Mormons: What does the powerful religious group actually believe?

The newly anointed 17th president Russell M Nelson finds himself at the head of a Church that has nearly 16 million members worldwide

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 17 January 2018 20:26 GMT
Russell M. Nelson addresses Mormon church after being appointed President

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Louise Thomas

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On Sunday, in the Salt Lake Temple, Utah, “in a sweet, sacred experience in which the Lord’s will was clearly manifested” – according to the later announcement – the “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” laid hands on Russell M Nelson and ordained him the new leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, (aka the Mormons).

He and the apostles may have resembled the board members of an old-style bank – white middle-aged men in suits – but to the faithful, Mr Nelson was following in an unbroken line of men like his predecessor, the late Thomas S Monson. “A giant of a man, a prophet of God,” Mr Nelson called him.

To many of the unfaithful, though, the Mormons are not so much giants of men and prophets of God, as targets of ridicule.

This is the faith whose most sacred text inspired an entire hit comedy musical.

The Book of Mormon (the musical) gets its name and many of its jokes from the original Book of Mormon (“translated by the power of God”). It is supposed to be the work of various prophets, belonging to tribes originally from the Holy Lands who crossed to America 600 years before Christ, who were then visited by Jesus in America after his resurrection, and who recorded his teachings in gold plates that were found in 1823, before being taken by an angel six years later.

And yet today Mr Nelson finds himself the 17th president of a Church that has nearly 16 million members worldwide, with 185,848 of them in the UK. Together they speak 188 different languages.

Plenty of its brightest adherents can be found working on Wall Street, and one former Mormon missionary, Mitt Romney, nearly made it into the White House.

For all the mockery, this is a Church growing at such a rate it has been estimated that it could have 265 million followers by 2080.

And if that happened, it would become the first major new global religion to emerge since the prophet Muhammad gave the world Islam in the seventh century.

Which would be pretty good going for something that you could say was founded on the vision of a teenage boy in his bedroom.

For it was on the evening of 21 September 1823, in western New York state, that Joseph Smith, 17 and three-quarters, went to bed for a spot of “prayer and supplication to Almighty God”.

And as Joseph prayed and supplicated, he was visited by a heavenly messenger “his robe exceedingly white, his whole person glorious beyond description” – his name Moroni.

The gist of the message was that in the year 421, Moroni, then a living prophet, had buried the Book of Mormon, containing “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel” as delivered by Jesus to the ancient inhabitants of America, who of course wrote it all down on gold plates.

Moroni duly showed young Joseph to the spot where the gold plates were buried. And after four years Moroni allowed Joseph access to the plates so that, guided by God, he could start translating what was inscribed upon them.

He started the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from a log cabin in 1830, with an initial membership of six, and now the Book of Mormon is in print in more than 80 languages.

Although, alas, the original gold plates themselves are not currently available for inspection.

Joseph Smith is said to have shown the gold plates to 11 trusted witnesses, but, as he later wrote, once his translation job was finished: “According to arrangements, the messenger [Moroni] called for them.

Russell M. Nelson addresses Mormon church after being appointed President

“I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day.”

If that’s a little tricky for sceptics to accept, Mormons also believe that the Garden of Eden was in what is now known as Missouri, and that when Jesus returns he will go there to create the New Jerusalem (after having spent a bit of time in the old Jerusalem).

Nor are those the only potential clashes between Mormonism and sections of the modern world.

In 1852, Brigham Young, the Church’s second president, announced a ban on black people becoming Mormon priests.

As the Church’s website now reluctantly admits: “The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority … According to one view, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel, [and] God’s ‘curse’ on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.

“Another explanation [was that] blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.”

The ban on black priests was only lifted in 1978. With those at the very top of the Church still white American men, Mr Nelson has promised: ”We’ll live to see the day when there are other flavours in the mix.”

According to some reports, though, he may not be quite so accommodating of change when it comes to LGBT matters.

In November 2015 the Church confirmed its long-held belief that those in same-sex marriages are apostates, and added the stipulation that children of such unions could not be blessed or baptised until they were 18 and able to leave their parents’ home.

Amid the ensuing controversy, Mr Nelson was quoted as saying that the updated instructions had come as divine “revelation” to the Church’s then leader Mr Monson.

Although, of course, in Mormonism divine instructions can be subject to change, most notably in the matter of polygamy.

After first marrying at the age of 21, in 1827, it is thought that Joseph Smith went on to amass a total of 29 wives.

This may be explained by the assertion on the Church’s website that “in 1831, Joseph Smith made a prayerful inquiry about the ancient Old Testament practice of plural marriage. This resulted in the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice as a religious principle.”

But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and in 1890, the Church website tells us: “President Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, received what Latter-day Saints believe to be a revelation in which God withdrew the command to practise plural marriage.”

And there the matter has rested – as the Mormons has been very keen to point out, given that some who didn’t agree with Mr Woodruff on polygamy have set up separate, offshoot churches of their own, sometimes with scandalous results.

In 2006, Warren Jeffs, a former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which does still practise polygamy, was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for alleged arrangement of marriages between male followers and underage girls.

And yet for all the apparent wackiness, or wackiness by association, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints continues to flourish.

Currently, it is the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the US, and regularly vies with the Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses to be the fastest growing.

The prediction of 265 million followers by 2080 has been disputed, but Rodney Stark, professor of sociology at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion in Texas, has been quoted as stating that the Church: “Stands on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth since the prophet Muhammad rode out of the desert.”

As anyone who has had a knock on the door from them will testify, there is no doubting the Mormons’ commitment to missionary work.

All young Mormon men and women are expected to spend a period of time doing missionary work. The Church can now count on 70,946 missionaries trying to secure conversions.

And Mormonism seemed to have bucked the trend of many religions, in that many of its most educated and most wealthy members are its most fervent.

With American evangelical Christians, for example, it is thought to be the other way round.

It is not just Mitt Romney, the Church’s new president Mr Nelson is the doctor who performed the first open heart surgery in the state of Utah.

You could also pick the example of Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight vampire series, or Kim Clarke, who in 2005 swapped being dean of Harvard Business School for a job as dean of a Mormon university campus in Idaho.

His Harvard colleagues, he said, thought he was going into the wilderness, but for him it was like “getting a phone call from Moses”.

In 2010 one New York investment banker told the Financial Times of his initial surprise at JP Morgan taking graduates from Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Brigham Young University (BYU), the Mormon university in Utah.

“I was like, ‘What the hell? BYU?’ Then I slowly realised how many Mormons there are on Wall Street.”

You may think the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints odd, but that’s no guarantee that someone powerful near you would agree.

And you may decide that if you can’t beat them, join them.

After all, in his first presidential address, the newly anointed Mr Nelson did say that keeping “on the Covenant path” will “open the doors of every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women and children”.

Although he didn’t say anything about having 29 wives or getting ahead on Wall Street.

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