What the heck is a Mormon?

Having been a Mormon, lo these many years, I thought I might explain what that means, and include other tasty tidbits like how Mormons are connected to Las Vegas and what we do in our temples.

“Mormon” is a nickname for those who believe in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, a collection of writings of ancient prophets, selected and compiled by a prophet named Mormon who died around 400 A.D. in America.

The formal name of the church Mormons belong to is “The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints.”

Do we really believe we’re saints, all holy and interceding in heaven on the behalf of travelers, grave-diggers, environmentalists, and other groups? Alas, no–we have no such powers (wouldn’t they be fun?). Instead, we use the term “saint” as Paul the Apostle did to denote fellow believers.

How many Mormons are there?

There are over 15 million of us in just about every country across the world. About 60% of us live OUTSIDE the United States. Here are the breakdowns by area:

  • Africa: almost 500,000
  • Asia: over 1 million
  • Oceania (Pacific): over 500,000
  • Europe: around 500,000
  • Central and North America: almost 9 million
  • South America: over 3.8 million

It’s clear that most Mormons are in the Americas. The countries with the highest number of Mormons (in 2015) are:

  • United States, almost 6.5 million
  • Mexico, almost 1.4 million
  • Brazil, almost 1.3 million
  • Philippines, over 700,000
  • Chile, almost 600,000
  • Peru, over 550,000

There are Mormon congregations in every state in the United States, the bulk of American Mormons live in the West, with large Mormon populations in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and California. There is a reason for this, which you will read later.

 

The countries with the highest % of Mormons are South Pacific islands:

  • Tonga, 45%
  • Samoa, 30%
  • American Samoa, 23%

Currently, the Church has more than 80,000 full-time missionaries working in 340 mission districts across the world—from Mongolia, to Nigeria, to Mexico, to Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hundreds of thousand of folks choose to join the church each year. Add to that children born to Mormon parents, and you can see the church is a growing one.

You can find more info on the Church’s official Facts & Statistics page.

Who are some Mormons?

Some public American Mormons include:

  • J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr. (chairman and CEO of the Marriott hotel chain)
  • Mitt Romney (former Republican presidential candidate) and Harry Reid (former Democratic leader of the US senate)
  • Glenn Beck (right wing radio guy)
  • Gladys Knight (the singer from Gladys Knight and the Pips)
  • Stephenie Meyer (the author of Twilight)
  • David Neeleman (former founder and CEO of JetBlue airlines)
  • Philo T. Farnsworth (the guy who invented the television)

You can see more “famous” Mo’s here, but I personally love the 2-3 minute bios of normal Mo’s that are part of the much talked about “I’m A Mormon” program the Church started a few years ago.  As a writer, people just plain fascinate me, and these little bios are awesome. Here’s a random sample.

Hi I’m Alex, I’m a British-born musician. And I’m a Mormon.

I’m Stan. I grew up in Utah. I create high-thrill amusement rides. I enjoy spending time with my family. I’m a Mormon.

Hi I’m Rochelle. I’m a Redhead, a Texan, a Wife & Mother. And I’m a Mormon.

I’m Jeff. I’m a Mormon & Motorcycle Sculptor for Harley Davidson

Then there’s the Costa Rican pizza chef, the British aerial dancer, the Hawaiian surfer girl, the dude that dives for abalone and many many more. You can see them all here: http://mormon.org/people/.  But I’m warning you, you’ll probably watch more than you planned.

Are Mormon’s Christians or Carrier Monkeys of Evil?

Hey, I’m a Mormon. Kiss me!

Mormons believe that the fellow who called himself Jesus, written about in the collection of writings we call the New Testament, which we believe is scripture, was exactly what those authors say he claimed to be—the only begotten son of God in the flesh, the creator of the earth, the savior of all mankind. He was Jehovah of the Old Testament, born to Mary, preached in Judea, made an atonement for all mankind, was crucified, and literally flesh-and-bones resurrected so that all humankind may be resurrected as well. We worship him.

Joseph Smith, the man we believe was called by God to be the first prophet in these last days before the return of Christ, wrote a letter back in 1838 answering twenty questions put to him during one of his trips from Ohio to Missouri. Question twenty was “What are the fundamental principles of your religion?” His answer:

The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. (History of the Church, 3:30)

So, yeah, that Jesus character is fairly important to us.

In fact, here’s a short, upbeat 2-minute video the Church recently produced. Watch it. See for yourself.

So what’s the beef?

Well, there are some Christians who feel that while we might be good people, our doctrine is inspired of the devil, and we are, therefore, carrier monkeys of evil. The big reason for this centers around our belief about two things: the trinity and continuing revelation.

