SPECIAL NEWS REPORT
Sunday Among the Suburban Salt Lake Saints
Wherever there is a growing number of Latter-day Saints, church headquarters authorizes construction of a new meeting house for a ward, or a local congregation. In the burgeoning suburbs between Ogden and Provo, where there are nearly 3,500 wards, buildings are erected often. The unadorned buildings typically have a spire, but no crosses or stained-glass windows.
Mormons attend a three-hour block of Sunday gatherings: the sacrament meeting, Sunday school, and finally, a gender-segregated "gospel doctrine" Priesthood meeting for men and Relief Society meeting for women. The starting time is decided by headquarters, which also selects the bishop, the presiding leader, from within the local ward. The bishop's role is largely administrative. While he does not preach, he will counsel parishioners and perform weddings. The bishop may earn his livelihood in a career such as a lawyer, banker, or department store manager, while devoting up to 40 hours a week in unpaid church duties. A bishop's term typically runs between three and five years.
A recent sacrament meeting in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper has the appearance of a Baptist worship service in many respects. There is an organ prelude, a choir on the platform, an opening hymn and prayer followed by announcements, leather-bound Scriptures carried by attendees, three church leaders seated on stage. But differences are soon noticeable.
The Scriptures that members tote include three additional LDS canonical books. The opening hymn, "Families Can Be Together Forever," is a confirmation of the LOS belief in eternal marriage. Babies are blessed according to the Melchizedek priesthood, with petitions that the boys will one day be worthy to go on a church mission, then find a faithful wife to marry in a temple for time and eternity. Boys age 12 and older who are ordained to the Aaronic priesthood distribute the sacraments of bread and water; Joseph Smith wrote in Doctrines and Covenants 27:2 that substituting another drink for wine is permissible.
Because of the strong belief in family, children are not taken to a nursery during the service. Many mothers are preoccupied with trying to keep jabbering toddlers quiet.
One Sunday a month, instead of a teaching session, LOS wards have a fast and testimony meeting (money that would have been spent on two meals of the day are given to the needy). Any member of the ward may testify. The faith-building talks frequently reinforce the worth of the LDS system: thankfulness for the prophets and their closeness to God, appreciation for the power of the priesthood, declarations that "I know this church is true."
The closing hymn, "Home Can Be a Heaven of Earth," reiterates the idea of church as family and family as eternal. The most significant difference that Protestant visitors are likely to spot is hanging in the foyer: a painting depicting Joseph Smith's first vision. Two nearly indistinguishable bearded personages are portrayed: one Jesus and one God-in the flesh-appearing to a 14-year-old farm boy who has just uttered his first vocal prayer.
By John W Kennedy in Draper, Utah.
While Mormons unapologetically see themselves fulfilling their purpose, the SBC's Roberts sees it as sheep-stealing. "Mormons shamelessly proselytize members of Christian churches, encouraging them to leave their own denomination and renounce the validity of their former group," Roberts writes in Mormonism Unmasked released last month by Broadman & Holman.
John L. Smith, a 78-year-old Southern Baptist who has written 10 books on Mormonism and is the founder of Utah Missions, warns Christians not to let door-knocking Mormons enter the house. Smith, who served as a pastor for 17 years, says Baptists are especially susceptible because they are eager to engage in theological discussions.
From the moment of their children's birth, many LDS parents hope to send them out as missionaries. In a world of shifting values, a fresh-faced, well-attired, neatly groomed, smiling, confident teenager can be a persuasive advertisement for the church.
Two years ago, Matthew R. Tate, then 19, reached the age where tens of thousands of Mormons radically alter their lives. Although raised in an LDS family in Salt Lake City, he did not fully commit to the church's teachings until just before his mission trip. "I had to decide whether this church was real or not," Tate explains. "Deep in my heart I felt it was true." Mormons cite Moroni 10:3-5 in the Book of Mormon as evidence. In that passage, a resurrected angel, Moroni, exhorts seekers to ponder in their hearts and ask God whether the claims are true,' then the power of the Holy Ghost will make it clear.
LDS prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley and his two counselors pray about where to send each missionary. For Tate, the two-year assignment was New York City. Beforehand, he spent a month in preparation in Provo, site of the largest of 15 LDS missionary-training centers. Recruits live in a cloistered, dormlike atmosphere, where they learn LDS doctrine. Many learn a foreign language.
While the church paid Tate's airfares to New York and back, his family had to provide daily living expenses. Once on assignment, the schedule is arduous. Tate spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, trying to proselytize. Another two hours each day he prayed and studied the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Tate lived in an apartment with three to seven other missionaries, and he could telephone home only on Christmas and Mother's Day.
"'All I've done for two years is eat, drink, and sleep religion," Tate says. "You don't worry about yourself. You worry about other people."
As LDS church growth has accelerated, orthodox Christian scholars have refocused on Mormon teaching and practice.
Last year's publication of How Wide The Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press) has done more to raise the profile of Mormonism among evangelical leaders than any other effort in the past decade.
