In previous articles I have tried to present an unbiased review of the fundamental beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, “Mormons”). In this essay I will present my argument that the LDS Church, meaning the Church in its broadest social and doctrinal sense, has more in common with the mystery cults of Classic Greece and the gnostic sects of early Christianity than with contemporary “mainstream” Christianity.
Mystery cults, all of which claimed to possess “secret” or “sacred” knowledge that was available only to those who had been properly initiated, reached the heights of their popularity in the Greco-Roman world. Characteristic of these cults was a reliance on an elaborate set of “code words” that would be known only to an initiate, “secret handshakes” or similar gestures, and a sacred oath of secrecy whose violation was punishable by death.
The “secret rituals” practiced within LDS Temples by Mormons of good standing are no longer “secret” since they have been described to non-Mormons (the “gentiles”). These rituals are discussed in exhaustive detail on other websites and will not be considered here except to note several similarities.
As in the mystery cults, LDS Temple rites are secret (at least in theory). Participation in the Temple rites is restricted to LDS members (“initiates”) only and involves elaborate, symbolic rituals which re-enact key points of LDS theology and doctrine (“secret” and “sacred” knowledge), particularly those doctrines that are unique to LDS theology and worship practices
Turning to the similarities between the LDS and first century Christian Churches, I begin by noting that gnostic Christianity was well-established, particularly in Egypt and the more remote sections of Asia Minor by the middles of the second century CE. These gnostic sects claimed that Jesus of Nazareth had left behind two bodies of teachings, one group of teachings for the Church members as a whole (public knowledge) and a separate body of teachings (“secret” or “cultic” wisdom) that could only to be revealed to initiates of the cult itself. To “enhance” their arguments, some gnostics went so far as to “rewrite” portions of the then-existing gospels to make them more compatible with gnostic beliefs or, failing that, write their own gnostic gospels (e.g. Gospel of Judas, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or Gospel of Mary).
The similarities between LDS doctrines and worship and historic gnostic Christianity are even more striking than those previously discussed in relation to the mystery cults. While I am sure that such similarities are coincidental, not even the most devoted of LDS supporters can deny that these similarities do indeed exist, particularly the fact that the LDS teaches that only it has the “complete” teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the above discussion, note that I have advanced no arguments regarding whether or not LDS doctrines and beliefs fall within the definitions set by “orthodox” Christianity. Even though I am a non-practicing Christian, I still heed the admonition by Jesus of Nazareth that I “judge not” lest others might feel some obligation to judge me. Based on the stridency of the many claims, counterclaims, justifications, and condemnations advanced by both mainstream Christianity and the LDS Church, might I remind both sides of the issue that “constructive dialog” is accomplished by rational discussion rather than by the exchange of insults?