To those unacquainted with Mormonism
, (the slang term for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) it can be tricky to tell the difference between the actual Church and its several "branch-off" groups. It's an unfortunate but all-too-common situation that the unfamiliarity with the Church's history causes some to lump the LDS Church together with these other sects, leading to great confusion over who's who, and who believes what. Historically, there have been a handful of offshoots from the Mormon faith. Here's a few examples, and their distinctive characteristics.
I'll start by giving an overview of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official church founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr. In the year 1820, when Smith was just 14 years old living in upstate New York, a great religious upheaval was sweeping the nation. This movement is referred to by historians as "The Second Great Awakening
". Religious leaders from all sorts of faiths would gather together and deliver grand sermons, in hopes of attracting new converts. Smith, who was searching for a church to join, was confused by the many conflicting voices, each claiming to be the truth.
In his Bible study, Joseph Smith came across James 1:5--"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
Smith was deeply inspired by this passage, and decided to act upon it. Searching for solitude in a grove of trees near his home, Joseph knelt down to pray and ask which church he should join.
It was then that Joseph Smith was visited by to beings: God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ. He was told he should join none of the existing churches because they were all false. In time, Joseph Smith was lead to golden plates buried in a hillside, which were inscribed with an ancient record. Smith would translate the inscriptions on these plates, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture comparable to the Bible, comprising the history of God's people in the ancient Americas. Gaining many followers, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially founded on April 6, 1830. Smith helped lay the foundation for the structure and teachings of the new church, a deeply Christian faith, which is a restoration of the same Church Jesus Christ started in His earthly ministry.
Smith, from 1820 on, faced heavy persecution and ridicule for his claims. He would, over the course of his life, be beaten, repeatedly imprisoned on false charges, poisoned, tarred and feathered, face constant threats to his life and those of his family and followers, all culminating in the eventual murders of he and his brother Hyrum in 1844, when an angry mob of conspirators stormed their cell in Carthage Jail, Illinois.
Community of Christ
After the murder of Joseph Smith, there was confusion among the members as to who would lead the Church after him. A splinter group believed that Joseph Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, should be his successor. Smith III was originally opposed to the idea. As the bulk of the Saints were headed westward with Brigham Young, Joseph Smith III and some of his family stayed behind in Independence, Missouri, as they did not agree with some of the practices of the Church under Brigham Young's leadership, mainly plural marriage. Eventually, in 1860, Smith III conceded and became President over the various splinter groups in the area, forming a separate Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the years to come, the sect would eventually be renamed as the "Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints", to differentiate itself from the Church headquartered in Utah. It would keep this name until 2001, when its title was again changed to the Community of Christ.
During the same succession crisis that gave rise to the Community of Christ, a small faction of the Saints decided to follow James Strang. Strang held a leadership position in the original church. He claimed that he should be the next prophet, and lead a group of members up to Lake Michigan, where they would establish a "kingdom" on Beaver Island. Due to Strang's increasingly odd behavior and practices, his kingdom on Beaver Island ultimately failed, and his followers rapidly decreased in number. The Beaver Island colony collapsed when two of his followers shot him in the back, killing him. Many other followers were rounded up by locals and dropped in Chicago and Green Bay. The Strangite sect still exists in some form today, but most sources put its membership somewhere between 50 to 300 members.
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Perhaps the most well-known of the Mormon offshoot groups, the FLDS Church has been in the news quite a bit recently. The LDS Church, which, for a season, practiced polygamy, abandoned the practice in 1890, and warned those who entered into plural marriages after this declaration that they would be excommunicated. Some did not feel they were ready for change, and many of these continued to enter polygamous marriages. As warned, these members were excommunicated, and many of them began to gather in Short Creek, Arizona. The FLDS continue to practice plural marriage, but have recently come under fire for charges of pedophilia from leader Warren Jeffs, who was arrested in 2006. Several government raids have been conducted on FLDS communities to investigate suspicions of child abuse, sexual assault and general mistreatment of those in the community. Sadly, much of these allegations have held true. Several arrests have been made and many children have been separated from their families. The FLDS faith remains a controversial issue throughout the populous.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The original church founded by Joseph Smith under the direction of God in 1830. Joseph Smith was followed by Brigham Young, who became the next Prophet and President of the Church. He lead the saints westward in search of refuge from persecution, ending up in the Salt Lake valley in Utah, where the Church, now 14 million members strong, is still headquartered today. It is currently led by the Prophet Thomas S. Monson (shown left). When people refer to "the Mormons", they usually mean this Church. The Church has a very active missionary effort, with about 55,000 missionaries across the globe. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints is devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and places a strong emphasis on families. Mormons believe that, if they keep the commandments of Jesus Christ and follow his teachings with obedience, they can be with their families forever and ever, sealed together for time and all eternity. Though there is the highest concentration of members of the LDS Church in the state of Utah, the Church has spread throughout the world, with 136 temples
worldwide, and more on the way.