Ways of Living

 

Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;

 

Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.

 

 

Organisation

The organisation of the LDS Church hierarchy claims to be based on the primitive Christian Church and operates primarily through a lay leadership. Russell M. Nelson, originally an internationally known heart surgeon, became the current prophet or President in 2018. He is a literal spokesman for God. The First Presidency is made up of the prophet and two counsellors, each of whom is addressed as ‘President’. These are followed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the most senior of whom in terms of date of ordination becomes the next prophet when the previous prophet dies. He also is addressed as ‘President’; all other members of the Quorum of Twelve are addressed as ‘Elder’. This structure of succession was established after Joseph Smith died without appointing an heir, as a way to ensure smooth transitions in leadership of the Church. The general Church leadership also includes seven Quorums of Seventy, which are councils that work alongside the prophet. Members of these quorums are addressed as ‘Elder’, although they usually only serve until the age of 70. Then there is a Presiding Bishopric and General Officers. These positions make up the General Authorities in Salt Lake City, which is the highest organisational level of the Church. Also at this level are three organisations led by women: the Relief Society, as previously mentioned, the Primary (a children’s organisation) and the Young Women’s organisation, which provides similar educational, growth and leadership opportunities for young women that are provided through priesthood quorums for young men.

Beyond Salt Lake City, ‘Area Seventies’ are responsible for large geographical areas, and their structure replicates that of the General Authorities. Geographical areas of the Church are divided into stakes, each of which has its own president and two counsellors. Each stake is comprised of five to twelve wards and branches. A branch is a unit with fewer members and leadership resources than a ward. Each ward has a bishop who presides over local congregations, also with the assistance of two counsellors. Stakes have a president, two counsellors, a high council made up of 12 high priests, and a patriarch who gives patriarchal blessings to members of the stake. There is no professional priesthood, positions beyond the General Authorities are filled by lay workers, and are voluntary, performed alongside professional and family commitments. LDS membership requires a commitment to Christian service. Wards revolve around many positions known as ‘callings’ that are filled voluntarily. Members of the priesthood have the authority to act in God’s name. Bishops are selected by stake presidents but they are also called by God. The ‘laying on of hands’ confers priestly authority, but priestly power is said to come from living a worthy life. There were no black priests until 1978, and women cannot hold the priesthood. The priesthood is only for ‘worthy’ males (those who make a genuine effort to live a Christian life), following the Church’s interpretation of early Christianity.

There are two priesthoods in the LDS Church: Aaronic and Melchizedek. The Aaronic Priesthood is given to new converts and men aged 12-18. It is a preparatory stage of priesthood, in which young men learn more about their faith. They are first ordained deacon, then teacher, then priest, each stage conferring a greater responsibility. A young man must be worthy and faithful in his duties, and assist the bishop in service to the ward. Members of the Aaronic Priesthood are responsible for the preparation, distribution, and blessing of the sacrament (which is similar to Holy Communion in some Christian churches) during services. After reaching a certain level of experience and maturity, they are able to baptise, and they are asked to visit and care for members of the Church. The Melchizedek Priesthood is conferred by bishops and stake presidents with the common consent of Church members in their community. It is a higher level of priesthood than the Aaronic. Members of the Melchizedek Priesthood are required to perform sacred ordinances and lead in the Church. Within a ward, members of the Melchizedek Priesthood belong to either the elders’ quorum or the high priests’ group. Once ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, men can then be ordained into specific offices with different responsibilities: Elder, High Priest, Bishop, Patriarch, Seventy, and Apostle. ‘The Keys of the Priesthood’ refers to the right to exercise authority in the name of God, and preside over a priesthood function, quorum, or organisational division of the Church.

Although priesthood authority is seen as the authority to act in God’s name, this authority is doctrinally circumscribed and limited to appropriate circumstances. Key to understanding Mormon priesthood is the scriptural injunction that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge ….” (Doctrine and Covenants, Sect. 121).

Women over 18, and married women and single mothers under 18, join the Relief Society. Young men are encouraged to do two years of missionary work from age 18 at their own expense, with a focus on proselytizing. Women can do missionary service from age 19. Retired couples are encouraged to serve in education or humanitarian services.

Church organisation is highly coordinated and hierarchical. Uniformity and conformity of doctrines and practices in the LDS Church is maintained through the worldwide distribution of instructional materials and Church programmes, called the Church Correlation programme. The Church is maintained through members tithing 10 per cent of their income, a practice encouraged from 1899 to end a long period of financial problems resulting from federal financial oppression.

