Recent Research: Exploring Mormonism

joseph-smith-vision
The book and podcast Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy has become the work most associated with me outside of what is really my normal life—my family and my parish. It’s not the only thing I’ve done, but it does seem to be the one I’m most known for now in my little corner of the Orthodox Anglophonic world.

There was a while where I wished that this wasn’t so; I didn’t like to see myself as a “one-trick pony,” so to speak. But the truth is that what drove me to write that work and to revise and expand it over the past year (new edition out in not too long, I hope!) is really a very big part of my personality. I love reading about other religious traditions, trying to figure out what makes them work, why people join them, why they leave them, why they just keep going in them, etc. I love learning their stories. I once said to my dad about O&H that I’d always loved encyclopedias, so I eventually just wrote my own (a description which is not quite accurate of the book, but somewhere nearby).

So, since I’m done with the new O&H, I’ve been thinking if there’s anything I might like to work on that’s related but not quite the same thing. And while I haven’t made any decisions yet as to a set project, the religion that has come back to me again and again as one I would like to understand better is what might be the quintessentially American religion—Mormonism, especially as expressed by its main denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

My explorations might just end up being for my own edification, but I’ve also thought about writing a new book treating the subject more thoroughly, doing some of the same kind of thing I do in O&H—try to understand the religion’s history, major events, major figures, teachings and internal culture, and then offering my perspective as an Orthodox Christian. The difference here is that I’d have a lot more space to go in-depth.

I’m interested in knowing if this project would interest you. Would you like to read such a book?

I’m also interested in hearing from current or former Mormons. If you converted to the LDS, why? If you left, why? How did being a member work or not work?

What interests me about Mormonism is not just its Americanness. Rather, what I find compelling about it is its story. It provides for its followers a story that they can enter into, a narrative that defines their lives and helps them to make sense of them.

There is, of course, a lot to critique about that narrative from an Orthodox (and even orthodox) Christian point of view. What are the real origins of the Book of Mormon? Did Joseph Smith really have the visions he claimed to? Are the changes made to LDS doctrine and practice by Brigham Young and other subsequent Mormon leaders legitimately in continuity with early Mormonism? And so on.

One thing I’ve noticed about whenever I talk about Mormonism, especially online, is that non-Mormons often will respond primarily with ridicule. They find the narrative incredible, Mormons credulous, etc. And certainly these things don’t lend themselves to belief by people who do not already believe them or are not in a place in life where a religious conversion can happen.

But shouldn’t our approach to other religions be sympathetic even while critical? Of course I do not believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, nor were his successors. But I don’t have to poke fun at the people who do, because they believe these things sincerely and are not likely to be deterred from that belief by ridicule. And for that matter, the claims of pretty much any religion are incredible to those who are not committed to them. That the uncreated God should become a created man while yet remaining God was nonsense to both Jews and Gentiles in the first century, not to mention, to many heretics who followed.

I find something compelling about the Mormon story, so I want to understand it better, to see why it drives its followers to such devotion and to be so inspired by it. I’ve actually visited a couple Mormon historical sites this year—the Hill Cumorah, where Smith said he found the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, and the LDS Priesthood Restoration Site, where the LDS say that (along with his friend Oliver Cowdery) he was given both the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. I was struck by the reverence and care of the Mormons I saw there, both those working at the sites and those visiting them. They believed that they were on holy ground. I have to say that that sense of reverence for a place is not one I see too often among mainstream American Protestants.

I’ve even been watching YouTube videos lately of Mormons singing their hymns or even of satire about their own internal culture. It’s fascinating stuff.

There’s nothing about it that makes me want to abandon Orthodox Christianity, but there is something about it that makes me want to understand Mormons better. Ultimately, my hope is that by understanding them better, I might connect them with the true God-man Jesus Christ, and also that I myself might grow in love for people who in many ways are not like me.

39 comments:

  1. I say, do it!
    We have Mormon Elders visit our Parish (they wear badges and never stay to visit) from time to time. Have had converts from the Mormon Church and some who were not Mormon but have Mormon family and friends (my State is next to Utah and my town has a Temple about 2 miles from my house).
    An aside, I’ve always been a reader of World Religions nerd. Began in the early 1960’s 9th grade with library books on World Religions, Sidhartha, a subscription to the Jerusalem Post and reading The Dead Sea Scrolls. (My parents had no idea!)
    Obviously, I’ve enjoyed your O&H posts!

