Is Mormonism authentically Christian? The Facts about the History and Theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
When I wrote my latest religious conspiracy thriller, American God, I recognized people would probably either love it or hate it, given the two dicey topics it addresses: politics and religion. But I was fine with that, because both are near and dear to me given my own personal experiences with them. Rather than an anti-Mormon screed, I hoped to start a conversation about Church-State dynamics and authentic Christianity by using the alternative Christian sect’s history and beliefs as a dialogue partner.
This last topic is an important one these days, since there seems to be confusion both inside and outside the Church about what is authentically Christian. I decided to use the Mormon religion as a way to talk about this confusion, given many have come to assume it is a sect of Christianity, much like another denomination like the Southern Baptist Convension or Catholicism of Lutheranism.
Here’s the thing: it is not Christian. The history of mormonism and its founder, as well as the theology of the religion makes this clear. I draw out some of this history and theology in American God, which reflects my goal as an author to root all of my stories in a solid bedrock of historical and religious facts. When it comes to Mormonis, those facts are surprising, but nonetheless 100% accurate, which I include in an author’s note at the end of the book of which this article has been adapted.
If you’re interested in learning more about this religion and how it compares with historic Christianity keep reading. Not only will you better understand how it was formed and why, you’ll learn what Mormon’s believe and how this compares with authentic Christianity.
MORMONISM AND HISTORY
Authentic Christianity is thoroughly rooted in history and entirely historical. Meaning: it openly makes historical claims and invites all who are interested to examine and assess those claims. For instance, either Jesus rose from the dead, or he didn’t (see first book in the series, Holy Shroud). Authentic Christianity rises and falls on that claim. In fact, one of the chief apostles of the faith, Paul of Tarsus, says as much in a letter he wrote to Christians living in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 15). This historicity of authentic Christianity is one of the main reasons why Mormonism isn’t Christian.
Chapter 6 in American God recounts the Book of Mormon’s tale about the early settlers of the Americas—claiming that the Native Americans of the Americas were actually the lost tribes of Israel, the Lamanites. And chapter 30 recounts Joseph Smith’s tale about how the Book of Mormon came into existence—which was from an angelic being Moroni who directed him to this pseudo-history of Israel written on golden plates buried in the hills of New York. Both rest on historical claims, and both fail the test of history. Not only is the so-called “history” of the Lamanites a complete fabrication with zero anthropological or archaeological credibility, institutions like the Smithsonian Institution have flat-out denied its history. For instance, in a statement on the book in 1965, they wrote: “The Smithsonian Institution has never used the Book of Mormon in any way as a scientific guide. Smithsonian archeologists see no direct connection between the archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book.” Yet this hasn’t stopped Mormons from seeking a historical connection with ancient America ruins.
Douglas Preston wrote a splendid book on the subject, The Lost City of the Monkey God—which I used to inform the adventure of some main characters. There’s also a connection between Mormonism and the kinds of ruins known as Ciudad Blanca: Mormons were certain the Mayan civilization was the lost Israelites told in the Book of Mormon, and they explored their ruins throughout Mexico and Central America in the hopes of finally gaining historical credence to the Book of Mormon’s claims. It is true that a well-funded group of LDS archaeologists tried to confirm those stories. But in the end, those ruins disproved the Mormon view. Some of the archaeologists lost their faith, some were even excommunicated. So I merged these parallel accounts from history to inform my tale.
Then there is the so-called Golden Bible, itself a historical fabrication that virtually plagiarized the King James Version of the Bible. The Hebrew inscription etched into the Mormon medallion Grant discovered in Missouri that Rowen Radcliffe later translates in chapter 6 represents several similarly lifted verses from the KJV that Joseph Smith wrote into the Book of Mormon, in addition to several passages that mirror the Apocrypha. Furthermore, in recent years it has come to light that Smith seems to have drawn considerable inspiration from contemporary works linking Native Americans to Israel, even going so far as to copy whole portions from such works as The Wonders of Nature (Josiah Priest) and Views of the Hebrews (Ethan Smith) and use them in his religious text.
From a historical perspective, it appears Joseph Smith was the first person to blend the theories circulating at the time concerning the origins of Native Americans into a grand religious scheme. Add to this his borrowing of material from the KJV Bible and Apocrypha, and you have yourself a truly American-made religion offering an American god. As Mormon scholar Thomas Stuart Ferguson wrote:
“Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to which one can belong. It’s a refinement of Judaism…and a refinement of the Jesus story.” He also concluded, “the Book of Mormon was produced through Joseph Smith’s own creative genius and through his use of contemporary sources, including Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews.”
I am indebted to Richard Abanes’s masterful book One Nation Under Gods for the fascinating history of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon that I weaved throughout this story. If you want a thorough treatment of the history and theology or Mormonism, it’s a one-stop-shop you’d do well to read!
