An Analysis of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—whose members are commonly called Mormons—is one of, if not the fastest growing religion in the world.[1]  In 2007, the LDS church claimed nearly 13 million members.[2]  Mormons are gaining a mainstream foothold in common culture, having active members in all levels of politics, entertainment, authorship, and academia.  Therefore, this post will attempt to examine the LDS religion; first offering a brief overview of the religion and its early history, then an analysis, followed by one approach for Christians to share their beliefs with Mormons.  This author resides in Salt Lake City, Utah—the headquarters of the LDS church—so in addition to the sources provided here, some insight will come from personal observation.

A Brief Overview of the Mormon Religion
A Religion is Born: Its Early History.  Generally, the accounts of the early beginnings of the Mormon church start in 1820 with a fourteen-year-old boy struggling to decide which Christian denomination to join, mainly of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.[3]  After reading James 1:5, Smith heads into a grove of trees and prays about these religions.[4]  Both God the Father and Jesus both appear together and in bodily form.  As James Walker explains,
Smith later reported that Christ warned him to join none of the churches because they were all wrong, their creeds were an abomination in God’s sight, and those who profess these religions are all corrupt. Smith said that he later discovered that there had been a “total apostasy” shortly after the death of the original apostles in the first century. Thus, there had been no true Christianity on the earth for 1,700 years. No church had the true authority to act for God or perform essential, sacred ordinances. Rather than joining any of these apostate churches, Joseph Smith believed that he must restore true Christianity to the earth.[5]
However, Fawn Brodie argues that court records and newspaper accounts suggest that Smith was already gravitating to the “revival hysteria and channeled into a life of mysticism and exhortation.”[6]  She further reminds her readers of the vast amounts of biographical data on Smith and the early birth of the LDS Church, “for Joseph Smith dared to found a new religion in the age of printing.”[7]
            On September 21, 1823, after years of “suffering severe persecution” for his vision, Smith received another vision from an angel named Moroni.  Moroni showed Smith where to dig up the golden plates that contained the stories of two nations of people in the Americas and Jesus’ appearing to them.[8]  Smith translated these plates into what is known as The Book of Mormon.  Smith’s revelations as the Prophet for the church were written down, as were the revelations of subsequent Prophet-heads of the church, into a document called the Doctrine and Covenants, with the most recent addition on September 30, 1978.[9]  The Pearl of Great Price and the King James Version of the Bible make up their cannon.  (Concerning the Bible, the eighth Article of faith states that the Bible is acceptable “as far as it is translated correctly.”[10])  The cannon remains open for the addition of further revelation.  The LDS Church is headed by a Prophet, a council of apostles (two advisers and the Prophet make up the “First Presidency,” and 12 elder men for the “Quorum of the Twelve”), and the “Quorum of the Seventy” (all elder men).  This group of leaders oversee local leaders of various jurisdictions down to the local level called the ward.  The ward is lead by a Bishop.  Mormons believe this is the exact structure originally installed by Jesus when he was on the earth.
            Basic Doctrines and Tenants.[11]  While many volumes are available on Mormon Doctrine—produced by both Mormons and non-Mormons—this post will not even scratch the surface.  In the simplest of overviews, Mormons do not hold to a Trinitarian view of God, but instead believe that God was once a man, just as we are today, who worked to become a god and then had many spirit children with “Heavenly Mother.”  Jesus and Lucifer (who later became Satan) were among these spirit children.  Both Jesus and Lucifer suggested a plan of salvation to the Father, who selected Jesus’ plan.  Lucifer rebelled and was cast out of heaven along with 1/3 of the other spirit children who supported his rebellion.  Incidentally, the spirit children are synonymous with angels and demons. 

            There are three levels of heaven, with the third level containing an additional three levels.  The best of these levels allows those accepted to become gods and repeat the entire process on another world of their creation.  However, in order to enter any heavenly level, a spirit child must first come to earth to obtain a physical body and work through various ordinances, including entering one of more than 120 Mormon temples to perform baptisms for the dead, be sealed to a spouse and family for all time and eternity, and receive the right to wear special undergarments.  In order to enter the temple, Mormons must be “worthy, which includes among other practices, abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, and sex prior to marriage.  Mormons must also give a “full tithe” or 10% of their total gross income.”[12]  The temple is closed to all but fully practicing, “temple worthy” members.  Mormons hold that salvation comes through grace, only “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).  They practice sacrementalism and subsequently, sacerdotalism.  In addition, the LDS church has many other minor doctrines, including the more infamous that deal with matters of polygamy and the priesthood (which will be addressed in the next section of this post).  

