Given these dual allegiances, it is not surprising that my attention was caught by an issue that others didn't notice at the recently concluded General Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was an agenda item calling for delegates to decide how to handle situations in which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want to join the United Methodists.
The Mormon question is of much less interest to a majority of the people filling Methodist pews at the beginning of the 21st century than how church law ought to deal with homosexuality. But for two reasons, one practical and the other more complicated, the outcome of the Mormon question was a matter of much concern to me.
The practical reason was straightforward. As a student of modern Mormonism, I knew that those who hold LDS priesthood authority have clear instructions that turning Methodists (and other Christians) into Saints calls for teaching such candidates the so-called six missionary lessons and then re-baptizing them, even if they have already been baptized. At the same time, I knew that the members of many Protestant groups, including my own, lacked clear instructions about what to do when the tables are turned.
I first recognized why Methodists needed guidelines for responding when Latter-day Saints indicated a desire to join the Methodist church when I was drafting a chapter on religion in Salt Lake City. I talked with Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic clergy in the Utah capital, as well as with a number of LDS bishops of Salt Lake City wards. From them, I learned about the "circulation of the Saints" in this Mormon metropolis.
Because more members are annually added to the LDS Church through conversion than through natural increase, I did not find it particularly remarkable when the LDS bishops told me that maybe a third of the Saints in their wards were former Protestants or Catholics. But I was startled to learn that the situation was reversed in many of the city's Protestant and Catholic congregations. I was told that precisely the same proportion--maybe a third--of the members in some of the city's non-Mormon congregations were former Latter-day Saints.
As informal as these findings were, they convinced me it would be helpful to my own church to figure out how to respond when a Mormon wishes to become a Methodist.
The more complicated reason for my concern was that there was so much contention over what the church ought to do regarding homosexuality that more conservative delegates than usual had been elected to the 2000 General Conference. I was afraid that this turn toward conservatism might cause my church to join the Southern Baptists in charging that Mormonism is "counterfeit Christianity." Had United Methodism gone in that direction, I would have been distressed, in part because such charges are mean-spirited and in part because they are simply wrong.
Throughout the 19th century, the "Mormon Problem" bedeviled the nation's churches and the national government. Consternation prevailed about what Saints believed, but their practice of polygamy was the main problem non-Mormons had with this religious movement. When the LDS Church ended polygamy at the end of the century, the nation's anxiety about the Latter-day Saints gradually disappeared. Instead of being seen as a threat to American religion, Mormonism became a somewhat provincial faith whose adherents didn't smoke, drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages, and "took care of their own."
But as LDS membership started to increase in the middle of the 20th century, and as Mormon chapels and temples started appearing practically everywhere, non-Mormons once again started taking notice. This time, however, the Mormon problem was not so much what Latter-day Saints did but what they believed.
In addition to a variety of books claiming to reveal the disturbing truth about Mormonism, two scary films made by ex-Mormons appeared in the 1980s. Describing Mormonism as a non-Christian cult, these graphic videos were featured in many conservative Protestant congregations. Then came the "Mormon Puzzle," which the Southern Baptists produced when they held their annual convention in Salt Lake City in 1998. This film carried the "counterfeit Christianity" message
In 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held their annual convention in Salt Lake City; while they did not produce a film or accuse Mormonism of being a cult, the matter of Mormonism's standing as a Christian church was one of the major agenda issues.
Methodists were the next mainstream Protestant body to confront the Mormon question. The outcome of what happened at the Conference pleases me. Most of the deliberations were carried on behind the scenes, and what the conference did was to accept guidelines clarifying the difference between Mormonism's Christian Restorationism and the Christian faith manifested in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy. and various Protestant denominations.
As part of the "historic apostolic tradition" of the Christian faith, we Methodists are convinced that the church of Jesus Christ has been on the earth continuously since it was established by the apostles in the days after Pentecost. The Saints think otherwise, believing a "Great Apostasy" occurred at the end of the Apostolic Era that led to the church's being removed from the earth for some 16 to 17 centuries. Their understanding is that the church was restored in 1830 through the agency of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.
This is only one of many points of disagreement: the Methodist conception of God is Trinitarian--that is, we believe in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and we believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
The Saints, on the other hand, have an entirely different understanding of deity, believing God and Jesus to be separate personages, each with body and parts. They believe that Jesus was literally sired by God and that he had a Mother in Heaven. Members of both groups are certain of the critical importance of the Atonement, but there are great differences in the Mormon and Methodist understandings of the implications of Christ's actions. Despite these differences, Methodists did no name-calling, recognizing instead that Mormons and Methodists are different kinds of Christians. This elevated the discussion of the Mormon question, moving it from argument to fair-minded disagreement. The operational result of what happened in our General Conference is that my church will now require the same sort of teachings and rituals to turn Saints into Methodists that the Latter-day Saints call for when Methodists become Mormon.
I hope this mutual recognition of difference will allow Methodism and Mormonism, like the wheat and the tares, to grow together until the harvest. If we allow that to happen, whether one of us is ultimately right and the other wrong can be settled by an authority that resides on a plane higher than the one inhabited by Methodists and Mormons in the here and now.