MORMON THEOLOGY vs. AUTHENTIC CHRISTIANITY
This brings us to the heart of the book: a discussion on what’s authentically Christian. I decided to use Mormonism as a catalyst for this broader conversation, because of how it has been thought of within popular culture in recent years as a Christian sect.
The issue of authentic Christianity—what Christians have historically believed and taught since the apostles—is an important one to me. Not only because I am a historical theologian by training, having earned a Master of Theology in historical theology in addition to a Master of Divinity in the Bible. But also because I myself have been on a personal quest the past decade to understand the essential beliefs of Christianity. So this discussion about what is authentic to the historic Christian faith, and how Mormonism differs from it, is as much personal as it is professional.
Everything mentioned in this book regarding Mormon beliefs, particularly the back-and-forth dialogue in American God is accurate to Mormonism. You don’t hear about those believes frequently, because the alternative religious sect has made it a point to focus on Jesus and its allegiance to his teachings. And yet, these are the core doctrines from foundational Mormon theological texts and teachers. Here is a brief summary of those beliefs, and how they contrast with authentic Christianity, presented by several helpful charts in Richard Abanes’s book.
First consider a number of central contradictory tenets of faith between Mormonism and authentic Christianity (ONUG, 382):
Central Mormon Beliefs
- God: There are many gods, which is polytheism. The god of this planet is an exalted man with a body of flesh and bones. He has at least one wife, probably more.
- Pre-existence: Humans have pre-existed in heaven as spirit children conceived via celestial sex between Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. Our actions in the pre-existence determine our race on earth.
- Human nature: Mormons say they are gods in embryo, and they have not yet reached the godhood. “As man is, God once was: as God is, man may become.”
- Jesus: Jesus, the first spirit-child of Heavenly Father, is the spirit-brother of Lucifer. Jesus is only one of many created gods.
- Eternal Life: There are three levels of eternal life, the highest level being godhood, which is available only to perfected Mormons.
- Salvation: Salvation is achieved only by those who do enough good deeds and obey all God’s laws, which amounts to works righteousness.
- Holy Spirit: A third god, like Heavenly Father and Jesus, with a spiritual body only, rather than a physical body.
- The Bible: It isn’t infallible, inerrant, or inspired. It is also incomplete, not containing God’s full revelation.
Central Christian Beliefs
- God: There is only one God, which is monotheism. God is not a man, nor does God have a body. God is not married, which is not even hinted at in the Bible.
- Pre-existence: Christians are children of God by adoption to sonship and daughtership through faith. One’s spirit is formed on earth as they begin life within the womb. God is no respecter of persons and the Christian faith does not favor a single race; there are no racial distinctions within Christianity.
- Human nature: We are created beings created in the image and likeness of God, whom he longs to be in covenanted relationship with. However, we are separate from the Creator; we do not become God(s).
- Jesus: Jesus is not a created being, but rather, is the Creator—by whom, through whom, and for whom all things were made. As the central Christian creed says, the Nicene Creed: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.
- Eternal Life: There exists no other gods, nor can any person become a god, no mater how dedicated they are to the church. All people will be separated at the end of the age: some granted eternal life through faith in Jesus; others damned to eternal death through rejecting Jesus.
- Salvation: Salvation is not achieved or obtained through good deeds and works of righteousness, but by simply asking God for forgiveness of sins, trusting Jesus’ ransom payment for personal sins on the cross, and submitting ones life to God in faith and obedience.
- Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit is God, the Third Person of the Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Son. He is not a separate entity, but one being with the Father and the Son.
- The Bible: It is infallible, inerrant, and inspired. It is also complete, containing God’s full revelation and complete gospel of salvation.
The contradictions between Mormonism and authentic, historic Christianity become starker when it comes to Jesus (ONUG, 378).
Mormon Beliefs about Jesus:
- A literal son (spirit child) of a god (Elohim) and his wife.
- The elder brother of all spirits born in the pre-existence to Heavenly Father.
- A polygamous Jew.
- One of three gods overseeing this planet. • Atoned only for Adam’s transgressions by sweating blood in Gethsemane.
- The literal spirit brother of Lucifer.
- Jesus’ sacrificial death is not able to cleanse every person of all their sins.
- There is no salvation without accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.
Christian Beliefs about Jesus:
- The uncreated, eternally existent, unique incarnation of God as “the Son.”
- The unique Son of God, with whom none can be compared.
- An unmarried Jew.
- The Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
- Atoned for everyone’s personal sins by being crucified on the cross.
- No relation to Satan, who is a mere angel.
- Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is able to cleanse every person of all their sins.
- Jesus alone is the way, truth, and life. No need to recognize or follow a prophet.
The conclusion, then, is that Mormons do not believe what Christians believe; Christians do not believe what Mormons believe. But why does this matter?
