church of jesus christ of latter day saints 4159

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

April 30, 2021

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, major world religion of 12 million members, established in 1830 by Joseph Smith, known as the prophet. Followers of this religion are called Mormons. From a handful of members at the beginning, the movement has grown steadily through proselytizing and a relatively high birth rate. By the early 2000s there were 5.5 million Mormons in the United States and the number in other countries around the world totaled about 6.5 million. Before World War II conversions had been most numerous in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, but during recent years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown rapidly in developing countries. In Mexico, for example, there were 850,000 Mormons in 2000, most of them converted since 1975. In South Korea, the Latter-day Saints had no adherents before 1950, but by 2000 there were 71,000 members. A vigorous missionary program—a rotating force of about 60,000 preaching Mormon doctrine in more than 330 missions in the United States and abroad—assures a steady influx of new members.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian religion. Its founding doctrine was based on the assumption that Christianity was more or less corrupt and that restoring the true Christian gospel was necessary. Such a restoration, however, required a new revelation from God to give the truths of Christianity in pure form and to reestablish the divine sacerdotal authority of the ancient apostles, which, having been lost, could be recovered only through divine initiative. The Mormon church is thus in its self-definition Christian as well as restorationist.

A Doctrine

Mormons support religious toleration and hold that all religions contain elements of truth and do much good. Nevertheless, the Mormon church sees only itself as fully authorized and recognized by God—“the only true and living church upon the earth.” This exclusive claim to truth and authority explains the determination of Mormons to carry their message worldwide, even to Christians of other denominations.

Mormon doctrine is derived from four basic scriptures: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants (138 revelations and other statements, almost all of them issued by Joseph Smith in the 1830s and early 1840s), and the Pearl of Great Price (1842; a compilation of shorter works, both ancient and modern). The truths enunciated in the various scriptures are subject to interpretation and expansion by church leaders, who are believed to receive additional revelations and inspiration.

Certain Mormon doctrines diverge sharply from traditional Christian orthodoxy—a belief in the prenatal existence of human souls; a definition of the Trinity as three separate individuals, God the Father and Jesus Christ being physical persons united in purpose; and a belief that human beings can, if they live the commandments of God to the full, attain the status of godhood in future eons. Critics have charged that Mormons, in proclaiming their own prophets, give insufficient attention to Christ. In response, Mormons have argued that Christ’s disciples have always been misunderstood and persecuted. Like Anabaptists and other restorationists, they have maintained that even a basic statement such as the Nicene Creed (ad 325) is a departure from the purity of original Christian teachings. As a result, Mormons have not sought to participate in the ecumenical movement or organizations such as the World Council of Churches.

B Structure

The Mormon church is lay, hierarchical, and authoritarian. The offices in the individual congregations (wards) are staffed by lay members on a rotating basis. The bishop, who with two counselors presides over a ward, usually serves for about five years. Because some 200 positions are assigned to each ward, participation among active Mormons is high. Most members have opportunities to teach classes, deliver sermons, perform humanitarian services, and participate in committee assignments and social activities.

The church polity, or organization, is arranged vertically. Above the ward is the stake, a collection of several wards, presided over by a stake presidency of 3 and a high council of 12. Collections of stakes form regions. At the top are the general authorities, who are full-time leaders. Because they too were lay members before their selection to the general office, they cannot be thought of as professional bureaucrats or seminary-trained clergy. Although officials on the local level are encouraged to exercise judgment and sometimes even to initiate experimental programs, in general, programs and policies are centrally determined.

The general authorities of the church include a three-man presiding bishopric and the First Quorum of the Seventy, with seven presidents. Above them, as the effective authoritative policymaking body, is the Council of Twelve Apostles. At the top of the hierarchy is the president of the church, often referred to by Mormons as the prophet. This president and his two counselors (the First Presidency) regularly meet in conjunction with the council of apostles, as well as separately. New apostles are chosen by the apostles themselves. By a seniority principle, an apostle moves gradually up the hierarchical ladder. When the president of the church dies, the senior apostle becomes the next president.

C Worship and Activities

Worship is simple, consisting of hymns, prayers, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (celebrated with bread and water), and sermons delivered by lay members of the congregation. Auxiliary organizations for children, teenagers, and women provide additional activities and service projects. In temples—of which more than 115 exist throughout the world—vicarious ordinance work is performed, in which Mormons of certified faithfulness act as proxy for dead ancestors, and marriages between devout Mormons are consecrated “for time and all eternity.”

In addition to their vigorous missionary program, Mormons are well known for their welfare program, an organized effort to provide for those in need, and for their Word of Wisdom, a code of health prohibiting tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco. The church also supports the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Brigham Young University, at Provo, Utah.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came into existence during the early 19th-century American movement of religious revivalism called the Second Great Awakening. About 1820, according to his own account, when Joseph Smith was 14 years old and living with his family near Palmyra, New York, he had a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, informing him that the true church was not on the face of the Earth.

A Founding of the Church

During the 1820s, Smith worked as a farm laborer and developed his religious ideas, inspired by other supernatural encounters. After 1827, by his own account, he yearly visited a book written in a hieroglyphic script on golden plates buried in a nearby hill; the book’s location, he said, had been disclosed to him by an angel. In 1830 he completed the translation of these plates, “by the gift and power of God,” and published the Book of Mormon, which he believed to be a religious record of the ancient inhabitants of North America. On April 6, 1830, he organized the Church of Christ, soon known by its present title, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The organization of the church is traditionally said to have been established in Fayette, New York. Within a year, by early 1831, the center had moved to Kirtland (now Kirtland Hills), Ohio, where former Campbellite Sidney Rigdon and much of his congregation (see Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) had heard the message of Mormon missionaries and been baptized. At almost the same time, another Mormon settlement was made in Missouri, primarily in the area around Independence, which was designated by Smith as the place to which Jesus Christ would return. Converts flocked into both northeastern Ohio and western Missouri.

