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Episode
169

A Brief History of Mormonism

Jun 22, 2021
Weird World
-
29
minutes
Religion
19th Century
USA
Weird history
Christianity
Eccentric people

In 1830, a young man named Joseph Smith Jr proclaimed that he had uncovered gold plates containing the true word of God.

Discover how Mormonism went from being considered a strange cult to becoming a mainstream religion with more followers than Judaism.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is going to be the first of a three-part mini-series where we are going to be looking at Mormonism and Scientology, two very different belief systems that are often compared to one another.

[00:00:39] They are both relatively new, fast-growing, and have their fair share of critics

[00:00:46] Importantly, to the outside world, they are not very well understood.

[00:00:52] So, we are going to explain where they come from, what people who follow them believe, and look at some of the criticisms and questions that surround them.

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode, we’ll focus on Mormonism. Then in part two we will look at Scientology.

[00:01:11] And in part three we are going to look at the two together, look at some of the similarities between the two, and more importantly the differences, and reflect a little more on the future of these religions.

[00:01:25] I should clarify that I am neither a Mormon nor a Scientologist, and, as I hope you have come to expect, we are going to look at both of these topics through as unbiased a lens as possible, we are going to try to avoid passing judgment.

[00:01:41] Instead, we’ll talk about how both of these belief systems came into existence, how they have developed, and I will leave you to come to your own conclusions.

[00:01:53] Ok then, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:58] For both Scientology and Mormonism, at the heart of the story is a powerful, charismatic leader, someone with the ability to attract others.

[00:02:09] In the case of Mormonism, this leader’s story starts when he is a young boy, and it goes something like this.

[00:02:18] Joseph Smith Jr was born in 1805, in Vermont, in the United States of America. 

[00:02:25] He was one of 11 children, and was brought up in a farming family of devout Christians, a family of strong Christian believers.

[00:02:35] His family struggled to make a living, and eventually moved to upstate New York, where they took out a mortgage on a farm.

[00:02:44] At the time there were multiple different churches, with each preaching a slightly different version of Christianity. 

[00:02:52] The Smith family tested out lots of different churches, trying to find one that matched their beliefs.

[00:03:01] The young Joseph Smith, who was 12 at the time, became intensely religious, but wasn’t sure what form of Christianity he should follow.

[00:03:13] One day, when he was 14 years old and out praying in a wood, he was kneeling down, praying, and he was visited by God and Jesus Christ, so the story goes. 

[00:03:25] The young boy, not knowing which church he should join, asked God which one he should join.

[00:03:33] God told him not to join any of them. Christianity had strayed from the truth, he said. 

[00:03:40] The Christianity that was currently being preached wasn’t the true word of God.

[00:03:47] Three years later, when he was only 17, Joseph was visited by another religious figure, an angel named Moroni.

[00:03:56] This angel told Joseph about the existence of a book written on golden plates, a book that told the story of a group of Israelites who had settled in the Americas in around 600BC, a good two thousand years before anyone is believed to have travelled from Europe to the Americas.

[00:04:17] Joseph tried to go and uncover this golden book, but he was prevented by the angel.

[00:04:23] He kept trying every year for four years, and it was only on the last attempt, four years after he had first learned of its existence, that he was able to retrieve these golden plates from the ground.

[00:04:37] On them he found a text written in an ancient Egyptian language, which of course Joseph Smith Junior, being a 22 year old American didn't have the power to understand. 

[00:04:49] But, luckily he was given special powers to translate the text, a total of 531 pages, which he did in just 65 days, according to Mormon scholars. 

[00:05:03] After the translation was completed, these plates were buried, and they have never been discovered again.

[00:05:10] Importantly, very few people actually saw these golden plates. 

[00:05:15] There were around 11 eye witnesses who confirmed that they had seen them, but critics say the entire story sounds slightly improbable.

[00:05:25] Nevertheless, the story of the golden plates is central to the entire Mormon faith.

[00:05:32] The result of the translation was a book called The Book of Mormon, which is the central text of the religion known as Mormonism.

[00:05:43] This book tells the story of a group of Israelites, a group of Hebrews, who travelled from Jerusalem to America in 600 BC, split up, and eventually died out.

[00:05:55] The important subtext of this is that America has an important role in this story, and this religion. 

[00:06:03] In the Bible, as you may know, it doesn’t.

[00:06:06] So, long story short, a boy is visited by God and Jesus, they tell him to not join any church because they are all preaching an incorrect version of Christianity, he finds golden plates buried in the ground, translates them with God-given powers, returns the plates to the ground, and a new text is published, The Book of Mormon, which creates a link between God, Jesus, and America.

[00:06:34] Now, you will of course decide for yourself whether you think this story is true or not, but this is the history of the start of Mormonism.

[00:06:44] Shortly after, Joseph Smith created his own church, The Church of Christ, with the Book of Mormon at the centre of it. 

[00:06:54] To say that it was an instant hit would be an overstatement, but a small group of devoted followers started to cluster around Joseph Smith Junior, he started to attract supporters.

[00:07:08] They called themselves Latter-day Saints, and indeed, the real name for what is colloquially called the Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[00:07:21] These Latter-day Saints believed that their church was the one true church of Christ, that it was the true manifestation of Christianity.

[00:07:32] Smith’s followers had started to multiply, and different branches had started to form. 

[00:07:39] Communities were created in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and followers were attracted by a message of a new form of Christianity with a uniquely American twist.

[00:07:53] We won’t go into huge detail on the theological differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but some of the main ones are that it was led by a living prophet, Joseph Smith Junior, and that it had this third religious text, The Book of Mormon, alongside the Old and New Testaments. 

[00:08:16] The Old and New Testament were still important for Mormons, but they believed that they weren’t completely accurate, and had some errors. 

[00:08:26] For Christians at the time, this was sacrilegious, it was heresy.

[00:08:32] The word of God was indisputable, you couldn't just say that you had been visited by God, had found some gold plates and started your own religion.

[00:08:43] Smith was criticised as a madman, a fraud, a cult-leader, and someone with an enlarged sense of his own importance.

[00:08:54] Then, as if to confirm some of the accusations against him, in 1844 Smith decided to run for president, he put himself forward as a US presidential candidate.

[00:09:08] This really catapulted Mormonism to the front of people’s minds, and there was an increasing anti-Mormon feeling across the country. 

[00:09:19] There were also growing rifts, growing divisions within the church.

[00:09:25] One practice was particularly controversial.

[00:09:29] Polygamy, or a person having multiple husbands or wives.

[00:09:34] This was something that Smith said was permitted by God, and indeed Smith reportedly had 40 wives, one of whom was a 14-year-old girl when they were married.

[00:09:47] This insistence on polygamy was to prove to be Smith’s downfall, and has been something that has stuck to people’s perceptions of Mormonism ever since.

[00:09:59] There was a dissenting Mormon group, a group of Mormons who didn’t agree with polygamy, who published an article attacking Smith, and revealing the extent of the polygamy within the church.

[00:10:13] This article was published in a small Illinois newspaper in 1844, and Smith was furious. 

[00:10:21] Smith also happened to be the mayor of the town where the newspaper was published, and he ordered for the newspaper office to be destroyed.

[00:10:31] This was, of course, illegal, and Smith was thrown in jail by the Illinois authorities.

[00:10:38] While he was in jail, awaiting trial, an angry mob, an angry group of people, stormed the jail and killed him. 

[00:10:47] He was dead, aged just 38 years old, a martyr to his followers.

[00:10:54] With its prophetic leader dead, and increasing anti-Mormon sentiment across the country, a group of devoted believers set off west to look for a new spiritual home. 

[00:11:08] They were led by a man named Brigham Young who had joined the church in 1832, just two years after it was founded.

[00:11:17] Young led his group west until they reached Utah, the mountain state sandwiched between Nevada and Colorado.

[00:11:27] When Young’s group arrived in a valley in Utah, Young reportedly said “this is the place”, and started the settlement that was to become Salt Lake City, to this day the place with the highest density of Mormons in the world.

[00:11:45] With a town to call their own, the church was free to practice polygamy without fear of offending others, or at least without fear of offending people living nearby.

[00:11:58] In terms of polygamy, Brigham even got one up on the original founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, with 55 wives and 56 children to Smith’s mere 40 wives.

[00:12:13] Now, that is an outline of the early history of Mormonism, how it started, the short but eventful life of its founder, and how the church ended up in Utah.

[00:12:26] Now let’s talk about what Mormons actually believe, and what being a Mormon requires you to do.

[00:12:33] Probably the most noticeable aspect of Mormonism to non-mormons is the missionary element.

[00:12:41] Young Mormons, typically in their late teens, are strongly encouraged to go on missions to help spread the word of the church, to try to convert people to their faith.

[00:12:54] Pairs of young boys or girls are sent to different areas, to all different parts of the world, for a period of two years for boys, or 18 months for girls.

[00:13:07] They spend all their time engaging people in conversation, trying to tell people about their faith, with the objective of converting people to Mormonism.

[00:13:18] I imagine you might have seen these young missionaries in action, so to speak.

[00:13:24] They are normally pretty recognisable.

[00:13:27] They have black badges on, with their names printed clearly, and always seem to be exceptionally friendly, which certainly to some people can seem a little unnerving

[00:13:39] They carry leaflets to give out, and of course a copy of The Book of Mormon.

[00:13:45] They work in pairs, and are not allowed to be apart from their partner unless they are using the bathroom.

[00:13:52] They aren’t allowed to use mobile phones, watch TV or read the news. 

[00:13:57] And up until relatively recently they were only allowed to call home twice a year.

[00:14:03] They have slightly curious names, as well. The male missionaries are called Elders, which is weird because they are normally only 18 or 19, and the female ones are called Sisters.

[00:14:17] Their entire mission is spent doing religious study and trying to speak to people about the church.

[00:14:25] There are of course some interesting and important ethical questions about missionary work. 

[00:14:31] The entire point of missionary work is to try to attract someone to your religion, to try to get them to change their beliefs.

[00:14:40] And is it right for Mormon missionaries to travel the world, stopping people on buses, trains, knocking on doors, and essentially being travelling salesmen for a religion?

[00:14:54] In many cases the people who become targets for the missionaries are people who are out of luck, who have been going through a tough period, and are particularly susceptible to being converted to a belief system that they might not otherwise embrace.

[00:15:11] But on the other hand one could say that these are exactly the sort of people for whom a new belief system can be very helpful.

[00:15:19] The ethics of missionary work is very complicated, but as far as Mormon missionaries go it is indisputable that they are very effective, bringing in around 300,000 new Mormons to the church every single year. 

[00:15:37] And being a missionary of course isn’t unique to Mormonism. 

[00:15:41] There is a long tradition of missionary work in Christianity, for example, but it is the fact that it is such a central part of the Mormon church, and that every young Mormon is strongly encouraged to go on a mission that makes it so unique.

[00:15:59] Moving on to what you can and cannot do as a Mormon, there are some strict lifestyle behaviours.

[00:16:07] Most Mormons don’t smoke, drink alcohol or drink tea or coffee. 

[00:16:12] There’s no gambling, you should avoid bad language, no sex before marriage, and more homely suggestions such as volunteering to help your community.

[00:16:24] And when it comes to money and personal finance, there is a peculiarity of Mormonism called tithing, which requires Mormons to give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:40] Now that you understand this, it’s time for perhaps the first Mormon joke, and the important points to remember here are that Mormons don’t drink alcohol and that they give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:54] Ok, ready?

[00:16:55] There was a survey done on whether someone would accept $500,000 to not drink alcohol for the rest of their life.

[00:17:04] The Mormon answered, so the joke goes, “Of course! It would be the easiest $450,000 I’ve ever made”.

[00:17:13] So, there you go, a Mormon joke.

[00:17:16] Again, a religion encouraging its followers to donate to it is nothing new, and it’s something familiar to most world religions.

[00:17:26] But this particular system, the tithing system, has been criticised for being excessive, and for Mormon priests encouraging followers to donate to the church even if they don’t have enough money to do so.

[00:17:41] This can actually make being a Mormon quite an expensive life choice. 

[00:17:47] Although unless you are a very high earner it’s probably quite a bit cheaper than being a Scientologist, as we’ll find out in the next episode.

[00:17:57] Like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and most other world religions, Mormons have a holy building where they worship.

[00:18:05] It’s called a temple.

[00:18:07] But unlike, for example, a Christian church, non-Mormons can’t go into a Mormon temple

[00:18:15] This has led to another of the major criticisms of Mormonism, that it is so secretive, that nobody really knows what goes on inside a temple.

[00:18:27] As a non-Mormon, I of course can’t shed any light about what actually goes on, but accounts from ex-Mormons suggest that it isn’t actually particularly exciting or strange, and if you are expecting or imagining that there is something completely different and bizarre that happens during a Mormon service, then, you would probably be quite disappointed.

[00:18:53] Now, although Mormonism might have started off as a divine message being passed to a young man, or the crazy ramblings of a madman, depending on your point of view, it has grown into a world religion.

[00:19:08] In fact, there are around 16 million Mormons worldwide, which makes the Mormon population larger than the Jewish population, which is just under 15 million.

[00:19:21] While growth might have initially been slow, from the mid 1950s things really started to take off, and the number of Mormons has continued to grow every single year.

[00:19:33] It took around 100 years for the church to get its first million members, then another 15 years for it to double in size to 2 million.

[00:19:43] By 1995 it had crossed 10 million, and since then it has added another 6 million members.

[00:19:52] And although growth has slowed in percentage terms, the number of Mormons continues to increase every year. 

[00:20:01] This is thought to come down to two main factors.

[00:20:04] Firstly, the missionary programme. 

[00:20:07] If there are more people converted to Mormonism every year than Mormons that either die or leave the church, then statistically the population will continue to grow. 

[00:20:18] And these missionaries, as we heard, bring in around 300,000 new recruits every single year.

[00:20:27] And secondly Mormons tend to have large families, partly because of cultural reasons, and partly because for years the church discouraged the use of birth control, of contraception

[00:20:42] The average Mormon aged 40-49 had 3.4 children, which is compared to an American average of 2.1. 

[00:20:52] So they have around 50% more children, and assuming that these children are brought up to be Mormons, then the population will continue to grow.

[00:21:02] I should say that polygamy, or having multiple wives or husbands, is now forbidden in the mainstream Mormon church, so if you are thinking that the reason they have so many children is because they have multiple partners, that’s not a major reason anymore, it’s a common misconception.

[00:21:22] In terms of where Mormons are in the world, the world centre for Mormonism is still the US, with the heart of the faith in Salt Lake City, in Utah, where just under half of the city defines itself as Mormon.

[00:21:37] And the rising number of Mormons has also meant that there has been an increasing amount of Mormons in the public eye.

[00:21:46] Probably the most famous, the most well-known, active Mormon to date is Mitt Romney, the current US Senator for Utah, and the Republican Presidential candidate against Barack Obama in 2012.

[00:22:01] You’ll remember that he wasn’t the first Mormon to have run for president. Indeed, the prophetic founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, ran for president back in 1844.

[00:22:14] But while Joseph Smith Junior was viewed by most non-Mormons as a mad, completely unrealistic candidate, Mitt Romney wasn’t.

[00:22:25] Romney was a successful American businessman. He was rich, he was articulate, he was well dressed, he looked and talked like a politician.

[00:22:36] And he was a proud mormon.

[00:22:38] For many Americans, this was the first time that they had seen someone who was a Mormon in such a powerful position. 

[00:22:47] But not everyone was or is keen on the idea of having a Mormon president, and around 20% of American voters still say that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate out of principle.

[00:23:01] As you will know, Romney lost the presidential election. 

[00:23:05] There were plenty of valid reasons that were completely unrelated to his faith, including the criticism of him being robotic and overly corporate, and this was especially the case compared to the more eloquent and approachable Barack Obama, but his Mormonism certainly didn’t help his chances.

[00:23:26] In terms of criticisms of Mormonism, as with almost every major world religion, there are plenty of people who grow up in strict religious households who choose to break free, and make different life choices to their parents, their siblings, their wider family, and the communities in which they live.

[00:23:48] Given how strict Mormonism can be in terms of what you can and cannot do, as well as the perceived secrecy of the religion, and the number of articles and videos that exist about people who have “escaped” from the religion, you could be forgiven for thinking that a large proportion of people leave it every year.

[00:24:11] But in fact, Mormonism has a similar percentage of people who leave it every year compared to some of the major branches of Christianity. 

[00:24:20] In the US around 64% of adults who were raised in a Mormon family still identify as Mormons today, vs 65% for evangelical Protestants and 59% for Catholics.

[00:24:36] So, Mormons don’t quit in any larger degrees than Protestants or Catholics.

[00:24:42] Now, this comparison between Mormonism, Protestantism and Catholicism might be unnerving to you. 

[00:24:50] Indeed, for more established forms of Christianity, accepting Mormonism as another form of Christianity isn’t easy.

[00:25:00] Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but The Catholic Church doesn’t consider Mormons to be Christians, nor do several Protestant churches.

[00:25:10] This is, evidently, a tricky theological issue, but the point is that Mormonism has this complex relationship with Christianity where its followers believe it to be an enhanced version of Christianity, but most Catholic and Protestant churches don’t accept it at all.

[00:25:30] So, where does this leave the Mormon church?

[00:25:34] It certainly doesn’t seem to be in a particularly bad place financially. 

[00:25:38] Its policy of collecting 10% of its followers' incomes has turned it into an incredibly wealthy organisation, with a whistleblower claiming that it now has a fund of $100 billion. 

[00:25:53] And if the religion continues to grow at a healthy rate, with hundreds of thousands of people joining the faith every year, and continuing to contribute to the church, then this number, this war chest, will only continue to grow.

[00:26:10] As a European, one can look at Mormonism and see something quintessentially American. 

[00:26:17] We’ll explore this idea further in the next episodes on Scientology, but there is something amazing in the idea that a young man can come back from the woods and say that he has been visited by God and Jesus Christ, then a few years later that he has found some gold plates with the word of God written on them, amass a following, start a city, and within 150 years there is a world religion bigger than Judaism with $100 billion of cash in the bank.

[00:26:48] One can choose to believe in Mormonism, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or not, but it is very hard to deny that what they have achieved is impressive, and would be possible only in America.

[00:27:06] OK then, that is it for this little look at Mormonism. 

[00:27:11] I hope you enjoyed it, that you learned something new, and the next time you see a young man or woman with a black name badge who is about to engage you in conversation, well, you’ll know a little bit about the history of what they believe and why.

[00:27:28] As I said at the start of this episode, this was part one of a three-part series. 

[00:27:33] Next up we’ll talk about Scientology, another classic but very weird American success story, which has also managed to amass believers all over the world and a bulging bank balance.

[00:27:47] And then in part three, the final part, we will come back to look at some of the similarities and differences between the two, and discuss some of the questions that an understanding of Mormonism and Scientology get us thinking about.

[00:28:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and what you made of this mini series. 

[00:28:10] If you do happen to be a Mormon, or if you have friends or family who are Mormon, or if you have any particular views on the subject, I would love to know.

[00:28:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:30] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:36] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is going to be the first of a three-part mini-series where we are going to be looking at Mormonism and Scientology, two very different belief systems that are often compared to one another.

[00:00:39] They are both relatively new, fast-growing, and have their fair share of critics

[00:00:46] Importantly, to the outside world, they are not very well understood.

[00:00:52] So, we are going to explain where they come from, what people who follow them believe, and look at some of the criticisms and questions that surround them.

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode, we’ll focus on Mormonism. Then in part two we will look at Scientology.

[00:01:11] And in part three we are going to look at the two together, look at some of the similarities between the two, and more importantly the differences, and reflect a little more on the future of these religions.

[00:01:25] I should clarify that I am neither a Mormon nor a Scientologist, and, as I hope you have come to expect, we are going to look at both of these topics through as unbiased a lens as possible, we are going to try to avoid passing judgment.

[00:01:41] Instead, we’ll talk about how both of these belief systems came into existence, how they have developed, and I will leave you to come to your own conclusions.

[00:01:53] Ok then, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:58] For both Scientology and Mormonism, at the heart of the story is a powerful, charismatic leader, someone with the ability to attract others.

[00:02:09] In the case of Mormonism, this leader’s story starts when he is a young boy, and it goes something like this.

[00:02:18] Joseph Smith Jr was born in 1805, in Vermont, in the United States of America. 

[00:02:25] He was one of 11 children, and was brought up in a farming family of devout Christians, a family of strong Christian believers.

[00:02:35] His family struggled to make a living, and eventually moved to upstate New York, where they took out a mortgage on a farm.

[00:02:44] At the time there were multiple different churches, with each preaching a slightly different version of Christianity. 

[00:02:52] The Smith family tested out lots of different churches, trying to find one that matched their beliefs.

[00:03:01] The young Joseph Smith, who was 12 at the time, became intensely religious, but wasn’t sure what form of Christianity he should follow.

[00:03:13] One day, when he was 14 years old and out praying in a wood, he was kneeling down, praying, and he was visited by God and Jesus Christ, so the story goes. 

[00:03:25] The young boy, not knowing which church he should join, asked God which one he should join.

[00:03:33] God told him not to join any of them. Christianity had strayed from the truth, he said. 

