If Nathan Hale, a lifelong Mormon, received a blessing every time someone came up to him with, “My pastor said that Mormons ...”
(Fill in the blank: are polygamists, don't really believe in Jesus, aren't really Christians.)
Mormons fourth-largest denomination
14.4 million:Worldwide church membership6.2 million:U.S. membership55,410:Worldwide missionaries28,784: Worldwide congregations138: Temples4:Universities and colleges9,251: Welfare services missionariesSources: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010 U.S. Religion Census
He'd be a well-blessed man.
From 1980 to 2010, Mormonism was the fastest-growing denomination in Charleston County. It was second-fastest growing in Dorchester County and statewide.4,843 (2,750 households): Total Charleston Stake membersLargest local churches (called “wards”)(reflects number of members)North Charleston 748West Ashley 722Summerville 656Oakbrook 651Moncks Corner 537Mount Pleasant 504Sources: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010 U.S. Religion Census
“Pastors continue to preach that we're a cult. This stuff just grows in people's minds,” said Hale, a Mount Pleasant father and business owner whose ancestry reaches back to the church's pioneers. “It hasn't changed.”
Even as the Charleston Stake, or group of churches, celebrates its 40th anniversary amid tremendous growth and on the eve of an election with a Mormon presidential candidate, Mormons remain an oddity to some and a sacrilegious sect to others — even among their Christian brethren.
A recent survey by The Pew Research Center found:
Virtually all Mormons say theirs is a Christian faith. Just half of non-Mormons agree.
62 percent of Mormons say Americans know little to nothing about them. Half of non-Mormons agree.
46 percent of Mormons report experiencing “a lot” of anti-Mormon discrimination.
54 percent say the way their religion is portrayed on TV and in movies harms society's image of them.
Look no further than HBO's show “Big Love,” about a fictional fundamentalist Mormon sect that practices polygamy (banned by the church since 1890), and “The Book of Mormon,” a Tony-Award-winning musical satire written by the creators of “South Park.”
Why so much interest?
“Mormonism is often seen as this bizarre thing,” said Zane Segle, a Spanish language and literature professor at The Citadel. Because his students often don't know he is Mormon, they blurt out jokes about Mormons having lots of wives or how they all have big families.
And those are the more mundane comments. Since its birth in 1830, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have faced everything from violent persecution to snickers and innuendo.
Even other Christians have treated Mormons, at best, like an ancestral black sheep, despite agreement on many Christian fundamentals:
Believe the Bible is God's word? Check.
Pray to a risen Christ as savior and son of God? Check, check.
Worship the Father, Son and Holy Ghost? Check, check, check.
So why aren't Mormons invited to the family reunions?
Could be sibling rivalry. In Charleston County, Mormons are the fastest-growing denomination in a highly evangelical faith, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census by the Association of Religion Data Archives. With 6.2 million members nationwide, Mormons comprise the fourth-largest Christian group in America.
And like good siblings, they are quick to defend their common roots in the faith — even while plowing a distinctive path.
There are fundamental differences between Mormons and most other Christians. Atop the list: Mormons don't believe that sacred Scripture stops where the New Testament ends.
Mormons hold that in 1827, an angel told a 21-year-old New Yorker, Joseph Smith, to find hidden texts engraved onto gold plates. Smith found them and miraculously translated the foreign words into English.
Using those translations and his own divine revelation, Smith created The Book of Mormon, which describes God's interactions with a group of ancient Israelites who migrated to America, culminating in Jesus visiting America after his Resurrection.
Mormons consider Smith a prophet, the first in a line of prophets to lead the church, including current President Thomas S. Monson.
“If God could speak to Moses, why can't he speak today?” said Gary Harrison, bishop of the Mormon church's West Ashley ward and a mathematics professor at the College of Charleston. “We face issues that people didn't face in the time of Jesus and Peter.”
Other Christians consider that a sacrilegious worship of “false prophets,” which Scripture specifically warns against.
