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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), also called the Church of Jesus Christ, is the fifth-largest Christian denomination in the United States. The church is often called the “Mormon” church because of members’ adherence to The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ as scripture in addition to the Bible.
Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, but with members in more than 160 countries in 2010, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has quickly established itself as a significant world denomination. Scholars have referred to it as “a new religious tradition” (Shipps 1985, 149) and have seen in its growth “the rise of a new world faith” (Stark 1984, 18).
Founding and Membership
The Church of Jesus Christ was founded on 6 April 1830, in Fayette, New York, by Joseph Smith Jr. (1805–1844), who, as a fourteen-year-old boy, sought an answer to which of the many competing Christian denominations he should join. He testified that he was visited by God and Jesus Christ and was instructed to join none of the denominations. Church members believe that Joseph Smith Jr. was called as a prophet and received divine revelations, many of which were published in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book that details Smith’s received revelations. It is now part of the Latter-day Saint canon of scriptures.
Since the time of Joseph Smith Jr., the Church of Jesus Christ has experienced dramatic growth. By the end of 2009 the church had a worldwide membership of about 13.8 million. Less than half of Latterday Saints live in the United States and Canada. Some countries in the South Pacific and many Latin American countries and regions have comparatively large Latter-day Saint populations, including Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The church is still a small minority but has experienced substantial growth in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Core teachings of the church include beliefs in Joseph Smith Jr.’s call as a modern-day prophet, the church as a restoration of the original pure Christianity established by Jesus Christ during his mortal ministry, acceptance of The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ as a translation of records of ancient prophets in the Americas and, with the Bible, as divine scripture. Church members believe in Christ and see him as the head of their church, but the church does not belong to the Catholic, Protestant, nor Eastern Orthodox families of churches. Many of the basic beliefs of the church are stated in the Articles of Faith. Key doctrines include the restoration of divine priesthood authority; continuing revelation to church members and modern prophets; high moral standards of honesty, chastity before marriage, and fidelity after marriage; and a health code that prohibits the consumption of alcohol, tea, and coffee and any form of substance abuse. Church members pay one-tenth of their incomes to the church as a tithe and are encouraged to fast monthly and give the money they would have spent on food, or more, to a fund to help the needy. The church also has an extensive welfare program, designed to meet the temporal needs of church members who are unable to provide for themselves or their families.
The Church of Jesus Christ had 130 operating temples throughout the world as of 2009, which are used to conduct ordinances such as marriage ceremonies, but are not used for ordinary weekly worship services. Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches that marriages solemnized (“sealed”) in Latter-day Saint temples do not dissolve at death and that the family is the core unit of the church and society. The church also encourages education and offers a subsidized loan fund for members seeking higher education in developing countries. The church also has an extensive educational system, including Brigham Young University in Utah, one of the largest private universities in the United States.
Many university-age single men and women, as well as retired married couples, serve as full-time missionaries for the church around the world for one to two years. At the end of 2009 more than fifty thousand missionaries were serving at their own expense in the region of the world they were assigned to by church headquarters; in many cases they learn a foreign language to serve. Local leaders of the church are not salaried ministers. They, along with most members who serve as part-time teachers, leaders, and youth leaders in local congregations, are lay volunteers who give of their time for a few years in an assigned church position while continuing normal employment.
The early years of the Church of Jesus Christ were marked by persecution and movement westward. During the first two decades of the church, members were driven to Ohio; to Independence, Missouri; to Far West, Missouri; and, after being the subject of an extermination order by the governor of Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois. After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith Jr. at the hands of an angry mob in 1844, the Latter-day Saints eventually migrated 2,000 kilometers west to Salt Lake Valley, now part of Utah, under the leadership of the second president of the church, Brigham Young (1801–1877). After moving to Utah the Latter-day Saints faced an occupying army from 1857 to 1860, sent by U.S. President James Buchanan, who acted on false rumors of a Latter-day Saint rebellion.
Early official persecution and mob violence against Latter-day Saints constitute one of the harshest examples of religious persecution in U.S. history. Friction arose from religious, cultural, and political differences with their fellow frontier people, particularly over issues of slavery, which was legal in Missouri, and fears of Latter-day Saint political domination.
Another point of contention was the Latterday Saint practice of polygamy (plural marriage), which was publicly taught from 1843 until it was discontinued in 1890, and efforts by the Latterday Saints to establish economically self-sufficient communities. Fears of Latter-day Saint practices led to federal U.S. legislation from 1849 to 1896 attacking polygamy, denying civil rights to polygamists and nonpolygamous members of the church, and dissolving the Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Legal challenges by Latter-day Saints to antipolygamy legislation resulted in the first U.S. Supreme Court cases interpreting the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution: Reynolds v. United States (1878) and Davis v. Beason (1890), which upheld federal legislation against both polygamy and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Despite the persecutions of the early years of the church, missionary work continued to fuel its growth. During the 1840s thousands of people joined the Church of Jesus Christ from missionary efforts, particularly in Great Britain, and immigrated to the Americas. As early as the 1850s, missions were opened in Chile, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Hawaii, India, Italy, Malta, Scandinavia, South Africa, the South Pacific, and Switzerland. Since that time international missionary efforts have increased, but by the 1920s church policy no longer encouraged members to gather at a central geographical region.
During recent years the international growth of the church has been increasingly reflected in LDS demographics. By 1996 more church members lived outside the United States than inside, only 30 percent of members lived in the western United States, and fewer than 20 percent lived in Utah. As of 2009 church members belonged to 28,424 local units; church materials are available 166 languages. Since the 1ate 1960s the church has had a growth rate of about 50 percent per decade. Based on this growth rate, the sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that Latter-day Saints “will soon achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths” (Stark 1984, 18).
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- Bushman, R. L. (1984). Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Daynes, K. M. (2001). More wives than one: The transformation of the Mormon marriage system. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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- Givens, T. (2002). By the hand of Mormon: The ancient scripture that launched a new world religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Shipps, J. (1985). Mormonism: The story of a new religious tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Smith, J. (1908). History of the church. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News.
- Stark, R. (1984). The rise of a new world faith. Review of Religious Research, 26(1), 18–27.
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