A Mormon Introduction to Mormonism
My name is Revan Filiaexdeus. I’m a former chairperson for the Hampton Institute and an activist with the Zion movement. I am also a self-identifying Mormon and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, without adjectives. This paper is adapted from a discussion I began with members of the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). This paper is an invitation to all who identify as Mormon, regardless of organizational affiliation or belief.
For those readers who may not be intimately familiar with Mormonism, Mormon belief, and Mormon culture, go ahead and discard that image of a white-shirted-and-black-tied missionary that’s sure to be buzzing around your head at the first mention of the word “Mormon”, thanks to South Park and the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. Even among the “peculiar people” that Mormons are, I am peculiar. I am a hitchhiker, a spiritual and religious unitarian, an activist, an anarchist, and an author.
Still, none of this makes me any less Mormon.
We Mormons truly are a peculiar people. We have been aware of this since the beginning and have used that term to refer to ourselves many times throughout the ages. These days, Mormon is as much a cultural affiliation as it is a religious identification, much in the same way that Richard Dawkins even as a militant atheist can refer to himself as a “cultural Christian”, the obvious oxymormon notwithstanding.
Each of the Restoration congregations identify our beginnings with a man named Joseph Smith, Jr. and with the Church of Christ he founded in Palmyra, NY in 1829. We believe that this Church is the only true Church of Christ from which many branches have descended, in that we have the fullness of the Good News of the Kingdom of God - commonly called by it’s Greek name, the Gospel - that Catholics, Protestants, and other faithful possess only in part.
In our beginnings in Palmyra / Manchester, NY 1829, we recognized only three really basic things: that God was with us as Father, Son, and Spirit; that the Book of Mormon was the revealed word of God; and that Joseph Smith, Jr. was called as a prophet of God in these latter days. We had a hope that God would reveal to us more truth in time and continue to lead us individually and as a Church through Joseph.
Because of this common beginning, in this discussion I am going to use the terms Restorationist, Latter Day Saint, and Mormon interchangeably, all with the same meaning: a believer in these three very simple principles. Anything else you believe in addition to it does not make you any more or less Mormon.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no singular “Mormon Church”, in the sense that a church is a human organization. I have been, at various times, a member of the Salt Lake City-based Church that is the most easily recognizable face of the Mormon community, as well as of the Community of Christ and various Restoration Branches. During my time living in Jackson County, MO, I became intimately familiar with the true breadth of belief, devotion, and dialogue among people that call themselves "Mormon" or "Saint" or "Restorationist".
Since then, I've encountered such exciting things as Reform Mormonism - perhaps the freest-thinking and most left-wing of any Mormon organization - and the Apostolic United Brethren, a currently practicing and transparent polygamist organization very different from the infamous FLDS Church.
What does it truly mean to be a Mormon, Restorationist, a Latter Day Saint? I have come to understand it just as Joseph Smith, Jr. put it, that "truth is Mormonism; God is the author of it".
What, then, is Mormonism? Again, from Joseph Smith: "Mormonism is the pure doctrine of Jesus Christ, of which I am not ashamed".
And from the Book of Mormon, the book of 3 Nephi 11:30-41:
30 Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
31 Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.
32 And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
33 And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.
34 And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.
35 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
36 And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.
37 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.
38 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.
41 Therefore, go forth unto this people, and declare the words which I have spoken, unto the ends of the earth.
Brother Joseph summed up this bit eloquently in these sentences: "The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it ... one of the grand fundamentals of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."
In my own words, I sum up essential Mormonism as the whole and complete truth of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in whatever way He chooses, in whatever ways we understand. The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are appendages of our faith, because they both endlessly testified of Him, His atonement, and His resurrection.
The Mormons of Joseph Smith’s day were absolutely radical. We rejected all worldly authority that seemed to oppose God’s will. Our lives were continually sought as we fled first from New York to Ohio, and then to Missouri, Illinois, and eventually the territory that would become the state of Utah. Most early Mormons, including Joseph Smith and his family, were extremely poor and joined the Church with little more than a hope that God’s will would see them through. By-and-by, the very fact that the Church survived until Joseph’s death and beyond would seem as a miracle to those witnessing it.
We believed in the fundamental principles of the United States Constitution as being ordained and blessed by God Himself, and to violate any of the essential liberties promised to all Americans is to violate God’s will. We believed in things like communal living, in the destruction of poverty through free will charity, in accepting anyone and everyone into our fold who were in need. We believed that we could look beyond a book of scripture, move beyond our differences, and each speak to God for ourselves; to hear His will individually and collectively, and each of us say, “Yes! I am Zion!”