In the book, Stephen E. Robinson, Brigham Young University (BYU) professor of ancient Scripture, and Craig L. Blombcrg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and also an ordained Baptist pastor, concluded the divide is not as wide as they once believed. But it still is significant. How Wide the Divide? did not attempt to discuss irreconcilable differences such as baptism for the dead, the premortal existence of souls, or the early history of the Americas. Rather, the book provides a forum to measure potential common ground.
Evangelical critics contend Blomberg showed too much respect for LDS beliefs, and that he should not have written a book with "the enemy." They also say Robinson is not representative of true LDS doctrine.
"Robinson mops up on Blomberg," says John L. Smith, whose ministry in Marlow, Oklahoma, was under the auspices of the SBC North American Mission Board until last year. "The book is a great evangelism tool-for Mormons."
Tyndale College and Seminary professor James Beverley says How Wide the Divide? provides a necessary first step for dialogue. But he says Blomberg failed adequately to rebut some of Robinson's charges. "The book suffers from a dialogue that doesn't lay all the cards on the table," Beverley says.
At an April conference, "Mormonism and Christianity: How Great the Divide!" Southern Evangelical Seminary's Geisler asserted, "Robinson said things that were definitely contrary to historic Mormon teaching."
Blomberg notes, however, that LDS authorities often lack academic theological training, so the church often turns to BYU leaders such as Robinson for official theological comment. Robinson and Robert L. Millet, 50, dean of religious education at BYU, are key LDS spokespersons in The Mormon Puzzle.
Blomberg concedes he could have asked several more specific questions and that more articulate wording could have deflected some criticism, but he says overall he is pleased with the effort.
Although Mormons have moved toward the cultural mainstream of American Christianity, they continue to insist the LDS faith represents the purified and true church. At the LDS semiannual general conference in April, LDS president Hinckley said, "There are some of other faiths who do not regard us as Christians. How we regard ourselves is what is important."
Mormons believe that spiritual darkness covered the earth for 16 centuries after the death of Jesus' apostles until the restoration through Joseph Smith. At the conference, Hinckley also stressed there would be no compromise on the idea that the LDS church is true—and others are not. "This is a restoration of that which was instituted by the Savior of the world," Hinckley proclaimed. "It is not a reformation of perceived false practice and doctrine that may have developed through the centuries."
Mormons are gaining respectability from some unlikely sources. Last November, former President Jimmy Carter, who still teaches Sunday school at his SBC church in Georgia, said Mormons do not need to be evangelized. He criticized Southern Baptists for "trying to act as the Pharisees did" in defining who is "considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God."
The SBC's Roberts says, "Mormons want to be fully Mormon and fully Christian, but they can't be both." Ex-Mormon Tanner agrees. "Its theology is as close to Christianity as Hinduism," she says. "It's a totally different view of man and God and Creation."
LDS apostle Ballard told CT, "We believe God, the eternal Father, is literally our father. He's a man glorified, exalted, perfected, resurrected."
Millet says, "Human spirits were born sons and daughters of God before this life, and if they will be born again now, they can be empowered and transformed by Jesus Christ, becoming eventually as he is. We believe in the ultimate deification of man."
One of the most persistent critiques of doctrine focuses on the teaching that ancient Hebrews immigrated to the Americas.
LDS doctrine says that in 1827 Moroni, a resurrected angel, instructed Smith to unearth golden plates buried in New York. For two years, Smith translated the 'reformed Egyptian," which told of the migration of Israelites to this continent. Their descendants divided into Lamanites, the ancestors of to days Native Americans, and Nephites. Mormon, the last surviving Nephite leader, inscribed the race's history before their demise. Moroni, Mormon's son, whisked the plates back to heaven after Smith's translation.
Faith plays a large role in believing the accounts in the Book of Mormon, because Smith's version is the only written record of Israeli immigrants living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. Tanner says no archaeological evidence supports the existence of such a culture.
There may be some things we'll never find simply because the vast majority of human artifacts disappear," says Daniel C. Peterson, 45, chair of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at BYU, which, at 29,000 full-time students, is the largest privately owned campus in the United States.
While Smith's Book of Mormon is considered infallible, the Bible is not. "We accept the Bible as the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly," Ballard told CT.
"The Bible has been through countless translations from the time its chapters were originally penned to the present," Ballard writes in Our Search for Happiness. "Along the way there have been changes and alterations that have diminished the purity of the doctrine." On the other hand, "the Book of Mormon offers pure, concise doctrine that hasn't been tampered with by religious philosophers, councils, panels, and kings."
But LDS scriptures are not so pristine, Tanner says. She cites Smith providing different versions of his visions in 1833 and 1835. "Revelations are suddenly twice as long as before, bringing in new concepts such as the priesthood," says Tanner. "Why would he have to rewrite it after only two years?"
Among Mormons, the restoration of the true church means that their top leader is a living prophet, able to clarify, modify, or enhance existing doctrine.
