Michael B. Bennett has heard the accusations many times: Mormons are not Christians. But to Bennett, who converted at age 18, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has provided answers he did not find as a Southern Baptist.
Bennett grew up in the heavily Baptist region of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His parents and grandparents had been active Baptists and he was baptized at age 12. He attended youth rallies and Billy Graham crusades. "I was about as active a Baptist as you can be," recalls Bennett, now 39.
Yet he found the behavior of some churchgoers inconsistent. His friends at youth group fervently testified about Christ one week, then smoked dope the next. An adulterous deacon continued to hold office after a hasty confession. Gossip and backbiting preoccupied many churchgoers.
Bennett was ripe for a change. When a high-school friend told him that his church had unpaid leaders, it sparked Bennett's interest. After attending several weekly LDS sacrament meetings and seeing a community that seemed genuinely to care and love, Bennett, now a lawyer in Salt Lake City, felt "compelled by the spirit" to be rebaptized as a Mormon. As a counselor to his congregation's bishop, Bennett devotes 20 hours a week to church activities.
While LDS theology is what separates Mormonism from orthodox Christianity, it had little to do with Bennett's attraction to America's most successful homegrown religion.
Sandra Tanner, 57, codirector of Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City, says, "You join Mormonism because of friendship ties, a sense of belonging, a hope for your deceased family. It is a religion that gives the best of both worlds."
Though evangelicals generally concede that Mormons are good neighbors who promote family values, the theological chasm is wide. Mormons profoundly distance themselves from orthodox Christianity in that they:
1. Do not interpret canonical Scripture as being solely the Old Testament and New Testament. They add the Book of Mormon and founder Joseph Smith's other works, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Convenants. 2. Do not believe in the Trinity. Mormons believe God the Father and God the Son have fleshly bodies and that the Holy Ghost is a spirit man. 2. Teach that God was once a finite being who achieved his exalted rank by "progressing."
Based on supernatural visitations in the 1820s, Smith believed he was called to restore the true Christian church that had been lost 16 centuries earlier. According to this great apostasy, God told Smith that all churches—with specific reference to Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—were wrong, and to join none.
While evangelical and Catholic theologians have been able to agree on such unofficial initiatives as "The Gift of Salvation" (CT, Dec. 8, 1997, p. 34), it is unlikely there will be an equivalent Mormon-evangelical document anytime soon. "Their theology has declared us to be an abomination," says Mike Gray, 47, pastor of Salt Lake City's Southeast Baptist Church. "It's hard to do joint projects when they claim to be the only true church."
"On every major doctrine, the fundamental teachings of evangelical Christianity and Mormon doctrine are diametrically opposed," says Norman Geisler, dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary.
Protestant leaders have limited official contact with the LDS church. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is typical, calling for openness to interfaith dialogue with Mormons and telling members they "should not hesitate to share the gospel with people of Mormon background."
In February in Salt Lake City, the first formal discussions on theology, polity, and sacramental practice occurred between Mormons and United Methodists. "The two have historically looked upon each other with suspicion, or at best disinterest," says Doug Slaughter, a United Methodist minister in Ogden. "With the growth of the LDS community into a world religious influence there has come more interest to understand this faith."
Tanner, who left Mormonism at age 19 and has written more than 40 books on the religion, says, "All Christians should be concerned about the growth of Mormonism. The Jesus of the Bible is different from the Jesus of the Mormons."
THE BAPTISTS ARE COMING: Few denominations are eager to hold a national convention outside the comfort zone of their membership. But Southern Baptists—who have one of the largest career missionary forces with 5,000 workers in 147 countries—are gathering June 9-11 for an annual convention on the Mormons' home turf of Salt Lake City. The state of Utah is about 2 percent Baptist and nearly 70 percent Mormon.
In Utah, the SBC will be using pages out of the LDS playbook for mass evangelism. Around 2,500 Baptists—including 1,000 college and seminary students—are expected to knock on 150,000 doors. Starting for a week on June 3, Southern Baptists will run 500 radio commercials, 150 television spots, a dozen newspaper advertisements, and six billboard advertisements urging residents to rethink their commitment to Mormonism.
"In the end, salvation is not a marketing issue," says SBC president Tom Elliff. "It depends on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Direct mailings containing testimonies of local Southern Baptists are also being sent to 390,000 households in the region. All the media and mail efforts carry a toll-free number offering a hand-delivered free copy of the Jesus video produced by Campus Crusade for Christ. The total cost of the one-week blitz is $260,000.
