Bloomington dentist Bruce Anderson had a patient who, he later learned, snuck anti-Mormon literature into the office.
While Anderson was out of the room, the patient would give pamphlets to the dental assistant, fearing she would come under the influence of the dentist’s church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Such prejudices against Mormons, Anderson suspects, stem largely from “a profound misunderstanding by teachers in other churches.”
It’s gotten a lot better over the years. Anderson’s great-grandfather, John Taylor, was shot four times during the assassination of church founder Joseph Smith in 1844.
But full acceptance of the faith has a long way to go, as polls indicate. A Gallup Poll this winter found 24 percent of voters said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate, all other things being equal.
This is meaningful as the country ushers in a presidential campaign in which a Mormon, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is a leading first-tier Republican candidate. Political and religion experts say it leaves Romney with an obstacle to overcome.
And it tells Mormons like Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the church, that boundaries remain too high. She said anti-Mormon sentiments lower with interaction and that her church and its members need to engage in more of it.
For the record, the church is politically neutral and won’t comment on Romney’s policies—or those of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Mormon, for that matter.
On religion questions, though, Farah said the church accommodates the interview requests while offering the general public expansive material on beliefs, traditions and history at www.lds.org.
Christian educator Robert Kurka encounters more general dialogue among traditional Christians and Mormons already, and he foresees more during the Romney campaign.
Kurka, who teaches religion movements at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, offers a couple prefaces to those on his side of the debate, the side of traditional Christianity.
First, traditional Christians need not fear the Mormons. “Rather than be paranoid of each other,” Kurka said, “it’s good to put things on the table. I think we should relish this opportunity.”
Kurka notes the energy in Mormon missionary and conversion work, enabling the church to grow to 13 million members, with a majority outside the United States. But their missionaries aren’t obnoxious or badgering in their zeal, he said.
Secondly, he said, inserting the word “cult” into the discussion is unhelpful. His class at Lincoln used to be called Contemporary Religious Cults. He said it changed to Contemporary Religious Movements because the word cult became a pejorative synonymous with doomsday groups and no longer described the Mormons.
That said, Kurka added that the differences between traditional Christian belief and that of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so stark that a member of one camp would qualify as a potential religious “convert” to the other. He thinks Mormons and traditional Christians are in for some surprises when they examine each other’s faith for the first time.
Among basic differences noted by Kurka and Farah are:
Trinity. Traditional Christianity exposes one God in three persons — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mormons espouse that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three distinct entities.
Divine revelation. Traditional Christianity teaches that Jesus is the final revelation and therefore no other writing should be elevated to the status of the Holy Bible. The Mormons use the King James Version of the Bible but have equally important additional writing. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, The Book of Commandments in 1833 and The Pearl of Great Price in 1851. These 19th-century writings contain material given to Smith through divine revelation and through texts shown to him by an angel.
Salvation. Both lines of faith teach that Jesus made himself an atoning sacrifice for sins. Traditional Christianity teaches salvation and entry into heaven through grace—a gift. Mormons ask for more—faith and works.
Afterlife. Mormon doctrine explores the Afterlife at length. It espouses that families are reunited in heaven. Couples “sealed” in matrimony on Earth remain married for eternity (although divorce is allowed on Earth). Those who have not heard the Mormon Gospel here are given that opportunity after death, and the Mormons teach that there is “pre-existence” —life before conception.
Baptism. Mormons perform baptism by proxy for deceased people not baptized into the faith. They baptize believers starting at age 8.
Missionary work. Traditional churches have varying degrees of enthusiasm toward evangelism and missions. Mormons expect males and strongly encourage females to undertake an extended missions journey. Currently, 53,000 Mormon missionaries are in the field.
Public admittance. Services at Mormon meetinghouses, such as the one in Normal, are open to the public. However, temples are holy places open only to Saints in good standing. The church says temple rituals are “private,” rather than “secret.” All members dress in white during them.
Kurka notes an elevated stress on morality and value on family among Mormons compared to traditional Christians. Further, Barna Group, a pro-evangelical Christian research group, finds in polling among Christian denominations that LDS church members are at the top or near the top in a number of polling categories, including church attendance, propensity to pray, Bible reading, Sunday school attendance and church volunteerism.
Barna’s data also points to a continuing frustration for the Mormons, who have always contended they are Christians. Under the category “absolutely committed to Christianity,” Barna lists Mormons as “NA.”
Is it Christianity? A sect? A denomination? The LDS church’s Farah points to the church’s own description: It is Christianity restored, the church says.
Smith and a vision
The church teaches that Smith saw God the Father and Jesus near his home in Palmyra, N.Y., in the First Vision at age 14, in 1820. It further states that seven years later the angel Moroni showed Smith gold plates containing the Book of Mormon. The church was established the week after the publication of the English translation in 1930.
Many early church members moved to Kirkland, Ohio, and Independence, Mo. Met with sometimes violent opposition and angry mobs, the church settled in Nauvoo, about 150 miles west of Bloomington-Normal on the Missouri border. Briefly, the Mormons were allowed a degree of home rule, and Smith became mayor and head of a militia.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
Secular authorities summoned Smith to Carthage after Smith called for the destruction of a critical newspaper. At the jail in Carthage, on the second floor, on June 27, 1844, Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot dead while Taylor was seriously wounded and a fourth Mormon escaped injury. In the years that followed, much of the movement, led by Brigham Young, came to the new home in Utah.
About plural marriage
A Gallup Poll found this winter the most common first reaction to the topic of Mormons is “polygamy” — a practice the church banned more than 100 years ago.
Plural marriages are practiced by some breakaway fundamentalist groups today, but Farah notes that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints punishes plural marriage with its most serious discipline: Excommunication.
For most Mormons, Farah said, polygamy isn’t even a topic of modern relevance, but as the church engages those outside the faith, it has to address it because of the public’s association.
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