Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority

 

Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;

 

Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

 

Basic Beliefs

The basic beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Church, known popularly as the LDS Church or the Mormon Church)[1] can be summed up in its 13 Articles of Faith, the first of which states that members believe in God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Mormons or Latter-day Saints are Christians. The body of their beliefs and practices are referred to as Mormonism. Mormonism shares with other Christian religions the notion that the greatest virtues are love of God and of one’s fellow human beings, but it differs from most expressions of Christianity in that Mormons believe in a subsequent revelation, considered to be another testament of Christ, called the Book of Mormon. This was revealed by God and translated by their founder, Joseph Smith (1805-1844). Many of their beliefs are based on the personal revelation to Smith, which is continued in each of the lives of members of the Church. God has communicated with humans and continues to communicate with them. Mormons base their faith on a combination of study, reason, and spiritual prompting, which includes asking God to direct them to truth, as it says in a key passage of the Book of Mormon, “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). Mormons view the Bible and the Book of Mormon as direct evidence of what God wants humans to do. Their beliefs are based on an acceptance of their scriptures as the word of God, though they do not see the transmitters of these scriptures as infallible in word or deed.

Faith in God and Jesus Christ is central to Latter-day Saints; however, they have a non-Trinitarian conception of the godhead, which is different from mainstream Christianity. Mormons see God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as three separate beings rather than three aspects of one being. God the Father is a supreme being and the singular object of worship, but he has a material body. According to the Church official website, “God is often referred to in the Church as Heavenly Father, because He is the Father of all human spirits and they are created in His image (Genesis 1:27). It is an appropriate term for a God who is kind and just, all wise and all powerful. Mormons believe He has a human-like body but is immortal and perfected”.[2] Jesus is the divine Son of God, who atoned for the sins of the human race, died and was resurrected from death. Salvation is impossible without Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, which was freely given on behalf of humanity. Christ’s atonement erases the effect of Adam’s sin. Humans are only punished for their own sins and not Adam’s. Having faith in Jesus means following his example, trying to live and behave as he did, though, according to Mormon scripture, ultimately accepting that it is by his grace that we are saved “after all we can do” on our own.[3] While on earth, Christ was both divine and mortal, though now participates fully with God in the governance of the universe as a divine being:

Jesus is the Son of God, the Only Begotten Son in the flesh (John 3:16). Latter-day Saints accept the prophetic declarations in the Old Testament that refer directly and powerfully to the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour of all mankind. Church members also accept the New Testament accounts of the birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.… Christ, like His Father, has a physical body — the same body that walked out of the tomb after His resurrection, and which He invited His apostles to “handle … and see” (Luke 24:39).[4]

Adam, the first man, was also taught the Gospel; he was baptised and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. The gift of the Holy Ghost is given through the laying on of hands. The Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, is the third member of the godhead, called a ‘personage of Spirit’, meaning a non-corporeal being, which gives him the power to infiltrate and inspire and speak to the human mind and heart. Taken together God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are fully united in purpose, intent, and action.

Individual exaltation, the Mormon term for salvation, requires repentance of one’s own sins, baptism through immersion by one having the authority of Christ, confirmation in the LDS Church, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Baptism is a preparation for the gift of the Spirit. By abiding by the covenants made in baptism and through God’s grace, human theosis is ultimately possible, providing humanity a literal potential to become like God; as infants become adults, humans can become like God. The LDS Church also believes in the Second Coming of Jesus, that Zion or the New Jerusalem will be built on what is now the American continent and Jesus will reign there, in a ‘literal gathering of Israel’.

Humanity has an eternal, premortal existence, their spirits live before birth with God and then continue on after death. Human beings, in marriage, partner with God to provide a mortal experience for God’s children. The seriousness with which Mormons take the pre-existent life of humans as a central tenet accounts for why Mormons tend to have larger families than average, valuing children and family life and disfavouring abortion. Mortality is an intermediate stage of trial and improvement in the face of temptation in which the spirit inhabits a physical body. There is not a conception of original sin; rather, humans are inherently innocent; they are not coming from corruption or originating from fallen parentage. Humans inherit neither guilt nor sin but may acquire these throughout life if they give in to temptation. Infant baptism is redundant as it denies this original innocence. However, Mormons do baptise for the dead, citing the practice as consistent with early Christianity (“Else what shall they do which are baptised for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” I Cor 15:29, New Testament), a process aimed at providing an opportunity for the deceased to accept the Gospel. Mormons are known for their genealogical research to identify their ancestors who did not have the opportunity to hear the restored Gospel. Through this practice God reveals his fatherhood, love and impartiality for all human beings, not just those fortunate to have found true Christianity during their mortal lives. The dead have the same requirement for exaltation as the living, however: to accept Christ and the ordinances, beginning with baptism. Marriage performed in Mormon Temples is also binding beyond death.

