Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;


Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.


Religious Identity

The identity of the LDS Church alternates between retrenchment from and assimilation to wider society. In the early history of the Church, the LDS lived separately from surrounding communities and relations could be hostile. They were persecuted because other Christians saw them as blasphemous, due to their non-Trinitarianism, and immoral, due to their practice of polygamy. They were driven out of Missouri and Illinois by violence. Laws and court rulings at the end of the 19th century almost destroyed the Church by stripping it of its assets and disenfranchising its members. The Church Americanised from the 1890s onwards with the end of plural marriage. Now Mormons have an identity as patriotic, family-oriented, and hard-working people who look after their own and are generally socially conservative.

They replicate their church structure and organisation exactly wherever they spread, regardless of local conditions. In ecclesiastical matters, the Church tends to work on its own, rather than in cooperation with other local or community organisations. The emphasis on missionary work, evangelism, and proselytizing spring from an understanding that they have a responsibility to share the true Gospel of Christ, but the other side of this can be that they are seen as ‘taking over’ other cultures with different religions and turning them into Mormons.

The Church has a culture of service and sacrifice, seen in the financial payments made to the Church, the voluntary humanitarian work and Church service. Contrary to its ecclesiastical work, in humanitarian and development work, the Church works closely with partners throughout the world. It is standard procedure for the Church to work with other Christian groups, or Muslim, Jewish, or secular relief agencies during disasters or in impoverished regions, to help provide assistance, often behind the scenes and with little fanfare.

Their wider sense of service can also be seen in Utah having had one of the highest rates of enlistment in World War I when the Church motivated its followers to use the notion of sacrifice to aid the war effort.

Education also plays a prominent role. Intelligence is seen as the glory of God. There is an emphasis on the life of mind. Joseph Smith founded an evening school for adults. The Church founded and operates Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, the third largest private higher educational institution in the United States, along with two campuses of the University in Hawaii and Idaho and smaller centres in Jerusalem and London. It also operates the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. Mormons in general enjoy a higher than average level of educational attainment, and Mormonism reflects one of few religions where religious commitment tends to increase with higher levels of education. BYU has one of the strongest study abroad programmes in the United States, drawing heavily on the former missionaries, who are fluent in foreign languages, and on its strong tradition of international service.

Mormons are also at the forefront in globally promoting freedom of religion or belief through law and education. Each October the BYU Law School hosts preeminent scholars, government and NGO officers, religious leaders, and practising advocates, of any or no faith, at one of the world’s most important regularly recurring conferences on law and religion. They also help monitor religion-related cases before the European Court of Human Rights and other legal bodies.

Family and Community

Family is central to the Church because members see God’s plan as working through the family. Family life continues beyond mortal life, members are sealed to each other for eternity that stretches out before birth and after death in the spirit world. Mormons have children to create physical bodies for spirits to come to earth to fulfil God’s plan. Marriage is between a man and a woman; the Church opposes same sex marriage as a matter of doctrine. LDS couples tend not to delay having children as long as non-Mormons, and to have more than the usual number of children. The high birth rate of Mormons has been central to the Church’s rapid expansion. Parents are responsible for teaching their children about Jesus Christ and his way of life and setting a good example through their words and deeds. Family events have a high priority in daily life, such as family prayer, wholesome family activities, and family home evenings. In areas of high LDS population Mormon families often entertain their children through LDS community events, and encourage the development of discretion in the entertainment they find elsewhere. This can lead Mormon children and young people to feel different from their peers because of their standards of dress and entertainment. The Church tends to be patriarchal in respect to the priesthood, to which women are not ordained; but men and women are taught that they are equals with some varying roles. The ideal is complementarity of the sexes; a man cannot be saved without a woman as his wife and vice versa.

Moreover, the Church teaches that human beings are beloved spirit children of Heavenly Parents: a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. While there is no record of a formal revelation to Joseph Smith on the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother, some early Latter-day Saint women recalled that he personally taught them about a Mother in Heaven, and subsequent Church leaders have affirmed the existence of a Mother in Heaven.[6] By directing their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, it is true that Mormons do not pray to Heavenly Mother, but in this, they are following the pattern set by Jesus, who taught His disciples to “always pray unto the Father in my name.” And, as President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her.”[7]

Welfare provision and education (of both sexes) are also central to LDS ideas about community. The Relief Society provides an alternative to the priesthood as an organisation for women through which they can serve their community and worship God.


7.Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 100.

