By James B. Allen

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is commonly known as the Mormon Church or the LDS Church. Members of the church were the first permanent non-Native American settlers in the Territory of Utah, and they still comprise approximately 70 percent of Utah's population.

Organization, Teachings, and Practices

Latter-day Saints believe that their church is the authentic restoration of the church established by Jesus Christ in New Testament times. Its authority to perform saving ordinances and do other things in God's name comes from the priesthood, which was restored to Joseph Smith through heavenly messengers and is passed on to all worthy male members through ordination. At the head of the church stands the president of the church, who is considered God's living prophet. He and his two counselors constitute a quorum known as the First Presidency. Next to them stand the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and they are assisted in administering the Church worldwide by two Quorums of the Seventy. A Presiding Bishopric, consisting of three men, administers the temporal affairs of the Church.

All these leaders are known collectively as the General Authorities of the church. Other general church officers include the presidency of the Relief Society (a women's organization founded by Joseph Smith), the presidency of the young women's association, the presidency of the young men's association, the presidency of the Sunday School, and the presidency of the Primary (a churchwide organization for children).

At the local level, church activity is centered in the ward, or, if the population is too small, a branch. Presided over by a bishop, each ward generally consists of around a hundred families, although special wards are organized for students at colleges and universities and for young single adults in appropriate areas. Five to ten wards constitute a stake, led by a stake president. Full-time missionary work is supervised by the presidents of missions. In 1990 there were approximately 2,890 wards and branches in Utah, about 390 stakes, and three full-time missions. Until recent times, stake and mission presidents reported directly to the Twelve, but in the latter part of the twentieth century a new administrative level was created. By 1991 the world was divided into twenty areas, each presided over by a presidency consisting of members of the Quorums of Seventy. There were three such areas in Utah. There is no professional ministry among the Latter-day Saints, and all missionaries and local officers act on a voluntary basis and without pay; employees of the church (whether full-time or part-time) do receive compensation.

The LDS Church operates three institutions of higher learning: Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Brigham Young University, at Laie, Hawaii; and Ricks College, at Rexburg, Idaho. It also operates several primary and secondary schools in Mexico, South America, and the Pacific. In addition, the seminary system provides weekday religious instruction for junior high and high school students, either on a released-time basis (as in Utah), on an early morning basis (as in California), or through directed home study. Similarly, LDS Institutes of religion are operated at colleges and universities where a significant number of LDS students are enrolled.

Central to the nature of the church is the concept of continuing revelation; the Latter-day Saints believe that the living prophet receives divine revelation for the guidance of the modern church. So, too, does the Quorum of the Twelve, and the First Presidency and the Twelve are sustained by Church members as "prophets, seers, and revelators." Mormons also hold that the canon of scripture was not complete with the New Testament. Rather, the "standard works" (books officially accepted as scripture) consist of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants (a compilation of major revelations and instructions given through Joseph Smith, with a few additions since then), and the Pearl of Great Price (certain translations and writings of Joseph Smith).

At the heart of Latter-day Saint belief is Jesus Christ, whose atoning sacrifice provided for the resurrection of all mankind and forgiveness of sins for all who repent and accept him as the Savior. Following faith and repentance, believers are baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands by the priesthood. The repentant believer must continue to live according to the teachings of Christ, and demonstrate his or her faith through good works. Ultimately, the Saints believe, people are rewarded for both their faith and their works, and for this reason there are different "degrees of glory" that people may earn after departing this life, depending upon their faithfulness.

The LDS concept of the relationship between this world and the next is also related to the sacred ceremonies of the temples. Only active Latter-day Saints may enter the temples. Mormons attend the temples to perform baptism, "endowment," marriage, and "sealing," and other ordinances for themselves and vicariously in behalf of the dead, especially loved ones and ancestors, in the belief that the dead will hear the gospel preached, that these earthly ordinances must be performed for them, and that they will have their own opportunity to accept or reject. This is why the church places great emphasis on genealogy work, and in Salt Lake City the Genealogical Society of the church houses the most extensive collection of genealogy material in the world, including microfilmed public vital records, church records, and other materials from every state in the United States and from many nations around the world.

Other important Mormon teachings and practices include the payment of tithes (ten percent of one's income) and other offerings, strong emphasis on the "World of Wisdom" (particularly, abstaining from tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs), chastity, service to others, regular meeting attendance on the Sabbath (Sunday), and a commitment to follow the spiritual directions of the living prophet.