Although Mormons believe that God has a plan for humanity, they also strongly believe that humans have agency, in the sense of moral freedom, that is given by God and inalienable. In the Pearl of Great Price, one of the books Joseph Smith produced containing his revelations, it states that “in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). This means humans can choose whether to follow God’s plan for them or not. They have free will. God is merciful, however, so nearly everyone will be saved in one of three kingdoms of Glory, although a few will remain as ‘sons of perdition’ by choice.

It is believed that all people dwelt with God before this life and that every individual has the opportunity to dwell with God after this life in a state of eternal joy; one’s existence is analogous to a three-part play that consists of a premortal existence, a mortal life on earth of learning, testing and growth, and a post-mortal existence as resurrected beings. Where one goes after this life depends primarily upon the degree to which one accepts and follow Jesus Christ, as well as on participating in the essential rites (such as baptism).[5]

Mormon scripture describes the three states of post-mortal existence as the telestial, the terrestrial and the celestial kingdoms. These are in some sense ‘kingdoms of glory’. According to Doctrine and Covenants (76: 89-92), “The glory of the telestial surpasses all understanding, and no man knows it except him to whom God has revealed it. And … the glory of the terrestrial … excels in all things the glory of the telestial; … [and]the glory of the celestial … excels in all things—where God, even the Father, reigns upon his throne forever and ever.”

The LDS Church is a restorationist church emerging from the Second Great Awakening in the United States in the 19th century. Christianity was seen as corrupt and in need of full reestablishment rather than reformation; all Christian groups having departed from the true Gospel order, called by Joseph Smith a ‘Great Apostasy’. The founding of the LDS Church marks the start of a new dispensation, and a renewed covenant with God, revealed in the Book of Mormon, in which communication between God and humans was open again. It is one of the first and most enduring Christian churches created in the US. The first Mormon missionaries reached England in 1837. The first British converts moved to Utah to help ‘build Zion’ in anticipation of Christ’s return to the earth. During this period the ‘gathering’ of the faithful took the form of mass migration to the western US. Most British churches and Temples have been founded since 1945, however, at one point in the late 19th century, there were considerably more Mormons living in Britain than in the United States. According to the LDS Church there are now 185,848 baptised Mormons in the UK.

1. The full and official name of the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, preferred by members because of its emphasis on Jesus Christ. However, the cumbersome full name has led it often to be called the LDS or Mormon Church. Members are most often referred to as Latter-day Saints or Mormons. The Church ruled in August 2018 that it is to be known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

2. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topics-and-background/

3. Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 25:23

4. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/jesus-christ

5. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/heaven

Scriptures

As Christians, the LDS Church accepts the Old Testament and the New Testament. They believe the Bible is the word of God, both a historical and a divinely inspired record, “as far as it is translated correctly” (Article of Faith number 8). Mormons tend towards literalism, though with important exceptions in that the Adam and Eve story, the six-day creation story, and the universal flood are not necessarily read literally (although there is debate within the LDS Church about this). The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the principal sources of Church sermons, gospel study, and proselytizing. As an additional testament of Christ, the Book of Mormon complements the Bible. The Book of Mormon is a history of God’s dealings with certain peoples in the Americas from Babel to the 5th century CE. It was published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who proclaimed then the restoration of priesthood authority and re-establishment of the true church of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is seen as the true and literal word of God and has a central place in Mormon doctrine and devotional life. It is where the unofficial name ‘Mormons’ comes from. The Book of Mormon affirms key principles of the Bible such as that Jesus is the Christ, the gospel of faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of Holy Ghost. However, it differs from the beliefs of many mainstream Christians in its account of the fall of Adam and Eve, described as fortunate and part of the divine plan, because it provided for the birth of humanity. It also teaches that Christ’s atonement negated the effect of ‘the Fall’, i.e., Adam’s and Eve’s original transgression, meaning subsequent believers need only repent for their own sins. A key part of the Book of Mormon is an account of the resurrected Christ visiting North America and meeting the continent’s ancient inhabitants and establishing a Christian church there with 12 disciples.

