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Mormons (/ˈmɔːrmənz/) are a religious and cultural group related to Mormonism, the principal branch of the Latter Day Saint movement of Restorationist Christianity, initiated by Joseph Smith in upstate New York during the 1820s. After Smith's death in 1844, the Mormons followed Brigham Young to what would become the Utah Territory. Today, most Mormons are understood to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Some Mormons are also either independent or non-practicing. The center of Mormon cultural influence is in Utah, and North America has more Mormons than any other continent, though the majority of Mormons live outside the United States.

Mormons have developed a strong sense of commonality that stems from their doctrine and history. During the 19th century, Mormon converts tended to gather to a central geographic location, and between 1852 and 1890 a minority of Mormons openly practiced plural marriage, a form of religious polygamy. Mormons dedicate large amounts of time and resources to serving in their church, and many young Mormons choose to serve a full-time proselytizing mission. Mormons have a health code which eschews alcoholic beverages, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other addictive substances. They tend to be very family-oriented and have strong connections across generations and with extended family, reflective of their belief that families can be sealed together beyond death. Mormons also have a strict law of chastity, requiring abstention from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage and fidelity within marriage.

Mormons self-identify as Christian, [24] although some non-Mormons consider Mormons non-Christian [16] and some of their beliefs differ from mainstream Christianity. Mormons believe in the Bible, as well as other books of scripture, such as the Book of Mormon. They have a unique view of cosmology and believe that all people are spirit-children of God. Mormons believe that returning to God requires following the example of Jesus Christ, and accepting his atonement through ordinances such as baptism. They believe that Christ's church was restored through Joseph Smith and is guided by living prophets and apostles. Central to Mormon faith is the belief that God speaks to his children and answers their prayers.

Due to their high birth and conversion rates, the Mormon population has grown significantly in recent decades. The number of members in 1971 was 3,090,953 [16] and now in 2017 based on the Annual Report, there are 15,882,417 [16] worldwide. [27] [16]


The word "Mormons" most often refers to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) because of their belief in the Book of Mormon, though members often refer to themselves as Latter-day Saints or sometimes just Saints. [16] The term "Mormons" has been embraced by most adherents of Mormonism, most notably Mormon fundamentalists, [16] while other Latter Day Saint denominations, such as the Community of Christ, have rejected it. Both LDS Church members (or "Latter-day Saints") and members of fundamentalist groups commonly use the word "Mormon" in reference to themselves. [16] The LDS Church, however, disagrees with this self-characterization, and encourages the use of the word "Mormon" only in reference to LDS Church members. [16] Church leaders also encourage members to use the church's full name to emphasize its focus on Jesus Christ. [16]

The word "Mormon" is often associated with polygamy (or plural marriage), [17] which was a distinguishing practice of many early Mormons; however, it was renounced by the LDS Church in 1890 [17] and discontinued over the next 15 years. [17] Today, polygamy is practiced within Mormonism only by people that have broken with the LDS Church. [17]


The history of the Mormons has shaped them into a people with a strong sense of unity and commonality. [17] From the start, Mormons have tried to establish what they call " Zion ", a utopian society of the righteous. [17] Mormon history can be divided into three broad time periods: (1) the early history during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, (2) a "pioneer era" under the leadership of Brigham Young and his successors, and (3) a modern era beginning around the turn of the 20th century. In the first period, Smith had tried literally to build a city called Zion, in which converts could gather. During the pioneer era, Zion became a "landscape of villages" in Utah. In modern times, Zion is still an ideal, though Mormons gather together in their individual congregations rather than a central geographic location. [17]