The 2 Big Deals: A Father and Prophets

First, Mormons believe that God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three different beings with glorified bodies. We believe that God the Father is the one running the show, and all three work together and are “one” because they’re one in purpose. Furthermore, we believe that God is literally the father of our spirits, that we lived with him before we came to earth, and that His goal is to help all his children to progress and become like Him, living with Him and enjoying what He does. We believe that this earth life is an important part of that progression and that Jesus, our older brother and God, made an atonement that will save all of us if we just trust and follow him.

Second, as a loving father, He wants to help and give advice. One of the ways we believe He does that is through personal inspiration. Another is by calling certain individuals to be his servants to head up his organization here on earth. We call those folks prophets. A lot of folks in various religions believe in prophets that are now long dead. Mormons believe that God continues to call and reveal his will to prophets as He did in former times. A common phrase in the Church is that God didn’t give to Noah the revelations Moses needed, and Moses didn’t get the revelations Peter needed for his day, and Peter didn’t receive all the guidance we need today. All of this means we believe the heavens weren’t sealed 2,000 years ago.  There are prophets today.

Is that kooky?

Well, there’s a pattern that saturates the Bible. You see it in almost every book. And it’s this. God communicates with and teaches a person. It might be via a vision, a dream, a visit from an angel, or some direct interaction like Moses repeatedly had or the apostles had with Jesus. God then tells those people to teach others. And they do so by speaking and writing up the message given. Their writings we call scripture. But here’s the key: in the Bible, God never seems to rely on just their writings–he always sends both. And when folks stray or mix things up, the prophets living at that time are there to clarify what the original teaching was, or get more information from the Lord.

We believe God follows that same pattern today.

Because of our belief in continuing revelation, we believe that the Bible is scripture (revelations and writings of prophets), but we also believe in other collections of such writings, including The Book of Mormon and revelations given to modern-day prophets, starting with Joseph Smith in the early 1800s and continuing to the present day.

I personally think this dual approach makes a lot of sense. Having gotten a BA in English, I’ve seen first-hand how easy it is to create multiple readings of a text and be in a quandary about what the author actually intended. I’ve also played the game telephone. Believing in modern revelation is a nice thing.

But isn’t following a modern prophet a bit crazy?

Are these guys weird? Do they have to have beards?

(grin)

Here are the three leading apostles: Henry Eyring, Thomas Monson (the president of the Church), and Dieter Uchtdorf. Before being called, Eyring was a university professor, Monson was in sales and management, and Uchtdorf was an airline pilot.

LDS-leadership-main

If you want, you can read the bios of the other leaders of the Church and see they come from all walks of life. They’re regular folks.

But isn’t following these guys a bit dangerous? Aren’t you putting your brain on hold?

Look, we’ve all heard of Jim Jones. So people doing the Moses thing can indeed scary. But Mormons aren’t doing anything other religious folks aren’t. It’s just that we believe that there are a lot more prophets than others do.

Furthermore, we aren’t asked to simply follow these guys. It’s incumbent upon anyone hearing them to satisfy themselves that these folks are actually bonafide representatives of the Lord. For example, our missionaries don’t ask folks to believe. They ask them to study and consider the message and evidence and then go to the Lord and ask him if we’re just happy kooks who like to bake cookies or are legitimately onto something.  We believe you need confirmation from God that the yahoo saying he’s been asked to do this was actually called by headquarters.

And even then, while we believe God still communicates by His own voice, angels, visions, etc., we don’t believe that prophets or their writings are infallible—we don’t believe God won’t ever let prophets make mistakes, or that they know everything all at once, or that their writings (like the books in The Bible), can’t be lost, corrupted, or changed. We don’t believe that’s ever been the case.

It’s a different view of revelation, more of a line upon line approach, that sees God working with real humans, not taking control of them and turning them into holy robots. This view of revelation is not without issues, but it is how we believe God operates. And it means we’re all asked to listen and ponder and consider–to use our brains. And to get God’s input. We don’t believe in blind faith.

Barrel of Monkeys?

The bottom line is this.  While there’s huge overlap between Mormons, Protestants, and Catholics, it is definitely true that Mormons do have some differences. Does that make us carrier monkeys? Well, Dear Reader, that’s for you to decide.

If you’re interested in more details about how our view of the trinity and revelation different from some of the main-line Christian faiths, you can watch or read two guys, who we believe are modern apostles, explain our views on those topics and compare it to current Protestant and Catholic views.

