Sharing your faith with a stranger is always a delicate affair. How do you get another person to thoughtfully reconsider his religious beliefs without offending him? Also, how do you do that without getting trapped in an awkward situation for several hours?
I had those concerns in the back of my mind when I had the opportunity to dialogue with Mormons on two recent occasions. One was with a woman seated next to me on an airplane and the other was with two missionaries at a friend’s doorstep.
On a flight to one of my recent speaking engagements a young woman sitting next to me noticed that I was reading a book about Mormonism. She said she had recently joined the LDS church and so we struck up a conversation (the proper name for Mormons is “Latter-day Saints” or “LDS”). She said that she didn’t like it when people held incorrect or bigoted views towards Mormons and I said I agreed. I cited the belief that, “Mormon’s practice polygamy” as an example of one such mistaken belief.
Technically, LDS are accused of practicing polygyny, which is a form of polygamy that occurs when a man is married to more than one woman at a time. Polyandry occurs when a woman is married to more than one man at a time. In any case, LDS do not currently practice any form of “polygamy,” which means they do not enter into marriages with more than one living spouse at the same time.
At an October 1998 General Conference, LDS President Gordon Hinkley said, “If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose.” The polygamists you see on TV shows like “Sister Wives” are schismatic Mormons and are not part of the mainstream LDS Church.
This myth is derived from the fact that the LDS church did practice polygamy in its early years. In 1843 the founder of the LDS church Joseph Smith said that God had revealed to him that polygamy was morally acceptable (See Doctrine and Covenants 132:61-66). Todd Compton, who is a practicing Mormon and a professional historian, has provided evidence that Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives who were unofficially “sealed’ to him in marriage.[i]
In the late 1800’s the United States government began to outlaw polygamy and prosecuted LDS who engaged in the practice. However, the conflict between the LDS Church and the State began to dissipate in 1890 when LDS president Wilford Woodruff claimed he received a revelation from God saying that LDS should no longer engage in polygamy (or what Woodruff called “plural marriages”).[ii]
I then said to the young woman that the modern LDS Church did believe in polygamy, but not in this life. You see, the LDS church believes marriage is an eternal reality and any marriage sealed in an LDS temple is considered to be a “celestial marriage” that will last for all eternity. Mormons who are married outside of a temple only have life-long marriages that are dissolved upon the death of either spouse (just like everyone else’s marriages). As the official LDS document The Family: A Proclamation to the World puts it, “The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”
One interesting consequence of this belief is that LDS celestial marriages can be polygamous. According to one LDS manual of instructions, while a man can remarry in the temple after his wife dies (and thus have more than one wife in Heaven) a woman can only be married in the temple once.[iii]
The young woman said in response to this, “That’s not really fair . . . I’ll have to think about that.” As our plane pulled up to the gate I told her she could email me if she ever had any questions. I also got her contact information and promised to send her a copy of my booklet on Mormonism that will soon be published through Catholic Answers Press.
In the second encounter, I was invited to engage two young missionaries at a friend’s doorstep. After we discussed how Mormons and Catholics differ in their beliefs I decided to leave these two young men with a powerful, yet simple reason for why I would never join the Mormon Church.
“You guys said in your presentation that Jesus is our “eldest brother.” You see, I believe that Jesus is my Lord and God and that he is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. You believe, in contrast, that the Father created Jesus and so you don’t pray to Jesus. I love being a Christian and I would miss my relationship with Jesus if I joined the Mormon Church.” The young men had never heard this particular objection before and promised to study the issue in further detail.
Some Mormons claim that the reason they only pray to the Father (who they call “Heavenly Father”) is because Jesus taught his disciples to address their prayers to “our Father” and because Jesus told his disciples to “ask of the Father in my name.” But of course, just because Jesus gave us one way to pray does not mean that is the only way to pray. After all, LDS give thanks to Heavenly Father even though Jesus never showed his followers through the Lord's Prayer how to give thanks to God. It seems more likely that LDS only pray to the Father because they are following the prescription in the Book of Mormon where Jesus says, “ye must always pray unto the Father in my name” (3 Nephi 18:19).
Praying to Jesus
But the Bible gives us many examples of praying to and worshipping Jesus. For example, after his resurrection Jesus received worship from his disciples (Matthew 28:9) and Thomas called Jesus “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). After his ascension St. Stephen prayed to Jesus saying, “Lord Jesus, Receive my Spirit.” St. Paul said, “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father . . . comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word,” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).
Notice that Paul does not ask the Father “in Jesus name” to comfort believers but petitions both the Father and the Son to do that, or he treats them as equals. If the apostle Thomas can confidently say to Jesus “My Lord and my God,” Stephen can ask Jesus to receive his spirit, and Paul can ask Christ to comfort us, then why shouldn’t we pray to Jesus? Why would I join a Church that discourages praying to the eternal, all-powerful, and one-of-a-kind (John 1:18) Son of God?[iv]
When you engage Mormons, or any non-Catholic friend in dialogue, I recommend being nice, open, and not “out on a mission.” Don’t look at the encounter as an opportunity to “win an argument” or “get someone into the Church.” Rather, ask questions and get the person to think about one aspect of his belief system that the Catholic worldview better explains. Then, be open to answering future questions the person will hopefully have in his search for truth.
[i] Todd Compton. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. (Signature Books, 1997).
[ii] This is now referred to as “Declaration One” and is available online at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/od/1?lang=eng
[iii] Book 1 for Stake Presidents and Bishops, Section 3.6.1 “Sealing of Living Members after a Spouse's Death” (2006) Page 85. Posted online at http://stakepresident.blogspot.com/2011/02/should-i-marry-her-heart-wrentching.html
[iv] Sometimes John 1:18 is translated “only begotten” but the Greek word monogenes as it is used in this passage is better translated “one of a kind” or "one and only." The root word “genes” does not come from the Greek word gennao (or beget) but from the word genos which means “kind.” Even though it is correct to say Jesus is begotten, it is important to emphasize that Jesus is literally the “only kind” of God’s sons.