A Mormon Moment

America's biggest homegrown religion is looking more Christian. But it's still a different world

Newsweek/September 10, 2001
By Kenneth L. Woodward

Mention "Mormons" and you think immediately of clean-cut missionaries, uniformed like ushers in white shirts and dark suits, canvassing for converts two by two through the neighborhoods of the world. Once a hated, hunted Utah sect, the Mormons are now a global church worth an estimated $25 billion and claiming 11 million members, a slight majority of them living outside the United States.

But next February, the world will come knocking on the doors of the Mormon Zion in Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The city expects 1.5 million visitors altogether, including 9,000 journalists-plus the steady eyes of television cameras for two-and-a-half weeks. Some local commentators have already dubbed next year's Games the "Mo-lympics" because the church and its puritan ethos so dominate the city Mormon pioneers created 150 years ago.

Not since the ancient Olympiads were held under the gaze of Zeus and his randy band of gods and goddesses have the Games been staged in a locale so thoroughly saturated by a single religion. Consider: Utah's governor, two senators and three congressmen are Mormons. So are all the state's Supreme Court justices and 80 percent of the state and federal judiciary, 90 percent of the state legislators and at least 85 percent of the mayors, county commissioners and local school officials. Business in Salt Lake is usually done the Mormon way or not at all. Anticipating unaccustomed scrutiny by international media, Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's president and prophet, has promised not to exploit the Olympics to proselytize visitors. But Mormon leaders also regard the Games as a God-given opportunity to flash the many facets of their faith around the globe. "When it comes to doing stories about the history and culture of this place," says Bruce Olson, director of the church's 34-member Public Affairs Department, "that's us."

Altered Image

But what face will Mormons wear to meet the faces that they'll meet? To many outsiders, they appear mysterious and clannish with their secret temple rituals, vestiges of polygamy in rural Utah (despite official church condemnation of the practice), zero tolerance for homosexuality and readiness to press their temperance code on non-Mormon citizens. But for more than two decades now, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked hard to alter its image. With an infusion of converts from Latin America, Asia and Africa since the 1950s, it is no longer a white-bread church. Once staunchly separatist, Mormons today cooperate with other churches in providing international relief. Above all, the church now insists it be regarded as a Christian church, albeit one with doctrines about God, salvation and the priesthood that differ radically from traditional Christianity. For example: with Olympic fever heating up, the church's hierarchy recently advised the media that the term Mormon Church is no longer acceptable. Henceforth, officials declared, short references to the church should read: "The Church of Jesus Christ." In this way the church hopes to emphasize what Mormons share with historic Christianity, not what makes them different.

Internally, this emphasis on Jesus has been even more dramatic. Traditionally, Mormon teaching focused on founder Joseph Smith as God's latter-day prophet whose revelations led to the restoration of the ancient Hebraic priesthood and of the one true church. Today more than one image of Smith is hard to find in the church's magnificent new conference center in Salt Lake City. Instead, the walls are lined with huge murals depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. This change in iconography can also be seen in local chapels, called "wards," where Mormons gather every Sunday for three hours. In 1971, images of Jesus appeared only five times in the church's official monthly publication, the Ensign; in 1999, the Ensign published 119 of them. For nearly a decade, visitors to the Joseph Smith Center in Salt Lake were shown "Legacy," a film about Smith and the grueling Mormon trek to Utah. Today there is a new film, "The Testimonies of One Fold and One Shepherd," a Disneyesque dramatization of the Jesus story based on both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.

More important, Mormon rhetoric is becoming more overtly evangelical. In the sermons by the church's General Authorities and in the language of their prayers, the stress on grace and forgiveness of sins and on Jesus as atoning savior of the world sounds almost Methodist or even Southern Baptist. Are the Mormons going mainstream? "Not at all," says non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps, who has studied the Saints for 40 years. "After a century of cultivating their separate identity as a religious people, Mormons now want to stress their affinities with traditional Christianity yet highlight their uniqueness." Or as President Hinckley declared to Mike Wallace in a 1996 interview on "60 Minutes," "We are not weird."

