This guest article is written by Eric, a frequent participant here who was raised Evangelical and graduated from an Evangelical college. He has been an active member of the LDS church for a dozen years.
Both online and in the real world, I have heard many Mormons display misunderstanding and/or ignorance of Evangelical Christianity — as well as appreciation for the Christian example that many Evangelicals provide. I hope that my observations here can foster less of the former and more of the latter as participants in both great Christian faith traditions seek to follow the example of their Savior.
Evangelical Christianity is incredibly diverse: If you judge Evangelical Christianity from only a few of its adherents, you’re being too hasty. What many Mormons appreciate about their church is that you can go anywhere in the world and participate in worship and instruction that is very much like what you’re used to. But evangelicalism isn’t like that at all. In both theology and practice, evangelicalism is more diverse than you can imagine.
Within Evangelicalism, you can find churches that have rock bands in worship services, and ones where they sing the same types of hymns that we do (some of then even without pianos); you can find churches with thousands of people who attend each Sunday, and churches that meet in homes or small rented facilities; you can find churches with huge professional staffs, and ones that are run by volunteers; you can find ones that teach a doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” and ones that emphasize the need to, in LDS lingo, endure to the end; you can find churches that prohibit the use of alcohol and those that have more conservative behavior standards than Mormons do, and you can find many that accept moderate drinking and other behaviors as a choice that can be made within the bounds of Christian liberty; you can find churches that are open to the teachings of modern science, and you can find ones that insist the world was created in six 24-hour days; you can find churches where members speak in tongues, and you can find ones that condemn the practice; you can find some that baptize infants, and others that baptize only those past an age of accountability; and the list goes on and on.
Even within a single denomination, you can find diversity. If you’ve known one Southern Baptist, for example, you don’t know them all.
What tie Evangelicals together are beliefs that salvation is found through a personal faith in Jesus Christ and that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. There is still debate over what are the boundaries that define Evangelicalism. It is safe to say, however, that one key characteristic of evangelicals is that they believe the Resurrection was a historical, physical event, something that can’t be said of all Protestants. And while Evangelicals don’t define themselves by their views on sexual morality, one way of distinguishing between evangelicals and many mainline Protestants is that evangelicals nearly always are firm in the position that God intended sex only for married male-female couples.
Evangelicals believe in a personal God: Just because Evangelicals don’t believe that our Heavenly Father is corporeal doesn’t mean they see him as an impersonal force, a “blob” or an impassionate being who can’t relate to humans. For Evangelicals, the fact that Jesus came to Earth as a human and underwent suffering and death is evidence that God can understand everything we could possibly go through.
Anti-Mormonism is not a key focus of Evangelicals: While much of the opposition to Mormonism does come from Evangelicals, outside of the Mormon Corridor our church isn’t something that most of Evangelicals concern themselves with all that much, if at all. In most cases, we aren’t even on their radar. (There are exceptions, however.)
In general, Evangelicals don’t know much about Mormonism, and what they do “know” is likely wrong or incomplete: Visit an Evangelical bookstore, and you’ll find that most of the books that discuss Mormonism do so from an “anti-cult” perspective. They tend to emphasize obscure and/or inflammatory statements made by 19-century leaders (e.g., Jesus was conceived by the Heavenly Father having sex with Mary) or teach beliefs out of context (e.g., Jesus is Satan’s brother). What evangelicals often know about the LDS church (if they know anything significant at all) comes, often indirectly, from such sources. When everyday Evangelicals say incorrect things about Mormon beliefs, it’s usually out of ignorance rather than malice.
Evangelicals have a testimony of Jesus Christ as Savior: Get Evangelicals to talk about their faith, and you’ll hear many of the same things we hear in testimony meetings — gratitude about what the Savior has done for them, an appreciation for the guidance they receive from the Holy Spirit, a firm belief in the Atonement, and so on. They know Jesus lives, just as we do.
