Explaining the Underpinnings of Mormonism

Since its founding in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon church, has been reviled and attacked — and, it has grown hugely. The church has some six million followers in the United States and about the same number around the world.

Richard Bushman, the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and a member of the Mormon church, is the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The noted expert on American culture and religious history talks to Melissa Block about the teachings of the church, and the differences and similarities between Mormonism and Christianity.

One of main points of departure is ... the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, who is seen as a prophet. He received revelations, and his writings are, for Mormons, considered sacred texts, along with the Bible.

That's correct. I think one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Mormonism is its sense that revelation was not restricted to one time in history, but that it can continue and break forth at any time, and that Joseph Smith was a figure in the line of prophets going back to Moses and the Old and New Testament prophets.

Another serious point of contention with other Christian faiths is that Joseph Smith said God declared all faiths before Mormonism an "abomination."

It was a time when people used language like that. He's not condemning the people of [other] churches as being entirely wrong. But something essential was lost. And what is lost, primarily, was this gift of direct guidance from God.

And Mormons today would still believe that their church is the restoration of the true Christian church?

That is correct. It doesn't mean that no one else in the world will be saved except Mormons — that's not a Mormon belief. But they do believe that this is the church that God has authorized and is directing today.

The Mormons' view of God ... as I understand it ... is that God was once a mortal and that people can become gods in the afterlife.

Joseph Smith took very seriously Jesus' sayings that "what I do is what the Father has done," [that] God, too, walked on the earth. God walked on the earth in Christian belief in Jesus' time, and Joseph Smith said that God did that earlier in his history, just as his son had done.

And if I understand this right, the belief wasn't just that he walked on the earth, but that he walked on the earth in the United States.

That's a little different; it's close to that. We're now talking about God the Father in some previous life, in some previous stage of the universe's history, walked on an earth somewhere. But Mormons also believe that after his resurrection, Christ did as he said he would in the Old and New Testament, visit his other sheep, referring probably to the children of Israel. And since Mormons believe that a tiny fragment of Israel migrated to the Western Hemisphere, Christ, according to the Book of Mormon, paid them a visit, taught them just as he did the Israelites in Palestine.

And is the belief that when Jesus returns, he will reign and govern the world from America, and specifically, from Missouri? Is that right?

Mormons split the capitals of Christ's kingdom. One is in Jerusalem, which is prophesied at great length. But the other, Mormons believe, it would be a new Jerusalem that would be in the United States. So it's quite accurate to say that he would return to the old Jerusalem in Palestine, but Mormons believe he also will reign from the United States.

Clearly the product of a religion that was born in this country.

Exactly. It's a very American view of the world.

One of the revelations of the founder, Joseph Smith — and this is what has become so controversial over the last couple of centuries — is that he was commanded to restore plural marriage. Polygamy has been outlawed in the Mormon church for more than a century, but it does have a theological basis in the Mormon church.

That's correct. It's quite titillating for people who read about it. But it grew out of Joseph Smith's sense that the old religion — the religion of both the Old and New Testaments — was being restored, and that ... the 12 apostles would be appointed on the earth, but also that there would be temples, as in times of yore, which was a crucial part of Israel's worship in ancient times. And then, on top of that, the restoration for a brief period of plural marriage such as was practiced by the ancient patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example.

You mentioned temples. Let's talk about the role of the temple in [Mormonism], very different from the Mormon church itself. The temple would be a place for sacred ritual, very private, sacred rituals.

It is. It is both sacred and secret. And Mormons, like many religions worldwide, have a very strong sense of sacred space. And so Mormons make a great effort to make themselves worthy — you cannot enter the temple even if you are a Mormon unless you have been interviewed by your bishop and found to be living the basic principles of the Gospel. And when you go into the temple, you change into white clothing, and you speak very quietly, and then the things that go on in the temple you do not speak about — even to your own friends and family outside the temple.

Do you think that culturally, apart from any theological divisions, that secrecy has contributed to the view of Mormonism as "other"?

I think it certainly has. But Mormons say, "I'm sorry about that, but for us, this is a very crucial part of our religion."

Would Mormons want to be considered part of the mainline Christian tradition?

Mormons are actually divided on that. They believe in Christ, they believe in his divinity, that he's the Son of God, that he atoned for our sins, that we can only be saved through faith in Christ, and they say, what more can we do? But on the other hand, Mormons have been saying since the beginning that we're a distinct branch of Christianity, that we have a truth that no one else does, and we're proud of it, and that's what makes us what we are. So, on the one hand, we've been telling people all along that ours is the only true church, and then when someone says, "Well, you're not part of us anymore," we become quite resentful. So it's a little dilemma that Mormons live with all the time.

The transcript includes minor edits for clarity.

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