What the heck is a Mormon?

Having been a Mormon, lo these many years, I thought I might explain the answer to the question and include other tasty tidbits like how Mormons are connected to Las Vegas.

“Mormon” is a nickname. The actual name of the church 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. Instead, we use the term “saint” as Paul the Apostle did to denote fellow believers.

Read on to find out why we’re called Mormons, a key difference between us and other Christian churches, what happens in our temples, and some other interesting facts. When you finish this post, you will know more than 97% of the population.

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
  • Central and North America: almost 9 million
  • Europe: around 500,000
  • Oceania (Pacific): over 500,000
  • 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 70,000 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 well-known 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)
  • Harry Reid (former Democratic leader of the US senate)
  • 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 guy 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.

A Few Interesting Mormon Facts

Exterminate The Mormons (there’s one, Cletus, git ’em!)

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. Here’s the money quote.

“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, others were raped and beaten, and thousands burned out and driven that winter. The wonderful folks of Quincy, Illinois gave them shelter and help (thank  you Quincy-ites). Having been chased out of New York, Ohio, and Missouri, 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.

How Utah became Mormon Central

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: “20 Years as the most “Stone Cold Sober” school”

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 rhyme, “Who? The Hormones (Hormonen)?”

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.

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.

Are Mormons Christians, Carrier Monkeys of Evil, or Something Else?

Hey, I’m a Mormon. Kiss me!

If you want to understand the secret to Mormonism, something 99.9% of the world does not know, even though many think they do, read on.

I was at dinner once on a business trip with a number of wonderful coworkers. We were talking about religion and listening to the guy who helps set up our training environments talk about the interesting hunting ministry he’s involved with (it’s very cool—12,000 acres of woodland in Alabama all dedicated to hunting, outdoor survival, and God).

At one point in the conversation, a delightful fellow trainer, who shared with us the night before the definition of diplomacy as being able to tell someone to go to hell and have them look forward to the trip, asked me, “Does your church believe in Christ. Or, no, is it some other fellow?”

It’s a great question, and I frequently find that many people are confused. So let’s clear it up.

So what the heck is a Mormon?

And for those of you who think you know, nope, it’s not about that book.

Let me explain. You’ll come away knowing more about us than anyone in any of your circles, and you can lord your superior knowledge over them at dinner parties, when playing games that require vast stores of smarts, or at random moments, just because you can.

Here’s the deal. The first part of the name of the church is “The Church of Jesus Christ.” So, yes, we believe in Christ, that he died for us, was resurrected, is our Lord and god, etc.

The last part of the name is “of latter-day saints.” We don’t use “saint” to mean super-holy people like the Catholic church does, but more as followers or disciples. So you could translate the last part of the name of our church as “of latter-day followers.”

So the whole name would be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day People who Follow Him.

Okay, then what’s the deal with the name “Mormon”?

Well, here’s where we get to the nub of it and the thing that 99.9% of the world doesn’t know. The key difference between the Mormon church and other Christian churches is that we believe that Jesus has called apostles again in our day, just like he did back in the good old days. And when I say apostles, I mean guys like Peter, James, John, Paul, etc.

You might be wondering what an apostle is. What made those guys special?

It wasn’t that they had great faith in Jesus. Lots of people had great faith. It was that they were called to bear special witness of him. And that special witness was not merely that they believed, but that they knew Jesus was the Messiah because they had seen and heard him after his resurrection.

Peter himself said it best when he wrote in his letter, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

When the apostles had to choose someone to replace Judas, Peter said, “Wherefore of these men which have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto that same day that he was taken up from us, one must be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.”

These guys didn’t simply believe. They knew. They were eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus wasn’t just some preacher—he was the son of God and was resurrected.

So Mormons believe that Jesus has called apostles again today who bear witness of an absolute certain knowledge of the reality of Jesus the Christ. We believe their purpose is also to be the Lord’s spokesmen when He wants to make general announcements or give general instructions. Finally, we also believe they’ve received the authority to offer the covenants the Lord wants to make with all of us.

We believe the first apostle called in these latter days was a fellow by the name of Joseph Smith. We don’t worship Smith. He was just an apostle. Just like Matthew or John of old were. But we do believe the Lord called him to be an apostle and restore some truths that had gotten lost or confused over the years.

We also believe the Lord asked him to bring forth other scriptures in addition to those in the Bible. One of these new scriptures was a translation of an ancient record called The Book of Mormon. It’s called that because Mormon is the name of the guy who wrote it. And Mormon was another apostle—one called by Jesus in ancient America.

And guess what the purpose of The Book of Mormon is? It’s to testify of Jesus Christ and explain his gospel.

So the name of the Mormon church is really The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons believe that Jesus has called and commissioned apostles in our times, right up to today, to bear special witness of him. And in addition to that, those apostles have brought forth additional scriptures that witness of the divinity and mission of Jesus Christ.

Joseph Smith 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 was this:

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)

For Mormons, it’s all about Jesus Christ.

So when someone asks, what’s a Mormon? You can say, let me tell you the real answer. It’s not about an additional book of scripture. Yes, folks gave them the nickname of Mormons because of that book, but the key difference is that Mormons believe that Jesus has called apostles like Peter and Paul again in our day to be his spokesmen, and bear a certain witness of him and his good news, and help folks receive all the blessings the Lord wants to pour out on them.

And what a wonderful message we Mormons believe that is.

If you liked those videos, you can see more here.

Please feel free now to randomly lord your superior knowledge over your family and friends.

Wait, 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 a German 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. Almost every religion out there follows prophets. It’s just that we believe that there are a lot more prophets than some other Christians do.

Furthermore, we aren’t asked to simply follow these guys.

