Food For Thought:
The Mormon Moment
Sunday, November 19, 2000
& Consumer Protection
for Spiritual Seekers"
NHNE: The Mormon Moment
Sunday, November 19, 2000
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"If current trends hold, experts say Latter-day Saints could number
265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman Catholics among
--- U.S. News & World Report, 11/11/2000
The above quote, which comes from the current cover story of U.S. NEWS
& WORLD REPORT, deals with the rise and spread of Mormonism. An
important list of links that support and challenge Mormonism are included
at the end of this report. For a particularly striking contrast, visit
the PBS website, "American Prophet" (http://www.pbs.org/americanprophet/pbs-documentary.html),
which appears to shamelessly champion the official Mormon story, and
"Investigating Mormonism" (http://www.exmormon.org/tract2.htm),
which systematically challenges the history and teachings of Mormonism,
as well as the character and claims of its founder, Joseph Smith.
--- David Sunfellow
THE MORMON MOMENT
THE CHURCH OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS GROWS BY LEAPS AND BOUNDS
By Jeffery L. Sheler
With Peter Hadfield in Tokyo and Rena Singer in South Africa
U.S.News & World Report
November 11, 2000
The gleaming white spire of luna pearl rises high above the tree line,
topped by a golden angel that glitters in the hot Texas sun. Deep inside
the air-conditioned chambers below, white-clothed Mormons pad about
in luxuriously decorated rooms, performing secret rituals aimed at securing
eternal rewards for themselves, their families, and their ancestors.
To the casual observer, this new temple of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints may seem strangely out of place in a Texas bastion
of Baptists and Big Oil. But the recent dedication of the massive $17
million edifice in a northwest Houston suburb, like the 31 other Mormon
temples that have opened so far this year (bringing to 100 the number
of Mormon temples worldwide), is a tangible sign of the rising fortunes
of this unique American religious movement. Once an obscure and isolated
sect, born and bred in controversy, the Salt Lake City-based church
is finding a home in the least likely places, from Houston to Helsinki
and from Tampa to Tokyo.
By almost any measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
is one of the world's richest and fastest-growing religious movements.
In the 170 years since its founding in upstate New York, the LDS church
has sustained the most rapid growth rate of any new faith group in American
history. Since World War II, its ranks have expanded more than 10-fold,
with a worldwide membership today of 11 millionmore than half outside
the United States. In North America, Mormons already outnumber Presbyterians
and Episcopalians combined. If current trends hold, experts say Latter-day
Saints could number 265 million worldwide by 2080, second only to Roman
Catholics among Christian bodies. Mormonism, says Rodney Stark, professor
of sociology and religion at the University of Washington, "stands
on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth
since the prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert."
Church leaders express little surprise. The LDS message "strikes
a spiritual resonance in people," says Elder Neal Maxwell, one
of the church's 12 Apostles, a body of lay leaders near the top of the
LDS hierarchy. Indeed, say religion experts, Mormonism's unique doctrines
along with its emphasis on family and wholesome living may help explain
why so many spiritual seekers are drawn to the LDS church. But there
are other, more mundane reasons. Among them, say the experts, are an
aggressive missionary program that enlists more than 60 percent of all
young Mormons; a powerful hierarchy of lay leaders who maintain organizational
discipline and marshal the church's vast resources with a businesslike
efficiency unrivaled in other religious movements; and a highly motivated
membership that submits in overwhelming numbers to the church's strict
moral code and to its taxing demands on their time, money, and allegiance.
"We have a demanding religion," says Gordon B. Hinckley, the
church's president, prophet, and chief spiritual leader, "and that's
one of the things that attracts people to this church."
Being flush with cash doesn't hurt either. The church keeps a tight
lid on its financial records, but bits and pieces of information extracted
over the years by journalists and former church members offer a tantalizing
glimpse into the depth and breadth of the Mormon financial empire. In
their 1999 Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, journalists Richard
N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling estimate the church's assets at $25 billion
to $30 billion, and annual revenue approaching $6 billion, at least
$5.3 billion of which comes from member contributions (officials say
tithingthe giving of 10 percent of one's incomeremains the
primary source of church revenues). In recent years, the church has
divested itself of some commercial assets, including banks, hospitals,
and manufacturing plants. But it continues to amass farm and ranch land,
is heavily invested in stocks and securities, and operates a far-flung
media empire that includes two television stations, more than a dozen
radio stations, and a newspaper. Besides its opulent temples, traditionally
located in major Mormon population centers, the church owns and operates
more than 12,000 local churches, or meetinghouses, throughout the world.