Mormons trace their origins to the visions that Joseph Smith reported having in the early 1820s while living in upstate New York. [17] In 1823, Smith said an angel directed him to a buried book written on golden plates containing the religious history of an ancient people. [17] Smith published what he said was a translation of these plates in March 1830 as the Book of Mormon, named after Mormon, the ancient prophet–historian who compiled the book. On April 6, 1830, Smith founded the Church of Christ. [17] The early church grew westward as Smith sent missionaries to proselytize. [18] In 1831, the church moved to Kirtland, Ohio where missionaries had made a large number of converts [18] and Smith began establishing an outpost in Jackson County, Missouri, [18] where he planned to eventually build the city of Zion (or the New Jerusalem). [18] In 1833, Missouri settlers, alarmed by the rapid influx of Mormons, expelled them from Jackson County into the nearby Clay County, where local residents were more welcoming. [18] After Smith led a mission, known as Zion's Camp, to recover the land, [18] he began building Kirtland Temple in Lake County, Ohio, where the church flourished. [18] When the Missouri Mormons were later asked to leave Clay County in 1836, they secured land in what would become Caldwell County. [18]

The Kirtland era ended in 1838, after the failure of a church-sponsored anti-bank caused widespread defections, [18] and Smith regrouped with the remaining church in Far West, Missouri. [18] During the fall of 1838, tensions escalated into the Mormon War with the old Missouri settlers. [19] On October 27, the governor of Missouri ordered that the Mormons "must be treated as enemies" and be exterminated or driven from the state. [19] Between November and April, some eight thousand displaced Mormons migrated east into Illinois. [19]

In 1839, the Mormons purchased the small town of Commerce, converted swampland on the banks of the Mississippi River, and renamed the area Nauvoo, Illinois [19] and began construction of the Nauvoo Temple. The city became the church's new headquarters and gathering place, and it grew rapidly, fueled in part by converts immigrating from Europe. [19] Meanwhile, Smith introduced temple ceremonies meant to seal families together for eternity, as well as the doctrines of eternal progression or exaltation, [19] and plural marriage. [19] Smith created a service organization for women called the Relief Society, as well as an organization called the Council of Fifty, representing a future theodemocratic "Kingdom of God" on the earth. [19] Smith also published the story of his First Vision, in which the Father and the Son appeared to him while he was about 14 years old. [19] This vision would come to be regarded by some Mormons as the most important event in human history after the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. [19]

In 1844, local prejudices and political tensions, fueled by Mormon peculiarity and internal dissent, escalated into conflicts between Mormons and "anti-Mormons". [20] On June 27, 1844, Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. [20] Because Hyrum was Smith's logical successor, [20] their deaths caused a succession crisis, [20] and Brigham Young assumed leadership over the majority of Latter Day Saints. [20] Young had been a close associate of Smith's and was senior apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve. [20] Smaller groups of Latter Day Saints followed other leaders to form other denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement. [20]

Pioneer era

Joseph Smith preaching to the Sac and Fox Indians who visited Nauvoo on August 12, 1841

For two years after Smith's death, conflicts escalated between Mormons and other Illinois residents. To prevent war, Brigham Young led the Mormon pioneers (constituting most of the Latter Day Saints) to a temporary winter quarters in Nebraska and then, eventually (beginning in 1847), to what became the Utah Territory. [50] Having failed to build Zion within the confines of American society, the Mormons began to construct a society in isolation, based on their beliefs and values. [20] The cooperative ethic that Mormons had developed over the last decade and a half became important as settlers branched out and colonized a large desert region now known as the Mormon Corridor. [20] Colonizing efforts were seen as religious duties, and the new villages were governed by the Mormon bishops (local lay religious leaders). [21] The Mormons viewed land as commonwealth, devising and maintaining a co-operative system of irrigation that allowed them to build a farming community in the desert. [21]

From 1849 to 1852, the Mormons greatly expanded their missionary efforts, establishing several missions in Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific. Converts were expected to "gather" to Zion, and during Young's presidency (1847–77) over seventy thousand Mormon converts immigrated to America. Many of the converts came from England and Scandinavia, and were quickly assimilated into the Mormon community. [21] Many of these immigrants crossed the Great Plains in wagons drawn by oxen, while some later groups pulled their possessions in small handcarts. During the 1860s, newcomers began using the new railroad that was under construction. [21]