Guidance for Life

The responsibility of all members of the LDS Church is to follow God’s plan throughout their life. The Church describes God as generally having a simple pattern for revealing his plan: the prophets, as witnesses of God, testify of Christ and Christian principles, the Holy Ghost confirms the truth of these teachings to those who seriously contemplate them, and then the faithful are invited to obey. In practice, this is translated by Mormons as living a life of simplicity, including simple morality and evangelism, keeping faithful to their promises to God and, where appropriate, telling others of his Gospel. It is a choice by individuals that they make after study, contemplation, and prayer through which they interpret confirmation of God’s plan as taught by his prophets and revealed by the Holy Ghost. The gift of the Holy Ghost, which requires sensitivity and serenity to operate, is considered to be a spiritual compass that provides guidance throughout life. Individuals are called to repent of their sins, which are moral deviations from God’s plan. God’s plan is believed to work best through the family, which involves adults getting married and having children. It is also worked out through the way one’s life is lived. The 13th Article of Faith calls on Church members to be “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men”. Among other things, this has led to an emphasis on economic self-reliance and economic welfare as important elements in religious salvation. Mormons still believe in the Second Coming and the Millennium (the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth). Early Mormons expected it imminently; however, its time of occurrence is less of a focus for the contemporary Church. Members are called upon to prepare for judgement whether this occurs sooner or later. Faith in Christ and good works prepare one for Judgement Day, which means keeping God’s commandments as understood through scripture, the teachings of Church leaders, and the rigorous demands of individual conscience.

Religious/Ritual Practice

Rituals are called ordinances. These are physical actions that symbolise spiritual experience or convey spiritual significance. They are performed by someone with priesthood authority. There are two types of ordinance: those necessary for salvation or exaltation and those performed to comfort and guide people. Exaltation ordinances include baptism, confirmation, the sacrament, and conferral of the Melchizedek priesthood (for men only), Temple endowment, and Temple marriage. These are considered necessary for salvation and are also called ‘saving ordinances’. They involve entering a solemn covenant with the Lord. Ordinances for comfort and guidance include the naming and blessing of children, administering to the sick, patriarchal blessings (blessings for long-range life guidance performed by a patriarch), fathers’ blessings for their children, blessings of guidance and comfort, and the dedication of graves. These formal blessings are ordinances performed under priesthood authority. They involve the laying on of hands by the member of the priesthood, the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ and the authority of the level of priesthood, and then words of blessing as inspired by the Holy Ghost.

The Temple ordinances are key to the greatest blessings available. They can only take place in Temples, are reserved for ‘worthy’ members, and include washing and anointing, endowment, sealing of families including adopted children, and proxy ordinances. Washing and anointing is an initiatory ritual that cleanses and sanctifies the person in preparation for the further Temple ordinances of endowment and marriage. Men and women are symbolically washed and anointed by members of their own gender in separate ceremonies. After the ceremony, they receive their white Temple garments. Endowments were revealed exclusively to Joseph Smith, and form a set of rituals that are unique to Mormons. The Temple endowment involves receiving instruction in the Temple concerning God’s plan for salvation and participants make covenants with God, promising truthfulness, purity, righteous service, and devotion. Temple endowment is an initiation ceremony in which members make pledges called covenants affirming those made in baptism. Sealing rituals are those that ‘seal’ in heaven relationships formed on earth, principally a man and a woman in marriage, all children born and unborn, and any they adopt, for eternity. It is also called Temple marriage. Proxy ordinances are those performed on behalf of the dead, who did not have the opportunity to learn of the restored Gospel in life. Temple ordinances are considered necessary for eternal life, which is why Mormons consider proxy ordinances in Temples as important acts of service, faith, and personal renewal that convey gifts and opportunities on those who did not have these opportunities for the ordinances during their life.

Sunday, the Mormon Sabbath, usually includes attending a three-hour block of services in churches and meeting houses. The most important of these is the sacrament meeting, which involves the taking of the sacrament as a renewal of personal covenants, and receiving spiritual instruction. The sacrament meeting is the heart of Sunday activity, it lasts about 70 minutes, and involves the whole community, including children. Those who have been baptised receive bread and water, in remembrance of the Last Supper and the Atonement of Jesus Christ as well as their own baptismal promises to serve the Lord and keep his commandments. The service is informal in the sense that it is conducted by lay members of the congregation. However, those who attend will dress smartly and respectfully for services. Non-Mormons are welcome to attend. There are many other social activities throughout the week but no other worship services. These are community events that support and integrate the congregation as a community. Other Sunday meetings include a Sunday School and priesthood and Relief Society meetings.

