Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as the "LDS Church" or the "Mormon Church") is the largest of the churches in the Restorationist tradition, with more than ten million members in 1999.

Early History

Mormonism began in western New York state in the 1820s, during a period of great religious excitement. A young farm boy, Joseph Smith, Jr., found himself so confused by the competing claims of various Christian sects that he prayed to God to instruct him about which church to join. According to Smith, God appeared to him in a pillar of light and told him that all of the churches were corrupt; he was to join none of them. Several years later, Smith claimed to have had another vision, this one a visitation by the angel Moroni. Moroni informed him that "plates of gold" were buried in a nearby hill, and contained an important ancient record. Smith was eventually led to find and translate the plates from hieroglyphics with the help of two "seer stones."

Smith published the translation as the Book of Mormon in March 1830, stating that the book recorded God's dealings with the former residents of North and Central America, and went back many centuries before the time of Christ. The book became the foundation of a new religious movement. On April 6, 1830, soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith organized the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ with six members—it later became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the early 1830s Smith settled his growing church in Kirtland, Ohio, experimenting with communitarian principles. He immediately sent missionaries to Jackson County, Missouri, which he later proclaimed to be the "center place" of Zion. He encouraged the Mormons to gather in Jackson County, where he joined them several years later. But angry neighbors forced the Mormons out of Missouri in 1838. They fled across the Mississippi to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the governor offered them a liberal charter and promised religious asylum. In the early 1840s Nauvoo flourished, becoming the largest town in Illinois as Mormon converts gathered there from England, Scandinavia, and the eastern part of the United States. Nauvoo's neighbors became less tolerant when the Mormons organized a militia and destroyed an anti-Mormon printing press in the city. Rumors also circulated that the Mormons had revived the Old Testament practice of polygamy and that Smith and other leaders had taken multiple wives. In June 1844 Joseph Smith was arrested and imprisoned in nearby Carthage, Illinois. While in prison, he was assassinated by a mob.

The Mormons were shaken by the sudden loss of their prophet, especially since he had never designated a successor. For more than two years, various leaders attempted to gain control of the movement, and several factions splintered off from the main body. Most Mormons chose to follow Brigham Young, a charismatic leader and vigorous organizer, when he proposed that they establish a haven for themselves far west in the Rocky Mountains.

In February 1846 the first Mormons fled Nauvoo and began their long trek across the plains. Some rode in covered wagons, carting everything they owned and provisions for the harsh journey. Others had to walk, pulling handcarts for more than a thousand miles. Many Latter-day Saints died on the trail, especially during that first harsh winter. More would have surely perished if not for Brigham Young's remarkable planning ability. Young organized the Mormons into camps and instructed the first travelers to plant crops on the trail to benefit later groups.

After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, the Mormons endeavored to tame the desert and build a prosperous colony. Young designated lands for farming, and the Mormons planted vegetables and grains, though they experienced difficulties with insects, the weather, and the primitive conditions. Young encouraged self-sufficiency and restricted commerce with the "Gentile" (non-Mormon) population so the Mormons would never have to depend on outsiders for survival.

In 1852 Young publicly acknowledged that the Mormons were practicing polygamy, which they called "celestial marriage." Mormons believed that taking additional wives would add to a man's exalted status in the Celestial Kingdom, the highest level of the Mormon afterlife. Of those who practiced polygamy, few men had more than two or three wives, though the non-Mormon public often perceived Utah as a "harem" where women were mistreated and enslaved. Non-Mormons abhorred the practice, and the next forty years saw the U.S. government employ various means to abolish polygamy, including military force. In 1890 the LDS prophet and president Wilford Woodruff finally bowed to the tremendous public pressure, promising that the Mormons would no longer take plural wives. This "manifesto" paved the way for Utah to be admitted as a state in 1896.


Latter-day Saints believe that theirs is the "restored church of Jesus Christ," the only true church now on earth. Mormons share with other Christians a deep belief in the atonement of Jesus Christ. They differ, however, as to Christ's role in the godhead: Whereas Protestants and Catholics proclaim Christ to be simultaneously God's son and God incarnate, Mormons believe only that Christ is God's son. For Latterday Saints, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct personages, not a unified Holy Trinity.

Mormons believe that human beings chose to be born into this world to acquire a mortal body, as Jesus did, and become more like their Heavenly Father. All humans are the spiritual children of Heavenly Parents who possess physical bodies of flesh and bone (another prominent divergence from traditional Christianity). Mormons believe that they can progress spiritually throughout eternity. Past statements by LDS leaders have indicated that human males can aspire to godhood themselves, just as their Heavenly Father progressed from a mortal state to godhood. In recent years, however, Church authorities have deemphasized this doctrine, choosing instead to accentuate beliefs held in common with other Christians, such as the atonement.

Like other Christians, Mormons uphold the Old and the New Testaments as sacred texts, but they also regard the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price as scripture. Unlike other Christians, however, Mormons believe that God has yet to reveal many important doctrines pertaining to humanity's salvation. The canon of scripture is not closed, and continuing revelation remains a foundational premise of Mormon theology.