And new revelations can reverse earlier LDS teaching, the most famous example being the 1890 discontinuance of polygamy, which 47 years earlier Joseph Smith declared had been commanded by the Lord. "Latter-day Saints believe the canon of Scripture is open, flexible, and expanding," Millet says.
"What God has said to apostles and prophets in the past is always secondary to what God is saying directly to his apostles and prophets now," Robinson writes in How Wide the Divide?
Subsequently, LDS revere their president as God's mouthpiece on earth, the "prophet, seer, and revelator." When the president of the church dies, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who has served the longest automatically succeeds him, usually leaving an aged leader to head the religion founded by a 24-year-old prophet. The last three presidents have started service at the average age of 86. Hinckley turns 88 this month.
In the LDS church, males confer everything required for a family to gain eternal exaltation. At 12, boys begin through the Aaronic priesthood offices of deacon, teacher, and priest. Males in the higher Melchizedek priesthood can advance through the offices of elder, high priest, patriarch, seventy, and apostle.
"The patriarchy—the loss of the priesthood—is one of the fears of people leaving Mormonism," Tanner says. "For instance, the husband is the one who can pray for a child if he gets sick. Men are the connection to make sure that, at whatever level, things are done the way God wants them to be done."
Advancement in church leadership is dependent on individual accomplishment, Tanner contends. "To reach the celestial kingdom you must go to the temple," she says. "In order to go to the temple, you have to be a full tithe payer and do every-thing the church ask you to do. There is control to get to that end reward."
Not only are there earthly incentives for faithful Mormons, but more important, there are many eternal bonuses, based on individual merit.
"We don't believe in a heaven and a hell," Ballard told CT. "We believe in degrees of glory. People are not going to live into the eternities in misery."
The LDS doctrine that husbands and wives are married "for time and eternity" allows some high-achieving Mormon couples to have eternal offspring and create and populate their own world.
Those Mormons who aspire to the top of three tiers of heavenly paradise must be baptized according to the LDS priesthood and live a worthy life.
Among Mormon leaders, temple activities are focused in part on the controversial practice of vicarious baptisms and marriage in which living members stand in proxy for the deceased.
"How do we know whether or not your great-great-grandfather, who never heard the gospel as it was restored, nor ever had the opportunity to be baptized by the priesthood, is going to accept?" Ballard asks. "We don't. But we do the work anyway." Under LDS doctrine, not just baptism, but salvation itself is available to the dead.
"The person may have heard the gospel a hundred times, but it never really clicked," Peterson says. "So maybe that hundredth time is the chance. That can happen in this life or the next."
LDS doctrines about baptism, salvation, and the afterlife place them at odds with centuries of Christian teaching in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions.
Despite vastly different theology, Mormon and evangelical leaders at times work together against common foes such as gambling, pornography, and abortion. A
Baptist and a Mormon are congressional sponsors of legislation to protect churches from creditors seeking to confiscate donations made by members who went bankrupt (CT, April 27, p. 14.)
The works of C. S. Lewis have emerged as another area of religious common ground. "He is so well received by Latter-day Saints because of his broad and inclusive vision of Christianity," says BYU dean Millet, who spoke about Lewis at an April theology conference at Wheaton (Ill.) College.
Blomberg, among others, holds out hope that projects such as How Wide the Divide? can be an initial step in Mormons moving to orthodoxy, as happened when the Worldwide Church of God founded by Herbert W. Armstrong altered its unique teachings (CT, July 15, 1996, p. 16). "I still believe in respectful, courteous dialogue," Blomberg says. "As LDS church membership continues to increase, and friends and relatives convert to Mormonism, it will behoove evangelicals to befriend rather than attack."
Yet deep disagreements remain over bedrock truth. "We have a prophet that receives direction from the Lord Jesus Christ," Ballard says. "We simply say to the world, 'Keep everything you have that is true and add to it the fullness of the everlasting gospel as it's been restored.'"
Roberts counters, "The gospel does have a cutting edge. It can be offensive when you explain there's no such thing as celestial heaven." Roberts and Tanner are coauthors of the new Harvest House book The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism.
Recent rhetoric from Baptist leaders referring to Utah as a "stronghold of Satan" and a "spiritual cloud of oppressiveness" may motivate Baptists, but alienate Mormons.
In the meantime, Mormons persist in their own media outreach. In April, the LDS church bought a commercial on the Gospel Music Association's nationally televised Dove Awards program.
For Bennett, the former Southern Baptist, there is great eagerness to share his new faith. "I feel more dedicated and closer to the Lord than I've ever felt," Bennett says. "The confluence of cultures and religions will be good for both the Mormons and the Baptists."
But for evangelicals, a faithful follower of LDS doctrine is at eternal peril. "Mormonism is either totally true Or totally false," Utah Mission's leader John L. Smith says. "If it's true, every other religion in America is false."
CHRISTIANITY TODAY: JUNE 15,1998