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I Believe! The Origin of “Strange” Mormon Beliefs

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.

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13 Responses to “I Believe! The Origin of “Strange” Mormon Beliefs”
  1. [...] big problem of explaining death but also to make sense of early Mormonism for outsiders. In this post on the Oxford UP blog, I contextualize two of the beliefs currently circulating in the [...]

  2. Murdock says:

    OK, I give up. I am Mormon, but admit that I do not know who is the top women’s historian in the nation. So, who is it? You had better not say Claudia Bushman.

    I have way too many books to read but, I was so impressed by the quality of this blog post, that I am going to buy the book. I guess I have been successfully marketed.

  3. Ben P says:

    Murdock: I believe he is referring to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

  4. Samuel Brown says:

    The top women’s historian is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurel_Thatcher_Ulrich is a reasonable place to start. She’s a Pullitzer-winning university professor at Harvard and internationally renowned for her work on social history, women’s history, and material history. Her forthcoming book, her first scholarly work on Mormonism per se, will be wonderful. Incidentally, Claudia Lauper Bushman is also a wonderful women’s historian of great skill and stature. Her Contemporary Mormonism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) is well-worth the read.

    Thanks for your kind words.

  5. Jeff Johnson says:

    This last paragraph: “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.”

    basically describes how the beliefs of every religion came into being. There is nothing in this unique to Mormonism. It’s a good description of why we can regard religions as early attempts to do scientific inquiry in an absence of information and knowledge. Human story telling and imagination filled in where empirical knowledge of reality was lacking.

  6. William says:

    “…wondering how on earth Mormons could be so incredulous.”

    I think you meant to say ‘credulous’ (or perhaps incredible). ;-)

  7. Rick says:

    I always hear about he magical underwear when people talk about Mormons yet I never even thought to liken it to holy water.

  8. Miranda says:

    This was very interesting, particularly in terms of the connections between specific Mormon beliefs and early modern thought. I’m not Mormon, but I’m interested in the diversity of religion.

    One small quibble: I believe you mean “credulous,” rather than “incredulous.”

  9. Having read quite a bit on the Mormons (being born in Omaha near the Mormon
    Trail) I would say the Mormon ‘problem’ isn’t one of weird ritual, belief or garments. They obviously made very bad neighbors. I can’t imagine how badly they must have acted to literally get run out of Missouri back in a time when your closest ‘neighbor’ was likely miles away!! At the end of the day, it’s exactly why they are now in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have any particular animus toward the Mormons. Their religion is as goofy or as sacred (your pick) as any other. I expect it is the practice of their religion that ran them afoul of more normative society. Having religious dictates against coffee, tea and soft drinks makes as much sense as a biblical ban on seafood (who follows that old crap anymore?). Enjoy.

  10. Alice says:

    Thank you for the credulous/incredulous catch. The editor has been ordered to re-read the dictionary.

  11. Joseph King says:

    Just because their nonsense can be compared to other religion’s nonsense doesn’t make them any more legitimate.

  12. Dr Neeley says:

    @The Tim Channel
    If you look back at the causes of mormon exile, the main problem probably arose because the LDS church decide to consolidate all it’s members in one location; first Kirkland, then Missouri, and finally Nauvoo before SLC. Imagine living in an area and then suddenly you have a new group of people with a different world view than you move in by the THOUSANDS. They were worried about what Mormon judges, sheriffs, and elected officials would do to their way of life.

  13. [...] There is much that is beautiful in us, in our church, in our religion. We care for each other and for the stricken with prodigious efficiency and enthusiasm; we generally take our religion and its obligations seriously; we support a coherence of community that is difficult to rival in the modern world. We are preoccupied with Christ, even if many traditional Christians reject our theology as heresy. Recognizing and celebrating all these strengths, we best honor the truth of our religion and our church when we allow just criticism to help us to improve, continuously. 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. Read his previous post “I Believe! The Origin of ‘Strange’ Mormon Beliefs.” [...]

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