Its real estate holdings are valued in the billions.
Yet as Harold Bloom noted in his 1992 book, The American Religion,
beyond the inner circle of the Mormon hierarchy, "no one really
knows what portion of the liquid wealth in America's portfolios is held
by the Latter-day Saints Church." Even so, it is clear, wrote Bloom,
that "Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington
to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in 50."
That influence has been hard won. In its early years, the LDS church
was widely regarded by outsiders with suspicion and outright disdain.
Its members, many of whom practiced "the divine principle"
of polygamy, were run out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The movement's
leader and founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by an angry
mob in 1844. Years later, the stronghold where the Mormon faithful had
settled, now Utah, was denied statehood until after the church officially
abandoned its practice of polygamy in 1890.
Although violent opposition has long since faded, the church has continued
to face almost unrelenting controversy over its origins. From the beginning,
critics have disputed and ridiculed Smith's claim that an angel led
him to a set of golden plates hidden in a woods near his home in Palmyra,
N.Y. The plates were said to contain the sacred history of an ancient
Israelite civilization in North America, along with teachings said to
have come from Jesus during a post-Resurrection visit to America. Smith
published his translation as the Book of Mormon.
Detractors have dismissed Smith's story as religious fantasy and the
Book of Mormon as coarse fiction filled with clumsily reworked passages
from the King James Version of the Bible. They argue that there is no
archaeological evidence of an ancient Israelite sojourn in Americaalthough
some Mormon scholars say a link may exist to the ancient Mayan culture.
Other critics contend that Smith, a former Mason, drew upon Masonic
rituals rather than divine revelation when he instituted Mormon temple
But today, religion experts note, the LDS church is widely respected
for its devotion to faith and family, and its pioneer past is celebrated
as an integral part of the American saga. Such a dramatic shift in public
perception has not come easily or by accident. In 1995, leaders hired
an international public-relations firm to combat what they saw as unfair
characterizations of Mormons in the media. One of its first efforts
was to encourage the redesign of the church's logo to emphasize the
centrality of Jesus Christ in LDS theology. "We don't see it so
much as PR," says Maxwell, "as trying to define ourselves,
rather than . . . letting others define us." Church headquarters
is gearing up for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and plans
to take full advantage of the limelight.
The afterlife. Savvy media relations aside, LDS leaders emphasize the
church's unique doctrines and beliefs. Among LDS teachings, say church
leaders and others, none has proved to be more attractive to potential
converts than the church's view of the afterlife. Mormons teach that
only "sons of perdition"lapsed Mormons who betray the
church and its teachingsface eternal punishment. Everyone else
will at least make it into the "telestial kingdom," a sort
of third-rate Paradise where one spends eternity apart from God. The
most faithful attain the "celestial kingdom," where they commune
directly with God and may themselves become gods and inherit universes
to rule and populate with their own spiritual offspring.
Even those who die outside the faith will get a second chance in the
afterlife to hear and respond to the Gospel, according to Mormon doctrine,
and will receive eternal rewards if they accept it. To pave the way
for such postmortem redemption, Mormons believe they can undergo proxy
baptism on behalf of ancestors who died as nonbelievers. Mormon temples
are typically busy six days a week with the comings and goings of members
taking part in the ritual. The church's world-famous genealogical library
in Salt Lake City has hundreds of millions of microfilmed records, many
of them available on the Internet, to help church members identify non-Mormon
ancestors for proxy baptism.
A strong focus on traditional families is a central feature of Mormon
teaching, one many converts find appealing. As in other faiths, marriage
is sacred and couples are encouraged to bear children and build strong,
stable homes. But Mormons also teach that families can be bound together
"for time and eternity" by undergoing a special "sealing"
ritual in the temple. In the here and now, families are expected to
conduct once-a-week "family home evenings" during which parents
and children play, pray, and study Scripture together. Most local congregations,
or "wards," sponsor Scout troops, youth recreation programs,
and other family activities.
