I’ll be taking much of the context of this post from a friend, Bruce Heath. It’s originally from a presentation he gave that I’ve adapted and edited into an article which discusses lightly some of our doctrine and mostly focuses on our practices and the results of our lifestyle as published in one major and several ancillary independent studies. I thought it was really interesting and could shed some light on who we are as a people and the results of living our religion.
Most people refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as “Mormons.” We answer to “Mormons” as a common name that has been used for more than a century and a half, and we aren’t offended by it, although the common name – unlike the full name – conveys little about who we are and what we believe.
Unfortunately, people often abbreviate more than just our name. Sometimes they represent our beliefs and practices in ways that leave important gaps in understanding. Whatever your past exposure to the church, we are here to fill in some of those gaps for you. Naturally I do so as a true believer, and I don’t expect you to agree with all I say. But I do hope you will accept this as a genuine effort to represent a faith that we can all agree is discussed and dissected more often than it is understood.
In 1863 Charles Dickens went on board the passenger ship Amazon, which was bound for New York. His purpose was to report on the Latter-day Saint converts who were emigrating to build up the Church in the American West. There had been thousands of converts who had already emigrated and much had been written, particularly in the British media, about them and their beliefs. Most of what was written was unfavorable. “I went on board their ship,” wrote Dickens, “to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it.” After observing and mingling with the converts, Dickens was impressed with them and described these English converts, most of whom were laborers, as being “in their degree, the pick and flower of England.”
Later, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made passing reference to Mormons in his correspondence with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “I have a very high opinion of the Mormons,” he wrote. “They are excellent citizens.”
Now, I acknowledge at the outset that with approaching 15 million Mormons worldwide, not every Latter-day Saint is an excellent citizen. Like every other church, we have our mix of faithful and indifferent members. There is some risk in what I am going to present, because, first, I would never want to imply that we have solved all of our problems. Our congregations include people who have been materially successful in life. They also include the poor and needy, people who have addictions and even people who have been imprisoned. The ministry of Jesus Christ reached out to all people. Broken lives were His particular concern, and they should be ours, too. Yet, as Latter-day Saints emerge more and more into the public eye, Roosevelt’s assertion is worth examining more closely.
The link between what Latter-day Saints believe and what they feel impelled to do with that belief is an incredibly powerful force within our faith. As we will see, it is statistically measurable, and yet it is rarely discussed and even more rarely appreciated. Therefore, I want to begin by creating a simple two-minute framework of basic Latter-day Saint beliefs to help you understand what it is that triggers certain common, behavioral characteristics among our members.
With regard to doctrine, the core beliefs of church-attending Latter-day Saints are easily spelled out. We embrace the biblical account of the man known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth, and to Christians everywhere as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. He is the central figure of our Church and we worship God, the Father, through His name. Here is a summary of our beliefs regarding Jesus Christ.
The Bible records the fact that He established a church. We believe that after the death of Jesus and His apostles, unauthorized changes gradually took hold upon His church. The Christianity adopted by the formerly pagan Roman Empire as its new state religion near the end of the fourth century AD was very different from the faith taught by Jesus of Nazareth centuries earlier.
Such profound changes in doctrine and practice required not just a Reformation, but a full Restoration of what was lost, including its priestly authority. According to our history, that Restoration began in 1820 with a series of dramatic revelations and the literal appearance of God, the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, to a 14-year-old farmboy in frontier America. His name was Joseph Smith.
Those revelations would lead in 1830 to the formal organization of what we often refer to as the Restored Church, because we believe that what is usually regarded as a new faith was actually the ancient Church brought back, or restored. Joseph Smith was then only 24 years old. The formal name given in the revelations—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—simply distinguishes between the original and the modern church. The term “saint” simply means member.
In addition, the Restoration delivered new scripture in the form of the Book of Mormon, which is an account of the dealings of God with the people of ancient America. Together with the Bible, the Book of Mormon serves as a second witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Along with more revelations received since 1820, these new scriptures both clarify ancient teachings and add profoundly important dimensions to understanding such things as the nature of God, our purpose in life, and the eternal destiny of God’s children.
This, in simple and much abbreviated terms, is what Latter-day Saints believe. There are lots of commonalities with other Christian faiths, and lots of differences. It is not my place here to overstate or understate those differences, to persuade you of my viewpoint or to critique anyone else’s. To some our teachings are heretical. To others our doctrine is intriguing. To us it’s inseparably connected with how we interpret being followers of Jesus Christ – specifically with the way in which we live, with our sense of purpose in life, and our concept of service.