An estimated 9,500 messengers, or delegates, are expected to attend the convention. With spouses and children in tow, there could be more than 30,000 Southern Baptists visiting the state where only 6,000 Baptists live.
Every four or five years the convention meets in a pioneer area where the membership is comparatively small. The purpose is to encourage SBC churches in such areas and to let others in the region know the SBC is not just a Southern phenomenon. For example, in Las Vegas, several hundred Southern Baptists marched down the city's strip of casinos and hotels handing out Bibles and tracts (CT, July 14, 1989, p. 50).
Utah Baptists have had significant success with Mormon-focused outreach. At least once a year, Southeast's pastor Gray hosts a local conference on understanding Mormonism. Southeast's membership has grown from 120 to 1,000 in Gray's 14 years there, making it the largest Southern Baptist church in the state. About one in five members is a former Mormon.
READY TO TANGLE: However, Southern Baptists are not likely to win converts simply by knocking on doors and leaving tracts in Salt Lake City. "It's like going to minister among Muslims," says Tanner, now a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. She says former Mormons are often isolated from their cultural heritage and families.
Southern Baptists have prepared their pastors and lay leaders for outreach to Mormons with a 75-minute video, The Mormon Puzzle. In all, more than 50,000 videos and accompanying study guides have been distributed. In addition, during the week of June 1 the six SBC seminaries are jointly sponsoring workshops on Mormon theology and effective witnessing to Mormons. Jim Harding, the top SBC executive in Utah, sees the convention visit as a "divine appointment."
"For Southern Baptists, Utah is a mission field," Harding says. He is recommending that messengers not engage in a doctrinal shouting match, but simply "share the truth of Jesus Christ."
R. Philip Roberts, 47, director of the SBC North American Mission Board's interfaith witness evangelism team, says, "Accountability before God is the most important issue. Before you have a harvest you need to plant the seed of the biblical gospel. It's our duty to do all that we can to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them."
If the SBC evangelism blitz becomes too overwhelming, LDS headquarters may issue advice to local church leaders, according to M. Russell Ballard, 69, a member since 1985 of the Council of the Twelve, the church's ruling body. Ballard says, "We won't get into bashing over doctrine."
Likewise, SBC president Elliff is gracious. "There's no reason for any of us to be caustic and uncharitable in our speech," Elliff says. "But we won't compromise our beliefs." Ballard, a car dealer before being called as a full-time ecclesiastical leader, says The Mormon Puzzle is "relatively positive" because it introduces essential LDS teachings such as restoration of priesthood authority. Ballard says he traces his authority as an ordained apostle directly to Christ: Jesus ordained Peter, James, and John, who, Mormons believe, transferred authority directly to Joseph Smith by laying hands on his head in an 1830 appearance. The authority has been transferred in an earthly manner to LDS apostles since then.
NEXT WORLD RELIGION? Mormons, who were much maligned and persecuted in nineteenth-century America, are in some ways unrivaled in spiritual seed-planting. Worldwide, there are 56,530 LDS missionaries, three-fourths of them young males, knocking on doors in 162 countries. Last year, 318,000 people converted to Mormonism, primarily from Christian groups.
The LDS church is experiencing rapid growth, with 10,070,500 Mormons worldwide. Seven out of ten Mormons live in North, Central, or South America. "At any given moment, the majority of Mormons are first-generation converts," says Rodney Stark, author and University of Washington sociologist. Most have significant attachments to non-Mormon relatives and friends, who then are ripe for conversion themselves. Stark projects that Mormonism will become the next world religion, with a membership of 267 million by 2080.
This month, the fifty-second LDS temple in the world will open. Another 46 are under construction or on the drawing board, including one in Nashville, headquarters of the SBC.
LDS missionaries have had the greatest success in countries with sizable Christian populations, where Christian missionaries have blazed the trail. The key LDS doctrine of restoration of the church is more easily grasped by people who have already been introduced to Christianity.
LDS missions efforts are well-financed, in part because all but 85 top church leaders are volunteers. Also, Mormons are the most generous donors of all American church members, giving on average nearly 7.5 percent of income.
While 95 percent of Mormons in the United States are white, the church is growing elsewhere by appealing to a multitude of racial and ethnic groups, aided by the acceptance of blacks into the priesthood in 1978. Latin America is the fastest-growing region, with 3.4 million members, 2 million more than a decade ago.
The Book of Mormon has a strong American appeal with its narrative about an early American civilization and the appearance of the risen Christ to the ancient Americans. Stark predicts there will be 60 million Mormons in Latin America alone by 2010.