[00:03:40] The Christianity that was currently being preached wasn’t the true word of God.

[00:03:47] Three years later, when he was only 17, Joseph was visited by another religious figure, an angel named Moroni.

[00:03:56] This angel told Joseph about the existence of a book written on golden plates, a book that told the story of a group of Israelites who had settled in the Americas in around 600BC, a good two thousand years before anyone is believed to have travelled from Europe to the Americas.

[00:04:17] Joseph tried to go and uncover this golden book, but he was prevented by the angel.

[00:04:23] He kept trying every year for four years, and it was only on the last attempt, four years after he had first learned of its existence, that he was able to retrieve these golden plates from the ground.

[00:04:37] On them he found a text written in an ancient Egyptian language, which of course Joseph Smith Junior, being a 22 year old American didn't have the power to understand. 

[00:04:49] But, luckily he was given special powers to translate the text, a total of 531 pages, which he did in just 65 days, according to Mormon scholars. 

[00:05:03] After the translation was completed, these plates were buried, and they have never been discovered again.

[00:05:10] Importantly, very few people actually saw these golden plates. 

[00:05:15] There were around 11 eye witnesses who confirmed that they had seen them, but critics say the entire story sounds slightly improbable.

[00:05:25] Nevertheless, the story of the golden plates is central to the entire Mormon faith.

[00:05:32] The result of the translation was a book called The Book of Mormon, which is the central text of the religion known as Mormonism.

[00:05:43] This book tells the story of a group of Israelites, a group of Hebrews, who travelled from Jerusalem to America in 600 BC, split up, and eventually died out.

[00:05:55] The important subtext of this is that America has an important role in this story, and this religion. 

[00:06:03] In the Bible, as you may know, it doesn’t.

[00:06:06] So, long story short, a boy is visited by God and Jesus, they tell him to not join any church because they are all preaching an incorrect version of Christianity, he finds golden plates buried in the ground, translates them with God-given powers, returns the plates to the ground, and a new text is published, The Book of Mormon, which creates a link between God, Jesus, and America.

[00:06:34] Now, you will of course decide for yourself whether you think this story is true or not, but this is the history of the start of Mormonism.

[00:06:44] Shortly after, Joseph Smith created his own church, The Church of Christ, with the Book of Mormon at the centre of it. 

[00:06:54] To say that it was an instant hit would be an overstatement, but a small group of devoted followers started to cluster around Joseph Smith Junior, he started to attract supporters.

[00:07:08] They called themselves Latter-day Saints, and indeed, the real name for what is colloquially called the Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[00:07:21] These Latter-day Saints believed that their church was the one true church of Christ, that it was the true manifestation of Christianity.

[00:07:32] Smith’s followers had started to multiply, and different branches had started to form. 

[00:07:39] Communities were created in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and followers were attracted by a message of a new form of Christianity with a uniquely American twist.

[00:07:53] We won’t go into huge detail on the theological differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but some of the main ones are that it was led by a living prophet, Joseph Smith Junior, and that it had this third religious text, The Book of Mormon, alongside the Old and New Testaments. 

[00:08:16] The Old and New Testament were still important for Mormons, but they believed that they weren’t completely accurate, and had some errors. 

[00:08:26] For Christians at the time, this was sacrilegious, it was heresy.

[00:08:32] The word of God was indisputable, you couldn't just say that you had been visited by God, had found some gold plates and started your own religion.

[00:08:43] Smith was criticised as a madman, a fraud, a cult-leader, and someone with an enlarged sense of his own importance.

[00:08:54] Then, as if to confirm some of the accusations against him, in 1844 Smith decided to run for president, he put himself forward as a US presidential candidate.

[00:09:08] This really catapulted Mormonism to the front of people’s minds, and there was an increasing anti-Mormon feeling across the country. 

[00:09:19] There were also growing rifts, growing divisions within the church.

[00:09:25] One practice was particularly controversial.

[00:09:29] Polygamy, or a person having multiple husbands or wives.

[00:09:34] This was something that Smith said was permitted by God, and indeed Smith reportedly had 40 wives, one of whom was a 14-year-old girl when they were married.

[00:09:47] This insistence on polygamy was to prove to be Smith’s downfall, and has been something that has stuck to people’s perceptions of Mormonism ever since.

[00:09:59] There was a dissenting Mormon group, a group of Mormons who didn’t agree with polygamy, who published an article attacking Smith, and revealing the extent of the polygamy within the church.

[00:10:13] This article was published in a small Illinois newspaper in 1844, and Smith was furious. 

[00:10:21] Smith also happened to be the mayor of the town where the newspaper was published, and he ordered for the newspaper office to be destroyed.

[00:10:31] This was, of course, illegal, and Smith was thrown in jail by the Illinois authorities.

[00:10:38] While he was in jail, awaiting trial, an angry mob, an angry group of people, stormed the jail and killed him. 

[00:10:47] He was dead, aged just 38 years old, a martyr to his followers.

[00:10:54] With its prophetic leader dead, and increasing anti-Mormon sentiment across the country, a group of devoted believers set off west to look for a new spiritual home. 

[00:11:08] They were led by a man named Brigham Young who had joined the church in 1832, just two years after it was founded.

[00:11:17] Young led his group west until they reached Utah, the mountain state sandwiched between Nevada and Colorado.

[00:11:27] When Young’s group arrived in a valley in Utah, Young reportedly said “this is the place”, and started the settlement that was to become Salt Lake City, to this day the place with the highest density of Mormons in the world.

[00:11:45] With a town to call their own, the church was free to practice polygamy without fear of offending others, or at least without fear of offending people living nearby.

[00:11:58] In terms of polygamy, Brigham even got one up on the original founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, with 55 wives and 56 children to Smith’s mere 40 wives.

[00:12:13] Now, that is an outline of the early history of Mormonism, how it started, the short but eventful life of its founder, and how the church ended up in Utah.

[00:12:26] Now let’s talk about what Mormons actually believe, and what being a Mormon requires you to do.

[00:12:33] Probably the most noticeable aspect of Mormonism to non-mormons is the missionary element.

[00:12:41] Young Mormons, typically in their late teens, are strongly encouraged to go on missions to help spread the word of the church, to try to convert people to their faith.

[00:12:54] Pairs of young boys or girls are sent to different areas, to all different parts of the world, for a period of two years for boys, or 18 months for girls.

[00:13:07] They spend all their time engaging people in conversation, trying to tell people about their faith, with the objective of converting people to Mormonism.

[00:13:18] I imagine you might have seen these young missionaries in action, so to speak.

[00:13:24] They are normally pretty recognisable.

[00:13:27] They have black badges on, with their names printed clearly, and always seem to be exceptionally friendly, which certainly to some people can seem a little unnerving

[00:13:39] They carry leaflets to give out, and of course a copy of The Book of Mormon.

[00:13:45] They work in pairs, and are not allowed to be apart from their partner unless they are using the bathroom.

[00:13:52] They aren’t allowed to use mobile phones, watch TV or read the news. 

[00:13:57] And up until relatively recently they were only allowed to call home twice a year.

[00:14:03] They have slightly curious names, as well. The male missionaries are called Elders, which is weird because they are normally only 18 or 19, and the female ones are called Sisters.

