Cover Story

What they believe

"What they believe" Continued...

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

WORLD has written about both Mormonism and Obama’s religious background in the past. We revisit those subjects here as a brief—though not exhaustive—guide to approaching important Christian themes during the 2012 elections and beyond.

Mormon distinctives

When reporters attended a Mormon church service with Romney and his family in New Hampshire this summer, the congregation sang a familiar Christian hymn written in 1787: “How Firm a Foundation.”

In the first verse, the hymn writer declares: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” He then asks: “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”

According to Mormon teaching, God began saying much more in 1820, nearly 33 years after that hymn was written. That’s the year when a 14-year-old Joseph Smith said he had his first vision in Palmyra, N.Y.

Three years later, Smith said an angel named Moroni told him that ancient Hebrews in America had written a sacred history that was engraved in Egyptian dialect on tablets of gold and buried in a nearby hill. Mormons believe that Smith obtained those plates in 1827, and translated them into English using a rock with mystical powers. Smith said he compiled the teachings and published them in 1830 as The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon teaches that a group of Israelites traveled to America around 600 B.C. After Jesus’ resurrection, He visited America and chose disciples. Mormons consider Smith the prophet who restored the priesthood and the true church after it declined shortly after the New Testament era.

Since Mormons believe in continuing revelation, many doctrines—including polygamy and the barring of blacks from the priesthood—have come and gone through the declarations of “living prophets.” But other teachings have remained, and though Mormons profess to hold to many of the same beliefs as orthodox Christians (like the death and resurrection of Jesus), the differences remain stark.

Ask James Anderson, a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, about the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, and he says: “It’s hard to narrow down because Mormonism differs profoundly from orthodox Christianity on almost every point—its understanding of God, mankind, Jesus, the Bible, sin, salvation, and hell.”

Anderson’s list is a helpful outline for looking at some of the basic teachings of Mormonism that diverge from Christianity.

On God: Mormons believe that God the Father has an exalted body and dwells in heaven with a wife called Heavenly Mother. They don’t embrace the Trinity, but believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate Gods.

On Jesus: Mormons believe that Jesus was the first of billions of spirit children of the Heavenly Father, and that He was chosen to come to earth and become a savior for mankind. Former Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley once said, “The traditional Christ” of other churches “is not the Christ of whom I speak.”

On mankind: Every human being existed before his earthly life as a pre-mortal, spirit-child of God. At birth, spirit children take earthly bodies, and have an opportunity to progress and become like God. Families “sealed” in temple rituals will remain in the same relationships for eternity.

On the Bible: Mormons believe the Bible is a holy book, but they do not believe it is the only Word of God.

On sin: The fall of Adam and Eve—the first man and woman—was a blessing because it made them fully mortal and paved the way for pre-mortal spirits to be born to earthly parents. Without the fall, Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had children.

On salvation: Jesus died for the sins of mankind, and provides the way to salvation. But the highest degree of salvation—an eternity in the full presence of the Father and the Son—is a heaven reserved for those who follow Mormon teaching and do enough good works.

On heaven and hell: Mormons believe in three heavens—the highest is reserved for devout Mormons. Christ’s sacrifice atones for the sins of everyone, and most people will eventually go to some form of heaven. An eternal hell only exists for Satan, demons, and certain “sons of perdition.”

Despite its radical departure from orthodox Christianity, Mormonism is growing. That’s likely due in part to its emphasis on strong families, productive living, and care for the needs of others. “You could say they offer the American dream in the form of religion,” says Anderson. (Mormons also teach that homosexuality and abortion are wrong—views that align with evangelicals.)

Those similarities are worth noting, but downplaying the fundamental distinctions is harmful, says Anderson: “If you love people, then you have their best interests at heart. And to blur the boundaries between a biblical gospel and a false gospel is not loving at all.”

—with reporting by Marvin Olasky


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