Analysis of the Mormon Religion
            A Shaky Foundation: Inconsistency of Doctrine.  To an outside observer, it would seem that an open cannon has allowed for convenient changes to doctrines and practices.  For example, Brodie chronicles many incidents of Smith’s behavior with other women prior to his 1831 ‘revelation’ authorizing the practice of polygamy, recorded in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1843.[13]  It might also appear that this revelation helped solved the problem of remarriage after the death of a wife to which a man was already married and sealed.  Ironically, Parley Pratt, a close friend to Smith, just so happened to be dealing with this problem.  Through revelation, polygamy was allowed and practiced in the Mormon church.  However, in 1890, facing political pressure, the inability for Utah to obtain statehood, and even the possibility of criminal charges, the Prophet Wilford Woodruff received a timely revelation’ that the practice was to stop.[14]  In a similar situation, facing political pressure, Spencer Kimball received a revelation allowing Blacks to receive the priesthood, thus, giving them the ability to enter the temple to perform temple ordinances to potentially become gods, something they were prohibited from obtaining prior to September 30, 1978[15].  Before 1978, it was thought that colored skin was the mark of unrepentant sin.  In hindsight, one outside the LDS Church might suggest this ‘revelation’ would not have come had it not been for the Civil Rights Acts.

            But the open cannon is not the only mechanism allowing for shifting doctrine.  A Prophet might teach a doctrine that a subsequent Prophet can reverse or allow to fall out of practice.  The “Adam-God Doctrine” is one such example.  Walker states, “Young [the Prophet at the time] preached from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City that the first man, Adam, ‘is our father and god the only god with whom we have to do’ (Journal of Discourses, vol. I, p. 50).”[16]  Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner also provide a number of photographed journal entries, articles, and printed statements by Young that demonstrate many other instances when Young taught this doctrine.[17]  However, “this doctrine was quickly repudiated by the LDS church after Young’s death.”[18]

And in addition to subsequent Prophets changing doctrine, the Book of Mormon has been changed 3,913 times as documented by Tanner and Tanner.[19]  This should cause one to ask, If Joseph was given the tools to correctly translate the golden plates (the autograph), why the need for the changes?  Could it be that English words have already shifted in their meaning?  Maybe.  However, this cannot account for many of the documented changes.  For example, early printings of 2 Nephi 30:6 indicate that if a dark skinned person were to repent, he would be turned “white and delightsome,” but later printings state “pure and delightsome.”[20]

            The Name Game: Christians who Reject Christian Doctrine?  This author has noticed in recent years, a tremendous effort by members of the LDS church to identify themselves as “Christians.”  Stephen Robinson provides Mormons with a ready-made argument to the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” on the LDS website; “Why would anyone say otherwise” writes Robinson.[21]  And there seems to be a strong desire to connect with Evangelical Christians in the voting booth.  Even the LDS Church logo was changed before the 2002 Winter Olympics, making the name of Jesus Christ much larger.  When challenged, Mormons will resort to saying, “What’s the name of our church?  See if it’s in our name, then we are Christian.”  First, the name might be the same but it is not the same Jesus.  To this, Walker writes,
Evangelicals should be aware, however, that the LDS have a “different gospel” and a different Jesus than theirs (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). In 1998, the Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley confessed that he believed in a different Jesus than the “traditional Christ” worshiped by those outside of the LDS Church.[22]
Second, one should ask, Why do Mormons want to be included under the Christian umbrella when their doctrine states that there was a great apostasy and no true Christianity in the world, that no churches were right when Smith was seeking one?  Or could it be that the Mormons simply want to redefine the term, “Christianity” and then claim it exclusively as their own?

