I’ve been called “weird” all of my life, and on occasion the reason for that has been my religion. For almost 200 years people have made sensational claims about the oddball practices of the Mormons–from having horns on our heads to worshipping cows–which we have had to politely answer, albeit sometimes with a roll of the eyes.
Members of the Church often try to avoid some of these discussions by focusing on our similarities with other Christian faiths, and finding such common ground certainly is a worthy endeavor. But let’s be honest: Mormonism is different from mainstream Christianity in some critically important ways. So what are some of the stranger things about Mormons that are actually true? A few things immediately come to mind.
Christians believe in prophets, but only from a safe distance. So long as they had beards, wore sandals, and have been dead for at least 2000 years, prophets are perfectly acceptable to mainstream Christianity. For Mormons, prophets are part of Heavenly Father’s continuing plan for us. The need for communication from God is just as acute today (if not more so) than it was when the Israelites were lost in the wilderness. Mormons believe that God continues to speak to mankind through divinely appointed mouthpieces, a pattern that was re-established with the prophet Joseph Smith in the early 1800’s. We believe that since that time the Church has continued to be led by men that have been set apart as “prophets, seers and revelators.” All Christians believe in the importance of talking to God. Those wacky Mormons believe that He talks back.
2. The Book of M0rmon
Mormons believe that the canon of scripture is “open,” meaning that God can reveal additional information to us that can be designated as scripture. While we believe the Bible to be Holy Scripture, and it plays a key role in our theology and services, we have other scriptures as well. The foremost of those is The Book of Mormon, which we believe to be a record of a group of people who resided in the Western Hemisphere over a thousand-year period prior to and subsequent to the life of Christ. We believe that these people were led by holy prophets who recorded their dealings with God, culminating in the ministry of the resurrected Savior to this group of people in the Americas. We believe that this record was kept on golden plates hidden up and was revealed in the 1820’s to Joseph Smith, who translated the record by the power of God. This is the basis for the claim that we have a “Gold Bible,” which is a pretty significant distortion of what we believe about The Book of Mormon. But we do believe that additional scriptures like The Book of Mormon stand as important witnesses of the reality of Jesus Christ. Call us crazy, but we think the more revelation we can get from and about Christ, the better off we are.
3. The Word of Wisdom
Part of the LDS faith is the “Word of Wisdom,” a revelation given to Joseph Smith that gives certain dietary guidelines specific to the people of our day. The Word of Wisdom proscribes the use of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco products. We have been instructed by subsequent church leaders that this also includes the use of illegal or recreational drugs. The Church has made clear that this is not a prohibition on caffeine (this blog post is being powered by a Diet Mt. Dew, in fact), although both members and non-members sometimes view it that way. The Word of Wisdom is partly about health, partly about obedience, and partly a protection against the addictions of modern society. It’s different, but do-able.
4. The Temple
From my perspective, modern Christianity is steadily becoming more about worship than covenant. This is both the result of an interpretation of the doctrine of grace that suggests that our obligation to “do” anything is limited or nonexistent, and the proliferation of megachurches and televangelists, which are inherently impersonal and require little more of their congregations than attendance and financial contributions.
The LDS Church is very different from that. Our doctrine is much more focused on covenants: sacred agreements between God and His children. These covenants are often made through ordinances. Baptism is an ordinance, but also is a covenant to take on the name of Christ and follow His example. Marriage is an ordinance, but also is a covenant between the couple and God to live their lives in accordance with His commandments regarding fidelity and loyalty within marriage.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has special sacred places of worship which we call “temples.” The temples are different from our weekly chapels, in that we hold no regular worship services there. Rather, the temple is a place where we make covenants with God. These include the “endowment” ceremony, which involves teachings regarding the Atonement of Christ and promises to keep His commandments, consecrate our lives to serving Him, and being morally clean. Another covenant is the marriage covenant, and we believe that in our temples, couples can be married or “sealed” not only until death, but for eternity (thus the familiar Church slogan, “Families are Forever”).
Because we believe that such ordinances, which can only be performed on Earth, are part of our Heavenly Father’s plan, in the temple we also perform these ordinances by proxy for deceased persons, whom we believe to have the option after this life of accepting or rejecting the ordinances performed for them.
Since the temple is such a sacred place for us, it is not open to non-members (except prior to dedication of the temple), or even members of the Church who do not meet minimum worthiness criteria. As the temple ordinances are not performed publicly, there is rampant speculation about what takes place in the temple, which is a price we pay for maintaining the sacred nature of these covenants and ordinances.
I’m the first to admit that, to an outsider who is not familiar with the Church or its doctrines, the temple ordinances and the proxy work for the dead are pretty strange. But having had the temple as part of my life for over 30 years, all I can say is that I honestly find it to be a House of God, and I have drawn closer to God as a result of being there and making the covenants that are part of the temple ceremonies. They teach me nothing other than to love God, to try to emulate the behavior of His Son, to treat other people decently, and to be loyal and faithful to my wife and children. If those things are the fruit, the tree must be pretty good.
5. Missionary Work
I’m not sure anything could be stranger than riding bikes in dress pants and short-sleeved white shirts. Unless it is going door-to-door to talk to complete strangers about your religion.
The LDS Church is a missionary church. We believe that we have a mandate to take the gospel to all the world. That does not mean that we would compel others to join our faith, nor does it mean that we condemn all non-Mormons to a sulfurous hell. What it means is that we think we have something of real value, something that can change people for the better and can lead to a more peaceful, pleasant and heavenly world, and we want to share it with others. We believe that God expects us to do so. So young men and women of the Church by the thousands dedicate a period of their lives to serve as full-time missionaries, with a commission to teach the gospel and serve other people.
That’s weird. Guys and gals in their late teens and early 20’s generally have a very different agenda from preaching and serving. Often that agenda involves felonies or at least significant misdemeanors. But for Mormons, the ideal and expectation is that our kids be more sober and more outwardly focused. But there is a difference between “unusual” and “bad.” Again drawing from my personal experience, even though my mission was a spectacular failure in terms of conversions, it was an invaluable time of my life, and everything since my mission has been influenced by it. I’m extraordinarily proud to have served a mission, and I am very proud that my oldest daughter is a missionary now. I think we have tried to make the world a better place, and in some small degree we have succeeded in doing so.
Mormons are different. We know that. We aren’t as different as some people make us out to be, but if our religion were indistinguishable from other Christian denominations there would be little for us to offer. And I do not believe that “fitting in” is an independent virtue worthy of pursuit. Instead, I celebrate the uniqueness of Mormonism, just as I celebrate the uniqueness of the ministry of Christ. Plenty of folks thought He was a weirdo, too.