Mormonism: When Jesus visited America and other beliefs

The Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Utah The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints was founded in 1830 and is now based in Utah

Related Stories

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) - the official name of the Mormon church - was founded in the US by Joseph Smith in 1830. From an original group of six it has grown to a worldwide following of 14 million.

Mormons believe their church is a restoration of the Church as conceived by Jesus and that the other Christian churches have gone astray.

In worship, Mormons use both the Bible and their own text, the Book of Mormon, which tells the story of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the American Continent - including a visit by the risen Jesus to the people of the New World.

"It possesses a fundamentally different theological rationale from traditional Christianity," Douglas Davies, professor of theology and religion at Durham University told the BBC.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)

"Mormons believe God(s) and human beings are of the same basic stuff but at different levels of progressive development. Everything that is, has always existed. There was no initial 'creation'."

Mormon doctrine is anti-abortion. The church is also opposed to gay marriage and believes homosexuality is a sin. Unmarried sexual acts, pornography, gambling, tobacco, consuming alcohol, tea, coffee, and the use of drugs are also frowned upon.

According to the church, Joseph Smith received a revelation from God in the 1820s - first through an angel, and then through a book inscribed on golden plates. He then translated the plates into the Book of Mormon.

The formal foundation of the church came in Fayette, New York State, in 1830 and rapid growth followed. Just seven years after the church was set up it was sending missionaries across the Atlantic.

Mormon persecution

Many of the modern Mormon community in America can trace their ancestry back to that time including Mitt Romney, the 2012 US Presidential candidate whose great-great-grandparents Miles and Elizabeth were converted in Preston in Lancashire and emigrated to the USA to swell the ranks of the early community.

Mormons, marriage and polygamy

Early Mormonism encouraged polygamy (multiple marriage) - often a source of friction between followers and non-Mormon groups.

It stemmed from Joseph Smith's writings that being in a multiple-marriage would give followers a better position in the afterlife.

But the outside world was hostile and, after increasingly punitive laws and a co-ordinated federal campaign against polygamy, the Church gave way in order to preserve its existence.

In 1890, following a revelation to President Wilford Woodruff, a proclamation called the Manifesto banned new plural marriages.

"Mainstream 'Utah' focused Mormons gave up polygamy over the 1880 to 1920 period," Prof Davies told the BBC.

"Some small groups of 'fundamentalist' Mormons continued the practice as something necessary for ultimate blessings in the afterlife: these groups are not accepted by the Utah Saints."

According to Prof Davies, the belief that Jesus would return to America, coupled with extreme poverty at the time, led to the popularity of the Mormons. Community focus was also a popular aspect of the faith for early converts.

"They offered pragmatic social-community support for 'this worldly achievement', at a time when the US had little by way of 'collective welfare'," Prof Davies said.

Most Mormon families still spend about three hours with their local community each Sunday.

The most striking elements of Mormonism today, Prof Davies said, are the "active involvement of large numbers of men and boys in the church", its "strong lay-led organization" and a sense of "total immersion in a friendship-community group".

This contrasts sharply with life in the early years of the movement when persecution was a major problem for Mormons.

During Smith's short life he was arrested and held for his beliefs more than 30 times and was once tarred and feathered.

On 27 June, 1844, Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were shot after being mobbed by a group of 150 men while they were jail in Illinois on charges of riot and treason. He was 38.

Living prophets

After his death the new church leader, Brigham Young, decided that the church's future lay in the American West and moved its followers en masse from the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah.

Famous Mormons

Famous Mormons (from left to right) Brandon Flowers, Mitt Romney and Donny Osmond

At Young's direction, Salt Lake City was built. It is still the main headquarters of the LDS where the church's president, Thomas Monson - who is considered a living prophet - is based.

Mormons have no professional clergy but wards - church districts - are led by bishops. Bishops are assisted by members of the church's Aaronic and Melchizdek priesthoods. Sunday communal worship is lay-led and does not involve ceremonials or priests. Mitt Romney himself spent time as a lay clergyman and is a member of the Mormon priesthood.

The church has a strong evangelical focus, but is not evangelical in the same sense as evangelical Christian churches, according to Prof Davies.

"Conversion is not being 'born-again'. Mormons tend to avoid born-again language. They speak of gaining testimony that this is the true church," he told the BBC.

Missionary work remains important to Mormon life and about 40% of its young men do missionary service, usually serving for two years from the age of 19.

Once the service is completed, men are given the title of Elder; women serve for 18 months and take the title Sister.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


BBC iPlayer
  • Sian WilliamsSunday Morning Live

    Globetrotter and occasional lumberjack Michael Palin talks about his life - and The Life of Brian

Get Inspired


More Activities >

Copyright © 2016 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.