Tanner notes that LDS membership does not necessarily translate into lifelong commitment. Weekly sacrament meeting attendance is between 40 and 50 percent in the United States, and only around 25 percent in Latin America. Infants are counted as members as soon as they start attending, and adults who stop attending may still be counted.
SHEEP-STEALING? Mormons live in a subculture immersed in their own books, magazines, hymns, organizations, and conferences.
New releases at the 34 LDS Deseret bookstores include Isaiah in the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith: Martyr, Prophet of God; and The Genealogist's Handbook: Plain and Precious Truths Restored. There are "Mormon fiction" sections that appeal to women, with titles such as Sunset Across the Rockies and Hannah: Mormon Midwife. They even have their own board games such as Missionary Impossible.
Yet Mormons have increased their numbers largely by slowly exporting their subculture around the globe.
"Members of our church are constantly looking for opportunities to share the message of the restored gospel with friends, family members, neighbors, and anyone else who will listen," LDS leader Ballard writes in Our Search for Happiness (Deseret Book Company, 1993).
While Mormons unapologetically see themselves fulfilling their purpose, the SBC's Roberts sees it as sheep-stealing. "Mormons shamelessly proselytize members of Christian churches, encouraging them to leave their own denomination and renounce the validity of their former group," Roberts writes in Mormonism Unmasked, released last month by Broadman & Holman.
John L. Smith, a 78-year-old Southern Baptist who has written 10 books on Mormonism and is the founder of Utah Missions, warns Christians not to let door-knocking Mormons enter the house. Smith, who served as a pastor for 17 years, says Baptists are especially susceptible because they are eager to engage in theological discussions.
INTENSE MISSIONS FOCUS: From the moment of their children's birth, many LDS parents hope to send them out as missionaries. In a world of shifting values, a fresh-faced, well-attired, neatly groomed, smiling, confident teenager can be a persuasive advertisement for the church.
Two years ago, Matthew R. Tate, then 19, reached the age where tens of thousands of Mormons radically alter their lives. Although raised in an LDS family in Salt Lake City, he did not fully commit to the church's teachings until just before his mission trip. "I had to decide whether this church was real or not," Tate explains. "Deep in my heart I felt it was true." Mormons cite Moroni 10:3-5 in the Book of Mormon as evidence. In that passage, a resurrected angel, Moroni, exhorts seekers to ponder in their hearts and ask God whether the claims are true; then the power of the Holy Ghost will make it clear.
LDS prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley and his two counselors pray about where to send each missionary. For Tate, the two-year assignment was New York City. Beforehand, he spent a month in preparation in Provo, site of the largest of 15 LDS missionary-training centers. Recruits live in a cloistered, dormlike atmosphere, where they learn LDS doctrine. Many learn a foreign language.
While the church paid Tate's airfares to New York and back, his family had to provide daily living expenses. Once on assignment, the schedule is arduous. Tate spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, trying to proselytize. Another two hours each day he prayed and studied the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Tate lived in an apartment with three to seven other missionaries, and he could telephone home only on Christmas and Mother's Day.
"All I've done for two years is eat, drink, and sleep religion," Tate says. "You don't worry about yourself. You worry about other people."
A WIDE DIVIDE: As LDS church growth has accelerated, orthodox Christian scholars have refocused on Mormon teaching and practice.
Last year's publication of How Wide The Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press) has done more to raise the profile of Mormonism among evangelical leaders than any other effort in the past decade.
In the book, Stephen E. Robinson, Brigham Young University (BYU) professor of ancient Scripture, and Craig L. Blomberg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and also an ordained Baptist pastor, concluded the divide is not as wide as they once believed. But it still is significant. How Wide the Divide? did not attempt to discuss irreconcilable differences such as baptism for the dead, the premortal existence of souls, or the early history of the Americas. Rather, the book provides a forum to measure potential common ground.
Evangelical critics contend Blomberg showed too much respect for LDS beliefs, and that he should not have written a book with "the enemy." They also say Robinson is not representative of true LDS doctrine.
"Robinson mops up on Blomberg," says John L. Smith, whose ministry in Marlow, Oklahoma, was under the auspices of the SBC North American Mission Board until last year. "The book is a great evangelism tool—for Mormons."
Tyndale College and Seminary professor James Beverley says How Wide the Divide? provides a necessary first step for dialogue. But he says Blomberg failed adequately to rebut some of Robinson's charges. "The book suffers from a dialogue that doesn't lay all the cards on the table," Beverley says.
