The expected presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has brought new attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since Romney would be the first Mormon president.
The LDS church is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, due in part to its unparalleled lay volunteerism - for missionary work, humanitarian projects and church leadership. But Latter-day Saints say they are badly misunderstood.
Here, in question-and-answer form, is a look at the Mormon church:
Q: How did the church get its start?
A: Joseph Smith, considered a prophet by Mormons, said that in 1827 an angel gave him golden plates inscribed in an unknown language that were buried near Palmyra, N.Y. He said the plates told the history of ancient ancestors of American Indians, who migrated to the New World from Israel and were visited by Jesus. Smith said God miraculously empowered him to understand the language and dictate the sacred Book of Mormon. The angel then retrieved the plates.
Q: How did church headquarters end up in Salt Lake City?
A: Smith and early Mormons were attacked as heretics and were hounded out of New York, Ohio and Missouri. Smith was tarred and feathered and jailed, then murdered in 1844 by a mob in Illinois. The persecuted Mormons eventually settled in what became the state of Utah.
Q: How big is the church?
A: The church lists membership at 12.6 million worldwide, with more than half living outside the U.S. The church does not release reports on its finances, but is believed to have billions of dollars in assets.
Q: Where does the money come from?
A: Mormons are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to the church each year. They are also expected to fast for two meals a month and donate money saved by that, along with many volunteer hours, to the vast Mormon program to help the needy inside and outside the church. The church also owns ranches, farms and canneries, and has extensive investments in businesses.
Q: Does the church have ordained clergy?
A: No. Lay people serve at all levels of leadership and volunteer significant time to organize worship and other activities. The Mormon priesthood comprises lay people _ and only males are admitted. Starting at age 12, boys progress through levels of the priesthood, taking on greater responsibility for administering sacraments and instructing church members.
Q: Are Mormons Christian?
A: Latter-day Saints find the question itself insulting. Their scriptures include the Old and New Testaments. But Mormons also believe that authentic Christianity vanished a century after Christ and was restored only through Smith. Smith revised _ and in his view corrected _ large sections of the Bible. Other sacred Mormon books contain Smith’s revelations. And Mormons consider their church presidents to be prophets.
Q: Do Christian groups generally accept Mormon beliefs?
A: No. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant group, considers the LDS church a cult and sends missionaries to Mormon communities to spread "the true Gospel of Jesus Christ." Many other Christian denominations also do not recognize Mormon baptism.
Q: Do the Latter-day Saints allow polygamy?
A: No. Smith practiced polygamy based on a revelation from God. The church retains that teaching in its scriptures but halted the practice in 1890 and excommunicates "fundamentalists" who obey Smith’s original words. Still, Romney has famously joked about the teaching, saying, "You see, for us marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman."
Q: What moral values does the church embrace?
A: Mormons emphasize hard work, volunteerism, education and chastity; they oppose abortion, gay relationships, gambling and pornography. Family is especially important to Mormons, rooted in their belief that marriage and family relationships among the faithful are "sealed" and may continue through eternity. As just one example of this emphasis, the church directs members to reserve Mondays for what they call Family Home Evening, when families gather on their own for prayer and instruction, followed by fun activities.
Q: Why don’t Mormons drink alcohol?
A: Mormons follow a health code that Smith said came to him in an 1833 revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. It bars the use of tobacco, alcohol and hot drinks - later defined as coffee and tea. Cold drinks with caffeine are also forbidden.