Church activity includes numerous opportunities for service. The "home teaching" program is designed to see that every family is visited monthly by a pair of home teachers, who give whatever message or encouragement seems important, and who provide appropriate help in case of spiritual or other kinds of crisis. Similarly, through the Relief Society's "visiting teaching" program, an effort is made to see that each woman in the ward is visited at least once a month. In addition, most young men, and a large number of young women, spend two years as full-time missionaries, and it is becoming increasingly common for retired couples to volunteer for missionary service. Mormons also go to their temples regularly, and nearly all have one or more assignments in their wards as home teachers, visiting teachers, or officers or teachers in various organizations.


LDS Church First Presidency, early Utah years

The church was founded by Joseph Smith, who was born in Sharon, Vermont, on 23 December 1805. In 1816 he moved with his family to western New York state, sometimes known as the "Burned-over District" because of the waves of religious revivalism that periodically swept over the area. Young Joseph attended revivals in the vicinity of Palmyra and became a devout believer in Christ, but he was also confused at the conflicting doctrines he heard. In the spring of 1820 he prayed for guidance as to which church was right and received a vision in which two persons (whom the Latter-day Saints accept as God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ) appeared to him, told him that he was to join none of the existing churches, and assured him that "the fullness of the gospel" would be made known to him at some future time.

Three years later, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a series of visits from another heavenly messenger, Moroni, who informed him of an ancient record, buried in a hillside near Palmyra. Joseph found the record, written on metal plates that had the appearance of gold, and later translated it "by the gift and power of God," and through the medium of two stones, the Urim and Thummim. It told the story of three groups of people who had migrated to America in ancient times, focusing primarily on one that arrived about 600 B.C., flourished for a thousand years, and received a visit from Jesus Christ shortly after His resurrection.

The translated record was called the Book of Mormon, after the prophet-warrior who had compiled it anciently, and it was published early in 1830. Its primary purpose, as stated in the preface, was to be another witness to the divinity of Christ. It soon became the major missionary tool for the Church.

Joseph Smith, meanwhile, became the object of scorn and criticism; but despite the harassment he gained a number of followers. On 6 April 1830 he and five other men organized themselves under the name of the Church of Christ. The church officially took its present name eight years later.

Mormonism came forth at a time when numerous "restorationists" were seeking to reestablish the original gospel of Christ, when "seekers" were moving from church to church in their quest, and in a religious atmosphere charged with millennialism and Christian perfectionism. Its restorationist message, along with the Book of Mormon appealed to many and the new church grew rapidly. One early convert was Sidney Rigdon, a restorationist minister. The conversion of Rigdon and most of his congregation paved the way for Joseph Smith to move to Kirtland, Ohio: Rigdon himself soon became a counselor to the Mormon leader.

Less than a year after the organization of the church, Joseph Smith led most of the Mormons from New York to Ohio, where there were already more than a thousand converts.

In Kirtland, a beautiful temple was dedicated in 1836. It was used mainly as a meetinghouse and schoolhouse, but it also became the scene of a various heavenly visions and intense spiritual experiences for the Mormons. Church leaders were also deeply involved in the economic development of the area, including the founding of the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society bank. Serious economic problems beset them, however, which contributed to a growing hostility against the Mormons as well as extensive dissatisfaction and apostasy among church members themselves. The bank failed amid the national panic of 1837, and this along with other problems eventually compelled Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, one of the most prominent of the Twelve, to flee for their lives to Missouri. In Missouri, meanwhile, the Latter-day Saints there attempted to live under the "Law of Consecration," a system of economic cooperation inaugurated by Joseph Smith that required members to "consecrate" all their property to the church, then receive back "stewardships" to work and profit from according to their best abilities. At the end of each year all surpluses would be given to the bishop to assist the poor and to promote the work of the church. The Saints made a noble effort, but in the end their own imperfections made it impossible to achieve the ideal, and the effort was abandoned.

The Mormons were no more popular as a group in Missouri than they were in Ohio. Their seeming exclusiveness, their apparent liberal attitude toward free blacks, and old settlers' fears that the Mormons would soon dominate the area both economically and politically all led to their forcible expulsion from Jackson County in 1833. They found refuge in adjoining counties, but similar problems plagued them everywhere. By 1838 the conflict had reached a state of virtual civil war as mobs beat, pillaged, and murdered the Mormons. The state militia entered the fray to keep the peace but was clearly in sympathy with the older settlers, and Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued his infamous "Extermination Order" requiring that the Saints either leave Missouri or be exterminated. Finally, in the winter of 1838-39, they were driven from the state.