Unfortunately, many of us have lost this sense of radicalism.
Like many Christians of other flavors - admittedly, this is not only a Christian problem, but something that has plagued all religion from time immemorial - we have fought amongst ourselves over points of doctrine. We have not remembered the words of Christ, that “no one can do a good work in My name and then curse me ... whoever is not against us is for us”, yet those words are exactly what I call all of us Mormons to remember now.
A Vision of Zion
The essential work of promulgating the Gospel not only in an evangelistic sense to the world, but among ourselves, we all call Zion. Since the days that the Mormons first stepped into Jackson County, Missouri, the ancient Biblical term Zion has been applied to every Mormon work, from the most grandiose temple to sewing the smallest seed of faith. We understand Zion in various ways and certainly our understanding of Zion has changed over time. At it’s core, Zion is the “pure in heart” and wherever the pure in heart live. It is from whence the Redeemer and the Law comes.
During my time in Jackson County, identified repeatedly by Joseph Smith and other Mormon prophets as “the center-place of Zion”, I experienced what it means to be Mormon. I truly believe, and even do say, that God has spoken many things to me of the children of the Restoration. But I do not give you my own words, I give you the words of scripture: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
From the Doctrine and Covenants, a uniquely Mormon book of scripture, "... Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself."
I urge all members of every Restoration congregation, every administration of the Church that calls itself Mormon, every brother and sister that calls themselves Latter Day Saints, to remember that unity is an essential principle of the Celestial Kingdom.
Again from the Doctrine and Covenants: “Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I AM. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”
Further, the Book of Moses tells us that “the Lord called His people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind.”
Why else would God have allowed such seeming "division" among His Restoration children, if it were not for the sanctification and building up of Zion according to Celestial Law?
Weak Things Made Strong
I invite us all to a new understanding: we are told, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, that “God uses the foolish and weak things of the world to shame what the world considers wise and strong”. Is not the same true of us? Was not Brother Joseph chosen at the age of fourteen, a barely literate New York farmer, to be the herald of a new dispensation of power and authority?
Could not the very same be done unto us today, that God chooses the weak things among us to shame what we have thought strong and bring us unto a powerful repentance to, even as it is written in the book of Ether, “make weak things strong” unto us?
The Many Faces of Mormonism
In 1844, the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. was martyred in Carthage, Illinois while in jail for the destruction of a slanderous press in the purely Mormon city of Nauvoo, IL. The crisis that followed was known as the Succession Crisis and split the Mormon community into a plethora of ideologies and factions.
The majority of the Latter Day Saints followed the majority of the Twelve Apostles and Brigham Young far beyond the American frontier into what was then Mexican land. These Saints founded the State of Deseret, now called Utah, upon a blank salt plain with nothing more than what they brought from the east and an immense will to manifest Zion wherever they were. This group of Rocky Mountain Saints formed the largest denomination of the Mormon Church, called now have the immense financial and logistical resources to “redeem Zion” as it is written in our scriptures, with Jackson County as it's centerplace. They were the least and poorest of Americans, yet on this harsh salt plain amidst the Rocky Mountains, they flourished.
Those who stayed behind to guard the center-place of Zion were called the Reorganizers. These brethren and sistren were led by Joseph Smith’s first and dearest wife, Emma Smith, and later their son Joseph Smith III. They are now called the Community of Christ and do daily and continually fulfill this Celestial Law, to "lift up an ensign of peace, and make a proclamation of peace unto the ends of the earth". To this end, they have built a temple to peace near the land in Independence, Missouri which was dedicated by Joseph Smith, Jr. himself as the site of a future temple. Each day in this temple, a prayer goes up to God for a conflicted area of the world, that peace would reign, even the peace of Christ.
Our brothers and sisters which call themselves "Fundamentalist", following the doctrines of plural marriage, are no less our brothers and sisters in the faith! Some, like those who have followed Warren Jeffs, who admitted that he was not and never was a prophet, have gone astray. Yet many, like the Apostolic United Brethren, I have seen live good and chaste lives.
There are many Saints which can be called left-wing. Among them is the historical “Church of Zion” founded in 1870 in Salt Lake City by William S. Godbe. A core supporter of Utah’s Liberal Party and a critic of Brigham Young’s control over the secular and political lives of the Saints, his enduring legacy is Utah Magazine, now called the Salt Lake Tribune. Other left-wing Saint organizations include “Reform Mormonism”; the “United Order Family of Christ”, founded for gay Mormon young men; and the “Restoration Church of Jesus Christ”, the first explicitly LGBTAQ+ Mormon organization.
