Kathleen Flak. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
The Latter-day Saint movement began in the late 1820s during a time of religious ferment in the United States. It shared with other “restorationist” movements the conviction that existing churches had strayed so completely from early Christianity that they were incapable of reform from within. But unlike other groups at the time who organized new churches based on close readings of the Bible, the Latter-day Saints believed in the immediate revelation of God and in the prophetic authority of its founder, Joseph Smith. Though a variety of faith communities trace their origins to Smith, by far the largest and best known is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), founded in 1830 and headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.
According to Joseph Smith (1805-44), in 1820, at the age of 14, he had his first revelation. He was in the woods near his home in Palmyra, New York, when God and Jesus Christ appeared before him, telling him not to join any of the existing churches. A few years later the Book of Mormon, purportedly an ancient record written on golden plates, was given to Smith by an angel and translated by Smith through divine inspiration. In 1830, one month after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith organized the LDS Church in Fayette, New York, restoring, he claimed, the early, primitive church of Jesus Christ. For believers the Book of Mormon was a revealed companion to the Bible. Others, however, thought that it was a blasphemous competitor to the Bible and that Smith was a false prophet.
As Smith’s followers grew in numbers, so also did hostility toward them, leading to the pejorative terms “Mormonite” and, later, “the Mormons” (a term eventually embraced by the LDS Church). This antagonism also helped rationalize violence toward the new church and soon caused its removal to the Ohio frontier. A pattern of new revelation by Smith, renewed hostility toward Mormons, and migration west was repeated in the church’s successive relocations to Missouri and Illinois, the latter in 1839. With each move Smith built relatively sophisticated towns, forming sites for the gathering of large numbers of proselytes from throughout North America and eventually the British Isles. The influx of a large and socially exclusive population to an already volatile American frontier threatened the political and economic status quo and created increasingly organized, even state-sponsored, attacks on the LDS Church. In 1838 Missouri’s governor directed his militia to assist the ad hoc efforts of mobs to expel from the state more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints.
The Missouri refugees fled to Illinois, where they converted swampland on the banks of the Mississippi into the “City of Joseph,” Smith’s last and most complete effort to create a social order expressive of his theological vision. Formally named Nauvoo, the city was given unique independence by the state and became the site of Mormonism’s first public practice of “plural marriage,” or polygamy. Again, the combination of new doctrine and political power proved a catastrophic combination for the Latter-day Saints. In 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob. Upon the death of its founder, the Latter-day Saint movement splintered in several directions. Contesting claimants to his presidency led small groups to Wisconsin and Texas. Individuals, too, scattered under pressure from mobs that raided Nauvoo and its environs following Smith’s murder. Many of the scattered were gathered in 1860 into what became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (later headquartered in Independence, Missouri, and in 2001 renamed the Community of Christ).
The majority of the Saints from Nauvoo followed Brigham Young (1801-77) to the West, and along with large numbers of converts from Europe, they pioneered settlements throughout the Rocky Mountain territories, establishing a theocracy. In 1850 Young became governor of the newly created territory of Utah. At the same time, however, the U.S. government attempted, both violently and nonviolently, to make Mormonism conform to nineteenth-century American moral and political norms. Because of his support for polygamy and his defiance of federal authority, Young was replaced as governor in 1857, though he continued as president of the church. It was the Mormon’s subsequent separation of ecclesiastical and political office, and its late-century renunciation of polygamy, that allowed for Utah statehood in 1896 and that led to a measure of social acceptance for the Latter-day Saints. The church spent the twentieth century expanding beyond its North American borders. Today, growing at an annual rate of 3 percent per year, it is comprised of nearly 12 million members in approximately 123 nations and 21 territories.