Diversity (within the tradition)

The Church was fragmented for 20 years following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844. There was an ambiguous doctrine on succession, and his eldest son, Joseph Smith III, was only 12. Consequently, there were numerous claims to leadership of the Church. The majority followed Brigham Young to the Western United States. However, a small number remained in the Midwest and became the Reorganised Church of the Latter-Day Saints, taking Joseph Smith III as their prophet and divinely ordained leader. They saw themselves as saving the ‘fallen’ Church that practised polygamy and followed Brigham Young. They adopted the epithet ‘Reorganised’ in 1860 to distinguish from the Church in Utah. Once he reached adulthood, Joseph Smith III became the head of the Church. It is headquartered in Independence, Missouri, and was renamed the Community of Christ in 2000. The doctrinal differences that led to this split began in the Nauvoo, Illinois, period in the early 1840s. The Reorganised LDS rejected much of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo-era doctrine including polygamy, baptism for the dead, plurality of gods (non-Trinitarianism), Temple ordinances, the literal gathering of the Saints, and the establishment of the earthly kingdom of Zion. Zion is interpreted as more of a process than a place. Prophets can suggest an idea through preaching but it does not become doctrine unless it is presented as a revelatory document and confirmed by Church conferences. It is generally more socially and politically liberal than the Mormon Church. Many members do not see the Book of Mormon as a literal history of North America. They are generally more pluralistic in belief. There are around 250,000 members worldwide in 60 countries. (The main Mormon Church counts 16,000,000 in nearly 200 countries.)

Three other churches emerged from this split. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) was led by James J. Strang, who claimed ordination as a prophet from Joseph Smith personally and an angel Strang saw in a vision. Strang was killed by his own followers in 1856. The Church has had no subsequent prophet as this requires angelic appointment. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) was founded by Granville Hedricks in 1863 in Independence, Missouri, uniting five separate branches that were unaffiliated with any other LDS group. They have sole ownership of the Temple Lot site, which is acknowledged by most LDS churches as the site designated by Joseph Smith for the New Jerusalem Temple. The Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite), originally led by Alpheus Cutler who claimed he was appointed as prophet by Joseph Smith, was founded on 19 Sept 1853 in Manti, Iowa, with further meetinghouses in Minnesota and Independence, Missouri, however many members later joined the Reorganised Latter-Day Saints. It has one remaining branch in Independence, Missouri, with only 12 members. The Church of Jesus Christ, organised by William Bickerton and Sidney Rigdon in Green Oak, Pennsylvania on 5 July 1862, rejects most of Joseph Smith’s revelations, crediting him only as the translator of the Book of Mormon. It currently has around 22,500 members. Each of these splinter groups regards itself as the true church founded by Joseph Smith and the others as apostates.

A number of schismatic groups emerged after polygamy was outlawed in 1890s, such as the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints. They are spread around the Western and Midwestern US, with the greatest concentration in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. They were excommunicated in 1935 from the mainstream LDS Church, which deems them to be apostates. Several hundreds of separate and distinct church organisations or fellowships have roots in the LDS movement. However, most are very small with minimal influence.

Other Religions

Interfaith relations have been improving, with the Church leadership recognising and supporting the need for positive relations with other faiths. Historically the Church was isolationist, and in some views, supremacist. They see themselves as Christian, and their faith to be the true Gospel that restores, and therefore overrides, all the previous versions of Christianity. They have a different idea of Jesus Christ from other Christian denominations, which is non-Trinitarian, meaning that Jesus and God are seen as separate gods, united in purpose, rather than aspects of the same being. This means that they are not seen as Christian by some other Christians, for whom non-Trinitarianism is a heresy. Other Christian denominations do not accept Mormon baptism as a valid sacrament, and vice versa. Members of other denominations must be baptised again if they want to join the Mormon Church. For much of their history, Mormons did not engage with other faiths as equals, rather they tried actively to proselytise members of other Christian denominations.

The LDS Church has become less stigmatised now, with a higher public profile, and more engagement with other faiths. American Evangelicals continue to have an ambivalent relationship with the LDS. During the 2012 presidential campaign, an Evangelical minister and former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, made an issue out of the LDS doctrine that the devil fell from heaven and was a brother of Jesus. The candidate for the Republican Party in that campaign, Mitt Romney, is a member of the LDS Church and, to reassure voters, had to make a public statement that he would not be ruled by his faith – much as John Kennedy did with regard to his Catholicism in the 1960s. The LDS Church has cordial and cooperative relationships with Muslims, especially in terms of humanitarian work in the Middle East. They share such values as modesty, temperance, and family. Relations with the Jewish community have been complicated by the controversy over baptism, which many Jewish groups see as a form of historical revisionism, but Mormons in general feel a strong affinity for Judaism as a covenanted religion.