For a devout familylike David and Mary Driggs and their four children,
of Salt Lake Citychurch activities dominate the week, from worship,
classes, and committee work on Sundays to youth activities, temple visits,
and volunteering at church-sponsored charities during the rest of the
week. "It's no burden," says Driggs, 38, a University of Utah
fundraiser and fifth-generation Mormon. Because so many church activities
involve the entire family, he says, "it means we're able to spend
more time together, not less. And it gives my life and my family's life
tremendous order and peace and blessings."
Faithful Mormons also are expected to adhere to a strict moral code
that, among other things, emphasizes modest dress and rules out gambling,
premarital and extramarital sex, and the consumption of alcohol, tobacco,
or caffeinated beverages. The church's heavy emphasis on a "wholesome
lifestyle" is so pervasive, one academic observer wryly notes,
that while many of their young peers get into trouble experimenting
with sex, drugs, and alcohol, when Mormon teenagers rebel, "they
sneak off and drink a Pepsi."
Despite a birthrate higher than the national average, church officials
say more than two thirds of new members each year are converts, making
the Mormon church one of the most aggressive and successful at proselytizing.
Last year, the church dispatched 58,600 missionariesabout three
fourths of them 19- or 20-year-old malesacross the United States
and to 119 other countries. Each spent from three to eight weeks in
"boot camp" at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah,
or at one of 14 satellite centers in other countries, where they study
foreign languages and polish their door-to-door skills. Then they set
out in pairs, at their own expense, on two-year assignments of teaching
and preaching. Last year Mormon missionaries won more than 306,000 converts.
Inspiration. Beyond a bountiful harvest of new recruits, the church's
massive missionary program pays the Mormon church another important
dividend. During a recent Sunday service at the LDS 7th Ward in Fruit
Heights, Utah, a bedroom community of tract houses and neatly manicured
lawns some 23 miles north of Salt Lake City, 21-year-old Brett Jonesjust
back from a two-year mission to Francetold how he helped convert
a Russian banker living in Paris. "I was fascinated to see someone
so influential accept the Gospel," Jones said. "When I started
out on my mission, I really believed that the church was true. I came
back knowing it was true." Indeed, says Stark, the Mormon missionary
program may well have "more impact on Latter-day Saint commitment
than it does on LDS conversion."
At least part of the Mormons' international success is the result of
the church's efforts to nurture good relations with government authorities.
Unlike some religious groups that have been known to circumvent government
resistance by smuggling Bibles or dispatching missionaries under cover,
says LDS apostle Maxwell, "we go in the front door or we don't
go in at all." But the church's expansion has not been without
growing pains. At the end of World War II, a renewed and heightened
emphasis on missionary work sparked a sudden growth spurt that the church's
bureaucracy was not ready for. By the 1960s, the church was getting
more members by conversion than by birth, creating a huge demand for
new meetinghouses, more support services, and greater attention to training
members unfamiliar with traditional Mormon ways. As local and national
church leaders struggled, says Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history
and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis,
church decision making often suffered from a lack of internal communication
and coordination. The Mormon church faced the prospect of devolving
into "little more than an institutional umbrella" over a family
of diverse congregations.
Determined to prevent the "disintegration of Mormonism into a
diversity of Mormonisms," says Shipps, the LDS in the 1970s installed
a more centralized system that placed nearly absolute power over church
life in the hands of the top LDS officers. The result of this "correlation"
process, says Shipps, was not only a more efficient and coordinated
church bureaucracy but "a more standardized and simplified brand
of Mormonism" that emphasizes families, temple work, and the pre-eminence
of the Book of Mormon. But the "cookie cutter" effect of correlation,
notes Shipps, has meant less tolerance for diversity and dissent. A
move among some LDS scholars in the mid-1980s, for example, to critically
re-examine the church's history and origins drew a decisive crackdown
from church headquarters, resulting in the termination of at least one
Brigham Young University professor and the departure of several others.
