Church Planting 101 — Thoughts on the Mormons

By Eric Stetson — May 2008, updated November 2020

(Note: The first part of this article was originally published in The Christian Universalist Connection newsletter.)

Recently I received a knock on my door from two clean-cut young men in starched shirts and ties, peddling their religion. They were Mormons. I struck up a conversation with them about some of the similarities between Mormonism and Christian Universalism. For example, did you know that Mormons believe that almost nobody will suffer in hell forever? Virtually everyone will be redeemed. Sinners and nonbelievers can hear the Gospel after death and be saved, which is why Mormons practice the baptism on behalf of the dead described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29. They also believe that all people were created in God’s own image, fell from perfection, and someday can become glorified and deified just like Christ. Unfortunately, Mormonism is also saddled with a founding book (The Book of Mormon) that is historical fiction and a prophet (Joseph Smith) who practiced and promoted polygamy less than 200 years ago. Despite these severe doctrinal and image problems, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fastest growing religious denomination in the world!

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the Mormons. A denomination that has some strong theological similarities to Christian Universalism constantly gains tremendous numbers of converts, regardless of the fact that most people instinctively know the Book of Mormon is fictional. I think there are two reasons for this: First, because post-mortem salvation for those not saved in this life and the divinization of the human soul are awesome beliefs that are very attractive to many people. Second, the LDS Church is well-organized and its members actually care about spreading their beliefs, starting new churches, etc. They are not the kind of “lukewarm” believers that Christ says he will “spit out of [his] mouth” (Rev. 3:16).

Mormonism and the Universal Church of the Restoration

(Added on November 29, 2020.)

For Latter-day Saints and anyone else interested, I would like to share some thoughts about the LDS influence on the new church I am founding.

I was exposed to Mormonism from an early age, because I had a great-aunt and uncle who were devout members of the LDS Church. When I became a Christian Universalist in the early 2000s and started reevaluating my entire theological belief system, it didn’t take me long to realize that some of the most controversial Mormon beliefs — such as the plurality of God, Heavenly Mother, Christ as our Elder Brother, preexistence of souls, human deification, baptism for the dead and post-mortem salvation, and degrees of glory rather than a binary heaven or hell — are more Biblically correct than mainstream Christianity. Theologically, I was quite sympathetic to Mormonism. However, I didn’t consider joining the LDS Church, because I didn’t believe in the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, nor did I believe in all the doctrines and policies of the religion — and furthermore, I found Joseph Smith’s rampant polygamous sex life to be disturbingly similar to modern cult leaders such as David Koresh.

When Donald Trump ran for president of the United States in 2016, Mormons were the only large group of conservative Christians who resisted the temptation of ill-gotten political power and refused to support such a grossly immoral candidate or were seriously reluctant to do so. This got my attention and caused my respect for the Latter-day Saints and my interest in their faith to grow, while my respect for Evangelicals reached a new low.

LDS temple in Salt Lake City
LDS temple in Salt Lake City, April 2018.

In 2018, I visited Salt Lake City on a road trip across the United States. It was the first time I had ever been there. I made a point of going to Temple Square, and was very impressed with the LDS temple and grounds and the exhibits about the history and teachings of the church. I envied the strong sense of community, family values, and passionate commitment of the members. I wished that I could join such a church, but sadly I knew that I never could, because there were too many things I simply didn’t agree with.

After returning home, I tried to put it out of my mind, but in the coming months I unexpectedly had some powerful dreams and spiritual experiences that caused me to keep thinking about Mormonism. I began to read the Book of Mormon — the first time I had ever really gotten deeply into it — and was impressed with its literary quality. I also found some of its stories to be inspiring and containing much wisdom, and began to think of it as something of an “inspired mythology,” much like the way I think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium (The Lord of the Rings and associated works), which I consider to be among the greatest non-Biblical literature. I think it would be fair to classify the BoM as modern apocrypha, alongside the ancient non-canonical texts of interest in the Christian tradition.

The thing about apocrypha, though, is that they are not part of the scriptural canon for a reason. Often the reason is because they are considered to be more likely fictional than literally true. Basing a denomination on such a text presents a stumbling block for Christians with intellectual integrity. By requiring its members to believe in the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church undermines its credibility and thus prevents its own superior theology from spreading into Christianity as a whole.

The tragedy of it is that the BoM is not even necessary. Whether or not some ancient Hebrews sailed across the ocean to America and became the ancestors of some Native Americans is irrelevant to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All of the important Gospel principles that need to be restored to Christianity can be supported from the Bible itself, without using any apocryphal texts. Read the dozens of articles I’ve written over the past 15 years which are published on this website to see what I mean.

