• Everything you need to know about Mormonism. (Getty Images)
Mormons have long been seen as the outliers of Christianity. Who are they? What do they believe? Are they a Christian sect or a genuine branch of Christianity?
By
Sharon Verghis

25 Mar 2019 - 3:33 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2019 - 4:52 PM

They are one of the world’s most misunderstood religious communities. Their quirks and differences, including the wearing of so-called “magic underwear”, have even been turned into a worldwide hit musical.

Mormons have long been seen as the outliers of Christianity. Who are they? What do they believe? Are they a Christian sect or a genuine branch of Christianity? In SBS’s upcoming program Christians Like Us, the sole Mormon in a household of sceptical orthodox Christians faces these questions and more.

So who are the Mormons, really?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (their real name – they’re not really fond of nicknames like Mormons) is a global religious group that embraces concepts of Christianity overlaid by revelations made by their founder, Joseph Smith.

It traces its origins back to 1823 in western New York state, when Smith, a 14-year-old farm boy, had a vision from an angel called Moroni who told him about engraved golden plates buried nearby. 

Smith excavated the plates and translated them into English.

In 1830, he published the result - The Book of Mormon, sacred writings which tells the tale of a group of Hebrews who migrated from Jerusalem to America about 600 BC, led by a prophet, Lehi.

It recounts God's dealings with these ancient inhabitants of the American Continent, and how Mormon, an ancient American prophet, compiled the history of this ancient civilisation from old records. He inscribed these documents on plates of gold which his son, Moroni, buried for safety.

They lay hidden for 1400 years - until 1823, when Moroni returned as an angel to Joseph Smith with revelations of this sacred buried treasure. The rest is history.

Armed with a belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ and his establishment of a 1000-year reign of peace, Smith founded the Mormon Church. He started attracting followers.

Religious persecution, however, forced them to keep uprooting their community. In 1844, Smith was murdered by a mob. The government of the church was taken over by Brigham Young, who became the church’s second president.

Increasing mob violence led to another mass pilgrimage, this time to Utah in 1846–47.  With a vision of a new state called Deseret, Young established more than 300 communities, and sent missionaries across North America and into Europe.

Converts, including about 80,000 Mormon pioneers, arrived in Salt Lake City by 1859.

Today, the city remains the headquarters of the Mormon Church. High-profile followers include former US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and the Osmond family.

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So what do Mormons believe?

Mormons state that they, like all Christians, unequivocally believe that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, and that Christ’s atonement allows mankind to be saved from their sins and return to live with God and their families forever.

As the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, wrote, “The fundamental principles of our religion are … concerning Jesus Christ that He died was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”

So Mormons consider themselves Christian, then?

Absolutely, says Emily Kwok, Director of Public Affairs, NSW/ACT, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“As Christians, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worship God the Eternal Father in the name of His Son Jesus Christ. We pray to the Father as the object of our worship. We believe that Jesus Christ is the path that leads us to the Father, which is the path of happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come."

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So why the controversy about whether they’re Christians or not?  Are they accepted as Christian by other churches?

As a general rule, no – says Deakin University’s Dr Andrew Singleton, a leading sociologist of religion.

This is due to significant doctrinal differences, including their use of The Book of Mormon along with the Bible, and their departure from the orthodox Christian view of the Trinity as three persons in one God.

Mormons also believe that faithful members of the church may receive God’s fullness and thus become gods themselves.

These modern-day prophets are appointed apostles to lead the Church, reflecting the way Jesus organised His Church in biblical times.

Mormons also believe that faithful members of the church may receive God’s fullness and thus become gods themselves.

Theologian and Anglican rector Dr Michael Jensen says the prevailing view among orthodox Christian churches is that the Mormons are “sociologically a Christian sect rather than a part of the Christian faith.”

“In my view, they are no more Christians than Muslims are Christians.

“The structure of Mormon belief, in my view, is completely antithetical to Christian belief.

“In terms of Orthodox Christianity, and that covers Catholics and most Protestant churches, we hold to the great creeds of the ancient Church, and believe in the authority of the scriptures – the Old and the New Testament.

“But they don’t adhere to this creed and this is one of biggest differences”.

Another difference is their belief in attaining salvation through doing good works, Jensen says.

Although Mormons believe that Christ came to earth so that all might be saved and raised from the dead, they maintain that people’s futures are determined by their own actions as well as by the grace of God.

Jensen is part of the majority opinion here – right or wrong. 

The Atlas of Global Christianity lists Mormonism as a "marginal" Christian group, along with Jehovah's Witnesses and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

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What about the polygamy thing and the wearing of "magic underwear"?

Misconceptions that the Mormons practice polygamy continue to flourish, particularly after the high-profile arrest of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs in the US in 2016.

Kwok points out that the Church publicly rejected polygamy in 1890.

“We believe in the marriage of one man and one woman. In Biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage.  Polygamy was practised for a season in the early days of the church, however was discontinued more than 125 years ago and plays no part of our faith today.

“Regarding temple garments, men and women of different religions have embraced religious clothing to express their innermost feelings of devotion to God.  This includes the Buddhist monk’s robe, the Catholic Priest’s cassock and the Jewish prayer shawl.

“The purpose of these garments is to draw the believer closer to God. The symbols associated with the garments may be unfamiliar to those not of the faith but, for the believer, can bring deep feelings of devotion and motivate them to do good.  Some of these religious clothing are visible to the public eye while others are not.

“Some people incorrectly refer to our temple garments as 'magic underwear' which shows a lack of respect to something that is sacred to us.”

“Some people incorrectly refer to our temple garments as 'magic underwear' which shows a lack of respect to something that is sacred to us.”

How many Mormons are there in Australia and worldwide?

Worldwide, there are almost 16 million members.

In Australia, total church membership is around 151,000. The first Mormon missionaries arrived here as early as 1840. 

In recent years, the Church has continued to grow, particularly among immigrant communities in Australia and globally, says Singleton.

Of the 15.6 million members worldwide in 2016, only 6.5 million were living in the US. Church materials are published in 188 languages.

“All the major traditional Christian faiths are shrinking except for the Pentecostals, Evangelicals, independent ethnic-based religious groups - and the Mormons,” says Singleton. “They’re all going gangbusters.”

The Mormon Church’s reach is increasing particularly across Pacific Islander communities, he says. “Here and elsewhere, they’re benefitting from first-generation immigration and proselytising in migrant communities.” 

Christians Like Us airs over two nights at 8.35pm, Wednesday April 3 and 10 on SBS.

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