Myths about Mormonism

Aug 08, 2011

Joanna Brooks chatted about the myths of Mormonism. Ask questions, get answers.

Related: Five myths about Mormonism

Good morning from the Pacific time zone! Thank you to The Washington Post and all of its readers who have submitted questions.  Let's begin.

Several readers wrote me to ask why I did not address issues of race and Mormonism.  It's a topic I had proposed to cover, but one that did not make the final cut for the article. 

Racism continues to be a crucial issue in American life, so I'd like to start by talking a little bit about race in Mormonism.  Many people are aware that until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not ordain worthy men of African descent to the lay priesthood.  But this policy (enforced primarily in the twentieth century) does not represent the whole history of African-Americans in Mormonism.  In the earliest years of the Church, under the leadership of Joseph Smith, many African-Americans (see, for example, Elijah Abel and abolitionist Walker Lewis did join and Black men like Abel and Lewis were ordained to the priesthood.  After Smith's death, with the leadership of Brigham Young, and as the Mormons moved further west, the practice of ordaining African-Americans to the priesthood gradually ended.  Some historians trace this to controversies and social conflicts that took place while the Mormons were living in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s.  Whatever the reasons it began, denial of priesthood took hold and solidified in Mormon society.

Through the influence of their own upbrinings in a widely racist American society, Brigham Young and other Church members began to articulate "reasons" for the denial of the priesthood.  They drew largely from American Christian folk theology that often connected racial difference to the curses placed upon Cain or Noah's son Ham in the Old Testament.  These stories took hold among LDS people, especially in their isolation in Mormon settlements in the intermountain West. 

During the twentieth-century, some Church leaders generated new stories about the roots of the priesthood ban, tying it to an alleged lack of "valiance" by the souls of African-Americans in the pre-earthly life.  These stories were (and are) offensive.  They have no source in scripture.  But these too were absorbed and circulated by Mormon people.  They continue to circulate today in some communities.

The worldwide growth of the Church from the 1950s onward spurred new reasons for Church members and leaders to question the validity of the priesthood ban.  The ban rested heavily on the hearts of many Mormons, black and white, and many members and some leaders also prayed for the Church to find greater light on this issue.  The issue became especially acute with the rapid growth of the Church in Brazil.  In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that in answer to prayer he had come to understand that the priesthood should be made available to all worthy male members of the Church regardless of race or ancestry.  This announcement has been canonized as scripture. 

Still, racism remains in Mormon communities, and there are many African-American Mormons and their allies who work hard to address it.  For more information, please see this documentary or visit this website.

You discussed views regarding women, but not gays in your "myths." What could we expect from a Mormon President in terms of advancements or redaction of rights for LGBT Americans if they are to honor Mormon doctrine?

Thanks for this good question.  The official stance of the Church is that homosexuality is incompatible with God's plan.  (The Church does make a distinction between being gay and "practicing" homosexuality:  it's not a sin to be gay, but it is to have gay sex.)   In support of this stance, the LDS Church and its members have invested heavily in anti-same-sex-marriage political campaigns, including California's Proposition 8. 

Not all members respond the same way to the Church's teachings and requests for activism.  Thousands of California Mormons opposed Proposition 8.  Every Mormon--like every person of faith--must sort out for himself or herself how to honor our religion while also following our indvidual conscience.

As to how a Mormon President would govern on LGBT issues, it depends on who that president would be.  I'd encourage you to scrutinize individual records of speech and action.  Jon Huntsman advocated civil unions in 2009 as governor of conservative Utah.  Romney tends to be more conservative than Huntsman and would likely toe the line of doctrine.  If a Mormon Democrat (yes, we exist) were to serve as President, it's totally plausible that he or she would be very pro-LGBT rights. 

What's the thing with the "magic underwear" that is suppose to make it harder to Mormons to have sex or something?

I find it fascinating how curious non-Mormons are about Mormon underwear!

Garments (as we call them) are worn by highly committed Mormons to remind them of promises they've made to live lives of devotion and purity.  Think of them as comparable to a yarmulke, but worn close to the skin.

