Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Stuff Mormons Believe

Many years ago a woman in my ward asked me to explain the theology of the Left Behind series to her. She had heard about the books’ phenomenal popularity and wanted to be sure she understood what they were teaching about the end times – that some Christians would be spared the tribulation by being “raptured” to heaven before the anti-Christ unleashed seven crappy years of terror. I sketched this out for her and also touched on the mark of the beast, the battle of Armageddon, and the long awaited glorious appearing.


Her eyes got ever wider. “I just can’t get over the fact that people actually believe this stuff!” she exclaimed.


I’ve thought about this comment quite a bit over the years, and wish I had told her what I was thinking at that time: Mormons think evangelical theology is weird?

In our case, it’s not just that we believe (often literally) the miraculous tenets of a shared Christian faith: a virgin birth, a resurrection from the dead, a world-crushing flood. It’s that we’ve taken this corpus and added to it as only Mormons can.

Some of our own eschatological beliefs that are still on the books include:

  • That a literal Adam and Eve inhabited and then were exiled from the Garden of Eden that was located not in some distant mythic place but in prosaic Jackson County, Missouri, which is close enough to Branson to catch a show;
  • That after you’ve watched the show, you’ll be well placed for the apocalypse, because Jackson County will also be the exact site of Jesus’ return;
  • That in the millennium, all things will be restored, including the seven continents being reunited to the single über-continent they are thought to have been before that pesky continental drift;
  • That polygamy, while not practiced on earth at the moment, is God’s will and may well be the order of heaven;
  • That we have a real-life, Old Testament style prophet walking the earth today, except he wears business suits instead of loincloths. He will guide us through the latter days.

Of these purported Mormon beliefs, I adhere to precisely one, and you can probably guess which one it is. Let’s just say I don’t plan to buy up property in Jackson County anytime soon.


I’ve been asked to lead a workshop in May on “the things I didn’t used to know about Mormonism” – in other words, those beliefs that someone mentioned offhandedly one day in Gospel Doctrine class, assuming that everyone else already knew about them. That is how I learned what “calling and election made sure” means, and that Mormons have fixed April 6 as Jesus’ birthday. In other words, it will be a workshop about the things that make converts and outsiders go, “Huh?”

The idea of the session is to give people a safe place in which to say, “And then I found out that I’m screwed forever if my husband forgets my temple name at the veil!” or “I never knew that we believed murderers won’t be able to attain the Celestial Kingdom even after they repent. I’m just not sure that’s what Jesus would say.” And the safety of this workshop will extend to participants being able to voice their disagreement or agreement with the beliefs they’ve highlighted.


I sometimes wish that the LDS Church provided a stronger sense of what Catholics call de fide, or “of the faith.” These are the beliefs that are absolutely central to the faith, without which you cannot consider yourself Catholic. For a Catholic, de fide means that you have to believe that the pope is holy, but you don’t necessarily have to believe that Saint Hedwig of Silesia levitated when she glimpsed the Eucharist. (That’s an awesome story, however.)

In Mormonism, the closest thing we have to de fide is the temple recommend interview, a very useful back-to-basics outline of core LDS beliefs and practices. If that’s our guideline, then if I believe in the tenets outlined there and submit to the accountability necessitated by those spiritual practices, then I need to work out the secondary and tertiary issues for myself.

I will take that to mean I’m free to disagree that Adam and Eve were literal people — let alone literal proto-Missourians.

  • N.

    BTW, the Garden of Eden=Jackson County and return location things are persistent and hard-to-kill folklore, and I’ve *never* heard about the continent thing.
    This continues to chap my hide: the number of things that (we) mormons think are “doctrine” because “someone once said it, and someone then believed it” without any other thought to it. I have a list as long as my arm about Mormon folk beliefs that can’t be found anywhere authoritative or official.

  • Omamel

    I am smiling at your list. I have heard all of those things many times over the years. Part of my problem with the temple recommend interview is that pesky question about believing certain people are prophets, seers, and revelators. Does that mean if they were serving as prophet but are now dead that we don’t support them and believe what they were taught or do we support the entire group of men (another problem) that have ever served in the capacities covered by that question and it’s follow-up? I must admit those are very small in comparison to other issues I have. I like your thinking and the concept of the workshop you will be teaching.

  • ricke

    I am not sure how you will handle the topic of “what Mormons believe,” because Mormons believe different things, even at different points in their lives. I believed many of the things you listed at some point, but I am much less sure of them now. Similarly, you could find even weirder beliefs held by some Mormons. So will your topic cover the beliefs of 1) all Mormons, 2) some Mormons, 3) a few Mormons, or what?

