After years of ineffective and often acrimonious evangelism by various preachers and groups, a new coalition of evangelical clergy in Utah is attempting to treat Latter-day Saints (LDS) with respect.
Many orthodox Christians have denounced LDS theology throughout the church's history. Not surprisingly, leaders of the 11.7 million-member Salt Lake City-based church have expressed both resentment and distrust.
At the LDS semiannual general conference in October, adherents of the Utah chapter of World Wide Street Preachers Fellowship stomped on underclothes that LDS members consider holy. They also pretended to blow their noses and wipe their bottoms with the garments.
Three dozen evangelical leaders condemned the actions.
"You don't take what is sacred to another faith and denigrate it," said Greg C.V. Johnson, who leads Standing Together, a Salt Lake City ministry to Mormons. "It doesn't take courage to treat a person you disagree with in a disdaining fashion."
Johnson said he has been trying to build trust with LDS leaders for nearly three years. James Ayers, pastor of Valley Assembly of God, and 22 other evangelical leaders gathered at a press conference to denounce the street preachers.
"You don't build any bridges with actions like that," Ayers said. "Our purpose is to let the community know that these people don't represent all Christians in the city. We believe people need to be treated with dignity."
Mormon-evangelical dialogue isn't new, but until now it has been limited in scope. Johnson has engaged in high-level talks with Mormon leaders, and he has received two letters of gratitude from LDS apostles for denouncing the tactics of the street preachers.
He believes that evangelicals have a greater potential for influence if they refrain from criticism, and that civil discourse is an essential prelude to a breakthrough.
Johnson left the LDS 22 years ago, as a teenager, and now attends an Evangelical Free church. He is in the midst of a 14-city lecture tour with Brigham Young University professor Robert L. Millet. Johnson and Millet engage in a respectful conversation about their points of difference. Sometimes LDS and evangelical groups on college campuses sponsor the events jointly.
The street preachers criticized Standing Together members for failing to tell Mormons they are going to hell. But Ayers said Christians are instructed to love those outside the faith, not rebuke them. Ayers is disturbed that the street preachers seemed to be consumed with anger toward Mormons. Ayers said a number of nominal Mormons have started to attend evangelical churches recently in search of spiritual meaning.
At a press conference a year ago, Ayers and a smaller group of evangelicals denounced street preachers who screamed through bullhorns and disrupted wedding pictures being shot near the LDS temple in downtown Salt Lake City.
A DNA revolution
On another front, a different group of evangelicals believes recent DNA evidence questioning the accuracy of Mormon history provides an open door to evangelism.
The Book of Mormon describes how Israelites emigrated to the Americas 2,600 years ago, with the now-extinct Lamanites and Nephites becoming the ancestors of American Indians. But anthropologists say there is no match of Jewish DNA with that of American Indians. An inaccurate Book of Mormon creates questions about the foundations of Mormon teaching.
Hope Christian Fellowship in Brigham City has produced DNA vs. the Book of Mormon, a well-reasoned, articulate, and irenic 50-minute presentation of this argument. The small, independent community church spent $50,000 on the project, and is selling it on videotape and DVD. Pastor Joel Kramer and Scott Johnson produced the presentation. Kramer spent a year interviewing eight scientists—including Mormon scholar Thomas W. Murphy—and two former Mormons who left the church because of the DNA evidence.
The church sent a free video to 7,500 households, consisting mostly of Mormons. The church also sells the video for $3 through its website.
Kramer told CT he has heard reports from about 300 people who have left Mormonism because of evidence presented on the program, released last April. Unknown persons have vandalized one of his vehicles, sent him hostile letters, and left burned tapes at the church's door.
'No Israelite influence'
One former Mormon scientist is 43-year-old Simon Southerton, who served as a bishop in Canberra, Australia. His book, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Signature Books) will be published in March.
"The DNA evidence backs up decades of archaeological, linguistic, cultural, and anthropological research that indicates there is no Israelite influence in the Americas before Columbus arrived," Southerton told CT. "The only conclusion I could reach from this research was that The Book of Mormon does not contain a true history."
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes:
Mormon Scholar Under Fire | Anthropologist says Latter-day Saints' teaching wrong about Native Americans. (02/19/2003)
The Shiny, Happy Olympics | Coverage of Salt Lake City's games focuses on who isn't evangelizing. (Feb. 13, 2002)
Weblog: The Church of Jesus Christ? | Mormons: Don't call us Mormons. (Feb. 20, 2001)
Mormon Makeover | An effective evangelical witness hinges on understanding the new face of Latter-day Saints. (March 6, 2000)
The Mormon-Evangelical Divide |Beliefs that set Mormons apart, and evangelicals' response. (Feb. 9, 2000)
A Peacemaker in Provo | How one Pentecostal pastor taught his congregation to love Mormons. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mere Mormonism | Journalist Richard Ostling explores LDS culture, theology, and fans of 'crypto-Mormon' C.S. Lewis. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mormons, Evangelicals Tangle Over Web Site | A publishing unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue a copyright lawsuit against an evangelical ministry that counters Mormon teaching and history. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mormons on the Rise | Southern Baptists Take Up the Mormon Challenge. (June 15, 1998)
Evangelists Sue in Utah (November 11, 1996)
Francis J. Beckwith, coauthor of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis, reviewed How Wide the Divide? for Christianity Today. The review, "With a Grain of Salt," appeared in the November 17, 1997 of our print issue.
A review of Richard Ostlings' book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, was published in Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture. The review was written by two practicing Mormons.
Ostling's cover story on Mormonism, "Kingdom Come," from the August 4, 1997 of Time magazine, is available online.
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