Two additional works of scripture stem from the revelations of Joseph Smith. The Doctrine and Covenants, originally called the Book of Commandments, was published in 1833. It contains Joseph Smith’s other revelations, with a few subsequent additions, the most recent being in 1981. It includes LDS teachings that are distinctive from other forms of Christianity including tithing, a health code against drugs and alcohol use and promoting good nutrition, the non-Trinitarian godhead, the offices and duties of the priesthood, and the three distinct Kingdoms of Glory. The Pearl of Great Price is Smith’s revelation of ancient writings attributed to Abraham, and a selection of writings from Moses absent from or corrupted in the Old Testament, the personal history of Joseph Smith, a revision of Matthew 24, and the Church’s 13 Articles of Faith. Joseph Smith also produced a partial recension of the Bible, adding changes and extra passages as he felt divinely inspired to, but this was not officially adopted by the Church, which instead includes his revisions as footnotes to the King James Version of the Bible that is used by the Latter-day Saints.

Revelation

Joseph Smith received visions in Palmyra, near Manchester, New York state, in the 1820s. In what became known as the First Vision, Smith saw two figures which he identified as God the Father and Jesus, whom he asked which church he should join, and who replied that all current churches were corrupt, that the Second Coming was imminent, and he should found a new church to restore the Gospel. In 1823, he first saw the angel Moroni. Moroni returned once a year from 1823-1827 giving Smith the location of buried tablets, on a hillside in New York State near his family’s farm, from which he translated the Book of Mormon. These ‘golden plates’ were written in an ancient language, ‘reformed Egyptian’, which Smith deciphered through revelation with the aid of a device called Urim and Thummin provided by the angel Moroni. It was an ancient record of the early history of some early inhabitants of North America. In 1827, Smith began his efforts to restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ based on these visions and the translation he produced. Upon completion of the translation, Smith returned the plates to Moroni, although not before showing them to eight witnesses on his own and to three others directly via the angel.

Founder

Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, in 1805. He stated that he had his first vision at the age of 14. By the age of 24, he had published the Book of Mormon, and later dictated and wrote the Pearl of Great Price, and most of the Doctrine and Covenants. He founded the LDS Church on 6 April 1830, which was first called the Church of Christ. Announcing that new converts were to be gathered into one place, the first site was Kirtland, Ohio, then Jackson, Missouri, and then Nauvoo, Illinois, as Mormons were persecuted and forcibly removed from each settlement. Jackson was announced by Smith to be the location of their New Jerusalem. In each place the Church attempted to found a city-state of their own construction, isolated from the surrounding communities, with new converts coming in from the Eastern US and Great Britain. The doctrine of Smith was considered blasphemous by many and the isolationist and anti-slavery (especially in Missouri) tendencies of the Church seemed threatening to surrounding communities. The resultant persecution and violence, including the governor of Missouri executing an ‘extermination order’ against the Mormon people drove them from place to place.

The first presidency (made up of the prophet and two counsellors) and the 12 apostles were appointed by Smith in 1835, which was the beginning of the Church organisation. Smith instituted polygamy in 1838, allowing men to marry multiple women, stating it was commanded of God. It was practised by few, but was a controversial practice and accounted for some of the persecution.

