How Mormons feel about Islam

Muhammad receiving revelation from the angel GabrielJoseph Smith receiving the gold plates from the angel Moroni

A couple of weeks ago, I had the misfortune of watching parts of the hate-filled anti-Muslim film made in the United States and promoted by Pastor Terry Jones—the spark that set off the recent flames of anti-Western rage in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Jones, in case you don’t remember, is the same bigot that planned to burn copies of the Qur’an on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The film is horribly offensive. There have been offensive films made about Mormons, too, but nothing quite like this. It is truly trash, both artistically and as an expression of hate against Muslims.

Mormons have much in common with Muslims, and were subject in the 19th century to much of the same kind of ridicule as Muslims. Therefore, I think that Mormons are less likely than many evangelical Christians to join in Muslim-bashing. Also, there are many differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity that might tend to make Mormons more tolerant of Muslims.

First, unlike evangelicals, Mormon do not believe that Muslims are destined for hell unless they convert to Christianity and accept Jesus as their savior. To be clear, Mormons do believe that Mormon theology represents an exclusive path to the highest heavenly realm. However, in 1836, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith said that he had a vision in which he was told, “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it had they been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.” (D&C 137:7). “This gospel” refers to the doctrines of Mormonism. Thus, according to Smith’s 1836 teaching, any Muslim who was not familiar with Mormonism, but would have accepted it had they known about it in their lifetime, would be automatically saved in the heavenly kingdom. Statistics would suggest that there ought to be far more Muslim-born people in that kingdom than Mormon-born.

A few years later in 1840, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of baptism for the dead, by which Mormons could be baptized as proxies for those people, including Muslims, who had died without Mormon baptism. Mormons today understand that in the afterlife, such people will have the choice as to whether or not to accept that baptism done on their behalf.

In Mormonism, all people including Christians are required to accept a Mormon baptism as a condition for salvation. Thus, as far as salvation is concerned, Mormon theology does not fundamentally distinguish between someone who died as a Muslim and someone who died as a Methodist.

Second, although Mormons believe that the “keys” to an effective baptism have been entrusted only to Mormon priests, they are not in generally opposed to the idea of non-Mormon or even non-Christian prophets. Mormon theology teaches that God “is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in.” (Alma 26:37). A very influential early 20th century Mormon scholar and leader named B.H. Roberts wrote in 1907 that Mormonism:

“is one of God’s instrumentalities for making known the truth yet he is not limited to that institution for such purposes, neither in time nor place. God raises up wise men and prophets here and there among all the children of men, of their own tongue and nationality, speaking to them through means that they can comprehend. … All the great teachers are servants of God; among all nations and in all ages. They are inspired men, appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which he finds them”

Muhammad would have been one of these non-Mormon prophets to whom God revealed his truth. In 1978, the LDS Church issued an official statement that Muhammad and other great religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”

Therefore, there is not much excuse within Mormon theology for Islamophobia, and there are enough outward similarities between Islam and Mormonism that one would not expect Mormons to be overly intolerant toward Muslims. Anti-Islam sentiment undoubtedly exists among some Mormons, as in any group, but I really believe it to be rare.

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Do Mormons believe in “saved by grace”?

Ornate 12th century cross sculpted by Meister des Reliquienkreuzes von ConsenzaThe Christian doctrine of sola gratia says that salvation comes alone through the grace of God. This doctrine dates to the 529 Council of Orange, and is nearly universal within Christianity—from Catholics to Protestants to Orthodox. It says that faith, works, and salvation are made possible only through God’s grace, as a result of the atonement of Jesus. It is a separate issue from sola fide (“faith alone”), about which Protestants disagree with Catholics and Orthodox Christianity. Sola fide is the subject of another post.

By all rights, the doctrine of sola gratia should be one of the fundamental tenets of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was most aligned with Methodism prior to his founding of the new faith, and that alignment is not surprising in view of the earliest Mormon scripture, the 1830 Book of Mormon. In general, this book is conventionally Methodist in its its views about salvation and grace. After the speaker indicates that his people labor diligently to convince people to believe in Christ, he nevertheless notes that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Similarly, other passages state that “it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Ne. 10:24), and “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:8). The 1830 Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, which served as the “constitution” of the church Joseph Smith’s founded, notes that both justification and sanctification are through “the grace of our Lord.” (D&C 20:30-31).

However, most Mormons alive today would disagree with the statement that we are saved by “grace alone.” At some point in Mormon history, the idea of salvation by grace became suspect to Mormons. This apparently happened during the 20th century, because as late as 1899, a Mormon apostle felt comfortable stating from the pulpit at the church’s annual General Conference that: “When we are in favor of the doctrine of Christ we manifest our faith by our works, and consequently are saved by grace and are justified by faith, because we manifest our faith by our works.” (George Teasdale, 1899 Conference Report, p. 33). This was not only an endorsement of sola gratia, but an endorsement of sola fide (salvation by faith alone). As late as 1954, Joseph Fielding Smith seemed to endorse sola gratia in his book Doctrines of Salvation (2:308-11).

I have not been able to pinpoint the moment when the idea of sola gratia began to lose favor within Mormonism. However, Bruce R. McConkie might have had something to do with at least popularizing the idea that Mormons are saved, at least in part, by their works. In 1958, McConkie identified two types of redemption: an unconditional type that comes by grace alone (Mormon Doctrine, pp. 623-24), and a conditional redemption that “comes by the grace of God coupled with good works” (Ibid., 623.) This “unconditional” redemption, according to McConkie, consists of resurrection of the body, but not eternal life. McConkie’s views on this and all topics were very influential among generations in the latter half of the 20th century. However, his signature book Mormon Doctrine has recently been allowed by the LDS Church to go out of print, in part because of its controversial and sometimes offensive content.

Since McConkie, other Mormon publications have followed suit in rejecting sola gratia. Spencer W. Kimball’s 1969 Miracle of Forgiveness calls the doctrine of sola gratia “one of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man.” The 1979 LDS Bible Dictionary states that “grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient.”

Around the 1980s, however, a number of Mormon writers such as Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet, Gerald Lund, Donald P. Olsen, and Hyrum Andrus—so-called Mormon neo-orthodox writers— have begun to revisit the issue of “saved by grace.” An 1981 work by Lund, for example, was published in the LDS’s church’s flagship magazine The Ensign. Olsen and Andrus have presented what are perhaps the most Protestant explanations of grace within the context of Mormonism. For example, Olson states:

[T]hose who truly have the grace of Christ have faith unto repentance, receive baptism and the Holy Ghost, are justified, are in the process of becoming sanctified, have received salvation from sin, and may have received eternal life. These blessings will be theirs so long as they do not fall from grace by trusting in good works or by attempting to earn, merit, or deserve these blessings. (Sunstone, issue 44, Augumn 1984, pp. 21-25.)

So the answer to the question, “Do Mormons believe in ‘saved by grace’?” is: it depends on the Mormon.