BUIES CREEK - With seven million followers, it’s the fourth-largest religious denomination in United States. It’s the subject of one of the hottest musicals on Broadway. And perhaps its most famous member today is currently running for president of the United States.
So it’s of little surprise that Monday’s World Religions and Global Cultures Center seminar on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormonism drew a big crowd at Campbell University’s Butler Chapel. Dr. George Braswell, senior professor of world religions at Campbell, led the morning program and moderated an after-lunch panel discussion featuring Mormon leaders from across the state.
“Why today? Why on a Monday in September are we gathered to talk about Mormonism?” Braswell asked the few hundred in attendance. “It’s because there are 50,000 missionaries out there knocking on your doors … there’s a presidential candidate from this church, and the mass media is working hard to understand what this church is all about … it’s because there are 140 Mormon temples in the world that only about half of all Mormons are even allowed in.”
Discussing, debating and learning other religions is what the World Religions and Global Cultures Center is all about, Braswell said. The center’s three basic functions are helping churches understand their religious neighbors, researching and communicating the Gospel and training people to share their knowledge of other religions with people within their church.
Following that outline, Braswell began Monday by sharing a condensed version of the history of LDS.
“It’s a great history,” said Braswell, a Southern Baptist who is also a leading expert on Islam who served six years on the faculty of Islamic theology at the University of Tehran in Iran. “It’s a history of courage and of adversity and persecution. It’s a noble history.”
The largest religion ever created in the United States, Mormonism originated in the 1820s from founder Joseph Smith Jr., who wrote the Book of Mormon by dictating over three months an ancient language written on golden plates he said he found buried on a hill in western New York. The church was formally organized in 1830, and Smith was seen by his followers as a modern-day prophet.
The largest group of Mormons, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were followers of a new leader named Brigham Young, who settled in what is now Utah in 1847 three years after Smith was killed by an angry mob in Illinois. Since Day 1, Mormons have considered their faith to be a restoration of Christianity, though it does differ from other Christian denominations in several areas.
Braswell said Mormon beliefs on salvation and “marriage for eternity” are but a few major differences. The secrecy of Mormon temples, which differ from churches, have contributed to the misunderstandings and general lack of knowledge of the faith, he said.
“Unlike Baptists and Catholics, Mormon priests are not ordained [based on education, experience or other standards other than age or “personal moral worthiness],” Braswell said. “And there are no divinity schools like we have … they’re all lay-persons. But look at what they’ve done. It’s one of the fastest-growing religions in the country. It’s amazing to me.”
Speakers at Monday’s panel discussion included Steven Bodhaine, who serves on the North American Southeast Area public affairs committee for LDS; Tracey mcKoy, LDS public affairs director in Fayetteville; and Dr. Marc Bernhisel, president of the Raleigh, N.C. mission of LDS. Kim Whitted, a Campbell student who received a teaching certificate on Mormonism from the World Religions and Global Cultures Center, also spoke of her experiences at three LDS churches.
Story and photo by Billy Liggett