As one of the 200,000 British members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my heart doesn’t leap when I hear about a new documentary made about us. Such films tend not to be flattering. But here’s the puzzle: if our faith is really based on nonsense, why is it growing? Why would people like me convert? If you can bear with me, I’d like to say a bit about who we are — and what we are not.
We’re followers of Jesus Christ (i.e. Christians). Our scripture is the Bible. We also believe that the Book of Mormon, another Testament of Jesus Christ, revealed to Joseph Smith and published in 1830, is the word of God. But we don’t revere a different Christ than the man — the only perfect man — whose death and resurrection we commemorate this Easter. There are billions of people who follow Jesus in many ways, us included. And yet we’re portrayed as weird and cult-like in a way that other religions are not.
I’ve never understood the idea that Mormons belong to a cult. A cult is supposed to have a self-appointed charismatic leader: our leader is Jesus Christ. And rituals? This Easter weekend, we’ll be worshipping a crucified man, who we believe lives again in every day of our lives.
Our religion is young. It has been around for less time than this magazine. The Spectator was calling us a ‘sect’ by 1845, just 15 years after we started. But Christians were at first seen by the Roman world as an odd Jewish sect. We think it’s natural that religion evolves. We believe that we have to keep listening and be open-minded about the unlikely forms that God’s message — and messengers — can come in.
One big thing Latter-day Saints believe is that we’re bound — or sealed — to each other in the next life, not just in this one (as per Matthew 18:18). Husband to wife, parents to children. It’s a source of strength and comfort to me. I lost my father when I was three, and it’s reassuring to believe we’ll be reunited in the afterlife.
You can look at stories of Smith’s history — tales true and false — and criticise his behaviour. Early Mormonism did teach polygamy. Smith practised it. This was prohibited in 1890 but the church is not (as is alleged) in denial about this. A few years ago, it published a long essay confronting Smith’s polygamy and the ‘excruciating ordeal’ this presented for Emma, his first wife. But all this does not affect our faith now. The man we worship is Jesus.
Our main beliefs are expressed in 13 Articles of Faith, first published in 1842, which again sets us apart. We believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost but we don’t believe that they’re the same being. That means we differ with other Christian churches on the Trinity. Perhaps the most important Article about the way we live is that we ‘believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men’. These words are easy to say, but hard to live by.
And other faiths? ‘We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience,’ says Article 11. ‘We allow all men the same privilege: let them worship how, where, or what they may.’ In other words, we believe in religious freedom. We can expect a fair bit of scepticism for our religion, but we’re really not so different.