[00:14:17] Their entire mission is spent doing religious study and trying to speak to people about the church.

[00:14:25] There are of course some interesting and important ethical questions about missionary work. 

[00:14:31] The entire point of missionary work is to try to attract someone to your religion, to try to get them to change their beliefs.

[00:14:40] And is it right for Mormon missionaries to travel the world, stopping people on buses, trains, knocking on doors, and essentially being travelling salesmen for a religion?

[00:14:54] In many cases the people who become targets for the missionaries are people who are out of luck, who have been going through a tough period, and are particularly susceptible to being converted to a belief system that they might not otherwise embrace.

[00:15:11] But on the other hand one could say that these are exactly the sort of people for whom a new belief system can be very helpful.

[00:15:19] The ethics of missionary work is very complicated, but as far as Mormon missionaries go it is indisputable that they are very effective, bringing in around 300,000 new Mormons to the church every single year. 

[00:15:37] And being a missionary of course isn’t unique to Mormonism. 

[00:15:41] There is a long tradition of missionary work in Christianity, for example, but it is the fact that it is such a central part of the Mormon church, and that every young Mormon is strongly encouraged to go on a mission that makes it so unique.

[00:15:59] Moving on to what you can and cannot do as a Mormon, there are some strict lifestyle behaviours.

[00:16:07] Most Mormons don’t smoke, drink alcohol or drink tea or coffee. 

[00:16:12] There’s no gambling, you should avoid bad language, no sex before marriage, and more homely suggestions such as volunteering to help your community.

[00:16:24] And when it comes to money and personal finance, there is a peculiarity of Mormonism called tithing, which requires Mormons to give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:40] Now that you understand this, it’s time for perhaps the first Mormon joke, and the important points to remember here are that Mormons don’t drink alcohol and that they give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:54] Ok, ready?

[00:16:55] There was a survey done on whether someone would accept $500,000 to not drink alcohol for the rest of their life.

[00:17:04] The Mormon answered, so the joke goes, “Of course! It would be the easiest $450,000 I’ve ever made”.

[00:17:13] So, there you go, a Mormon joke.

[00:17:16] Again, a religion encouraging its followers to donate to it is nothing new, and it’s something familiar to most world religions.

[00:17:26] But this particular system, the tithing system, has been criticised for being excessive, and for Mormon priests encouraging followers to donate to the church even if they don’t have enough money to do so.

[00:17:41] This can actually make being a Mormon quite an expensive life choice. 

[00:17:47] Although unless you are a very high earner it’s probably quite a bit cheaper than being a Scientologist, as we’ll find out in the next episode.

[00:17:57] Like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and most other world religions, Mormons have a holy building where they worship.

[00:18:05] It’s called a temple.

[00:18:07] But unlike, for example, a Christian church, non-Mormons can’t go into a Mormon temple

[00:18:15] This has led to another of the major criticisms of Mormonism, that it is so secretive, that nobody really knows what goes on inside a temple.

[00:18:27] As a non-Mormon, I of course can’t shed any light about what actually goes on, but accounts from ex-Mormons suggest that it isn’t actually particularly exciting or strange, and if you are expecting or imagining that there is something completely different and bizarre that happens during a Mormon service, then, you would probably be quite disappointed.

[00:18:53] Now, although Mormonism might have started off as a divine message being passed to a young man, or the crazy ramblings of a madman, depending on your point of view, it has grown into a world religion.

[00:19:08] In fact, there are around 16 million Mormons worldwide, which makes the Mormon population larger than the Jewish population, which is just under 15 million.

[00:19:21] While growth might have initially been slow, from the mid 1950s things really started to take off, and the number of Mormons has continued to grow every single year.

[00:19:33] It took around 100 years for the church to get its first million members, then another 15 years for it to double in size to 2 million.

[00:19:43] By 1995 it had crossed 10 million, and since then it has added another 6 million members.

[00:19:52] And although growth has slowed in percentage terms, the number of Mormons continues to increase every year. 

[00:20:01] This is thought to come down to two main factors.

[00:20:04] Firstly, the missionary programme. 

[00:20:07] If there are more people converted to Mormonism every year than Mormons that either die or leave the church, then statistically the population will continue to grow. 

[00:20:18] And these missionaries, as we heard, bring in around 300,000 new recruits every single year.

[00:20:27] And secondly Mormons tend to have large families, partly because of cultural reasons, and partly because for years the church discouraged the use of birth control, of contraception

[00:20:42] The average Mormon aged 40-49 had 3.4 children, which is compared to an American average of 2.1. 

[00:20:52] So they have around 50% more children, and assuming that these children are brought up to be Mormons, then the population will continue to grow.

[00:21:02] I should say that polygamy, or having multiple wives or husbands, is now forbidden in the mainstream Mormon church, so if you are thinking that the reason they have so many children is because they have multiple partners, that’s not a major reason anymore, it’s a common misconception.

[00:21:22] In terms of where Mormons are in the world, the world centre for Mormonism is still the US, with the heart of the faith in Salt Lake City, in Utah, where just under half of the city defines itself as Mormon.

[00:21:37] And the rising number of Mormons has also meant that there has been an increasing amount of Mormons in the public eye.

[00:21:46] Probably the most famous, the most well-known, active Mormon to date is Mitt Romney, the current US Senator for Utah, and the Republican Presidential candidate against Barack Obama in 2012.

[00:22:01] You’ll remember that he wasn’t the first Mormon to have run for president. Indeed, the prophetic founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, ran for president back in 1844.

[00:22:14] But while Joseph Smith Junior was viewed by most non-Mormons as a mad, completely unrealistic candidate, Mitt Romney wasn’t.

[00:22:25] Romney was a successful American businessman. He was rich, he was articulate, he was well dressed, he looked and talked like a politician.

[00:22:36] And he was a proud mormon.

[00:22:38] For many Americans, this was the first time that they had seen someone who was a Mormon in such a powerful position. 

[00:22:47] But not everyone was or is keen on the idea of having a Mormon president, and around 20% of American voters still say that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate out of principle.

[00:23:01] As you will know, Romney lost the presidential election. 

[00:23:05] There were plenty of valid reasons that were completely unrelated to his faith, including the criticism of him being robotic and overly corporate, and this was especially the case compared to the more eloquent and approachable Barack Obama, but his Mormonism certainly didn’t help his chances.

[00:23:26] In terms of criticisms of Mormonism, as with almost every major world religion, there are plenty of people who grow up in strict religious households who choose to break free, and make different life choices to their parents, their siblings, their wider family, and the communities in which they live.

[00:23:48] Given how strict Mormonism can be in terms of what you can and cannot do, as well as the perceived secrecy of the religion, and the number of articles and videos that exist about people who have “escaped” from the religion, you could be forgiven for thinking that a large proportion of people leave it every year.

[00:24:11] But in fact, Mormonism has a similar percentage of people who leave it every year compared to some of the major branches of Christianity. 

[00:24:20] In the US around 64% of adults who were raised in a Mormon family still identify as Mormons today, vs 65% for evangelical Protestants and 59% for Catholics.

[00:24:36] So, Mormons don’t quit in any larger degrees than Protestants or Catholics.

[00:24:42] Now, this comparison between Mormonism, Protestantism and Catholicism might be unnerving to you. 