'As Man is Now'

Despite these changes, though, Mormons still inhabit a very different religious world. In particular, Mormons teach that God was once "as man is now," that he "progressed" in knowledge and power to become a divine being with a body. He also has a divine wife, whom Mormons call the Mother. Human beings begin life as spirit children procreated in a "pre-existence" by the heavenly Father and Mother, and then acquire mortal bodies at birth to human parents. But Jesus is special in Mormon doctrine. As God's firstborn spirit son, he is the Jehovah of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament savior. He is also the only human being physically begotten by God upon a human mother, Mary. "Jesus has 46 chromosomes like everyone else," explains Stephen Robinson, a professor of religion at the Mormons' Brigham Young University. "Twenty-three of those are from his heavenly Father and 23 are from Mary."

Doctrines such as these-that God is a finite being with a body, is married and eternally procreative-give the Mormon faith its distinctive theological profile. But they also help to explain why many Christian fundamentalists oppose Mormonism as a pernicious "cult." Even mainline Protestants like Presbyterians and Methodists reject Mormon baptisms as invalid. And in July the Vatican decreed that converts from Mormonism must be rebaptized, thereby signaling that Rome does not consider the Latter-day Saints to be Christians. The feeling is mutual. Mormons consider theirs the only church of Jesus Christ: all others are apostate.

By far the most successful of America's homegrown religions, Mormonism today cannot be understood apart from its early-19th-century roots. Like other Yankees, founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was obsessed by the Bible and distressed by the competing claims of rival Christian denominations. Along with many other unchurched Americans he longed to recover the pure, "primitive" faith of Christ's apostles. At the age of 14 Smith had a vision in which, he later said, God the Father and Jesus appeared to him as bodily beings, telling him that none of the existing churches were true. Eventually, Smith reported, he was led by an angel called Moroni, whose figure now appears atop Mormon temples, to a place in upper New York state, where he would find tablets of gold. With the aid of "seer stones," Smith said, he was able to translate the engraved texts. The result is the Book of Mormon, which records the journey of an ancient Israelite prophet, Lehi, and his family to the American continent some 2,000 years ago. There, after subsequent wars and rivalries among Lehi's descendants, Jesus appears as Messiah shortly after his Resurrection. The Book of Mormon also prophesied the appearance of a new prophet named Joseph, which was of course Smith himself.

Answered Questions

Fantastical as it seemed to scoffers like Mark Twain, the Book of Mormon-in diction straight out of the King James Version of the Bible-answered many questions that troubled religious seekers. It proclaimed that America was indeed the promised land, to which Christ would someday return to establish his millennial kingdom on earth. (Smith later identified places near Independence, Mo., as the locations of the primordial Garden of Eden and of Christ's eventual Second Coming.) It explained the origin of American Indians-then still a puzzle to many Yankees-as lost tribes of Israel. Millennialists accepted the book as a sure sign that the Second Coming was approaching. Even freethinkers welcomed Smith's belief that humankind is essentially good, that there was no original sin and that every individual must work out his own salvation. Above all, converts rallied to the charismatic Smith as a latter-day "prophet, seer and revelator" through whom God would disclose his will.

To Mormons, their early history is a sacred saga mixing supernatural experiences with true pioneer grit. Rereading the Bible, Smith declared that God's new covenant-like his old one with Abraham-promised the Saints land and progeny. But where and how would these promises be fulfilled? Turning westward, Smith's growing flock struggled to create a political, economic and religious kingdom-the new Israel. In Kirtland, Ohio, they built the first Mormon temple, blessed at its dedication, according to tradition, by appearances of Jesus and the Hebrew patriarchs Moses, Elias and Elijah. There Smith installed his own father as the church's first "patriarch," whose personal blessing identified the Saints as members of Israel's ancient tribes. In this way, observes historian Shipps, Smith "Hebraicised" the church and moved it farther from the sects of "gentile" Christianity.

In Nauvoo, Ill., a Mississippi River town built by Mormons, Smith became mayor of a millennial city and leader of a Mormon militia. There Smith found and translated (from a language he called "reformed Egyptian") the gospels of Abraham and Moses as additional Mormon Scriptures. More important, in 1843 he revealed "the fullness of the gospel," including God's eternal "plan of salvation."