We believe it’s important for everyone to satisfy themselves that these folks are actually bonafide representatives of the Lord. 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. We believe you need confirmation from God that any 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.

What Happens In Those Temples?

A lot of people wonder what happens in our temples. If you haven’t seen them before, here are pictures of a few. They’re beautiful, peaceful places.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Mesa, Arizona

Portland, Oregon

What happens inside is pretty simple—we make covenants with the Lord.

Covenants?

A covenant is an agreement with some serious intent behind it. In those we make with the Lord, he’s basically saying, boy, have I got a deal for you! It’s the ultimate makeover program. Joy and happiness here and in the life to come, including some prime real estate. Power to bless the lives of others. I’m going to make more of your life than you could ever imagine. And I’m not going to charge you a cent for this. All you need to do is commit to trust me and do what I ask.

And we’re, all, oh man, that looks fabulous—where do we sign?

Except there’s no signature. No ritual handshake. Those common ways we use to symbolize us promising to keep our word. But the Lord wants us to really think about the deal we’re making with him. So he asks us to make our promise, not with a mere handshake, but in a way that symbolizes what we’re going to do and what he’s going to do. Something memorable.

Let me give you an example. We make our first covenant through full immersion baptism. This happens outside the temple when we’re of an age that we know what we’re doing. People get baptized in lakes, rivers, the sea, fonts in church houses—all sorts of places. When we get baptized, we’re saying, Lord, we’re going to give up the old guy that just wanted to do what he wanted to do. We’re going to bury him. And we’re going to be a different guy who trusts and follows Christ. And the Lord is saying, I’m going wash you clean through the power of the Holy Ghost and give you a new life. A fabulous life. Also, I want you to remember that death will have no hold on you anymore. Or anyone for that matter. There is an eternal life out there waiting for you. And I’m going to make it wonderful.

So through baptism we sign our name. We make our promise. It’s then our job to keep our end of the deal.

Another covenant we make outside the temple is eating the Lord’s supper—the broken bread and cup of wine (except we use water). When we partake of broken bread and water, we’re remembering the sacrifice Christ made for us and promising to pattern our life after his, to make trusting and following him as vital a part of us as the water we drink and the food we eat. And the Lord is promising that if we do, he will change us from the inside. He will nourish us in our new path. He will give us a life unlike any other. He’s going to do that, by the way, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Again, through eating the Lord’s supper we sign our name. It’s then our job to keep our end of the deal.

In the temples we make three additional covenants through three other symbolic rituals. One of those rituals is marriage, which we see is a covenant not just between a man and woman, but also with the Lord. In these additional rituals we covenant to do things like keep His commandments, live the law of chastity (only having sexual relations with the man or woman we’re married to), and dedicate all our time, talents, and possessions to doing good and helping others follow Christ. And the Lord promises more wonderful blessings, which are really just an extension of what he promised at baptism.

Like everyone else, sometimes we measure up to our good intentions, sometimes, alas, we stutter and stumble.

Another thing that’s interesting about the temples is that we don’t do these ordinances for only ourselves. 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 they’ll have the chance to accept or reject the message. And the Lord wants to make the same covenants with them, including baptism. However, for some reason unknown to us, they can’t perform the rituals as spirits.

So we believe the Lord has asked us to perform these rituals on behalf of those that have passed on. On the other side, we believe they’ll be given the choice to make the covenants. If they decide to do so, then even though they can’t make them personally as spirits, they can through us, and the Lord will count it good.

We believe this practice is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 15 when he’s explaining that all will be resurrected because of Christ and says the following.

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

This is the reason we do so much genealogy work—making sure our ancestors are good to go should they make the choice.

Ultimately, we believe that the Lord wants good things for all his children and is going to do all he can to help them enjoy the gifts he wants to give them.

To see what it’s like inside one of these temples, watch the short clip below.

If you’d like a bit more, ABC News did a special with multiple segments you can watch below.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

 

Them Golden Plates: the SparkNotes (Cliff Notes) Version

Okay, we’ve come to the last topic in this post. To really know your stuff, you’ll need to get an overview of The Book of Mormon. Luckily, I provide the SparkNotes (Cliff Notes for you older folks) version below. When you finish this part, your coworkers and family really will 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 to have seen the 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 a second group of eight men who signed a statement affirming that they “saw and handled” the plates.

You can read the signed statements from both groups in these two Wikipedia articles:

Now, let’s turn to the content of the book.

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

The first book in The Book of Mormon is 1 Nephi. The events written here occur around 600 B.C., right before Nebuchadnezzar 2 of Babylon crushes a revolt led by the king of Judah. This starts the whole story that carries through to the end of the book.

You want start right at the beginning and read 1 Nephi chapters 1-18. They’re very short chapters.

2. The next 500 years

After the families arrive in American continent (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. We have record of three visits.

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 and build an ideal society, but then begin to let selfishness and pride get the better of them.

Click here and read 4 Nephi (about 2 pages).

5. A many-decades war ends in genocide

This introduces Mormon, the warrior prophet who compiled the whole book, and describes the tragic downfall of the people of Nephi around 400 A.D.

Read Mormon chapters 1-6. Again, they’re short chapters.

6. Mormon hands the records off to his son Moroni

After that final battle, Mormon 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. Then 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.

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.

You can now sit back and give yourself a pat on the back. Good job! You know know The Book of Mormon better than almost everyone.

The next time you see a Mormon, you can yell, “Yo, Mo, I read your book. Rock on, brother!”

Bottom Line

So what are Mormons? They are folks from all over the world who believe in Jesus Christ and modern-day apostles 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 you’ll meet a Mormon in person, 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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