SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is one of the world’s fastest-growing religions – though 120 million copies of the Book of Mormon are in print – believers still endure suggestions by mainstream churches that they are not authentically Christian. Yes, the Mormons once called themselves “a peculiar people.” But as the church celebrates the 200th anniversary of founder Joseph Smith Jr.’s birth, its president says his flock is well within the Christian fold.
“Of course we’re Christian. The very name of the church declares that,” said Gordon B. Hinckley, in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“No one believes more strongly in the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. No one believes more strongly in the power of his redeeming sacrifice. The Book of Mormon is another witness for the divinity and reality of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The more people see us and come to know us, the more I believe they will come to realize that we are trying to exemplify in our lives and in our living the great ideals which he taught.”
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Smith founded the Mormon church in April 1830, 10 years after he claimed to experience a vision of God and Jesus in a grove of trees near his family home in Palmyra, N.Y. He said an angel, Moroni, later led him to a buried set of gold plates inscribed with the story of a lost tribe of Israel that had settled North America. Smith’s translation of the plates became known as The Book of Mormon, the first of the unique scriptures the church follows alongside the Bible.
The church teaches that Smith was a prophet and considers the men who succeeded him as church president to this day as the “prophet, seer and revelator” on earth for Mormons. Even more than the 78-year-old Pope Benedict XVI, the 95-yearold Hinckley bears weighty responsibilities for his church. Hinckley holds authority to convey divine guidance to church members and direct appointment of the leaders of every regional body and local congregation worldwide and all the tens of thousands of Mormon missionaries.
This year alone, he visited Africa, Russia, Iceland, Korea, Taiwan, India and western Europe – the most traveled president in church history. About half of all Mormons live outside the United States.
It also falls to Hinckley, a thirdgeneration Mormon who was appointed president in 1995, to respond to those who question church practices and teachings.
The denomination has been criticized in recent years for the practice of posthumously baptizing thousands of deceased Jews (among them Holocaust victims) and those of other faiths. Mormons believe individuals’ ability to choose a religion continues beyond the grave.
Asked about the practice, Hinckley said performing the baptisms only provides the option for non-Mormons to convert, “so there’s no injury done to anybody.”
– by Richard John Neuhaus
The church also has tried to distance itself from its history of polygamy, but some fundamentalist Mormons still support the practice. Hinckley said the doctrine of polygamy “came of revelation and was discontinued by revelation.”
“We believe in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law. And so, we have very little sympathy with those who disobey the law in this manner,” he said.
Hinckley defended the church’s practice of disfellowshipping, or excommunicating, ex-Mormons for what they have written about the denomination. He said this step has been taken against “very few” people and only if they try to damage the church.
“It’s only when they begin to teach what they believe to try to influence others that action is taken against them,” he said.
Relations with other denominations has also been an issue. Some churches do not recognize Mormon baptism, in effect denying that Mormonism is fully Christian. The Latter-day Saints, through their teachings, raise similar questions about other churches. In the scriptural Doctrine and Covenants, Smith taught that the Mormon church is “the only true and living church upon the whole Earth.”
Hinckley said Mormons “believe in the virtue in the lives of other people in other churches,” and that all churches “do great good.”
“Our position is simply this, we say, you bring all the good that you have, wherever you have acquired it, and see if we may add to it,” he said.
Religious leaders in Utah credit Hinckley with cultivating a greater ecumenical spirit between Mormons and other faiths.
“There’s a real readiness in both directions to come together for matters that concern us about life in the community,” said Roman Catholic Bishop George Niederauer, who is leaving to become archbishop of San Francisco.
Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish was raised Mormon and knew Hinckley when she was a child. Irish said, “He’s worked very hard to encourage the church in the direction of acceptance of their neighbors.”
Hinckley thinks that during his 10-year tenure, the church has “in a very real sense come out of obscurity and darkness, and it’s better understood and appreciated.”