Members who publicly question church teachings or criticize church leaders
risk excommunication. All of this has had "a chilling effect on
academic inquiry" within the church, says Elbert Peck, editor of
Sunstone, an independent Mormon journal. Scholars have become more circumspect
in their historical pursuits. Their work goes on, says Peck, "but
the joy and enthusiasm are no longer there."
Even now, LDS leaders pay close attention to the potential pitfalls
of the church's rapid international growth. Some of it even hits close
to home. Utah ranks fourth among the states in population of Pacific
Islandersimmigrants or descendants of immigrants from Tonga, Samoa,
and other islands where Mormon missionaries historically have been active.
Many came to the Salt Lake City area out of religious devotion. But
their assimilation has not been easy. School dropout rates, unemployment,
and domestic violence are growing problems. And while Pacific Islanders
make up less than 2 percent of Salt Lake City's population, police say
they account for 9 percent of its youth-gang members.
In Africa, says Dennis Simmons, a corporate lawyer from Las Vegas who
until recently headed church operations in southern and eastern Africa,
the church already has lost control over the process. In some villages
in Mozambique, Malawi, and Angola, he says, small pockets of Mormons
are practicing without the services of any official LDS organization.
Some church members warn that polygamy may come back to haunt the church
as it expands under conditions like this in countries that have their
own polygamist traditions. "The problem will come," says Peck,
"as those people find polygamy in our Scriptures and ask, 'Why
Mormons number some 114,000 and counting in Japan, and many openly
participate in annual observances of o-bona "Festival of the
Dead," with some Buddhist trappings, when the souls of ancestors
are believed to return to their graves. At the Mormon temple in Tokyo,
the entrance is marked with an ishidoro, an ornamental stone lantern
typically found in Shinto temples. But church officials say such observances
are culturalmuch like Halloween in America. When Mormons participate
in o-bon, says Norman D. Shumway, an American LDS elder based in Japan,
"they do not do so because of any religious significance, but rather
as traditional, cultural events." The church in Japan, he says,
"does not make concessions for the sake of cultural adaptation."
Yet there is clear precedent for the LDS church to alter its teachings
in the face of strong cultural tides in order to survive and flourish.
It abandoned the practice of polygamywhich had been instituted
as a "divine principle" by Smith and other church leadersin
the face of congressional opposition to Utah's statehood. And only in
1978, as the church began making inroads into Africa and South America
and amid strong pressure at home, did then LDS President Spencer W.
Kimball receive a divine revelation declaring blacks eligible for the
Mormon priesthooda title bestowed on all faithful males. In the
aftermath, church leaders even revised the Book of Mormon to eliminate
a passage deemed particularly offensive to blacks.
Big in Africa. Those adjustments made a world of difference. In South
Africa, where the church historically had been a white institution,
the church's black membership has skyrocketed since 1978. Within 10
years officials expect a majority of LDS members in South Africa to
be black. Now the church faces other obstacles. In Africa, says LDS
leader Simmons, "some husbands tell us not to teach their wives.
They say, 'Teach me, and if I join, she'll join.' " Some village
chiefs, Simmons says, have expressed the same attitude toward their
tribes. "They say, 'I'll decide if it's a good idea.' But we tell
them it's an individual decision and that we have to teach everyone."
So what will happen if the LDS church continues to grow at this rate?
While their wholesome lifestyle and careful attention to families may
seem to make Mormons ideal neighbors, in Utah and other parts of the
West where LDS influence is strongest, not everyone appreciates the
result. Close-knit Mormon families often result in close-knit Mormon
communities, and in places where the LDS church is dominant, non-Mormons
sometimes feel left out. Amy Rowland, 39, a Roman Catholic, remembers
as a teenager when her family moved to the Salt Lake City suburb of
Cottonwood Heights from Wyoming in 1974, she and her siblings often
felt ostracized by the Mormon majority at school. "At first they
invited us to their homes or to social events," Rowland recalls.
"But once they realized we weren't going to convert, they weren't
interested in us, and we were left pretty much alone. Those were difficult
years." Now, Rowland and her husband live in a more diverse downtown
neighborhood and send their 8-year-old son to a private school where
Mormons are in the minority. "It works much better this way,"
Being non-Mormon also can be a drawback in the LDS-dominated business
community. "I go into a business meeting and someone asks, 'What
ward are you in?' " says Claudia O'Grady, a housing executive in
Salt Lake City. "As soon as they discover I'm not Mormon, a barrier
goes up. I have to establish a level of trust that would be automatically
assumed if I were LDS."
