- Patrick Q. MasonPatrick Q. MasonClaremont Graduate University
Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). The movement splintered following the death of Smith, with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) becoming by far the largest institutional manifestation of Mormonism today. Mormonism claims to be a restoration of ancient Christianity, following a period of apostasy after the death of Christ’s original apostles. The movement began with a series of revelations to Smith in the 1820s in which God called him to be a prophet and then an angel directed him to a buried ancient record written on golden plates. Smith translated this record “by the gift and power of God” and published it as the Book of Mormon, which is one of four books considered by Mormons to be scripture (along with the Christian Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price).
Mormons believe that God leads their church through living prophets and continuing revelation, and that ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are performed only through the priesthood that was restored to Smith and passed on to the church today. Mormons prioritize family relationships, which they believe can be maintained after death through marriage ceremonies conducted in Mormon temples. Heavily persecuted in the 19th century for their practices of polygamy and theocracy, today Mormons are fully integrated into society even while maintaining a distinctive theology and group identity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates an ambitious proselytizing campaign around the globe and continues to enjoy steady worldwide growth, with the majority of its members now residing outside the United States. Though strongly influenced by its origins in a modern American context, as it nears the beginning of its third century Mormonism is emerging as an increasingly mature global religion.
Mormonism is one of the most successful and significant religious traditions to develop in the United States. Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). These movements are quite diverse, ranging from the polygamous and standoffish Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the far more irenic and ecumenical Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), along with dozens of smaller sects. By far the largest church associated with the term “Mormonism” is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes abbreviated as the LDS Church. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, it claimed a global membership in excess of fifteen million people as of the beginning of 2015.1
Origins and History
Mormonism is a modern, historical religion. Less than two centuries old, the religion’s origins and entire development have occurred in an age of literacy, technological innovation, bureaucratization, nationalism, and rapid social and cultural change. Against the backdrop of modernity and now late modernity, Mormonism is based on claims of divine irruptions into current time and space. Mormon theology, ritual, and social life are thus grounded in and conditioned by the religion’s particular history.
Mormonism emerged out of the religious populism and ferment of the evangelical Christian revivals that swept the United States in the early 19th century, often referred to as the “Second Great Awakening.” Joseph Smith Jr. was the third son in a large and poor family that had originated in New England but had moved to upstate New York and settled in Palmyra, just as the Erie Canal was being built. The Smith family was broadly Christian, though the mother’s more traditional evangelicalism was countered by the father’s more skeptical universalism. Young Joseph was both deeply touched by the pervasive religious discourse in the area and confused by the competing claims of the various Protestant preachers and denominations. After attending several of their meetings, he turned to the Bible for answers. In the canonical account of his history, he decided to follow literally the injunction in James 1:5 to ask God which of the churches he should join. In the spring of 1820, at the age of fourteen, Smith retired to the woods near his home and prayed. The response took the form of a profound theophany now referred to by Mormons as the First Vision. During his subsequent years Smith gave several accounts of this vision, which do not concur in all details. Most accounts agree that Smith was visited by two separate divine persons, identified respectively as God the Father and Jesus Christ. They told the inquiring boy not to join any of the various churches, for they were all wrong.
Smith’s next heavenly encounter came three years later, in the fall of 1823, when he experienced the first of four annual visions of an angel who identified himself as Moroni (pronounced Mo-RONE-eye). The angel said that in mortality he had been the last survivor of an ancient people living in the Americas until their destruction at the hands of a rival civilization around 400 ce. He told Smith that during his final days on earth he had completed an account of his people, which he had engraved on golden plates or sheets and then buried in a hill called Cumorah, which happened to be only three miles from the Smith home. After Moroni’s first visit, Smith went to the hill and found the plates, but the angel did not let him retrieve them. Only after four years of maturation and instruction was Smith allowed to recover the buried golden plates along with other sacred objects, including a breastplate and stones he called the “Urim and Thummim” that would aid in his translation of the ancient language on the plates. Like many of his contemporaries, in the 1820s Smith actively participated in the local culture of treasure seeking, using special “seer stones” or other means to look for lost objects and buried treasure. Smith, who gradually left behind his use of seer stones, was unique in redirecting this popular cultural form of seership into the production of a scriptural text and then religious prophethood.
At first sporadically, and then in a final burst in the late spring of 1829, Smith—with the assistance of his wife, Emma, and other early disciples acting as scribes—translated the engravings on the plates, which he said were in “reformed Egyptian,” into English. He claimed to do so “by the gift and power of God,” with the use both of the Urim and Thummim and seer stones. The work was published in 1830 as a nearly 600-page volume titled The Book of Mormon—Mormon being the name of Moroni’s father, who was the chief compiler of the record before giving it to his son to complete and bury. The Book of Mormon immediately joined the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) as the scripture of the early Mormon movement, along with the rapidly emerging corpus of Smith’s other revelations that also were collected and published by the church, first as the Book of Commandments and then as the Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has published and distributed over 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon since 1830.
The Book of Mormon represents itself as a history of an ancient Israelite people that had fled Jerusalem around 600 bce, just prior to the Babylonian captivity. They made their way across the ocean presumably to the Western Hemisphere, where they soon split into two rival civilizations, called the Nephites and Lamanites, which would be at war for most of the thousand-year history chronicled in the book. Among the most important claims in the book was that Jesus Christ, following his crucifixion and resurrection in Palestine, visited these people in America and taught them his gospel. Like the Hebrew scriptures, the Book of Mormon is divided into books containing the history of the people and the ministry of various ancient prophets. Prior to the coming of Jesus, the teachings were both Hebrew and proto-Christian, but in the latter part of the book (following the visitation of the resurrected Christ) the teachings become more fully Christian in ways that converge comfortably with New Testament Christianity. Smith and his early followers promoted the Book of Mormon as proof that the heavens were open and that God was commencing his work preparatory to the Second Coming of Christ. The text’s Christocentrism was underscored in 1982, when the LDS Church officially added a subtitle, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” The rest of the Christian world does not, however, accept the Book of Mormon as authentic scripture. This is less because of the book’s content, which generally echoes Anglo-American Protestant evangelicalism in its theology, than because of the very fact of its existence and claim to be extrabiblical scripture produced by a modern-day prophet.
Somewhat ironically, the Book of Mormon was relatively lightly read and studied by members of the LDS Church until the 1980s, when church president and prophet Ezra Taft Benson emphasized its centrality and the blessings that would come to individuals and families through regular devotional study of it. Therefore, while the Book of Mormon is only one of four books of scripture for Latter-day Saints, known collectively as the “Standard Works,” since the late 20th century it has become increasingly central, a kind of first among equals in the LDS canon. This in contrast to the Community of Christ, which retains the Book of Mormon in its official canon but has steadily deemphasized it. Historically, the book also served an important role in providing the colloquial name for Smith’s followers—Mormons—a name originally used derisively but then adopted and generally embraced by members of the LDS Church.
From the late 1820s until his death in 1844, Joseph Smith, sometimes in the company of one or more disciples, continued to receive revelations and visitations from heavenly messengers. Some of these angels bestowed on him the apostolic priesthood that according to Smith had been lost through the apostasy of the original Christian church in the Patristic era. With the priesthood restored, Smith and a small band of followers organized anew the Church of Christ on April 6, 1830. Eventually the organization was given the formal name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, distinguishing it from the “former-day Saints” at the time of Jesus and the early apostles. From its inception, the new movement sent out missionaries proclaiming the restoration of the true gospel of Jesus Christ and his priesthood authority. These missionaries reaped a steady and at times spectacular harvest of new converts, many of whom had come to their own independent conclusions that mid-19th-century Christianity was in dire need of heavenly renewal. Converts from across the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Scandinavia, Continental Europe, and then increasingly far-flung places such as the Pacific islands, responded to Smith’s revelation to “gather” and immigrated by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands to centralized Mormon communities.
