Accessibility links

Breaking News

Mormons and Their History in America

Andrew Rannells, left, and the cast of "The Book of Mormon" perform during the 65th annual Tony Awards, June 12, 2011 in New York
Andrew Rannells, left, and the cast of "The Book of Mormon" perform during the 65th annual Tony Awards, June 12, 2011 in New York

Correction attached

DOUG JOHNSON: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA. I'm Doug Johnson.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we talk about Mormons in America.


DOUG JOHNSON: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called Mormons. The LDS church began in eighteen thirty in the United States.

Today there are perhaps fourteen million Mormons. More than six million of them live in the United States. Large populations live in the American West.

At any given time, the church has more than fifty thousand missionaries sharing their religious message around the world. Most of them are under the age of twenty-five.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The church has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, in the western state of Utah. Near the Salt Lake Temple is the Mormon Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Three hundred sixty singers volunteer in this world-famous choir.

(MUSIC: "Angels from the Realms of Glory"/Mormon Tabernacle Choir)

BARBARA KLEIN: Mormons have been getting a lot of attention lately. One reason is the presidential race. Two Mormons are among the candidates seeking to become the Republican Party nominee in next year's election.

One of them, Mitt Romney, also sought the nomination in two thousand eight. Mr. Romney is a businessman and a former governor of Massachusetts. He officially entered the race in early June. He made his announcement at a farm in New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney is one of two Mormon candidates seeking to become the Republican Party nominee in next year's presidential election
Mitt Romney is one of two Mormon candidates seeking to become the Republican Party nominee in next year's presidential election

MITT ROMNEY: "I’m Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I’m running for president. Thank you."

DOUG JOHNSON: Jon Huntsman is a former governor of Utah. Most recently he served as ambassador to China, appointed by President Obama. Mr. Huntsman learned Mandarin as a missionary in Taiwan.

He declared his candidacy in late June with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in the background. He and the president, he said, "have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love."

JON HUNTSMAN: "But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who is the better American.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Another Mormon politician is Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, leader of the majority Democrats in the Senate. He joined the church in nineteen sixty while in college.

Stephenie Meyer, author of the popular "Twilight" vampire series for young adults, is also Mormon. And so was John Willard Marriott. In nineteen twenty-seven he and his wife, Alice, moved from Salt Lake City to Washington. They opened a small restaurant that grew into Marriott International, the company that operates hotels and other properties worldwide.

DOUG JOHNSON: Mormons welcome non-Mormon visitors into their churches, though not their temples. Their rituals, their sacred ceremonies, are also private.

Only men hold leadership positions. Women who publicly criticize this policy may be expelled from the church.

During the church's early years, Mormon men could have more than one wife at a time. But the church officially rejected polygamy in eighteen fifty, the same year polygamy became illegal across the United States.

In opinion polls, most Americans say they would vote for a Mormon for president next year if that person is their party's nominee. But twenty-two percent said in a Gallup poll in June that they would not vote for a Mormon.

That finding has been largely unchanged since nineteen sixty-seven.

BARBARA KLEIN: Twenty-seven percent of Democrats and almost twenty percent of Republicans and independents said they would not support a Mormon.

By comparison, a higher percentage, thirty-two percent, said they would not elect a gay or lesbian president. And almost half objected to an atheist, someone who does not believe in God.

At the same time, just ten percent said they would not vote for a Hispanic. And even fewer objected to a Jewish, Baptist, Catholic, female or black nominee.

There were no big differences on the Mormon question by age, gender or area of the country. But opposition was higher among people who have not attended college compared to those who have.

This was also true about voting for members of most of the other religious or social groups in the poll.

DOUG JOHNSON: The question about whether Americans would vote for a Mormon recalls similar questions about electing a Catholic president.

In nineteen sixty, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a speech two months before the election. As a Catholic, he wanted to answer concerns that the Roman Catholic Church might influence his decisions.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

In November of nineteen sixty, Americans elected Senator Kennedy as the nation's first, and only, Catholic president.

