“You’re not true Christians,” shouts the barrel-chested 43-year-old Lonie Pursifull to a group of Mormons passing through Temple Square, the world headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Utah. “You’re not following the true gospel of Jesus Christ. You’re liars. You’re of your father—the devil.”
Pursifull pastors the Wildness Bible Church in Duchesne, about 90 miles outside of Salt Lake City. He says off and on for the last 13 years—despite being hit 16 times in the face and receiving 23 death threats—he’s come to Temple Square to preach to Mormons.
Ryan Sanchez listens not too far away. Sanchez, a 24-year-old Mormon, says he’s not upset at Pursifull. “I just don’t get why they’re here in front of our Church yelling at us, when we’re not in front of their church yelling at them.”
Despite its detractors, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—now exceeding 13 million members worldwide—is one of the fastest-growing Christian churches in the country, according to Newsweek magazine. And with more members of the Church today living outside of the United States than inside, the Church is poised for even greater growth. In Nigeria, for example, the Church says its experiencing a 10% annual growth rate. The Church estimates that one million members are added to its numbers every three years.
According to a new Pew Research Poll, however, 51% of Americans have little or no understanding of the Mormon faith. No doubt statistics like this have prompted Mormons like Sanchez as well as LDS Church officials to answer its critics—in 2005 the Church even sponsored a six-week multifaith seminar at Brigham Young University.
Sanchez says one of the biggest misconceptions of the Mormon faith besides that it practices polygamy—which it discontinued in 1890—is that it’s not Christian. “The name of our Church has Christ in it—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he says. “What could be more Christian than that?”
But Pursifull, along with 45% of white American evangelical Christians, according to the same Pew Poll, disagree. Mormon doctrines such as the belief in our pre-existence as spirit children and the fact that Mormons don’t affirm the traditional Christian view of the Trinity—God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being three distinct persons in one God—certainly contribute to the skepticism of many Christians.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, claimed insight into the three distinct beings of the Godhead during what Mormons call the First Vision. At 14 years old, Smith sought religious truth. He was confused by the religious denominations of his day and wanted to know which Church was the correct one. So, he retreated into the woods near his home in Palmyra Township, New York to ask God.
As he prayed, Smith later wrote that he saw a pillar of light fall over him and “saw two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spoke unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—‘This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!'” The Mormon idea of God the Father and the Son as two separate personages was born with this vision. When Smith asked the personages which Church to join, he was told none of them and was led to form the Mormon Church.
Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints hold sacred, is another point of divergence from traditional Christianity. The book tells of an Israelite family that journeys to the Americas around 600 B.C. to establish a thriving civilization and of a risen Christ who visits the people of the New World, preaches and establishes His church there.
A popular misconception holds that Mormons value the Book of Mormon above the Bible, but Church officials respond that the Book of Mormon does not replace the Bible and that both are used side-by-side in Church instruction and teaching.
Most archeologists and anthropologists, however, say that no credible evidence exists to substantiate the claims in the Book of Mormon. A criticism that Mormon church historian Jeffrey Cannon takes issue with: “Faith in the Book of Mormon is a gift that comes from the Holy Spirit,” he says. “And a gift that is independent of what archeologists might say.”
Keys of Mormon Success
With church assets estimated at up to 30 billion dollars, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is arguably the wealthiest church per capita in America, according to the PBS documentary “The Mormons.”
A list of some of the Church’s successful business leaders includes: Nolan Archibald, CEO, Black and Decker; Kevin B. Rollins, CEO, Dell Computer Corp.; David Neeleman, founder and CEO, JetBlue Airways and J.W. Marriott, Jr., CEO, Marriott Int.
Contributing to the Church’s financial vigor is the requirement that its members tithe 10% of their annual income. However, Church officials say that members don’t have to tithe, but they will not be considered in good standing and be able to participate in certain Church honors such as visiting the Temple.
“My 10% goes to building new churches, helping missionary funds, helping those in our community who need money,” says Stephen Sobisky, CEO of Sandman Studios, a visual effects and interactive media company in Pleasant Grove, Utah.
Sobisky says when he lost his job almost ten years ago he and his family had a difficult decision to make. The couple had $1,800 to spend on paying their tithe or their rent. After praying about it, Sobisky says they decided to pay their tithe. After he and his wife completed praying and wiping the tears from their eyes, they heard a knock on the door and standing there was a Federal Express man with a package. Sobisky says inside the package was a severance check for $2,500 from his previous employer. Two weeks later Sobisky got an even better job at a larger company.
Rejecting the view that the Church spends its resources only on itself, members of the Church point out the work of the Church’s Humanitarian Center, which offers poverty relief for millions around the globe regardless of religious orientation.
In a typical year, Bill Reynolds, manager of the 150,000-square-foot facility in Salt Lake City, says they send out 9 to 10 million pounds of clothing a year to needy organizations world-wide, including one million hygiene kits, 300,000 newborn kits, 35,000 school kits and 300,000 handmade quilts.
Efforts such as these might not convince skeptics like Lonie Pursifull to change their minds about Mormonism, but the doubts of outsiders aren’t likely to cause many LDS members to lose much sleep either. In front of Temple Square, a gray bearded Mormon, Samuel Harris, stops and listens to Pursifull shouting. “They been yelling at us for over a hundred and fifty years,” Samuel says while pointing to the old Salt Lake City Temple towering nearby. “And that Temple is still standing… still standing strong.”
[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]