With that said, we readily welcome as fellow Christians anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior and the Redeemer of humankind. We acknowledge the devotion of countless Christian figures – and even holy men and women of other faiths – who through the ages have shed spiritual light on the world. God loves all of His children. While we seek truth, we certainly do not claim to have a monopoly on truth, and we are grateful for countless people of character, integrity and vision who have contributed to human understanding and advancement.
Now, I would like to discuss the effect that Mormonism’s set of beliefs has on those who embrace it. Do Latter-day Saints really make good citizens, and is a there a causal link between what they believe and how they behave?
What I will share with you is almost all from independent research, not initiated or conducted by the Church. First let’s look at the results of Latter-day Saint belief about health, which is one of our faith’s most distinguishing features. Given by revelation to Joseph Smith in 1833, long before modern medical advances, our health practices are part of our holy writ.
They encourage eating grains, fruits, vegetables and herbs, and limiting meat consumption. They prohibit tobacco, alcohol, harmful drugs, tea, and coffee. In addition to adherence to this lifestyle, practicing Latter-day Saints go without food and drink for roughly 24 hours once a month as a fast. Subsequently, they donate to the poor the money they don’t spend on meals.
Since these health practices have been followed since the 1800s, it should be possible to test the results when compared with the general population. And, indeed it is. As one might expect, this religiously influenced diet has a profoundly positive effect on the physical health of lifelong adherents.
Dr. James Enstrom at the UCLA School of Public Health studied Latter-day Saint populations that have been practicing the faith for an extended period. Enstrom’s 25-year study focused on members of the Church in California and concluded that these members—particularly those who were married, had never smoked, attended church weekly and had at least 12 years of education—had total death rates that are among the lowest ever reported for a group followed for 25 years. They also had among the longest life expectancies yet reported in a well-defined U.S. group.
Let’s look at the numbers. Mormon females had a life expectancy of just over 86 years – five and a half years longer than that of comparable U.S. females. Mormon males had a life expectancy of over 84 years — almost ten years longer than that of comparable U.S. males.
A separate research effort identified heart health benefits associated with the Latter-day Saint practice of fasting. Researchers at Intermountain Health Care found that people who fasted once a month were about 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with clogged arteries than those who did not regularly fast.
What about other indicators of life satisfaction, aside from health? In their landmark book American Grace, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell review extensive research suggesting a positive relationship between religions generally and people’s happiness—put simply, they say, “many researchers have found that religious people are happier.” Good news for you if you happen to be religious. Early in 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious Life released a broad study entitled Mormons in America. This comprehensive look at Latter-day Saints showed that, “the overwhelming majority [of Mormons] are satisfied in their own lives and content with their communities.” Nearly nine out of ten Latter-day Saints reported satisfaction with their lives. That is well above the U.S. public generally, which is 75 percent. Among younger Latter-day Saints, Pew says the numbers are even higher. Fully 92 percent of Mormons in their forties or younger are satisfied with their lives.
Why would that be? According to a separate Pew Center study, Mormons also rank high in religiosity. By the Pew Center’s scale, nearly seven in ten of our Church members show high levels of religious commitment—higher than any other religious group surveyed and more than double the U.S. public generally.
Life satisfaction also correlates with family life. You may have heard or read that Latter-day Saints are big on families. That stems in part from our belief that families are eternal—that our family associations may continue on in heaven. Here is a proclamation by our faith summarizing our beliefs regarding families. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Census Bureau says that Utah, with the highest concentration of Latter-day Saints in the United States, has the highest percentage of households headed by married couples in the country, and the highest percentage of homes with children.
Dig a little deeper and we find some interesting things. According to Pew, more than 80 percent of Mormons say, “being a good parent is one of their most important goals in life.” Just half of the general public says that. And nearly three out of four Latter-day Saints believe that “having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life,” compared with one-third of the general public.
Now, as secularism has gained influence and as attendance at many churches has begun to fall off, we sometimes hear the claim that academic inquiry and educational attainment diminishes faith. It may be unexpected, then, to learn that the religious faith of Latter-day Saints specifically promotes education, including higher education, and that this emphasis has consequences that can be measured not only in the United States but elsewhere.
Various studies have confirmed that the more education a Latter-day Saint has, the more likely she or he is to be actively involved in the Church. In most churches it is the opposite, but the Pew Center’s survey found that Latter-day Saints who have graduated from college attend church more often than those with less education. Eighty four percent of them are active churchgoers; in fact, this number drops off steadily as the education level decreases.
