Mormonism grows; devotion begins in youth

Akron Beacon Journal/May 9, 2012

Akron, Ohio -- Trevar Dahl spends an hour before school each morning studying the Bible with seven other teens.

"It's the best way to start the day, and it helps us with a pretty good knowledge of scripture," said Trevar, a 16-year-old junior at Cloverleaf High School near Lodi. "We attend classes for four years. We call it seminary."

Seminary, or the study of religious history and scripture among high school students in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church), includes courses on the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon and church doctrine, covenants and history. The seminary program has been part of the Mormon tradition for 100 years and has grown from 70 students to nearly 370,000 in more than 140 countries.

Trevar's group, taught by his mother, Cynthia, begins at 6 a.m. - like most seminary classes - at the Dahl's home in Lodi, Ohio. Cynthia Dahl said the predawn religious classes are designed to give Mormon teens a chance to learn the gospel and to apply the teachings to their lives.

Dahl said she volunteered to teach the class because she loves youth and loves teaching the scriptures. She said she spends about an hour a day preparing for the classes and several hours on weekends.

"I do whatever I need to do to help them learn more about Christ and the scriptures," Cynthia Dahl said. "It's not required that they come to the classes. They come because they want to be there, and I want to help them work toward being more like Christ." The seminary group that meets at the Dahls' home is one of several in the Akron region, or what the Latter-day Saints call a "stake."

The Akron stake has more than 3,800 members and 10 wards, or congregations (which are organized geographically), in Akron, Tallmadge, Canton, Massillon, Medina, Wadsworth, Wooster, Ashland and New Philadelphia. The 10th congregation is a group of single young adults who also meet in Tallmadge.

The Dahls, who attend services in Ashland, consider themselves a typical Mormon family - committed to their faith and dedicated to prayer and regular church attendance. In addition to Trevar, the family includes three other children: Blake, 22, who recently returned to his studies at Brigham Young University from missionary work in Phoenix; Lauren, 19, who just completed her second year at BYU; and Erica, 12, a sixth-grader at Cloverleaf Middle School.

"The church has given me and my wife a solid foundation, and we want that for our children," said Andrew Dahl, Trevar's father. "We believe it is important to have a testimony of Jesus Christ and to be educated about the gospel. The church teaches principles that have always given me great direction."

Mormonism has been in the national spotlight, in large part, because of Mitt Romney, a Republican poised to become the first Mormon presidential candidate from a major political party. Other flashpoints of Mormon interest in recent years include the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," and the popular "Twilight" series of vampire stories by Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon housewife-turned-novelist who says her faith influences her writing.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, was organized in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York. He said he had a revelation that God wanted him to restore the true Christian church with additional scriptures written by ancient prophets in America.

According to Mormon church history, an angel gave Smith a set of gold plates. Through the power of God, Smith translated those gold plates, which contained the history of an ancient American civilization.

That translation, called the "Book of Mormon," is a sacred text of the denomination and is considered a companion to the Bible.

Ohio has a significant place in Mormon Church history because Kirtland is where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was headquartered from 1831 to 1838. It is the place where Smith, revered by Mormons as a prophet, is believed to have received revelations from the Lord and much of the doctrine of the church that is still in place today. The city also is home of the first temple Smith's followers built.

The church claims 12,500 members in 34 congregations in Northeast Ohio's Akron, Cleveland and Youngstown stakes.

"We believe in Jesus Christ, and we believe in the Bible as the word of God," said Elder Craig Christensen, a church authority from Utah who recently presided at a semiannual Akron stake conference in Tallmadge. "We also believe that prophetic words come in our time. We invite people to get to know us - we welcome visitors - and they will find that we are traditional, conservative Christians, faith-filled people trying to live out our faith."

According to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, claiming 14.4 million members. Mormons make up nearly 2 percent of the population (about 6 million people) in the United States.

A Pew survey released in January looked at the views, attitudes and religious practices of Mormons. It shows that while many Mormons feel they are misunderstood, discriminated against and not accepted as part of mainstream society, they think the acceptance of Mormonism is on the rise.

The research also indicates that although Mormons are uncertain of their place in society, they are certain in their beliefs: 98 percent believe that Jesus rose from the dead; 94 percent believe the president of the denomination is a prophet; 91 percent believe the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith; and 94 percent believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.

In addition, the majority of Mormons surveyed showed strong religious commitment: 82 percent say religion is very important to them, compared to 55 percent of the general public; 83 percent pray at least once a day; and 77 percent attend religious services at least once a week.

Mormons were also strong in adhering to church teachings. The survey showed 79 percent report they tithe, or donate, 10 percent of their earnings to the church; 51 percent regularly spend time with family; 49 percent don't drink coffee or tea; 82 percent keep a three-month supply of food stored for emergencies; and 73 percent work to help the poor.

The denomination's Relief Society is charged with seeking out and helping the poor. The auxiliary, which includes all adult women in the church, operates under the motto "Charity Never Faileth" and boasts being one of the largest women's organizations in the world.

Lynn Watkins, president of the Akron Stake Relief Society, said the ministry includes a "visiting teaching" component in which auxiliary members visit each woman in a congregation on a monthly basis to see how she is doing and if she needs anything. The local stake Relief Society has nearly 1,500 members.

"It's a really nice way to strengthen the ward because each of us is looking out for each other. We usually take a spiritual message with us when we visit a sister's home," said Watkins, of Hartville. "We attend to the spiritual and temporal needs of each sister and her family. We also do service projects in the larger community and help with disaster relief."

Watkins said one church resource that helps the auxiliary fulfill its mission to assist the needy is the Bishop's Storehouse, which can be likened to a supermarket without the cash registers. The central storehouse is located in Utah; a local storehouse is in Brecksville.

In addition to the Relief Society, missionary service is one of the more distinctive practices in the Mormon church. The church teaches that the full-time missionary work, known as a "proselyting" mission, is the responsibility of all followers of Jesus Christ.

Couples tend to serve in missionary work after their children have left home.

Women typically serve for 18 months, beginning at age 21. Young men generally serve two-year missions from ages 19 to 21.

The Pew survey shows that 92 percent of Mormons who have served a mission said the experience was very helpful in helping them grow in their faith.

Douglas Talley, who has served as Akron stake president for 10 years, did mission work in Rome, after converting to Mormonism. He said the primary reason for his conversion was his belief that the religion was true.

"I found the Book of Mormon to be one of the most hopeful doctrines, in saying that, by and large, there is a place for everyone in heaven," said Talley, of Copley Township. "As I read it, for the first time in my life, I was hearing the voice of God. I came to believe he was real."

Services at local Mormon churches typically begin at 9 a.m. and run about three hours. The first hour is devoted to the sacrament and includes announcements, hymns, prayers, a series of sermons and communion (water and bread). Sunday School is scheduled in the second hour, and the third hour is for specialized instruction.

"Our doors are always open to visitors. We believe the best way to learn about us is to come and see for yourself," Talley said. "All of our programs are designed to help children, youth and adults learn the word of God and how to apply it to their lives. We believe in building strong families, having strong work ethics and being good neighbors. All those fruits have their core in our belief in Jesus Christ."

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