Is Mormonism Christian?

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Is Mormonism Christian?

By Solveig Nilson

The views expressed in this journal are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Luther College or other associated parties.

The Church of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) is the fourth largest church in the United States of America and the fastest growing. The Saints, or Mormons as they are referred to by church outsiders,[1] assert that they are Christian as they believe in the Jesus Christ of the Bible. However, many outsiders do not agree. The question of whether Mormonism is Christian is very relevant to American society at present as Mitt Romney, a Saint, became the Republican nominee for President and significantly challenged Barack Obama’s presidency. The fact that twenty-two percent of recently polled Americans would oppose voting for a Mormon for President causes one to wonder why there is such opposition to Mormonism in its country of origin.[2] In this paper, I will examine Mormon beliefs in comparison with those of Christianity to determine whether Mormonism can be considered Christian or whether it is in its own religious category.

According to a standard dictionary definition of Christians "as believers and followers of Christ", Mormons are Christians. Further, because the majority show universal Christian values such as generosity and forgiveness, the observance of regular worship and avoidance of “bad” deeds, Mormons seem to act as “Christians.”[3] However, these observances answer the question of whether Mormons are Christians and not necessarily whether Mormonism, and thus the doctrine and beliefs of the LDS Church, are Christian. Jan Shipps, a Methodist and noted scholar of Mormonism, is often asked whether she believes Mormons are Christians and responds with questions of whether the question is analytical, analogical, historiographical or theological and religious.[4] In this paper, I will focus on the question from a theological viewpoint. From this viewpoint, Mormonism can be seen to diverge from traditional Christianity in four areas: its views on scripture, the nature of God and the deification of believers; the deity of Christ and the trinity, and finally, salvation.

With respect to scripture, Mormons differ from traditional Christian groups in that they accept extra books in their canon. In addition to the King James Version of the Bible, they add the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Doctrine and Covenants is a compilation of the revelations given to the Priesthood, namely those given to Joseph Smith. The Pearl of Great Price contains a variety of material with the most notable inclusions being “The First Vision,” which describes in detail the miracle that is the foundation of Mormonism, and the “Articles of Faith,” which outline the beliefs of Mormonism. Although most statements in the Articles would be acceptable to all traditional Christians, the inclusion of statements such as “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God” are uniquely Mormon.[5] Many traditional Christians view this “as far as it is translated correctly” as blasphemous since it puts the importance on Joseph Smith’s revelations and interpretation of the Bible. 

The Book of Mormon is the most controversial addition to the canon. It is a supposed record of ancient groups in the Americas, and begins with a family moving from Jerusalem, shortly before its destruction, to the New World. The climax of the record is a visit of the resurrected Jesus Christ in the Americas. Although the records, inscribed on gold plates, were lost shortly after this in the fourth century, the burier of the book, Moroni, is said to have returned in the early 19th century as an angel in a revelation to Joseph Smith and led him to the plates. Smith then translated these into English as the Book of Mormon. The lack of evidence about these golden plates and a message reflective of the times led many critics to believe that the book is a fanciful fabrication.[6] Anti-Mormon writers at the time of its release suggested that the book was “nothing more than the rough plagiarizing of a contemporary romantic novel.”[7] Further, the messages of a “finite God, a perfectible humanity, and an emphasis on works of righteousness” have striking affinities with 19th century Protestant liberalism.[8] The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations that the LDS Church is “the One True Church” reflect the intense revivalism and primitivism of the Second Great Awakening, where several groups were fighting for followers and trying to assert themselves as the only solution in the “Babel of Protestant denominationalism.”[9]