You probably can't answer this, but I would appreciate if you would please tell me as much as you can. I have toured several Mormon churches, in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. There is a large room in each which only church members may go into and what happens in there is not disclosed. A believe a problem is people then fill in the missing pieces with their own conjecture. Yet, if it is private religious rites which are akin to the religious rites of most other religions, wouldn't it be preferable to state that, then to keep it all a secret. Or, is it NOT religious rites and we should all keep speculating?

It sounds like you have toured Mormon temples.  Temples are reserved for ceremonial use, while church buildings are where we meet on regular Sundays and weekdays.  During a scheduled open house, temples are open to the general public--all rooms.  You can see the rooms where marriage ceremonies and other sacred rites of Mormonism take place. 

When temples are in regular use, only observant Mormons may enter and participate.

I'd describe what goes on in the temple as a teaching session designed to help Mormons remember the divine purpose of life on earth. 

Why does Mormonism claim that any non-Mormon (including all of the traditional Christian denominations) are an Abomination?

In the 1950s, an LDS leader named Bruce R. McConkie published a book that described the Catholic Church as "abomninable."  In forty years of my Mormon life, I have only heard a few regular Church members repeat this very offensive characterization.  It is no longer taught.

You claim that it's a myth that women are second class citizens in Mormonism, but then go on to state that "mainstream Mormonism does not accord women equal status with men." It's great that there are some women who reject the inequality, but it's pretty clear that the LDS Church puts men in a class above women. Isn't that basically the definition of second class citizen?

Your question makes me laugh--in a good way.  When I was trying to figure out how to answer "myths," I realized I had to deal with two sets of myths:  those that non-Mormons have about Mormons, and those that we Mormons hold about ourselves.

To an impartial eye, any organization that only promotes men to the insitutional chain of command and only offers pastoral and clerical authority to men can be seen as according women second class status.  But Mormon women ourselves feel a deep sense of connection to our faith, in the way that Jewish women and Catholic women have felt that deep sense of connection even when they have been formally excluded from institutional leadership.  Like Jewish women and Catholic women, Mormon women have many ways of thinking about our situation.  Some of us are more orthodox and appreciate the honor accorded to motherhood in Mormonism.  Some of us are more liberal and object to the second class institutional status of women.  Still, we love our faith and we love the strength we have gained from it.  Mormon women are diverse.  We are not all mindless and voiceless, but neither are we all happy. I hope this helps put a human face on the issue.  That was my main goal in addressing Mormon women's second class citizen status as a "myth."

not so concerned about multiple marriages, but do Mormons feel like they need to help their own at the expense of others? A number of Mormon people here in town seem to be awaiting a Romney presidency as a faster way to the top.

Yes, it's true--I've known some pretty enterprising Mormons in my life, and we do tend to stick together.  Maybe the Republican Mormons of DC need to be a bit more circumspect in their ambitions?  In any event, as  Mormon Democrat, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be getting a job if Romney or Hunstman were elected.

Given that every branch of (let's call it) historic Christian orthodoxy (Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism) has never accepted Mormonism as a branch of Christianity, from the inception of Mormonism until today, I remain unconvinced that Mormons are Christians in any historically meaningful way. Of course you, and any other Mormon, have a right to think of yourselves as Christians. However, historically Christian branches have the right to exclude Mormons under the umbrella of Christendom if they so choose. My question is this - what are the doctrinal commonalities between Mormons and historic Christian branches that would cause you to affirm that Mormons are Christians? Thank you for your time.

Thank you for your question!  I've received a lot of email from Washington Post readers about whether Mormons are Christians.  Some have offered to pray for me in my lack of Christianity.  I guess I could always use a few friendly prayers.

Here's what I can say:

As a Mormon I was raised to identify as a Christian.  I was taught that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who atoned for the sins and sufferings of mankind through his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and his crucifixion.  I was taught that he rose from the dead on the third day and that his resurrection paved the way for all who believe in him to gain eternal life.  These, I believe, are things Mormons share in common with other Christians. 


I was in Utah attending a lecture on Utah history when the professor made the statement that polygamy existed more than we think. To be honest, I hadn't thought much about it before, so I am not certain what that meant. Your myth breaker indicates that polygamy is rare. So, let me ask: could someone give a general estimate as to how much it does exist?