The Journey of Life

Unlike many other Christians, Mormons do not practice infant baptism. Baptism is possible from the age of 8, which they consider the age of accountability when a child is generally sufficiently mature to distinguish right from wrong. A person must know what they are doing to be baptised, as it is considered a solemn promise made to the Lord to behave in a certain way. Converts are baptised even if they have been previously baptised into a different Christian denomination. Prior to baptism, a candidate is interviewed by their local Bishop or mission authority to make sure they understand and are willing to obey the laws of the Gospel, have repented of their sins, and that they have faith in Jesus Christ. The baptismal ceremony involves total immersion in water, accompanied by the saying of a prayer. Usually within a week of baptism the candidate is confirmed in the Church through the laying on of hands and prayers, which may be figuratively referred to as the ‘baptism by fire’ through which they receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Reception of the Gift of the Holy Ghost following baptism confirms membership in the Church. Baptism symbolises faith in the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ, signifying a remission of sin, through which the individual is washed free of sin.

As noted, in Temples, baptism is also performed for the dead, those in the spirit world who did not ‘hear the Gospel’ in their lifetimes. It is baptism by proxy, or a proxy ordinance. It is available to all, regardless of their race, religion, or morality in life. It is up to the deceased individual whether they accept it, and does not force conversion on unwilling individuals who continue to have rights of agency and choice after death. As noted, the LDS Church teaches that early Christians performed this ritual, using 1 Corinthians 15:29 as scriptural justification. This practice has proved controversial to some, however. For example both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust have been baptised which has been objected to by Jewish groups. They consider it insensitive to the living and the dead. Thus Church policy since the 1990s is that proxy baptism can only be requested for one’s own ancestors and to request permission from the nearest surviving next-of-kin of those who died in the past 95 years. The Church takes this commitment seriously and, at one point, hundreds of improperly submitted names that did not follow this policy were stricken from Church records.

Marriage is a sacred ordinance ordained by God that seals together the couple and all of their children, born, unborn, and adopted. Marriage is central to LDS doctrine, which states that marriage between one man and one woman is part of God’s plan. It is very important for Mormons to get married and have children, if possible. It is not unusual for Mormons to have larger families than the societal norm in the developed world. God wants human beings to have children so that spirits can have their time on earth in physical bodies for testing and learning. Birth draws spirits from pre-mortal existence into the mortal realm, in which they live life on earth before returning to the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the three kingdoms. Marriage is essential to salvation, and persons who remain unmarried by choice cannot reach the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom after death. Mormons have been known to say that the most important thing in life is to ‘marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority’. Marriage is only sealed for eternity if it is performed in a Temple by a person with priesthood authority to do so. Still, the couple must keep the covenants of fidelity, love, and obedience for marriage to be eternal.

For funerals, burial is generally preferred to cremations except in jurisdictions where this is not allowed. Embalming is accepted and allowed. If the deceased has a Temple endowment they will be buried in their Temple garments. Funerals take place in an LDS chapel or mortuary, officiated by an LDS bishop or other proper authority. Family members give the family prayer, and family priesthood holders usually dedicate the grave. Grief is tempered by belief in eternity together as a family; Mormons believe they will eventually meet again in the spirit world. No one knows exactly where that spirit world is. The second prophet, Brigham Young, taught that the spirit world is ‘around us’, but the precise meaning of that remains unclear. However, Mormons teach that spirits have the same identity and basic form as during their mortal existence; they have the same families and continue with their work.

Holy Days and Celebrations

The main holy day for Mormons is Sunday, which is considered the Sabbath. Orthodox Mormons will observe the spirit of the Sabbath Day, which means generally no work, no spending money, in some families no homework for school children, and usually no entertainment such as going to birthday parties or football games. It is a day ‘sanctified to the Lord’. For many Mormon families, Monday is reserved for Family Home Evening, when they spend the evening together in spiritual instruction, training, and participating in wholesome games and activities. Inaugurated by the Church in 1915, this is seen as a way to help parents prepare their children for responsible living.

Easter and Christmas are the main religious celebrations for the LDS Church. These dates commemorate the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as in other Christian denominations. Though Mormons are avid participants in holiday ‘good cheer’, they tend to focus more on the religious aspects of these festivals than on their secular customs. In the United States, July 24 is celebrated as Pioneer Day, the date of the arrival of Brigham Young and his followers in the Great Salt Lake Valley. It is a celebration mainly among Utah Mormons, where it is a state and Church holiday, with parades, fireworks, rodeos, feasts, dances, and excursions.