As shown by the acceptance of the extra-biblical works, Mormons maintain a canon open to further revelation from God. This is most notable in the fact that it allows Joseph Smith and his successors to be accepted as God’s prophets. Mormons believe that the death of the apostles led to the death of apostolic succession and that the traditional church perpetuated a false line of apostolic succession.[10] They believe that there was no church on earth for 1700 years until Joseph Smith was restored with apostolic governance by God.[11] Christian critics argue that this is against the New Testament where Jesus said he would always be with the Church (“Lo, I am with you alway” Matthew 28:20).[12] The LDS Church is the only Church headed by a prophet and therefore the common Christian authorities of tradition and sola scriptura are replaced by a single charismatic authority.[13] Robert L. Millet, a Mormon scholar, says that he believes many protestant groups, in their cry of sola scriptura,put too much emphasis on the Bible and that this “bibliolatry” does not allow the truth to be recognised elsewhere. Most notably he argues that it goes against the biblical role of the Holy Spirit as the primary teacher and argues that it is “unchristian” for Joseph Smith and his successors not to share what was revealed to them.[14]

The idea that Joseph Smith is God’s prophet likely creates much of the aversion and distrust of Mormonism for non-Mormons. Christian critics argue that the canon is closed because the last two verses of the Book of Revelation say that if you add or subtract from the New Testament you will be accursed, but Mormons hold this warning to be only true of the Book of Revelation and not the entire Bible.[15] In an argument in defense of Mormonism as Christian, Stephen E. Robinson states that it is unbiblical to believe that the Bible is a closed canon as there is no biblical statement within it that prohibits additional revelation and that the Book of Revelation was written prior to the formation of the Bible; therefore, the warning can only speak to its own book.[16]

Another point of divergence between traditional Christian doctrine and Mormon doctrine is the belief in human deification and thus the nature of God. According to a recent study, over three-quarters of Mormons surveyed stated belief in pre-mortal existence of humans as spirits, human deification during mortal life, and eternal marriage after death.[17] The belief that all people are gods, because they are the spirit sons and daughters begotten of God and his wife, is controversial for many traditional Christian groups because they believe it to be idolatrous.[18] How can Mormons state that they believe in one God, a common acceptance of traditional Christianity, if in fact they believe that all people are gods? Millet attempts to defend this question by redefining “God” as a “perfectly united, mutually indwelling, divine community” of which there is only one.[19] He further states that there is only one God the Father or Fount of Divinity and one divine nature, which may be in conflict with his first statement. Mormons also present the fact that orthodox Christian groups have a similar view toward human deification.

The argument from Mormon scholars that Christianity is not monolithic, and that views diverge on many issues between “Christian” groups, is well-noted. However, Bill McKeever, an American author and well-known critic of Mormonism, asserts that the divide is just too wide for Mormonism to be considered Christian.[20] McKeever believes that it is the doctrinal differences in belief about the Godhead, as well as the interpretation of the Bible, that set Mormonism so apart from other Christian groups.[21] Many Christian churches of the United States agree with him. The United Methodists issued a statement at their 2000 National Conference that Mormonism is not Christian since they believe in a “gendered, married and procreating god with a body of flesh and bones.” Further, Methodists believe that Mormonism is a tritheistic faith.[22]

The belief that God is married is unique to Mormonism. This belief is integral to the Mormon belief in eternal marriage as necessary for exaltation in the afterlife.[23] Mormons argue that beliefs such as celestial heaven are what make the Mormon religion superior (the “more” of Mormonism) because it is “doctrinal consolation” about the afterlife.[24] The “more” of Mormonism is what is offered in arguing why one should become Mormon. It also includes the “doctrinal perspective” of the prophet Joseph Smith, “doctrinal clarification and expansion” such as premortal existence that give purpose to one’s life, “doctrinal confirmation” of the New Testament and “doctrinal consistency.”[25] This view that there is “more” to Mormonism likely creates animosity from other Christian groups who feel that Mormons see themselves as superior in their faith. Further, it contributes to the feelings that Mormonism is different and thus is not Christian.