Evangelicals use the same Bible as we do: It is true that most American Evangelicals today (as always, there are exceptions) don’t use the King James Version of the Bible. But the modern translations they use have the same books as ours and are generally accurate translations from the best Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts that exist. They don’t take out verses or chapters because they don’t like them. In fact, outside the English- and Spanish-speaking countries, the LDS church typically uses the same translations that other Christians use.
Works do matter: Too many LDS-vs.-Evangelical debates boil down to disagreement over matters of faith and works. And while Evangelicals do emphasize the importance of faith, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in works. In practical terms, most evangelicals who are active in their churches seek to live good lives, to follow the teachings of Christ, to serve the poor, and so on. Theologically, many of them emphasize the importance of sanctification — following the example of Christ and becoming more like him.
I’m not suggesting there are no differences between evangelicals and Mormon on this issue. But the stereotype of the evangelical being one who says “I can sin all I want because I’ve been saved and am going to heaven anyway” is just that, a stereotype, and represents the type of view that definitely wouldn’t be endorsed from the pulpit.
Just because many Evangelicals have rock music during worship services and pray to God as “you” doesn’t mean they’re irreverent: Read about the musical instruments that were used in the Bible, or about the exuberance of Pentecost (or the opening of the Kirtland temple, for that matter), and you’ll see that the 19th-century American worship style used in the LDS church isn’t the only one that is pleasing to God. Think of the differences as being cultural in nature rather than one stemming from an irreverent attitude.
The same goes for the prevailing (although not universal) evangelical practice of addressing God as “you” rather than “thou.” To many evangelicals, talking to God as “thou” would feel distancing and overly formal, and not recognizing him as someone who can relate to us mortals. It may be worth nothing noting that outside of English-speaking countries, most Mormons speak to God in the same “informal” language that evangelicals do, such as the tú form of “you” in Spanish. The choice of pronoun has more to do with custom than with reverence.
Most Evangelical pastors are not overpaid: While there are some televangelists who become wealthy through their ministries and other who abuse their positions in the interests of wealth, they are the exception rather than the rule. The pay for most is modest, and they’re generally paid with a salary set as part of an open budgeting process (rather than as a percentage of church collections). For those in larger churches, salary levels are probably comparable to what full-time LDS general authorities earn.
We have many things to be grateful to Evangelicals for: Much of the Biblical scholarship we have today comes to us from Evangelicals and other non-LDS Christians. Many of the hymns in the LDS hymnbook were written by Protestants. Evangelicals engage in much humanitarian work throughout the world (sometimes even in cooperation with Mormons). Evangelicals and Catholics are among the few groups in our country today that continue to teach chastity. Evangelicals have been in the forefront of efforts to protect religious freedom. Overall, evangelicals have been a force for good in our nation and world.
Evangelicals have a strong regard for family: They may not have as many children on the average as we do, but they love them just as much. Most evangelical churches place a strong emphasis on Sunday school and activities for children, just as we do, and many of them do a better job than we do in reaching out to unchurched teenagers. And Evangelicals are concerned about the cultural forces that can be destructive to families, just as we are.
Evangelicals don’t have the complete gospel, but they have quite a bit of it: Joseph Smith once taught: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” That is a statement that most evangelicals could agree with. Sit in on an evangelical adult Sunday school class sometime, and you’ll find that many evangelicals deal on a daily basis with the same issues we do — how to live our lives in accordance with Jesus’ teachings, how to understand what God is trying to tell us in the scriptures, how to sense the Holy Spirit guiding us.
I have no desire here to ignore or downplay the differences betweenEvangelical Christians and LDS Christians; they are real, and they are substantial. But we also share a love for Jesus Christ and a gratitude for the Heavenly Father sending his Son to Earth to set an example for us and to die for us. We have much we can learn from each other, but we can do that only if we make efforts to understand each other and to see each other not as people to demonize but as children of our Heavenly Father and who are sincerely, even though possibly mistaken, trying to heed the teachings of Jesus Christ..