Having failed through conventional legal and political means to redress the injuries of persecution and viewing political power as useful in the Church’s mission of restoration of the Gospel, Smith began a campaign for the American Presidency in 1844. This increased hostility to the LDS Church in Illinois, where Smith was already viewed as wielding too much power. There was a riot in Nauvoo after Smith, as mayor, declared a newspaper that opposed the Church a public nuisance and had it destroyed by city marshals. Acquitted for inciting a riot in Nauvoo, Smith gave himself up on the same charge in Carthage, Illinois. The next day he and his brother, while under the governor’s protection, were killed in prison by a mob of Carthage militia. He was martyred in the eyes of members of the LDS Church, who refer to him as ‘the prophet’ and see the most significant doctrines and practices of the Church as having been instituted in his lifetime. Followers believe he and a few of the early faithful had face-to-face encounters with God and angelic beings, which took a dialogic form in which he asked questions and received specific answers. Smith taught that spiritual gifts were available to human beings, if they sought them, and claimed himself to have the gift of ‘seership’ which, among other things, he used in a few cases to recover ancient texts extraneous of physical manuscripts, which contained teachings by and about biblical figures including Adam, Abraham, Moses, Enoch, and John. He inspired great devotion in those who followed him, and it was a reciprocal loyalty, because he was perceived as willing to suffer on behalf of his followers in return. However, his charismatic appeal was ascribed by contemporaneous detractors of the Church to mesmerism, an early form of hypnosis.

Successors

The untimely death of Joseph Smith led to a splintering of the Church, with what became the main body of the Church following Brigham Young (1801-1877), the president of the Quorum of 12 Apostles at the time. Young established the Church on a successful foundation. In terms of influence he is second only to Joseph Smith in the history of the LDS Church. After the violence in Nauvoo, Young led the main body of Mormons west through desert and barren prairieland, many Mormons dying along the way. They reached Great Salt Valley in what is now Utah in 1847. The land at the time belonged to Mexico; it was incorporated into the United States in 1848. The LDS Church founded the State of Deseret in 1849, and then the Territory of Deseret in 1851. It was essentially a theocracy run by Brigham Young and the early leaders of the Church until the intervention of the US Government from the 1860s, which objected to the practice of polygamy, leading to the seizure of Church property, the disfranchisement of Mormon voters, and in 1857 the intervention of federal military forces known to Mormons as ‘Johnston’s Army’.

Other early Mormons are worth noting. Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898) joined the Church in 1833 in Kirtland, and he later became the fourth prophet. His tenure saw the founding of the state of Utah on 4 January 1896, after he had banned polygamy in 1890, despite having married 9 different women himself. He also ended the practice of ‘the gathering’, which was the settling of converts in Mormon communities in Utah. From then on converts were encouraged to build churches locally, which began the process of the international spread of the Church. The first non-US ‘stake’ was founded in 1895 in Canada.

Eliza Roxey Snow (1804-1887) was married to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and was the sister of the fifth prophet, Lorenzo Snow. She was a poet, intellectual, and role model for Mormon women, who was important in the founding of the Relief Society, a women’s education and charitable works organisation within the Church, and which still claims today to be the world’s largest women’s organisation. The Relief Society provides a way for women to participate in the ordinances and blessings of the priesthood, though they are not ordained.

Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857) was a missionary, who went on over 20 mission tours, and created a popular exposition of Mormon doctrine for mass consumption in Voice of Warning, published in 1837, and produced numerous hymns and works of fiction.

Authority

Jesus Christ is seen as the head of the Church, as its name suggests. He in turn works through his prophets and other Church leaders. Joseph Smith was the first prophet, and he claimed authority through ordination from heavenly messengers. He was chosen by God, not self-selected, which is significant for Mormons. Smith also had prophetic gifts and authority that allowed him to translate the Book of Mormon, which was given by God. In May 1829 Joseph Smith and an early co-founder of the Church, Oliver Cowdery, were given priesthood authority to perform rituals in God’s name during an appearance of the resurrected John the Baptist. Joseph was the first to be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. He and Oliver were subsequently also ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, a higher level of priesthood, bestowed on them through the resurrected apostles of Jesus Christ: Peter, James, and John. Joseph Smith then ordained others into these priesthoods. Authority is therefore through literal apostolic succession. The Book of Mormon is seen as one evidence of Joseph Smith’s legitimacy and authority. The subsequent prophets and Apostles are his authorised successors. The words of the prophet (also called the President), when he is speaking in his prophetic capacity, are understood as the will of God for people today. However, relatively few revelations have been added to the canon of LDS Scripture since the time of Joseph Smith, who is seen as having laid all the necessary groundwork for the Church to go forward.