The main character in the story, Silas Grey, opened his monologue on Mormon religious beliefs in chapter 36 by quoting Roger Olson, who said “the story of Christian theology is the story of Christian reflection on salvation.” It’s true, which is why discussing the finer points of these theological beliefs is so vital, because nothing less than the salvation of humanity is at stake. Christianity says one thing about salvation, Mormonism says another.
His closing statement at a critical juncture in the story differentiating between the questions ‘Are Mormons Christian?’ and ‘Are Christians Mormons?’ was borrowed from Abanes’s book. It is a helpful distinction, for it gets to the heart of the matter: do people who call themselves Christians believe what Mormons believe? Has the Church of Jesus, the one that has existed for the last two millennia ever believed at all what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe—which has only been in existence for less than 200 years? As you can see from the brief survey of Mormon theology and Christian theology above, the answer is a resounding “No!”
So if Christians don’t believe what Mormons believe, and we could never say that a Christian is a Mormon, why would we ever insist on the reverse? As Silas said, that would be like saying a Muslim Christian. Muslims do not believe what Christians believe; Christians do not believe what Muslims believe. Neither of those are controversial statements; they are factual ones. So why would we suggest the same for Mormons? The core tenets of the Mormon faith contradict the core tenets of the Christian faith. Which is precisely what Joseph Smith had in mind in the first place.
Interestingly, he founded the alternative religion in direct response to historic Christian orthodoxy, which he saw as the “Great Apostasy.” As the official Mormon version of Smith’s supposed First Vision states, as well as other statements from the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants:
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head…I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they are all wrong, and the personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in His sight: that those professors were all corrupt.” All other churches, he insisted in the Book of Mormon, were founded by the devil and representations of the “great and abominable church” of the satanic world system. He wrote: “Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil…the whore of all the earth” (1 Nephi. 14:10). And as Abanes reveals: “Mormons have repeatedly confirmed that their church is ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ and that ‘the power of God unto salvation—(Rom. 1:16) is absent from all but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’” (378).
Add to this the occult angle of Joseph Smith and his family documented in chapter 16 (which was drawn from primary sources quoted in Richard Abanes’s resource, leaving little doubt that Smith Junior was deeply entrenched in occultism along with his family), and the entire foundation of the upstart religion is questionable. At every turn, Mormonism contradicts and compromises beliefs that have always been central to the Christian faith. It truly is a man-made religion offering an American god, bearing no resemblance to authentic Christianity.
Aside from the conversation about Mormon beliefs, there is growing confusion within the Church about what is authentically Christian. I hope this story will help others better understand this confusion and what Christians have always believed, in addition to considering how the Church compromises the integrity of those beliefs by aligning so closely with the State—for it is only in independence from the State that the Church can bear prophetic witness against it. And as Saint Jude Thaddeus insisted in his letter to Christians living in Asia Minor, there is a once-for-all-faith that has been entrusted to God’s holy people. It is our job—the Church’s generally and Christians’ specifically—to contend for it.
Research is an important part of my process for creating compelling stories that entertain, inform, and inspire. Here are a few of the resources I used to research Mormon beliefs and history:
- Abanes, Richard. One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. www.bouma.us/mormon1
- Palmer, Grant. Restoring Christ: Leaving Mormon Jesus for Jesus of the Gospels. Self-Published, 2017. www.bouma.us/mormon2
- Statement from the Smithsonian Institution regarding the Book of Mormon: www.bouma.us/mormon4
Get the book inspired by the facts
Order of Thaddeus • Book 4
Separation of Church and State. Authentic Faith. Never More At Risk.
Ex-Ranger-turned-professor Silas Grey is at an all-time low. His career is in jeopardy, the woman he cares about is in the hospital, and there’s a presidential election upending the status quo—a three-way race between a Catholic Democrat, a Mormon Republican, and an Evangelical Independent. So when a former classmate shows up with a mysterious medallion with ancient markings of conflicting origin, he knows trouble is on the horizon.
He also knows exactly whom to call: the ancient religious Order of Thaddeus, protector of the Christian faith stretching back two millennia. But when the election takes a remarkably dramatic turn, it becomes apparent that a conspiracy threatens not only America, but also the Church. And the mystery medallion is revealed to be rooted in a more explosive origin stretching back to the early decades of America’s founding and the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Silas and the Order’s SEPIO operatives embark on a timely mission ripped from the headlines to protect the integrity of the authentic Church. Not only that, whether they succeed or fail will have national stakes as the country straddles the knife-edge separation of Church and State. In a race against the election clock, will they succeed before that separation is breached and religious confusion floods the nation?
Leveraging the familiar elements of Dan Brown’s religious conspiracy and James Rollin’s special-ops suspense, informed by Steve Berry’s historical insights and Joel Rosenberg’s thrilling inspiration—emerging author J. A. Bouma delivers a gripping political thriller with a religious edge, the fourth book in the inventive archaeological thriller series that will leave you holding your breath at every turn.