As a side note, before being called to be apostles, Holland was the president of Brigham Young University; Oaks (the one with the mastermind bald look) was a justice on the Utah Supreme Court.

Other Interesting Mormon Facts

Exterminate Them Mormons!

In 1838, the state of Missouri issued an executive order to exterminate Mormons. It was signed by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs, which sounds like something out of Hollywood. The order, which was rescinded in 1976, gave formal sanction for the mass removal and killing of Mormons: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.” A number of us were exterminated (there’s one, Cletus, git ’em!), others were raped and beaten, and thousands burned out and driven that winter. The wonder folks of Quincy, Illinois gave them shelter and help (thank  you Quincy-ites). Having been chased out of New York, Ohio, and Missiouri, the Church leadership moved to a marshy spot on the Mississippi in Illinois.  They drained the swamps and built a city they called Nauvoo. It lasted about 10 years until they were driven again–this time into the West.

Wikipedia: “Missouri Executive Order 44”

Strippers

Las Vegas, Nevada was originally settled by a bunch of Mormon missionaries in 1855. No, we did not introduce the casinos and strip clubs. But didn’t we make it a nice place for them?

Wikipedia: “Las Vegas, Nevada”

1830 Frontier Prophet

The Church was organized in upper state New York in April of 1830 by Joseph Smith, who we believe was the first prophet called of God in modern times. The Church soon moved to Ohio (1831), then Missouri (1836), then, as stated above, Illinois (1839), all of which were were frontier states in those days.

Map of US in 1830 showing slave and free states

Murder

Smith was murdered in 1844 in Carthage, Illinois by a mob of local militia.

Flee!

Here’s why Utah became Mormon Central. In 1846, Mormons, who had been expelled from Missouri and chased from Ohio, were forced by threat of violence out of Illinois and fled across the Mississippi into what was then Indian and Mexican territory and where they hoped to be free of oppression. They were one of the main pioneer groups to settle the West. Brigham Young was the leader who organized that migration. The first groups arrived in 1847 in what would later become Utah.  There were about 2,000 of them. Tens of thousands would follow in the years after.

Map of US in 1840

Colonies

Young sent groups of Mormons to “colonize” numerous places. By the time he died there were over 400 Mormon colonies in the West stretching from Mexico and California up into Canada, which is one of the reasons why there are so many Mormons in the western states I listed above.

Stone Cold Sober

Brigham Young University (BYU) is owned and operated by the Church. The school, among other honors, has won the title of the most stone cold sober university and held it year after year.

BYU Universe: “BYU Wins Stone Cold Sober for 14th Straight Year

What? I can’t get paid?

We have no paid ministry. All the positions in the Church are filled by regular Joes and Janes—from the Apostles down to the congregation librarians. So there are no elections or preacher careers. You’re just minding your own business, and a current leader ups and calls you to fill a position. Some who are called to full-time positions, who don’t have the money to cover all their own expenses, are given a stipend. For the remaining 99% of us, this is all “volunteer” work.

Woman Power

The Church has one of the oldest and biggest women’s organization in the world. It’s called the Relief Society.

Wikipedia: “Relief Society”

The Hormones are here!

In the Netherlands when you knock on people’s doors and introduce yourself as Mormons (Mormonen) some Dutchies like to make a joke and say, because the words sound similar, “Who? The Hormones (Harmonen)?”

Thou shalt eat . . .

We observe a health law that started with a revelation given in the 1830’s called the Word of Wisdom. That health code includes avoiding coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, as well as eating grains, fruits, veggies, and a little meat. Healthy Mormons live 8 – 11 years longer than the general White population of the United States in a large part because of this.

Wikipedia: “Word of Wisdom: Health Studies Regarding Latter-day Saints” , KSL News: “Life expectancy of LDS Church members far exceeds general population”

Thou shalt perish with hunger. . .

We fast—no food or water—for 24 hours (or as long as some of us can last) one Sunday a month to get closer to God and to give moo-lah to help the poor. Strangely enough, researchers have found that this once-a-month practice reduces risk of heart disease.

KSL News: “Study: Periodic fasting good for health, heart”

6 days or 6 billion?

While Mormons believe God created the earth in the sequence found in the Bible, we don’t claim to know how long it took, or how extensively God used evolution in the process. Of course, there’s wrangling in the Church over the topic, but for us, it’s one of those we’ll-know-more-when-the-Lord-reveals-it topics.

Wives, Wives, Wives, and War!

Yes, a minority of Mormons did practice polygamy until 1890. If a Mo tries that now, he or she will be promptly excommunicated. But why did we start in the first place, and why did we stop?

