When it comes to what others believe, misunderstandings and myths abound. This is especially true of Mormonism, a faith tradition that may be one of the most misunderstood religions in American history. The confusions may be due to a simple lack of comprehension, a shortage of desire to do the hard work of research for knowledge, a lack of academic training in religion among Latter-day Saint leaders, thereby making explanations of doctrine less precise, or, more nefariously, a desire to misrepresent the beliefs of Latter-day Saints. Whatever the reason, myths surely abound when it comes to the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
1. Plural Marriage?
One of the most often heard, and repeated, myths concerning Latter-day Saints concerns their ongoing support of and belief in plural marriage. Early Mormon leaders were indeed polygamists, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. However, beginning October 6, 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, denounced plural marriage as an official practice. At the October 1890 General Conference held in Salt Lake City, then President Wilford Woodruff asserted he had received a revelation from heaven to end, officially, the practice of plural marriage and the gathered congregation voted to make the ban authoritative. The purported revelation, known as The Manifesto, is now inscripturated as “Official Declaration 1” within the Doctrine & Covenants, one of the four accepted books of the Mormon canon.
After this announcement about plural marriage, several groups eventually broke off from the Salt Lake LDS Church, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and continued the practice of plural marriage. Although those splinter groups still engage in plural marriage, the Salt Lake City Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not currently endorse plural marriage and has not since October 6, 1890. Although Doctrine & Covenants Section 132 (the section making plural marriage a practice of Mormons in Joseph Smith’s day) is still found within the Mormon canon, the practice of plural marriage was banned in 1890 and “Official Declaration 1” is now doctrine for Latter-day Saints.
Another oft heard and repeated myth regarding Latter-day Saints concerns caffeine. Doctrine & Covenants 89:9 reads, “And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” This portion of Latter-day Saint scripture, known as “The Word of Wisdom”, bans faithful Latter-day Saints from the use of “hot drinks.” When asked for further explanation, early Latter-day Saint leadership interpreted the verse as specifically forbidding coffee and tea. Over time, lay members, led by a small number of members of LDS leadership, took this to mean they were to abstain from all caffeinated beverages. Although one common denominator between coffee and tea is caffeine, the use of caffeine was never expressly forbidden.
To be fair, Latter-day Saint leadership did not encourage the use of caffeinated beverages, but it was also not officially mentioned for abstention. The declaration against “hot drinks”, specifically coffee and tea, eventually became, at least among some in LDS leadership and especially at the lay level, a declaration against caffeine, hence the likely foundation of the myth. In recent years, the LDS Church has clarified its stance on caffeine both to members and to the watching world, noting that while caffeine is not to be abused, it is also not expressly forbidden.
A third myth regarding Latter-Day Saints concerns their overarching theological beliefs and whether those beliefs should be considered Christian. Many, if not all, Latter-day Saints understand themselves to be Christians and are, in fact, self-professing Christians. They will surely make a differentiation between themselves and other groups within the larger Christian world. So, although differentiations are made between Mormonism and other facets of the historic Christian church, Latter-day Saints see themselves as true, even “the” true, followers of Christ. Historically, Mormonism did grow out of a Christian context, as it is a restorationist movement, which means Mormonism is meant to restore some aspect of Christianity that was purportedly lost. The question here involves more than history; it involves doctrine and, ultimately, eternal states.
Historically, the Christian church has believed in the Trinity, in monotheism, in a spiritual being called God who oversees and controls all that exists, in God’s unique Son, Jesus Christ, in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and in the bodily return of Jesus. Doctrinally, Mormonism does not accept a number of these core Christian beliefs, including the Trinity, monotheism (strictly speaking, Mormons could be considered henotheists, the belief in one God while not denying the potential existence of other gods), in God being a spiritual being, in the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s only Son, and in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Considering the fact that Mormons do not believe in the same God, the same Jesus, or the same way to salvation as the historic Christian church, there is no reason to believe they should be considered Christian.
Taking into account that the whole of the Bible, and the teachings of the historic Christian church, revolve around the very issues Mormons deny, it is surely a myth to believe Mormons are Christians or that they should be considered another denomination within Christianity. This should not cause Christians to view Mormons as the enemy; it definitively should not cause Christians to treat them as such (1 Peter 3:15). Understanding Mormonism as a false religion and knowing Latter-day Saints are lost should move Christians to compassion and a zeal to share the true Christ with them. Christians should never say these things in anger, hatred, or fear, but rather out of love, compassion, and a desire to see unbelievers come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Travis Kerns serves with the North American Mission Board (NAMB) as the Send City Missionary for Salt Lake City, Utah. He was born and raised in Greenville, SC, but has lived in the Salt Lake City area since 2013. He has a B.A. from North Greenville University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His Ph.D. studies focuses on world religions, specifically, Mormon philosophy. Prior to serving with NAMB, he was a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and taught in the areas of apologetics, world religions, and philosophy.