The Latter Day Saint movement (also called the LDS movement or LDS restorationist movement) is the collection of independent church groups that trace their origins to a Christian primitivist movement founded by Joseph Smith in the late 1820s. Collectively, these churches have over 15 million members. The vast majority of members belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), with their predominant theology being Mormonism. The LDS Church self-identifies as Christian. A minority of Latter Day Saint adherents, such as members of the Community of Christ, believe in traditional Protestant theology, and have distanced themselves from some of the distinctive doctrines of Mormonism. Other breakaway groups include the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which support lineal succession of leadership from Joseph Smith's descendants, and the more controversial Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who defend the practice of polygamy.
The movement began in western New York during the Second Great Awakening when Smith said that he received visions revealing a new sacred text, the Book of Mormon, which he published in 1830 as a complement to the Bible. Based on the teachings of this book and other revelations, Smith founded a Christian primitivist church, called the Church of Christ. The Book of Mormon brought hundreds of early followers, who later became known as "Mormons", "Latter Day Saints", or just "Saints." In 1831 Smith moved the church headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, and in 1834 changed its name to the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints."
After the church in Ohio collapsed by dissensions in 1838, Smith and the body of the church moved to Missouri, and later to Illinois. After the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, a succession crisis led to the organization splitting into several groups. The largest of these, the LDS Church, migrated under the leadership of Brigham Young to the Great Basin (now Utah) and became most prominently known for its 19th-century practice of polygamy. The LDS Church officially renounced this practice in 1890, and gradually discontinued it, resulting in the Utah Territory becoming a U.S. state. This change resulted in the formation of a number of small sects who sought to maintain polygamy and other 19th-century Mormon doctrines and practices, now referred to as Mormon fundamentalism.
Other groups originating within the Latter Day Saint movement followed different paths in Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. For the most part these groups rejected plural marriage and some of Smith's later teachings. The largest of these, the Community of Christ (originally known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), was formed in Illinois in 1860 by several groups uniting around Smith's son, Joseph Smith III. Most existing denominations that adhere to the teachings of Smith have some historical relationship with the movement.
The driving force behind and founder of the Latter Day Saint movement was Joseph Smith, Jr., and to a lesser extent, during the movement's first two years, Oliver Cowdery. Throughout his life, Smith told of an experience he had as a boy having seen God the Father and Jesus Christ as two separate beings, who told him that the true church had been lost and would be restored through him, and that he would be given the authority to organize and lead the true Church of Christ. Smith and Cowdery also explained that the angels John the Baptist, Peter, James and John visited them in 1829 and gave them authority to reestablish the Church of Christ.
The first Latter Day Saint church was formed in April 1830, consisting of a community of believers in the western New York towns of Fayette, Manchester, and Colesville. They called themselves the Church of Christ, and on April 6, 1830, the church formally organized into a legal institution under that name. By 1834, the church was being referred to as the Church of the Latter Day Saints in early church publications, and in 1838 Joseph Smith announced that he had received a revelation from God that officially changed the name to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In 1844, William Law and several other Latter Day Saints in church leadership positions publicly denounced Smith's secret practice of polygamy in the controversial Nauvoo Expositor, and formed their own church. The city council of Nauvoo, Illinois subsequently had the printing press of the Expositor destroyed. In spite of Smith's later offer to pay damages for destroyed property, critics of Smith and the church considered the destruction heavy-handed. Some called for the Latter Day Saints to be either expelled or destroyed.
Following Smith's assassination by a mob while in a Carthage, Illinois jail, several prominent members of the church claimed to be Smith's legitimate successor. These various claims resulted in a succession crisis, in which the majority of church members followed Brigham Young, he being the senior Apostle of the church; others followed Sidney Rigdon or James Strang. The crisis resulted in several permanent schisms as well as the formation of splinter groups, some of which no longer exist. These various groups are sometimes referred to under two geographical headings: "Prairie Saints" (those that remained in the Midwest United States) and "Rocky Mountain Saints" (those who followed Brigham Young to what would later become the state of Utah).
Today, there are many small schism organizations who regard themselves as a part of the Latter Day Saint movement, though in most cases they do not acknowledge the other branches as valid and regard their own tradition as the only correct and authorized version of the church Smith originally founded. The vast majority (over 98 percent) of Latter Day Saints belong to the largest denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) which reports 14 million members worldwide. The second-largest denomination is the Community of Christ, which reports over 250,000 members. There are also tens of thousands of adherents within small sects of Mormon fundamentalism. These sects separated from the LDS Church because they continue to practice plural marriage, which the LDS Church officially abandoned in 1890.
Saint-designation of members
Latter Day Saints adopt a definition of "saint" that all members of the church are considered "Saints". The term "latter day" distinguishes between biblical saints and modern saints who "live in the latter days".
The Latter Day Saint movement classifies itself within Christianity, but as a distinct restored dispensation. Latter Day Saints hold that a Great Apostasy began in Christianity not long after the ascension of Jesus Christ, marked with the corruption of Christian doctrine by Greek and other philosophies, and followers dividing into different ideological groups. Additionally, Latter Day Saints claim the martyrdom of the Apostles led to a loss of Priesthood authority to administer the church and its ordinances.
According to Latter Day Saint churches, the Lord re-established the early Christian church as found in the New Testament through Joseph Smith. In particular, Latter Day Saints believe that angels such as Peter, James, John, and John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and others and bestowed various Priesthood authorities on them. Thus, Smith and his successors are considered modern prophets who receive revelation from God to guide the church.
Most members of Latter Day Saint churches are adherents to Mormonism, a theology based on Joseph Smith's later teachings and further developed by Brigham Young, James Strang and others who claimed to be Smith's successors. The term Mormon derives from the Book of Mormon, and most of these adherents refer to themselves as Latter Day Saints or Mormons. Mormonism and Christianity have a complex theological, historical, and sociological relationship. Mormons express the doctrines of Mormonism using standard biblical terminology, and claim to have similar views about the nature of Jesus' atonement, bodily resurrection, and Second Coming as traditional Christianity. Nevertheless, Mormons agree with non-Mormons that their view of God is significantly different from the trinitarian view of the Nicene Creed of the 4th century.
Mormons consider the Bible as scripture (insofar as it is "translated correctly"), and have also adopted additional scriptures. Mormons not only practice baptism and celebrate the eucharist but also participate in religious rituals not practiced in traditional Christianity. Although the various branches of Christianity have diverse views about the nature of salvation, the Mormon view is particularly distinct.
Focusing on differences, some Christians consider Mormonism "non-Christian;" and Mormons, focusing on similarities, are offended at being so characterized. Mormons do not accept non-Mormon baptism nor do non-Mormon Christians usually accept Mormon baptism. Mormons regularly proselytize individuals actually or nominally within the Christian tradition, and some Christians, especially evangelicals, proselytize Mormons. A prominent scholarly view is that Mormonism is a form of Christianity, but is distinct enough from traditional Christianity so as to form a new religious tradition, much as Christianity is more than just a sect of Judaism.
The Mormonism that originated with Joseph Smith, Jr. in the 1820s shared strong similarities with some elements of 19th-century Protestant Christianity. However, beginning with his First Vision, (and then during the 1830s and 40s), Smith, who said that Christ had told him not to join any existing church, departed significantly from traditional Christianity, claiming all churches of his day were part of a Great Apostasy that had distorted or abandoned Biblical doctrinal truths. Mormonism does not characterize itself as a Protestant religion, as Smith taught that he had received revelation direct from Christ to restore His original church. Mormons believe that God, through Smith and his successors, restored these truths and doctrinal clarifications, and, initiating a new heavenly dispensation, restored the original Church and Christianity taught by Jesus. For example, Smith rejected the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity as of one body and substance, with no "body, parts, or passions," and instead taught that the Godhead included humankind's God, the Eternal Father, Elohim; His Only-Begotten Son in the Flesh, Jesus Christ, Jehovah, the Savior and Redeemer of the World; and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, an individual Personage of Spirit whose influence can be felt in all places at once. Further, that all humans are co-eternal with God and have the potential to become Gods themselves, being the offspring of Eternal Parentage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the largest Mormon denomination, while acknowledging its differences with mainstream Christianity, often focuses on its commonalities, which are many, the most important of which is that Christ is the savior of the world and that He suffered for our sins so that the penitent can return to live in heaven.
A small fraction of Latter Day Saints, most notably those within the Community of Christ, the second largest Latter Day Saint denomination, follow a traditional Protestant theology. The Community of Christ view God in trinitarian terms, and reject the distinctive theological developments they believe came later in Mormonism.
- "Dissent and Schism in the Early Church: Explaining Mormon Fissiparousness", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 28, no. 3 (Fall 1993) pp. 15–39.
- Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration: A History of the Latter Day Saint Movement Los Angeles: 1990.