We started because Joseph Smith read in the Bible about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses who all had multiple wives but were also holy prophets. Then there were David and Solomon who, in David’s case, the Bible says was given all these wives by the Lord. What the heck? Weren’t they all basically adulterers?

Smith asked the Lord this question and received what we believe is His answer on the matter. Here’s the revelation. That revelation explains two main ideas: (1) If the Lord commands something, then it’s good, and (2) marriage is an eternal part of God’s plan.

Mormons ended the practice of plural marriage because, again, circumstances sent a prophet to the Lord, asking for guidance. In this instance, the United States was jailing all the leaders and confiscating our lands. The prophet at that time went to the Lord. Here’s what he said happened.

I must add that the way Joseph Smith introduced the practice of polygamy is, in my mind, a perfect example of the fallibility of prophets I mentioned above. He introduced polygamy to a small group of people and tried to keep it secret. When rumors began to spread, he prevaricated. No, they weren’t practicing the lurid form others claimed, but splitting such a fine hair really is lying. Then he ordered the destruction of a newspaper press, the Nauvoo Expositor, that was going to expose what was going on. All of this set off a chain of events that led to his murder.

Looking back, it seems he should have done what the next prophet Brigham Young did with polygamy and the Oneida Community did in 1848 in New York with their group marriage idea: openly practice!

Having said that, there’s NO way in heck I’d want to be a polygamist (good grief, I’d have to grow a beard!)  And, of course, Young’s open practice was part of why the United States went to war with Utah just before it went to war with itself.

Wikipedia: “Mormonism and Polygamy” , “Nauvoo Expositor“,  “Oneida Community”, “Utah War”

Church’s official statement on plural marriage.

Green Jell-O

Utah, which is predominantly Mormon, has a strange affinity for Jell-O, and holds the title of largest consumption per capita, which we wrested from Iowa (take that, you sod busters). To recognize this strange affection, Utahans made the dessert the official snack food of the state.

Wikipedia: “Mormon Corridor: Jell-O Belt”, “List of US State Foods”

A Year’s Supply of Guns and Ammo

No, we aren’t commanded to keep any type of arsenal as some think. But we are asked to live providently and be prepared for emergencies. A part of that is keeping a year’s supply of basic food items.

What Happens In Those Temples?

We make covenants with the Lord in temples. Here are pictures of a few of them. They’re extremely peaceful inside. These places are dedicated to be the places where we perform the most holy ordinances in the Church.

Salt Lake City, Utah

 

Mesa, Arizona

Portland, Oregon

These ordinances are the vehicle for making special covenants with God.  The ritual of the ordiance is symbolic. A symbolic ordinance that people in many Christian churches are familiar with is baptism. We also perform baptisms outside the temple. Inside the temple, we perform three additional ordinances. The covenants we make through these ordinances include things like keeping His commandments, living the law of chastity (only having sexual relations with the man or woman we’re married to), and dedicating all our time, talents, and possessions to doing good and helping others come to and follow Christ. Like everyone else, sometimes we measure up to our good intentions, sometimes, alas, we stutter and stumble. One of the special covenants we make is the one of eternal marriage, where we covenant to follow God and cherish our spouses.

We also perform ordinances for the dead. Every day, thousands of people all over the world who have never heard of Jesus Christ die. What happens to these folks?

We believe that the spirits of all of us continue to live here on earth after we die. We don’t go to God or heaven or hell just yet. During that time, those who didn’t hear about Christ will have the opportunity to hear it from the church that’s organized in the world of spirits, and be able to accept or reject the message. We perform all the ordinances for them so that, should they choose to accept the message on the other side, they may also receive the eternal blessings of the covenants. This is the reason we do so much genealogy work—making sure our ancestors are good to go, but only IF that’s what the decide to do.

Ultimately, we believe that the Lord has good things waiting for the vast majority of his children, Mormon and non-Mormon.

Them Golden Plates

You cannot understand Mormons without understanding The Book of Mormon. Luckily, I provide the Cliff Notes version below. When you finish, you’ll be able to talk more intelligently about Mormons than 99.9% of the population. Such knowledge will allow you to lord the facts you’ve learned over your coworkers and family and make them look at you with awe.

The 2-minute overview

Watch and enjoy.

Okay, now it’s time to get a few more details.

How did Joseph get the plates, and did anyone else see them?

Joseph Smith wasn’t the only person who claimed he’d been given those plates. There were a group of three men who signed a statement in 1830 saying that an angel had shown them the golden plates from which Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon and that they had heard God’s voice testifying that the book had been translated by the power of God. There was another group of eight men who signed a statement affirming that they “saw and handled” the plates.

