Mormons are members of one of the most successful start-ups in American religious history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has about 11 million members, about half in the United States and half in other countries. LDS members consider their church to be the only true Christian church, but Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others have passed resolutions declaring that Mormons are not Christians.
The church had its origins in 1820 when 14-year-old Joseph Smith of Palmyra, N.Y., is said to have had his first vision. Then in 1823, according to Smith, the angel Moroni told him that ancient Hebrews in America had written a sacred history that was engraved in an Egyptian dialect on tablets of gold buried in a nearby hill. Mormons believe that four years later Smith obtained those plates and translated them into English, using a "Seer Stone," an egg-shaped rock that Smith said had mystical powers.
The Book of Mormon, published in 1830 and said to be translated from the original golden plates (which quickly disappeared), tells the story of Israelites led by a patriarch, Lehi, who purportedly came to America around 600 B.C. Two tribes descending from his sons Nephi and Laman fought repeatedly until the Lamanites defeated the Nephites around A.D. 385. Mormons say that Jesus after his resurrection came to America, performed miracles, and chose 12 Nephites to be his American 12 disciples.
Many have questioned the credibility of the Book of Mormon. Hundreds of its verses appear to be copied almost word for word from the King James Bible. Some Mormons say Joseph Smith was merely translating the Book of Mormon into language familiar to him. The Book of Mormon also mentions animals (such as horses) that did not arrive in the Americas until after 1492, and metals (such as steel) that were not made until recent times. It lists many mighty cities built in America, but archeologists have found none so far.
Nevertheless, believing Mormons testify that the Book and their church are true. They follow Joseph Smith and their current "living prophet," President Gordon B. Hinckley. Because their leaders say they are following Christ and receiving constant revelation, Mormons believe that to follow them is to follow Christ, and to believe their teachings is to know truth.
LDS members believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, each of whom achieved godhood from some lesser state. Joseph Smith taught that God the Father "was once a man like us; yea, that God Himself, the father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did." Mormons say that God the Father now lives in heaven with a wife (known as the Heavenly Mother) and with Christ their Son. So do "exalted" Mormons who become gods themselves. In the words of LDS leader Lorenzo Snow, "As God once was, man is. As God is, man may become."
President Hinckley has said, "The traditional Christ" of other churches "is not the Christ of whom I speak." His Christ was supposedly the first of billions of spirit children of the Heavenly Father. Mormons believe that long before creation all men and women who would live on Earth were Christ's spirit brothers and sisters in heaven and grew with Christ to spirit adulthood. At some point Christ was chosen over others to become a savior for his brothers and sisters. He became a God while others waited, some for many thousands of years, to become mortal descendants of Adam. Others still wait today.
According to LDS members, immediately after death the spirits of the dead go to a place sometimes called "spirit prison." After judgment they are assigned to one of three kingdoms. A Mormon husband and wife who have been married in a Mormon temple and done good works can become a god and goddess in the Celestial Kingdom, which is the highest degree of glory. They will have an eternal family, will be able to govern it as God governs His family, and will one day rule worlds as God rules this world. Mormons believe they can be of great help to those who have died by baptizing them by proxy: A Mormon can perform rituals for ancestors or others whom he would like to see in the Celestial Kingdom.
The LDS Church has retained many of the customs that churches generally practiced in the early 19th century. This means that Mormons have probably the best welfare program of any denomination in the country, with members donating to the church what they have saved through monthly fasts. Mormons have also registered strong opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and other practices to which many denominations have succumbed.