  2. I did a study of the Pearl of Great Price when I was in (non-Orthodox) seminary and it is riddled with issues that resulted in the excommunication of several people (professional historians, etc.) within the Mormon church. It was very interesting reading. I would be interested in reading your take on Mormonism, as I’m certain it would be more objective than anything I researched.

  3. Fr Ignatius seems to have some Mormons who follow him on FB. Whenever the topic comes up they’re right there to chime in. I also enjoy Yahoo news which frequently publishes very good and provocative articles from The Salt Lake Tribune, many of which are actually critical of the Mormon Church. These give a sense of the modern conversation going on with Mormons and exMormons. I identify strongly with the orientation of your article. Are you familiar with Becoming Truly Human?

  4. I was raised in the Mormon Church, many of my family members are practicing Mormons (some in positions of authority). I am an Orthodox Christian, Glory to God!

    I think your project is interesting and I’m a big fan of your work, but…. It’s impossible to explain how abusive and harmful Mormonism is to people who have never experienced anything like it. I highly recommend you learn a little about cults before you study anything to do with Mormonism, this website is a good place https://www.freedomofmind.com/ but it’s certainly not the only good place to get information.

    Mormonism has policies of preaching one thing to outsiders, and revealing their true teachings to insiders slowly (after they “earn” it). Mormonism is very good at presenting itself as fascinating and eccentric and as the victim of ridicule.

    I don’t really know what to tell you. If you were writing this book about an alcoholic’s drinking problem, and said “I’ve interviewed the alcoholic a few times, and I think his life is a really interesting story. Whenever I talk to people who know him, they are so unfair. I want to tell the truth about him, critically but fairly.” That’d be a worthwhile cause, but you’d have to watch out because 3 chief symptoms of alcoholism are: lying about one’s drinking, abusing loved ones, refusing to take accountability for one’s actions. Some chief symptoms of having an alcoholic in your life are: Covering up the problem(lying), believing the drinking is your fault (delusion), and attempting to control the alcoholic’s behavior (abuse). You’d also have to be careful because you are talking about a PERSON and/or FAMILY suffering from a really, really awful disease that they can’t control. You are stepping into a similar situation by attempting to shed light on Mormonism. Practicing Mormons are not going to be honest with you if it conflicts with the image of the Mormon church they want you to have, and people who have left are either in the throws of crisis or probably not that interested in dealing with Mormonism anymore. Also, many people who have left Mormonism will not present you with the truth if it conflicts with the image of the Mormon church they want you to have because managing perceptions is not an easy thing to unlearn. If you choose to pursue this, be careful, and hang in there: it’s going to be tough. If you start this project thinking to yourself “I won’t fall for lies” you are already in trouble. If you decide to pursue this, you will have to triple check **everything** anyone tells you.

    That all being said, Mormons are some of the most awesome people on the face of the planet. Good luck and God bless.

  5. I am interested in this from a personal standpoint, because I have had some lovely Mormon friends, but have always felt what Ellie describes; I am kept at some distance with a few veils between. Some loving orthodox christian interaction with Mormonism/Mormons would be fantastic.

  6. I’d love to read your research. I’ve been fascinated for years by their community-building, the way they are able to support the vision of the Godly family in such a seemingly holistic way (and then have such a rattling set of bones behind the coats).

    I tried to read the Book of Mormon once, but I had a hard time with it.

    Ellie, your admonition is very interesting and well-articulated. I’ve only met one Orthodox ex-Mormon in my real life, and he was quite insistent about some of the same things you describe.

  7. The “restoration of the priesthood” was instrumental in my 1st becoming LDS, and then, finding the Church and Priesthood established by Christ through His Apostles, Peter and Paul, in Antioch within a few years of Exposition of the Gospel, the Good News that God has done everything possible for our reunion with Him, pretty much makes that a moot point. There are a surprising number of touch points between the two liturgies, though most LDS have little experience with the Endowment Services of the Temple

    I would be more than willing to submit my experiences as LDS, including ‘Buddha in the Bishopric’, AFTER my Theophany baptism. May end up with a MormoDoxy discussion page.