The Mormon story throughout the 19th century is a remarkable one of increasingly heterodox teachings and social experiments, severe persecution, relocations through several states, and recurring conflicts—often violent—with government officials, religious leaders, and local citizens. Mormons typically divide the church’s history according to the various geographic relocations precipitated by these conflicts.
Soon after the church’s founding in New York, Smith and his followers, pushed by increased local opposition and pulled by a harvest of converts from among a number of Christian restorationist and communalist groups, moved to the northern Ohio town of Kirtland. The Kirtland period (1831–1837) witnessed remarkable growth, the outpouring of new revelations through Smith, and the building of the first Latter-day Saint temple, the completion of which was accompanied with pentecostal enthusiasms such as visions and speaking in tongues. An unsuccessful effort was made to establish a communitarian economic order, in which surpluses from some members would be distributed to less fortunate others. A dubious attempt to establish a Latter-day Saint bank and currency failed as part of the nationwide Panic of 1837. These economic stresses combined with persistent outside persecution (Joseph Smith and an associate were tarred and feathered by a mob in 1832) and internal dissension and apostasy, typically inspired by accusations of wrongdoing or incompetence by Smith. As a result, Smith and his followers evacuated Kirtland and moved to western Missouri, where a large Mormon colony had already been established.
The Missouri period (1831–1838) overlapped with the Kirtland period. In an early revelation to Joseph Smith, Jackson County, Missouri, had been identified as the ultimate gathering place for the Latter-day Saints while they awaited and prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. Fueled by millennial expectations, Mormons began gathering in Missouri in substantial numbers, and their presence did not rest well with local non-Mormon settlers. Not only did the Missouri Mormons announce publicly that God had given them Jackson County as their promised land, but they were also cultivating relationships with the nearby Indians and seemed to be welcoming freed blacks as church members—which did not go over well in a contentious political environment after Missouri’s admission to the United States as a slave state. Other settlers considered the Mormons a growing political threat and used mob violence to drive Mormons out of Jackson County in 1833. In October 1838, following skirmishes between Mormons and other locals, each with their own armed militias, and in response to exaggerated reports of Mormon atrocities, Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued an order that the Mormons were to be either expelled from the state or exterminated. Several Mormon leaders, including Joseph Smith, were imprisoned and nearly executed, while the body of the Latter-day Saints, now refugees, fled to the hospitality offered them by the residents and legislature of Illinois.
Originally settling on a tract of malarial swampland on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, the Mormons built and then inhabited their signature city of Nauvoo, Illinois, from 1839 to 1846. The city’s size, rivaling Chicago in population, once again became a source of political concern to neighboring citizens. In part this was because of the growing theocratic tendencies displayed by Smith, who was not only prophet of the church but also city mayor and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, the Latter-day Saint militia organized under the legal charter granted by the state legislature. Equally vexing, both inside and outside the church, were various innovations in doctrines and practices introduced by Smith in the final years of his life, most controversially polygamy (typically called plural or celestial marriage by Mormons), which was practiced in secret but nevertheless publicly rumored. In the final years of his life, Smith had married at least thirty women in addition to his first wife, Emma, who temporarily accepted but for the most part vigorously resisted both the doctrine and practice of plural marriage. The various conflicts between Smith and his opponents both within and outside the church ultimately led to his assassination in June 1844 at the hands of a mob while he awaited trial on various charges, including the destruction of a press operated by dissenting Mormons. The death of Joseph Smith was mourned by his followers, who believed him to be a prophet of God, but was cheered by his critics, who considered him a con man and a theocrat.
The sudden removal of the founding prophet created a succession crisis within the Mormon movement. Joseph Smith had actually made various provisions for succession at different times in his career, so there were conflicting claims among leaders and potential leaders. Among these was Smith’s eldest son, Joseph Smith III, still a minor but represented by his mother, Emma. In 1860 he would become the leader of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ), which remained in the Midwest and adamantly opposed polygamy, in no small part because after his death, Emma denied that her husband had ever sanctioned or participated in the practice. Other claimants each earned the loyalty of various Mormon factions. The majority of the Latter-day Saints, however, followed the leadership of the Twelve Apostles, headed by Brigham Young. The death of Joseph Smith did not satiate the Mormons’ local opponents, who grew increasingly bold in their violence against Mormons in Nauvoo and especially the surrounding settlements. As Brigham Young consolidated his authority, he signed a treaty with the non-Mormons that allowed for a hurried withdrawal of his followers across the frozen Mississippi River into Iowa early in 1846.
Thus began the famed journey of Mormon pioneers across the Great Plains to their eventual destination in the Great Basin, where the vanguard company arrived on July 24, 1847 (celebrated in Utah as Pioneer Day). This great pioneer trek has played an important role in the Mormon collective memory. Every year thousands of Mormon teenagers, from Utah to Mongolia, spend several days pulling handcarts in staged reenactments of the arduous journey. For the next thirty years until Brigham Young’s death in 1877, Mormons established a virtual kingdom in the American West. Young proved to be an effective though controversial leader of the Latter-day Saints. He chafed under increasing federal governmental and military control and the immigration of non-Mormons, speeded by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. However, the rumors and realities of Mormon theocracy, communitarian economics, heterodoxy, and most of all polygamy kept the Mormons in a relationship of persistent conflict with the rest of the nation until the 1890s. This tension included an inconclusive attempt by President James Buchanan to subdue the “rebellious” Mormons by sending 2,500 federal troops to the territory in 1857–1858, a mostly bloodless campaign known as the “Utah War.” Mormon fear of outside interference, reinforced by traumatic memories of persecution in Missouri and Illinois, resulted in heated rhetoric and occasional violence, most tragically in September 1857, when Mormon settlers in southern Utah slaughtered some 120 members of a California-bound emigrant company in what is known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Mormon polygamy and theocracy brought increasingly punitive federal legislation from the 1860s through the 1880s. High-profile Mormon leaders were sentenced to prison or were forced to hide on what became known as the “Mormon Underground.” For their part, the Mormons tested the limits of religious freedom through the federal courts, until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared in Reynolds v. United States 1879) that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religious belief and speech but not behavior otherwise proscribed by law, specifically polygamy. Facing disenfranchisement, imprisonment, widespread loss of civil rights, and disincorporation, the LDS Church made a remarkable reversal in 1890, when the president of the church, Wilford Woodruff, issued a manifesto formally announcing the end of the practice of plural marriage. Nevertheless, for several years thereafter, church leaders continued to authorize a limited number of plural marriages, many of which were performed in the church’s colonies in northern Mexico, until President Joseph F. Smith issued a “Second Manifesto” in 1904, which more decisively ended the practice.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has thus renounced polygamy for over a century, although the matter is confused by the continued practice of plural marriage by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, led as of 2015 by the imprisoned prophet Warren Jeffs. Theocratic politics and communitarian economic programs, most of which had already collapsed, were also suspended in the 1890s. Utah was granted statehood in 1896, polygamists received a presidential pardon, and Mormons volunteered to fight on behalf of the nation in the Spanish-American War. In the remarkably short space of a decade, Mormons had gone from cultural pariahs and enemies of the state to largely assimilated and hyperpatriotic citizens.
