The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as Mormonism or the LDS church, is the fourth largest Christian denomination in the United States. It began as a homegrown American religion, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, and has become an international organization, with over 15 million members worldwide and roughly 6 million in the United States. Mormonism is based on the Book of Mormon, allegedly translated from an ancient North American religious text, which Mormons believe to be the word of god in addition to the Christian bible. It is a restorationist church, meaning that it claims to be the restoration of the original New Testament church as founded by Jesus.
LDS practices are based on the concept of a plan of salvation: a path humans must follow in order to attain paradise in the afterlife and enter the Celestial Kingdom (the highest degree of heaven) after the last judgment. This plan entails following all divine commandments, including worship of God (often called “Heavenly Father”), faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, accepting Joseph Smith and the current church president as prophets, teaching the gospel to others through missionary work, and doing good works while abandoning sinful practices. Daily life is an important aspect of this plan, and Mormons are expected to abide by church guidelines designed to promote traditional family values, health, and general good behavior.
One such set of rules is the Word of Wisdom, a dietary code that prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated drinks. Mormons also observe a monthly Fast Sunday by skipping two meals and making an equivalent charitable donation. Monday nights are dedicated to “Family Home Evening,” intended to encourage bonding through fun and games as well as prayer and study. Indeed, the family unit is of crucial importance, as Mormons believe that marriages that are “sealed” in the temple will endure eternally in the afterlife, and that only sealed families will become “exalted” and rule their own worlds within the Celestial Kingdom. As part of this focus on traditional nuclear families, a doctrine called the Law of Chastity forbids all sexual activity outside the context of heterosexual marriage. The official church position on homosexuality is that same-sex attraction is not sinful, but acting on it is, as with other forms of temptation. The church promotes traditional gender roles, especially in the context of marriage and family, based on the doctrine that gender is an eternal characteristic of the soul. Although Mormon women are encouraged to be homemakers, they actually work outside the home in the same proportion as the general population. Still, Mormons are definitely known for having large families; in the US, 21% have 3 or more children, compared to only 9% of the population as a whole, and nearly three-quarters of American Mormons are married.
The sealing ceremony (also known as temple marriage or celestial marriage) is one of the “saving ordinances” believed to be necessary for eventual exaltation. These rituals are performed in temples, sacred buildings which are only open to members in good standing (regular Sunday worship takes place in a meetinghouse or chapel, and is open to all). Other ordinances include baptism, confirmation, endowment, and the sealing of children to parents. The endowment ceremony is a prerequisite to missionary service and temple marriage, and includes symbolic washing and anointing, instruction in details of the plan of salvation, and putting on a temple garment. The garment (sometimes called “magic underwear” by skeptics) consists of an undershirt and knee-length shorts, which recipients are commanded to wear under their clothing as a constant reminder of their faith. It is also useful in the context of modesty, since Mormons are not supposed to wear clothing that would expose any part of the garment.
Mormonism is notorious for its association with polygamy, or “plural marriage,” which was common among the Mormons who settled in Utah in the 19th century, but was officially repudiated by the church in 1890. The practice was controversial from the beginning. Founder Joseph Smith was secretly sealed to multiple women (probably including girls as young as fourteen) but little is known about the details of these marriages, since during his lifetime he publicly denied the practice. After Smith died and Brigham Young became president of the church, plural marriage was officially sanctioned from 1852 until 1890. During this period, between 20% and 30% of Mormon families were polygamous. In 1890, in response to mounting political pressure, the church issued a manifesto advising members to end the practice in accordance with US laws. This enabled Utah to become a state in 1896, but also gave rise to the Mormon fundamentalist movement among the small minority who refused to give up plural marriage.
Historically, the LDS church has also been criticized for racism. Initially, the priesthood was reserved for whites, although anyone could be baptized regardless of race or ethnicity. The church eventually began to recognize this as a problem during the 1960’s, when the expansion of missionary work into African nations, Brazil, and the Caribbean coincided with the Civil Rights Movement here in the US. The policy was officially changed in 1978, and the priesthood is now open to all male Mormons.
Another controversial Mormon practice is that of posthumous baptism, which has been criticized as insensitive, especially in the case of Holocaust victims. Mormons believe in performing baptisms and the other saving ordinances by proxy on behalf of deceased people who did not have the opportunity to receive them during their lifetimes. While they consider it most important to do this for one’s own ancestors, they also try to perform ordinances for as many people as possible. They use the names of the deceased gathered by their genealogy website FamilySearch for this purpose, as well as famous people from history and names from public records. Jewish organizations have repeatedly asked the LDS church to stop baptizing Holocaust victims; they consider it an insult to those who were killed because of their religion. Accordingly, since 1995 the LDS church has removed more than 300,000 names of Holocaust victims from its databases, but they have not managed to stop the practice entirely; in 2012, a Mormon temple in the Dominican Republic allegedly baptized Anne Frank for the twelfth time. The church maintains that the dead cannot be coerced into becoming Mormon against their will—rather, the ordinances are offered so that souls who choose to convert in the afterlife may accept them.
A few statistics on Mormons in America:
The Mormon population is still heavily concentrated in the Western US, especially in Utah, where LDS church headquarters are located. Mormons are actually a majority in Utah—based on official LDS membership numbers and 2012 US census data, 68% of Utah’s population is Mormon. 35% of American Mormons live in Utah. They also form a significant portion of the population in the surrounding states, especially Idaho and Nevada. The area extending north and south from Utah is nicknamed the Mormon Corridor, analogous to the Bible Belt.
According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, Mormons make up 1.7% of the U.S. population—roughly equivalent to the number of Jews, and more numerous than Buddhists, Muslims, or Hindus in America.