Many of the central concepts of the Mormon religion are laid out in the Articles of Faith, a 13-point list of the Latter-day Saints' most important beliefs.
These key elements of the faith include belief in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit; belief in modern prophets and continuing revelation; belief that through Christ's atonement all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of Christ's Gospel; belief in the importance of repentance and baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sins; and belief in the right of all people to worship God as they please. The Articles of Faith also affirm a belief in the Bible as the word of God, insofar as it is correctly translated, and in the Book of Mormon as an equally important scriptural source.
The 10th Article of Faith relates to the Mormons' distinct perspective on history and on the second coming of Jesus. Like many conservative Christians, the Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus will return to earth to establish Zion, the paradisiacal Promised Land, but the Mormons believe specifically that Jesus will establish his new kingdom on the American continent. This expectation derives from revelation given through the prophet Joseph Smith, and it is in harmony with the history laid out in the Book of Mormon, a modern scripture that came into being through the agency of the prophet.
This text, which reads something like the Old Testament, tells the story of an ancient Hebrew patriarch and prophet named Lehi, who, in roughly 600 B.C., was called by God to lead a group of Jews from Jerusalem to the New World. The group established themselves somewhere in North America and, according to this history, at least some Native Americans descended from these immigrants. Eventually, Jesus appeared to these New World Jews and taught the Christian Gospel to them. From this civilization, God continued to call forth prophets, including one named Mormon, the original author of the text that would be engraved on plates of gold that Mormons believe Joseph Smith unearthed in the late 1820s. Along with the plates, Smith said he found the Urim and Thummim, a translating contrivance that allowed him to read the engravings on the plates.
A group of followers coalesced around Smith as he dictated his translation of the plates to scribes. Soon after the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the prophet and his followers organized the Church of Christ, an ecclesiastical institution that differed from all other Christian churches at the time because it was led by a prophet and had another sacred text in addition to the Old and New Testaments. Revelation told the members of this new church that theirs was the restoration of the New Testament church that had been removed from the earth during a "Great Apostasy" that occurred at the end of the apostolic era. This revelation convinced Smith's followers that theirs was the only true church, a doctrinal claim that is still held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the church headquartered in Salt Lake City also known as the "Mormon Church" or the "LDS Church").
Another important element of the Latter-day Saints' doctrine is their concept of a "plan of salvation" that encompasses the spirit's existence before, during and after time spent on earth. The Saints believe that prior to being born, each person has a pre-mortal life. In the pre-mortal realm, spirits dwell with God, the literal father of all people, and develop talents and knowledge to prepare for mortal life. When their preparation is complete, individuals must progress and spend time on earth. Gaining a physical body, they practice actively choosing between good and evil (the Articles of Faith reject the concept of original sin) and gain new levels of knowledge that will allow them to become like God, the ultimate goal of Mormon spiritual development.
Mormons believe that after death, the spirit leaves the body and moves on to the spirit world to wait for resurrection. During this time, those who did not embrace the Gospel are segregated from those who lived according to God's word, and the spirits of individuals who never had a chance to hear the Gospel are given this opportunity. The Plan of Salvation teaches that Heaven is divided into three separate kingdoms of glory: the celestial, the terrestrial, and the telestial. These kingdoms are where all men and women (except a certain few known as Sons of Perdition, who will go to Outer Darkness) will go after they are judged by God and their spirits are reunited with what will be their immortal bodies. Those judged to have followed the Gospel move on to the celestial kingdom, ruled by God himself. Those who did not devoutly follow but also did not actively reject the word of God are sent to the Terrestrial Kingdom, and those who actively rejected the Gospel or committed grievous sins must dwell in the Telestial Kingdom, away from God's light.
Latter-day Saints believe entrance into each kingdom depends on a person's worthiness and their adherence to the commandments of God and the ordinances he has prescribed. Since God is the ultimate judge, all people will be judged fairly and put into the kingdom where they will be most happy. Mormon Scripture describes that men and women will be sent to "their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive" (Doctrine and Covenants [D&C] 88:32). Many people will be sent to the lower kingdoms "because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received" (D&C 88:32), namely exaltation in the celestial kingdom. Even so, according to Mormon theology, all three kingdoms are kingdoms of glory, and even the lowest is more glorious than man can currently comprehend.
