation as a common funerary scroll that has nothing to do with Abraham?

■ Is it true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?

The Heavens Are Closed? LDS Misunderstanding of Orthodox Views on Revelation

One of the foundational claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that of a belief in “continuing revelation”.  This belief has many forms, however it can be summarized by the 9th Article of Faith of the LDS Church:

We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. 

Within that belief, there are many specific points frequently made by Latter-day Saints (i.e. Mormons).  One is the belief in an “open canon”.  Latter-day Saints are open to further canonized scripture outside of the Bible.  Their “Standard Works” of scripture include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price (further subdivided into different texts), and the Doctrine and Covenants.  Canonized revelations have been added to the Doctrine and Covenants at times in LDS history, most recently in 1978, with Official Declaration 2, which opened the LDS priesthood to all worthy males, when previously males of African ancestry were restricted from ordination to the LDS priesthood.

Mormons also believe that that God calls prophets to lead His people.  Latter-day Saints sustain the 3 men in the First Presidency, as well as the 12 men in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, who can receive revelation to guide and direct their Church.

Latter-day Saints also believe that individuals can receive personal revelation from God to guide their own lives, their families, and those they have stewardship over, such as in Church callings.

So, are these beliefs different from how traditional Christians view God and His interactions with mankind?  LDS leaders certainly think so.  Many LDS prophets, apostles, and other authorities have spoken on their belief that with the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet, with his “First Vision”, where God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him not to join any church, because they were all wrong (JS-History 1:9), Heaven was opened again, implying that it was closed prior to that moment.  Many LDS leaders and those bearing their testimonies have used the words “the Heavens are open” or “God still speaks”.  Further, LDS leaders have taught that because traditional Christians believe that the canon of scripture is closed, they therefore believe that God no longer speaks, is silent, etc.  Here are a few quotes:

“The third truth that Joseph Smith learned was that God still speaks to man today—that the heavens are not closed. One need but ask three questions, once proposed by President Hugh B. Brown, to arrive at that conclusion (see “The Profile of a Prophet,” Liahona, June 2006, 13; Ensign, June 2006, 37). First, does God love us as much today as He loved the people to whom He spoke in New Testament times? Second, does God have the same power today as He did then? And third, do we need Him as much today as they needed Him anciently? If the answers to those questions are yes and if God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, as the scriptures so declare (see Mormon 9:9), then there is little doubt: God does speak to man today exactly as Joseph Smith testified.-Tad R. Callister, of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, October 2009 General Conference, Joseph Smith-Prophet of the Restoration

Today I would like to address the other major doctrine which characterizes our faith but which causes concern to some, namely the bold assertion that God continues to speak His word and reveal His truth, revelations which mandate an open canon of scripture…This doctrine lies at the very heart of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our message to the world. It dramatizes the significance of a solemn assembly yesterday, in which we sustained Thomas S. Monson as a prophet, a seer, and a revelator. We believe in a God who is engaged in our lives, who is not silent, not absent, nor, as Elijah said of the god of the priests of Baal, is He “[on] a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be [awakened].” 13 In this Church, even our young Primary children recite, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”…I testify that the heavens are open.-Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, April 2008 General Conference, “My Words…Never Cease

A general conference of this Church is a remarkable occasion indeed—it is an institutional declaration that the heavens are open, that divine guidance is as real today as it was for the ancient house of Israel, that God our Heavenly Father loves us and speaks His will through a living prophet.-Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, October 1996 General Conference, “The Peaceable Things of the Kingdom”

Brothers and sisters, let us be wise. Let us turn to the pure doctrinal waters of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us joyfully partake of them in their simplicity and plainness. The heavens are open again. The gospel of Jesus Christ is on earth once more, and its simple truths are a plentiful source of joy!-Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, October 2010 General Conference, Of Things That Matter Most

I solemnly proclaim and testify that the heavens are open, that not only has God spoken but that He speaks today.-Brent H. Nielson, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, October 2009 General Conference, A Call to the Rising Generation

Among many other examples.  But do traditional Christians really believe, as LDS leaders state or imply, that God is silent, that He no longer speaks to His children, and that the Heavens are closed?  Speaking on Catholicism, the answer is clearly no.  I can happily share with you that the Catholic Church teaches, and embraces, the belief that God still does speak to us, that the Catholic Church, since it was established by Christ 2000 years ago, as recorded in the New Testament, is guided by the Holy Spirit (and the Holy Spirit protects the Church from falling into error, from failing, from becoming apostate, etc, since the Church is the Body of Christ, with Jesus Christ at its Head), that prophets and prophetesses throughout Catholic history have received messages from Heavenly messengers (angels, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, etc) that millions have accepted, that the Councils of the Church throughout its history have been inspired gatherings of the leaders of the Church, where, through human failings, dogmas have been formally defined and expounded upon, free from error through the Holy Spirit, and that all members of the Church, by virtue of their baptism, participate in Christ’s role as Prophet, Priest, and King, and can receive Heavenly guidance and inspiration for their lives (not only from God, but from His angels and the saints in Heaven).

