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1997 July PBS
Home Up





JULY 18, 1997


150 years ago members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trekked from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah to found a new Temple. In a celebration of faith, hundreds of Mormons are retracing that journey this summer. Richard Ostling, Time Magazineís religion correspondent, reports

TrailRICHARD OSTLING: Hundreds of (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of) Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, have been wending their way across the Midwest these past weeks, reliving the arduous migration of their ancestors 150 years ago. The original pioneers, facing persecution for their unusual beliefs and stunned by the murder of their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, fled Illinois. Heading West, they created a new spiritual kingdom at Salt Lake City.

Today, that city is the heart of a religious empire that is spread throughout the United States, and Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths overseas. Over half its 10 million members now live outside this country. (music in background) The current president of the church, Gordon Hinckley, is ever present at Salt Lake City events like this pioneer celebration. But heís just as likely to be in China or one of the other nations where Mormons do missionary work.

HinckleyPRESIDENT GORDON HINCKLEY, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: We give them an assurance of who they are, sons and daughters of God. People find comfort. They find peace. They find strength in that. And in the organization they find sociability. They find friends. Weíre a very friendly church. Weíre a very happy church. Weíre a happy, go-ahead people. And others like it.

Mormon tableauRICHARD OSTLING: Unlike religions that have existed since ancient times, Mormonism is a uniquely American faith founded in the 1820's. Joseph Smith said God and Jesus appeared to him and told him that Christianity was corrupt. Later, he was instructed by an angel to dig up and translate buried scriptures, which became the Book of Mormon. Smith was told to restore the true religion. From Smith on down to Gordon Hinckley, Mormon presidents have claimed a unique authority to reveal define truth. Historian Jan Shipps says the church has Christian roots but is a new religion.

JAN SHIPPS, Historian: In the early years the Christians thought they had found the best way to be Jewish, and Shipps300 years later, they realized they were not Jews. The Mormons started out thinking they had found the very best way to be Christians; that they are the restoration; they are the restored church; they are the restored priesthood.

RICHARD OSTLING: From the start, theyíve had a rocky road. Mormons were persecuted for their practice of polygamy, which was dropped in 1890, and they were criticized for barring blacks from church offices. That policy changed in 1978. Since then, the church has more than doubled, and past conflicts no longer hamper Mormon growth. A huge missionary force, currently numbering 55,000 people, volunteers to spread the message, not just of Mormon doctrines, but family values and clean, healthy living.

(people singing in background) The short-term missions serves not only to expand the religion but to solidify the faith of the missionaries, themselves. Salt Lake city businessman Jim Kimball says when he went on his mission as a young man, he was a skeptic, with little knowledge of the faith.

KimballJIM KIMBALL: An uncle of mine wrote in his diary that the gospel must be true because missionaries like me would have ruined it a long time ago, and thatís the way I felt. I--he said that he was under the impression, as I was I, that Epistles were wives of the apostles when he left to enter the missionary work. And so I went out, blissfully ignorant.

RICHARD OSTLING: Working in Australian, he was persuaded by the effect the religion had on people.

JIM KIMBALL: I saw men who were abusing their wives and children and who were in a drunken state most of the time after work--and their homes were unkept and their lives were a mess, and I--I saw a manifest change in those people. The revelations to Joseph Smith from God just rang so true to me and made such enormous sense, and it took months--I was out there months before it finally hit me that the church was true. As a friend of mine wrote, "Iíd be cosmically orphaned without it." (people singing in background)

RICHARD OSTLING: People said his congregation in Salt Lake City gives him a sense of small town community. Like all members, heís assigned to a neighborhood ward, where volunteers lead worships since thereís no Templeordained clergy. That sense of community was evident when the men met after worship.

SPOKESMAN: Sister Makiko Tonda is moving this Thursday. So are there any brothers here that have some trucks that could help out with that? Dave, Joe, Ty.

JIM KIMBALL: Weíre involved in each otherís lives. We care and love for one another. If my wife is sick, the Relief Society shows up at my front door with their famous green Jell-O salad and potatoes au gratin and ham, shredded carrot, green salad, and you know, thatís great. Iíve been called to go help people recover from a flooded basement, tear out all the old carpet, or a burned down house, and I really think--as I view life--thatís what itís all about is involvement with others.

RICHARD OSTLING: Secret and distinct rituals in temples help solidify Mormon identity.

JIM KIMBALL: Is there anyone that has a problem with those kinds of obligations you take on yourself?

RICHARD OSTLING: Once a month Kimball teaches a class for young adults preparing for temple ceremonies. Only those who give 10 percent of their income to the church and follow such health requirements as abstaining from coffee, alcohol, and tobacco are allowed in. The temple rituals range from sealing marriage for eternity, as new brides and grooms do daily, to performing proxy baptisms, to offer salvation to dead ancestors. In this way, the Latter-day Saints extend their family emphasis to creating eternal families in heaven.

