The decades-old debate over Mormonism’s claim to Christianity is getting louder as the Southern Baptist Convention prepares to bring 20,000 members into the Mormon heartland.
Baptists, who will hold their annual meeting here in June, say Mormons share family and ethical values with mainstream Christianity, but their fundamental doctrines are beyond the Christian pale. The Baptists produced a videotape, “The Mormon Puzzle,” and a companion workbook to buttress the argument.
Mormon church leaders are taking unusual pains to stress the faith’s Christian bona fides as they steel their own flock for the Baptist invasion.
They decline to comment on the video or to be interviewed about the theological jousting. But twice in February, Mormon apostles delivered what were billed as major addresses to Mormon students defending the church as explicitly Christian.
At issue are Mormonism’s foundation beliefs: that church founder Joseph Smith was visited in the 1820s by God and Jesus Christ, who told him that all existing churches were apostate; and that Christ restored his true Gospel through Smith, together with prophetic and priesthood authority to perform ordinances necessary to full salvation.
Smith’s 14 successors in the Mormon presidency, including current President Gordon B. Hinckley, have continued to say they hold the earthly keys to that authority.
Many traditional Christian groups contend that Mormons are not Christian because they rely on works of scripture besides the Bible. Chief in the Mormon scriptural canon is the Book of Mormon, which Smith said he translated by divine inspiration from ancient gold plates given to him by an angel.
“Either Joseph Smith was the Lord’s instrument by which the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness was accomplished, or he is not,” said M. Russell Ballard, one of the Mormon apostles who addressed the students. “There is no possible compromise of this doctrine.”
Other points of difference concern Mormon beliefs that God and Jesus are separate within a godhead that includes the Holy Ghost, that both have physical bodies and that grace and good works are necessary for salvation. Mormons also believe that men and women eventually can become “gods and goddesses.”
Traditional Christianity believes in the Trinity--that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one God--that God is incorporeal and that humans cannot become gods or goddesses.
Mormon church spokesman Arnold R. Augustin said Ballard and Packer wanted to equip members with ways of responding to those who deny Mormons’ claim to Christianity.
The church has no plans to focus resources on the Southern Baptists’ convention, Augustin said. But the fact that top Mormon leaders would publicly discuss the argument both surprised and delighted Baptists and others who want the doctrinal differences laid bare.
“I’ve not seen this level of response before,” said John Constance, an evangelical Christian and owner of Intermountain Book, a store in Salt Lake City.
Philip Roberts, director of the Interfaith Witness Team for the Baptists’ North American Mission Board, said the churches wanted an objective look at the differences between Mormonism and Bible-based Christianity. Because of that, the Baptists used religion experts from Mormon-owned Brigham Young University and faithful Mormon families to explain the faith’s tenets.
“We’re not antagonistic toward Mormon people,” he said, “but they have more than 50,000 Mormon missionaries, many targeting Baptist people every week of the year in all parts of the world.”