In commencing the Olivet Discourse, Jesus provides a premonitory prophecy regarding the inevitable rise of false prophets/teachers (Matthew 24:3-5, 23-28). Similarly, in anticipation of his imminent martyrdom, Peter writes a final letter warning about false teachers and exhorting believers to remain vigilant. In concluding his letter, Peter writes, “Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability.”1 These admonitions are not anomalous, as the Bible addresses the issue of false prophets/teachers no less than 65 times.2 Accordingly, the Christian must remain observant, diligently studying the Scriptures to identify and avoid heretical teachings.3 This brief article will define the difference between historic Christianity and modern cults in America while demonstrating why Mormonism receive classification as a cult rather than a Christian denomination.
Characteristics of a Christian Cult
Differentiating between a false religion and a Christian Cult is an essential first step in this inquiry. There exists a passel of religious systems throughout the world, each making truth-claims concerning external reality. A religion is objectively false if any of its fundamental beliefs fail to correspond with reality. A Christian cult differs in that the group of iconoclasts leverages Christianity to gain legitimacy—claiming to be a denomination of the Christian faith—while simultaneously denying one or more fundamental doctrines.4 Consequently, all Christian cults are false religions, but not all false religions are cults—since many do not classify themselves as a Christian denomination.
To identify a cult, one must first define the essential doctrines of Christianity. Essential Christian doctrines include:
2. Vicarious Satisfaction (Atonement) and Salvation by Grace (cf., 1 Pet. 2:24, 2 Cor. 5:21, Rom. 4:25, 1 John 2:2, 4:10; John 11:25-26; 14:6; Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 2:21, 5:4; Rom. 3:20; 4:1-11; 10:1-13).
3. Monotheism and the Doctrine of the Trinity (cf., Deut. 4:35; 6:4; Exodus 20:3-6; Neh. 9:6; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6, 8; 3:16-17; 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6).
4. The Bodily Resurrection of Christ (cf., 1 Cor. 15:14-17; John 2:19-21, 20:19-20; Luke 24:38-39; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:20-23, 51-55).
5. The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (cf., 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).5
While there are many important doctrines within Christianity, these beliefs provide the essential basis of historic Christianity and all legitimate denominations will affirm these indispensable declarations. Religious groups identifying themselves as “Christian,” while simultaneously denying one or more of these core doctrines—either implicitly or explicitly—receive classification as a cult.
Mormonism Denies Monotheism and the Trinity
Based upon the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism denies monotheism, embracing a polytheistic worldview. In a sermon given on April 07, 1844, Mr. Smith states,
I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of a being God is… God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret… We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.6
Using this framework, Smith goes on to explain that faithful Mormons are capable of becoming divine beings, elucidating the process by employing the simile of climbing a ladder. As gods receive a promotion to higher exaltation (moving up the ladder), another god moves up to take his place.7 Therefore, humans have begun at the bottom of the ladder, but are capable of climbing the proverbial ladder, eventually becoming gods themselves. Mormon President Orson Hyde reinforces this concept, stating, “Remember that God, our heavenly Father, was perhaps once a child, and mortal like we ourselves, and rose step by step in the scale of progress, in the school of advancement; has moved forward and overcome, until He has arrived at the point where He now is.”8
Since the Mormon god is an exalted human—operating within a polytheistic system—Mormon leaders adamantly deny an ex nihilo creation of the universe, as detailed in the book of Genesis. Regarding creation, Smith comments, “In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it… Now, I ask all who hear me, why the learned men who are preaching salvation, say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing? The reason is that they are unlearned in the things of God, and have not the gift of the Holy Ghost…”9 In this statement, Smith rejects the orthodox Christian view of monotheism, accepting polytheism instead, thereby fundamentally differentiating Mormonism from a Christian denomination.
Inherent in this theological viewpoint, is a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity; for if the Mormon god is an exalted man, and Jesus is merely another exalted individual, they are two distinct entities (in both personage and nature). Rejection of the Trinity is not merely an implication of Mormon theology; Smith explicitly rejects the notion remarking,
I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods… Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God! I say that is a strange God anyhow—three in one, and one in three! …All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster.10
Smith presents an explicit denial of monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity, both of which serve as foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.11 As such, it is baseless to classify Mormonism as a Christian denomination.
In conclusion, a Christian cult is a religious group claiming Christian affiliation, while denying any fundamental doctrine of historic Christianity. Mormons claim their religious system is a denomination of Christianity, while simultaneously denying essential doctrines of the Christian faith. While brevity excludes comprehensive analysis of fundamental principles within the Mormon religion, it is evident that Mormonism rejects both monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, Mormonism embodies a modern cult in America, not a Christian denomination.
