History, fantasies and realities: who truly are the Mormons?
Translated by Meyriam Bouali, proofread by Natacha Perrin
The Mormon movement – officially called as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -Widely unknown in Europe, is now the 4th Church in the United States. Let’s relate its movement history and analyze its challenges, through the genesis of its emergence and the setting of its dogmas.
On November 4, 2019, in Sorona State, Mexico, 9 members of the Mormon community were murdered by drug dealers. This shooting led to a response from the highest stage of the US government as the murdered Mormons were Americans. Besides, the history of Mormon church blends with the US’s history: it is driven by the sentiment of Manifest destiny, mystical research of a Western promised land, but also it raises some social contemporary related issues.
Joseph Smith, modern prophet of the Mormon religion
Mormonism is a recent revealed religion, what makes it peculiar. It has its own rites, holy books, as well as its own prophet and founder: Joseph Smith. He was born in 1805 in the Vermont State, USA ,, and was a young farmer who has been pretending to receive religious visitations since 1820’s. At that time, the US were experiencing the Second Great Awakening, which was a period of strong religious tumult. Religious characters included in the list of revelations from the young farmer were numerous: Jesus-Christ, Moses, a few apostles from the New Testament, but also a mysterious celestial messenger, someone called Moroni.
Moroni is a core character from the Mormon belief: he is the angel who has allegedly given to Joseph Smith, the « golden plates ». According to the prophet claims, they are extremely precious old religious annals. They are written in Egyptian alphabet, and are meant to include truths of the highest importance, which have been lost for centuries. They especially relate the presumed spread of Christianity in the pre-Columbian America. The translation of those plates by Joseph Smith led to the writing of the Book of Mormon. This book is supposed to complete the Bible and is central in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s teaching.
Salt Lake City, the Mormon’s Jerusalem
Joseph Smith quickly gathered a community of believers dedicated to his new religion. But the believers of the new faith have been quickly persecuted. They had to move from one state to another: Ohio, Missouri, and then Illinois. There, they built a city, called Nauvoo. They also built their first Mormon temple. But the acts of violence against them continued. In 1844, Joseph Smith were beaten to death by the rioters and the temple was burnt down. and they also burnt the temple. As a consequence, Mormons wandered for years and years in the Great American West. In 1847, Mormons ended up settling in the Salt Lake City region, in the current state of Utah. Mormons pioneers have then founded Salt Lake City. Nowadays, the city is still the international capital of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After ensuring its survival, the Mormon community established laws and dogmas. Ideologically, the Restorationism movement, which means that it pretends to reconstitute the early church, the one founded by the first disciples of Jesus. Moreover, the Mormons identify themselves as Hebrews. The history of both communities certainly shows a lot of similarities, such as the topic of Exodus. The first Mormons, hence, had to cross the desert of Western America. They found the promised land to settle in, only after a few years. Likely, the Hebrews who left Egypt had to wander around for 40 years in the Sinai desert before going back to Canaan country, according to the Bible.
Polygamy: first allowed then reproved
The polygamy practice is a cliché frequently associated with the Mormons. Joseph Smith himself was polygamous. If the Mormons authorities have indeed encouraged polygamy at first, it was mainly for pro-natalist reasons. The polygamous marriage has been banned since 1890. The polygamy practice is even punishable of excommunication. Nowadays, the last polygamous and fundamentalist Mormon communities are not part of the official Church.
Furthermore, the proselytism is the core point of the Mormon project. I have studied in Salt Lake City for a year. I have been personally able to experience this myself. One day, I walked around the temple of Salt Lake City, and two young members of the Church approached me, they were actually missionaries. First, it was a common talk but then, it quickly moved to questions about my spirituality and my personal belief in God. Before leaving, both interlocutors ensured to give me a lot of flyers and a French version of the book of Mormon.
However, in France and more broadly in Europe, the Mormon Church is poorly established. The Mormons are usually confused with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even the Amish. In addition, the various prohibitions do not encourage religious conversions. The Mormonism, besides traditional taboos related to sexuality, forbids any exciting product material. It includes alcohol and cigarettes but also coffee or tea.
In contrast, in Latin America, the Mormonism quickly spreads around, through the US missionaries. When they turn 21, many young US Mormons fly out to the Caribbean or South America in order to spread the Good Word. Mormonism is also very present in some Pacific Islands, where sometimes 10% of the population is Mormon, which is a global record. The church claims today approximately 15 million of believers, thanks to all the spiritually conquered territories.
Mormons facing modernity: between conservatism and shy opening
The Mormon church consists of a highly conservative theological corpus and dogmatical origins about the core societal subjects. For a long time, the Mormon church has thus undertake their racist positions. Religious leaders justified segregation or even slavery, by using religious arguments, while the interbreeding was strictly prohibited. Until 1978, the church has denied black Mormons to become priest. However, the Mormon church has since completely shifted its position about this, simultaneously to the Mormonism development in Africa – mainly in Nigeria. Any form of racism is now highly condemned.
Regarding homosexuality, the Mormon church has a mixed position. Having sex with another person of the same sex is a serious sin, liable to excommunication. Nevertheless, the Church is now against any form of discrimination towards gay people. It does not condemn the lesbian « tendency », and officially admits that it is possible to be Mormon and gay as long as this orientation does not imply carnal intercourses.
The Mormon church now faces a dilemma. If its dogmatism preserves its consistency and unity, the movement also needs to open up in order to adjust to the contemporary world, and continues to ensure conversions across world regions with various cultures.