One of the preeminent responses given by non-Mormons of why Mormons are not Christian is they do not believe in the Trinity. Ostling and Ostling state that the LDS Church rejects the Jesus Christ of Christian orthodoxy in that they believe that God the Father is greater than Jesus.[26] Thus, Mormons do not believe in the accepted view of Christ of the trinity that is coeternal and coequal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the triune godhead. A further affront to Christian views is the belief that Jesus was simply the first born of God and thus is an elder brother to all humanity (or deity, in another perspective). Mormons believe that because Jesus reached a pinnacle of intelligence he was ranked as a God and became the Creator and infinite saviour.[27] Millet states that Mormons believe that prophets, such as Jesus and Joseph Smith, are “men like us” but that they have been authorised and empowered to share the Word of God. Further, he asserts that Mormons do in fact believe in a sort of trinity because they believe there are three members in the Godhead but that they are three distinct personages, beings, or separate gods.[28] Because they believe that the church fell into apostasy after the death of the apostles, they believe that the trinity is a belief that is based on Christian tradition but not based on the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Therefore, Mormons reject the traditional view of the Trinity as accepted at Chalcedon but do believe in their own version of a triune godhead.

Mormon doctrine differs from orthodox Christian views with respect to salvation.  Protestant Christians believe in “Faith Alone” for salvation and criticise the LDS for a belief in salvation through good works. Mormons, however, feel that they are misunderstood. Mormon doctrine does state that followers must serve God with all their “heart, might, mind and strength” but the Book of Mormon says that it is impossible to receive completely the blessings necessary for salvation on our own without God.[29]  The fact that they believe there are five steps to salvation and additional guidelines indicates that critics are right to suggest Mormons do not believe in “Faith Alone”. According to Ostling and Ostling, the five essential steps to salvation are: faith that Christ can save from sin, repentance for one’s sins, immersion baptism when old enough to be accountable, gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands by the Melchizedek priesthood immediately after baptism and “enduring to the end”.[30] In addition to this is the need to use the terms of the LDS Articles of Faith, practice the ordinances of the church and give lifelong obedience to its laws. [31] It appears salvation really is not as easy as “Faith Alone” for Mormons. Further, there is an emphasis on discipleship as necessary for salvation. Millet states that human works are necessary to exercise faith in Christ, receive sacraments and ordinances of salvation and render Christian service to neighbours, in addition to relying upon the merits, mercy and grace of God.[32] It is important to recognise that the Roman Catholic Church views a combination of good works and faith as necessary for salvation as well, as Mormon apologists are quick to mention.

Although all these biblical and Christological differences are significant, it is likely that the opposition to Mormonism is strengthened because of controversial past policies. Despite being banned in 1890 with the issuance of the “Manifesto”, many people still associate polygamy with mainstream Mormonism. This is largely the result of publicity about the Fundamental Latter-day Saints, a sect that broke from the mainstream in opposition to the “Manifesto” and who still uphold the polygamy of their religious founder, Joseph Smith. Further, until President Spencer W Kimball’s revelation in June of 1978, mainstream Mormonism was a racist religion in that it did not allow black men to be in the priesthood, and thus they and their families could not enjoy all the blessings of the church. Luckily for eternal revelation, Kimball’s revelation was able to appease critics and not stunt the growth of the church. However, unluckily for women, because of a strong belief in the literal truths of the Bible, it is unlikely any of the priesthood will receive “revelations” that women should be treated as equals as well.

An interesting question that arises when studying the question of whether Mormonism is Christian is whether Mormons view other Christian groups as Christian. Until the early 20th century, LDS referred to non-members as “gentiles,” a great affront to other Christians. In order to reduce the animosity, they changed LDS rhetoric to call non-members “non-Mormons” and the term now used is “friend of another faith,” a more inclusive term.[33] However, other Christian groups often feel offended by the unkind, exclusionary and “un-Christian” view of superiority of the LDS. Because the LDS believe that their church is the “One True Church,” the most steady and solid institution on earth that is closest to the primitive Christian church, it is impossible for them not to think they are superior.[34] However, Millet asserts that this does not mean other churches are false but simply that Mormonism is “more good.”[35] In accord with the views of Millet, eighty-five percent of LDS polled in a recent survey stated that the teachings of their church were more correct and true than those of any other church.[36] The fact that the LDS rebaptise new Christian converts suggests that they do not recognise other churches as truly Christian. If members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints feel that they are superior to other Christians, why do they wish to lower their standards with a label of simply “Christian”?

