Sunday Gatherings and Beliefs
By Maison Wells, Grier Bruce, Glenn Fleming, and William Harper
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 by Prophet Joseph Smith. The identity of present-day “Mormons,” as they are often called has been forged over the past almost two centuries as the church has experienced skepticism and persecution. Adapting to the ever-changing American culture around them has also proved to be a difficult task. However, throughout these trials they have shown remarkable resolve and determination to hold to the traditions of Joseph Smith and continue the church of God.
The History of Mormonism
According to Joseph Smith’s later recollection, as a young man he was disgruntled regarding the religious situation of his day. Christianity was split into many different denominations, the way it is today, and this bothered Smith greatly. In his mind, he could not see how a God of order and unity would allow for such division to take place amongst his people. As he pondered these things, he received heavenly visions from God and a deceased North American follower of God named Moroni. Then he received shiny tablets that had etchings in a language that he could only translate into English thanks to the divine inspiration.
He would go on to have several revelations concerning various different crucial topics of Christian doctrine such as how the church should be run, details about God, specifics about marriage, as well as specifics regarding eschatology and the afterlife. His followers called themselves by a few different names, but because the scriptures Smith translated were known as the Book of Mormon, “Mormons” stuck. Despite rejection by other Christians as well large amounts of persecution, they have survived until today, thriving under current conditions. Their path has not always been easy since those early days however, specifically with regard to interacting with American culture.
Mormonism’s Difficulty Adapting to Culture
It has been difficult for the LDS church to stay involved in culture and US politics without compromising its convictions. This is a problem that most religions and other Christian denominations have as well, but the followers of Joseph Smith seem to have taken this challenge head on. With doctrinal encouragement, many of their members have successfully entered the political arena mostly as conservatives and affiliated with the Republican party. Aiding America is a religious endeavor for them and they pursue it with appropriate fervor.
Politics, however, has not been the only way the LDS church has adapted over the years. Their policy-doctrine church structure allows for policies to be changed and altered in order to better apply the traditional, unaltered doctrines. For example, a young missionary named Elder Ryser spoke to us in an interview about how water is now used during their sacrament meetings instead of wine. In an 1830 revelation, Joseph Smith that any liquid could be used for the ceremony. This aligned perfectly with the “Word of Wisdom,” a collection of dietary laws revealed in 1833 which instructs LDS members are explicitly forbidden to drink alcohol. Elder Elieson explained that the alteration was a policy change, not a doctrinal one. It was a change in how the church applied doctrine, not in the doctrine itself. This structure allows for some reasonable flexibility without bending too much from away from their roots.
A Typical Sunday Service in The LDS Church
Sundays for members of the LDS church are sacred days consecrated for congregational meetings. At first, their services look very similar to other Christian church services. A closer look reveals differences one might not first realize. Modern LDS church services last approximately two hours and consist of two parts. There is one main congregational meeting and then a time for gender and age-based groups to meet separately.
The first congregational meeting follows a specific order, rotating through hymns that they sing together, messages shared by two or three members, prayers, and the partaking of sacraments. The second meeting is a smaller class made up of individuals of the same gender and similar ages. Here is where doctrinal matters are more thoroughly discussed. So while there are similar elements to a Protestant service, the biggest difference is the absence of a sermon given by a member of the clergy.
An Interview with LDS Missionaries
We had the privilege of interviewing two college-aged LDS missionaries. Elders Elieson and Ryser disclosed a number of helpful insights regarding Joseph Smith and the church he established. Several matters were discussed, the afterlife and its special cases, a typical Sunday service, the differences between Mormons and other denominations, and the fundamental structures of religions and denominations. Everything they said was fascinating, with perhaps the most interesting parts being Elder Ryser’s explanation of the policy-doctrine structure of the LDS church, his diagram of the afterlife, and Elder Elieson’s discussion regarding normal LDS life and the effects that two-year missions have on their lives.
For example, Elder Ryser explained that everyone gets a second chance after death to accept Jesus Christ if they have not already in this life. Those who do not accept do not go to “hell” as Protestants and Catholics think of it, but rather an in-between place called the Terrestrial Kingdom. Those who accept Christ as their savior before death or afterwards are admitted into “heaven” of sorts, called the Celestial Kingdom, where the physical presence of Jesus Christ himself resides. In addition to those two realms, there is a highest celestial plane of existence that only God occupies as well as two lowest regions, much more closely resembling the common perceptions of “hell”. The Telestial Kingdom is for those who are bad in their earthly life, and the hellish Outer Darkness is reserved only for Satan and his explicit followers. This is where Judas Iscariot is eternally punished for having known Christ fully and set himself against him as an enemy.
We also discussed the difference between other religious groups such as Protestants and the LDS church, and how Protestants lean more on reason as the best tool for accompanying scripture along with tradition and experience, whereas the LDS church utilizes tradition as a more apt tool when interpreting the Scriptures and writing doctrine. When played out in real life, the differences are more apparent. For example, we talked about how Protestants are much more comfortable with debate and questioning doctrines through objective means, but it is an uncommon thing for LDS church members to openly discuss these matters as it may lead to doubt in God and his ability to save you. Latter-day Saint and professor of religion Kathleen Flake, in her essay “The Bible Plus,” explains that Mormons are not so much “theologians” as “narrativists.” The important thing is not the finer points of doctrine, but dwelling in the sacred story.
Overall, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an amazing organization that has withstood the test of time ever since 1830 when Joseph Smith had his first revelation. Throughout several cultural shifts, Mormonism has swayed with them and never lost their tradition.
Bushman, Claudia L. 2008. Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-Day Saints in Modern America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
Clark, James Ratcliffe. 1965. The Story of the Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.
Flake, Kathleen. 2012. “The Bible Plus.” Christian Century 129, no. 17 (August 22, 2012): 28-31.
Smith, Joseph. 1990. Doctrine and Covenants. Independence, MO: Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Rare Reprints.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. “Sunday Services.” Accessed September 30, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/comeuntochrist/belong/sunday-services/what-are-sunday-services-like.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. n.d. “What To Expect At Church Services.” Accessed September 30, 2021. https://news-ca.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/what-to-expect-at-church-services.
Trepanier, Lee. LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020.
Maison Wells ‘25, Grier Bruce ‘25, Glenn Fleming ‘25, and William Harper ‘22, were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2021.
Published November 29, 2021