    May it be blessed.

  8. Please consider doing the same sort of expose of Masonic organizations which draw so much energy away from the churches and often serve as an alternative to church membership for many.

    1. I’ve never understood the obsession of some Orthodox Christians with Freemasons. They’re a bunch of old lawyers who do charity work, wear funny aprons, and have a couple of silly rituals and handshakes. Maybe fifty or sixty years ago they were a significant force in society and politics, but anyone who thinks they are important in 2016 is nuttier than a fruitcake. Besides, while I would not personally become one, and believe that ultimately it would conflict with my faith to do so, most freemasons are good and upstanding members of society who contribute to it in a positive way. It seems to my mind that anti-Freemason rhetoric is just the tip of the iceberg of the nasty anti-Semitic infestation that rots Orthodoxy from within. People should not waste their time with it, and call it out for what it really is.

  9. I welcome a study of Mormonism, especially as there is a current crisis in the LDS Church, with many of the believers doubting the character of their leaders in Salt Lake City. In May of 2014, I went to Bunkerville in southeast Nevada to determine for myself whether Cliven Bundy was a tax cheat, as the main stream media portrayed him, or a true American cowboy hero. Fortunately, the latter is the case, his ranch is one of the last left in Nevada of the original Mormon ranches established in the 19th Century. To my horror I also learned that the BLM began raising grazing fees during the Clinton Administration and that former ranches have been turned into Chinese solar farms, “refuges” for species not endangered by cattle, uranium sites being sold to Russia, and resorts for golfing, prostitution, gambling, etc. for wealthy Mormon sinners. Mormon Harry Reid is very involved in government confiscation of land, perhaps using blackmail, as the Mormon leaders have not come forward to support the Bundys nor the family of Lavoy Finnicum, who was murdered in ambush by government snipers.
    One Mormon man I spoke to this year told me he visited the Hill Cumorah and he felt the Holy Spirit’s presence. This is in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit is not part of Mormon theology; Mormons seem far more spiritually oriented than “Trinitarian” evangelicals I know who attend megachurches. I then read on Wikipedia everything I could about Joseph Smith. It was very common for people on the East Coast at that time to find strange artifacts buried; some of them may actually be evidence of past visits to America by people from Eurasia. Since they died here, no one knows their story. Smith was also a devout Christian and was appalled by what the heterodox denominations had become. His descendants say he was not a polygamist (mitochondrial DNA of his female descendants could prove this). Also at that time, some Americans, especially the educated elites, were dabbling in the occult through Masonry and secret societies. Establishment colleges, seminaries, and clergy were being lured by Hegelian philosophy, which is antithetical to Christianity and American ideals. I had always wondered how Harvard and Yale started out as religious institutions requiring knowledge of the Bible in Greek and Latin and became what they are today. Same way that Puritanism morphed into Congregationalism that now preaches “Liberation Theology” and allows gay marriages and ministers. Many Americans in the heartland, as disgusted by the godless elites as we are today, formed new denominations, such as LDS and the Seventh Day Adventists. One cannot blame people searching for Christ with no opportunity to meet Orthodox Christians at the time.
    One cannot criticize LDS praxis, especially comparing to Orthodox Christians who use the church as a clubhouse for social events. Many Orthodox Christians are extremely unpatriotic and have little knowledge of the Constitution, while Mormons are very patriotic. St. Paul was very proud of his Roman citizenship and understood that the Rule of Law was established by G-d, but many Orthodox seem ungrateful for American freedom and prosperity. Orthodox don’t seem to understand that in America, “Render unto Caesar that which is Cesar’s,” is not about taxes, but that Caesar here is “We the People,” and we are to render our full participation in our ruling ourselves. So I will be happy when as many Mormons as possible are crismated into the Orthodox Church and we have a truly American Church, independent of foreign nations and Kremlin dupes.

  10. While reading your article this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche came to mind:

    He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

    My first thought is that you give this a lot of prayer. And be careful.

