A priest, a minister and a Mormon walk into a bar. Not likely. And it’s not just because Mormons don’t drink. Ever since Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in the 1820s, the Mormons have been barred from membership in all the major ecumenical assemblies and councils. Even though the Mormons profess to follow Jesus, the official voices of Christianity say they just don’t count as Christian because their scriptures and doctrines are unorthodox.
To add to their difficulties, the Latter-day Saints continue to be ridiculed in popular culture. The Broadway musical The Book of Mormon and scathing parodies on The Simpsons and South Park are cases in point.
To be fair, the history of Mormonism provides plenty of material. Smith’s account of his revelation on hidden golden tablets, with magic spectacles to help him translate, inspires incredulity. And accusations of brutality and unbridled polygamy levelled at another early church leader, Brigham Young, have long rendered him disreputable. But there are episodes like these in Christian history as well, and it’s high time the Christian ecumenical movement stop policing so vigorously who’s in and who’s out.
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The Latter-day Saints have proven to be both witty and resilient. To the mocking musical, their response has been “You’ve seen the play … now read the book.” It is one example that this is not the church of Smith or Young, but something quite different.
In the LDS narrative, the Mormons are a marginalized and sometimes oppressed Christian sect. This understanding dates from at least the late 19th century, when persecution by more orthodox Christians led to a Mormon exodus to Utah. After this, the LDS developed a missionary zeal, sending their young people to the ends of the Earth. As a result, the Mormons emerged by the early 20th century as a global religious tradition. They now have almost 15 million adherents, with growing and vibrant Mormon communities in Canada, Australia, and across Africa and Latin America.
In Canada, the Mormons have sought membership in the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) but have been denied. Likewise in the rest of the world, the Mormons have been rejected by Christians as cultic and heretical. Shut out from ecumenical dialogue within Christianity, the LDS have instead developed robust interfaith relationships around the world.
The CCC argues that membership depends on two factors: a national denominational presence and a professed Trinitarian theology. Writing as a past CCC president, let me note that a national presence often means occupying a Toronto base. And the relative orthodoxy of most CCC members’ Trinitarian commitments continues to be a matter of debate.
But doctrine shouldn’t be an issue at all. In the ecumenical world of the CCC and beyond, only two criteria ought to apply: a truly national presence and discipleship in Christ. Following Jesus is more important than describing and explaining him. Doctrines can be useful tools, or, more accurately, road maps for the Christian journey. But in a pluralistic society, doctrinal differences are of marginal importance when articulating the Gospel. We need to focus on Christ, not Christianity.
The Mormons are guided by unorthodox scriptures, and they frame their understanding of Jesus and the Trinity differently than mainstream Christians. But Jesus remains at the centre of all things for them. They are just as devoted to walking in our Saviour’s footsteps as any other Christian, and they should be welcomed to walk alongside the rest of us.
This story was originally featured in Broadview’s July/August 2019 edition with the title “Let the Mormons in.” To read more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.