What it means to be Mormon, Part 1
By John D. Turner
27 Sep 2007

In some of my writings, I have mentioned that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; “the Mormon’s” in common vernacular. For the most part, this is of little importance in as far as the content of my articles are concerned, unless there is some point I want to make that requires an understanding of that background. Lately however, Mormons are gaining more attention. Perhaps the time is right to gain a little insight.

So what exactly is a “Mormon’? What is the “Mormon Church”, or as it is formally called, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how do its beliefs differ from that of other churches? Are Mormon’s Christians? And why should one care?

The vast majority of people in this country don’t really know what Mormons are or what makes them different from anyone else. Aside from a very few who get all worked up when they hear the name, most wouldn’t know a Mormon from a Mennonite, or much care, despite the fact that they probably unknowingly brush elbows with them from time to time, or may even live next door to or work with one.

This has changed somewhat with the recent candidacy of Mitt Romney for President. While it is still too early for most Americans to generate much interest in presidential politics, the airwaves and newspapers are full of speculation on this candidate or that, and the fact that one of the Republican front-runners is (whisper it softly), a “Mormon”, is just too titillating a topic to pass up. So much so that Mr. Romney is spending more time fielding religion questions (usually the same ones over and over) than he is talking about policy, which I am sure he finds quite frustrating.

Every day there seems to be a new spate of articles by non-Mormons on what it means to be Mormon. Some of these are genuine attempts to understand and explain the faith to their readership. Others are deliberately misguiding diatribes, written by people with an agenda either against Mitt directly or practitioners of the Mormon faith in general. Of the genuine attempts to understand, many are written based on interviews the writer had with one or more members of the church.

The problem with most of these articles is that they are written by non-members, attempting to explain a faith they do not understand, to other non-members. Many of these writers have no cultural referents to understand the bits and snippets they get from these interviews, or other information sources. So, when they sit down to compose their article, they filter what they have gathered through their understanding of their own “faith tradition” or “faith bias” as the case may be, and the result is an article that while perhaps mostly correct, to an actual Mormon is just a bit off kilter in the way it is written. The result is what you get when two people speak English at each other and each comes away with a different understanding of what was said. It’s kind of like what George Bernard Shaw said about England and America being two countries separated by a common language; something is lost in “translation”.

I am not faulting the writers, who for the most part are trying their best. But I am sure that I am not the only LDS reader who winces every time they read one of these articles and sees that the writer got it just a little bit wrong – and that difference, to us, makes all the difference in the world.

So, after reading quite a number of these, I decided to write this and other articles like it to explain just a little bit of “what it means to be a Mormon.” As you might guess, this could be quite a task. And what it means to be a Mormon to me might not mean the same thing to another Mormon. We are, after all, individuals. So I am going to try and keep this pretty simple and general, and still try to convey some meaning. I am by no means doing this in any official capacity vis-a-vis my church. I have not been called to do this, and my opinions are strictly my own.

I also do not claim to be a great theologian. It is not my intent here to defend my faith’s particular views on particular subjects, nor am I particularly interested in recounting or discussing events that may have transpired in the Church’s history. That is not my purpose. A large percentage of people, when asked in polls state that they would not, under any conceivable circumstances, vote for a Mormon. It is my belief that most of these people are saying this out of ignorance; they don’t know what a Mormon is, but they know it sounds weird. And they don’t, understandably, want to vote for a weirdo for president.

It is my intent to explain enough about us so that you won’t live in fear that the Mormon next door is the next David Koresh. We don’t eat babies, or sacrifice virgins at the vernal equinox. You are more likely to be buried by Mormons under a mound of shredded carrots in lime Jello than you are to be physically attacked by one, and though you may encounter Kool-Aid at a Mormon potluck, and we may have members named Jim Jones (it is not that uncommon a name in America), you can drink it safe in the knowledge that you aren’t about to meet your maker (at least from the Kool-Aid; the jury is still out on Sister Smith’s chili.) And while you still may not want to vote for Mitt Romney for president, hopefully it will be because you disagree with him on one or more issues rather than because he belongs to a religious faith that you don’t understand and feel a bit queasy about.