But doesn’t the Catholic Church teach that public revelation ended with the New Testament apostles?  Yes it does!  But doesn’t that contradict what I just said in the paragraph above?  No it doesn’t!  Here is where many LDS that dialogue with Catholics get confused, and where many attempt to create a non-existent problem for Catholics.  “Public revelation”, in simple terms, refers to the knowledge that God revealed to man that is necessary for eternal life.  This revelation found its summit and fulness in the Incarnation, ministry, Atonement, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, since it is only through Him that we can be saved.  Catholics therefore believe that all that we need to know about how to receive eternal life has already been revealed, and there is nothing else that needs to be known about that.  This revelation is contained in Sacred Scripture (yes, the Catholic Church has closed the scriptural canon, i.e. the Bible, however that does not mean that it has closed God’s mouth, as we will see), as well as Sacred Tradition (noting that Catholics are not sola scriptura).  Although it has been revealed anciently, the Church, through the Holy Spirit-guided teaching authority, or “Magisterium” (Latin for “office of teaching”), basically the Pope and the other Bishops, functioning as successors to the Apostles, with the same authority as the New Testament Apostles, comes to a Divinely-inspired unfolding  understanding of that sacred Deposit of Faith.

Further, the Catholic Church also accepts so-called “private revelations”.  “Private” here does not mean that such revelations are kept to oneself.  These are technical phrases, and this one means that it is not required to be believed by everyone everywhere.  What is required to be believed is what is contained in “public revelation”, since that is the knowledge revealed by God that tells us how to be saved (and with Christ’s Incarnation, we see who saves us).  Private revelations can be Divine guidance for my personal life, or it could be more extravagant messages from Heaven, such as the various apparitions and visions surrounding Mary throughout Catholic history.  Although millions may be believe in certain private revelations, such as those at Lourdes, Fatima, or Guadalupe (to use the Marian examples), and many people may indeed be witness to the same revelation, such as at Fatima, we are not required to believe them.  When the Church evaluates such revelations, their declaration is only that they contain nothing contrary to faith and morals, and that they are worthy of belief, though they are not essential to our salvation.

So for Catholics, Heaven was never closed.  Yes, Latter-day Saints are correct when they say that the traditional belief is that the scriptural canon is closed.  However, that does not mean that the Heavens are closed and that God no longer speaks (noting again the specific way that Catholics understand “Public Revelation”, which includes the Bible).  Heaven has always been open, and God has always spoken to us.  He guides the Catholic Church into all Truth.  Messengers from Heaven have come throughout the history of the Catholic Church, into modern times.  All Catholics receive guidance from God through prayer.  God’s Divine grace comes through the sacred mysteries celebrated by the priesthood of God, the sacraments.  The Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ during New Testament times, is led by the Successors of the Apostles, the Bishops, who hold their same apostolic office and authority, and in communion with each other, and with the Pope (the successor of Peter), they are inspired to interpret the Deposit of Faith (i.e. the “Public Revelation”, what God has revealed on how to receive eternal life, which is complete and summarized in Christ), to expound on it when necessary (and to be protected by the Holy Spirit in doing so), and that all the members of the Church are not only able to receive inspiration from God for their lives, but also participate in the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the faithful, whereby we can all come to know, through the Spirit, the Truth of the Faith, and apply it to our daily lives.

I’ll close with a few relevant quotes:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

On Private Revelation

66 “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”28 Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private” revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

Christian faith cannot accept “revelations” that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such “revelations”.

On Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition

77      “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority.’”35 Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.

78      This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”37 “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

79      The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church—and through her in the world—leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.

81      “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.

On the Magisterium, The Living Teaching Authority of the Chruch

85      “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86      “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.

On the Sensus Fidelium, the Supernatural Sense of the Faithful

91      All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them53 and guides them into all truth.

93      “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),… receives… the faith, once for all delivered to the saints…. The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.”

94      Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church

On Angels

334      In the meantime, the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels.

336      From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.202 “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”203 Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.

On the Holy Spirit and the Church

737      The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This joint mission henceforth brings Christ’s faithful to share in his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them to Christ. The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection. He makes present the mystery of Christ, supremely in the Eucharist, in order to reconcile them, to bring them into communion with God, that they may “bear much fruit.”

739      Because the Holy Spirit is the anointing of Christ, it is Christ who, as the head of the Body, pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world. Through the Church’s sacraments, Christ communicates his Holy and sanctifying Spirit to the members of his Body.

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.