Then there's the Great Apostasy. Mormons believe that the Christian church fell into a period of gospel corruption until Smith's revelations launched the “latter days.” That notion doesn't play well with folks like the Roman Catholics, who consider theirs to be the one original bridge back to Jesus and the apostles.
Mormons also hold a different view of the Trinity in which God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are “one in will and purpose” but not literally the same being.
To them, God is an exalted man. He and Jesus still have flesh-and-bones bodies; the Holy Ghost is a “personage of spirit.”
And worthy Mormons also can become gods.
All of which raises Christian eyebrows, such as those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who called Mormonism a “cult” last fall after introducing then-presidential nominee Rick Perry.
“It's been sold to them that we're a scourge,” said Hale, a Charleston Stake president. “So let people come up to us and ask, 'Is this true?' It opens up doors for us.”
And Mormons do like open doors, especially with 55,000 young missionaries out there knocking on them.
See for yourself
Step inside West Ashley's Mormon church, one of the area's largest, and you could be in any church that comes down on the side of visual simplicity.
The sanctuary features unadorned cream walls, plain oak pews, sturdy blue carpet and a plain white tablecloth spread beneath the holy bread and water. (Mormons aren't supposed to drink wine.)
There aren't even crosses on the walls, though not as a decorative choice. The cross symbolizes a dying Christ; they celebrate the risen one, Seale said.
As the pews fill in, small children break out crayons and books. Babies toss toys onto the floor and babble along, threatening to drown out the bishop as he steps up. Nobody casts a judgmental eye. It's not unless babies resort to outright wails that parents leave with their noise makers in tow.
This is family worship time, and silence is not required, not even with opening prayer.
“We pray these things in the name of Jesus.”
“Amen,” echo the roughly 350 members in attendance.
The organ kicks in. People open hymnals that feature such standards as “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Someone's cellphone rings. One man follows along on his iPad.
After the congregation blesses communion, four young men in crisp white shirts and slacks bring it around in prayerful silence.
Two teens then take turns speaking. One explains how charitable acts and giving show pure love of Christ. Another tackles why Christians should keep the Sabbath holy (God knew life can be overwhelming).
When they sit, Fred Harley rises. The Charleston Stake's first president, he is an older man in a suit with a calm, thoughtful delivery. Like everyone here, he is a volunteer. There is no paid Mormon clergy at its churches, just those willing to give their time.
“I pray that I am able to speak by the Holy Ghost and that what I say is of use to you,” he begins.
He points to God's covenant with his people — and theirs with him.
Among Mormons, death doesn't necessarily do them part. Live a righteous life, and worthy loved ones can remain together eternally. It's hard but worth it.
“I've been told eternity is a long time,” Harley says with a grin. “When you see your earthly mother and earthly father and earthly grandfather and earthly grandmother, you are going to want to be with them.”
So do what God asks of you. Through the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the examples of the prophets, God has shown the path to follow.
“Through the power of the Holy Ghost, all things will be revealed to you,” Harley says. “Some day we will be together if we are willing to do those things in the name of Jesus Christ.”
They sing, they pray, then they head off to Sunday school with those families they hope to be with forever.
Are times changing?
A Pew Research Center survey last fall found that 63 percent of Mormons said acceptance of their faith is on the rise.
Take the Millers, a young professional couple in their 20s. He is a pharmacy student at the Medical University of South Carolina; she just earned her master's degree in photography. Both get a lot of questions about their faith.
“I never feel attacked,” said Jordan Miller, who served as a missionary in Brazil. “It's more general curiosity.”
His wife, Jenna, converted six years ago. A professional dancer, she liked the emphasis on values and healthy living (no tobacco and no drinking wine, coffee or tea). Through prayer, she felt called to join.
Now 24, she finds that more people are familiar with Mormonism and their reactions more open-minded. “It keeps getting more and more positive.”
In fact, Mormons are such a part of American life that the Millers feel there is less concern over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's faith this time than when he ran in 2008.
“We're more accepted in a lot of ways,” said Leonard Hadden, a retired businessman who traces his family back to the Mormon migration to Utah. “It more difficult for people to say we have horns.”