You will hear me refer to my religion in various ways during the course of these articles. I will use the term “Mormon”, because it is the common term in use for members of my faith. The Church prefers the formal title “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”; however as this does not come trippingly off the tongue, you will hear many members of the Church refer to themselves as “Mormons” as well, and the Church as “the Mormon Church.” As another piece of shorthand, you will often see the letter’s “LDS” as well, and hear the Church referred to as “the LDS Church.” LDS stands for “Latter-day Saints”. So when you pass a car (or more likely mini-van or SUV – we tend to have a lot of kids) that has an LDS sticker on the back window, it probably isn’t a college, it’s probably a Mormon.

So why do we call ourselves “Latter-day Saints”? Is it because we think we are perfect and better than anyone else? Not really. Like everyone else, we are fallible humans too; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” applies to us just as well. No, we call ourselves saints because that is what the early Christians referred to themselves as. It was not meant in the sense of Saint this or that, but rather in the sense of believers in Christ. The latter-day part comes from the belief that we are in the “last dispensation of times”; the “latter-days” prior to the return of Christ to the Earth. In this belief we are joined by a large chunk of American Christendom.

So what do we believe? This is a subject that takes more than a paragraph, and will be touched on briefly here and explained more fully in later articles. As one might ascertain by the full formal name of our Church (and why our leadership is so insistent that we use it), we believe in Jesus Christ. Like most Christian religions on the face of the planet, he is the cornerstone of our faith. Where we differ from most other Christian churches is in matters of doctrine. Many of our beliefs are very different from those held by mainstream Christian churches in this country. However, despite disingenuous attempts by some to characterize our belief in Christ as pertaining to a different Jesus Christ we maintain that there is in fact only one historical Jesus Christ, He who was spoken of in the Bible. And yes, we do use the Bible. The King James Version of the Bible is part of our canon of scripture.

A concise description of what we believe is contained in what we refer to as The Articles of Faith which first appeared in a letter sent to the editor of the Chicago Democrat by Joseph Smith, the founder of our church, in response to the question of what Mormons believe. These thirteen items do not include all Church doctrines, nor are they a “creed” in the sense of the Nicene or Apostles Creeds. Nevertheless, they are a useful summary of fundamental beliefs, and are a part of our cannon of scripture as well.

And what exactly is our canon of scripture? It consists of four “standard works”; The Holy Bible (Old and New Testament, King James Version), The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. On any given Sunday, if you were to attend our worship service, you might find one of the speakers quoting scripture from any or all of these. Each year we study one in depth during “Sunday School” (which is called different things depending on the age group involved; Primary, ages 5-11; Sunday School (imaginative name, huh), ages 12-18; and Gospel Doctrines, 18+). This year, our study is on the New Testament.

You will notice that I used the term “speaker” and not “preacher” when I mentioned our worship service. That is because while our church has leadership in the form of a ward bishop and his counselors, we do not have any “preacher” as such, because we have no paid ministry. Any member of the congregation is subject to being called up in front of everyone to give a talk on a particular topic on any given Sunday (except the first Sunday of the month, which is Fast and Testimony Sunday, a different topic for a different article).

Generally, this is the function of one of the bishop’s counselors who (hopefully) gives you enough lead time for you to prepare your talk! I myself have had the “pleasure” of doing this on several occasions. I can attest to the fact that you learn a lot in the process of preparing for your talk! It is my opinion that the Lord calls people to give talks, not necessarily because the topic is one with which they are familiar, but, at least in some cases, because the topic is one that they need to know more about! No one is immune from the vulnerability of speaking before the congregation. Neither age nor gender is a bar, though for the younger ones, the length of their talk is generally much shorter, typically from 1-5 minutes, vice 10-20. Typically there are three speakers, though this can vary. And on occasion, there may be a speaker from outside the ward, usually from the high council.

You may have noticed that I first mentioned that it was the job of one of the bishop’s counselors to call someone to give a talk, and then later opined that the Lord calls people to give talks for a particular reason? The two are not mutually exclusive. That is because practically everything that happens in our Church is the result of a calling. And in our Church, callings are extended after much praying, and in many cases, fasting as well. While callings are extended by those with the authority to extend them, we believe that the person extending the calling was inspired by the Lord to extend the calling to the person being called.

Everything in our church is a calling. My wife and I each have a calling, extended to us by the Bishop through the Primary Presidency, to teach a 9 year old Primary class. I have two daughters who were called as members of their respective Young Women’s Presidencies, and another who was called to be Relief Society music director. My oldest son has been called to serve a mission, and is currently doing so in Sheridan, Wyoming.