B Persecution

The established residents of these areas, however, became hostile to the Mormons, who were soon confronted with threats and then violent persecution. By 1839 the Mormons were fleeing from Kirtland and their Missouri settlements and settling on the banks of the Mississippi River at Commerce, Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo. The faith continued to attract new converts, many of them from England. To help assure that mobs would be unable to drive them out again, Smith and his associates gained permission from the Illinois legislature to form a local militia, the Nauvoo Legion, which was in reality a virtual private army. The Nauvoo settlement grew steadily, reaching a population of more than 12,000 in 1845.

The early opposition to the Latter-day Saints seems to have been triggered largely by fears of economic competition and a dislike of Mormon bloc voting. By the early 1840s, however, the hostility was intensified by Smith’s apparent assumption of monarchical powers and by the rumors, officially denied but subsequently confirmed, that Mormons were beginning to practice polygamy. In 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were put in prison in Carthage, Illinois, on charges of treason and conspiracy. Then, despite the Illinois governor’s promises of safety, the two brothers were assassinated by a mob.

The prophet’s oldest son, Joseph Smith III, was only 11 years old at the time of his father’s death. Other potential heirs to the leadership backed down and some led splinter groups into schism, among them Lyman Wight, James J. Strang, and William Bickerton. Eventually, more than 20 different splinter groups appeared, most of them small. In 1860, when Joseph Smith III decided to accept the leadership of the largest number of dissident Mormons, mostly still in the Midwest, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints came into existence. Rejecting polygamy and some of the doctrinal and theological innovations of the Nauvoo period, the Reorganized Church slowly grew, and today it has a worldwide membership of 250,000 in 40 countries. Its headquarters is at Independence, Missouri. In 2001 the Reorganized Church officially changed its name to Community of Christ.

C The Move to Utah

In the meantime, the leadership of the majority of the Mormons had been exercised by the Twelve Apostles. Brigham Young, head of the Twelve, became president and prophet of the church in 1847 after successfully leading an exodus from Illinois to the Great Basin in the Rocky Mountains in the area now known as Utah, where Salt Lake City was established as the new center. Eventually, more than 300 other settlements were established, in an area stretching from California to Colorado and from Mexico to Canada. Most of the Mormons, however, were concentrated in Utah, with some living in immediately surrounding states.

Conflict was not over for the Mormons. Their experiments in economic communitarianism and cooperatives were regarded as a restraint of trade, and their practice of bloc voting through a single, church-approved political party still aroused resentment. Polygamy, openly acknowledged in 1852, was promulgated and practiced by a minority of Mormons (between 10 and 20 percent) for the next 38 years. Incited by reports of disloyalty, the federal government sent an army to Utah in 1857 and 1858, resulting in the so-called Utah War, which, despite many blunders and few casualties, came close to being a major catastrophe. This was followed by a series of legislative and judicial efforts to force Mormon compliance with the national norm of monogamous marriage. After a series of delaying actions, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto in 1890 that has traditionally been seen as the end of polygamy. Although some plural relationships continued, and a small group of Mormon fundamentalists later defied the threat of excommunication by the church and punishment by the state in order to continue a form of polygamy, the church gave up its public espousal and encouragement of the practice. Within a few years the Mormons had entered, or tried to enter, the American mainstream.

D The Contemporary Church

Mormons are commonly perceived as a conservative Christian church and are often identified with Protestant fundamentalists (see Fundamentalism). In theology, however, conservative Protestants and Mormons differ on fundamental questions, such as the nature of God, the concept of the church, and the definition of salvation. With respect to social issues, on the other hand, the two groups have much in common. The Mormons are lukewarm, if not hostile, to ecumenism, basically opposed to abortion, discouraging of birth control, and unreceptive to “unbiblical” practices such as women in the priesthood; like many Protestant fundamentalists, they see themselves as resisting the forces of secularism and liberal compromise. The present conservative stance of the Mormons is somewhat ironic, given their earlier history of bold social and economic innovation. In practice, however, Mormons are often more pragmatic than their reputation suggests. Birth rates, although higher than the national average, have declined considerably, and members are allowed individual discretion in the practice of birth control. Divorce, although discouraged, is not prohibited, and the divorce rate essentially follows the national trends.

For many years the Latter-day Saints refused to ordain blacks to the priesthood; this was an important issue, because all worthy Mormon males above the age of 12 receive such ordination. That policy was reversed in 1978, when the First Presidency stated that ordination would henceforth be granted “without regard for race or color.” The question of the role of women in the church is perhaps more problematic. Although Mormon women have numerous opportunities to serve on the congregational level and are encouraged to develop their talents and pursue higher education, they are not ordained to the priesthood and do not serve in the hierarchy.

An unusual combination of biblical Christianity, American pragmatism, millennialist expectations, economic experimentation, political conservatism, evangelical fervor, and international activity, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still a dynamic, rapidly growing religion in an uneasy relationship with the surrounding culture.

Contributed By:
Davis Bitton

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