The LDS church says it is neutral in elections. Its president, Thomas Monson, and his counselors recently wrote to church officials. The letter reminded them of the policy against actively supporting any candidate.

BARBARA KLEIN: The presidential campaign is not the only reason Mormons have been getting more attention lately. In New York, a popular Broadway musical called "The Book of Mormon" makes fun of the church and its history. The play is by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the animated TV series "South Park."

The musical may offend some people, but others find the two young missionaries in the story sweet and likeable.

BOOK OF MORMON: “[Doorbell] ‘Hello. My Name is Elder Price. And I would like to share with you the most amazing book.’ [Doorbell] ‘Hello. My name is Elder Grant. It’s a book about America a long, long time ago.’ [Doorbell] ‘It has so many awesome parts.’ [Doorbell] ‘You simply will not believe how much it can change your life.’ [Doorbell, doorbell]”

DOUG JOHNSON: So what do Mormons think of all this attention? Dale Jones is a spokesman for the LDS church.

DALE JONES: “I think the most important thing to know about our faith and its members is highlighted in the name of our church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that we do our very best to follow Jesus Christ. And it really is our faith in Jesus Christ that is central and motivates all that we do.”

Mormons believe that God has restored the ancient messages of Jesus Christ through later prophets. These include the church's founder, Joseph Smith. And they believe that revelation -- the communication of divine truth -- still takes place.

Mormons believe that the Bible is the word of God, but that the Bible is not complete. They find additional truths in other books including “The Book of Mormon.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Joseph Smith was the young son of a farmer in New York state when he saw visions of God and Jesus in eighteen twenty. Tradition says that three years later, an angel appeared and told him where to find two golden plates.

On those plates he found writings from an ancient American civilization. Mormons say he translated those words into English.

In eighteen thirty, Joseph Smith published his version of the writings in "The Book of Mormon." On April sixth of that year, he and others established the Church of Christ. It was later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Day Saints.

DOUG JOHNSON: After its first year, the church had one thousand members. Mormon communities grew in Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri. Kirtland became the church headquarters in eighteen thirty-one. The first Mormon temple was built there.

But Mormons faced oppression. "The massacre at Haun’s Mill" was an attack in Missouri in which seventeen adults and children were killed.

Joseph Smith was jailed, but later escaped. He and his followers established the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. They became active in Illinois politics. In eighteen forty-four Joseph Smith even decided to run for president of the United States.

In Nauvoo, church dissidents started a newspaper to denounce him. The City Council declared the newspaper a "public nuisance" after the first and only issue appeared. Joseph Smith, as mayor of the city, ordered the printing press to be destroyed and the remaining copies burned.

After that happened, Illinois officials arrested Smith and his brother Hyrum. A mob attacked the jail and shot the brothers to death in June of eighteen forty-four. Illinois expelled the Mormons two years later.

The new Mormon leader, Brigham Young, led a group of settlers west. They settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley, but it was years before life settled down.

BARBARA KLEIN: The Mormons may be best known for keeping ancestry records, and not just records of Mormons.

The LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City holds more than two billion names of people who have died. The library and a network of research centers are open to the public. The website contains names from more than one hundred countries and territories.

LDS spokesman Dale Jones says Mormons place great importance on the role of the family.

DALE JONES: “We especially want to support and strengthen families because we believe families are the bedrock of society. Mormons believe our best efforts should be given to building families, and that through Jesus Christ, these family connections continue after we die.”

(MUSIC: "Morning Has Broken"/Mormon Tabernacle Choir)

DOUG JOHNSON: Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Brianna Blake. I’m Doug Johnson.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. You can read and listen to our programs and write comments at You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


Correction: This story contained several errors. The LDS church ended its polygamy policy in 1890, not 1850. Tradition says Joseph Smith found a collection of plates of gold, not two single plates. Also, women do hold leadership positions, but cannot hold the priesthood. The story noted that women who publicly criticize this policy may be expelled from the church. However, this is not church policy. Also, an earlier version of this page included an outdated reference to playwright Neil LaBute. He is no longer an LDS church member.