In conclusion, Mormons seem to believe they are Christian because their first Article of Faith declares their belief in Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God. However, Mormon and traditional Christian doctrine differ on many levels, including scripture, the deification of humans and the nature of God, the triune Godhead, and the path to salvation. Although they showed similar responses to conservative Christians in their views of Literal Biblical Theology and Personally Oriented Values in a recent study, the authors of the study concluded that their extraneous beliefs, such as in premortal existence and eternal marriage, preclude them from being placed in a conservative/fundamentalist category.[37] Further, because the study showed the differences between LDS and other groups to be greater than the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics and because Mormons perceive themselves as superior, the authors concluded that the LDS Church does not fit within common Christian definitions. Similarly, Shipps believes that the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity is like that between Judaism and Christianity. Because Mormonism aimed to reform Christianity, it can be viewed as a whole new religious tradition as Christianity was eventually viewed as diverse from Judaism.[38]

Past LDS President Gordon B Hinkley once stated that it did not matter what people of other faiths thought of them but it was how they regarded themselves that was important.[39]  However, the Mormon campaigns in defense of their Christian status suggest that it is important to them to be considered Christian. Why do they desire this recognition so badly? Well, it is likely that it is because they want to be recognised as legitimate and respected among American Christians. Further, in order to increase their following it is necessary that they are not perceived as too different. Last of all, it seems that the “Christian” status is needed if a member ever wants to become President of the United States of America.

[1] For the purposes of this paper, the term “Mormon” will be used throughout to refer to members of the LDS Church. While this term is acceptable to LDS members, the terms “Latter-day Saints” or simply “Saints” are generally preferred within the church itself.

[2] Kevin D. Williamson, “An American Gospel: Mitt Romney, the Mormons, and those who hate them,” National Review, April 2 (2012) : 27.

[3] Gilleasbuig Macmillan, Understanding Christianity, (Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press Ltd, 2004), 111.

[4] Jan Shipps, “Is Mormonism Christian? Reflections on a Complicated Question,” BYU Studies 33 (1993), 439.

[5] Julie Marie Smith, “Mormon Scripture,” in Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. W. Paul reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010), 271.

[6]Terryl L. Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[7]Smith, “Mormon Scripture”, 372.

[8]Ostling and Ostling, The Power and the Promise: Mormon America, (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 317.

[9]Smith, “Mormon Scripture”, 367.

[10]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 320.

[11]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 320.

[12]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 320.

[13]Shipps, “Is Mormonism Christian?”, 447.

[14]Millet, A Different Jesus, 77.

[15]Williamson, “An American Gospel”, 30.

[16]Stephen E. Robinson, “Are Mormons Christian?”, New Era (1998).

[17]Martin Johnson and Phil Mullins, “Mormonism: Catholic, Protestant, Different?”, Review of Religious Research 34 (1992),  60.

[18]Millet, A Different Jesus, 182.

[19] Millet, A Different Jesus, 141.

[20]Millet, A Different Jesus, 141.

[21]Bill, McKeever, “Is Mormonism Christian?”, accessed March 26 2012,

[22]McKeever, “Is Mormonism Christian?”.

[23]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 326.

[24]Millet, A Different Jesus, 60.

[25]Millet, A Different Jesus, 60.

[26]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 325.

[27]Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 325.

[28]Millet, A Different Jesus, 141.

[29] Robinson, “Are Mormons Christians?”.

[30] Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 330.

[31] Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 330.

[32]Millet, A Different Jesus, 69.

[33] J.B. Haws, “Mormonism and Other Faiths,” in  Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. W. Paul reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010),  318.

[34]Millet, A Different Jesus, 43.

[35]Millet, A Different Jesus, 43.

[36]Johnson and Mullins, “Mormonism: Catholic, Protestant, Different?”, 60.

[37]Johnson and Mullins, “Mormonism: Catholic, Protestant, Different?”, 61.

[38]Shipps, “Is Mormonism Christian?”, 461.

[39] Ostling and Ostling, Mormon America, 333.