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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been drawn into an intense spotlight as Mitt Romney has gradually earned the position as the presumptive Republican nominee to run against Barack Obama in 2012. Most people can probably tell you that Mitt Romney is a “Mormon.” But a scant few of those people could tell you what he believes, and what implications his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have on his position as President of the United States.
Diverse parties from the extreme-left media to some extreme-right Christian Conservatives have dished up versions of the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which are at best, inaccurate, and at worst, libelous. This is a brief exposition of the truth about Mormonism; a religion which has been either misunderstood or purposefully mischaracterized by those who fear Mormonism, oppose Mitt Romney, or both.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formed in 1830 by Joseph Smith and other early founders of the church. The term “Mormon” comes from “The Book of Mormon” which is a record of ancient scripture that was translated by Joseph Smith and which chronicles the spiritual and social history of a branch of the Hebrews who, around the time of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, migrated to what would become known as the New World. The Book of Mormon has the subtitle “Another Testament of Christ” because in both form and content it supports and clarifies the Divine mission and character of Jesus Christ.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could be portrayed as the logical outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation since the structure of the primitive church established by Jesus Christ, is replicated in the Mormon Church, with Christ at its head, and being lead by prophets, apostles, and so forth.
Persecution of Mormons in the early church was constant. This new religion was misunderstood, and the pace of its growth and fervor of its members posed a threat to many. Nevertheless, the doctrines of the Mormon Church mesh with the Old and New Testaments and align closely with the concepts that the Founding Fathers employed in their establishment of a government of the people. The “natural law,” which provides the foundations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, is embraced in Mormon doctrine. Mormons are taught that God is the giver of rights, and that man is created in the image of God, having the Divine right to his own life, liberty, property and beliefs.
Because of the belief in the value of each human life as a son or daughter of God, early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were appalled at the practice of slavery. They often took an openly anti-slavery position. This proved problematic when Mormons heavily colonized the slavery state of Missouri in the 1830s-1840s. Missourians feared the double threat presented by the Mormons, of a new and growing religion, and passionate abolitionism. The conflicts in Missouri became so dire that in 1838, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs penned the “extermination order” which allowed for the killing, without fear of prosecution, of Mormons who failed to comply with orders to leave the state.
Most Mormons then fled to a swampy swath of land in Illinois that would later become the thriving city of Nauvoo. Polygamy began among a few Mormons as a practice having Biblical roots, but which had a social rationale as well. With the persecution, murders and untimely deaths of many Mormon men, large numbers of women and children were left without the support needed to survive the rigors of the time. Plural marriage was accepted by the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and practiced by a small percentage of its members for a period of years between about 1843 until it was formally banned in 1890.
Contemporary practitioners of polygamy are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although some polygamist sects claim to have beliefs similar to mainstream Mormonism, the practice of plural marriage is regarded as sinful and is prohibited, resulting in the excommunication of any member who refuses to disavow it.
The Latter-day Saints were driven out of Nauvoo and other settlements east of the Mississippi in the late 1840s. Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered at the hands of a mob who cornered them in the upper floors of a jail in Carthage, Illinois. Brigham Young took up the mantle of prophet and leader of the young church and led the Mormons westward, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the remote deserts of Utah.
The wagon trains and handcart companies composed mostly of the Mormon faithful migrated to the West in a harrowing exodus that lasted for nearly a decade. The Salt Lake Valley in Northern Utah was surrounded by a vast, brine lake to the North and West, and rugged mountains to the East and South. But through their own labor and desire to live free of being persecuted for their beliefs, the Mormons turned the arid Utah desert into a verdant land of crops, irrigation canals, and thriving communities.
On the morning of July 24, 1849, two years after the first pioneers had entered the Salt Lake Valley, the air of Salt Lake City was rent with the sound of cannon fire. It was the beginning of an astonishing show of patriotic fervor and celebration called “Pioneer Day.” The Mormons celebrated their prosperity, freedom from persecution, and the blessings of America with parades, brass bands, picnics, patriotic speeches, and tributes to the Founding Fathers which recalled their inspired work in laying the foundations of a free nation wherein all people could live and worship according to the dictates of their own consciences.
The suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton gained significant support from the Mormon Church and the leaders of its women’s organization, The Relief Society. In the late 1860s many Mormon women were the impetus behind both anti-polygamy bills in the territories, as well as bills designed to give women the vote. In 1879 Emmaline B. Wells and Zina Young Williams traveled to Washington D.C. to represent Mormon women at the National Suffrage convention.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been hit with a great deal of slander in the wake of Mitt Romney’s climb to high national stature. Some of the slander arises from genuine fear and contempt, some rises from irresponsible depictions of Mormonism in media and the movies, and some of it arises from the sacred nature of certain practices which Mormons are reluctant to discuss because they are sensitive topics which are very special to the faithful.
The Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not ordinary meeting houses which are open to the public or given to a multiplicity of functions. Their functions are specific to sacred ordinances which have Biblical roots, and are performed by people who have proven to be spiritually prepared to perform them, such as baptism for the dead, and eternal marriages. LDS people who attend the temple wear “garments,” which are simply modest underclothes, not unlike underwear. Just as people of many religions wear vestments on the outside of their clothes which indicate a certain position in the church, or a certain attainment of spiritual perfection, Mormons who attend the Temple wear garments next to their bodies as a personal reminder of their responsibilities as followers of Jesus Christ. The garments serve as a tangible reminder of symbolic covenants that are made to God as people commit their lives to righteous living, service, and personal progression.
The Mormon Church has never excluded people of any race from membership. The priesthood was withheld from men of certain lineages such as Africans, and some South Pacific Islanders until 1978, at which time all worthy Mormon males over the age of 12 were invited to receive and participate in the blessings of the Priesthood. This is not a racist issue at all. For whatever reasons, most of which we don’t understand, God has withheld the Priesthood from certain groups of people at certain times in history. In the early Old Testament times only the direct male descendents of Levi were allowed to exercise the Priesthood. That has evolved and taken many forms over thousands of years. The Mormon Church is now one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the world and has an active and thriving missionary work in several African countries. No individual is excluded from any activity or opportunity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the basis of race.
Mitt Romney is one of many high-profile Mormons who have been, and will continue to be, scrutinized by the media and the public at large. Mike Lee, Orrin Hatch, Mia Love, Gladys Knight, Alex Boye, Glenn Beck, John Huntsman; the list of members of the Mormon faith who are making waves continues to grow. LDS people are encouraged to become “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and as Americans watch their freedoms and the moral structure of their civil society attacked by social decay and evil political doctrines, it is inevitable that even more Mormons will take a stand, even in the face of great persecution, as their Abolitionist progenitors did in Missouri nearly 200 years ago.
I like to say, “I’m interested in the fruit that falls from a tree, not the weird places where its roots may travel.” When looking at Mormons, or people of any religious belief or affiliation, it is the effectiveness and positive impact of their lives that should be of greatest interest.
By Marjorie Haun 5/23/12