[00:24:50] Indeed, for more established forms of Christianity, accepting Mormonism as another form of Christianity isn’t easy.

[00:25:00] Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but The Catholic Church doesn’t consider Mormons to be Christians, nor do several Protestant churches.

[00:25:10] This is, evidently, a tricky theological issue, but the point is that Mormonism has this complex relationship with Christianity where its followers believe it to be an enhanced version of Christianity, but most Catholic and Protestant churches don’t accept it at all.

[00:25:30] So, where does this leave the Mormon church?

[00:25:34] It certainly doesn’t seem to be in a particularly bad place financially. 

[00:25:38] Its policy of collecting 10% of its followers' incomes has turned it into an incredibly wealthy organisation, with a whistleblower claiming that it now has a fund of $100 billion. 

[00:25:53] And if the religion continues to grow at a healthy rate, with hundreds of thousands of people joining the faith every year, and continuing to contribute to the church, then this number, this war chest, will only continue to grow.

[00:26:10] As a European, one can look at Mormonism and see something quintessentially American. 

[00:26:17] We’ll explore this idea further in the next episodes on Scientology, but there is something amazing in the idea that a young man can come back from the woods and say that he has been visited by God and Jesus Christ, then a few years later that he has found some gold plates with the word of God written on them, amass a following, start a city, and within 150 years there is a world religion bigger than Judaism with $100 billion of cash in the bank.

[00:26:48] One can choose to believe in Mormonism, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or not, but it is very hard to deny that what they have achieved is impressive, and would be possible only in America.

[00:27:06] OK then, that is it for this little look at Mormonism. 

[00:27:11] I hope you enjoyed it, that you learned something new, and the next time you see a young man or woman with a black name badge who is about to engage you in conversation, well, you’ll know a little bit about the history of what they believe and why.

[00:27:28] As I said at the start of this episode, this was part one of a three-part series. 

[00:27:33] Next up we’ll talk about Scientology, another classic but very weird American success story, which has also managed to amass believers all over the world and a bulging bank balance.

[00:27:47] And then in part three, the final part, we will come back to look at some of the similarities and differences between the two, and discuss some of the questions that an understanding of Mormonism and Scientology get us thinking about.

[00:28:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and what you made of this mini series. 

[00:28:10] If you do happen to be a Mormon, or if you have friends or family who are Mormon, or if you have any particular views on the subject, I would love to know.

[00:28:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:30] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:36] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today is going to be the first of a three-part mini-series where we are going to be looking at Mormonism and Scientology, two very different belief systems that are often compared to one another.

[00:00:39] They are both relatively new, fast-growing, and have their fair share of critics

[00:00:46] Importantly, to the outside world, they are not very well understood.

[00:00:52] So, we are going to explain where they come from, what people who follow them believe, and look at some of the criticisms and questions that surround them.

[00:01:02] In part one, in today’s episode, we’ll focus on Mormonism. Then in part two we will look at Scientology.

[00:01:11] And in part three we are going to look at the two together, look at some of the similarities between the two, and more importantly the differences, and reflect a little more on the future of these religions.

[00:01:25] I should clarify that I am neither a Mormon nor a Scientologist, and, as I hope you have come to expect, we are going to look at both of these topics through as unbiased a lens as possible, we are going to try to avoid passing judgment.

[00:01:41] Instead, we’ll talk about how both of these belief systems came into existence, how they have developed, and I will leave you to come to your own conclusions.

[00:01:53] Ok then, let’s jump right into it.

[00:01:58] For both Scientology and Mormonism, at the heart of the story is a powerful, charismatic leader, someone with the ability to attract others.

[00:02:09] In the case of Mormonism, this leader’s story starts when he is a young boy, and it goes something like this.

[00:02:18] Joseph Smith Jr was born in 1805, in Vermont, in the United States of America. 

[00:02:25] He was one of 11 children, and was brought up in a farming family of devout Christians, a family of strong Christian believers.

[00:02:35] His family struggled to make a living, and eventually moved to upstate New York, where they took out a mortgage on a farm.

[00:02:44] At the time there were multiple different churches, with each preaching a slightly different version of Christianity. 

[00:02:52] The Smith family tested out lots of different churches, trying to find one that matched their beliefs.

[00:03:01] The young Joseph Smith, who was 12 at the time, became intensely religious, but wasn’t sure what form of Christianity he should follow.

[00:03:13] One day, when he was 14 years old and out praying in a wood, he was kneeling down, praying, and he was visited by God and Jesus Christ, so the story goes. 

[00:03:25] The young boy, not knowing which church he should join, asked God which one he should join.

[00:03:33] God told him not to join any of them. Christianity had strayed from the truth, he said. 

[00:03:40] The Christianity that was currently being preached wasn’t the true word of God.

[00:03:47] Three years later, when he was only 17, Joseph was visited by another religious figure, an angel named Moroni.

[00:03:56] This angel told Joseph about the existence of a book written on golden plates, a book that told the story of a group of Israelites who had settled in the Americas in around 600BC, a good two thousand years before anyone is believed to have travelled from Europe to the Americas.

[00:04:17] Joseph tried to go and uncover this golden book, but he was prevented by the angel.

[00:04:23] He kept trying every year for four years, and it was only on the last attempt, four years after he had first learned of its existence, that he was able to retrieve these golden plates from the ground.

[00:04:37] On them he found a text written in an ancient Egyptian language, which of course Joseph Smith Junior, being a 22 year old American didn't have the power to understand. 

[00:04:49] But, luckily he was given special powers to translate the text, a total of 531 pages, which he did in just 65 days, according to Mormon scholars. 

[00:05:03] After the translation was completed, these plates were buried, and they have never been discovered again.

[00:05:10] Importantly, very few people actually saw these golden plates. 

[00:05:15] There were around 11 eye witnesses who confirmed that they had seen them, but critics say the entire story sounds slightly improbable.

[00:05:25] Nevertheless, the story of the golden plates is central to the entire Mormon faith.

[00:05:32] The result of the translation was a book called The Book of Mormon, which is the central text of the religion known as Mormonism.

[00:05:43] This book tells the story of a group of Israelites, a group of Hebrews, who travelled from Jerusalem to America in 600 BC, split up, and eventually died out.

[00:05:55] The important subtext of this is that America has an important role in this story, and this religion. 

[00:06:03] In the Bible, as you may know, it doesn’t.

[00:06:06] So, long story short, a boy is visited by God and Jesus, they tell him to not join any church because they are all preaching an incorrect version of Christianity, he finds golden plates buried in the ground, translates them with God-given powers, returns the plates to the ground, and a new text is published, The Book of Mormon, which creates a link between God, Jesus, and America.

[00:06:34] Now, you will of course decide for yourself whether you think this story is true or not, but this is the history of the start of Mormonism.

[00:06:44] Shortly after, Joseph Smith created his own church, The Church of Christ, with the Book of Mormon at the centre of it. 

[00:06:54] To say that it was an instant hit would be an overstatement, but a small group of devoted followers started to cluster around Joseph Smith Junior, he started to attract supporters.

[00:07:08] They called themselves Latter-day Saints, and indeed, the real name for what is colloquially called the Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[00:07:21] These Latter-day Saints believed that their church was the one true church of Christ, that it was the true manifestation of Christianity.