    In Christ,
    Tom

    1. I appreciate your concern. I’ve been making a careful study of non-Orthodox religions for many years now, and the effect has been to conform my commitment even more deeply to Orthodoxy. This sort of work has a long history in the Church, stretching back even to the first century.

    2. I have to agree with Tom Gosse to a certain degree. I was mormon for a brief stint. My parents converted while I was in highschool. I wanted to find Christ fully and I didn’t until I was 42 years old. Glory to God! I will say this much – the LDS theology is a deep and gross distortion of true ancient Christianity. It is not only incredibly heretical, but it is offensive. The deeper I went into the theology and even experiences with their temple ordinances, I found it no different than modern Luciferian worship, Free Masons, or philosophies touted years ago by Madam Blavatsky. I studied this stuff and the occult way too extensively. Mormon history is rife with murder and corruption. It is a materialistic religion that in temple ceremony glorifies the fall as a necessity to our salvation, that what Eve did was almost heroic. Acting virtuous and doing good works by “self will” only veils their deeper beliefs. They want to not only claim that they are the “restored church” (because they think the original church fell) but also desire now to be accepted into mainstream protestantism. They have done a great job investing millions of dollars to create their polished image. They speak a lot of sentimental hallmark sayings or even ideas one might read in a new age book. Yet from the inside, the doctrine is an abomination. My biggest reason for leaving them was because they believed that King David was never forgiven. The JST (Joseph Smith Translation ) states that in their quad bible, changing the words of the prophet Nathaniel to no he wasn’t forgiven. There are many many other reasons that their theology is extremely heretical but that was the one that most affected me. I was disgusted. After having baptism and partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the Orthodox church, I can’t even perceive anything in the LDS church as Godly. It is incredibly dark compared to the light, and it is a struggle for me to even believe that I ever thought that there was any light there to begin with. I don’t even want to admit it, but thank God the old man is buried in that delusion. It shows how blind I truly was. The only thought that comes to me – is why even put effort into heresy when I can put that effort into my prayer life, and loving and serving others? If you think this will bring more souls to Christ, I pray it does.

      In Christ,
      Nina

  11. Please, Fr. Andrew, write it. It would be very interesting. Mormons are… interesting. As I’m from Russia, I don’t know much about it. But I have some knowledge about International Society for Krishna Consciousness, as, sadly, my mom takes part in it. But be careful! God help you! I don’t know if you know Russian, but there’s an interesting book “Дары и анафемы. Что Православие принесло в мир.” (“Gifts and anathemas. What Christianity has brought in the world.”) by Deacon Andrew. It explores gifts of Christianity – a gift of calling God Our Father, puts human above the universe, demythologisation of nature, and so on; compares some of religions: Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, answers the question of seeming dissonance between the actions of The Lord in Old and New Testaments and many others. If you have an e-mail, I can send you it (fb2 file.)

  12. Fr. Andrew, I think there’s a need for your research – for both Mormon and non-Mormon readers. I’m not aware of any recent published Orthodox review of Mormon history, theology, or culture. I think your work would be excellent – both the quality of the research and tone for dialogue! All the best!

  13. I live in a small Utah town that is about 90% Mormon. They are fantastic people to live around because they share so many of our moral values, and have created a great place to raise a family.
    I would love to see you write a book about their religion from an Orthodox standpoint. For me, it would be a great way to help my kids really understand the differences in what we believe as Orthodox Christians, and what their LDS friends believe .
    A great resource for you would be Fr. Justin Havens, priest at St.s Peter and Paul in SLC. He has a lot of insight into their teachings, and day to day life.

    1. The culture is indeed complex, I would be interested in your study. I grew up- non-Mormon [actually entirely non-religious] here in Utah and it was sometimes difficult. Part of my family is LDS. The parish Jami mentions, which I attend as well, indeed has many ex-Mormons. There is certainly a lot going on in the LDS church–and the Salt lake Tribune is worth tracking….
      http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/4690644-155/lgbt-activist-plans-ad-blitz-targeting
      I have followed Mormonism a least peripherally for years because it is so fascinating, though I have never been drawn to be Mormon. The article above should be examined, I wonder if it is a trend that will hit other faiths….Thankfully I found Orthodoxy.
      All that said, Salt Lake City is a great place to live and most Mormons you will meet are kind and generous.

  14. As a Mormon, I’d welcome your perspective and love learning about the world’s religions and cultures!

    Merry Christmas to you Reverend!
    Deric

  15. As a Convert to Mormonism (from Judaism) who served a mission in Russia, I would be very interested in this project. I also know quite a few Russians who speak English well and would be happy to speak to you if you wanted to talk to some converts from Orthodoxy.

    You touch on some of what attracted me to Mormonism, but I would mention two things that I don’t think your post mentions or hints at 1) Mormons have a beautiful and complete theology that answers deep questions of the soul. That includes belief in a pre mortal existence, vicarious ordinances on behalf of those who did not know Christ in this life, and the belief in eternal families. For me, these beliefs give my life meaning and purpose. Before joining, I looked into other faiths extensively and never found the same combination of accessible answers and deep theological complexity. Moreover, understanding of those doctrines permeates deep into the membership and so your average Mormon knows or understands these things to a very deep level.

    2) My conversion came primarily because I prayed to God and received a strong spiritual answer telling me that the Church is true. One of the unique facets of Mormonism is the focus on encouraging individuals to come and know for themselves by asking God. Because of my spiritual experiences, my faith is unshakable despite trials, challenges and opposition. Because of my experiences, I can testify that I know that I am a member of Christ’s Church. I don’t think you can understand Mormonism without taking into account the role of personal revelatory experiences in the life of the believer.

    Feel free to contact me if you have any other questions.

    1. Just out of curiosity (and all cards on the table, I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity from the LDS faith) how do you view people who make the exact same claim that you do (“My conversion came primarily because I prayed to God and received a strong spiritual answer telling me that the Church is true”) but about non-Mormon faith traditions?

  16. I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it seems to me that Mormonism’s genius is indeed its sense of place. It finds a way of incorporating the Americas into sacred history. If you go to Greece, you’ll notice that in Athens, the Acropolis is at the intersection of St. Paul Boulevard and St. Dionysios the Areopagite Way; Greek sacred history both Christian and pagan is a natural, fixed (more or less) part of the landscape. In America, it’s a very different matter. Mormons, whatever else one may say about them, find a way to answer the question that I think many American Christians ask at some point — “Did nothing of any importance ever happen here, where *I* live?”

    1. Dear Richard, indeed many important things have happened throughout what is known today as the United States; we Orthodox certainly didn’t bring God to America. You may need to learn an indigenous language to discover them, because Anglo- and other european Americans have only been here a relatively short amount of time, and many immigrant Orthodox Christians who are preoccupied with such unholy categories as “legal citizenship” and “whiteness” often miss out on receiving the blessings that indigenous Orthodox Christian missionaries discover. Considering that the Book of Mormon may indeed have been written (likely by Congregationalist minister Solomon Spaulding) to legitimize the genocide of Native Americans by savaging their actual histories, we ought to be careful to understand that book, and its romantic-philological faith in democratic capitalism, in the context of its role in its historic place on the New England frontier.

  17. I’ve been very interested in studying Mormonism recently. It really is a fascinating religion. I am impressed with the level of participation of the laypeople that is fostered in the LDS church. I would be very interested in reading an Orthodox Christian perspective on it.

  18. Intriguing observations, from “being in the throws of crisis” to “in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit is not part of Mormon theology”. But I am still curious about whether Arians can be ‘chrismated’.
    And whether the blatant individualism of “the role of personal revelatory experiences” ever gets past ideating with the ‘persecuted’ church, a theme most familiar for Seventh-day Adventists, another fully autocratic (corporate) ‘remnant’ whose Judaizing has not yet come to denying Jesus Christ as God, but whose perfectionism has made them toxic. (Interesting that they both came out of that same ‘burned-over district’ of the early 19th north-eastern USA. It wasn’t a difficult switch for my non chalance.)

    I guess, though, that working in the Church Office Building (across from the 20,000 seat Conference Center) and serving in the Salt Lake City Temple does give one a different perspective. There is much positive to say about the LDS culture, yet there is little ascesis and no theosis.

    Lord, have mercy.