The next place of refuge was western Illinois where, on the banks of the Mississippi, the Mormons purchased land and began to build the city of Nauvoo. Eventually some 12,000 people lived in this well-planned, industrious community of Saints, and hundreds of Mormons lived in other surrounding communities. Joseph Smith envisioned Nauvoo as a grand cooperative enterprise where all citizens would work for the well-being of the community and toward building the Kingdom of God. The spiritual and the temporal were so closely interrelated in the minds of the Saints that there was little distinction between religious and secular affairs. In the political realm, for example, Joseph Smith was able to obtain a charter for the city that made it practically independent of the state. He became mayor of Nauvoo, newspaper editor, and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion. He promoted the economic development of the city and even became a candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1844, though he was murdered more than four months before the election.

The Saints built a magnificent temple in Nauvoo, intended not just for meetings but also for the introduction of the sacred ordinances now performed in all Mormon temples. Other distinctive Mormon teachings and practices were introduced in Nauvoo, but none was more controversial, or fraught with more far-reaching consequences for the church as an institution, than plural marriage. It began after Joseph Smith received a revelation in answer to his query about why ancient biblical prophets had more than one wife, and he was commanded to institute the same practice among the Latter-day Saints. In Nauvoo it was practiced secretly, and limited to a relatively small number of selected church leaders. It was first preached publicly in 1852, after the Saints were securely settled in the Great Basin.

Problems similar to those they encountered in Missouri continued to plaque the Mormons. Their growing political and economic strength, and rumors of polygamy, eventually alienated many of their neighbors and led to the threat of civil war in western Illinois and the intervention of the governor to try to avert such a catastrophe. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were taken to jail in Carthage, Illinois, and there, on 24 June 1844, they were murdered by a mob. Some controversy ensued over who should succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the church, but by the end of August the large majority of Saints were convinced that the Quorum of the Twelve, under the leadership of Brigham Young, were the proper successors.

LDS Salt Lake Temple capstone dedication, 1893

Persecution continued, and even as Brigham and the other leaders were pushing the temple to completion they were also planning the move to the West earlier envisioned by Joseph Smith. The exodus from Nauvoo began ahead of schedule when mob activity forced the Saints to begin crossing the ice-covered Mississippi River in February 1846. They found temporary refuge in various camps across the plains of Iowa and in eastern Nebraska. In 1847 Brigham Young led the first pioneer company to the Great Basin. By the end of the year some five thousand Saints had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, laying the foundation for a new and permanent refuge in the Rocky Mountains. Brigham Young was sustained as president of the church in December 1847. By the time he died in 1877, he had directed the settlement of nearly 400 communities in what are now the states of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Even though the Mormons were seeking solitude and a sanctuary where they would be free to build their kingdom peacefully, they could not remain completely aloof or separated from the United States. The "Mormon Battalion" had participated in the Mexican War (1846-48). As a result of that war, the territory where the Saints were settled came under the jurisdiction of the United States, and the problem of government arose. Brigham Young proposed that a huge area, including part of southern California, be admitted to the union as the State of Deseret. Congress, however, as part of the Compromise of 1850, created the Territory of Utah, which comprised a much smaller area. The Saints began to work for statehood, making at least six different attempts over the next forty years, for they knew they would be more independent politically if they were ruled by their own state government rather than by territorial officials. This was not to be, however, and even though Brigham Young was appointed the first governor, some succeeding governors and other federally-appointed territorial officials were openly hostile to the Mormon community. The Saints, meanwhile, set about to build the Kingdom in the West. The land and natural resources were considered to be there for the benefit of all, and in most early settlements each family was assigned property at no cost. Grazing land, timber resources, and water were considered community property, and cooperative programs were designed to give everyone fair use. In the 1870s, after Brougham Young inaugurated a program known as the United Order, there were a few efforts at complete communal living, as well as other efforts at various kinds of joint community enterprises. There were also other cooperative enterprises, such as Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, designed to keep business in the hands of the Saints by competing more effectively with non-Mormons. Agricultural price control was also used at times to regulate economic activity for the benefit of the Saints as a whole. In general, however, it was the private initiative of thousands of pioneers and later settlers, combined with a cooperative spirit, that built Utah's pioneer communities.