The last gasp of formalized political opposition to Mormonism came in a four-year-long series of hearings by the U.S. Senate over the seating of Reed Smoot, a monogamist Mormon apostle elected from Utah in 1902. Smoot was not himself a controversial character, but his position as a member of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led to a fierce public debate revolving around the church’s continued practice of plural marriage, secret oaths in the temples, and other “un-American” practices. Smoot was eventually seated, and the history of Mormonism in the first half of the 20th century continued apace as a story of assimilation and rapprochement. Stability fostered growth, as the church’s proselytizing program expanded globally. When LDS Church membership reached one million just after the end of World War II, it was still located almost entirely in the western United States. By 1970, when the membership reached three million, it was much more widely dispersed geographically, especially in North and South America. Today the majority of the LDS Church’s members live outside the United States, and Spanish has become the largest language of members of record, even while the demographic, cultural, and ecclesiastical core of Mormonism remains in Utah and surrounding states.
In family life, Mormon polygamy was replaced by a thoroughgoing neo-Victorian domesticity, with traditional gender roles, large families, and relatively low divorce rates. Mormons embraced traditional American civic organizations, especially the Boy Scouts. The LDS Church responded to the hard economic times of the 1930s by establishing its own social services and welfare program. The national media responded appreciatively to these efforts, hailing “those amazing Mormons” in popular mid-20th-century magazine articles. Mormon men increasingly entered urban occupations and professions leading to upward social and economic mobility. This allowed them to gain prominence in higher echelons of society, including politics, fueled by a distinctive brand of Mormon patriotism often imbued with a heavy dose of American exceptionalism. Mormons have served prominently as governors, congressmen, senators, and even presidential candidates, with Mitt Romney gaining the Republican nomination but losing the presidential election in 2012. Mormons have entered the national imaginary through artistic and popular depictions such as Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Angels in America and the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
Internally, in the second half of the 20th century another reversal occurred in Mormonism as the LDS Church gradually turned toward a policy of “correlation” of key doctrines and practices, which one scholar has dubbed “retrenchment.”2 Beginning with centralizing tendencies consistent with the Progressive Era but culminating in the 1960s with a response to cultural and religious change in America, Mormon leaders felt it necessary to resist many societal transformations as undermining traditional family life, sexual mores, and social order, as well as the LDS Church’s own doctrines and moral authority. This retrenchment was expressed in a number of ways, including but not limited to increased centralization of ecclesiastical and financial authority; renewed emphasis on the authority of the church leadership, especially the president of the LDS Church as a prophet of God; increasing emphasis on Mormon distinctiveness, including the Book of Mormon; a greatly enhanced worldwide proselytizing campaign through the use of volunteer missionaries; doubling down on policies in support of traditional family values, including discrete gender roles, conservative sexual morality, and a rejection of homosexuality and same-sex marriage; and a more doctrinaire curriculum in the program of daily religious instruction provided for LDS high school and college students.
Paradoxically, this internal focus on retrenchment corresponded to a simultaneous effort by the LDS Church to build alliances with other religious traditions, whether through interfaith dialogue or more formal political, social, and humanitarian causes. This has been done in large part to burnish the image of the LDS Church as a “normal” denomination in the American (and global) religious landscape. A special effort has been made to build bridges with evangelical Protestants, who have traditionally been Mormonism’s most pointed critics. One possible result of this bridge building is to decrease Mormon theological distinctiveness, although long-range effects remain to be seen.
The simultaneous Mormon assimilation and retrenchment can be seen through its response to cultural changes since the 1960s in the areas of race, gender, and sexuality. From the 1850s through the 1970s, the LDS Church had a policy of not ordaining black men to its lay priesthood or allowing black men or women to enter its temples to participate in its highest rituals and ordinances. After substantial external pressure in the 1960s and 1970s, and after lengthy internal deliberations and prayer, in 1978 church president Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation ending all of the church’s racially restrictive policies.3 At the same time, LDS Church leaders actively and successfully worked against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, operating through the church’s female auxiliary, called the Relief Society, to coordinate anti-ERA movements in Utah and several other key states. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, the LDS Church intervened in various state contests, especially in California, to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage, mobilizing considerable resources, both human and financial, in the process. In more recent years the official posture toward gender role definitions has softened noticeably under the leadership of church presidents seemingly less committed to retrenchment and more concerned with improving the LDS public image. The church has adapted its policies to allow for the active membership of celibate gay individuals and has supported laws outlawing discrimination based on sexuality, while remaining staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.
Mormonism continues to enjoy moderate growth, which has declined somewhat since the rapid expansion of the last third of the 20th century. The leadership of the LDS Church can count on the strong loyalty of its core membership but also faces challenges in navigating issues raised by globalization, secularization, internal pluralism, and shifting cultural norms, especially regarding gender and sexuality. In short, Mormon history and identity were defined in the 19th century by conflict, and in the 20th century by assimilation and then retrenchment. Driven by theological idealism and savvy pragmatism, in the 21st century we should expect to see a steadily maturing and increasingly cosmopolitan Mormonism that retains its uniqueness while engaging society largely on its own terms.
Beliefs and Doctrines
Mormon scripture, teaching, and devotional life are centered on the worship of the God of the Christian Bible. Following the pattern established by Jesus in the New Testament, Mormons frequently refer to God as “Heavenly Father,” “Father in Heaven,” or simply “Father.” The fatherhood of God is not metaphoric for Mormons. They believe that God is the actual father of their eternal spirits, which reside in and animate their physical bodies. Indeed, the most popular LDS children’s song, often sung by adults as well, is called “I Am a Child of God.” Although there is theological debate regarding the meaning and applicability of the terms, for practical purposes Mormons consider God to be omniscient and omnipotent. For Mormons, God is approachable and personal, befitting his identity as Father. His primary characteristic is love for his children, and his entire existence is oriented toward their eternal salvation and happiness. “For behold,” God tells Moses in a revelation recorded by Joseph Smith, “this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”4
While Mormons share a similar language of God with other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, perhaps the single greatest doctrinal distinction between Mormonism and other Abrahamic faiths is the doctrine of God taught by Joseph Smith, especially in the final months of his life. Smith insisted that God and humanity were essentially members of the same species—that humans are not creatures fashioned by God but rather coeternal “intelligences” with him. Taking literally certain biblical verses, Smith elaborated a doctrine of radical theosis that later found expression in the couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” This teaching of infinite and divine human potential is at the heart of Mormonism’s profoundly optimistic orientation toward creation, humanity, and the cosmos. The ultimate goal for Mormons is not merely salvation but rather exaltation—that is, becoming gods themselves (though never supplanting God the Father). Smith was killed before he could fully spell out some of the specific ramifications of this teaching, and some Latter-day Saints have downplayed the centrality of theosis in Mormon theology. Nevertheless, it remains a vital doctrine and pillar of the distinctive prophetic legacy of Joseph Smith.