- All Scriptural references are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, unless noted otherwise.
- Cf., Matt. 7:15-20; 15:1-20; 16:5-12; 24:3-5, 23-28; Gal. 1:6-10; 2:1-10; 5:7-15; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Pet. 1:16-2:22; 3:14-18; 1 John 4:1-3; Deut. 13:1-18; 18:15-22; 1 Kings 22:1-28; Isa. 3:1-12; 8:11-22; 9:8-10:4; Jer. 2:1-13; 5:1- 31; 8:4-17; 10:17-25; 14:1-18; 20:1-6; 23:9-40; 27-32; Lam. 2:1- 22; Ezek. 11:1-13; 13:1-23; 22:23-31; 34:1-10; Mic. 2:6-11; 3:1-12; Mal. 2:1-9; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1-12; 21:8- 19; Acts 13:4-12; 15:1-5, 22-29; 20:17-38; Rom. 16:17-20; 2 Cor. 11:1-21; Eph. 4:7-16; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Col. 2:1-10; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 1 Tim. 1:3-11; 4:1-11; 6:3-10, 20-21; 2 Tim. 2:14-4:5; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11; Heb. 13:7-17; James 3:1-12; 1 John 2:18-27; 3:24-4:6; 2 John 7-11; Jude 3-11; Rev. 2:1-7, 12-29; 13:11-18; 16:12-16; 9:17-21; 20:7-10.
- The Bereans exemplify this principle in Acts 17:10-12.
- For the purposes of this discussion, we are speaking of a theological cult, not a social cult.
- The doctrine of hypostatic union includes the incarnation of Christ, His deity, His humanity, and His immaculate conception and virgin birth. Vicarious satisfaction (atonement) includes the creation of man imago dei, and the doctrine of original sin. Monotheism includes the affirmation that God created the universe (both physical and immaterial aspects) ex nihilo, His involvement in the universe, and His active sustainment of His creation (cf., Gen. 1:1; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).
- Joseph Smith Jr., “The King Follett Sermon,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accessed September 01, 2016, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng. Brigham Young makes similar affirmations of polytheism in Brigham Young, “Remarks by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, September 1, 1859,” Journal of Discourses, accessed September 01, 2016, http://jod.mrm.org/7/237#238.
- Mormon prophet Lorenzo Snow reaffirms this affirmation, stating, “As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be.” See Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow: One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Desert News Company, 1884), 46.
- Orson Hyde, “Delivered at the General Conference Held in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, Oct. 6, 1853,” Journal of Discourses, accessed September 01, 2016, http://jod.mrm.org/1/121#123.
- Joseph Smith Jr., “The King Follett Sermon.”
- Richard C. Galbraith, Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Utah: Brigham Young University, n.d.), PDF e-book, http://scriptures.byu.edu/tpjs/STPJS.pdf; this is also affirmed on the official LDS website, see “Godhead,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accessed September 01, 2016, https://www.lds.org/topics/godhead?lang=eng. The concept receives further support from Doctrines and Covenants 130:20, which reads, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.”
- It is important to note that denial of the doctrine of the Trinity produces further theological implications, including the inherent denial of the hypostatic union. Under Mormon doctrine, Adam is Michael the Archangel and is the literal parent of Jesus, see Mark E. Petersen, “Adam, the Archangel,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, October 1980, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1980/10/adam-the-archangel?lang=eng; Joseph Smith, “Chapter 8: The Everlasting Priesthood,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accessed September 01, 2016, https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-8?lang=eng; Joseph Smith, “Chapter 40: The Father and the Son,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accessed September 01, 2016, https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-joseph-f-smith/chapter-40?lang=eng; and Brigham Young, “A Sermon by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 9, 1852,” Journal of Discourses, accessed September 01, 2016, http://jod.mrm.org/1/46#51.
Mormon teachings concerning Adam differ significantly from the biblical account, and inconsistencies among Mormon prophets demonstrate the arbitrary nature of Mormon doctrines. For example, Brigham Young clearly taught that Adam is God (the Father). In a sermon presented on April 09, 1852, he says, “When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is Michael, the Archangel, the Ancient of Days! about whom holy men have written and spoken—He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.” See Brigham Young, “A Sermon by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 9, 1852,” Journal of Discourses, accessed September 01, 2016, http://jod.mrm.org/1/46#50.
Despite Young’s divinely appointed authority within the Mormon Church, contemporary leaders adamantly repudiate the Adam-God doctrine. Accordingly, such incongruities demonstrate the Mormon denial of Scriptural inspiration and authority, while simultaneously undermining their own claims of divine appointment.