Family is Forever

Through the prophet, God disclosed that all human beings have divine potential and-like him-can progress in this life and the next to become gods themselves. Smith also revealed that heaven has three kingdoms, each more desirable than the last. But to be "exalted" to the highest "celestial" realm, men and women must not only grow in perfection, but also marry for all eternity in the temple. Even their deceased ancestors could be baptized-and married-by proxy in temple rituals. In short, family is forever. And like their heavenly parents, divinized couples will have dominion over new worlds and populate them with progeny of their own.

At 38, Smith was murdered by Illinois state militia. But before his death, he had secretly begun adding progeny in this life: like the Hebrew patriarchs, Smith took on extra wives-much to the consternation of his first wife, Emma. Two years later, when successor Brigham Young led the bulk of the Saints westward to build their Zion in Utah, they brought the "higher principle" of plural wives with them. "They believed, as we do now, that plural marriage is one of the experiences you should have to become like God, who has more than one wife himself," says Salt Lake City author Anne Wilde, a plural wife and one of some 30,000 rogue Mormons who still practice polygamy.

Although a majority of 19th-century Mormons were not polygamous, most of their leaders were. Citing religious freedom, the church fought for more than 40 years to defend their plural marriages. Under pressure from the federal government, President-Prophet William Woodruff finally renounced polygamy in 1890, but the change produced a severe crisis. God's self-described "peculiar people" had to abandon the social practice that most set them apart from other groups.

Corporate Structure

Eventually, the crisis proved liberating. Where their grandparents labored to create a closed, almost socialistic kingdom on earth, 20th-century Mormons redirected that same communal spirit and energy into capitalistic enterprise. As they do today, Mormons helped other Mormons-to find jobs, establish businesses and eventually build up huge enterprises like the Marriott Hotel chain and Huntsman Chemical Corp. At the same time, the practice of tithing personal incomes at 10 percent produced cash for real estate and other church investments. Today Mormons have the only church structured like a corporation, with all donations flowing from local wards to the headquarters in Salt Lake and back again according to need. And when young Americans began experimenting with drugs and dropping out, Mormons began advertising their abstemious purity code (no nonmarital sex, no drugs or alcohol or caffeine) and the importance of strong families. By 1960, the church was adding members faster by conversion than by reproduction. In the public's view, notes historian Shipps, "the transformation from satyrs to saints was complete."

Today almost every member of the Salt Lake hierarchy is a successful, politically conservative businessman-and white. The males-only priesthood was opened to blacks in 1978, after a special revelation, but the appeal of Mormonism to people of color is mainly among the less well-off. The poor are attracted by the emphasis on family, clean living and a lay priesthood open to every "worthy" male. Unlike Roman Catholic clergy, the Mormon priesthood is a true patriarchy, giving males divine authority and power now and in the hereafter. A priest's highest function lies within the family. As husband and father, he confers blessings on his children and his spouse in this life, and presides over all of his descendants in the celestial kingdom to come.

Mormonism is also the busiest of religions. There are organizations for every member of the family, and every Mormon is "called" to perform duties requiring visits to the temple or to other Mormons' homes. Ironically, since the men who run the local congregations (wards) and districts (stakes) hold full-time secular jobs, they rarely see their families because church work is so time-consuming. And the afterlife in heaven brings no rest. There, according to Smith's revelations, priests and their families continue their missionary and temple work, laboring to persuade deceased non-Mormons to convert, while pursuing the learning process that leads to the "fullness" of exaltation to heaven's highest realm. Eternal progression to godliness means there is always more work to do. In this sense, eternity is not the end of time but its infinite extension.

Compared with this eternal agenda, the coming of the Olympics to Salt Lake City is a brief diversion. Still, the media spotlight will be searching and intense. Good hosts the Mormons will be-to the point of tolerating more alcoholic consumption than allowed in normal times (following story). The church wants to see Salt Lake profit from the Games; it doesn't want the blame if their hometown's huge investment fails. But instead of missionaries asking questions on the streets, there'll be reporters wondering what lies behind the church's many veils. It could be Mormonism's moment of truth.

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