A good general estimate I've heard is that there are about 40,000 - 50,000 polygamists who are ultraorthodox Mormon splinter groups.  This does not include polygamists of other religious backgrounds in the US. 

Your article is mostly views about Mormons as people, not your faith as a belief system. I don't doubt that many good people belong to the Mormon church, but that doesn't change: 1. The story about how your holy book was written is laughable 2. The history in it is completely refuted by archaeology 3. Only 22% of Mormons believe evolution is the best explanation for the existence of humans (that's less than the percent of Evangelical Protestants) Regardless of whether you pass on family values, your faith completely crosses the line between accepting on faith what can't be proved (e.g. the nature of afterlife) and requiring acceptance of the demonstrably false. That's not faith; that's denial, and is degrading to the intellect. Atheist activist Sam Harris has called Mormonism "Christianity, plus some rather stupid ideas." You've done nothing to rebut that.

I'm not sure any person of faith can provide an answer that would satisfy atheist activist Sam Harris. Faith, by definition, means banking on things the eye can't see but the heart yearns and hopes for.   I am a professional scholar and a person of faith.  Mormons aren't the only people who live lives of faith and intellectual pursuit.  Like all people of faith, intellectual Mormons have diverse and nuanced approaches to questions of literalism and historicity.   

What would a Mormon president do if a conflict arose between the prophet and his constitutionally outlined obligations? Where would His/Her loyalties lie?

Thanks for your question.  I think it helps to understand the role of the prophet in contemporary Mormon life.  In the earliest days of the Church, prophets like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had clearly theocratic aspirations.  They did give directions to members about how to organize political life in Mormon communities.  A lot has changed in Mormonism since the nineteenth century.  Today, we are a global religion.  The counsel offered by the prophet is very general:  visit and you'll see that prophetic direction these days pertains largely to things like living prayerful lives, treating our families well, serving others.  There are exceptional moments--such as when the Church has asked members to participate in anti-same-sex-marriage campaigns.  But aside from this issue, the counsel the prophet gives is so general that it would not create a conflict with the constitutionally outlined obligations of the presidency. 

There are some damaging bits of information in Jon Krakauer's book "Under the Banner of Heaven" and in Dr. Martha Beck's book "Leaving the Saints: How I Left the Mormons and Found My Faith." How do you refute what they had to say about Mormons and the Mormon faith? Because I am scared to vote for Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. I am very interested in your answer. Barb F. Sarasota

Thanks for writing, Barb.  I have read Under the Banner of Heaven, and it bears little resemblance to the religion I was raised in and continue to practice.  Krakauer does draw out sensational aspects of Mormon history--including the atrocious Mountain Meadows Massacre--but the main of the storyline follows a murderous, misogynist band of splinter group Mormons who bear no resemblance to the people I grew up with and attend Church with.   I have not read Dr. Beck's Leaving the Saints, but I understand that it details her personal and familial struggles with the faith.

I hope that greater dialogue can help people see Mormons as regular, complex human beings.  As in every religion, there are members of our faith who do extreme and even criminal things in the name of God. And as in every religion, there are Mormons who live lives of great faith, humility, and service. Neither Romney nor Huntsman strike me as extremist types.  I'd encourage you to learn as much as you can and vote for a candidate who you feel comfortable with.

My college roommate last year was a Mormon though she used a term that means a lasped Mormon which I can't remember now. Never realized there was something called the "Mormon Wars" in the 19th century? Mormons were very unpopular with the other Americans at that time, right? The Republican Party supported them though which is a reason why Utah is SO Republican.

I think you roomed with a "Jack Mormon," yes? 

You are right about nineteenth-century Mormon history.  Mormons migrated out of the United States to Utah Territory (which was then Mexico) from 1847 onwards.  This outmigration was a response to mob violence directed against Mormons in states like Missouri and Illinois.  Church founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob while in custody in Illinois.  During the 1850s, federal troops were sent to make war against Mormon settlements in Utah.  Federal investigators were also sent to prosecute Mormon polygamists in Utah.  There was, at times, great tension between the federal government and Mormon Utah.

As I understand it, most Mormons' contemporary affiliation with Republicanism arose in the mid-20th century.