In addition to a Heavenly Father, Mormons affirm the existence of a Heavenly Mother (or Mother in Heaven), who is the wife of God and the mother of human spirits. She does not formally appear in canonized LDS scripture but has frequently been mentioned in LDS sermons and verse, most famously in an oft-sung hymn somewhat ironically titled “O My Father.” Church leaders have warned against theological speculation regarding, direct worship of, or prayer to Heavenly Mother, and some Mormon feminists were excommunicated in the early 1990s for advocating too strongly and publicly for a more robust role for Heavenly Mother in LDS worship and discourse. Nevertheless, in more recent years there has been something of a resurgence of discussion about Heavenly Mother, and one of the most-cited proclamations by the church’s First Presidency and Twelve Apostles unambiguously refers to “heavenly parents.”5 Theosis applies both to women and men, and late-20th- and early-21st-century statements by church leaders have affirmed the eternality of gender (usually not differentiated from sex in Mormon discourse). Mormonism thus offers intriguing, albeit contested, theological resources regarding the divine feminine.
Mormons emphatically believe in and worship Jesus Christ. Especially since the late 20th century, much ink has been spilled on the polemical question “Are Mormons Christian?” The answer is in fact relatively straightforward and depends on definitions. If a Christian is denoted as someone who subscribes to New Testament (and Book of Mormon) teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, Savior and Redeemer of the world who atoned for the sins of all humanity, was resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion, and is the Messiah who will return to earth again in his Second Coming, then Mormons rank among the most devoted of Christians. Mormons insist on their Christianity, precisely on these grounds. If, however, a Christian is defined by belonging to a historical and theological tradition tracing back to the church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries and their resultant creeds, then Mormons do not fit. The problem may be solved most easily by referencing the LDS Church’s official name: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In other words, Mormons are sincere followers of Jesus Christ, but they believe that the entire Christian church fell into apostasy shortly after the death of the apostles, thereby necessitating a restoration of “true” Christianity, of which they are the standard bearers in these “latter days.” Scholars debate whether to categorize Mormons as a fourth Abrahamic religion (alongside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), or as a separate branch of Christianity (alongside Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and perhaps Pentecostalism). Although Mormons share many traits with evangelicals, it is incorrect to classify Mormons as Protestants, because they expressly reject the denominations and creeds emerging from the Reformation as part of the general apostasy of Christianity. The once-virulent denunciation of other churches as apostate has eased into a more genial notion of the LDS Church, as the custodian of Christ’s full gospel and priesthood authority, adding upon whatever true and good principles are taught in other religions.
Definitions aside, it is impossible to avoid Jesus Christ in modern Mormonism. This is in part a result of renewed emphasis since the 1980s on the Book of Mormon, which as noted is a deeply Christian text. Mormon art, music, and sermons are highly Christocentric. Mormons talk about feeling the love of Jesus, and the principal doctrinal touchstone for LDS curriculum and ministry is the atonement of Jesus Christ. Commonly quoted is this statement by Joseph Smith: “The fundamental principles of our religion is [sic] the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, ‘that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven’; and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion.”6
The third member of the Mormon “Godhead” (not Trinity) is the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. Mormons teach that God the Father and Jesus Christ possess corporeal but perfected bodies of flesh and bone, whereas the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit. Indeed, the materialism of Mormon theology, including the corporeality of God and the rejection of a Triune God consisting of multiple persons sharing one substance, marks one of its most significant departures from creedal Christian orthodoxy. The Holy Ghost is the messenger of God who communicates divine truth and comfort to humans. Mormons pray to God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ, and answers to prayers come via the Holy Spirit, whose influence is felt both in the heart and the mind. In addressing any range of problems, from theological questions to career choices to interpersonal relationships, Mormons will typically advise one another simply to “follow the Spirit.” Technically Mormons worship the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead, but the language and rituals of worship are in practice oriented more toward God the Father and Jesus Christ.
One of the central doctrines of Mormonism is agency, often referred to as “moral agency” or “free agency.” Mormons reject the notion of original sin in which the moral stain of the fall of Adam and Eve is imputed to all humanity from the moment of their conception or birth. All children come into this world sinless and remain pure in the eyes of God until the “age of accountability” (eight years old), at which point they are eligible for baptism. The sad fact is that all humans do sin, meaning that they, of their own free will, separate themselves from the perfect character of God. (The one exception is Jesus, who lived a perfectly righteous life.) Although human behavior is constrained and influenced by a multitude of factors (biological, psychological, environmental, etc.), all humans—excepting young children and the mentally impaired—are accountable for their own actions, according to the degree of knowledge and understanding they have received. Human agency is entirely and thoroughly upheld by God, who does not compel humans’ choices or eternal destiny.
Before the world was created, God anticipated human sinfulness and implemented what Mormons refer to as the “Plan of Salvation”—namely, that Jesus would be sent to earth as a Savior and would atone for the sins of the world. Through his vicarious suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, Jesus repairs the relationship between humanity and God, taking upon himself the totality of human sin and sorrow. Mormons have typically subscribed to a substitutionary view of atonement, but other interpretations are allowable.
On the question of who is saved, Mormon theology comes very close to universalism; that is, the doctrine that all receive some measure of salvation and none are condemned to never-ending punishment. God’s love is extended to all his children, and it is theoretically possible for all people to accept Christ’s atonement and thus be cleansed of their sins and readmitted into the presence of God to become like him. In one of his most important revelations, Joseph Smith envisioned a multitiered division of heaven, thus expanding on the traditional Christian heaven-hell dichotomy. The revelation taught that the most righteous people who accept Christ, obey his commandments, and receive necessary priesthood ordinances such as baptism find their place in the “celestial kingdom,” which is where God and Jesus reside and eternal progression toward godhood is possible. Good and honorable people who do not accept the full message of Jesus inhabit the “terrestrial kingdom,” while the wicked (including murders, adulterers, and blasphemers) still receive a “degree of glory” in the “telestial kingdom.” Only Satan and his followers are ultimately excluded from God’s light and love, as they are relegated to “outer darkness.”7 A 1918 revelation to church president Joseph F. Smith showed that humans are given additional opportunities even after their death to accept the gospel and thus to inherit a higher glory than they might have merited with their life on earth.8
Although salvation and exaltation are available to all, Mormons believe, there are conditions that must be met to receive the full complement of divine blessings and eternal joy. First among these are faith in Jesus Christ and repentance for sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. A commitment to Jesus Christ and his church is formally expressed in a person’s baptism by immersion. Baptism is followed in turn by confirmation as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is performed by the laying on of hands and also bestows the gift of the Holy Ghost. Though the renewal of faith and repentance is an ongoing, lifelong process, baptism and confirmation are typically performed only once in a person’s life and are held to be strict requirements for exaltation. Mormons emphasize the importance of “enduring to the end,” which connotes of a lifetime of godly striving and a lasting commitment to “keep the commandments.”
Mormonism is a sacramental religion in which the ordinances (or rites) of the church are administered by an ordained priesthood, which is available to all males age twelve and older. Although God listens to the prayers of all his children, formal ordinances such as baptism must be performed by a properly ordained priesthood holder; if performed by any other person, no matter how sincere, the ordinance is invalid in the eyes of God. Everyone called to serve in various official church capacities, from the highest echelons of leadership to the pianist for children’s singing time in a local congregation, are “set apart” by the laying on of hands of priesthood holders. Because of the democratic bestowal of priesthood authority to all men who comply with church teachings and standards, all leadership positions at the local level are handled by lay volunteers rather than a professional clergy. Women are actively involved in the life of the congregation, though they do not receive ordination to the ecclesiastical priesthood. This has been a matter of considerable debate since the late 20th century, as a small but vocal minority of Mormon women have advocated for ordination. The female ordination movement’s most vocal leader was excommunicated by the church in 2014.
Mormonism is a restorationist church. In contrast to the findings of modern biblical scholarship, Mormons believe that Jesus established a unified, hierarchical church before his death, led by apostles and prophets, with Peter at the head, but that the early church fell into apostasy. Mormons believe, therefore, that Joseph Smith technically did not start a new church but instead restored Christ’s “primitive” church after being called as a prophet and having priesthood conferred upon him by angelic messengers. According to this sacramental view of history and ecclesiology, priesthood was necessary for the restoration of Christ’s church and the authorized performance of necessary ordinances. Similarly, the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emerged on the basis of the unfolding set of revelations to Smith, rather than on a careful reading and application of the New Testament. Nevertheless, Mormons point out that the basic organization of the LDS Church does include, at least superficially, most of the same offices and titles referred to in the New Testament.
Mormons believe in and display spiritual gifts. Early Mormons experienced an impressive and cacophonous range of spiritual gifts, including tongues, prophecy, and healings. Over time the charismatic display of such gifts became more restrained, but Mormons insist that spiritual gifts are real and that God continues to work in the world in miraculous ways. For the most part, the enthusiasm of the earliest converts has been domesticated. The gift of tongues, for instance, is now typically thought of as enabling missionaries who have been called to serve in foreign lands to better learn the native language. Priesthood holders anoint with oil and administer to the sick by the laying on of hands, but Mormons also rely on modern medicine as much or more than on divine healing. Modern Mormon worship services are the opposite of ecstatic. Speakers will often become emotional and cry while sharing personal experiences or testimony, but anything more demonstrative would not be culturally tolerated.
Central to Mormon identity and theology is the belief that God continues to speak to the church and to individuals through revelation. Indeed, one of Joseph Smith’s core declarations was that the heavens are open and God speaks in modern times just as he did to ancient prophets and believers. Although Mormons believe that the essential truths of the gospel have been revealed to modern prophets (especially Smith), they readily acknowledge that God has much more to teach humans and will do so at his pleasure. The top leadership of the LDS Church, consisting of fifteen men known as the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles, all are considered “prophets, seers, and revelators,” with a special commission to bear witness of Jesus Christ and to direct the church by revelation. Only they may receive revelations that are binding for the entire church. However, personal revelation is a cornerstone of Mormon devotional life, and divine direction may be sought for regarding all kinds of spiritual and secular matters. Such revelation typically comes quietly and is “felt” in a person’s mind or heart.
As central as the principle of personal revelation is to church leaders and members, that revelation must generally correspond to the principles and doctrines laid out in canonized Mormon scripture. (The major exception would be that the church’s president-prophet has the authority to reveal entirely new doctrine, though that has been extremely rare since the death of Joseph Smith.) Mormons accept four books of scripture (sometimes called the “Standard Works”) as the revealed and authoritative word of God: the Bible (Old and New Testaments), Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Although not affirming scriptural inerrancy, Mormons hold a fairly “high” view of scripture, meaning that they generally accept its historicity and regard its messages as actual communications revealed from God through his chosen prophets and apostles. Most Mormons are unaware of issues related to biblical criticism and would tend to reject scholarly arguments that conflict with core church doctrines.
The LDS Church has adopted the King James Version as its official English-language Bible. In some ways this is ironic because both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith clearly taught that the King James Version was imperfect, thus necessitating not only the restoration of certain doctrines through revelation and additional scripture but also an inspired revision of the biblical text itself. For many years Smith worked on what he called a new “translation” of the bible. He left many chapters and even whole books intact, while making extensive changes and lengthy additions to others, most notably Genesis. In spite of acknowledging problems with transmission and translation, Mormons have always considered the Bible to be a faithful and revealed record of God’s dealings with humanity. A 2010 survey showed Mormons to be among the most biblically (and religiously) literate of any segment of the American population.9
Because the Book of Mormon came directly from Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the gold plates, modern Mormons are highly confident in its status as the authentic word of God—although they do recognize that it is a translated document of a record originally produced by human prophets who themselves admitted some of their linguistic incapacities. Thus, even the highest Mormon view of scripture falls short of Muslims’ view of the purity of the language of the Qur’an. As noted above, since the late 20th century the Book of Mormon has enjoyed a kind of privileged status within Mormonism. There are largely unacknowledged ironies attendant to this, however, since the theology of the Book of Mormon is in many respects closer to 19th-century evangelical Protestantism than to the more radical theology of Joseph Smith’s later years. (Curiously, Smith himself rarely cited or preached from the Book of Mormon.) For the most part, Mormons acknowledge doctrinal development without being concerned by attendant discrepancies.
The Doctrine and Covenants, unlike the Bible and Book of Mormon, is a self-consciously modern book of scripture. It is a collection of recorded and canonized revelations to the church’s president-prophets, with the vast majority of its contents coming from Joseph Smith. More than any other book, the Doctrine and Covenants underscores the open and evolving nature of Mormonism, because one can trace the developing doctrinal and ecclesiastical framework of the church through an analysis of its roughly chronologically arranged revelations (divided into “sections” rather than chapters). One can see especially in the later sections of the Doctrine and Covenants the unfolding of some of Mormonism’s more distinctive theology. The Doctrine and Covenants is an open book and can be amended when the church receives new revelation. Additions have been rare, however, with only five new revelations announced and canonized since the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, and only one since 1918. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now the Community of Christ, has added new revelations to its Doctrine and Covenants at a much more consistent pace than has the LDS Church.
The Pearl of Great Price is an eclectic collection of sacred texts, something of a potpourri of revelation, both ancient and modern. It includes five parts: (1) the Book of Moses—Joseph Smith’s translation of the first seven chapters of Genesis, with an additional “Vision of Moses” not included in the Bible and a lengthy emendation on the ministry of Enoch; (2) the Book of Abraham—an inspired “translation” of Egyptian papyri purchased by Joseph Smith that he claimed contained hitherto-unknown writings of the ancient patriarch Abraham; the historical accuracy of the translation has largely been rejected by Egyptologists, touching off an often-fierce debate about its provenance and authenticity; (3) Joseph Smith–Matthew—Smith’s inspired translation of Matthew chapter 24 from the New Testament; (4) Joseph Smith–History—an excerpt from Smith’s official history of the church, containing an account of his earliest visions; and (5) the Articles of Faith, a brief, thirteen-point summary of some of the basic beliefs of the church as articulated in 1842 by Joseph Smith in a letter to a newspaper editor. Though the briefest of the four Standard Works, at only sixty-one printed pages, the Pearl of Great Price contains some of the most important and frequently cited passages of distinctive Mormon scripture, with particular insights into Mormon cosmology and identity.
