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7/2/97 Mormon summit preps for ’98 SBC; notes Christian, LDS differences

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Less than a week after 1997 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas, the denomination’s International and North American Mission boards sponsored a summit to prepare for next year’s meeting, June 9-11 in Salt Lake City, headquarters of one of the fastest-growing religions in the world — Mormonism.
The Denominational Summit on Mormonism brought together more than 100 SBC leaders and evangelical experts on the history, beliefs and missionary strategies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), better known as the Mormon Church.
The purpose of the June 27-28 meeting at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Baptist Conference Center was to begin preparing Southern Baptists to effectively share their faith with Mormons, who claim to be Christians but follow a system of beliefs very different from orthodox Christianity.
“Mormonism presents a totally different world view than Christianity in the Bible,” stated Phillip Roberts, director of the North American Mission Board’s interfaith witness division. “We’re not just talking about a few nuances or minor doctrinal differences. We’re talking about a different god, a different Jesus, a different scripture and different plan of salvation.”
Roberts said Southern Baptists can expect to be criticized by Mormon officials, liberal Christian churches and much of society for “speaking the truth about false teachings. But we must love Mormons and other non-believers enough to share with them the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
The first 150 years of the Mormon Church were characterized by nearly universal public condemnation for their unusual and non-biblical beliefs and practices. Founded by Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1830, LDS followers were driven out of Ohio, Missouri and Illinois before Smith was killed while escaping jail in Carthage, Ill. Brigham Young was affirmed as president of the church following Smith’s death and led several thousand followers to Utah where they established Salt Lake City in 1847.
Joseph Smith’s widow, Emma, resided in Independence, Mo. Those who affirmed her son, Joseph Smith III, as the true successor of his father and as prophet of the church helped establish the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) in 1852. Although the RLDS accepts the Book of Mormon as scripture, it has little theologically in common with the LDS. Headquartered in Independence, the RLDS is considerably smaller than the LDS, with less than 250,000 members worldwide.
In recent years, the LDS church has conducted an aggressive, well-financed public image campaign designed to depict church doctrine as mainstream Christianity and church members as strongly moral and dedicated to their family and church. The strategy, along with a missionary force of 50,000 well-trained, dedicated young Mormons, is working.
Worldwide, there are more than 24,000 local LDS congregations in 161 countries with nearly 10 million members, about half of whom live in the United States. LDS sources claim more than 300,000 worldwide converts annually, many from nominal members of Christian churches.
“Mormonism is confusing because they use the same terminology as Christianity, but they use a different dictionary,” Roberts stated. “Mormons don’t mean the same thing Baptists do when they talk about the scriptures, the gospel, virgin birth or even being born again.”
“If you ask a Mormon to bring you the scriptures, they will most likely bring you four books in one: The King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants,” Roberts said. “And even though they include the Bible and quote from it extensively, Mormons believe it is incomplete. The Book of Mormon is necessary to fill in the gaps.”
LDS members believe the Book of Mormon records the history of Native Americans who, Mormons say, were Jews who immigrated to the western hemisphere to escape the fall of Jerusalem in 600 B.C. “According to the book, Jesus came and gave them the full gospel and they began the true church,” Roberts said. “Although the people fell into paganism, according to the book, the history was recorded on golden plates to maintain a witness to their history.”
Joseph Smith reported that an angel named Moroni led him to discover and translate the plates into the Book of Mormon.
“The key question to raise about Mormon history and the Book of Mormon,” according to Roberts, is, “Are Native Americans Jewish? Mormons say yes. However, there is virtually no independent record or indication outside the Mormon Church that would lend any credence to that supposition.
“In fact, it’s not that we don’t know enough about the life, culture and religion of Native Americans, but rather, we know a lot about it and there is absolutely no evidence that there was anything Jewish about Indians in North or Central America.”
Roberts explained that historical and archeological evidence also “lines up against the Book of Mormon.”
“No Mormon cities in the book have been found. No Hebrew inscriptions have been found in Indian ruins. No ancient copies of transcripts or manuscripts or pieces or even fragments of manuscripts of the Book of Mormon have ever been found.”
Roberts cited examples of historical fact contradicting portions of the Book of Mormon, including the presences of horses in the first century in the western hemisphere and the existence of candles during the same time period, neither of which is true.
John L. Smith, a Baptist pastor who has studied Mormonism for many years, told summit participants the key question to ask Mormons is what they believe about God. “If they have that wrong, it doesn’t matter what they have right.”
The LDS church teaches that God was once a human being in a different age in a different part of the universe, and because of his obedience was made a god and given this planet and its inhabitants to rule over. Unlike the Hebrew God of the Bible, the Mormon god has a physical body and a wife or wives who also have physical bodies. He is not all-knowing, all-powerful nor omnipresent. There are, according to LDS teachings, countless other gods and goddesses in the universe.
Other participants encouraged those in attendance to talk with LDS people about who they believe Jesus is. Rauni Higley, a former Mormon translator, said, “I knew Jesus by name, but not who he was.” Another said he asks Mormons if he could introduce them to the man whom their church is named for.
Roberts explained that the Mormon Jesus is the literal, physical son of God. “There was, according to the LDS, a time when Jesus did not exist. He was born when Mrs. God was pregnant by Mr. God. That seems to me to be the most distinctive view that Mormonism has about Jesus,” Roberts said. “And Mormon theologians agree they still believe that and agree it is a huge difference between themselves and evangelical Christianity.
“Mormonism is also radical universalism,” Roberts said. “Their plan of salvation is built on the idea that all people have eternal life, but only the most faithful Mormons will enter the highest of three heavens.”
Sandra Tanner, a direct descendant of Brigham Young who along with her husband left the LDS church several years ago, told participants although the LDS church is growing, it faces a number of significant problems, not the least of which is polygamy.
“Polygamy is alive and well in Utah. There are an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people who practice polygamy in the West and it’s growing,” she said. There are about 10 major polygamist groups, some with 2,000 or more adherents, each led by a “prophet” claiming to represent a return to the true Mormon priesthood.
Tanner says LDS leaders are facing racial issues because, “Their scriptures and practices are racist. There is a racial ceiling in the church and non-whites can only advance so far. This is a white man’s church and if it continues to grow to non-whites, they’re going to realize it.
“When I was a Mormon, we were taught we are the only true church. We didn’t want to be seen as Christian,” Tanner added. “But now they want to hide the distinctives of their faith to gain acceptance by mainstream Christianity.
She noted, “LDS pastors are seeking membership in local ministerial associations. Their congregations want to cooperate with Christian churches in local food drives and exchange choirs and even let pastors exchange pulpits. They talk about families and give away Bibles, but they don’t talk about their odd doctrines. They still believe them; they just don’t talk about them.”
Mark Coppenger, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., described Mormonism as a designer religion which appeals to today’s American lifestyle.
Mormonism is “familial,” offering a cultural family on earth and a family unit which stays together through eternity, Coppenger explained. “It’s bombastic, claiming ‘you can be a god’ … and it’s sensual … a religion of eternal sex, which is a easy sell in America.”
Coppenger said Mormonism also appeals to Americans because it’s “clean-cut,” with wholesome-looking young, bicycle-riding missionaries with white shirts going door-to-door, and it’s “mercurial,” changing according to church leaders’ reading of the cultural temperature.
Virtually every presenter encouraged participants and Southern Baptists to not be afraid to witness to Mormons, but to be prepared with some understanding of Mormon beliefs — and a strong background in true biblical doctrines.
“Witnessing to Mormons isn’t easy,” Higley said. “But if you have a love for them, the Holy Spirit can use you to reach them.”

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  • Martin King