by Samuel Brown
The charismatic Elder Price of Broadway’s Book of Mormon musical famously and energetically sings “I Believe!” in a boisterous catechism of odd Mormon beliefs. But Elder Price is only one voice in a chorus broadcasting Mormonism’s strangest doctrines. While the Mormons portrayed in the musical are presented as basically good if generally deluded, many discussions of the Mormon tradition emphasize the utter absurdity of their beliefs. The average reader is left wondering how on earth Mormons could be so credulous. In context, though, these caricatured beliefs make a certain kind of sense.
There are two general points that need to be made before discussing any relevant context for specific beliefs, though. First, Mormon belief is as diverse as that of any other religious tradition. Mormons include dogmatic fundamentalists and believers not unlike mainline Protestants, while large numbers of practicing Mormons hold few-to-none of the beliefs circulating in the media. Second, Mormonism began at the tail end of the early modern era, and we now look back at its history across a cultural chasm. Early Mormons sounded like many of their peers and predecessors in early America. Several traditional Mormon beliefs are fossils of a lost worldview at the same time as Mormons participate in modern American society. Anecdotally, Mormons currently boast the top women’s historian in the nation, a successful financier running for president, and a conspiracy theorist with a chalkboard selling gold on cable television. All are true to their Mormon roots and they signal the diversity of Mormon belief.
With those two caveats in mind, let’s consider two of the more distinctive beliefs attributed to modern Mormonism.
Humans will have their own planets in the afterlife, and God lives on one such planet named Kolob.
In the phrase of the Book of Mormon musical, Mormons “believe that God has a plan for me, and that plan includes me getting my own planet,” and “God lives on a planet called Kolob.” These phrases roughly approximate the beliefs of some, though far from all, Mormons even now. The context for these beliefs requires understanding the role of family and the significance of ancient views of the universe in early Mormonism.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith believed that the work of the universe was the creation of relationships, connections he framed within a notion of the family that encompassed all of humanity, indeed the entire cosmos. Ancient ideas about parallels between the structure of the universe and human existence heavily influenced Smith’s views. Smith and his followers understood celestial bodies as participating in a kind of family relationship parallel to that of humans. Family relationships, especially those between parent and child, were central to the Mormon worldview, and Mormons saw the relationship between God and Jesus as parental (they strongly rejected the traditional Trinitarian view of God dominant within Christianity). Mormons therefore believed that the basic meaning of life was to parent. After Smith’s death, several of his closest followers tried to imagine what it would mean to (a) be like God and Christ, and (b) parent in heaven. They imagined that they would participate in creation the way God and Christ had. It seemed logical that their participation could potentially result in the creation of new planets.
In Smith’s cosmic family of celestial bodies, Kolob (probably a minor variant of kokab, the Hebrew word for star) was understood to be the star closest to the actual location of heaven. Though relatively few Americans would endorse an actual physical heaven now, it wasn’t so uncommon when Mormonism arose and reflects in part the concrete way early Mormons read the Bible. If God truly existed, they thought, wouldn’t it be possible to encounter him in a literal heaven somewhere in the heavens?
Mormons wear magic underwear
Smith told his followers that the way to establish the family relationships that could interconnect all humanity was through special rituals that took place in buildings called temples. The Mormon temple liturgy contains various rites that think through what it means to be human and to create. As part of the temple system, Mormons acquire sacred undergarments, essentially an undershirt and boxer shorts. Mormon “garments” draw on images and themes from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and Masonry, much as the temple liturgy does. These garments recall, respectively, the clothing of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Old Testament priestly robes, Jesus’ burial shroud, and the robes of angels. By wearing this clothing Mormons affirm their commitment to Mormonism, their connections to all humanity and their new life in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Academics also see this clothing as a marker of cultural difference–a way to remind Mormons that they are indeed Mormons, a tool to resist the influence of outsiders. Something as richly symbolic as this garment would almost certainly be seen by some as having special power; various Mormons over the years (including hotel magnate Willard Marriott on “60 Minutes” in 1996) have made impressively literal claims about the power of these garments. Such beliefs are not much different from folk Catholic beliefs about the power of holy water or saintly relics, or modern American beliefs about the power of pomegranate juice, antioxidants, or St. John’s wort.
In historical context, some of the early Mormon beliefs that have persisted into portions of modern Mormonism are primarily concerned with puzzling through the meaning of life, our integration into the universe, the persistence and scope of human relationships. Though at times these beliefs bear a more antique flavor than many contemporary observers would favor, the Mormon tradition vigorously attempts to make sense of the world. In some respects these Mormon beliefs recall, in idiosyncratic specificity, the visceral stirrings of awe that strike many of us at some point when we stare into the night sky and wonder how we could possibly fit into the universe.
Samuel Brown is Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Utah/Intermountain Medical Center and the author of In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. He is also the translator of Aleksandr Men’s Son of Man.