By AJ Willingham, CNN
Updated 1:51 AM EDT, Sun April 30, 2023
A view of the Salt Lake Temple, a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer/APCNN —
Mormonism is a religion practiced by millions around the world. And yet, many who are unfamiliar with it sometimes rely on vague stereotypes and pop culture references to define it. In reality, it’s a theologically complex religion with an unusual history. Here, we answer some of the most common questions about Mormonism, with context from religious experts and Mormon literature.
What do Mormons believe?
Mormons believe in a Christian view of God and Jesus. The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the two most important sources for the Mormon faith. The Book of Mormon is described by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as “a collection of writings from ancient Christians who traveled from Jerusalem to the Americas during biblical times,” transcribed by the church’s founder Joseph Smith, who is considered by believers to be a prophet. This marks one of the biggest differences between Mormonism and other Christian religions.
The number of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2022, according to the LDS Church’s April 2023 statistical report.
Are Mormons Christians?
Several other details of Mormon history and belief also diverge from most Christian understandings. (These are described below in the section “What does the Book of Mormon say?”)
A view of the 189th annual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 2019 in Salt Lake City.George Frey/Getty Images
Mormonism does define itself as a type of Christianity. However, the answer isn’t that simple.
“Here’s the problem. Who decides what Christianity is?” says Matthew Bowman, associate professor of religion and history and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.
“Mormons reject trinitarianism – the idea that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit are the same entity. This is a central tenet of mainline Christianity that was decided in early Christian councils. So to a lot of Christians, believers in Mormonism are not Christian. It is an internal debate.”
However, trinitarian beliefs can vary among Mormon denominations. While the LDS Church, the largest denomination of Mormonism, states a belief that “God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one in will and purpose but are not literally the same being or substance,” the Community of Christ, a smaller denomination, defines the trinity as “God who is a community of three persons,” a view that more aligns with other Christian traditions.
What’s the difference between Mormonism and Latter-day Saints?
The name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” comes from a verse in the Book of Mormon, in which God reportedly said “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Mormon denomination, have requested people stop referring to church members as “Mormons.” However, Bowman says there is a distinct relationship between the two.
“Mormonism is a religious tradition with a number of denominations within it, but to equate the two erases these multiple other groups,” Bowman says. “There are three fairly large Mormon churches: The LDS based in Salt Lake City, the Fundamentalist Church of (Jesus Christ of) Latter-day Saints, which is the group associated with polygamy, and the Community of Christ. They are the Mormons who did not go west and settle in Utah, and they are quite different theologically.”
So, logically, all followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are technically Mormons. But not all Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
How did Mormonism begin?
Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism.Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
The origins of Mormonism set it apart from other Christian traditions. The religion was founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s in Palmira, a small town in upstate New York.
Mormons believe Smith, confused about what denomination of Christianity to follow, received a vision from an angel named Moroni, who led Smith to a box containing a book inscribed on gold plates. The book was said to be written by ancient prophets who lived in the Americas, and Moroni asked Smith to translate the ancient text into English.
In the introduction to the Book of Mormon, Smith describes the text as “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” It was first published in English in 1830. In these formative years, Smith and some close associates also claimed to have been visited by other important biblical figures like John the Baptist and three apostles of Jesus, according to the LDS Church website. With this small group, Smith formed the first Mormon church.
What does the Book of Mormon say?
The Book of Mormon assumes an alternative history to other Christian texts. Most notably, the text claims a strong presence of ancient Christianity and pre-Christianity in what is now the United States. According to the Book of Mormon, Jesus appeared in the Americas after his crucifixion in 33 AD and preached to a group of Nephites, descendants of ancient Israelites who traveled to the continent around 600 BC. One of these Nephites was the prophet Mormon, who would eventually write part of the Book of Mormon, later transcribed by Joseph Smith.
Other biblical details are also said to have existed in the Americas. The Garden of Eden, for instance, is widely assumed in the Mormon faith to have existed somewhere in Missouri.
Due to this assumed Christian heritage in the Americas, Joseph Smith believed Native Americans were also descendants of ancient Israelites.
“Smith and his early followers had a belief that Native Americans should be honored,” says Bowman. “But then there was frustration when, as Mormonism moved west, Native Americans were not receptive to that.”
How did Mormonism come to be associated with Salt Lake City?
Brigham Young, one of the Mormon founders who oversaw the mass settlement of Mormons in Salt Lake City.Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images
Though the Mormon religion began in New York, it quickly spread west, through Ohio and Illinois and later to the contested frontier of Utah. Missionaries, who immediately became an important part of the church, were one reason for the expansion. The other was that Smith, with his visions and controversial ideas, became increasingly unpopular outside his Mormon community and chose to relocate several times.
“Smith claimed that since Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and all of these Biblical patriarchs are polygamists, that’s the biblical order of things,” says Bowman. “At the very least, he knew that people wouldn’t like this, and so he starts doing it secretly and ends up marrying somewhere between 30 and 35 women.”
