Transcript of a talk I presented at an academic panel on Mormonism.
I was recently invited to participate on an academic panel on Mormonism. Being an academic and a Mormon, I readily agreed. Then I was told I would have seven minutes in which to share “the basic doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the ‘Lived Experience’ of Mormonism.” This may be the first talk I wrote out in full since my early teen years, and it is arguably the most dense piece of writing I’ve done. Since I keep getting asked to share it with people, I thought I’d share it with the world.
I am not an official representative of the Church (nor of the University of Virginia, which hosted the panel). The following represents only my best effort to quickly summarize my opinion of Church doctrine, structure, and membership.
I’ve been asked to fit into just a few minutes a summary of the main doctrines taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the “lived experience” of Mormonism. Fasten your seat belts; this is going to be a very fast ride though a very large landscape.
The central doctrine of Mormonism is the divinity and atonementsee more on the word “atonement”. of Jesus Christ. This presupposes the existence, power, and unfailing goodness of God and a concept of divine and unfailing laws—a divine justice, if you will. Christ tempers that justice with grace or mercy, both enabling people to become better than they otherwise could be and saving them from the eternal consequences of their poor choices.
I could speak at length on this subject, but time passes.
The doctrine of Christ is clearly central; as one church leader said, “everything else is just appendages to it.” I’m picking which appendages to share based on which are more introductory, though not necessarily more important, than others. I suspect an importance-based listing would look much like that of most other Christian faiths: Christ, faith, grace, repentance, salvation, etc.
Mormons claim that, in addition to divine instruction recorded in scripture, there is a need for divine authority (handed down from one person to another in an act called “ordination”) and for a living prophet to lead the church. This authority, we teach, has been lost and restored many times throughout history, most notably for a vast period called “the Great Apostasy” lasting from the end of the New Testament until the calling of Joseph Smith in the early 1800s. The end of the Great Apostasy is called “the Restoration.” The most discussed events in the Restoration are the personal visitation of the Father and Son to a 14-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith and his obtaining and translating (with divine assistance) a record written on metal sheets, published as “the Book of Mormon” nine years later. The church itself was formed the year after that. The Book of Mormon is taught to be an ancient record similar to the Bible, but written by people in the American hemisphere instead of the Middle East. In addition to these two ancient records, the church also accepts as part of its canon some 140 of the myriad revelations received by prophets in the modern era, compiled as the Doctrine and Covenants; and a small collection of odds and ends, including the 13 Articles of Faith, compiled as the Pearl of Great Price.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is currently led by a prophet, the sixteen since Joseph Smith. This prophet, officially titled “The President of the Church,” along with his two Councilors and Twelve Apostles, lead the church as a whole. Assisting these fifteen are a few hundred others organized into several “quorums of 70;” then a three-tier geographical breakdown being (from largest to smallest) areas, stakes, and wards (wards being, for strange historical reasons, the Mormon word for a congregation).
That must conclude my summary of doctrine (and structure). On to the “lived experience” of Mormonism.
If you visit a Mormon congregation (which you are all welcome to do, by the way; I’m happy to give tips on how to “blend in” if asked) you’ll find it a calm and orderly service. Much like this event, there is someone who stands up and outlines what’s going to happen, then people do what was announced. There’re no public displays of miracles, no applause, usually no audience participation at all except echoing the word “amen” at the end of talks and prayers. But if you come on the first Sunday of a month, things are different. They start the same, but then instead of announcing speakers the person conducting the meetings says effectively “your turn” and sits down. The next forty minutes or so are taken with people coming to the pulpit and speaking extemporaneously if and when they will.
These monthly meetings are called “Testimony Meetings”, and many of the things said will include the phrase “I know” many times, almost always followed by something that it seems somewhat odd to claim you know. These assertions are based on a philosophical distinction I drafted most of a presentation on this philosophical idea for the panel before I was given a topic…. Academically, I find its impact on philosophy fascinating. It is also almost never discussed as I discuss it by official church sources, though in other forms it is commonly mentioned. that underpins much of Mormon life. To the senses, reason, and mess of neural and hormonal activities typically called emotion or intuition, Mormons add a fourth notion of “spirit.” As with many other faiths, Mormons believe in a spirit enlivening each body. Mormons teach that this spirit is able to discover truth directly from deity through the ministration of the Holy Spirit. This prompting, feeling, or revelation, as it is variously called, is the reason Mormons claim to “know” things of God. This spirit-derived knowledge (and the sharing thereof) is called “testimony,” often in the phrases “I have a testimony of” and “bear my testimony.” The notion of testimony and personal revelation permeates Mormon life.
At first blush the church organization appears very hierarchical. However, each position is given by a “calling,” a temporary Apostle (the fifteen men at the head of the church) and Patriarch (a non-administrative and often overlooked position) are both life-long callings. assignment. There is no campaigning, no electing; I serve currently as a bookkeeper in my congregation because my local leaders said “we’d like you to serve as clerk.” I will continue in that calling until I am released. It is perfectly normal for leaders of congregations or even of groups of congregations, after being released, to be called to teach children or assist with organizing pot-lucks or coordinate volunteers to clean church buildings. The hierarchy is one of positions, not of people.
Just as members are asked to fulfill particular roles in church, so too are they assigned particular congregations to attend. Because of which house I live in, I am assigned to a particular congregation. Its meetinghouse is actually not the closest to my home. This idea of assigning members to particular units of the church creates a kind of small-town community: you don’t pick your neighbors, you just accept them.
This sense of community is augmented in several ways. First, there is a lot of time spent at church: three hours each Sunday; plus typically an hour or two during the week for activities for the youth, service projects, and social get-togethers; and often another hour of coordinating meetings with other people who have similar callings to your own. Additionally, each member is assigned as part of a pair of “home or visiting teachers,” given a few other households they are asked to visit monthly and generally watch out for. And because there is so much ongoing contact in a small community, it is common for members of the local congregation to become the core of individual friend groups as well.
When beginning to understand Mormonism it is important to understand the distinction between doctrine, principle, policy, and culture. For example, it is the doctrine of the church that free will is a gift from God and should be treated as such. From this doctrine comes the principle that members should avoid addiction. A current church policy states that in particular, members should not drink alcohol, coffee, or tea. Church culture often takes this a step further to look askance on other caffeinated drinks. Church culture is just an outcome of people associating together and may go awry. Church policy is changed from time to time, being an official application of principles to the current situation. The underlying principles and doctrines are unchanging, the “core” of the church.
Mormons maintain a much more traditional view of family and chastity than do many people today. Sixty years ago this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in a panel like this, but increasingly it is a distinguishing feature. A date in Mormon circles is what it was half a century ago: scores of dates precede marriage and marriage precedes sexual intercourse. Marriage remains a commitment not to be ended lightly, and having several children is generally considered good, even expected in church culture. As a consequence, a lot of Mormon life has a strong family feel to it. Fussing infants are the normal background noise of most worship services. More than half of the callings and activities in the church are focused on supporting and teaching the rising generation. One night a week is set aside for youth activities, and a significant percentage of the membership may be found at the church on those nights.
My time has passed. It took me 7:15 to read the above text. I may have read a little faster than was wise. There are dozens of topics I didn’t get to and hours more that could be said about each one I did reach. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind tour.
When chopping a 30-minute summary into a 7-minute essay, one inevitably loses context and clarity in favor of brevity. The curious are welcome to post a comment (@private with your contact info if you don’t want world visibility) and I’ll do my best to clarify or point you to more complete sources.