Not that he still doesn't get the polygamy question — to which he rolls his eyes. And he's been to endless meetings that started with:
“Can I get you a coffee?”
“No, thank you.”
“I'll have water.”
Mormons aren't offended by those who like their Starbucks. But abstaining is part of a covenant they made with God to treat the body as temple of the spirit.
It's right up there with the call to charity and family.
Consider how much your children would complain if they had to be at a church at 6:30 a.m. for lessons before the school day even starts? Mormon high schoolers do this.
Or set aside up to two years to serve as an unpaid missionary, perhaps overseas?
Or abstain from sex before marriage?
“Being Mormon is not a casual event,” Hale said. “It takes real effort and commitment.”
Hadden's son-in-law, George Rudolph, is a wheelchair-bound Citadel professor who regularly takes in cadets and sponsors them at the military college. He and his wife have four children ages 7 to 16, including an autistic son, and are helping to raise twin babies for a cadet finishing school.
As he takes one of those babies onto his lap for a semi-high speed wheelchair ride down a church hallway, Rudolph adds that this is what Jesus preached. Love of Christ and service to humanity.
To him, these are cornerstones of Christianity in general, and Mormonism in particular.
What Mormons believe
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains an intriguing mystery to some and a sacrilegious cult to others. James Freston, public affairs director for the Charleston area, answers common questions about the growing church:Q. What are the major similarities and differences in beliefs between the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Catholics and Protestants?A. Like others, we believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God, the savior of the world, and our personal savior, and we try to model our lives on his teachings.We commemorate Christ's sacrifice in our Sunday worship services — equivalent to communion in other churches. We embrace as fellow Christians those who believe Jesus Christ to be the son of God and the savior of all mankind.We believe in the Holy Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, and we regularly address humanitarian needs.We differ in our unequivocal belief in the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ and in our belief in additional scriptures. The LDS Church is neither Catholic nor Protestant. The “latter-day” church, like the original church in Christ's day, is led by apostles, is served by a lay ministry and emphasizes service and good works.Christ established his church on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20; see also Ephesians 4:11-14) with “one faith, [and] one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Latter-day Saints believe this foundation of “one faith” was gradually undermined after the death of Christ's apostles. As a result, the original foundation of authority to lead the church was lost and needed to be restored. We believe that the Lord has indeed restored his church with living apostles and prophets.Another important difference is that, along with the Bible, we use other scriptures, including the Book of Mormon. These add to our understanding of God and his plan of salvation for us. We believe that the family is eternal and that we will return to live together with our father in heaven. We also believe that we will continue to grow and progress after we leave this life. Find these and other doctrine and scriptural references at Mormon.org and lds.org.Q. Mormons believe their current leader is a living prophet equal to Moses or Abraham. Other Christians call them “false prophets,” which Scripture warns against:For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. — Matthew 24:24A. We believe that through Joseph Smith, the Lord re-established his church on Earth. He published the Book of Mormon at age 24 and in the next 14 years created a lasting religious culture before his murder by a mob at the age of 38. Despite lacking a formal education, he published extensively, established new communities, served as a mayor and was a candidate for U.S. president.Most notably, he laid the foundation for the remarkable growth of The LDS Church, now with more than 14 million members worldwide. We believe that he could not have done this by himself. It testifies that he was called and directed by the Lord. Q. Does The LDS Church offer an official position on today's big social issues such as gay marriage, abortion or contraception?A. While the church is strongly on the record as opposing same-sex marriage, it has openly supported other rights for gays and lesbians, such as protections in housing and employment.The church recognizes that those of its members who are attracted to others of the same sex experience deep emotional, social and physical feelings. The church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other.Those who are attracted to someone of the same sex but stay faithful to the church's teachings can enjoy full fellowship with other members, including attending and serving in temples, and ultimately receive all the blessings afforded to those who live the commandments of God.The church does not condone abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger and only after prayerful consideration of all available options.Regarding contraception, we believe that God's commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the Earth remains in force. We also believe in agency, the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Personal decisions about contraception are often based on agency.Q. Do church leaders advocate voting for political candidates who are Mormon?A. No. The LDS Church is neutral in party politics. It is customary for the church during each national election to issue a letter to be read to all congregations encouraging members to vote. The message also emphasizes that the church does not endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.The church does not allow its church buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes, and it does not direct its members which candidate or party to support. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of the church.Q. Do Mormons believe in the separation of church and state?A. We believe the Constitution to be divinely inspired, and it, of course, guarantees religious freedom and separation of church and state. Elected officials, including Latter-day Saints, should make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated church position. Q. Why do Mormons wear ceremonial garments? What are the origins and purposes of the practice?A. Many people of faith wear special clothing as a reminder of sacred beliefs and commitments. This has been a common practice throughout history. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are specifically instructed to turn their garments into personal reminders of their covenants with God (see Numbers 15:37-41). Today, faithful adult members of The LDS Church wear temple garments consisting of simple, white underclothing composed of two pieces: a top piece similar to a T-shirt and a bottom piece similar to shorts. Not unlike the Jewish tallit katan (prayer shawl), these garments are worn underneath regular clothes, and they serve as a personal reminder of covenants made with God to lead Christ-like lives. Q. Why are non-Mormons not allowed in Mormon temples?A. We invite all members of the community to visit and worship with us in our chapels on Sunday. However, because of the sacredness of temples as “houses of the Lord,” only church members in good standing are allowed to enter.A member must be observing the basic principles of the faith and attest to that fact to his or her local leaders once every two years. Temples are sacred, not secret. There, members are taught about the central role of Christ in God's plan of salvation and their personal relationship with God. They renew covenants with God to live a virtuous and faithful life. They also offer sacraments on behalf of their deceased ancestors. Temples are also used to perform marriage ceremonies that promise the faithful eternal life with their families, a belief of central importance to members. The general public is invited to participate in educational tours of the interior of temples after their construction is complete but before they are officially dedicated and opened.Q. Why do Mormons baptize the dead?A. Proxy baptism for the deceased is nothing new. It was mentioned by Paul in the New Testament and was practiced by groups of early Christians. As part of a restoration of New Testament Christianity, Latter-day Saints continue this practice. Jesus Christ taught that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). But many have died without being baptized or even exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Proxy baptism is for them. It is a free will offering, which according to church doctrine, a departed soul in the afterlife is completely free to accept or reject — the offering is freely given and must be freely received. The ordinance does not force deceased persons to become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Do Mormons believe:Q. That God came from another planet? A. No. This idea is not taught in LDS scripture, nor is it a doctrine of the church. This misunderstanding stems from speculative comments about scriptural doctrine. We believe that we are all sons and daughters of God and that all of us have the potential to grow during and after this life to become like our heavenly father (see Romans 8:16-17). The church does not and has never purported to fully understand the specifics of Christ's statement that “in my Father's house are many mansions” (John 14:2).Q. God was a human man and remains flesh and bones? A. We believe that God created man in His own image. Further, we believe that the soul of man comprises a mortal body and an immortal spirit. We believe that we lived as spirit children of God before mortal birth. We also believe that when physical death occurs, our spirit returns to heaven while awaiting the Resurrection or the reuniting of our spirit with an immortal, perfect body — nearer to that of God.Q. God is married to a mother god? A.We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that we too are his children. The church does not speculate on other relationships.Q. God has spirit children? A. Yes. We believe that all of God's children have an immortal spirit and a mortal body.Q. The trinity comprises three separate beings with three physical bodies? A. Our first article of faith reads: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” The Holy Ghost is a spirit without a physical body. Latter-day Saints believe God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one in will and purpose but are not literally the same being or substance, as conceptions of the Holy Trinity commonly imply. Q. Humans can become gods? A. We believe that God wants us to become like him, a teaching often misrepresented by those who caricature our faith.
Four-year-old Ashley King follows the worship hymn with her grandmother, Sondra King, at the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Ashley.×
George Rudolph and his daughter Nora, 16, are members of the Charleston Mormon community. High schoolers often are in church for lessons before their school day starts.×