Because Jesus Christ is a central figure in their theology, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider themselves Christians. While it is true that the church has recently placed more emphasis on their Christian-ness than it once did, from the time the church was organized in 1830 onward, church members have always regarded themselves as Christians. Their name, "Latter-day Saints" references the fact that members of the "primitive" church in New Testament times were called Saints. Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the church, has said, "We are Christians in a very real sense and that is coming to be more and more widely recognized. Once upon a time people everywhere said we are not Christians. They have come to recognize that we are, and that we have a very vital and dynamic religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ." To clarify the Christian themes at the center of their faith, the church added the subtitle "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" to the Book of Mormon in 1981.
There are Christians -- particularly among the modern evangelical and fundamentalist communities -- who argue that Mormons are not Christians. They base this contention on the fact that the Mormon conception of God -- summarized by LDS President Lorenzo Snow, who said, "As man is God once was, and as God is man may become" -- differs from traditional Christian ideas. They also point to the Mormons' avoidance of the cross as a religious symbol (Mormons believe it is a symbol of Christ's death, and they prefer to focus on his life, his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his resurrection); their belief in the fallibility of the Bible (because of its human translation); their acceptance of continuing revelation (which gives Mormonism an open canon); and their rejection of the Nicene Creed, a list of common Christian beliefs originally authored in 325 AD and subscribed to by most denominations.
Animosity between fundamentalist Christians and Mormons peaked in the 1990s, when the Southern Baptist Convention held an annual meeting in Salt Lake City, partly in hopes of converting Mormons to Protestant Christianity. More recently, some high-profile fundamentalist Christians have gone on record apologizing for past discord and accepting Mormonism as a branch of Christianity, but some tension remains.
The Mormon temple is considered an earthly point of contact with higher spheres of being. Mormons believe that God is present in the temple space. This makes it a sacred place set aside to learn things that allow individuals to progress toward becoming like God -- the temple ordinances, especially celestial marriage, make "eternal progression toward Godhood" possible. The family unit is central to Mormonism, and the primary ritual function of the temple is to perform ceremonies that seal families together, thus allowing them to dwell together for eternity when they pass on to the celestial kingdom. The specific rituals supporting this function are marriage and family sealing ceremonies -- in which a husband, wife and children are officially bound together -- and baptism for the dead -- through which individuals who died without accepting the Latter-day Saints' Gospel and no longer possess the physical body required for baptism are represented by living proxies, thereby granting them the opportunity to join their families in the celestial kingdom.
The temple is also used to perform the Mormon endowment ceremony. During this ritual, adult Mormons go through a series of lessons and exercises to deepen their faith, and they make covenants with God to keep his commandments. After receiving their endowments, Latter-day Saints wear a distinctive underwear on which special marks are embroidered. Known as "garments", this underwear, worn next to the skin at nearly all times, is meant to remind individuals of their commitment to their faith and to God. Men generally receive their endowment before going on a mission and women before they marry, but it is not a one-time ceremony like baptism. Saints are encouraged to return to the temple throughout their lives to continue growing their faith by experiencing the rituals of endowment.
Before Latter-day Saints can go to the temple to receive their Endowments, they must obtain a Temple recommend, a card signed by a church leader to certify that the bearer is in good standing within the church. Good standing, ascertained by an interview process, includes having a strong testimony of the truth of the Gospel, keeping up with the law of tithing, following the 10 commandments and the Word of Wisdom, and otherwise proving one's faith and commitment. Inside the temple, men wear all-white suits and women wear floor-length white dresses.
Non-Mormons and Mormons without a temple recommend are not allowed into the temple. The church says this is to preserve the sacred nature of the practices that take place inside and to avoid potential distractions and disruptions. Non-Mormons are, however, welcome to attend the Latter-day Saints' chapels, where weekly Sunday services and meetings take place. The general public are also allowed to tour newly-constructed temples during the brief window of time before they are officially dedicated.
The most common and visible target for charges of suspicious secrecy in the Mormon religion are the temples. After dedication, these buildings are closed to the public and church members do not talk openly about the rituals that take place within. The church holds that the temple and its rituals are sacred and therefore private, not secret. They maintain that early Christianity featured similar special practices and bodies of knowledge that were kept quiet to preserve their sacred nature.
Church finances are also kept confidential, provoking criticism that there is no way for church members or outsiders to know where money from tithing and other revenue goes. And the church has also been questioned about the secrecy surrounding their defense of doctrine. Latter-day Saints can face excommunication if, after being warned, they continue to publicly discuss problematic or provocative elements of Mormon theology that the church chooses not to draw attention to. Because disciplinary councils that can lead to excommunication are always private, the process of gathering information and the closed meetings that consider the fate of a disciplined member add to the perception of Mormon secrecy.
