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.)
He'd be a well-blessed man.
“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.
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.
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.