Remember our fellow Saints which are stewards of the Temple Lot. These brothers and sisters call themselves the “Church of Christ (Temple Lot)” and were an exemplary model of communication between the many Mormon organisations until the failure of their attempt to build the prophesied temple upon the lot for which they are named. Many other sects come from them, most of them becoming schismatic due to a variety of claimed visions and prophecies and the attitudes of members various towards them.
Remember the Ridgonite Saints, who followed Sidney Rigdon’s claim to succession of Joseph Smith’s mantle. He was first counselor to Joseph Smith while the latter was alive, and claimed to receive a vision from God which sustained Rigdon as leader of the Church. Today they are based mostly in Pennsylvania.
Remember the Cutlerite and Bickertonite Saints who come also from the flock of Sidney Rigdon.
Remember the Strangite Saints, who went to Voree, Wisconsin with James Strang to once again establish Zion.
Remember the work that God did in Africa through Billy Johnson to convince our Brighamite brethren that perhaps Brigham Young was wrong in his attitude towards non-whites. Billy Johnson is, among Mormons, an interesting character. Born in 1934, he was raised as a Roman Catholic and was given a Book of Mormon by a friend in 1964. At that time, there was only a very small Mormon presence in Africa; mostly expatriates from the United States. After coming to a personal conviction of the Book of Mormon’s truth, he taught the Book of Mormon in Nigeria and Ghana, all without the sanction of any existing Mormon organisation; though, he did make brief contact with some Reorganized brethren who were upon the continent. Johnson’s movement flourished, though it was unfortunately the policy of the Brighamite organization at the time to exclude blacks from the priesthood, though this was not an official Church teaching.
Probably due to Johnson’s influence, President Spencer W. Kimball prayed unto God concerning the inclusion of other races in the priesthood and in 1978, he and his people were formally accepted into the Brighamite organization of the Church, with the priesthood opened to all men regardless of race.
Remember also Saints such as myself, who do always entreat all of us to unity and fellowship: a Mormon, a Restoration Sister or Brother, and a Latter Day Saint with neither adjective nor creed.
Remember that, if truth will come from whence it may, God places truth around us in all places, and does not speak solely through His appointed General Authorities. In all of these, truth is found mingled with the doctrines of men even as it was in Israel in Christ’s day. Yet, I and many others still have faith that God will send us “one mighty and strong” to restore God’s Restoration unto the proper and undivided order, of one Zionite heart and mind, that we were always meant to be. And if you, my fellow Mormons, believe that the one mighty and strong has come, then set your house in order and be Zion in all it’s glory and fullness.
I could go on and on, even continue to entreat you until Christ comes to remember all of our brethren and sistren which are Latter Day Saints, yet the message is the self-same and clear: be not divided, but united in Christ's cause. Take upon ye the name of Christ and not of a man. Remember that God told Joseph Smith in the First Vision that all the creeds were abominable unto Him because they followed the words of men and not of God. Remember that Joseph Smith declared nothing as doctrine except it came by the mouth and word of God.
“Remove the Book of Mormon and the revelations and we have no religion”, says Joseph Smith. We Mormons believe the words of this Nephite Record, that Jesus came truly to visit His lost sheep on the American continent. As recounted in 3 Nephi, remember that Christ had appointed Apostles in Jerusalem and Apostles in America! Does this constitute two churches? Never! We are told through the vision of Lehi that there are “only two churches, one of God and one of the Devil”.
If, two thousand years ago, Christ could establish many administrations of the one Church, and even call multiple groups of twelve apostles each of which were appointed and legitimate, why, then, my Restorationist brothers and sisters, do we still continually fight over who is Joseph Smith's true successor?
Is it not possible that each who seek God and rightly proclaim themselves the true heir of the Church of Christ, of the Church of Latter Day Saints, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are utterly and entirely correct?
It is even as Brother Paul of Tarsus wrote, "there are many administrations but one Lord".
I leave these thoughts with you, brothers and sisters until Christ shall come again.
Ahmed Nait-Djoudi is a faithful Muslim and self-employed citizen of Algeria. He has studied at Université Mouloud Mammeri de Tizi Ouzou. Fluent in Arabic, German, English, and Algerian, he resides in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria.