The Mormon Migration to Utah
Utah is the home of Mormon culture. Before Mormons began to migrate here in the late 1840s Utah was a Mexican territory and the home to scattered native Americans as well as a few industrious mountain men. Mormons fled Missouri and Illinois because they wanted freedom to practice their own religion without the persecution and threats from outsiders. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, began building their own peaceful society on the foundation of the Mormon religion, and, as a missionary religion, soon began sending out groups to settle across Utah, Southern Idaho, and Western Wyoming. In 1848 the United States defeated Mexico and annexed Utah as a territory. Once again the Mormons found themselves under US Government authority and subject to the pressure to conform to US cultural norms, most of which were based on European Protestantism. The pressure to conform to outside influence slowly grew over the years even though the Mormon church leaders dismissed that pressure for a long time. Mormons saw their own religion as true, and with their centralized authority, sought to apply their religious principles to all aspects of society as they built it from the ground up. Since church and government were generally ruled by the same people , it was easy to plan towns, streets, civic buildings, church buildings, church organization, and welfare programs from the same desks or meetings. Utah was truly a planned religious society.
My Migration to Utah
When I arrived in Utah in 1983, Mormons made up about 1% of the US population but about 70% of the population of Utah. Salt Lake City, the capital and largest city, was roughly 50% Mormon while the rest of the state hovered around 90%. Utah is a mountainous state with population centers in separated valleys. Early on, these centers, although very Mormon, began to develop their own character. Mining and railroad centers were rather rough. Salt Lake City was more refined and diversified. Utah Valley, which is now a computer software magnet, is the home of BYU, the Mormon Church's elite educational institution and likely still the largest private university in the US. BYU has a very strict honor code for its 30,000 students--99% of whom are Mormon. Tuition is highly subsidized by the Mormon church and so outsiders should not be surprised that a Mormon student who becomes a Baptist or Catholic is expelled for violating the honor code. That honor code overflows into the cities around it in such a way that religious rules and appearances are accentuated. The Mormon Missionary Training Center is near BYU, a fact which reinforces that trait.
After living near BYU for four months I moved to Logan in Cache Valley, which is the home of USU--a public university with an 80% Mormon population. As an outsider the contrast was immediately evident to me. Facial hair was prohibited at BYU, and my neighbors had disagreed with each other about the acceptability of watching television on Sundays. In Logan facial hair was not uncommon and Sunday television viewing was not a controversial subject. But this difference didn't mean the residents didn't take their religion seriously. Theirs was a quiet confidence. Because I witness at USU often during the good weather, Mormon students from across the state and country stop to speak with me. Their stories are very enlightening. They make clear distinctions between Mormons from Utah and elsewhere.In 32 years as a Christian missionary in Logan, I have had thousands of religious conversations with Mormons and suspect that our valley may be the easiest place in all of the country to have conversations with people about the way to heaven. Religion is a natural part of life here and it is not uncommon to overhear religious conversation in stores, banks, parks, or hospital elevators. This really takes the pressure off Christians, but living as a tiny minority here is a revelation of our character. Most of us lack confidence. We Christians are God's ministers of reconciliation to bring peace to those who are God's enemies. God calls us to love them which implies honoring them and listening to their views in order to earn the right to speak law and grace to them. Of course they will express ideas we think false. Of course they will try to convince us of that their church is true. But persuasion is the name of the game. Christian faith is being persuaded that the finished work of Christ is all the work necessary for a person to be fully right with God. Since ours is the true persuasion, we need not fear, but do need to learn how to invite others into our persuasion. To do that well we need to learn three things: 1) to love people, 2) to understand them and their religious thinking and language, and 3) to understand our own message.
The Big Blessing
Living among Mormons and seeking to discuss with them the way of salvation can be uncomfortable and self-revealing. Mormons use Christian vocabulary but with different definitions. They are taught certain standard questions and answers. Their organizational leadership is not haphazard in its education of its leaders, missionaries and lay people. They prepare them to communicate their message in a way that is persuasive and to protect themselves from being persuaded by others. They use words in highly nuanced ways to seek to communicate that they also believe in grace. They are fully convinced that we all believe the same thing and that the only real difference is that they have a more complete message. They also prepare defensive strategies to handle questions from Christians. They are genuinely seeking to show that their religion has good answers and good challenges for others. Some of their questions, even when kindly expressed, are troubling to Christians. We have the option of blaming, becoming argumentative or defensive--or we can gladly welcome hard (seemingly trick) questions as an opportunity to think more deeply and carefully about truth and what we believe. First, let's be honest that we all need to think more clearly. Second, let's be honest that God can use Mormons to help us to notice our need to grow in grace. And finally, let's relax, put behind us the competition to be right, look together with them to the goodness of the law and the gospel, and lead with expressions of self-reflection. Admission of weakness is one of our huge assets. Let's use it.
Also, I suggest that Christian culture has a hidden drawback. We Christians use religious words, but how often are we simply repeating empty words? We generally trust one another and those who teach us. But what is the meaning of what is spoken, and is it true? The apostle Paul honored the Bereans who eagerly listened to his teaching but then searched the scriptures daily to see if what he said was true. It would be good if we all did that. It would also be good if our hearers did that with our words. Do we encourage such, or even want it? We in Cache Valley who speak often with Mormons about the way of salvation have been forced to admit that we are not free from talking in circles or using empty words. It is very common for Christians here to avoid religious discussion with Mormons because without clarification of terminology, conversation can reveal pride that then leads to contention and frustration. And who wants that? The first step to a new persuasion is clear communication. And the first step to clear communication is to carefully define religious words to help us understand what each other means by the words used. Too often even this can be contentious because of the pride of fighting over who has the right definitions. The most important step is to embrace the truth that the people you are speaking with are valuable to God, even when they are wrong, confused, prideful, or worse. Truth is persuasive. If my understanding is true, real, and in harmony with the human conscience, then mutual understanding will give truth significant room to work in the other person--and in me. I have learned a lot about truth from listening to others tell me their false ideas. Instead of assuming that we think clearly, let's keep seeking more clarity. If I seek this for myself it will not be difficult to help others seek it.
The world is full of counterfeit religions. God is good. He therefore requires moral perfection and cannot ever compromise that perfection. His good desire was to reconcile the world to Himself. He came to earth in His Son, died the death of all men and offers reconciliation as a gift to all. This is the heart of the Christian message. All false religions deny and twist this simplicity. But Mormonism is unusual in that 1) it is very missionary minded, 2) most of its converts come out of cultural Christianity, 3) it ingrains in its members that all religion is basically the same, and 4) therefore Mormon leaders have sought diligently to perfect their message to be persuasive to cultural Christians. Since they believe all religion is the same, it is natural for them to justify becoming ever more nuanced in terminology to win people to their cause. Far and away modern Mormonism is the best counterfeit religion there ever was. Likely many Christians are fooled in conversation with Mormons when Mormons speak of Jesus and grace and declare that they are really just trying to follow Jesus' call to love other people. On the surface that sounds good. Just as bank tellers learn to spot counterfeit money, not by study, but by handling real money, so we saints in Mormon culture can learn to detect counterfeit religion the same way. I liken it to living in the den of master gospel counterfeiters. Less than 2% here attend a Catholic or Protestant church and nearly all the others are Mormons. Many Mormons like to talk about religion using our words, but the real meaning behind their words is “do more and try harder”. The beautiful surprise of living here is the privilege of common conversation about the word of grace which is the true religion. All around us people are handing us counterfeit words of grace, and some are very deceptive. Our job is to discern the true from the counterfeit, not get distracted or discouraged, and to give to each other and to the counterfeiters words of true grace.
What Is Grace?
Our first topic for discussion in the next monthly post on this theme will be the question: what is grace. But here is a teaser to ponder until then. The Mormon church states that it believes and teaches grace. If you read closely the short entry for grace in the bible dictionary on the Mormon Church’s website at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/grace you will notice more clarity and honesty than when in conversation with the typical Mormon. This is because conversation is personal and conviction from conscience leads to condemnation which leads to obfuscation and self-justification. Mormons express the following three basic meanings of grace.
- The Book of Mormon gives a description of grace as a privilege--the privilege to be resurrected in order to be judged by one's works.
- Mormons commonly declare that grace is God's help, strength, or power to do what is right.
- They most commonly describe grace as something that comes through God's love and mercy. It is his covering of sin when one fails to do what is right. God will always give another chance to pick oneself up and to seek his forgiveness. All you need to do is repent.
These seem simple, but conversation is easily confused when we don't realize that the other person is shifting seamlessly between definitions depending on the need of the moment, mostly for personal security issues.
In light of the above last two Mormon definitions of grace, how would you evaluate the following statement? Many Christians are like Mormons, except that the Mormons are more honest about their ignorance of grace.