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History, beliefs of Mormons getting national attention

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Mormons have been holding a higher-than-usual profile in the news media recently, with new attention being placed on both their history and beliefs.
The interest is largely due to the 150th anniversary June 24 of their forefathers’ arrival in Salt Lake City, celebrated with a reenactment of the historic trek west. But the Southern Baptist Convention’s planned annual meeting in the Utah capital next year — just three years after the SBC’s own 150th anniversary — also is drawing attention to the essential doctrinal differences.
Time magazine, in the cover story for its Aug. 4 edition, takes an in-depth look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article notes the church’s business and financial strength, immense stockpiles of food for an anticipated period of tribulation before a coming millennial reign of Christ on earth, and dedicated lay leadership with the real-world business experience that has made the church financially successful.
It is precisely that all-lay clergy, however, that leads to a discussion of the group’s beliefs. “Religious observers point out that this creates a vacuum of theological talent in a church with a lot of unusual theology to explain,” the Time article states.
Mormons believe that shortly after his resurrection, Jesus Christ came to America to evangelize indigenous Americans, who actually themselves were once Jewish. That group is said to have fallen into paganism, however, and it was only in 1820 that God began to restore his church by revealing new scriptures to Joseph Smith through an angel, Moroni. Those scriptures, revealed on golden plates, were supposedly translated by Smith and published as the Book of Mormon in 1830.
The Time article noted the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) issued guidelines stating Mormons were not “within the historic apostolic tradition of the Christian Church,” echoing long-standing views of Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians. The Presbyterian denomination’s Utah subunit went further, concluding the Mormons “must be regarded as heretical,” the article said.
In recent years, the article reported, the church has been downplaying its differences with traditional Christianity — to the point of enlarging the words “Jesus Christ” in the church’s name on official letterhead and talking more of Christ and less of Joseph Smith during official tours of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.
Their president and chief prophet, Gordon B. Hinkley, also emphasized the church as “Christ-centered” while downplaying the Mormon doctrine that God was once a man and men can become like God. On that last point, the article said, Hinkley sounded uncertain. “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it … . I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.”
Phil Roberts, director of the interfaith witness evangelism team at the North American Mission Board, said he has written a letter to the editor to Time applauding their objective, comprehensive treatment of the Mormon church.
“My concern is that people in the United States in general look at Mormonism as a sociological or religious phenomenon without really looking at its theological roots and asking the question, ‘Are they what they say they are and are they genuinely Christian?'” he said. “At least Time took the effort to do that.” Roberts noted Time addressed the key issues in Mormon theology of the nature of God, the nature of Christ and the Mormon teaching that membership in their church is required for salvation.
“The thing about Mormons is they say … they are fully Mormon, but they also want to be fully Christian,” Roberts said.
Many Mormons, as Hinkley indicated, are not fully aware of the theology of their own church, Roberts noted. “They are going to have a crisis of faith eventually among some of their members who are going to ask the question, ‘What are we?’ The president of the church in Time magazine has to be put on the hot seat to say what they believe.”
Roberts said church leadership has tended to dismiss specific questions about theology with comments about casting “pearls before swine,” but he said the tactic cannot work indefinitely.
“They like to use spiritual reasons, but part of the problem is what they believe is offensive to Christianity, and a lot of their members don’t even understand … that it is offensive to Christianity.”
In coverage more directly related to Southern Baptists, the Salt Lake Tribune recently published two articles related to Southern Baptists’ arrival in their city next June. One article examined the recent NAMB video, “The Mormon Puzzle,” designed to introduce Southern Baptists to Mormon history and beliefs. Unlike some videos about Mormonism, the writer noted an attempt was made to let Mormons explain their beliefs in their own words while allowing Southern Baptists to explain how those beliefs differ from historical Christianity.
“Our first concern was to have the opportunity to interview their (LDS) spokesmen and theologians,” Roberts was quoted as saying in the Salt Lake Tribune article. “We wanted the church to speak for itself. Whenever we produce materials, we want to be accurate as possible.”
The video was premiered during the SBC annual meeting in Dallas in June.
Another article went into some detail preparing Salt Lake City residents for Southern Baptist evangelization efforts through Crossover Salt Lake City before the SBC annual meeting next June. The writer allowed Mike Gray, pastor of Salt Lake City’s Southeast Baptist Church, to explain the difference in proselytization efforts aimed at recruiting members and evangelism efforts aimed at introducing people to personal faith in Jesus Christ. Mormons practice proselytization, so the Southern Baptist evangelistic motive is not as well understood. “Our objective is not to take people from one church and into another, but to share Jesus and urge people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Gray said in the article, later adding the spirit of Crossover evangelism efforts will be positive.
“This is not a Mormon thing, but Southern Baptists coming in for a meeting and to share Jesus with the people while we’re here,” Gray said.
The 70-minute video, “The Mormon Puzzle,” designed for use either alone or with a kit of accompanying studying materials, is available through the North American Mission Board’s customer service line, 1-800- 634-2462.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson