The LDS Church’s Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, in January.
It is one of the great ironies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that while outsiders perceive it largely in terms of its unusual doctrines, the Saints see themselves in a completely different light. The outer world focuses, for example, on matters like polygamy. “Holy underwear” is also a favorite topic, as is their aspiration to divinity and their belief that God was once a man. The century and a half they banned blacks from their temple and priesthood is much discussed. So is iron-fisted rule from LDS headquarters at Salt Lake City’s “Temple Square.” The Mormon opposition to California’s Proposition 8 has made them look homophobic, their insistence upon being baptized for Jewish Holocaust survivors has made them look cruel, and their standard missionary presentation has made them look mindlessly robotic. All of these novelties frame the perceptions of Mormons in the wider world.
Ask a Saint about any of these, though, and an expression of confusion will likely flash fleetingly across his face. He knows that each is part of the Mormon matrix but he likely does not think of any as vital. Doctrine is not primary for him; experience is. The prophecies and the ordinances and the revelations from Heavenly Father are what make up his religion. Most of the doctrines so often discussed in the press are at the edge of his experience and are rarely on his mind.
Let him speak for a moment about his own Mormon experience and a far different picture will likely emerge. He may very well talk about what home teaching is like and how dear the community of the Saints has become. He’ll likely describe, even with tears, how he’s raising his children to be holy. If he is trusting, he will tell of the time he was sick and a priesthood blessing made him well. He may even speak, loosely, of his sealing to his wife for time and all eternity and of the endowment ceremony he has gone through. He will not give details, of course, but he will still make his point. It is not the doctrines that have won him. He is sometimes isn’t even sure what all of them are. It’s the supernatural empowering of a holy community that is most important to him.
This is the great disconnect between how Mormons understand themselves and then how the rest of the world perceives them. It is easy to see the Latter-day Saints as extremists drawn to extreme teachings, as the descendants of a nineteenth-century cult who are now trying to give their scraggly batch of weird doctrines a modern, high-tech, public relations overhaul. Whatever truth there may be in this, it misses the central point of Mormonism as Mormons themselves try to live it. And this, in the end, is the version of Mormonism that is going to prevail in the coming century-the version the Saints are living out while asking others to join them.
For a Latter-day Saint, the heart of Mormonism is the restoration of priesthood authority. It is impossible to overstate this. At the core of everything Saintly is the unshakable belief that something lost for centuries was restored through Joseph Smith. It is now present in the modern world. It is present only through the LDS Church. It is what all men will ultimately need.
Mormons believe that the pure Christianity of Jesus Christ lasted only a short while after Jesus left this life. The Christian church quickly became unrighteous and corrupt, and stayed that way until around 1830. In other words, for centuries the Christian church was a perverse shell of what was intended. Then came Joseph Smith. He not only gave the world the Book of Mormon, but he also received, along with a man named Oliver Cowdery, the restoration of the true priesthood of God. Mormons speak of this as a restoration of “priesthood authority,” which they believe was given in two defining appearances by glorified human beings: an appearance by John the Baptist and an appearance by the apostles Peter, John, and James. In these appearances or “visitations,” the only real priesthood was restored–to Mormons.
This means that when someone asks, “Where has the great age of miracles and revelation gone?” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, “It is here, right now, with us.” What Mormons believe they have in this “priesthood authority” is the ability to “bring Jesus Christ into people’s lives” through “ordinances.” It is the ability to give the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to have revelations, to bless, dedicate, and even to heal. In other words, it is the supernatural power to do the “great works” that were done before the Christian church went astray.
Of course, the nonreligious think this is crazy. The traditional Christian thinks it is devilish. The Jew thinks it is evidence of a stolen legacy. And nearly everyone not a Mormon thinks it is fruit of an astonishing Mormon arrogance.
Still, it is one of the most important truths we can know about what Mormonism is. Despite Joseph Smith’s many doctrinal innovations, Mormonism is not primarily about doctrine. It is a about the experience of a restored supernatural power, the all-important matter of “priesthood authority.” This was what Smith built upon. It is what early Mormons sought. It is still at the heart of the faith. It is what outsiders most misunderstand.
The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield (Worthy Publishing).
Stephen Mansfield is a writer and speaker best known for his books on the role of religion in history, leadership, and modern culture. His most recent is “The Mormonizing of America.”