How Should Christians Share Their Beliefs With Mormons?
            In his book, I Love Mormons, Dr. Rowe, a former professor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary writes, “My prayer, my dream, is that you, the reader, would come to understand Latter-day Saints and their culture and wed this understanding to a profound love and respect for them that they will sense as you relate to them.  This is how bridges for the biblical gospel will be built into their world, their lives, and even their worldwide church.”[23]  The key idea, as it might be in all apologetics and evangelism, is to build a bridge.  Historically, Mormons have suffered persecution and they tend to be somewhat sensitive about any criticism of their faith.  Therefore, going on the offensive, or even pointing out flaws in their religion might cause them to raise their guard.  (Admittedly, this post will likely produce this result.)  But in every case this author is aware of, people who left Mormonism did so after a season of questioning their own religion.  Being a safe source for answers is possibly the best way to build the bridge Dr. Rowe mentions.

            However, if one desires to approach an active Mormon in an effort to present the gospel, there are some basic tips of which to be mindful.  First, do not dance around the idea that there are some serious differences between Mormon and Christian doctrine.  These differences are real; address them honestly and respectfully.  Second, Mormons are strong supporters of a “personal testimony” so present the gospel from your personal perspective, using a positive approach rather than trying to "chip away" at their beliefs.  Present a positive example of God’s love and grace.  Of course, use Scripture, but remember that the Mormon can always fall back on his or her belief that the Bible is not correctly translated.  Often, a “correct” translation of a passage cannot be provided because this is simply a defense against biblical truth.  Understand that Mormonism is an all-encompassing lifestyle, so a person, if he or she were to convert to Christianity, is not just leaving a religion, but an entire culture.  Try to avoid bashing on that culture.  If you do feel the need to point the Mormon to specific Mormon material, use material he or she might be (or should be familiar with as a typical Mormon) instead of some obscure quote from fifty or one-hundred years ago.  (I admit that I have resorted to a long forgotten doctrine when discussing shifting doctrine; however, it was by choice that I did not use a present doctrine as an example.)  Often, the best source for LDS material is the Doctrine and Covenants; but again, only if you feel you absolutely must.  This will do far more to start the season of questioning than quoting an unknown sermon by say, Brigham Young. (It is easy to fall back on historical quotes, even has this post has done, but this is not often the most effective way to discuss the differences in Mormonism and Christianity when chatting with a member of the LDS faith.)  Try to ask many questions but do not demand an answer on the spot; allow the questions to work in the person’s mind so the Holy Spirit might drive the answers deep into the Mormon’s heart.  And above all, pray continually for the Mormon.  Pray.      

Brodie, Fawn McKay. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker reference library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001.
Hindson, Edward E., and Ergun Mehmet Caner. The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics. Eugene, Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.
Rowe, David L. I Love Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter-Day Saints. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005.
Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price. Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-5. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981.
Tanner, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Mormonsim: Shadow or Reality?. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987.

     [1] Walter Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker reference library, Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001), 792.
     [2] Edward E. Hindson and Ergun Mehmet Caner, The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Eugene, Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 360.
     [3] Joseph Smith, The Peal of Great Price, Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, History of the Church, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-5 (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981), 47, 1:5.
     [4] Smith, 48, 1:11-15.
     [5] Hindson, 358.
     [6] Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 16.
     [7] Brodie, vii.
     [8] Smith, 51-55, 1:27-55.
     [9] Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter –day Saints, 1981) 294, Declaration 2.
     [10] Smith, 60, The Articles of Faith 8.
     [11] This entire section comes from both personal observation and Hindson, 360-361.
     [12] Hindson, 360-361.
     [13] Brodie, 297-308, 334-347.  The Doctrine and Covenants introduction to Section 132 seems to suggest that Brodie may be correct, including, “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831” 266.
     [14] Declaration 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, added on October 6, 1890, records Woodruff’s statements on this matter.
     [15] Declaration 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
     [16] Hindson, 359.
     [17] Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Mormonsim: Shadow or Reality? 5th ed. (Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987), 174-178D
     [18] Hindson, 359.
     [19] Tanner, 89.
     [20] Hindson, 360.
     [21] Stephen E. Robinson, “Are Mormons Christians?”, [Accessed December 6, 2009].
     [22] Hindson, 362.
     [23] David L. Rowe, I Love Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter-Day Saints (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005), 9. 

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.  I have no material connection to the books recommended in this post. 
** Photo of Statue is registered under a Creative Commons License: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Photo of  Street Preacher is registered under a Creative Commons License: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0