Utah's population grew rapidly after 1847, as thousands of Mormon converts arrived annually from the United States and Europe. The missionary force increased, and new missions were opened in various parts of the world. Four temples were erected in Utah before the end of the century. The Church-owned Deseret News, as well as various other church publications, provided information and communication. The women of the church played vital roles in the well-being of the Saints through the revitalized Women's Relief Society as well as through their role in organizing and directing the Primary organization for children. The Sunday School and the Young Men's and Young Women's Mutual Improvement Associations were also organized during this era, each of which became permanent church-wide organizations. Meanwhile, the so-called "Mormon Question" remained an American political issue, as reformers periodically attacked the Church on two issues: polygamy and the influence of the church on politics and government in the Territory of Utah. The Utah Expedition of 1857, intended to put down a reported "rebellion" and to insure the peaceful inauguration of the first non-Mormon governor, resulted in a three-year military occupation of the territory, and the tragic Mountain Meadows Massacre of August 1857 did nothing to assuage the negative national image of the Mormons. In 1862 the first anti-polygamy act was passed by Congress, but the Saints ignored it because they believed it was an unconstitutional intrusion into their freedom of religion. The law was finally upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1879, and for the next eleven years federal judges prosecuted, disenfranchised, and imprisoned hundreds of Saints for "unlawful cohabitation," especially after harsher federal laws passed in the 1880s. They also confiscated church property. Finally, in 1890, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation in which, he said later, he was shown what would happen to the church if the policy was not changed. As a result, he issued a document known as the Manifesto, which officially ended the practice of allowing new plural marriages. The federal government, in turn, did its part in bringing about accommodation when presidential amnesties were issued to pre-1890 polygamists. Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896, and church property was returned very shortly thereafter.

All this seemed to portend an important historical trend of the early twentieth century: a greater accommodation with and involvement in the broader American society, and a greater acceptance into that society. The Saints became actively involved in all the political and economic affairs of the larger society, and within three decades they enjoyed a much more positive image in the minds of their American fellow citizens. In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the church adopted a new program of economic security for the Saints, now known as the Welfare Program, that soon became one of its most publicized features. The church also de-emphasized immigration to Utah, telling the Mormons in foreign countries that the greater need was to build and strengthen the LDS Church in their homelands.

After World War II, and especially after about 1970, the history of the church was characterized by unprecedented numerical growth, rapid expansion outside North America, and numerous administrative and program changes. Temple building also increased, and by 1991 over half the Church's forty-four temples were located outside the United States. Mormons, however, seemed to face increasingly serious challenges as the world around them offered more and more enticements away from the moral and ethical teachings of Christ. At the same time, the widespread acceptance of the gospel by people of diverse ethnic and cultural origins demanded a reexamination by some Saints of their personal attitudes toward other races and cultures.

A major step toward better intercultural understanding was President Spencer W. Kimball's revelation in June 1978 that opened the priesthood to all worthy male Latter-day Saints, regardless of race. Previously blacks had been barred from the priesthood, a policy that was never fully explained but one that church leaders felt they could not change without direct revelation. Latter-day Saints were also urged to become involved in humanitarian, compassionate service not just within the church but at every opportunity, and the church itself tried to set the tone, sending relief to a number of areas that had experienced catastrophes.

By 1991 the LDS Church was well on the road toward becoming truly a worldwide church. It still had only minimal membership in eastern Europe, and there were no missionaries or organized branches in most of Asia and Africa. Yet, when compared with its status forty years earlier, the change was dramatic. In 1950 church membership was about 1,110,000. By the end of 1991 it was over 8,000,000. In 1950 about 47 percent of the organized stakes were in Utah, but rapid growth elsewhere reduced this to about 23 percent in 1991.

Within Utah, the Church continues to play a prominent role in the economic, political, and social life of the state. Economically, its building programs, educational institutions, and other activities are major sources of employment, and the businesses it operated, such as Deseret Book Company, the Deseret News, and the broadcasting facilities of Bonneville International Corporation, provide employment as well as an important tax base. In addition, its welfare program provides emergency care for many Utah citizens who otherwise might be on the welfare rolls of the state. Socially and culturally, a variety of church-sponsored dances, plays, and other social activities constitute an important part of the social life of the state.

In the political realm, LDS Church leaders generally remain officially aloof from partisanship, but from time to time they take stands on questions they considered directly related to moral and ethical principles. They opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and also opposed legalized gambling and abortion, called for stronger measures against child abuse, urged parental control of sex education, opposed the move for homosexual "rights," and became involved in efforts to stop the spread of pornography. In these and many other ways the church remained a vital, visible part of the Utah community, as it will undoubtedly continue to do throughout the foreseeable future.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.