All of the important Gospel principles that need to be restored to Christianity can be supported from the Bible itself.

Anyway, in the spring of 2019 I had the opportunity to go to Utah again, on the way back East from a business trip to California. This time, I visited my Mormon cousins in St. George, then hied to Kolob — Kolob Canyon that is, for a hike in Zion National Park — and finally arrived again in Salt Lake City, where I made another visit to Temple Square. There were some interesting signs and synchronicities during my time in Utah that made it clear to me that God was pleased that I was continuing to engage with the Mormons.

Later that year, my spiritual experiences concerning Mormonism intensified. I became quite bothered by this, because I felt simultaneously attracted to the LDS Church and repulsed by it, and I couldn’t figure out why God kept poking and pinging me about it. For many years I had basically ignored this denomination of Christianity, even though I knew that there was considerable overlap between their beliefs and mine. Now, I found that for whatever reason I was unable to continue ignoring it, because God wanted to keep it front and center in my mind.

As a person with a strong sense of moral, spiritual, and intellectual integrity, I could not actually join the LDS Church, and I said so to God in prayer. I also told my cousin, whose valiant and loving efforts to convert me were unsuccessful, although I have to admit I was tempted. There are various reasons why joining was not an option for me, including those I have already mentioned, but perhaps most importantly, the fact that I reject the denomination’s exclusive claim to be the one true restored church of Jesus Christ; also that I reject as un-Biblical and unreasonable its claim that temple ordinances or rituals are necessary for the exaltation of the soul; and that I consider the prohibition of women in the LDS priesthood as unjust and hypocritical, especially given the church’s acceptance of the Divine Feminine.

Let’s be honest, any denomination that only began allowing black people to serve equally in ministry since 1978, and which still does not allow women to do so in 2020 — even though various other denominations have been much quicker to make progress on these important issues of equality among believers — is not likely to be God’s specially chosen church that is the greatest recipient of prophecy and revelation from the Holy Spirit in this day and age. Having said that, on many points of theology the LDS Church is still more advanced than a lot of the other Christian denominations that are stuck in the Reformation era and have not yet progressed to what I would call the Restoration era.

I received from God in prayer the assurance that They do not demand that I join any particular denomination. However, I believe God wanted me to make a serious study of Mormonism and learn from its strengths and positive features. Most Christians tend to disregard or mock the LDS Church, which is a mistake. It is actually one of the most significant traditions and institutions in Christendom.

But the Restoration continues. It didn’t stop with the LDS Church, nor was that denomination the only one that has received important divine revelations in the last two centuries. In the Pentecostal tradition, for example, much of the same theology that emerged from the LDS also emerged independently in what was called the Latter Rain movement in the second half of the 20th century. The reemergent Christian Universalist movement and other forms of progressive Christianity have also been listening for God’s voice in recent decades and are increasingly exploring similar ideas. In March 2020, I had a compelling visionary experience and felt called to start a new ministry on the leading edge of Restorationist Christianity, an inclusive and forward-looking religious community called the Universal Church of the Restoration.

The Restoration continues. It didn’t stop with the LDS Church, nor was that denomination the only one that has received important divine revelations in the last two centuries.

On one point in particular I would like to say a few words, and that is about our Heavenly Mother. She doesn’t want to remain veiled any longer. That much was made explicitly clear to me in my own conversations with God this year. In fact, I believe She is going to play a major role in what’s coming next for Christianity and for religion in general in the 21st century and beyond. In this vein, the eternal bride of Christ in the heavenly realm, whom we might call our Elder Sister, is another enigmatic figure who wants to be discovered, manifesting the attributes of Heavenly Mother much as Christ reveals the character of the Father.

Do hierarchical church leaders here on earth really think they can prevent these exalted beings from becoming more widely known and loved and revered? The LDS Church wants to relegate them to the background and most other denominations prefer to deny their existence completely, but I don’t think that is God’s plan. The theology of the Restoration has implications. Those implications will continue to be developed and expounded. And it is going to revolutionize Christianity as the process continues.

The LDS Church reintroduced the concept of humans as the literal children of God. That is the key teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the first domino to fall in the Restoration, setting off a chain reaction of other teachings that proceed logically from the core concept of Divine Family. The Universal Church of the Restoration embraces it fully — no holding back, no attempting to look more “mainstream” (i.e. pre-Restorationist) than God is calling for today, and no hypocritical discrimination based on gender or outdated legalism.

I would urge Mormons today to consider that debates about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the character of Joseph Smith are simply irrelevant to what needs to happen next in human spiritual and social evolution. The LDS Church has serious baggage it is stuck with, preventing it from taking the leading role in the future progress of Christianity. If you see this, then I hope you will join the Universal Church of the Restoration.

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