In keeping with the concept of a lay ministry, the Bishop and his counselors are also called to the positions they hold. Our Bishop, who in his regular job owns his own air conditioning business, was called to his position by our Stake President, who in turn was called to his position by one of the General Authorities of the Church. The Bishop’s two counselors are called by the Bishop. Together, they are referred to as the Bishopric. It is their job, not to preach from the pulpit, but to:

This is a heavy responsibility. And it takes a lot of time, usually at least 20-30 hours each week minimum. And it is all done voluntarily, without pay.

Why am I going into all this about the Church structure? I know it can be a bit dry (and some of the articles in the links are quite long). But this is part of the “cultural background” that Mormon’s take for granted. If you use the term “ward” or “stake” or “bishopric”, a Mormon knows immediately what you are talking about; a non-member probably doesn’t. A Mormon knows what it means to be “called to a position”. It is subtly different from what a Protestant minister might mean when he or she says they were “called to the Ministry”.

There are many subtle differences. For example, the article linked to by the term “ward” stated that a ward was loosely comparable to a Protestant congregation. But while it did mention the fact that a ward is set up along a physical geographical boundary (as are stakes), it didn’t go much into what that implies; that the ward you belong to is determined by where you live, and that the time you attend church services is determined by when your ward meets. Unlike many churches that have services several times on Sunday from which you can pick and choose, in our Church where and when you meet is fixed. If your ward meets at 0900, then you are at church at 0900. If it meets at 1230 as ours does, then you are at church at 1230 (or a little before in order to get a good seat). Typically from 1-3 wards meet at the same building with different assigned blocks of time, which may or may not overlap each other (ours has four, three wards and a branch). However, even though you may prefer to attend church at 1230 instead of 0900, you are still expected to attend the services of your home ward. It’s an efficient arrangement. We in essence “time share” the building, which results in a need for fewer buildings for our congregations.

This does not mean that you cannot attend other wards, for example, when traveling, or visit other wards in your local area for special occasions, such is baptisms, confirmations, and the like. And sometimes things come up. It is better to attend sacrament in another ward than to not attend sacrament at all. However, if you are in town, you are expected to attend your home ward meetings and fulfill any callings you may have that would require your presence on Sunday (such as being a Primary teacher, like myself). And just so that someone doesn’t get stuck eternally with the “early shift”, meeting times are rotated each year at the beginning of the year.

You are at the most basic level, tied to your ward. By virtue of it being a geographical area, those who attend it are your neighbors. In an area with a high-density Mormon population, a ward may geographically be as small as a city block. In other areas, it can be quite large as Mormons make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, and most of that is concentrated in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, and California. Your ward is your family. Its leaders are your neighbors. The people you hear speak on Sunday are your neighbors. The people who staff the positions in your church are your neighbors. And the people who show up at church socials, Cub Scouts, Boy Scout meetings, church basketball and other sporting activities are – your neighbors.

But a ward is more than that. A bishop is responsible for the welfare of everyone within his ward boundaries. It is no accident that you find Mormon’s helping out whenever there is a natural disaster. This is not simply because the LDS church is seeking good publicity. It is because that area falls under the responsibility of someone within the Church, whose job it is to help those in need. And that person falls under the responsibility of someone else in the church, and so on up the chain. If the problem is small, it can be handled by the ward. If bigger, the stake may need to marshal its resources to help out. If it is truly of biblical proportion, such as a tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, the entire Church may become involved and volunteers may pour in from everywhere.

So when a newspaper or magazine article states that Mitt Romney has served in the position of Bishop in the Mormon Church, knowing some of the scope of the duties of a Mormon Bishop (sometimes referred to as “the father of his ward”), and what he does helps you to better know and understand the candidate.

In addition to serving as a Bishop, Mitt has also served in the position of Stake President as well, the duties and responsibilities of which I haven’t even gone into (but which you can research via the link I embedded in the text above). Suffice it to say that a Stake President and his counselors (known as a Stake Presidency) are responsible for the care and feeding of all the wards and branches (an ecclesiastical unit smaller than a ward), usually around 5-7 units depending on size, within a given geographical boundary. As you can see, there is a lot of background behind the simple words “served as a Bishop and Stake President”, and I only touched on a little of it.

Understanding this may give a little insight on “what it means to be a Mormon”. With these basic terms under your belt, hopefully, in my next article, I will be able to provide you with “further light and knowledge”; a bit more insight into those strange folks known as “Mormons”.