As a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church), more than once I have heard, “Isn’t Mormonism a cult?” My response is always, “No.” When I hear the word “cult,” I think of an abusive leader who cunningly isolates his followers and coerces them to practice horrific rituals—like Charles Manson. Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a cult as “a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs.” Cults are marked by secrecy and isolation, and members aren’t allowed to think for themselves. Often, you don’t hear about cults until one or more of the members have been arrested for criminal activity or some other heinous act has occurred.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not fit the definition. There is no secrecy, isolation or indoctrination. Just the opposite is true: Members are encouraged to find out for themselves what is true. The Church openly and honestly discusses its doctrines and teachings, and invites honest seekers of truth to examine its precepts and form their own opinions.
In 1996, then President Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ, was interviewed by Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” President Hinckley responded to the statement: “There are those who say Mormonism began as a cult. You don’t like to hear that.” President Hinckley said:
“I don’t know what that means, really. But if it has negative connotations, I don’t accept it as applying to this Church. People may have applied it; they may have applied it in the early days. But look, here is this great Church now. There are only six churches in America with more members than this Church. We are the second church in membership in the state of California. We are reaching out across the world. We are in more than 150 nations. This is a great, strong, viable organization with a tremendous outreach. … You will find our people in business institutions, high in educational circles, in politics, in government, in whatever. We are [rather] ordinary people trying to do an extraordinary work.”
Knowledge Comes Through Study, not Coercion
In The Church of Jesus Christ, members are not only free to think for themselves but are encouraged to do so. In The Church of Jesus Christ, members are encouraged to ask questions and find out for themselves if the teachings of the gospel are true.
Elder Robert D. Hales, a member of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (a governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ), told parents:
It is our imperative duty to help youth understand and believe the gospel in a deeply personal way. We can teach them to walk in the light, but that light cannot be borrowed. They must earn it for themselves. They must obtain their own light of testimony directly from the source of spiritual light—God Himself—through prayer and study and pondering. They must understand who they are and who Heavenly Father wants them to become.
The Doctrine and Covenants is a book of modern revelations in The Church of Jesus Christ. In Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9, the Lord tells us how we can know for ourselves what is right.
Behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right; and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.
This is not indoctrination, where people are told what to believe and coerced into action. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ are taught how to find out for themselves. The Lord tells us we can’t just ask and expect the information to be spoon-fed to us—that is not the way. We must do the work by studying the scriptures and the words of the prophets, and then ask in prayer and in faith after we have done our part. That is a very empowering concept.
Message of the Parable of the 10 Virgins: You Can’t Borrow ‘Light’
The Savior taught the importance of acquiring our own knowledge in the Parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). When I was younger, I didn’t understand this parable, which tells of 10 virgins who were told to fill their lamps before the bridegroom came. “And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them; But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.” When the bridegroom came, the five virgins who forgot to fill their lamps asked the others for oil. The five who brought oil said, “Not so, lest there be not enough for us and you; but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.” While the five were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came. Those who were ready went in, and the door was shut. The five who were not ready came late and knocked on the door, but the Lord said, “I know you not.”
At first I wondered why the five wise virgins couldn’t share their oil. But now I understand. The parable is about having your own personal knowledge of Jesus Christ and His teachings. There came a time when it wasn’t enough for me to know that my parents believed and lived the gospel of Jesus Christ. I needed to know for myself that the gospel is true, and I had to decide for myself to live by its precepts. Just as the five foolish virgins couldn’t “borrow” knowledge from the five wise virgins, I couldn’t borrow knowledge from others. After I graduated from college, I did an internship in Ohio. The first Sunday I was there I went to church, and I didn’t know anyone. Only the bishop (the leader of the congregation) came up and introduced himself to me. I met very few people that day. After a few weeks, I thought, “I could stay home from church and no one would know.” But I would know. I was no longer able to live off borrowed light. I knew for myself, and I had to choose for myself. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches the divine gift of choice—and that we are responsible for our own actions.
Temples are Sacred, not Secret
Some view the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ as secretive. Before a temple is dedicated, it is open for public tours. After the dedication, however, only members of The Church of Jesus Christ who are in good standing are allowed in this sacred and holy place. And members don’t discuss what happens within those walls. Elder Boyd K. Packer, current president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said:
There are some things just too sacred to discuss. We know that as it relates to the temples. In our temples, sacred ordinances are performed; sacred experiences are enjoyed. And yet we do not, because of the nature of them, discuss them outside those sacred walls. It is not that they are secret, but they are sacred; not to be discussed, but to be harbored and to be protected and regarded with the deepest of reverence.
Members of the Church must be qualified to enter the temples and participate in the holy ordinances. As I was pondering this, I thought of a calculus class I took the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I tested out of math in college, and my course of study required a foreign language—not a math—curriculum. But my junior year I decided to minor in economics, which required math. I knew I was rusty since I hadn’t taken a math class in years, so I took the summer course. That way, I’d have more time to devote to my studies. I almost failed the class—and the only reason I didn’t was the professor gave us credit for doing the homework. Luckily, it didn’t have to be right.
I discovered the hard way that I didn’t have the fundamental understanding of the math concepts necessary to comprehend calculus. It is the same way with participating in the ordinances of the temple. If we don’t have the fundamental knowledge and understanding required, we won’t appreciate and fully comprehend the instruction we receive in the temple. Those are the reasons that all who enter the temple doors must have a Temple Recommend—so they are prepared to make and keep the sacred covenants therein. I have had many sacred and holy experiences in the walls of the holy temples. I have found guidance, direction and peace in times of need. I would not have had these experiences if I hadn’t prepared myself for the blessings of the temple beforehand. The temple ordinances are sacred and beautiful—not secret.
Understanding of The Church of Jesus Christ and its teachings dispels all myths that the Church is a cult. Often, it is ignorance and unfamiliarity with anything—teachings, doctrines, churches—that cause us to fear and think poorly of it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not operate behind closed doors or in secret. That is not the way of the Lord. The invitation is extended to all to come and learn of The Church of Jesus Christ and find out for yourself if the teachings are true.