  • Paul Tuttle

    I, for one, am having trouble guessing which eschatalogical belief is valid for you, even after reading the list a few times. But then I’ve never been accused of being overly bright, and I probably haven’t been reading your posts long enough…

  • Paul

    My guess is your accepted belief is the one about prophets, as that is the one mentioned in the temple recommend interview. Don’t know about the loincloth, though; I think that manner of sartorial adornment was not common in areas where the Hebrew Bible was written.

  • Jana Riess

    Paul, you’re right about which accepted belief is mine, though the continental stuff has a certain appeal for my Inner Organizer. Really, what’s with all the clutter of having seven continents? They need to all be gathered together in a single bin labeled “Continent(s)” so everyone knows where to find them should the need arise. BTW, the loincloth thing was a joke.
    And Ricke, the workshop can be whatever the participants want it to be, so we will start by differentiating between “core” and “fringe” beliefs and then move from there.

  • Murdock

    Dr. Riess
    Now that you have pointed it out, I realize that the temple recommend interview questions could be a great answer to the question “just exactly what do you believe anyway”? Of course, it does not say anything about keeping the Sabbath, wearing garments, family history research, baptism for the dead and other vicarious ordinances, which all reflect core/essential beliefs and which all provoke benign curiosity. Also, if there were no Great Apostasy, then there would be no Restoration, although maybe that is all subsumed by belief in Joseph’s prophecy. Do the foregoing make your cut of “primary ” beliefs?
    Based upon your annotations to your selections from the Book of Mormon, not to mention the text itself, I am surprised that you listed polygamy “is” (present tense) the will of God as even a “purported” belief. The Church stresses just the opposite. There was (past tense) a time for raising up seed, but it is not the case now.
    When and where is this workshop? Your comment about Adam and Eve not being literal people leaves me a little queasy because I feel a slight, nagging guilt for thinking that it is physically/scientifically impossible.

  • Kevin

    @Murdock: The temple recommend interview does ask whether the member wears “the garment” day and night as taught in the temple. As for not asking about family history research or vicarious ordinances, interesting point. The temple recommend interview really doesn’t ask the member about his/her beliefs about what actually goes on in the temple.
    But then, maybe they figure you wouldn’t go if you didn’t believe it or think it was important. There are plenty of us with recommends who don’t get there very often…maybe it’s not as strongly part of our “primary” beliefs as we think it is?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment MC

    You might want to read D&C Section 133 for “the continent thing”. If we’re going to believe that the Son of God was made flesh and paid for the sins of mankind, is having the continents come back together such a stretch?

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  • April

    I never decided whether I believed the uber-continent thing, but I certainly never hoped that was true. Why would it be desirable to eliminate most of the earth’s beachfront property in order to squish the continents together? Does God hate surfers?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Coura

    Just reading through your list, and while I’ve heard of most of this I never hear of ‘pangea’ either. I even read D&C 133 like someone suggested. The ‘description’ says the continents will become ‘one land’, the scriptures say the scriptures will be preached to all lands in all tongues… meaning ‘one land’ would be more accurately said “one nation”? Because unless you’re only reading the headers and skipping the rest it certainly doesn’t read as ‘one continent’. I wouldn’t have issue with it too much, since Paradisical Glory can be stretched if you believe it was one continent during Adam and Eve… but really.

    Touch on the Lost City of Enoch, I think it is. I’ve heard some far out tales about that that some believe. Or where exactly ARE the lost 10 tribe? (Could they have gone into space? After all, if God knows how to do all things then the instructions could have been given…) UFO sightings related to that? D&C 77:3-4 gives some interesting insight into aliens… (always a fun thing to tell my dad when he starts bothering me about aliens, he’s a big believer in them and tends to not quite believe the church supports belief in non-human aliens…)

    Anyway, what happened to the good old 13 Articles of Faith? Or the book I got for friends who kept asking “What We Believe”? That covers it. Most everything else is more… conjecture.

    Anyway, Christ will judge in Missouri, not return to Missouri. Big difference (especially when you consider that most Christians believe the day of Judgment is right after you die and here we believe there’s 2, one at the beginning of the Millenium and the other at the end of it.) Also big difference about Kolob, we don’t believe God lives there, that’s never been a belief. That’s the star closest to where we believe God lives. Again, big difference. 😛

    Have fun. I think you have my email now, you can always email me for references. But if there’s one lesson I learned from my parents and the priesthood being restored to all men, don’t listen to people saying “I think we believe this” unless you can back it up.

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