The rituals of the Mormon faith include ceremonies performed in the temple -- endowment, baptism of the dead, celestial marriage and family sealings -- plus several ceremonies that take place in Mormon chapels. The naming and blessing of infants -- performed by a priesthood holder, often the baby's father -- takes place in the chapel. Baptisms are held in the chapels when Mormon children turn 8 years old or when an adult converts to the faith. Family and friends generally attend both of these rituals. The Latter-day Saints also have a practice of annointing and blessing the sick if an ill individual so desires.
Like other Christians, Mormons celebrate Christmas and Easter as their two most important religious holidays. The Latter-day Saints also observe Pioneer Day on July 24, marking the date the first Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah's Salt Lake Valley in 1847. It is around the time of this holiday that the church presents its elaborate history pageant at the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith found the golden plates.
Mormons also observe the Sabbath each week. On Sundays, they attend a sacrament meeting at their chapel, which includes readings, hymns, prayers, communion and testimonies from a few speakers from the congregation. This service is preceded and/or followed by meetings of the Sunday school, the Women's Relief Society, the men of the priesthood, and other church groups; the average Mormon spends roughly three hours at their chapel on Sundays. The rest of the Sabbath is observed by spending a quiet day at home, visiting friends or family, or performing charitable works.
Latter-day Saints believe that the body is a gift from God to be cared for and respected, not to be polluted or abused. In their daily lives, Saints follow a set of health guidelines Joseph Smith received from God in 1833 called the Word of Wisdom. As interpreted today, this code states that Mormons should abstain from coffee and tea, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. Over time there has been dispute and changing mores within the church regarding exactly what the Word of Wisdom disallows. For example, the original document warned against drinking any hot beverages, but over time this has come to be interpreted as only hot beverages containing caffeine. Some debate remains over whether cold caffeinated beverages like colas should also be avoided; the church's official policy is to leave it up to individuals to decide.
Mormons are advised not to get tattoos and to limit body piercings to a single pair of plain earrings for women. They also follow a general dress code that teaches that modest dress not only shows respect for one's own body and for God, but also has a positive effect on spirituality and behavior.
Mormons believe that the family is an eternal unit and central to God's plan. In fact, eternal progression toward Godhood is limited to those who marry for time and eternity (celestial marriage) in a ceremony conducted by a properly ordained member of the LDS priesthood in a Mormon temple. Church President Hinckley has also stressed the importance of the family during mortal life, saying, "If you want to reform a nation, you begin with families, with parents who teach their children principles and values that are positive and affirmative and will lead them to worthwhile endeavors. That is the basic failure that has taken place in America. And we are making a tremendous effort to bring about greater solidarity in families. Parents have no greater responsibility in this world than the bringing up of their children in the right way, and they will have no greater satisfaction as the years pass than to see those children grow in integrity and honesty and make something of their lives, adding to society because they are a part of it." To strengthen families, many Mormons observe "family home evening." This is one night a week -- generally Monday -- that a family spends together praying, learning about scripture, sharing things from their lives, and playing games or engaging in other fun at-home activities.
The Mormon interest in genealogy is closely linked to their doctrine of baptism for the dead and their belief that the family unit will continue to exist beyond mortal life. Mormons trace their family trees to find the names of ancestors who died without learning about the restored Mormon Gospel so that these relatives from past generations can be baptized by proxy in the temple. Once baptized, if the ancestor's spirit has accepted the Gospel, they will be able to be together with the rest of their baptized Mormon family in the celestial kingdom. For the Saints, genealogy is a way to save more souls and strengthen the eternal family unit.
Mormon marriages are different from most marriages because they are considered eternal. If a husband and wife are sealed together in the temple, they can be together on into the celestial kingdom. However, the church does have a process for annulment and sees divorce as an unfortunately necessary evil. In Mormon President Gordon Hinckley's words: "There is now and again a legitimate cause for divorce. I am not one to say that it is never justified. But I say without hesitation that this plague among us, which seems to be growing everywhere, is not of God, but rather is the work of the adversary of righteousness and peace and truth."
Just as a civil marriage does not automatically translate into a temple sealing for a Mormon couple, a civil divorce does not unseal them. If a divorcing couple wishes to become unsealed, they must receive a cancellation of sealing, which requires approval from high-ranking church officials. A Mormon woman must receive a cancellation of sealing prior to remarrying if she wishes her next marriage to be sealed in the temple. However, because men are permitted to be sealed to more than one woman, they do not have to cancel a previous sealing in order to remarry in the temple.