At an April conference, "Mormonism and Christianity: How Great the Divide!" Southern Evangelical Seminary's Geisler asserted, "Robinson said things that were definitely contrary to historic Mormon teaching."
Blomberg notes, however, that LDS authorities often lack academic theological training, so the church often turns to BYU leaders such as Robinson for official theological comment. Robinson and Robert L. Millet, 50, dean of religious education at BYU, are key LDS spokespersons in The Mormon Puzzle.
Blomberg concedes he could have asked several more specific questions and that more articulate wording could have deflected some criticism, but he says overall he is pleased with the effort.
EMBRACING THE MAINSTREAM: Although Mormons have moved toward the cultural mainstream of American Christianity, they continue to insist the LDS faith represents the purified and true church. At the LDS semiannual general conference in April, LDS president Hinckley said, "There are some of other faiths who do not regard us as Christians. How we regard ourselves is what is important."
Mormons believe that spiritual darkness covered the earth for 16 centuries after the death of Jesus' apostles until the restoration through Joseph Smith. At the conference, Hinckley also stressed there would be no compromise on the idea that the LDS church is true—and others are not. "This is a restoration of that which was instituted by the Savior of the world," Hinckley proclaimed. "It is not a reformation of perceived false practice and doctrine that may have developed through the centuries."
Mormons are gaining respectability from some unlikely sources. Last November, former President Jimmy Carter, who still teaches Sunday school at his SBC church in Georgia, said Mormons do not need to be evangelized. He criticized Southern Baptists for "trying to act as the Pharisees did" in defining who is "considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God."
The SBC's Roberts says, "Mormons want to be fully Mormon and fully Christian, but they can't be both." Ex-Mormon Tanner agrees. "Its theology is as close to Christianity as Hinduism," she says. "It's a totally different view of man and God and Creation."
LDS apostle Ballard told CT, "We believe God, the eternal Father, is literally our father. He's a man glorified, exalted, perfected, resurrected."
Millet says, "Human spirits were born sons and daughters of God before this life, and if they will be born again now, they can be empowered and transformed by Jesus Christ, becoming eventually as he is. We believe in the ultimate deification of man."
WHERE ARE THE ARTIFACTS? One of the most persistent critiques of doctrine focuses on the teaching that ancient Hebrews immigrated to the Americas.
LDS doctrine says that in 1827 Moroni, a resurrected angel, instructed Smith to unearth golden plates buried in New York. For two years, Smith translated the "reformed Egyptian," which told of the migration of Israelites to this continent. Their descendants divided into Lamanites, the ancestors of today's Native Americans, and Nephites. Mormon, the last surviving Nephite leader, inscribed the race's history before their demise. Moroni, Mormon's son, whisked the plates back to heaven after Smith's translation.
Faith plays a large role in believing the accounts in the Book of Mormon, because Smith's version is the only written record of Israeli immigrants living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. Tanner says no archaeological evidence supports the existence of such a culture.
"There may be some things we'll never find simply because the vast majority of human artifacts disappear," says Daniel C. Peterson, 45, chair of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at BYU, which, at 29,000 full-time students, is the largest privately owned campus in the United States.
While Smith's Book of Mormon is considered infallible, the Bible is not. "We accept the Bible as the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly," Ballard told CT.
"The Bible has been through countless translations from the time its chapters were originally penned to the present," Ballard writes in Our Search for Happiness. "Along the way there have been changes and alterations that have diminished the purity of the doctrine." On the other hand, "the Book of Mormon offers pure, concise doctrine that hasn't been tampered with by religious philosophers, councils, panels, and kings."
But LDS scriptures are not so pristine, Tanner says. She cites Smith providing different versions of his visions in 1833 and 1835. "Revelations are suddenly twice as long as before, bringing in new concepts such as the priesthood," says Tanner. "Why would he have to rewrite it after only two years?"
ONGOING REVELATION: Among Mormons, the restoration of the true church means that their top leader is a living prophet, able to clarify, modify, or enhance existing doctrine.
And new revelations can reverse earlier LDS teaching, the most famous example being the 1890 discontinuance of polygamy, which 47 years earlier Joseph Smith declared had been commanded by the Lord. "Latter-day Saints believe the canon of Scripture is open, flexible, and expanding," Millet says.
"What God has said to apostles and prophets in the past is always secondary to what God is saying directly to his apostles and prophets now," Robinson writes in How Wide the Divide?