This practice sowed mistrust not only among non-Mormons, but among some of Smith’s closest associates.
In 1844, Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested in Illinois and charged with treason after attempting to quash public discussion of polygamy and using a local militia. (Smith had also announced his intention to run for president of the United States earlier in the year, attracting even more attention.) A mob broke into the prison and killed the brothers before they could be tried.
After Smith’s death, the church was taken over by Brigham Young, who continued the push westward.
“(Young) was very convinced that (Mormons) were going to have the flee the US,” says Bowman. “He consulted with a lot of explorers and mapmakers, and decided on the Salt Lake Valley. At the time, it was still part of Mexico because of the Mexican-American war. There were Indigenous people there, but no Mexican or American citizens.”
By 1877, a majority of Mormons in the US settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Groups that split off further east became what are now Mormon denominations outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Why is very little known about Mormon customs?
“This goes back to Joseph Smith and the early church,” says Bowman. “In his ideal church, everyone would live in the same city, all the property would be owned by the church and everyone would get what they needed from the church.”
Bowman says Brigham Young strove to continue this tradition when the church settled in Salt Lake City, encouraging followers to interact only with Mormon-led groups and businesses.
Today, a lot of Mormon church life remains a mystery to outsiders, and that is by design.
“What goes on inside their temples, which are their main places of worship, is considered sacred, and you don’t talk about it in public,” Bowman says.
He adds that, in the LDS Church, only members may enter the temple.
“Even then, it’s only some members. Many members must get a recommendation to attend.”
Is missionary work a big part of Mormonism?
A pair of Mormon missionaries set off on foot in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, in 2018.John Enger/Minnesota Public Radio/AP
“Missionary work has been part of the church since the very beginning,” says Bowman, noting that missionary work is part of what initially led the early Mormon church to expand. “In Mormonism, the leadership of the church will extend a call for you to go on a mission. That is what distinguishes it from other Christian churches. There, it is personal and voluntary. And while it is not technically required in the Mormon church, it’s still a cultural expectation.”
According to the LDS Church, there are about 53,000 full-time missionaries around the world, in more than 400 locations. These missionaries are typically young men, who undertake missionary duties for two years, and young women, who undertake missionary duties for 18 months.
The countries with the largest number of LDS-aligned Mormons, after the US, are Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines, according to LDS statistics.
Do Mormons really practice polygamy?
The practice of polygamy in the early Mormon church was highly controversial. The spread of Mormonism even led to legal battles with the US government, culminating in the federal criminalization of polygamy in 1882.
However, polygamy is not widely practiced among Mormons today.
“The Church does not authorize and sternly prohibits polygamy today,” reads an LDS Church explanation of the subject. “As early as 1890, the practice of polygamy came to an end when Church President Wilford Woodruff was inspired by God to issue a declaration.”
The disavowal of polygamy resulted in a schism. The group that refused to stop the practice of polygamy became the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, the FLDS is an extremely controversial group whose most prominent leaders have been convicted of serious crimes. Many members of other Mormon churches do not want their religion associated with the FLDS.
What is Mormonism’s view on social issues?
A copy of the Book of Mormon, which along with the Bible, is the most important text in the Mormon faith.Wong Maye-E/AP
Public perception of Mormonism often focuses on the social and cultural values of its followers. It is true that Mormonism teaches the abstinence of things like alcohol, coffee and premarital sex. It is also true that the LDS Church does not fully affirm LGBTQ believers or recognize same sex marriage.
The LDS Church’s official policies describe their stance on homosexuality:
“If members feel same-sex attraction and are striving to live the law of chastity, leaders support and encourage them in their resolve. These members may receive Church callings, have temple recommends, and receive temple ordinances if they are worthy. Male Church members may receive and exercise the priesthood.”
In another section, same-sex marriage and intimacy is condemned:
“Only a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife should have sexual relations. Any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same sex, are sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family.”
Mormonism has also been heavily criticized for its history of racial prejudice. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young advanced a theological idea that Black people bore the “curse of Cain,” relating them to the Old Testament story of the covetous, murderous brother.
“The Pearl of Great Price,” an important collection of Mormon teachings written by Smith, repeatedly describes the descendants of Cain as having dark skin. An entry in the chapter of Moses reads:
“And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.”
Smith, Young and subsequent leaders of the Mormon church repeatedly made disparaging and racist comments about Black people that sometimes also served as commentary on justice movements like abolitionism.
“Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin,” Young wrote in 1859. “Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the ‘servant of servants;’ and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree.”
Because of these racist beliefs, Black men were barred from LDS church priesthood from the 1850s until 1978.
Since the disavowal of its founders’ views on race, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has occasionally made statements condemning racism. Its church policies also clarify this stance.
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else,” a current LDS-issued manual reads. “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”