Although Mormons prioritize correct doctrine and often use it to set themselves apart from other religions, Mormons believe that the quality of one’s devotion is demonstrated more by everyday actions than by dramatic professions of faith or precise adherence to certain theological formulations. The life of a committed Latter-day Saint is shaped by the rhythms, patterns, and moral values and teachings of the religion. Observant Mormons tithe a full 10 percent of their income to the church, as well as donating additional money that goes to the poor or the church’s extensive missionary and humanitarian programs. They adhere to the “law of chastity,” meaning that they engage in no premarital or extramarital sexual relations and confine sex only to monogamous heterosexual marriages. They pray both verbally and silently as many as several times a day (there is no prescribed number), and they fast for approximately twenty-four hours once a month (forsaking both food and drink during that period). They obey the “Word of Wisdom,” the church’s health code originally revealed to Joseph Smith and clarified by later prophets, meaning that they abstain completely from alcohol, tobacco, drugs (except those prescribed by doctors), and “hot drinks” (interpreted as coffee and tea). Mormons place enormous emphasis on nurturing healthy and loving relationships with their families. They teach ethical and honest interactions in interpersonal relationships. They attend church weekly, for three hours on Sunday and often for extra meetings and social activities during the week. Mormons perform extensive community service and are often active in local politics and community organizations such as the Boy Scouts and PTA. They are encouraged to do daily devotional scripture reading, both as individuals and in families. Mormons sometimes feel overburdened by the weight of all these requirements, but they value the actively engaged religious and moral life. Cultural capital within the community is best achieved by quiet and consistent devotion to godly living and church participation.
In short, being Mormon (in the LDS sense) means subscribing to a certain core set of doctrinal claims: faith in God the Father and Jesus Christ, a belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God, that the Book of Mormon is true scripture, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s true church, and that God continues to lead the church through living prophets and apostles. But in addition to these essential beliefs, being Mormon means living a certain way, disciplining one’s behavior to a set of values and standards established by the church. In the day-to-day life of the LDS Church and its members, orthopraxis matters as much (and perhaps more) than orthodoxy.
Worship and Rituals
Mormon worship services, held on Sundays in chapels around the world, are decidedly nonliturgical. Typically three hours long, the Sunday “block” of meetings in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes three parts: “sacrament meeting,” which all members of the family attend together and where the sacrament (known in other churches as communion or the Lord’s Supper) is blessed and served to the congregation; Sunday School, divided into instructional classes by age; and then additional instructional classes subdivided by sex but generally similar in curriculum. LDS Sunday services resemble traditional Protestant worship. The main distinction is that at every point, Mormon worship emphasizes congregational participation. There is no professional clergy at the local level, so lay members provide all sermons, music, class instruction, and so forth.
LDS worship is noncharismatic. Music is devotional and subdued; hymns are sung by the congregation, accompanied usually only by an organ or piano. Sermons (referred to simply as “talks”) are given by lay members—men and women, adults and teenagers—untrained in homiletics, so the quality of substance and delivery varies widely. Except for the blessing on the sacramental bread and water, prayers are unscripted, though they always address God the Father and close in the name of Jesus Christ. Once a month, in a “testimony meeting” usually held on the first Sunday, the podium is open for anyone (including small children) to share personal testimonies and faith-promoting experiences.
Most of the ritual life of Mormonism is mediated through ordinances performed by authorized priesthood holders. The LDS Church does not formally recognize religious rites conducted by priests and ministers from other churches; those previously baptized in another Christian church, for instance, must be rebaptized to become a Latter-day Saint. Most ordinances can be performed only by holders of the higher priesthood, known as the Melchizedek Priesthood, typically conferred on a man around age eighteen. Some ordinances, notably baptism and the blessing and passing of the sacrament, can be conducted by holders of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, which is conferred on boys when they turn twelve (as well as on new adult converts as they prepare for the higher priesthood). Both the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods are bestowed only on males who profess belief in the basic doctrines of the church and who conform their lives to basic church behavioral standards. There are, however, no other prerequisites in terms of theological or other formal training.
The most distinctive and ceremonial aspects of Mormon worship are found in temples. As of the beginning of 2015, there were 144 operating LDS temples worldwide, with another twelve under construction.10 These temples are not open for regular Sunday worship services but are dedicated instead to the performance of the religion’s most sacred ordinances, which fulfill Joseph Smith’s vision of uniting heaven and earth and preparing humans for their ultimate destiny to become like God. Only members of the LDS Church who have passed a series of interviews with priesthood leaders and have affirmed their adherence to core church beliefs and behavioral codes are allowed to enter the temples. (Temples typically host “open houses” for the general public when first constructed, prior to their dedication.) Temple ordinances and covenants are the most sacred and esoteric elements of Mormonism and are not discussed in detail outside the temple, even among initiated members themselves. There is no greater sacrilege in Mormonism than to divulge the details of the temple ceremonies, and Mormons ask outsiders to respect what they hold so sacred.
Nevertheless, the basic contours of the temple rituals can be outlined. There are three principal sets of ordinances performed in temples. The first, called baptism for the dead, will be discussed below. The second, called the “endowment,” begins with a ritual called the “initiatory.” It is patterned on rites conducted in ancient Israel (as documented in the Hebrew Bible) in which Levite priests were washed with water and anointed with consecrated oil to set them apart for their sacred calling. Having undergone the initiatory, women and men then participate in another ceremony in which they are taught their place in the grand cosmic drama, which began before the creation of the world, and culminates in their inheritance of the blessings and glories of God’s kingdom. The ceremony features a dramatic performance, now typically portrayed via a video recording, in which participants ritually reenact the creation, fall, and redemption of Adam and Eve and thereby learn more about their relationship to God the Father and Jesus Christ. During the ceremony, participants make a series of covenants, including obedience and chastity, that will guide them in living a godly life.
The third ordinance is called “sealing,” which constitutes the eternal binding of a husband and wife and their children. In the sealing ordinance, considered essential for the highest degree of exaltation, couples are promised that if they are faithful to their covenants they will be united not just until death but for “time and all eternity.” Any children born to the couple will also be sealed to them for eternity. The belief that families can be sealed together from generation to generation is one of the most compelling doctrines of the church; “Families Are Forever” has become something of a motto for many members.
The grand hope and design of Mormonism is to unite together all of God’s children, and thus to enable all of humanity to return to God in the celestial kingdom as an exalted and ritually sealed family. Therefore, in the temples Mormons also perform vicarious ordinances, beginning with baptism and confirmation, on behalf of the dead.11 The LDS Church sponsors a massive genealogical effort to identify the names and basic life information of the deceased from around the world. Faithful Mormons can then perform ordinances (including baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination, the endowment, and sealings) on behalf of those deceased individuals in any of the church’s temples. Mormons believe that the spirits of the dead continue to live and retain their moral agency in a postmortal spirit world, and thus they make a conscious choice whether to accept or reject the vicarious ordinances performed on their behalf. Since the late 20th century the LDS practice of baptism for the dead has attracted some controversy, particularly when some Jewish groups discovered that Mormons had been performing baptisms on behalf of Holocaust victims. The LDS Church has apologized and suspended the practice, but only for that particular category.
Mormon priesthood holders also perform other ordinances that are considered vehicles of divine power and grace but are not considered essential for a person’s path to salvation. These include the blessing of babies; blessings conducted by the laying on of hands and given at a person’s request for guidance, comfort, or physical healing; the dedication of homes and graves; and the setting apart of members who have been called to serve in various positions within the church. These ordinances are available to all members, though they are performed only by men who are ordained to the priesthood. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women commonly performed certain ritual blessings, particularly for healing, but that practice was eventually discouraged and then suspended by the church leadership.