The Latter-day Saints worship a godhead comprised of three separate divine persons: God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Thus, the Latter-day Saints do not believe in the Trinity, the view held by traditional Christianity that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are united in one God. This, combined with the church’s doctrine of “eternal progression,” a belief that humans have divine potential, has led some to argue that the LDS Church is not Christian. Yet the church shares with traditional Christianity the doctrine of the Father’s sovereignty and of Christ divinity as God’s only begotten son in the flesh, whose sacrificial atonement and resurrection is the sole means of overcoming human sin and death. Equally central to Latter-day Saint belief are the traditional Christian doctrines of repentance, faith in Christ, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Distinctive doctrines include a belief in modern revelation. While endorsing the traditional biblical revelation of God through Jesus Christ, the Latter-day Saints also believe that God has spoken and continues to speak to his covenant people through prophets, who are called to lead the church according to contemporary needs. The chief example of such a prophet is, of course, Joseph Smith. In addition the Latter-day Saints believe that God continues to speak through the church’s president, designated as its prophet. Individual members seek divine revelation on matters of individual concern, especially with respect to their personal salvation and church responsibilities.
Moral Code of Conduct
The Latter-day Saints subscribe to the classic ethical values associated with New Testament Christianity: love of God and love of neighbor (broadly defined). In addition to its emphasis on moral integrity, the church places a high value on sexual chastity, including abstinence prior to, and fidelity within, marriage.
The LDS canon includes four books that are considered equally authoritative: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants. The church prefers the King James Version of the Bible. The Book of Mormon, a 500-page narrative of an Israelite civilization in the Americas, includes an account of Christ’s postresurrection ministry. The Pearl of Great Price comprises Smith’s other revelations, many of which elaborate upon the biblical narrative. The Doctrine and Covenants contains Smith’s revelations concerning the organization of the church and elucidation of its doctrines.
On top of every LDS temple is a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet. A common motif in LDS imagery, this figure symbolizes both a specific event and a religious ideal. Historically it refers to the angel Moroni, who gave Joseph Smith the golden plates upon which the Book of Mormon was based. Moreover, since Moroni is equated with the angel prophesied in Revelation 14:6, the statue also symbolizes the church’s sense of divine commission to evangelize the entire world.
Early and Modern Leaders
Besides Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, who played a significant role in colonizing the western United States, is probably the most famous Latter-day Saint. In 1995 Gordon B. Hinckley became the church’s fifteenth president. His administration has been defined by an increasing internationalization of the church.
Major Theologians and Authors
The Latter-day Saints do not engage in traditional theological reasoning, and scholastic theology does not carry any doctrinal authority for them. This, in large part, is a result of their view that philosophical disputes corrupted early Christianity, their inheritance from Joseph Smith of a large body of canonical writing, and their belief in the revelatory power of their contemporary prophet. Those within the church who write about doctrinal matters tend to do so as commentaries on LDS scripture or in the form of homilies published by the church’s press.
LDS congregations are organized geographically and are called “wards.” Several wards form a “stake,” and several stakes make up an “area,” the aggregation of which covers the world. Each unit is presided over by a lay presidency serving a limited tenure; all are under the direction of the church’s lifetime appointed president and its quorum of twelve apostles.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Formal LDS worship occurs in both chapels and temples. Chapels are the site of regular Sunday worship services and are architecturally distinctive by the absence of the cross, which reflects the LDS emphasis on the resurrection. More distinctive are the more than one hundred temples built throughout the world. After their dedication, temples are closed to all but active members of the church. Highly symbolic in design, temples portray LDS cosmology and its theology of the immediacy of the divine. Certain locations, such as Temple Square in Salt Lake City and places associated with Joseph Smith’s ministry, are deeply meaningful to the Latter-day Saints as sites of religious sacrifice or revelatory experience.
What is Sacred?
The Latter-day Saints do not ascribe particular sanctity to objects. Rather, they take literally the Hebrew Bible’s notion of a priestly people who, in virtue of their covenantal relationship to God, are able to mediate the divine for the sake of the world. In this manner, Latter-day Saints believe that God acts to sanctify the world through humans who can consecrate, bless, and heal through prayer, anointing, and laying on of hands.
Holidays and Festivals
The Latter-day Saints observe the primary events of the Christian calendar: Easter and Christmas. They also commemorate the Mormon exodus from Illinois and heroic crossing of the American continent. Each year celebrations are held in Utah’s cities (in addition to smaller observances held worldwide in Latter-day Saint congregations) to commemorate, with parades and reenactments, the entry of the first pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Mode of Dress
Latter-day Saints dress in the fashion of their respective cultures, adapting it only to observe certain standards related to modesty. Temple-going church members wear at all times an undergarment that symbolizes, not unlike a clerical collar, their formal dedication to serving God.