Subsequently, LDS revere their president as God's mouthpiece on earth, the "prophet, seer, and revelator." When the president of the church dies, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who has served the longest automatically succeeds him, usually leaving an aged leader to head the religion founded by a 24-year-old prophet. The last three presidents have started service at the average age of 86. Hinckley turns 88 this month.
In the LDS church, males confer everything required for a family to gain eternal exaltation. At 12, boys begin through the Aaronic priesthood offices of deacon, teacher, and priest. Males in the higher Melchizedek priesthood can advance through the offices of elder, high priest, patriarch, seventy, and apostle.
"The patriarchy—the loss of the priesthood—is one of the fears of people leaving Mormonism," Tanner says. "For instance, the husband is the one who can pray for a child if he gets sick. Men are the connection to make sure that, at whatever level, things are done the way God wants them to be done."
Advancement in church leadership is dependent on individual accomplishment, Tanner contends. "To reach the celestial kingdom you must go to the temple," she says. "In order to go to the temple, you have to be a full tithe payer and do everything the church asks you to do. There is control to get to that end reward."
Not only are there earthly incentives for faithful Mormons, but more important, there are many eternal bonuses, based on individual merit.
"We don't believe in a heaven and a hell," Ballard told CT. "We believe in degrees of glory. People are not going to live into the eternities in misery."
The LDS doctrine that husbands and wives are married "for time and eternity" allows some high-achieving Mormon couples to have eternal offspring and create and populate their own world.
Those Mormons who aspire to the top of three tiers of heavenly paradise must be baptized according to the LDS priesthood and live a worthy life.
Among Mormon leaders, temple activities are focused in part on the controversial practice of vicarious baptisms and marriage in which living members stand in proxy for the deceased.
"How do we know whether or not your great-great-grandfather, who never heard the gospel as it was restored, nor ever had the opportunity to be baptized by the priesthood, is going to accept?" Ballard asks. "We don't. But we do the work anyway." Under LDS doctrine, not just baptism, but salvation itself is available to the dead.
"The person may have heard the gospel a hundred times, but it never really clicked," Peterson says. "So maybe that hundredth time is the chance. That can happen in this life or the next."
LDS doctrines about baptism, salvation, and the afterlife place them at odds with centuries of Christian teaching in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions.
BEFRIEND, NOT ATTACK? Despite vastly different theology, Mormon and evangelical leaders at times work together against common foes such as gambling, pornography, and abortion. A Baptist and a Mormon are congressional sponsors of legislation to protect churches from creditors seeking to confiscate donations made by members who went bankrupt (CT, April 27, p. 14.)
The works of C. S. Lewis have emerged as another area of religious common ground. "He is so well received by Latter-day Saints because of his broad and inclusive vision of Christianity," says BYU dean Millet, who spoke about Lewis at an April theology conference at Wheaton (Ill.) College.
Blomberg, among others, holds out hope that projects such as How Wide the Divide? can be an initial step in Mormons moving to orthodoxy, as happened when the Worldwide Church of God founded by Herbert W. Armstrong altered its unique teachings (CT, July 15, 1996, p. 16). "I still believe in respectful, courteous dialogue," Blomberg says. "As LDS church membership continues to increase, and friends and relatives convert to Mormonism, it will behoove evangelicals to befriend rather than attack."
Yet deep disagreements remain over bedrock truth. "We have a prophet that receives direction from the Lord Jesus Christ," Ballard says. "We simply say to the world, 'Keep everything you have that is true and add to it the fullness of the everlasting gospel as it's been restored.' "
Roberts counters, "The gospel does have a cutting edge. It can be offensive when you explain there's no such thing as celestial heaven." Roberts and Tanner are coauthors of the new Harvest House book The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism.
Recent rhetoric from Baptist leaders referring to Utah as a "stronghold of Satan" and a "spiritual cloud of oppressiveness" may motivate Baptists, but alienate Mormons.
In the meantime, Mormons persist in their own media outreach. In April, the LDS church bought a commercial on the Gospel Music Association's nationally televised Dove Awards program.
For Bennett, the former Southern Baptist, there is great eagerness to share his new faith. "I feel more dedicated and closer to the Lord than I've ever felt," Bennett says. "The confluence of cultures and religions will be good for both the Mormons and the Baptists."
But for evangelicals, a faithful follower of LDS doctrine is at eternal peril. "Mormonism is either totally true or totally false," Utah Mission's leader John L. Smith says. "If it's true, every other religion in America is false."
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