In 1852, church leaders publicized the previously secret practice of plural marriage, a form of polygamy. [21] Over the next 50 years, many Mormons (between 20 and 30 percent of Mormon families) [21] entered into plural marriages as a religious duty, with the number of plural marriages reaching a peak around 1860, and then declining through the rest of the century. [21] Besides the doctrinal reasons for plural marriage, the practice made some economic sense, as many of the plural wives were single women who arrived in Utah without brothers or fathers to offer them societal support. [21]

By 1857, tensions had again escalated between Mormons and other Americans, largely as a result of accusations involving polygamy and the theocratic rule of the Utah Territory by Brigham Young. [21] In 1857, U.S. President James Buchanan sent an army to Utah, which Mormons interpreted as open aggression against them. Fearing a repeat of Missouri and Illinois, the Mormons prepared to defend themselves, determined to torch their own homes in the case that they were invaded. [22] The relatively peaceful Utah War ensued from 1857 to 1858, in which the most notable instance of violence was the Mountain Meadows massacre, when leaders of a local Mormon militia ordered the killing of a civilian emigrant party that was traveling through Utah during the escalating tensions. [22] In 1858, Young agreed to step down from his position as governor and was replaced by a non-Mormon, Alfred Cumming. [22] Nevertheless, the LDS Church still wielded significant political power in the Utah Territory. [22]

At Young's death in 1877, he was followed by other LDS Church presidents, who resisted efforts by the United States Congress to outlaw Mormon polygamous marriages. In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that religious duty was not a suitable defense for practicing polygamy, and many Mormon polygamists went into hiding; later, Congress began seizing church assets. In September 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially suspended the practice of polygamy. [22] Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890, such that Utah was admitted as a U.S. state in 1896. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a " Second Manifesto " calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease. Eventually, the church adopted a policy of excommunicating members found practicing polygamy, and today seeks actively to distance itself from " fundamentalist " groups that continue the practice. [22]

Modern times

During the early 20th century, Mormons began to reintegrate into the American mainstream. In 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir began broadcasting a weekly performance on national radio, becoming an asset for public relations. [22] Mormons emphasized patriotism and industry, rising in socioeconomic status from the bottom among American religious denominations to middle-class. [22] In the 1920s and 1930s, Mormons began migrating out of Utah, a trend hurried by the Great Depression, as Mormons looked for work wherever they could find it. [22] As Mormons spread out, church leaders created programs that would help preserve the tight-knit community feel of Mormon culture. [23] In addition to weekly worship services, Mormons began participating in numerous programs such as Boy Scouting, a Young Women organization, church-sponsored dances, ward basketball, camping trips, plays, and religious education programs for youth and college students. [23] During the Great Depression, the church started a welfare program to meet the needs of poor members, which has since grown to include a humanitarian branch that provides relief to disaster victims. [23]

A statue commemorating the Mormon handcart pioneers

During the later half of the 20th century, there was a retrenchment movement in Mormonism in which Mormons became more conservative, attempting to regain their status as a "peculiar people". [23] Though the 1960s and 1970s brought changes such as Women's Liberation and the Civil Rights Movement, Mormon leaders were alarmed by the erosion of traditional values, the sexual revolution, the widespread use of recreational drugs, moral relativism, and other forces they saw as damaging to the family. [23] Partly to counter this, Mormons put an even greater emphasis on family life, religious education, and missionary work, becoming more conservative in the process. As a result, Mormons today are probably less integrated with mainstream society than they were in the early 1960s. [23]