Organization and Leadership
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized geographically such that the smallest unit of organization is called a “ward” (similar to a Catholic parish), though some units too small to be wards are called “branches.” The head of a ward, which typically consists of 250–500 members, is a “bishop” (or “branch president” for the smaller units). Like all other local leaders, bishops are lay members with no formal training, who hold professional occupations outside the church and are, as a rule, married. Bishops are responsible for overseeing the administration of their ward, as well as providing spiritual counseling for ward members. Their responsibilities usually require twenty to forty hours of volunteer labor per week, on top of their occupational and family duties. Most active members of a ward have some kind of “calling,” which ranges from teaching children to leadership of one of the church’s many organizations, with each member typically dedicating several hours per week to church service.
As of early 2015, there were nearly 30,000 wards and branches around the world, organized into over 3,600 “stakes” and districts.12 An LDS stake is, in effect, a small diocese usually containing between five and ten wards, depending on the distribution and participation level of the membership in a given location. Each church unit, whether a stake or ward, is headed by a triumvirate—a stake president or bishop accompanied by two counselors, thus constituting the “stake presidency” or “bishopric.” The church also maintains over 400 geographically defined missions that encompass multiple stakes and districts, presided over by a “mission president” and staffed by 150–300 full-time missionaries dedicated primarily to proselytizing or humanitarian work.13 In early 2015 the LDS Church had a missionary force of nearly 90,000 around the world, though that number represents a temporary surge and is expected to settle somewhere around 70,000.14
The leadership of the church is hierarchical and clearly delineated. At the general level of leadership, the president of the entire church and his two counselors constitute the “First Presidency.” Serving with and under this presidency is the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. All fifteen men are sustained by the church as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” with the current president of the church usually referred to as “the prophet.” Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serve for life, and they function as the spiritual and ecclesiastical heads of the church, as well as operating much like a board of directors in a corporation. (Indeed, the LDS Church is incorporated and holds a number of business interests.) Decisions affecting general church policy are made by consensus among the First Presidency and Twelve, typically resulting in a cautious and conservative approach. Public disputes between leading authorities were common in the 19th century, but since the mid-20th century the church leadership has prioritized harmony and unanimity, though leaders admit to having disagreements behind closed doors. When the church president dies, his entire presidency is dissolved, and power devolves upon the Twelve until they select and ordain the new president-prophet. Tradition holds that the longest-serving apostle is next in line for the office of church president, making for an orderly and predictable succession but also an entrenched gerontocracy. (The past several presidents of the church have begun their administrations while in their eighties.)
Other layers of “general authorities” exist in between the First Presidency and Twelve and the local leadership, with several dozen men serving in various Quorums of the Seventy.15 The Presiding Bishopric has main responsibilities for the financial affairs of the church. Together these general priesthood leaders are often referred to as “the Brethren” by the lay membership. The priesthood hierarchy is also assisted by a large, full-time, and salaried bureaucracy that functions something like the church’s civil service.
In addition to the local and general priesthood hierarchy, the church functions through the operation and leadership of several “auxiliary” organizations, primarily serving and served by women. These auxiliaries consist mainly of the Relief Society (for adult women), the Young Women’s program (for teenaged girls), and the Primary (for children ages three to twelve). The Relief Society has special historical significance. It was organized in 1842 under Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, mainly on the initiative of Mormon women themselves. At first it was readily embraced by Smith as a vehicle for women’s sisterly solidarity and organized charity, and there is evidence that he may have begun to conceive of it as a female parallel to the all-male priesthood quorums. However, in his final months Smith suspended the Relief Society’s operation as it began to resist some of his innovations, especially plural marriage.
During and after the exodus of the Latter-day Saints from the Midwest to Utah, Mormon women continued ministering under their own auspices. Brigham Young eventually reconstituted the Relief Society in 1868, with a new female leadership that exerted considerable independence. For a century thereafter, it became extraordinarily important in the Mormon organizational structure as a defender of the church on the national scene (including, ironically, fierce public defenses of polygamy until 1890); the main agency for charity and social services in the church; as the primary site for women’s social and cultural activities and adult education; the sponsor of various publications for and largely by Mormon women; and an outlet for a variety of women’s activism, including advocacy for women’s suffrage. (Women in Utah were the first in the United States to exercise the right to vote, in 1870.) Since the 1970s, the church’s “correlation” process has gradually but substantially reduced the scope of the Relief Society’s operations and has brought it more directly and fully under the control of male priesthood leaders both at the general and local levels.
Review of the Literature
Until the latter part of the 20th century, most published literature about Mormonism was polemical, making strident arguments either for or against the church’s truth claims and legitimacy. Anti-Mormon discourse during the 19th century was particularly vehement and contributed both to vigilante violence against Mormons as well as national and state-level legislation targeting Mormon belief and practice (especially polygamy). Well into the 20th century, the number of reputable academic books on Mormons and Mormonism could be counted on one or two hands. More recently, however, scholarly output about Mormonism has expanded exponentially, and Mormon studies has become a thriving subfield within religious studies and religious history.
Like other areas of specialized “studies,” Mormon studies walks the line between hyperspecialization and intellectual parochialism, on the one hand, and making significant contributions to broader fields of inquiry by seeking in-depth understanding of a previously marginalized and misunderstood group, on the other. The growing maturity of Mormon studies has been simultaneously propelled and indicated by its institutionalization. There are multiple periodicals producing peer-reviewed Mormon studies scholarship, the American Academy of Religion has a thriving Mormon Studies Group, three secular universities have established endowed chairs in Mormon studies, Mormonism is regularly covered in religion and history courses across the United States, and multiple university presses regularly publish well-reviewed scholarship in Mormon studies.
The intellectual foundations of the current scholarship on Mormonism were laid in the mid-20th century, most notably by Fawn Brodie’s 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History.16 Though not without its flaws, and consistently undervalued by its critics, Brodie’s work anticipated a new trend in which scholarship on Mormonism would be constrained neither by apologetics nor polemics nor denominational history. Other scholars, such as Thomas O’Dea, Juanita Brooks, and Leonard Arrington, followed Brodie’s lead though going in quite different directions. Together, they established a new mode of scholarship in which Mormonism was worth studying on its own terms and as a significant contributor to the religious, cultural, and political life of the United States. They utilized professional scholarly (typically historical) methods and consciously bracketed truth claims in describing the Mormon experience, “warts and all.”
The regnant approach to Mormon scholarship from the 1960s to the 1990s was called the New Mormon History. Under the leadership and inspiration of Leonard Arrington, a bevy of scholars, most but not all faithful members of the LDS Church, set aside contentious debates about the truthfulness of Mormonism so as to examine Mormons as historical subjects and the Mormon experience as a complex set of social, cultural, intellectual, political, gendered, and economic phenomena.17 History became a relatively safe place for intellectual exploration and even revisionism. In the 1980s, however, the generally conservative church leadership, suspicious that the new scholarship was destructive of faith, transferred Arrington and his colleagues from the LDS Church Historical Department to Brigham Young University and even used ecclesiastical discipline against a handful of Mormon intellectuals in the early 1990s.
Much of the important intellectual and historiographical work on Mormonism since the 1960s has occurred within the pages of a handful of periodicals. The earliest among these was Brigham Young University Studies (also called BYU Studies, now BYU Studies Quarterly), first published in 1959 but never independent of LDS Church control or influence. Soon others were established under private auspices, typically by Latter-day Saints but nevertheless independent of the institutional church. These include Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (1966), the Journal of Mormon History (1974), and Sunstone (1975). Other periodicals, notably a number now published under the auspices of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, have further enriched the scholarly conversation. Most of these periodicals are interdisciplinary, but theology, the social sciences, and especially history have been the main preoccupations. Journals dedicated to Mormon letters (Irreantum) and philosophy and theology (Element) have struggled somewhat to find their footing, though they represent a broadening set of scholarly discourses.
