Oddities of Mormon Theology


Catholic Answers Magazine

Courtesy of Catholic Answers

Are Mormons Protestants? No, but their founder, Joseph Smith, came from a Protestant background, and Protestant presuppositions form part of the basis of Mormonism.

Still, it isn't correct to call Mormons Protestants, because doing so implies they hold to the essentials of Christianity—what C. S. Lewis termed "mere Christianity." The fact is, they don't. Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of Mormonism's First Presidency, says (in a booklet called What of the Mormons?) that Mormons "are no closer to Protestantism than they are to Catholicism."

That isn't quite right—it would be better to say they're even further from Catholicism than from Protestantism—but Hinckley has a good case. Let's examine it, and we can start by considering the young men who come to your door.

They always come in pairs and are dressed conservatively, usually in white shirts and ties. As often as not, they get from place to place by bicycle. They introduce themselves to you as Elder This and Elder That. The title "Elder" means they hold one of the two Mormon priesthoods, the Melchizedek.

This priesthood is something every practicing Mormon male achieves at age twelve, "provided he conforms to the standards of the Church." The Aaronic priesthood is the lesser; it "is concerned with the temporal affairs of the Church, and its ranks are known as deacon, teacher, then priest.

The Melchizedek priesthood is concerned mainly with spiritual affairs, and it "embrac[es] all of the authority of the Aaronic," explains Hinckley. The Melchizedek ranks are elder, seventy, and high priest. At age twelve boys become deacons in a ceremony that parallels the bar mitzvah of Judaism.

If the terms for the various levels of the Mormon priesthood are confusing, still more confusing is the ecclesiastical structure. The basic unit, equivalent to a small parish, is the ward. Wards within a single geographical area form a stake, which corresponds to a small diocese.

The head of each ward isn't called a priest, as you might expect, but a bishop. A Mormon bishop can officiate at a civil marriage, but not at a "temple marriage," which can be performed only by a "sealer" in one of Mormonism's temples.


This may be an opportune time to make a few comments about the place of marriage in Mormonism. One of the attractions of this religion, surely, is the apparent solidity of its marriages (even though that solidity is as much illusion as reality). But if Mormonism and marriage bring to mind anything, it is polygamy.

Hinckley explains that "Mormonism claims to be a restoration of God's work in all previous dispensations. The Old Testament teaches that the patriarchs . . . had more than one wife under divine sanction. In the course of the development of the Church in the nineteenth century, it was revealed to the leader of the Church that such a practice should be entered into again."

Although polygamy was permitted to Mormons, few practiced it, but enough did so to make it the characteristic that most caught the attention of other Americans.

Mormonism, you should understand, is one of those religions which is peculiarly American. (A few others come to mind immediately, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science.) Although now spread beyond the borders of the United States, Mormonism is so tied to a certain brand of American nationalism that you couldn't imagine the religion starting up anywhere else.

Nationalism in Mormonism

If today's fundamentalists are known, many of them, for their belief that America is destined to play a key role in the events of the Last Days, Mormons are identified even closer with America, their theory being, of course, that Christ renewed his work here, among the Indians, after it flopped in Palestine.

The Anglican Church is not just the Church of Englishmen. It is the Established Church. In theory, and even at times in practice, Parliament can decide what Anglicans are to believe officially and can make and unmake clerics of all grades, from the lowliest curate to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Just as Anglicanism is tied to England, so Mormonism is tied to the United States. Although it is not the established religion of this country, Mormonism has allowed itself to be modified by Congress.

"In the late 1880s," says Hinckley, "Congress passed various measures prohibiting [polygamy]. When the Supreme Court declared these laws constitutional, the Church indicated its willingness to comply. It could do nothing else in view of its basic teachings on the necessity for obedience to the law of the land. That was in 1890. Since then officers of the Church have not performed plural marriages, and members who have entered into such relationships have been excommunicated."

Before Congress acted, Mormons were convinced polygamy was not merely permissible, but positively good, for those "of the highest character who had proved themselves capable of maintaining more than one family."

Yet this position was dropped when Washington threatened to deny statehood to Utah. (Similarly, and more recently, a "revelation," saying blacks would no longer be denied the Mormon priesthood, was given to Mormon leaders when the feds started breathing down their necks.)

Continuing Revelation

These continuing revelations are not exceptions to Mormon practice. "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things"—this is the ninth article of faith for Mormons and is an official statement of doctrine.

Hinckley notes that "Christians and Jews generally maintain that God revealed himself and directed chosen men in ancient times. Mormons maintain that the need for divine guidance is as great or greater in our modem, complex world as it was in the comparatively simple times of the Hebrews." Thus, continuing revelation.

It might be added: continuing public revelation. Catholics hold that public (general) revelation ended at the death of the last apostle, but private revelations can be given still—and have been, as the Marian apparitions testify.

Mormonism's Debt to Puritanism

"Mormon theology," says Hinckley, "deals with such widely diversified subjects as the nature of heaven and the evils of alcohol. Actually, in this philosophy the two are closely related. Since man is created in the image of God, his body is sacred . . . As such, it ill becomes any man or women to injure or dissipate his or her health." So alcohol is out for the believing Mormon.

Here we have an example of Mormonism borrowing from Puritanism. The fact is, of course, that the religion Joseph Smith developed uses elements of various forms of Protestantism, and the emphasis on "temperance"—which, to the old-line Protestants, meant not the moderate use of alcohol, but outright abstinence—is one such borrowing.

The curious thing is that this attitude is contrary to the Bible. It is one of those doctrines, shared by fundamentalists, many evangelicals, and Mormons, that is believed independently of the Bible, though, to be sure, the Bible is searched (and not very successfully) for verses that seem to back it.

The ancient Jews were a temperate people—temperate used in the right sense. They used light wine as part of the regular diet (1 Tim. 3:8). Jesus, you will recall, was call a winebibber (Matt. 11:19), the charge being not that he drank, but that he drank too much.

Jesus Wasn't a Teetotaler

The New Testament nowhere says Jesus' opponents claimed he should have been a teetotaler. Wine was used also at weddings, of course, and our Lord apparently approved of the practice; after all, when the wine was depleted at Cana, he made more out of water.

Something Mormons seldom refer to is wine's medicinal uses (Luke 10:34). You will recall that Paul advised Timothy to take wine to ease stomach pains (1 Tim. 5:23). Such apostolic admonitions co-exist uneasily with Mormonism's strictures against wine.

As is so often the case when founders of new religions get an idea into their heads and take it to extremes, the misuse of wine has been confused with the legitimate use. Granted, the Bible condemns excessive drinking (1 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pet. 4:3), but the key here is the adjective.

When Hinckley refers to the "evils of alcohol," he gets it wrong. Alcohol itself is not evil, but the misuse of it is, just as a hammer, which can be used to pound in nails, can be misused to pound in skulls.

Copyright Catholic Answers