[00:07:32] Smith’s followers had started to multiply, and different branches had started to form. 

[00:07:39] Communities were created in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and followers were attracted by a message of a new form of Christianity with a uniquely American twist.

[00:07:53] We won’t go into huge detail on the theological differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but some of the main ones are that it was led by a living prophet, Joseph Smith Junior, and that it had this third religious text, The Book of Mormon, alongside the Old and New Testaments. 

[00:08:16] The Old and New Testament were still important for Mormons, but they believed that they weren’t completely accurate, and had some errors. 

[00:08:26] For Christians at the time, this was sacrilegious, it was heresy.

[00:08:32] The word of God was indisputable, you couldn't just say that you had been visited by God, had found some gold plates and started your own religion.

[00:08:43] Smith was criticised as a madman, a fraud, a cult-leader, and someone with an enlarged sense of his own importance.

[00:08:54] Then, as if to confirm some of the accusations against him, in 1844 Smith decided to run for president, he put himself forward as a US presidential candidate.

[00:09:08] This really catapulted Mormonism to the front of people’s minds, and there was an increasing anti-Mormon feeling across the country. 

[00:09:19] There were also growing rifts, growing divisions within the church.

[00:09:25] One practice was particularly controversial.

[00:09:29] Polygamy, or a person having multiple husbands or wives.

[00:09:34] This was something that Smith said was permitted by God, and indeed Smith reportedly had 40 wives, one of whom was a 14-year-old girl when they were married.

[00:09:47] This insistence on polygamy was to prove to be Smith’s downfall, and has been something that has stuck to people’s perceptions of Mormonism ever since.

[00:09:59] There was a dissenting Mormon group, a group of Mormons who didn’t agree with polygamy, who published an article attacking Smith, and revealing the extent of the polygamy within the church.

[00:10:13] This article was published in a small Illinois newspaper in 1844, and Smith was furious. 

[00:10:21] Smith also happened to be the mayor of the town where the newspaper was published, and he ordered for the newspaper office to be destroyed.

[00:10:31] This was, of course, illegal, and Smith was thrown in jail by the Illinois authorities.

[00:10:38] While he was in jail, awaiting trial, an angry mob, an angry group of people, stormed the jail and killed him. 

[00:10:47] He was dead, aged just 38 years old, a martyr to his followers.

[00:10:54] With its prophetic leader dead, and increasing anti-Mormon sentiment across the country, a group of devoted believers set off west to look for a new spiritual home. 

[00:11:08] They were led by a man named Brigham Young who had joined the church in 1832, just two years after it was founded.

[00:11:17] Young led his group west until they reached Utah, the mountain state sandwiched between Nevada and Colorado.

[00:11:27] When Young’s group arrived in a valley in Utah, Young reportedly said “this is the place”, and started the settlement that was to become Salt Lake City, to this day the place with the highest density of Mormons in the world.

[00:11:45] With a town to call their own, the church was free to practice polygamy without fear of offending others, or at least without fear of offending people living nearby.

[00:11:58] In terms of polygamy, Brigham even got one up on the original founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, with 55 wives and 56 children to Smith’s mere 40 wives.

[00:12:13] Now, that is an outline of the early history of Mormonism, how it started, the short but eventful life of its founder, and how the church ended up in Utah.

[00:12:26] Now let’s talk about what Mormons actually believe, and what being a Mormon requires you to do.

[00:12:33] Probably the most noticeable aspect of Mormonism to non-mormons is the missionary element.

[00:12:41] Young Mormons, typically in their late teens, are strongly encouraged to go on missions to help spread the word of the church, to try to convert people to their faith.

[00:12:54] Pairs of young boys or girls are sent to different areas, to all different parts of the world, for a period of two years for boys, or 18 months for girls.

[00:13:07] They spend all their time engaging people in conversation, trying to tell people about their faith, with the objective of converting people to Mormonism.

[00:13:18] I imagine you might have seen these young missionaries in action, so to speak.

[00:13:24] They are normally pretty recognisable.

[00:13:27] They have black badges on, with their names printed clearly, and always seem to be exceptionally friendly, which certainly to some people can seem a little unnerving

[00:13:39] They carry leaflets to give out, and of course a copy of The Book of Mormon.

[00:13:45] They work in pairs, and are not allowed to be apart from their partner unless they are using the bathroom.

[00:13:52] They aren’t allowed to use mobile phones, watch TV or read the news. 

[00:13:57] And up until relatively recently they were only allowed to call home twice a year.

[00:14:03] They have slightly curious names, as well. The male missionaries are called Elders, which is weird because they are normally only 18 or 19, and the female ones are called Sisters.

[00:14:17] Their entire mission is spent doing religious study and trying to speak to people about the church.

[00:14:25] There are of course some interesting and important ethical questions about missionary work. 

[00:14:31] The entire point of missionary work is to try to attract someone to your religion, to try to get them to change their beliefs.

[00:14:40] And is it right for Mormon missionaries to travel the world, stopping people on buses, trains, knocking on doors, and essentially being travelling salesmen for a religion?

[00:14:54] In many cases the people who become targets for the missionaries are people who are out of luck, who have been going through a tough period, and are particularly susceptible to being converted to a belief system that they might not otherwise embrace.

[00:15:11] But on the other hand one could say that these are exactly the sort of people for whom a new belief system can be very helpful.

[00:15:19] The ethics of missionary work is very complicated, but as far as Mormon missionaries go it is indisputable that they are very effective, bringing in around 300,000 new Mormons to the church every single year. 

[00:15:37] And being a missionary of course isn’t unique to Mormonism. 

[00:15:41] There is a long tradition of missionary work in Christianity, for example, but it is the fact that it is such a central part of the Mormon church, and that every young Mormon is strongly encouraged to go on a mission that makes it so unique.

[00:15:59] Moving on to what you can and cannot do as a Mormon, there are some strict lifestyle behaviours.

[00:16:07] Most Mormons don’t smoke, drink alcohol or drink tea or coffee. 

[00:16:12] There’s no gambling, you should avoid bad language, no sex before marriage, and more homely suggestions such as volunteering to help your community.

[00:16:24] And when it comes to money and personal finance, there is a peculiarity of Mormonism called tithing, which requires Mormons to give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:40] Now that you understand this, it’s time for perhaps the first Mormon joke, and the important points to remember here are that Mormons don’t drink alcohol and that they give 10% of their income to the church.

[00:16:54] Ok, ready?

[00:16:55] There was a survey done on whether someone would accept $500,000 to not drink alcohol for the rest of their life.

[00:17:04] The Mormon answered, so the joke goes, “Of course! It would be the easiest $450,000 I’ve ever made”.

[00:17:13] So, there you go, a Mormon joke.

[00:17:16] Again, a religion encouraging its followers to donate to it is nothing new, and it’s something familiar to most world religions.

[00:17:26] But this particular system, the tithing system, has been criticised for being excessive, and for Mormon priests encouraging followers to donate to the church even if they don’t have enough money to do so.

[00:17:41] This can actually make being a Mormon quite an expensive life choice. 

[00:17:47] Although unless you are a very high earner it’s probably quite a bit cheaper than being a Scientologist, as we’ll find out in the next episode.

