The Latter-Day Saints in Today’s World
“If Mormonism continues to grow in the United States at its present rate,” a Mormon statistician figured recently, “and if the U.S. population continues to grow at its present rate, then in another 150 years when Mormonism celebrates its tricentennial, all the nation’s citizens will be Mormons.”
Although that statement was not meant to be taken too seriously, it, nonetheless, embraced all the earmarks of the Mormon movement—optimism, aggressiveness, prosperity and growth.
When the Mormon Church was formally established by Joseph Smith, Jr., on April 6, 1830, in upper New York State, there were but six members. Today, the Mormon Church of Utah, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and by far the largest among several Mormon groups, boasts 4.7 million members in 75 countries.
To many people Mormonism probably means pairs of clean-cut, serious-looking young men going from door to door seeking converts. Indeed, the 30,000 Mormon missionaries, mostly 19- or 20-year-old males serving their two-year stints in the U.S. and around the world, are said to be baptizing 200,000 new converts each year. Thus, the Mormon Church of Utah claims to be one of the fastest growing religions today.
In an article on Mormon missionary work, Newsweek magazine observes that to the new converts “Mormonism promises a network of solicitous friends, a doctrine of the eternal family and a living prophet to bring certainty to their lives.” Surely, in today’s rapidly changing society, family and friends, opportunity to better oneself and religious certainty are all very attractive and desirable. In this regard Mormonism appears to have much to offer.
Every Mormon ward, the equivalent of a parish or diocese, regularly sponsors ball games, picnics, parties, dances and other activities to which all age-groups are welcome. Families are encouraged to spend Monday nights—Family Home Evenings—together in study, recreation and other family projects. The church also operates a welfare system of its own to help fellow Mormons who may have fallen into hard times. Such programs, along with an impressive roster of celebrities such as former Governor George Romney, the Osmond singers, columnist Jack Anderson and others in their ranks, not only offer a strong appeal to the prospective converts but also make those already in the church who may be disgruntled think twice before quitting the church.
“All Is Not Well in Zion”
Impressive growth, material prosperity, loving families, moral purity, social status and respectability may all add up to an attractive and idealized picture of Mormonism. But “bishops and other church officials who spend much of their time in counseling are acutely aware that ‘all is not well in Zion,’” wrote Mormon Church historian Leonard Arrington.
In Utah, for example, where the Mormon Church claims 70 percent membership, government records show that the divorce rate is higher than the national average, and 7 out of 10 teenage mothers conceived their first baby out of wedlock. All the religious and social programs of the church have brought little, if any, real advantage to its members. On the contrary, the demands in time, effort and finances that such programs place upon its members only add to their frustration, disappointment and depression. As a result, the suicide rate of both adults and teenagers in Utah is also above the national average, and consumption of tranquilizers and pep pills, among other drugs, by Mormons far exceeds that by the population at large.
Another cause for concern among church leaders is the rising tide of inactive members in recent years. According to Arrington, “20 to 30 percent of those in the middle-of-the-road American wards do not attend [church services] at all,” and in congregations away from the center, “the disaffected nonattenders may constitute as much as 50 percent.” These are, nonetheless, included in the count of millions reported by the church.
Theology Behind It
It may seem strange that the areas in which Mormonism holds the strongest appeal—family, youth, strong church programs and the like—should be where it is experiencing the most pressing problems. In reality this paradox is the product of Mormonism’s unique and bizarre concept of the nature of God and man.
“God Himself,” Joseph Smith explained, “was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” To the Mormons, God is a glorified, perfected man. He has a body of flesh and bone, but not of blood, in which dwells an eternal spirit.
“All men and women are . . . literally the sons and daughters of Deity,” wrote Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Joseph, Jr., and president of the church from 1901 to 1918. “Man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body.”
Thus, according to Mormon theology, all humankind existed as spirit beings in heaven before coming to earth. The purpose of their coming to earth is so that they can be tested and, if successful, be exalted, that they may eventually become gods themselves with worlds of their own. So Mormons believe in the existence of not one but many gods, each of whom rules over a world of his own. Brigham Young, second president of the church, once said: “How many Gods there are, I do not know. But there never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals that we are passing through.”
These beliefs explain why so much emphasis is placed on marriage and the family. It is viewed as a duty for faithful Mormons to marry and to have as many children as they can care for so that they can provide physical bodies for other spirits to come to earth. Their marriage and family must be sealed in the temple “for time and eternity” so that they can become heavenly parents and bring forth spirit children. Plural marriage, or polygamy, which church members openly practiced at one time, is clearly tied in with this concept.
It also becomes clear why Mormons are characteristically hardworking and achievement-conscious, whether it be in education, politics or business. It is all a part of the process of eternal progression toward the celestial kingdom.
Basis for Belief
Obviously, to support such a theology, much more than the Bible is needed. Thus the eighth of the Mormon Articles of Faith declares: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” On the other hand, the Book of Mormon is said by Joseph Smith to be “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Yet the Book of Mormon itself is a translation. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated it from “Reformed Egyptian” inscriptions on golden plates (long since disappeared), delivered to him by the angel Moroni, by using “the Urim and Thummin,” a special pair of spectacles. Interestingly, this “most correct of any book on earth” has had over 2,000 textual changes since first published in 1830, and it contains about 27,000 words—a tenth of the book—quoted verbatim or slightly modified from the King James Version of the Bible, including some of its translation errors.
Two other books are also considered to be standard works of the church: Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price. In these books, containing further “revelations” and translations, Smith worked out the elaborate system of Mormon theology, including doctrines not found in the Book of Mormon, such as plurality of gods, polygamy, curse of the black race, baptism for the dead and a host of others.
Mormons also believe in continuing revelation—the heavens are not closed to them. The president of the church, as prophet, seer and revelator, receives communications or answers to current questions direct from God. A recent “revelation” was proclaimed by President Spencer W. Kimball on June 9, 1978, that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” That put an end to the mounting racial tension within the church because blacks, barred from the priesthood up to that time, could never attain the celestial kingdom, according to Mormon teaching.*
A Self-serving Religion
Mormons are fond of quoting the words of Lorenzo Snow, their fifth president: “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.” In taking this view, they put personal exaltation and glorification ahead of sanctifying God’s name and doing his will, as exemplified by Jesus Christ. (Matthew 6:9; John 5:30) This is, at best, a self-seeking and self-serving delusion.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God: “Let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide direct people’s attention to God’s Kingdom as the only means for restoring peace and harmony. They look forward to the time when, under the rule of the Messianic Kingdom, earth will be a Paradise restored, and “death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.”—Revelation 21:4.
[Picture on page 25]
Mormon Temple—Salt Lake City, Utah