Latter-day Saints continue to observe a dietary code, divinely revealed to Smith in 1833, that forbids the consumption of alcohol, tea, coffee, and tobacco and advocates wise eating habits as foundational to both spiritual and physical strength.
The LDS Church’s prophetic and lay priestly tradition, coupled with a belief in the necessity of sacraments, has created a rich set of ritual practices that order both communal and personal life. Infants are introduced into the congregation through rituals of naming and blessing, usually by the father. Sunday services, while in the Protestant model of sermons and classes, are focused on the administration of Communion. On Monday nights the home is the site of family worship designed to teach gospel principles and strengthen family relationships through wholesome activities. On any day but Sunday, a member who receives the necessary authorization (based on worthiness) may attend the temple to perform ordinances, such as baptism, for a deceased person who did not receive such ordinances while alive.
Rites of Passages
Membership in the church is signified by baptism and confirmation at the age of eight. Full-time missionary work and marriage in a temple mark important transitions to adult status within the church, as well as increased responsibility for it. The temple is the preferred site of LDS marriages, since only in the temple may a couple be joined for time and eternity. Those who choose to be married in LDS chapels are considered joined until death. The dead are buried in simple ceremonies that emphasize the certainty of resurrection and include prayers over the grave.
In 2003 the LDS Church had 60,000 missionaries, organized by the church’s central administration into 330 missions in over 120 countries. Serving voluntarily and at their own expense, LDS missionaries devote up to three years introducing people to the church. In addition, the church invites public interest in its beliefs through television and radio programming, as well as websites.
Its doctrine of the necessity of free choice, and its experience of religious violence, make the LDS Church supportive of religious tolerance. The church welcomes opportunities to cooperate with other religions for the benefit of society at large, but believing itself to be uniquely authorized by God, the church does not participate in doctrinally motivated ecumenical movements.
The church requires a biblically based 10-percent tithe on its member’s income that is reallocated to ensure economic equality among its congregations. Additional donations support educational programs. Members are also expected to make generous offerings for the benefit of the poor by fasting two meals one day a month and donating at least their cash equivalent for distribution to the poor.
One of the distinctive and central beliefs of the LDS Church is that the family is ordained by God to function for the salvation of its members and is empowered to do so through temple ordinances. Thus, the well-being of the family is the paramount duty of each of its members, especially the parents. “No success,” states a common church teaching, “can compensate for failure within the home.” The religious authority of home and family, as well as the ministerial functions of the church, are ensured through a program of ordaining all worthy male members over the age of twelve years. Depending on the particular priesthood office, lay male members are authorized to perform the sacraments of the church, preside over the membership at large, and make church policy. Male dominance, however, is mitigated by women’s authority to teach and preach to the general congregation, as well as to administer church programs that do not require them to direct priesthood-holding males.
The church’s sacramental view of marriage and the family places it on the conservative side of many controversial questions, especially those related to sex and gender. The church discourages delay of childbearing, mothers working outside the home, and divorce. It proscribes abortion except in certain extreme circumstances related to the health of the mother, rape, or incest. The church is a leader in the political resistance to legalizing same-sex unions. Homosexual practice is regarded as a sin, though the church is careful not to take a position on whether the origin of homosexuality is in nature or human choice.
Through dramatic representations in literature and film, the Latter-day Saints have long symbolized certain elements in the American mythos, especially the paradoxical aspects of the West (pioneering individualism and communal settlement). In the twenty-first century the Latter-day Saints have come to represent the American middle class—as seen, for example, in Tony Kushner’s famed Broadway play and subsequent film Angels in America. Cultural productions by the church itself include weekly broadcasts by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and elaborate plays staged at various LDS historical sites, such as the Hill Cumorah pageant in New York. These sites have been meticulously restored by the church to encourage tourism and the propagation of its message.