Since World War II, LDS theology has particularly emphasized the importance of the nuclear family. Worthy Latter-day Saints may be sealed to their spouses and children for all eternity in any of nearly one hundred sacred temples around the globe. In 1995 the Church issued the statement "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," which, though still noncanonical, is quickly becoming accepted as doctrine. Among other things, the proclamation declares gender to be an eternal human characteristic, restricts sexual expression to heterosexual marriage, and affirms that "mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children."

Behavioral Principles

Mormonism is a lifestyle as well as a belief system, and Latter-day Saints are recognized as often for their strict behavioral code as for their theology. Most prominent among these principles is the Word of Wisdom, a revelation of 1883 that enjoined the Saints to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and "hot drinks" (understood as coffee and tea). The revelation also encourages the use of grains, herbs, and fruits in season, and meat only sparingly. Orthodox Mormons also tithe 10 percent of their income to the Church, contribute additional monthly fast offerings for the poor, and support missionary work. Many college-age men and women devote up to two years as unpaid volunteers in the Church's missionary force, currently more than fifty thousand strong.

The LDS Church encourages the cultivation of strong families. On Mondays many Mormons hold "Family Home Evening," a time intentionally set aside for family togetherness and a spiritual message. In the United States Mormons have traditionally reared more children than the national average, though this trend is slowing as Mormon families begin to demographically resemble non-Mormon families.

Church Polity

The basic unit of institutional Mormonism is the ward, a local congregation with several hundred members. Mormons are assigned to wards geographically, and boundaries change frequently as the Church grows. Each ward is supervised by a bishop, an adult Mormon male who typically serves for up to five years in that position. Mormons have no paid clergy. As with most "callings" in the Mormon Church, bishops volunteer their services above and beyond their responsibilities at work and at home and receive no special theological training.

Several churchwide auxiliary programs enhance the Mormon experience. The Relief Society, commissioned in 1842 by Joseph Smith, involves all adult Mormon women and provides charitable relief and fellowship to church members. Other auxiliaries include the Primary (a children's organization), and complementary programs for adolescent girls and boys. At the ward level, most Mormons fulfill a calling as a teacher or leader in one of these organizations, service that often consumes many hours a week.

Leaders in Salt Lake City, called General Authorities, oversee the Church's expansion into new regions of the world and communicate doctrine to members. Twice a year the LDS Church holds a General Conference, which is televised via satellite to members all over the world. The president of the Church, whom Mormons revere as a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, usually addresses the faithful at Conference. Members do not nominate or elect the Church president; generally, church tradition holds that the most senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will succeed as the next prophet/president and serve for life.

Globalization and Growth

In the past few decades Mormonism has evolved from a regional American religion to a new world faith. In 1947 Church membership passed the one million mark; exactly half a century later, that number had increased tenfold. One prominent sociologist predicted in 1984 that there would be 265 million Mormons by the year 2080. Thus far growth has exceeded his estimations.

Most of this growth has sprung from the Church's extensive missionary activity in more than 150 nations, with conversion rates especially high in Latin America and Africa. Today there are nearly three times as many convert baptisms as baptisms of members' children. In 1996 the Church passed another institutional milestone: More members now live outside the United States than within its borders. (As recently as the 1960s, 90 percent of Mormons had lived within the United States.)

Rapid international expansion has brought new challenges of language barriers, socioeconomic disparity, and occasional doctrinal misunderstandings. Since the 1960s the Church streamlined all of its activities under a massive program called Correlation. Sunday school lessons, instructional handbooks, and Church policies have all been centralized by officials in Salt Lake City. Auxiliary organizations such as the Primary and Relief Society, which had previously controlled their own finances and leadership decisions, now operate under the authority of the priesthood. Correlation seeks to ensure that LDS doctrine and practice will be uniform in every culture where the Church has a presence.

Internal Challenges

Not all Mormons are happy with Correlation, the Church's emphasis on numerical growth, or its increasingly conservative outlook. The 1970s witnessed some internal dissent because priesthood ordination was denied to male members of African ancestry; President Spencer Kimball reversed this policy by revelation in June 1978. Since the 1970s as well there has been an emerging feminist voice within the LDS Church. Many women are disturbed by the Church's refusal to grant them priesthood authority. LDS leaders have not hesitated to discipline those who question its policies, especially concerning gender roles. Of the six Mormons who were excommunicated or disfellowshiped in the well-publicized "purge" of September 1993, five had written about women and the priesthood.

See alsoBook of Mormon; Missionary Movements; Mormon Temple; Proselytizing.


Arrington, Leonard. Brigham Young: American Moses. 1985.

Arrington, Leonard, and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. 1979.

Hinckley, Gordon B. Truth Restored: A Short History ofthe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1979.

Shipps, Jan. Mormonism: The Story of a New ReligiousTradition. 1985.

Stark, Rodney. "Modernization and Mormon Growth: The Secularization Thesis Revisited." In Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, edited by Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young. 1994.

Taber, Susan Buhler. Mormon Lives: A Year inthe ElktonWard. 1993.

Jana Kathryn Riess

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