Although black people have been members of Mormon congregations since Joseph Smith's time, before 1978, black membership was small. From 1852 to 1978, the LDS Church enforced a policy that restricted men of black African descent from being ordained to the church's lay priesthood. [23] The church was sharply criticized for its policy during the civil rights movement, but the policy remained in force until a 1978 reversal that was prompted in part by questions about mixed-race converts in Brazil. In general, Mormons greeted the change with joy and relief. Since 1978, black membership has grown, and in 1997 there were approximately 500,000 black members of the church (about 5 percent of the total membership), mostly in Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. [23] Black membership has continued to grow substantially, especially in West Africa, where two temples have been built. [65] Many black Mormons are members of the Genesis Group, an organization of black members that predates the priesthood ban, and is endorsed by the church. [24]

Mormon pioneers crossing the Mississippi on the ice

The LDS Church grew rapidly after World War II and became a worldwide organization as missionaries were sent across the globe. The church doubled in size every 15 to 20 years, [24] and by 1996, there were more Mormons outside the United States than inside. [68] In 2012, there were an estimated 14.8 million Mormons, [24] with roughly 57 percent living outside the United States. [24] It is estimated that approximately 4.5 million Mormons – roughly 30% of the total membership – regularly attend services. [24] A majority of U.S. Mormons are white and non-Hispanic (84 percent). [24] Most Mormons are distributed in North and South America, the South Pacific, and Western Europe. The global distribution of Mormons resembles a contact diffusion model, radiating out from the organization's headquarters in Utah. [24] The church enforces general doctrinal uniformity, and congregations on all continents teach the same doctrines, and international Mormons tend to absorb a good deal of Mormon culture, possibly because of the church's top-down hierarchy and a missionary presence. However, international Mormons often bring pieces of their own heritage into the church, adapting church practices to local cultures. [74]

Chile, Uruguay, and several areas in the South Pacific have a higher percentage of Mormons than the United States (which is at about 2 percent). [24] South Pacific countries and dependencies that are more than 10 percent Mormon include American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, and Tonga.

Culture and practices

Isolation in Utah had allowed Mormons to create a culture of their own. As the faith spread around the world, many of its more distinctive practices followed. Mormon converts are urged to undergo lifestyle changes, repent of sins, and adopt sometimes foreign standards of conduct. Practices common to Mormons include studying scriptures, praying daily, fasting regularly, attending Sunday worship services, participating in church programs and activities on weekdays, and refraining from work on Sundays when possible. The most important part of the church services is considered to be the Lord's Supper (commonly called sacrament), in which church members renew covenants made at baptism. [16] Mormons also emphasize standards they believe were taught by Jesus Christ, including personal honesty, integrity, obedience to law, chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage. [77]

In 2010, around 13–14 percent of Mormons lived in Utah, the center of cultural influence for Mormonism. [16] Utah Mormons (as well as Mormons living in the Intermountain West) are on average more culturally and/or politically conservative than those living in some cosmopolitan centers elsewhere in the U.S. [16] Utahns self-identifying as Mormon also attend church somewhat more on average than Mormons living in other states. (Nonetheless, whether they live in Utah or elsewhere in the U.S., Mormons tend to be more culturally and/or politically conservative than members of other U.S. religious groups.) [16] Utah Mormons often place a greater emphasis on pioneer heritage than international Mormons who generally are not descendants of the Mormon pioneers. [74]

Mormons have a strong sense of communality that stems from their doctrine and history. [16] LDS Church members have a responsibility to dedicate their time and talents to helping the poor and building the church. The church is divided by locality into congregations called " wards ", with several wards making up a " stake ". [16] The vast majority of church leadership positions are lay positions, and church leaders may work 10 to 15 hours a week in unpaid church service. [16] Observant Mormons also contribute 10 percent of their income to the church as tithing, and are often involved in humanitarian efforts. Many LDS young men, women and elderly couples choose to serve a proselytizing mission, during which they dedicate all of their time to the church, without pay. [16]