You can read those statements from both groups of men in these two Wikipedia articles:  “Testimony of the Three Witnesses”, “Testimony of the Eight Wittnesses”

As for how Joseph got the plates in the first place, keep reading.

1. The beginning: Lehi’s family flees Jerusalem a few years before Babylon conquers it

The first book in The Book of Mormon is 1 Nephi. To understand the book, you have to understand how and why it came about.  Open the Table of Contents and read 1 Nephi, chapters 1-18. They’re very short chapters. These events occur around 600 B.C. This starts the whole story.

2. The next 500 years

After the families arrive in America (possibly South or Central America), they eventually split into two main groups—the Lamanites, who follow Laman, and the Nephites, who follow Nephi. Over the course of the next 600 or so years, they fight, reconcile, mix, follow the Lord, fall into wickedness. Sometimes the Nephites are the good guys. Sometimes the Lamanites are.

3. Christ visits the people

After Christ died and was resurrected in Jerusalem, he visited the folks in America. This is the most important event that occurs in the book. Go back to the Table of Contents and read 3 Nephi, chapters 8-30 (if you want to skip chapters 21-25, you can). Again, these are short chapters. Notice how Christ teaches them a number of key things he taught the folks in Jerusalem.

4. The people live in peace for 200 years then lose their focus

After Christ’s visit, the people follow his teachings and live in peace for 200 years, but then begin to let selfishness and pride get the better of them. Read 4 Nephi (about 2 pages), which summarizes that time and what caused the people to lose that peace.

5. A many-decades war ends in genocide

Read Mormon, chapters 1-6. Again, short chapters. This describes those final years and introduces Mormon, the prophet who compiled The Book of Mormon.

6. Mormon hands the records off to his son Moroni

Around 400 A.D., Mormon is killed the day after the last great battle, but before that happens, he hands the records off to his son Moroni who is to finish them and bury them up unto the Lord, to come forth at a later date. Read Mormon, chapter 8, in which Moroni talks about what happened after the last battle and what will happen with the record.  Then read Moroni, chapter 10, the last chapter of The Book of Mormon. This is the last thing Moroni wrote before hiding the plates up. It’s his swansong and, I think, one of the most beautiful passages of scripture.

This is the official end of The Book of Mormon, but it is not the end of the story.

7. Moroni comes back to the seventeen-year-old Joseph Smith in the year 1823

The book lies in the earth for hundreds of years. In 1823 Moroni visits Joseph Smith and tells him part of the work the Lord wants him to perform is to translate and publish the book. Over the next seven years the Lord prepares Joseph, he translates the book, and starts the Church. Open and read Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision and Moroni’s visit.

Please note when you read about what he claims God said to him about the various “creeds,” he’s referring specifically to the written documents such as the Nicene Creed, not the adherents to those faiths that used the creeds, and not all of what’s taught in the various Christian churches. Likewise, when speaking about the “professors”, remember Joseph was asking about the churches in his town.

Now you understand The Book of Mormon and Mormons better than most of the world. Next time you see a Mormon, you can yell, “Yo, Mo, I read your book. Rock on, crazy brother.”

Bottom Line

So what are Mormons? They are folks from all over the world who believe in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ and everything that goes along with that. Ultimately, when a person gets baptized and becomes a Mormon, he or she promises to:

  1. Love and help all of God’s children
  2. Share what we know about Jesus Christ and all the good things He wants for us with those who are interested
  3. Follow the things we believe the Lord has told us to do and be and believe until we kick the bucket

Some of us do a better job than others. Some of us struggle. And some of us forget to show up to the meeting.

Personally, I cherish my membership in the Church, notwithstanding its failings. The meetings I attend and the scriptures I read, while they sometimes work as a soporific, they more often fill me with peace and a desire to do good, to be a better husband and father. To be charitable. I love my current assignment of teaching the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys in my congregation’s youth organization. I feel I’ve received answers to my prayers. And while I’m no paragon of virtue, I’ve been steered toward things that have increased my happiness and away from addictions and errors that surely would have hurt those I love and wrecked many joys. All in all, being a Mormon has been a great thing for me.

Hopefully, someday a Mormon will move into your neighborhood and bake you some cookies. And you can chat it up with your new friend.

More Info

If you’re curious to learn more about us, I recommend you start here:

Or, if you have an honest question, curiosity, or observation, please feel free to contact me. This is not an invitation for folks with an axe to grind to inundate me with ranting blather. It is an offer to address what ever curiosity you have, large or small, as best I can.

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