Controversial church bloomed in biblical fastness of Utah's desert

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The Independent US

Baptising the dead - or "redeeming" them, as doctrinal parlance has it - is just one way in which the Mormon church seeks to increase its numbers around the world.

Baptising the dead - or "redeeming" them, as doctrinal parlance has it - is just one way in which the Mormon church seeks to increase its numbers around the world.

Missionary work is the rock on which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is founded, and recruitment has been the focus of its energies since its origins in the 1830s.

Besuited young men with close-cropped hair have been heading out across the world from Salt Lake City for generations, winning converts across the continents even when they have run up against government opposition, as they did in Nazi Germany and do again now in mainland China.

Numbers have been growing in Western Europe - 178,000 in Britain compared with 150,000 a decade ago; 31,000 in France compared with 1,500 in 1960.

Mormonism is essentially an attempt to resurrect the early days of the Christian church, when followers of Christ were not merely followers of doctrine but a close-knit community. Saints then were not religious celebrities but rank-and-file believers - the meaning Mormons continue to attach to the concept.

What propelled the sect to prominence was its remarkable trek westwards in the mid-1800s and, in an echo of biblical feats, its establishment of the first significant colony in the desert on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Utah remains Mormonism's headquarters and Salt Lake City the seat of its main temple and its genealogical research library, the institution that drives its constant search for historical reaffirmation.

The Latter-Day Saints believe in the literal truth of the Bible, in the sanctity of family as the noblest expression of God's will, and in the possibility of redemption far beyond the span of life on earth.

"There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy who have not committed the unpardonable sin," one doctrinal document reads. "Birth does not begin life, nor does death end it."

The Mormons have always been controversial. Utah was not admitted to the union of American states until 1896 because of Mormon adherence to polygamy, a practice no longer officially sanctioned but which continues on a small scale regardless. The Mormons carried out particularly brutal slaughters of Indian tribes in Utah.

Even today they are an anomaly in a country supposedly founded on the separation of church and state. The Utah Supreme Court recently voted to preserve prayers at sessions of the state assembly, irking Utah's growing non-Mormon population (about one-third of the total).

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