  19. I did some study on Mormonism while taking a correspondence course with (now) Bishop David from St. Tikhon’s Seminary. I was working in SLC and Phoenix at the time, and had lived in Las Vegas immediately prior. I have a friend from High School, a lifelong LDS, who teaches at BYU and sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    I’m still most struck by the individualistic nature of the faith, as opposed to the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church. That seems to be where Orthodoxy and most other faiths part ways, as they are mutually exclusive.

    The LDS commitment to morality, charity, and faithfulness is somewhat without parallel, at least in modern Western society. Some of the beliefs strike me as very similar to a primitive understanding of theosis. Some of the Arianism may be retreating from modern LDS belief.

    It is a fascinating topic to me, and I look forward to reading your treatment if you decide to publish!

  20. I am an active Mormon, descendant of Mormon pioneer ancestors, who grew up very orthodox in my faith. I experienced what many call a “faith crisis” several years ago which was in part started after an experience in our Mormon temple where I felt I had to research more about the feminine divine. I have always identified as a feminist which puts me at odds at times with the mainstream culture. I would definitely add into your research Mormon temple theology and in addition to that our theology of human purpose “The Plan of Salvation” and how our belief that God is Heavenly Mother and Father plays into that. I also want to add that learning about other religions is not dangerous, as some above have commented with warnings. I believe that God speaks to us in different ways. Some of my most cherished experiences with the divine have been among other religious milieus. One can experience those things and be firmly committed to one’s faith no matter which religion.

    Thank you Reverend for your interest in a religion that although it brings me angst as a woman, I wholeheartedly love and cherish.

  21. I think, if you were so inclinded, writing a book about Mormonism would be greatly beneficial. Speaking as an ex-Mormon I find amongst most Christians (at least Protestant Christians) don’t really know much about what Mormons really believe, or how to properly relate Christ to them.

    I would love to talk with you about my experience if you wanted to as well.

  22. I would read your book, Father Andrew Stephen. I’ve long been interested about LDS (as a kid who went to “youth group” who had LDS friends who also went to their youth group). Visiting SLC and learning why genealogy is a huge interest to them was eye opening. SLC is a very unique place…. If you do write a book, you should certainly go there and learn about the local LDS culture. Sts. Peter and Paul is a great parish in the heart of SLC. May your efforts be blessed.

  23. Please Father, teach about the Orthodox Church and write about it not Mormonism. I am afraid that all these people who have left comments will be open and tempted to join the Mormon Church. It is a very enticing Church and answers all questions about life here and after. I lived it, I know and especially for those who are searching and are young and vulnerable and naïve, as I was, so many, many years ago. If you decide to pursue this project please do it with caution and prayer that you might not be mislead and persuaded. They don’t call it a cult for no reason. May God give you guidance and protection on your quest.

    1. As I said elsewhere, I do appreciate the concern. But I’ve already studied and written extensively on dozens of non-Orthodox religions and not felt that I needed to leave the Church for any of them—Mormonism included. Indeed, all my studies and writing have instead confirmed me in the Orthodox Church, and, I have been told many times, served to help others become and remain Orthodox, as well.

      Orthodoxy has nothing to fear by understanding and responding to other religions, and the Church has been doing so for 2,000 years. There is absolutely nothing to fear from learning about what other people believe, especially in order to try to reach out to people and show them the fullness of the God-man Jesus Christ.

      This is part of what the Orthodox Church does. I’m just one participant in an ancient programme.

      1. Continual prayer and having those covering you in prayer while undertaking a journey into realms of ideology that are founded by the demons who would prefer our wandering away from Christ, is a great necessity.

        I will pray for your endeavor as I believe it is a necessary effort that may help those who have not seen the fullness of the God-man Jesus Christ.

  24. So many interesting comments. Would Jesus be interested in Mormonism? Would he like that their theology doesn’t embrace TULIP? That it explains why he called himself the Son Man? That it proclaims the fullness of the gospel? That it proclaims that he is the Eternal God and has not forgotten his ancient covenant people. That America is the consecrated gathering place for his people and that he will turn the world upside down when he brings them here?

    So much more to say, but I have to go and pay my devotions to the Most High!

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