[00:17:57] Like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and most other world religions, Mormons have a holy building where they worship.

[00:18:05] It’s called a temple.

[00:18:07] But unlike, for example, a Christian church, non-Mormons can’t go into a Mormon temple

[00:18:15] This has led to another of the major criticisms of Mormonism, that it is so secretive, that nobody really knows what goes on inside a temple.

[00:18:27] As a non-Mormon, I of course can’t shed any light about what actually goes on, but accounts from ex-Mormons suggest that it isn’t actually particularly exciting or strange, and if you are expecting or imagining that there is something completely different and bizarre that happens during a Mormon service, then, you would probably be quite disappointed.

[00:18:53] Now, although Mormonism might have started off as a divine message being passed to a young man, or the crazy ramblings of a madman, depending on your point of view, it has grown into a world religion.

[00:19:08] In fact, there are around 16 million Mormons worldwide, which makes the Mormon population larger than the Jewish population, which is just under 15 million.

[00:19:21] While growth might have initially been slow, from the mid 1950s things really started to take off, and the number of Mormons has continued to grow every single year.

[00:19:33] It took around 100 years for the church to get its first million members, then another 15 years for it to double in size to 2 million.

[00:19:43] By 1995 it had crossed 10 million, and since then it has added another 6 million members.

[00:19:52] And although growth has slowed in percentage terms, the number of Mormons continues to increase every year. 

[00:20:01] This is thought to come down to two main factors.

[00:20:04] Firstly, the missionary programme. 

[00:20:07] If there are more people converted to Mormonism every year than Mormons that either die or leave the church, then statistically the population will continue to grow. 

[00:20:18] And these missionaries, as we heard, bring in around 300,000 new recruits every single year.

[00:20:27] And secondly Mormons tend to have large families, partly because of cultural reasons, and partly because for years the church discouraged the use of birth control, of contraception

[00:20:42] The average Mormon aged 40-49 had 3.4 children, which is compared to an American average of 2.1. 

[00:20:52] So they have around 50% more children, and assuming that these children are brought up to be Mormons, then the population will continue to grow.

[00:21:02] I should say that polygamy, or having multiple wives or husbands, is now forbidden in the mainstream Mormon church, so if you are thinking that the reason they have so many children is because they have multiple partners, that’s not a major reason anymore, it’s a common misconception.

[00:21:22] In terms of where Mormons are in the world, the world centre for Mormonism is still the US, with the heart of the faith in Salt Lake City, in Utah, where just under half of the city defines itself as Mormon.

[00:21:37] And the rising number of Mormons has also meant that there has been an increasing amount of Mormons in the public eye.

[00:21:46] Probably the most famous, the most well-known, active Mormon to date is Mitt Romney, the current US Senator for Utah, and the Republican Presidential candidate against Barack Obama in 2012.

[00:22:01] You’ll remember that he wasn’t the first Mormon to have run for president. Indeed, the prophetic founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Junior, ran for president back in 1844.

[00:22:14] But while Joseph Smith Junior was viewed by most non-Mormons as a mad, completely unrealistic candidate, Mitt Romney wasn’t.

[00:22:25] Romney was a successful American businessman. He was rich, he was articulate, he was well dressed, he looked and talked like a politician.

[00:22:36] And he was a proud mormon.

[00:22:38] For many Americans, this was the first time that they had seen someone who was a Mormon in such a powerful position. 

[00:22:47] But not everyone was or is keen on the idea of having a Mormon president, and around 20% of American voters still say that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate out of principle.

[00:23:01] As you will know, Romney lost the presidential election. 

[00:23:05] There were plenty of valid reasons that were completely unrelated to his faith, including the criticism of him being robotic and overly corporate, and this was especially the case compared to the more eloquent and approachable Barack Obama, but his Mormonism certainly didn’t help his chances.

[00:23:26] In terms of criticisms of Mormonism, as with almost every major world religion, there are plenty of people who grow up in strict religious households who choose to break free, and make different life choices to their parents, their siblings, their wider family, and the communities in which they live.

[00:23:48] Given how strict Mormonism can be in terms of what you can and cannot do, as well as the perceived secrecy of the religion, and the number of articles and videos that exist about people who have “escaped” from the religion, you could be forgiven for thinking that a large proportion of people leave it every year.

[00:24:11] But in fact, Mormonism has a similar percentage of people who leave it every year compared to some of the major branches of Christianity. 

[00:24:20] In the US around 64% of adults who were raised in a Mormon family still identify as Mormons today, vs 65% for evangelical Protestants and 59% for Catholics.

[00:24:36] So, Mormons don’t quit in any larger degrees than Protestants or Catholics.

[00:24:42] Now, this comparison between Mormonism, Protestantism and Catholicism might be unnerving to you. 

[00:24:50] Indeed, for more established forms of Christianity, accepting Mormonism as another form of Christianity isn’t easy.

[00:25:00] Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but The Catholic Church doesn’t consider Mormons to be Christians, nor do several Protestant churches.

[00:25:10] This is, evidently, a tricky theological issue, but the point is that Mormonism has this complex relationship with Christianity where its followers believe it to be an enhanced version of Christianity, but most Catholic and Protestant churches don’t accept it at all.

[00:25:30] So, where does this leave the Mormon church?

[00:25:34] It certainly doesn’t seem to be in a particularly bad place financially. 

[00:25:38] Its policy of collecting 10% of its followers' incomes has turned it into an incredibly wealthy organisation, with a whistleblower claiming that it now has a fund of $100 billion. 

[00:25:53] And if the religion continues to grow at a healthy rate, with hundreds of thousands of people joining the faith every year, and continuing to contribute to the church, then this number, this war chest, will only continue to grow.

[00:26:10] As a European, one can look at Mormonism and see something quintessentially American. 

[00:26:17] We’ll explore this idea further in the next episodes on Scientology, but there is something amazing in the idea that a young man can come back from the woods and say that he has been visited by God and Jesus Christ, then a few years later that he has found some gold plates with the word of God written on them, amass a following, start a city, and within 150 years there is a world religion bigger than Judaism with $100 billion of cash in the bank.

[00:26:48] One can choose to believe in Mormonism, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or not, but it is very hard to deny that what they have achieved is impressive, and would be possible only in America.

[00:27:06] OK then, that is it for this little look at Mormonism. 

[00:27:11] I hope you enjoyed it, that you learned something new, and the next time you see a young man or woman with a black name badge who is about to engage you in conversation, well, you’ll know a little bit about the history of what they believe and why.

[00:27:28] As I said at the start of this episode, this was part one of a three-part series. 

[00:27:33] Next up we’ll talk about Scientology, another classic but very weird American success story, which has also managed to amass believers all over the world and a bulging bank balance.

[00:27:47] And then in part three, the final part, we will come back to look at some of the similarities and differences between the two, and discuss some of the questions that an understanding of Mormonism and Scientology get us thinking about.

[00:28:04] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and what you made of this mini series. 

[00:28:10] If you do happen to be a Mormon, or if you have friends or family who are Mormon, or if you have any particular views on the subject, I would love to know.

[00:28:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:28:30] You’ve been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:28:36] I’m Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I’ll catch you in the next episode

[END OF EPISODE]