In the political arena, LDS leaders are outspoken in opposing what
they call negative influences on families, such as pornography, abortion,
gambling, and alcohol abuse. In California, Alaska, and Hawaii, they
mobilized Mormon voters against propositions to legalize gay marriage.
And in Utah, where Mormons are 76 percent of the population and dominate
state and local governments, liquor laws are among the most restrictive
in the nation. Outside of restaurants, which may serve alcohol only
with food, only state-licensed private clubs can serve liquor by the
glass, and new licenses are difficult to obtain. Packaged liquor is
sold exclusively in state-run stores. "It's frustrating sometimes,"
says Vickie McCall, the only non-Mormon on the state's Alcohol Beverage
Control Commission, "when you have people making these decisions
who have never had a drink in their life." At the same time, the
American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the church's $8.1 million
acquisition of a public plaza next to its headquarters in Salt Lake
City where smoking, skateboarding, and distributing non-LDS literature
will be forbidden. Such restrictions, argues an ACLU spokesman, would
turn the space into "a little bit of Beijing."
The LDS church also continues to run up against other religious groups
that challenge the Mormon claim to be a Christian church. Earlier this
year, for example, the 8.4 million-member United Methodist Church declared
that Mormonism "by self-definition, does not fit within the bounds
of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith." Mormon
leaders readily concede that LDS doctrine differs substantially from
that of traditional Christianity, which, they believe, went badly astray
soon after the death of Jesus's Apostles. Those differences, says church
spokesman Michael Otterson, "are an essential part of our message
to the world, that the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored in this
latter-day period of the Earth's history" through Mormon teachings.
Nonetheless, LDS officials get rankled by the accusation that Mormons
are not Christians. Says Otterson, "We revere Jesus Christ as the
Son of God, the Redeemer and Savior of the world."
God's image. Critics contend that while Latter-day Saints may use much
the same vocabulary as mainstream Christians, they frequently attach
radically different meaning to the terms. While both Mormons and non-Mormon
Christians accept the biblical statement that humans are created in
God's image, for example, Christians traditionally have interpreted
that to mean that humans, like God, are free moral agents. Mormons,
on the other hand, teach that God has a physical body, is married, and
begets children; humans are made quite literally in God's image. Mormon
founder Smith even declared in 1844 that God "is an exalted Man"
who "was once as we are now" and that humans, in the afterlife,
may progress to become gods who create and sustain universes of their
It's unlikely that conflicts between Mormons and other religious groups
will go away anytime soon, as the church continues to expand. And so
far, experts say, there is little reason to expect a reversal of Mormonism's
fortunes. "The nation," wrote The American Religion author
Bloom, "will not always be only 2 percent Mormon. The Saints outlive
the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups,
and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. . . . Their future
IMPORTANT MORMON-RELATED LINKS:
Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints:
Church of Jesus Christ of the Reorganized Latter Day Saints:
All About Mormons:
PBS Documentary, "American Prophet", on Joseph Smith:
PBS: Brief Biography of Joseph Smith:
PBS: Brief History of the Church:
(A point-by-point challenge of key Mormon tenants and historical claims):
Utah Lighthouse Ministry:
Recovery from Mormonism:
Personal Accounts of Leaving Mormonism;
The Dark Side Of Morman Polygamy:
Extensive Links to Other Mormon-Related Websites:
LDS Internet Directory:
Ex-Mormon News Groups:
Mormon News Group:
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The mission of NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE) is to answer humankind's oldest,
most perplexing questions: Who are we? Where are we from? What is the
origin and purpose of life? Instead of relying on ancient or contemporary
wisdom, or the knowledge of isolated experts, we are building a global
network of seekers from all walks of life, from all parts of the world,
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and resources to unravel life's great mysteries.
We also believe that our planet is passing through a time of profound
change and are seeking to create a global community of like-minded people
that can safely pass through whatever changes may come our way and help
give birth to a new way of life on our planet.
David Sunfellow, Founder & Publisher
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