Arguably the most significant intervention in scholarship on Mormonism was Jan Shipps’s indispensable 1985 book, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition.18 The book’s particular arguments remain compelling for those interested in a serious examination of the religion, and it vaulted Mormonism into sophisticated conversations in religious studies theory. Whereas the New Mormon History, generally speaking, had imported concepts and narratives from American and Western history to better understand Mormonism, Shipps showed how Mormonism could itself become a lens on religious history and theory. Following Shipps’s lead, more recent scholarship on Mormonism has become more conceptually and theoretically rich. Scholars have profitably employed Mormonism as a window into legal and constitutional history, environmental history, vigilante violence and the limits of religious tolerance, the cultural construction of religion, and race relations and whiteness studies.19 Though history remains the core of the enterprise, the disciplinary scope of scholarship in Mormon studies is steadily expanding. Currently, the most active and promising fields (other than history) are religious studies, theology, women’s and gender studies, sociology, and philosophy. Certain approaches, such as anthropology, remain curiously underrepresented though not entirely absent in Mormon studies.
The bulk of academic scholarship on Mormonism has focused on its 19th-century origins and conflicts with the religious, cultural, political, and legal orthodoxies of the time. Joseph Smith understandably remains a principal emphasis, with Richard Bushman’s biography of the prophet occupying a substantial place opposite Fawn Brodie’s earlier work.20 Predictably, polygamy has also been thoroughly scrutinized, with Kathryn Daynes’s More Wives Than One (2001) arguably the most insightful historical study.21 Mormonism in the 20th and now 21st centuries remains understudied and undertheorized, Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive and Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity representing the most significant exceptions.22 Although the LDS Church now counts more members outside the United States than inside, the scholarship has not followed this internationalizing trend. The vast majority of scholars working on Mormonism are themselves American, and their focus is almost exclusively on the American Mormon experience. Local and national studies have been produced, often in a denominational history mode, but a sophisticated assessment of global Mormonism is yet to be written. Scholars in the field are aware of its shortcomings and are progressively expanding their work into new territory.23
The first revelation that Joseph Smith received after formally organizing the church in April 1830 opened with the voice of God saying, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.”24 Less than a year later, another revelation called on one of Mormonism’s earliest converts to “write and keep a regular history” of the church.25 From the very beginnings of the movement, then, record keeping has been viewed by Mormons as a kind of sacred responsibility. This applies both to the institutional church and to individual Latter-day Saints, who have been encouraged to keep personal diaries.
As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that Mormonism may be the most richly documented new religion in world history. Many scholars have been drawn to Mormonism as a case study of the rise and development of a new religious tradition, since the primary source materials are so abundant and available, far more so than for more ancient religions.
Mormon researchers are aided by numerous published primary sources and documentary editing projects. The most notable among these is the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Available both in print and online, the papers will be the definitive scholarly edition of Smith-related primary sources for decades. Other key sources for documenting Mormon history include the diaries of Wilford Woodruff and William Clayton, the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, and the numerous newspapers and other periodicals published by the church.26
Researchers interested in Mormonism should begin by consulting the website “Studies in Mormon History,” maintained by the Harold B. Lee Library at the LDS Church–owned Brigham Young University. This remarkable database contains citations to thousands of articles, books, theses, and dissertations written about Mormonism, produced from 1830 to today. If not fully comprehensive, it is by far the most exhaustive single bibliographic resource available, containing both secondary and printed primary sources. David Whittaker’s guide to Mormon-related sources and collections, Mormon Americana, also remains valuable.27
The centralized nature of the LDS Church means that the bulk of relevant sources is concentrated in just a handful of archives. The major repositories for Mormon-related sources are as follows:
Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT. Collections are available to all researchers, though selected materials are restricted and require permission to view (which sometimes is not granted).
Library and Archives, Community of Christ, Independence, MO.
Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT.
Special Collections & Archives, Merrill-Cazier Library, Utah State University, Logan, UT.
Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. Specializes in 19th-century Mormon manuscripts from the American West.
Western Americana Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Eli H. Peirce Collection of Mormon Americana, Archives and Special Collections, Harvard Library, Cambridge, MA.
New York Public Library, New York.
- Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900. 3d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
- Arrington, Leonard J., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
- Barlow, Philip L. Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion. Updated ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Bowman, Matthew. The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. New York: Random House, 2012.
- Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1945.
- Bushman, Claudia L. Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman. Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Daynes, Kathryn M. More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
- Derr, Jill Mulvay, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. Women of the Covenant: The Story of Relief Society. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret, 1992.
- Flake, Kathleen. The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Fluhman, J. Spencer. “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
- Givens, Terryl L. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Hardy, Grant. Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Launius, Roger D. Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
- Mason, Patrick Q. The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Mauss, Armand L. The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
- Mauss, Armand L. All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
- McMurrin, Sterling M. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 2000.
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- Shipps, Jan. Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
- Shipps, Jan. Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
- Turner, John G. Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2012.
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1. “Facts and Statistics,” LDS Newsroom. “Mormon” or “Mormonism” is most often associated with the LDS Church, but it also applies to the broader family of churches and sects that trace their religious genealogy back to the revelations of Joseph Smith. This article will employ the term in both ways, and I will try to make clear when my usage comes in the narrower or broader sense. Some language in this entry is drawn from Patrick Q. Mason and Armand L. Mauss, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) (Mormonism),” in World Religions & Spirituality, used with permission.
2. Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
3. Official Declaration 2, Doctrine and Covenants.
4. Moses 1:39, Pearl of Great Price.
6. (Far West, MO) Elders’ Journal (July 1838), 44.
7. Doctrine and Covenants, section 76.
8. Doctrine and Covenants, section 138. Mormons find support for this concept in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:18–20 and 4:6).
9. Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, “Who Knows What about Religion,” September 28, 2010.
11. Mormons find biblical support for such baptisms for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29.
12. The term “stake” evokes the Tabernacle of Moses, imagined as a large tent held down by stakes around its circumference, with a large center stake in the middle.
14. Tad Walch, “LDS Missionary Numbers to Peak at 88,000,” Deseret News, July 3, 2014 .
15. The name is derived from Luke 10:1.
16. Fawn McKay Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1945).
17. For an excellent overview of Mormon history and historians, including the New Mormon History, see Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen, with a contribution by Armand Mauss, Mormon History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001). For a representative collection of essays, see D. Michael Quinn, ed., The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 1992).
18. Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
19. See Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); J. Spencer Fluhman, “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
20. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
21. Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
22. Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
23. A collection of essays seeking to address some of these historiographical gaps are in Patrick Q. Mason, ed., Directions for Mormon Studies in the 21st Century (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016).
24. Doctrine and Covenants 21:1.
25. Doctrine and Covenants 47:1.
26. See Susan Staker, ed., Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 1993); George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature, 1995); and “Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book.” Major Mormon periodicals include the Evening and the Morning Star, Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Elders’ Journal, Times and Seasons, the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Woman’s Exponent, Young Woman’s Journal, Improvement Era, Juvenile Instructor, Relief Society Magazine, Ensign, New Era, and Friend.
27. David J. Whittaker, ed., Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United Sates (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1995).