By Anisha Anilraj
The Mormons are a branch of Christianity with a fascinating history, their own church, practices and belief systems. Read on to find out more about this secretive sect
The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is one of the astonishing success stories of our times. Based on a dream she had about a vampire falling in love with a young girl whose blood he coveted, Meyer, who had never written earlier, crafted a compelling four-part series. At the core of it is the moral triumph of transcending baser instincts. A notable feature of the series is the lack of gratuitous sex or drugs and the relatively decorous dress sense of the heroine. In all of these commentators trace the influence of her Mormon faith. Incidentally, Stephen Covey, the renowned Seven Habits author and motivational coach is also a devout Mormon and has also been a clergyman for his church. We in India know little about the Mormons save that they practice polygamy. Who are they? What are their religious convictions? How do they live? An enquiry.
Mormonism came into being in America at the time that historians refer to as the Second Great Awakening. At the time, people were seeking to understand and re-establish their relationship with God. Churches and prophets were burgeoning, people practised folk magic, and almost everyone claimed they had visions of the Divine.
While the revival was rampant throughout America, the environment in upstate New York, where Joseph lived, was particularly charged. Members within his immediate family had chosen to belong to different churches, but young Joseph Smith, Jr. found himself in a quandary. He could not decide which church taught the true word of God. A verse from the Epistle of James in the Bible, which speaks of asking God for guidance when one lacks wisdom, inspired him to turn to God. As Joseph Smith, Jr. prayed for counsel, he had his first visit from God and Jesus Christ. In his vision, they told him that all churches were false because they had lost their way and not one of them preached the true word of God. The divine beings went on to say that, the Church of Christ would be restored on earth through him, Joseph Smith, Jr. He was barely 15 years old at the time.
One night, three years later, he was visited by an angel named Moroni (pronounced Moro-nigh). The angel spoke of golden plates that were buried on a nearby hill named Cumorah, but when young Smith went to retrieve these plates, the angel prevented him from doing so. The angel had warned Smith that he would only be able to extract the plates, if he was doing so with the sole intention of spreading the glory of God. Should he approach the golden plates with any vested interests, like the desire for fame, which he felt on his first attempt, he would prove unsuccessful in obtaining the plates. The other condition was that Smith should not show the plates to anyone without the angel’s consent. On his fourth annual visit to Cumorah in 1827, Joseph Smith, Jr. was finally able to procure the plates along with two seer stones which would aid him in translating the ‘reformed Egyptian’ in which the plates were inscribed.
The Book of Mormon
Despite the angel providing Smith with numerous resources, translating the golden plates proved to be a feat. From attempts by other churches to steal the golden plates, to a scribe who lost part of the translation, Smith worked through many a challenge until finally the completed Book of Mormon (BOM) was published in 1830.
While many religious writings were being published at the time, the Book of Mormon stood out from the others, which were merely pamphlets next to this leather-bound testament, over 500 pages long. Briefly described, the BOM contains details of God’s interaction with the indigenous people of America over a millennium before Joseph Smith, Jr. and is narrated by the prophet Mormon who lived at that time. While the BOM describes the great acts of God done to ancient people of America, another purpose of the book as stated on its cover page is, “convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
Soon after the BOM was published in the year 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr. along with a few other men established The Church of Christ and its disciples came to be called Mormons. The congregation grew quickly deeming Joseph Smith, Jr. to be their prophet. By the year 1938 through a series of visions or for political reasons, the Church of Christ was renamed The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, also known today as The Mormon Church or simply the LDS Church. The church is named ‘Latter-day’ to describe this period of time we live in. ‘Saints,’ refers to the entire congregation, as Mormonism considers all people who walk in the path of Jesus Christ, and strive to emulate the ideals he lived by, to be saints.
|A stained glass painting of Jesus and God
appearing to Joseph Smith Jr.
The LDS Church differs from other Christian churches in a few ways and it would be fair to say that these differences define their identity. Mormons, like Christians, consider the Bible according to King James as the holiest of books and Jesus Christ is the central figure in their theology. They differ only in that they also regard BOM as equal to the Bible.
Another key difference is that instead of traditional churches, Mormons have meeting houses, where they attend weekly prayer services, and Mormon temples, which are considered monuments dedicated to God. These are used only on special occasions, and for special kinds of worship. Only a Mormon in good standing with the church is allowed into these temples, and none of them is allowed to describe the rituals to the outside world. The only thing known about these temples is that they are used during the traditions of Endowment and Sealing, which are the Mormon equivalents of Christian rites of confirmation and marriage respectively. Unlike Christian churches though, the LDS church allows the baptism of dead relatives by proxy. Mormon endowment also includes the gifting of a garment to individuals, who have undergone training and taken vows, consecrating them to the LDS church. Once a Mormon has obtained this garment, which is worn under the clothes, he is considered as good as a clergyman or woman. This garment is considered sacred, a way of preserving the ideals of modesty and purity, amongst the Mormons.
The LDS Church hierarchy comprises of the First Presidency constituted by the President and his two counsellors, along with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They do not have any robes or uniforms and dress like ordinary businessmen in suits. Thus, these 15 men are special witnesses of Jesus Christ and held in highest esteem in the Mormon Church. They believe that Christ guides his church even today, through these men, who are all considered living prophets and seers. Thus it is implied that Mormons believe Jesus is alive and amongst them, constantly connecting with them, his latter-day saints.
The institution of family is of utmost importance. A practising Mormon is required to spend time with his family, every week in prayer, performing service to society, and even playing games. Social service includes the production of household items, and canning food for distribution amongst those less fortunate. There is a strict prohibition against premarital sex, masturbation, or any other form of physical gratification, which has no spiritual basis. The Mormon Church is extremely clear in stating that these activities make a person fall from grace, and need to be avoided at all costs. Young Mormons are asked to live by a simple rule. If they are doing something they would be uncomfortable doing in front of their parents, they are doing something wrong. However, Mormons believe that the reason one must abstain from these practices, is to stay pure and walk in the path of Christ, and not because on making mistakes they will have to burn in hell for all eternity. On making mistakes, they believe that they must repent and once again strive for betterment. Since the atonement of Jesus Christ is never ending, what is important is that they constantly strive to better themselves.
A few denominations have been formed within the LDS Church since the time of Joseph Smith, Jr. by people who believed in the Book of Mormon, but disagreed with some of the later teachings of Smith. These later denominations especially took offence to Smith’s practice of polygamy validated by self-professed church doctrine and the title ‘plural marriage’. Although the LDS Church is said to have officially disallowed this practice in 1890, there exist groups who call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists in Salt Lake City, Utah, who still practise plural marriage. Besides this, Mormonism has always been challenged because the entire faith is based on the word of one single man, Joseph Smith, Jr. Volumes have been written deconstructing his BOM, with accusations ranging from plagiarism to bigotry. Specifics offered by the BOM like saying that Zion, the holy land, is based precisely in the town of Independence in Jackson County, Missouri, often makes the teachings sound more dubious than convincing.
While arguments are being made both ways, the truth is that as an offshoot of Christianity, Mormonism is a newcomer, who does not have the advantage of hiding its facts in the mists of antiquity. We can find consolation in knowing that save for the fundamentalists, Mormons albeit a secretive lot, are working in various capacities towards the betterment of society.
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