What Mormons really believe

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explained
January 25, 2012

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—better known as the Mormon church—was born in 19th-century upstate New York. Joseph Smith was a son of impoverished farmers who drifted in and out of local churches and dabbled in folk magic—until a series of visions in the 1820s transformed him into a prophet.

According to the faith, the Angel Moroni led him to uncover a book of golden plates buried in a hill near his home. Using a pair of magic spectacles Smith transcribed the plates into the Book of Mormon and convinced a growing band of followers that they were living in the “latter days” shortly before the return of Christ. He founded the church in 1830.

Fleeing persecution and seeking a secure place to build a theocratic city-state, Smith led the Mormons around the Midwest and revealed new beliefs that horrified mainstream Christians, including the doctrine of plural marriage. He dispatched missionaries far and wide—including an expedition to Britain in 1837; some 100,000 British converts had emigrated to the United States by 1900.

After an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois murdered Smith in 1844, the shrewdest of his deputies, Brigham Young, emerged as his successor. Young, the “Mormon Moses,” led his people westward to settle in their “promised land,” the valley around Utah’s Great Salt Lake. After decades of strife with the federal government and non-Mormon pioneers, the Mormons eventually renounced polygamy, accepted Washington’s authority, and in the years since have grown into an international church of over 14m members (worldwide, there are roughly as many Mormons as Jews). Over 6m live in the US, and 187,000 in Britain.


Mormons insist they are Christian, believing that they alone grasp the fullness of God’s message. Many mainstream Christians say that Mormonism is a wholly different religion because of the church’s non-traditional views on the nature of God and salvation, and its unique scriptures.

The literary scholar Harold Bloom has called the Book of Mormon “a creative misreading of the early history of the Jews.” This scripture, which Mormons see as a supplement to the Bible, tells the story of an Israelite patriarch named Lehi who sails to the new world in 600 BC. Quarrels between his sons, Nephi and Laman, give rise to two warring peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Christ appears in the new world shortly after his resurrection and brings peace—but the tribes soon return to war. The Book of Mormon (named for one of the authors, a general who led the Nephites) follows the fortunes of these tribes until about the 4th century AD, when the dark-skinned Lamanites—according to Mormon doctrine, the ancestors of today’s Native Americans—exterminate the Nephites.

The Book of Mormon offers a blandly Christian message of salvation rooted in repentance and faith. Two other scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, contain Smith’s more radical ideas, including polygamous marriage, which he modelled on the lives of Israel’s patriarchs. He taught that God is an “exalted man” of flesh and bone, distinct from Christ and the Holy Spirit (denying mainstream Christians’ idea of the Trinity).

It is useful to think of Mormonism as an extreme reaction to Calvinism: humans are not worms depraved by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, but creatures in charge of their fate and made of the same stuff as God. Some have called Mormonism the ultimate American religion, a pioneer faith that emphasises free will and family. Heaven is the ultimate homestead: Mormons seek the “celestial kingdom” where righteous families become gods, beget their own “spirit children” just as the Heavenly Father begot them (with his wife, the Heavenly Mother), and live as an eternal family. America is the new Zion: Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, and Christ will rule there (and in Jerusalem) after the Second Coming.

Salvation requires righteous living and adherence to a scheme of rituals. These include a confirmation ceremony called “endowment” in which the participant dons sacred undergarments to be worn day and night for life (most Mormons have many pairs, and the church sells these and other ritual clothing, though membership is required to view these items on the LDS store website).

Perhaps the most important ritual is the “sealing” of men and women in “celestial marriage”: single Mormons cannot ascend to the highest level of heaven (those who cannot marry in this life will have another chance when Christ returns). These rituals continue today—marriages are now monogamous—in temples that are off-limits to non-Mormons. However, anyone can attend Sunday “sacrament meeting” at the meeting house. Worshippers sing hymns, hear readings and members’ testimony, and take communion of bread and water blessed and distributed by teenage boys in the lay priesthood.


The church has faced numerous schisms. When Smith announced that God commanded Mormons to practise polygamy, some left the church. After 1890, when the church’s president gave in to federal pressure and told Mormons that God had ordered them to renounce polygamy, a substantial minority left to found communities that practise plural marriage to this day.

Another controversial revelation came in 1978, when president Spencer Kimball repealed the church’s longstanding ban on blacks in the priesthood. The small but growing number of black Mormons continue to report some racism, but there is progress: the church’s flagship university, Brigham Young, elected its first black student body president in 2002.

Mormons also practise baptism for the dead, in which a living church member stands in for a deceased person to offer them a chance to accept Mormonism in the afterlife. Mormons’ aim to make their gospel available to all (living and dead) has led to a passion for genealogical research— and some controversy, especially when they began baptising Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After protests, the Church agreed to baptise Holocaust victims only with the permission of family members.