Dr. Brooks, isn't it true that young Later Day Saint men and women of good Mormon standing are baptized in the temple (where no Non-Mormon can go muck like Mecca for the Muslims) in place of sometimes ancient ancestors and, as result, the Mormons believe that the ancestors are now saved and will go to heaven? Isn't this why the Later Day Saints have the most advanced geneological records, to go back and baptize for every ancestor?

Yes.  Mormons believe that our spiritual well-being is connected to that of our ancestors.  We are taught that family ties last through the eternities.  In Mormon temples, worthy Mormons are baptized for deceased ancestors so that family ties and relationships can survive through all eternity.  This is one of the reasons there is a great emphasis on genealogical research in Mormonism.

My mom is an expert genealogist, and it's been a great joy for me to grow up knowing who my ancestors were.  I think it's also a good thing that the Church has made genealogical records available to serve non-Mormon interests.  The Church has assisted, for example, with reconstituting the records of African-American "Freedman's Banks" to assist black genealogists in their work.

How would a Mormon who earns a Divinity degree & feels "called" professionally to serve in the ministry of another faith, say as an Episcopal priest or pastor of a "Bible Church," be regarded by the LDS Church &his/her fellow Mormons?

Great question.  I'm thinking about Carolyn Tanner Irish, who grew up LDS and went on to serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese that serves Utah.  Her LDS baptism was accepted by the Episcopal Church.   I am not clear on what ties she maintained to the LDS Church.  Sometimes, Church members who formally profess another faith ask to have their "names removed from the records" of the Church; sometimes, local ecclesiastical leaders remove membership records for Mormons who have joined other religions.

More conservative and observant Mormons might view those who have joined other faiths as "apostates."  My own view is that everyone who is or has been Mormon remains a part of the Mormon story.

With same sex marriage legalized in some states, do you think it is a matter of time before orthodox mormons take public stands promoting plural marriage? I think the gay marriage issue sort of opens the floodgates to redefining marriage, for better or worse.

This is a fascinating question.  Let's be clear on the difference between orthodox Mormons who are members of the mainstream LDS Church and ultraorthodox Mormon splinter groups who are not members of the LDS Church.  Folks in the latter group are already taking public stances in defense of their practice of polygamy.  Kody Brown and his family--stars of the Sister Wives reality show--have filed a high-profile legal case to decriminalize polygamy in Utah.  I have also met articulate polygamous women in the Short Creek community who are public advocates for their chosen way of life.

But for most Mormons and especially for members of the mainstream LDS Church polygamy remains a very touchy subject.  I received a great deal of reaction just for describing the history of LDS polygamy and its current doctrinal status in my article. I think it's unlikely that mainstream Mormons will rally to the cause of legalizing polygamy.

Many Mormons who support gay marriage, however, have observed the contradiction between our historical experience as Mormons who were persecuted for practicing an alternative form of marriage and our current political activism towards gay and lesbian couples who seek legal recognition for their marriages.


One thing that makes me uneasy about Mormanism is it's view of women. While not unique to Momanism, it seems so out of place in the modern world that a woman's salvation and spiritual advancement is so tied to a man's, and I undestand it not be achieved on her own. What is your view on the differences between men and woman in the life of the church and how do you reconcile it in your own mind.

I am proud to be Mormon.  I am grateful for the example of strong Mormon women, including my pioneer ancestors, who were spiritual seekers willing to sacrifice for their faith.  I value the fact that my faith taught me how to seek and find spiritual direction on my own.  I value being a part of a diverse global Mormon community.  I am also a feminist.  I reconcile these two aspects of my life the same way any woman who lives in an inegalitarian society deals with the contradictions between her aspirations and reality.  I share a lot in common with other feminists of faith in the Jewish and Catholic traditions.  In fact, I share a lot in common with any woman in the United States who lives in a society that has historically discriminated against women, and still does in many respects.

Thanks, everyone!  I appreciate your good questions and hope I've been able to answer in helpful ways.

In This Chat
Joanna Brooks
Joanna Brooks grew up in a conservative Mormon home among the last great orange groves of Orange County, California. She attended Brigham Young University and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Her first book American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures (Oxford University Press, 2003) was awarded the Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Prize. Brooks has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society for her scholarship on religion and American culture.
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