Part of this is explainable by the teaching of the Church that what we learn in this life is carried with us into the next. It’s assuredly true that we don’t take our wealth with us to heaven, but we believe that we do take our character, our life experiences and whatever wisdom we have accumulated – all parts of our education. The Church’s multifaceted program of religious education begins in the home and is bolstered through Church programs that support the learning of individuals and families.
In addition to weekly Sunday school for all ages, our young people experience “early-morning seminary.” Before regular school begins, many of our teens attend a class for about an hour where they study the Holy Bible, Book of Mormon and other scriptures and Church history. Similarly, university-level students attend religious institute classes that complement post-secondary education.
These and other personal and class studies have a cumulative effect, which is the ability to mix secular and religious knowledge fairly seamlessly. According to one recent survey, Latter-day Saints were the most knowledgeable about Christianity and the Bible and were third only to Jewish survey participants and, oddly, atheists in knowledge about various world religions. But additionally, Mormonism does not suffer from the acute battle between science and religion that is common, for instance, in some Christian thought. As mentioned earlier, Mormons welcome truth from whatever source, and take the view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is often because there is insufficient data to reconcile the two.
Before leaving education I should touch on what we call the Perpetual Education Fund. Our young missionaries are common sights on the streets of most major cities in the world. You would not know it from looking at them, but many of these young people have come from backgrounds of significant poverty. For two years they live and work alongside other young missionaries from different cultures and countries. Many of them may be paired with Americans and Europeans who have had far more of life’s material blessings than they have enjoyed in their impoverished backgrounds.
Can you imagine how devastating it is at the end of two years, when they return to their former circumstances of a life in poverty, where they are unable to break out of that cycle? Instead, they have to work in whatever poorly paid jobs they can get.
To address this, in 2001 the Church launched the Perpetual Education Fund which gives student loans at close to zero interest rates to allow these young people to get an education and/or vocational training. The interest rate is just enough to encourage them to repay the loans after graduation. To date, this program has benefited more than 50,000 young men and women in 51 countries. On average, they complete their education in two and a half years and earn three to four times as much income after graduation. Finally, the cycle of poverty is broken in these families. Twenty and thirty years from now, many of these young people will be among the leaders in their fields and their nations because of what education and a drive for self-improvement will bring them. The initial funding, by the way, is provided almost entirely from voluntary donations by Church members in more comfortable circumstances.
Now I’d like to take a moment to address comments that we hear from time to time that Latter-day Saints keep to themselves and don’t particularly enjoy mixing with the broader community. While I am certain that this is not an accurate perception overall, I do think I know where some of that may come from. Latter-day Saints belong to a highly participatory faith community and generally have close relationships with members of their local congregations. We are a close-knit people, feeling strong bonds with fellow Latter-day Saints across all national boundaries.
Almost every churchgoer has a Church responsibility. That might be to teach, lead, organize, or perform one or more of dozens of other functions. This is important to note because the Church has no paid local or regional ministry–all local church leaders are unpaid and are expected to work in their chosen career field. Close relationships are forged as Latter-day Saints serve together. In this way, the Mormon community functions like an extended family. American Grace indicated that “no religious group in America feels warmer toward their own group than Mormons.” And this includes teens.
As a consequence, of all the teenage groups in one recent study, “Mormon teenagers …were the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers in the interviews.” I wish I could report universal success with our teens. In reality, there is statistical evidence that, like many other churches we are losing too many of our young people to the pull of the secular world. We are constantly looking for better ways to help young people transition to young adulthood and beyond while staying vitally involved with the Church, to live happy and fulfilling lives. Our Church leaders feel the loss of some of our young people more tenderly than perhaps any other challenge they face.
It’s a remarkable thing that we ask them to do. Their mission is a time of great learning—a missionary becomes close to other people, may encounter other countries and cultures and learns much about himself or herself. Often he or she becomes fluent in a new language. As mentioned, some leave an area of affluence and serve in a place of poverty, while many others have the opposite experience. All face a demanding schedule of study and work.
Can you appreciate the advantage a missionary has when he or she returns at age 21 or 22 and resumes a college education? He may be fluent in another language. She has matured considerably through exposure to challenging situations. He has learned to talk to people, and especially to listen. She has likely learned important leadership skills. Today, such returned missionaries, as we call them, are found at every level of our society, but especially in business and industry, in academia, and yes, in politics. Several past and sitting U.S. senators and Congressmen have served such missions, as have two recent presidential candidates. Jon Huntsman learned Mandarin Chinese on a mission in Taiwan, and Mitt Romney learned French on a mission in France.