Bride Though Mormons insist theyíre followers of Jesus Christ and feature Him prominently in their visitorsí center and in their prostheletyzing, others think the church misrepresents Christianity. Thomas Taylor is a Presbyterian minister in Salt Lake. Two years ago, his denomination declared that Mormons are not Christians in the traditional sense.

REV. THOMAS TAYLOR, First Presbyterian Church: Have I ever known any Mormons who, after speaking with them, have I come to believe that they know Jesus Christ in the same way that I do; that they are real true disciples of Jesus, my answer would be, yes. But if youíre asking me, do I think that Mormonism as a system of belief and practice is the same as what we ordinarily mean by Christianity, I think my answer would be no.

RICHARD OSTLING: The major doctrinal difference centers on the nature of God.

TaylorREV. THOMAS TAYLOR: The Bible says in the Book of John, Chapter 4, God is spirit. But the Mormons say that God is flesh and bone. You get a picture of God that is progressing. So you see that man is made of the same stuff, as it were, as God is; and that man is progressing toward deityhood, and God once was like man. So this is a very different picture of Christianity.

RICHARD OSTLING: President Gordon Hinckley says the concept of God having been a man is not stressed any longer, but he does believe that human beings can become gods in the afterlife.

PRESIDENT GORDON HINCKLEY: Well, they can achieve to a godly status, yes, of course they can, eternal progression. We believe in the progression of the human soul. Ours is a forward-looking religion. Itís an upward-looking religion. We believe in the eternity and the infinity of the human soul, and its great possibilities.

RICHARD OSTLING: A different debate about God got Gail Houston fired from Brigham Young University, a Mormon-run school. Many Mormons believe God the Father is married to a mother in Heaven, but Houston advocated praying directly to the Heavenly Mother. Houston spoke with producer Kate Olson.

HoustonGAIL HOUSTON: The language that God has spoken to me through has been through an incredibly loving Father, who is married to an incredibly loving Mother. If youíve had a sacred experience, you cannot deny it. When I first really felt her presence was after my own mother had passed away.

And at the time, I was really affected by my motherís passing away, and I couldnít imagine that anyone would ever want me to forget my mother, my earthly mother, and I couldnít imagine that anyone would ever want me to forget my Heavenly Mother. And I say that in all love and kindness towards President Hinckley. I just have to--I cannot deny what God has told me.

RICHARD OSTLING: President Hinckley says the Mother in Heaven cannot be the object of prayer.

SingersPRESIDENT GORDON HINCKLEY: The fact of the matter is that in every instance of record, where deity is addressed, the address is to the Father. Now, thatís where we stand, and itís simply that; no more, no less.

RICHARD OSTLING: Brigham Youngís President, Merrill Bateman, says the universityís close ties to the church meant Houston had to go.

MERRILL BATEMAN, President, Brigham Young University: Although we want to ensure that every faculty Batemanmember has the right to discuss and analyze as broadly and widely as possible any topic, including religious topics, including fundamental doctrine of the church, we do not believe they have--they should be able to publicly endorse positions contrary to doctrine, or to attack the doctrine.

RICHARD OSTLING: During the 1990's, there have been many cases like Houstonís in which teachers at Brigham Young and others in the church have been disciplined for various infractions. Dissent is growing, especially among younger women, who want to expand beyond their traditional roles and have a greater voice in the church.

MERRILL BATEMAN: Anybody who persists in opposing the church--public opposition--speaking out against it--I think may receive some discipline from the church. Itís just that simple. But those cases are so very, very, very few.

RICHARD OSTLING: Elbert Peck, whose independent Sunstone Magazine publishes dissenting views, says that rapid expansion is causing the church to limit the questioning so as not to confuse new members. But he fears clamping down comes at a price.

PeckELBERT PECK, Sunstone Magazine: If you are members of a family, then unless you can speak the truth as you see it--and you need to speak the truth in love because youíre connected in a covenantal relationship--then you end up with the same dysfunctions in your church organization as you do within a family when secrets are kept. And individuals are not being to speak the truth that they see. Theyíre not able to say when we do this to the family, it really hurts me. You know, their great pain comes out. And you hear that pain when you listen to the dissidents in the church.

RICHARD OSTLING: For Houston, asking questions is essential to spiritual development.

GAIL HOUSTON: If our only principle in the church is obedience, then we remain children. And our church says we can be gods. The relationship with my God is I can ask them anything, anything. I can even say, well, what if Singersthis church isnít true, what if this is all nothing, and funny thing, that enlarges my testimony. It doesnít limit it. (singing in background)

RICHARD OSTLING: The (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of) Latter-day Saints remarkable test story is part of a broader pattern in religion today. Faiths that offer doctrinal certainty and clear directives on how to live are steadily gaining ground. But Mormons also have a tradition of open inquiry. The challenge ahead is how to balance that principle with an increasing demand for obedience. (singing in background)



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