Back in graduate school days, Sharon and I accepted the offer of the Mormon home course, the one where the two missionaries brought their little filmstrip projector and spent an hour or so with us each week for six weeks. We wanted to know what these folks were up to, and learn we did. They started with the Bible, but once they had charmed you with their knowledge of Scripture, they moved across to their other "scripture" and then blew up the bridge behind them. Though they began by affirming the Bible, they easily dismissed its teaching as a mistranslation or later corruption when it became inconvenient, as it did when it said that God was Spirit. Very slick.
Slick as they might be, these people are encumbered with the most outlandish story to tell. Israelites traversed the Atlantic with a magic compass. Great battles raged in the Americas without leaving a shred of archaeological evidence. A strange fellow found gold plates with cryptic writing, from which he dictates King James English behind a curtain by means of magic stones. Somehow it all ends in polygamy, special underwear, mortals becoming gods, baptism for the dead, childbearing throughout eternity, and infinitely revisable scripture. No wonder they major on warm fuzzy commercials about family life and values. Who would buy their main message?
Well, it turns out that a good many people do so, and I've marveled at that. But the more I've studied the matter, the more I understand the phenomenon. What seemed to me at the first to be the strangest of religions now seems to me to be the almost perfect religion in fleshly terms. It is, if you will, a designer religion. Mormonism is:
Or virtually so. Almost everyone ends up in one of the three "heavens," the lowest being better than our earthly existence.
You have to ask something of the adherents, or they won't take you seriously. Lost men think you are saved by works, and works a plenty there are in Mormonism.
Sometimes doctrinal specifics are hard to nail down, and they're subject to change by the leadership, but at least they have a general body of distinctive beliefs. If you tell folks they can believe whatever they want, they won't join you. Real religions have doctrines.
Figuratively speaking, Mormonism provides adherents a family, a culture group to which they may belong. Literally speaking, marriage figures into their plan of salvation. Their "family night at home" is great P.R.
Orthodox Christianity offers the abundant life on earth and eternal joy with God in heaven, but Mormonism isn't content with that. It has you becoming a god yourself. P.T. Barnum lives.
Mormonism would be tougher to sell if it had sprung from or was based in Sri Lanka, Andorra, or Namibia. Coming from the good ole U.S. of A., it has added cache throughout the world.
Any religion which offers a man a plurality of mates on earth and an eternity of mating in the afterlife strikes a chord. The church outlaws polygamy today, the price of Utah's statehood, but it nevertheless is making a comeback. If it was good enough for Joseph and Brigham, it's good enough for many of the faithful today.
Mormons look neat, not like the strange folks in saffron robes selling you flowers. And you won't find much of the grunge look on the BYU campus.
They know the name of Jesus is magic to the ear. They take a ride on His good name, while espousing an unrecognizable "jesus." Imagine the dreary task of selling Smithism or Youngism.
As they say of the weather in some places, "If you don't like it, just wait a few hours. It'll change." So too with Mormorism. With an open apostolate, made up chiefly of white businessmen, you're never far from an adjustment in light of market forces. Hence the new revelation on the status of blacks at the time of the civil rights movement.
We could go on, but you get the point. It's a lost man's dream.
Who then has the strange faith? It is we with our talk of the Cross, the narrow way which few take, the reality of hell, the closed canon, the eternal creatureliness of man, and such. Ours is the tough sell. Well, no. Theirs is the sell. Ours is not a sell at all. Rather, it is the truth borne by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
Mark Coppenger is president of Midwestern Seminary.