It would take more than a single article to explain what Mormons believe, which is why we have an entire website here. However, since you’ve come to find out what Mormons believe, it may be helpful to find out how to verify the things you learn as you research around the internet, the library, and people you know. How can you tell if people are telling you the truth about Mormons?
The first thing to know is that Mormon is only a nickname that is sometimes used to refer to the people in the church. Saying Mormon Church is incorrect, so if you see someone calling it that, you may be on a website that doesn’t have correct information. The entire name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You’ll sometimes see people write the name leaving out the name of Jesus Christ. Real Mormons never do, since it’s the most important part of the name. If you see a website that does leave His name out, they don’t really know much about Mormons, so their information may be incorrect.
It’s important to understand the difference between culture, personal belief, and canonized doctrine. Often, what outsiders report as doctrine is really just a cultural belief held by some Mormons or a personal belief. Real doctrine must be canonized—made official. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference—from time to time even Mormons don’t realize something isn’t canonized.
Canonized doctrine is offered in official LDS (Mormon) scriptures and is repeated by church leaders often. However, at various times, Mormon leaders have offered opinions on a variety of subjects. In recent years, given the improved state of communication, they tend to be more careful to specify what is opinion and what is doctrine when they speak. In earlier days they did not because they trusted their listeners to know the difference and few outside the church paid attention. One thing that might make Mormons somewhat unique is that they believe God gave us our brains and expects us to use them. He tells us those things that are essential to our eternal salvation, but does not tell us everything. When God has not given an official statement on a subject, we are free to make our own decisions using the intellectual abilities we were given. Even church leaders are allowed to do this.
- Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
- Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. The mistake that public commentators often make is taking an obscure teaching that is peripheral to the Church’s purpose and placing it at the very center. This is especially common among reporters or researchers who rely on how other Christians interpret Latter-day Saint doctrine (Approaching Mormon Doctrine, LDS.org. LDS Newsroom).
As you research, then, you need to remember that everything ever said by a church leader is not necessarily doctrine. It may be his personal opinion. Without a solid background in Mormonism, you will find it difficult to know what is official and what is not. Also, everything that is official is not equally important. Most anti-Mormon websites and writings focus on fringe doctrines—things Mormons consider interesting but unimportant. They also tend to focus on Brigham Young, who has been dead a very long time.
Why does this matter? If you have a Bible, go back and read in the Old Testament about the Law of Moses. It’s in the Bible and most Christians say they follow the Bible. However, modern Christians don’t keep the law of Moses. Why not? Was Moses a false prophet because he taught things we no longer do? Of course not. The Law of Moses involved practices, not eternal truths. Eternal truths—doctrines—never change, but practices do. In addition, God can give us a practice that is not entirely complete. Later, He may add to our understanding of the doctrine or raise the standards a bit. For an example of this, look to Jesus Himself.
21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Jesus took the commandment His listeners already knew and added to it. He gave them a higher commandment and greater understanding—you don’t have to kill to sin. Merely being angry without cause is enough to cause sin. This didn’t make the earlier teaching wrong. It was merely the next step toward perfection.
Mormons believe this is why God sent more than one prophet to the earth. He didn’t stop with Adam—He continued to send prophets who spoke to the specific needs of the time (for instance, Moses told his people to go into the wilderness, but Noah was told to build an ark), to build on previous knowledge, and to clarify doctrine that had become corrupted or misunderstood. Today, as we prepare for the final days of Earth, God has again restored the prophets after a period of apostasy, like those seen in the Bible, to help us navigate the confusion of the times.
However, if you believe in prophets, you also believe it is critical to listen to the current prophet, not a previous one. Otherwise, you find yourself building an ark when you’re supposed to be heading into the wilderness. This is why Mormons roll their eyes over the obsession anti-Mormons have about Brigham Young. Brigham Young lived in the 1800s. Since he was only the second modern prophet, there were still many doctrines that had not yet been revealed. In spite of this, the Mormon people were filled with questions because they were eager to understand God’s will. They asked questions and when there was no revealed doctrine, Brigham Young offered his opinions. Those opinions often get quoted as facts.
Many anti-Mormon websites also use quotes garnered from unofficial sources such as Journal of Discourses. This is the primary source of quotes from Brigham Young. However, he did not write this book, nor did he review and vet the discourses. They were written by people who took down his talks in shorthand as they listened. The information may or may not be correct; we don’t know because he didn’t go over them to be sure and there are no written records. Often, people who quote from this book take the words out of context and so appear to say something they really don’t.
The General Conferences of Brigham Young’s day were different than the ones today. Today, speakers write their talks down and the Monday after conference, they review the video to make sure they said what they meant to say. In Brigham Young’s day, the conferences were more informal, with listeners free to ask questions. In ordinary conversation, fact and opinion can blend or things can be said in ways that don’t quite convey what the speaker meant. Since there is no official record of those proceedings, we simply have no way to know what Brigham Young really intended to say or if the recorders and transcribers did their work accurately.
If you’d like to know what is official and what is core, you’ll want to check official Mormon sites. LDS.org, an official website for Mormons themselves, as well as for others, has a newsroom which is an excellent source of official information. The website includes a feature called Mormonism 101, which answers frequently asked questions about the church. Another good source of information is Mormon.org, an official website specifically designed to teach those who are not Mormon what Mormons really believe. Finally, reading the words of the current prophet after he becomes the prophet, will help you to learn the latest teachings of God. Today’s prophet is Thomas S. Monson, and his talks can be found on LDS.org.
To understand what constitutes a core doctrine, ask yourself this: Would knowing the answer to this impact my eternal salvation? If it is, it is probably a core doctrine. If not, it is probably just interesting. It is important to salvation, for instance, to know how to be baptized. It is not important to know where the Garden of Eden is located. That is not a core doctrine and modern Mormons don’t, for the most part, care where it is, except perhaps as a curiosity.