Mormons adhere to the Word of Wisdom, a health law or code that is interpreted as prohibiting the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, [16] while encouraging the use of wholesome herbs, grains, fruits, and a moderate consumption of meat. [16] The Word of Wisdom is also understood to forbid other harmful and addictive substances and practices, such as the use of illegal drugs and abuse of prescription drugs. [16] Mormons are encouraged to keep a year's supplies that include a food supply and a financial reserve. [16] Mormons also oppose behaviors such as viewing pornography and gambling. [77]

The concept of a united family that lives and progresses forever is at the core of Latter-day Saint doctrine, and Mormons place a high importance on family life. [16] Many Mormons hold weekly Family Home Evenings, in which an evening is set aside for family bonding, study, prayer and other wholesome activities. Latter-day Saint fathers who hold the priesthood typically name and bless their children shortly after birth to formally give the child a name. Mormon parents hope and pray that their children will gain testimonies of the "gospel" so they can grow up and marry in temples. [16]

Mormons have a strict law of chastity, requiring abstention from sexual relations outside opposite-sex marriage and strict fidelity within marriage. All sexual activity (heterosexual and homosexual) outside marriage is considered a serious sin, with marriage recognized as only between a man and a woman. [16] Same-sex marriages are not performed or supported by the LDS Church. Church members are encouraged to marry and have children, and Latter-day Saint families tend to be larger than average. Mormons are opposed to abortion, except in some exceptional circumstances, such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, or when the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy. [16] Many practicing adult Mormons wear religious undergarments that remind them of covenants and encourage them to dress modestly. Latter-day Saints are counseled not to partake of any form of media that is obscene or pornographic in any way, including media that depicts graphic representations of sex or violence. Tattoos and body piercings are also discouraged, with the exception of a single pair of earrings for LDS women. [16]

LGBT Mormons, or Mormons who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, remain in good standing in the church if they abstain from homosexual relations and obey the law of chastity. [16] While there are no official numbers, LDS Family Services estimates that there are on average four or five members per LDS ward who experience same-sex attraction. [16] Gary Watts, former president of Family Fellowship, estimates that only 10 percent of homosexuals stay in the church. [16] Many of these individuals have come forward through different support groups or websites discussing their homosexual attractions and concurrent church membership. [16] [16] [16]

Groups within Mormonism

Latter-day Saints

Members of the LDS Church, also known as Latter-day Saints, constitute over 95 percent of Mormons. [16] The beliefs and practices of LDS Mormons are generally guided by the teachings of LDS Church leaders. However, several smaller groups substantially differ from "mainstream" Mormonism in various ways.

LDS Church members who do not actively participate in worship services or church callings are often called " less-active " or "inactive" (akin to the qualifying expressions non-observant or non-practicing used in relation to members of other religious groups). [94] The LDS Church does not release statistics on church activity, but it is likely that about 40 percent of Mormons in the United States and 30 percent worldwide regularly attend worship services. [16] Reasons for inactivity can include lifestyle issues and problems with social integration. [16] Activity rates tend to vary with age, and disengagement occurs most frequently between age 16 and 25. A majority of less active members return to church activity later in life. [16] Former Latter-day Saints who seek to disassociate themselves from the religion are often referred to as ex-Mormons.

Fundamentalist Mormons

Members of sects that broke with the LDS Church over the issue of polygamy have become known as fundamentalist Mormons; these groups differ from mainstream Mormonism primarily in their belief in and practice of plural marriage. There are thought to be between 20,000 and 60,000 members of fundamentalist sects, (0.1–0.4 percent of Mormons), with roughly half of them practicing polygamy. [16] There are a number of fundamentalist sects, the largest two being the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church) and the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB). In addition to plural marriage, some of these groups also practice a form of Christian communalism known as the law of consecration or the United Order. The LDS Church seeks to distance itself from all such polygamous groups, excommunicating their members if discovered practicing or teaching it, [16] and today a majority of Mormon fundamentalists have never been members of the LDS Church. [16]

Liberal Mormons

Liberal Mormons, also known as Progressive Mormons, take an interpretive approach to LDS teachings and scripture. [94] They look to the scriptures for spiritual guidance, but may not necessarily believe the teachings to be literally or uniquely true. For liberal Mormons, revelation is a process through which God gradually brings fallible human beings to greater understanding. [16] Liberal Mormons place doing good and loving fellow human beings above the importance of believing correctly. [16] In a separate context, members of small progressive breakaway groups have also adopted the label.

