With Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Presidency, much attention has been given to his affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly (though incorrectly) called “the Mormon Church.” In recent months, commentators and journalists have stressed the “secretive” nature of the religion.

It seems strange to consider as “secretive” a church that has some 60,000 full-time missionaries teaching its doctrines and converting roughly a million new members every three years. The church’s major doctrines are summarized in its thirteen Articles of Faith, and these and other beliefs are explained in its scriptures, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These beliefs are discussed openly by church leaders in worldwide television and radio broadcasts of the semiannual general conferences held in Salt Lake City in April and October.

Hundreds of books describing Mormon beliefs have been published by the church-owned Deseret Book and other church-affiliated organizations, including a number of books that discuss temple rites in detail. The five-volume Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published by Macmillan in 1992, remains the most comprehensive explanation of the church’s history and teachings. A searchable on-line version has been posted on the internet at http://www.lib.byu.edu/Macmillan.

The church’s own websites (http://www.lds.org and http://www.mormon.org) have much information about the movement, including searchable versions of its monthly publications since 1970. Access to past publications is available on Deseret Book’s GospelLink CD-ROM set. All documents held in church archives have recently been made available on another CD-ROM set, Mormon Studies. Not bad for such a “secretive” organization.

Commentators frequently refer to Mormon temple rites as the heart of secret goings-on. It is true that some elements of the temple are so sacred that we do not discuss them publicly, but most of what goes on in the temples is well-known. One need not look far to learn that the most important such rite is the solemnization of marriage for time and all eternity and that vicarious ordinances (sacraments in Roman Catholic parlance) are performed for deceased ancestors, beginning with proxy baptism.

Even the endowment ceremony, the one most commonly held in Latter-day Saint temples, is mostly public knowledge. Most of the teachings presented during that time derive from the Book of Moses, published in the Pearl of Great Price. During an endowment session, we are reminded of our responsibility to obey the basic laws given mankind by God, such as the law of chastity (including fidelity after marriage), the law of obedience to God’s commandments, the law of sacrifice (which culminated in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross), the law of the gospel (salvation through Christ), and the law of consecration of one’s time, talents, and other divine blessings, to building up the Lord’s work on the earth.

Elements that are not discussed openly include ritual elements of temple prayer and the actual endowment or giving of signs, names, and tokens designed to enable one to pass the angels and ultimately to enter the presence of God. These may seem strange to most modern Christians, but they were common in early Christianity, as I have discussed in some of my published articles on ancient temple rites. [1]

Two millennia ago, various pagan writers criticized Christianity for being secretive. In response to one such critic, named Celsus, a prominent Christian theologian named Origen (AD 185-254), wrote:

    In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric (Against Celsus, 1:7).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (died AD 386), in his Catechetical Lectures, described early Christian rituals performed following baptism that are readily recognizable to Latter-day Saints who attend modern temples.

So how did the idea of “secretive Mormonism” arise? Frankly, it came from some of the many anti-Mormon “ministries,” of which there are roughly 150 in the United States alone. One former Mormon, for example, calling himself a “temple Mormon” (his term), claims that, in the temple, Latter-day Saints worship Satan. The claim is utterly false and laughable to those who know the central role played by Jesus Christ in Mormon theology.

Unfortunately, journalists and non-Mormon commentators seem to rely more on these hostile writers (or others influenced by them) for information than on authoritative sources. It’s like asking a Buddhist monk for information on Southern Baptist beliefs.

Exaggeration? I don’t think so, and I suspect that most of my thirteen million coreligionists would agree with me. Brigham Young once said, “There is no such thing as a mystery but to the ignorant” (Journal of Discourses 2:90).


Notes
[1] See especially “Temple Prayer in Ancient Times,” in Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks, The Temple in Time and Eternity (Provo: FARMS, 1999). Also posted on the Maxwell Institute web site at http://farms.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?chapid=105; “Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices,” in First Annual Mormon Apologetics Symposium: Proceedings (Ben Lomond, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, 1999), also posted on the FAIR web site at http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR; “Priestly Clothing in Bible Times,” in Donald Parry (ed.), Temples of the Ancient World (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1994).