The Pew Center’s survey reported that 80 percent of those who served missions said it was very valuable in preparing them for job or career success, and 92 percent said it helped them grow in their own faith.
The authors of American Grace note that, in general, religious Americans are more generous in both volunteering their time as well as their philanthropic giving, and in a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of Latter-day Saint respondents said that working to help the poor and needy was “essential to being a good Mormon.”
A recent University of Pennsylvania study by the School of Social Policy and Practice concluded that the average church-attending Latter-day Saint spends approximately 430 hours per year volunteering—nearly nine times more than the average American.
The pattern is repeated for charitable giving. According to a study by the University of Indiana, the average annual rate of giving by practicing Latter-day Saints far exceeds that of other citizens; this holds true even if one does not count the biblical “tithe” of one tenth of their income that Latter-day Saints donate to support the Church.
Some of this charitable giving goes toward supporting the Church’s extensive welfare and humanitarian aid programs. And again we see the connection between belief and practice. The Church’s welfare program has one basic aim, and that is to take members from a condition of temporary dependency to a situation of permanent self-sufficiency. Writing in the Wall Street Journal about this program, Naomi Schaefer Riley observed that the Church welfare program provides “the kind of safety net that government can never hope to create.”
She noted that it “lets almost no [Church member] fall through the cracks while at the same time ensuring that its beneficiaries don’t become lifelong dependents.” That is a crucial point to understand. Members of the Church who need help in meeting the basic needs of life can go to their bishop and ask for aid. The bishop assesses their needs and may provide food and clothing, as well as pay for housing and other necessities. He also seeks to help them work for what they receive and to find ways of getting back on their feet. That may include receiving help from the Church’s worldwide system of employment centers or counseling from its social services centers. Typically families depend on the food assistance for an average of three to six months before they are back to being self-reliant.
While the welfare program helps Latter-day Saints who are struggling to meet their basic needs, the Church’s humanitarian aid program focuses mostly on people who are not members of our Church. Over the years it has helped to relieve the suffering, hunger, thirst and poverty of millions of people around the world to the extent of one and a half billion dollars. From hurricane relief in Louisiana to tsunami aid in Indonesia, we are pleased to work alongside and in partnership with other charitable agencies – including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim. One hundred percent of the donations given to the Church’s Humanitarian Services go directly to these causes—the Church absorbs all of its own overhead and administrative costs.
In addition to disaster relief, the Humanitarian Services arm of the Church sponsors ongoing worldwide initiatives including training local doctors and nurses to resuscitate babies who fail to take their first breath, and to provide measles vaccinations, wheelchair distribution, vision treatment, and clean water.
These statistics I’ve shared with you say something significant. They are a glimpse of how Latter-day Saints make their faith a way of life. In the Christian doctrine we follow, we are saved by the grace and Atonement of Jesus Christ. This is significant because at the time Joseph Smith was alive the vast majority of churches taught that the Savior’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity. The doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind, including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding. Our ultimate destiny is also dependent on our doing all we can to follow Christ’s teachings, however. An active Latter-day Saint sees his or her life as a probationary period, a test to see whether we can follow Christ’s teachings through a lifetime. A passive faith is therefore no part of being a Latter-day Saint.
Do we sometimes fall short of our ideals? Of course. No study or survey I’m aware of has ever claimed that we don’t have problems. That’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is also a gospel of forgiveness, change and improvement. And like other churches, we have members who have for one reason or another become indifferent and in some instances even hostile to the faith. Jesus taught us in that memorable parable of the sower that some seeds fail to take root. Our constant challenge is to help the gospel seed flourish in the lives of each of those who accept the teachings of Christ.
Yet, perhaps one of our greatest struggles is being properly understood. With a membership approaching 15 million and nearly 30,000 congregations across the world, the visibility of the Church and its members is growing. But visibility does not always equate with understanding.
In this article I have given you the briefest of sketches of the church to which I belong. I have touched very lightly on our doctrine, and not at all on our history. Both are fascinating subjects in their own right, but I have focused more on the kind of people Latter-day Saints aspire to be.
Newsweek in 2005 described the Church as a “21st century covenant of caring.” We hope so. As people get to know the Latter-day Saints next door, and vice versa, prejudices and misperceptions will diminish, and individuals–like you and me–will grow in mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.