Cultural Mormons

Cultural Mormons are individuals who do not believe some (or many) of the doctrines of LDS Church, but who self-identify as Mormon. [94] Usually this is a result of having been raised in the LDS faith, or as having converted and spent a large portion of one's life as an active member of the LDS Church. [16] Cultural Mormons may or may not be actively involved with the church, and in some cases may not even be officially members of the church.


Mormons have a scriptural canon consisting of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), the Book of Mormon, and a collection of revelations and writings by Joseph Smith known as the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. Mormons however have a relatively open definition of scripture. As a general rule, anything spoken or written by a prophet, while under inspiration, is considered to be the word of God. [16] Thus, the Bible, written by prophets and apostles, is the word of God, so far as it is translated correctly. The Book of Mormon is also believed to have been written by ancient prophets, and is viewed as a companion to the Bible. By this definition, the teachings of Smith's successors are also accepted as scripture, though they are always measured against, and draw heavily from the scriptural canon. [16]

The 360-member, all-volunteer Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Mormons believe in "a friendly universe", governed by a God whose aim it is to bring his children to immortality and eternal life. [16] Mormons have a unique perspective on the nature of God, the origin of man, and the purpose of life. For instance, Mormons believe in a pre-mortal existence where people were literal spirit children of God, [105] and that God presented a plan of salvation that would allow his children to progress and become more like him. The plan involved the spirits receiving bodies on earth and going through trials in order to learn, progress, and receive a "fulness of joy". [105] The most important part of the plan involved Jesus, the eldest of God's children, coming to earth as the literal Son of God, to conquer sin and death so that God's other children could return. According to Mormons, every person who lives on earth will be resurrected, and nearly all of them will be received into various kingdoms of glory. [16] To be accepted into the highest kingdom, a person must fully accept Christ through faith, repentance, and through ordinances such as baptism and the laying on of hands. [16]

Global distribution of LDS Church members in 2009

According to Mormons, a deviation from the original principles of Christianity, known as the Great Apostasy, began not long after the ascension of Jesus Christ. [107] It was marked with the corruption of Christian doctrine by Greek and other philosophies, [108] with followers dividing into different ideological groups. Mormons claim the martyrdom of the Apostles led to a loss of Priesthood authority to administer the church and its ordinances. [113] Mormons believe that God restored the early Christian church through Joseph Smith. In particular, Mormons believe that angels such as Peter, James, John, John the Baptist, Moses, and Elijah appeared to Smith and others and bestowed various priesthood authorities on them. Mormons believe that their church is the "only true and living church" because of the divine authority restored through Smith. Mormons self-identify as being Christian, [16] while many Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, disagree with this view. [16] Mormons view other religions as having portions of the truth, doing good works, and having genuine value. [16]

Though the LDS Church has a top-down hierarchical structure with a president–prophet dictating revelations for the whole church, there is a bottom-up aspect as well. Ordinary Mormons have access to the same inspiration that is thought to guide their prophets, and are encouraged to seek their own personal revelations. [16] Mormons see Joseph Smith's First Vision as proof that the heavens are open, and that God answers prayers. They place considerable emphasis on "asking God" to find out if something is true. Most Mormons do not claim to have had heavenly visions like Smith's in response to prayers, but feel that God talks to them in their hearts and minds through the Holy Ghost. Though Mormons have some beliefs that are considered strange in a modernized world, they continue to hold onto their beliefs because they feel God has spoken to them. [16]

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