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But it survived because Smith had put in place mechanisms to accept and reject innovations, mechanisms that allowed it to both adapt and wall off competition. Smith established multiple councils, like the First Presidency, the Quorum of Twelve, and the Seventy, to judge new ideas, and he himself was subject to the councils. This helped Smith, and Mormonism, to contain the excitement of other newly converted Mormons, who were prone to charismatic visions of their own. This leadership structure remains in place today. The stories within the Book of Mormon offered a new revelation about Christianity, one adapted specifically to America.

Those who accepted the message could believe they were helping to restore the real church of Jesus Christ, a seductive message. Flake explains the church has simplified its message as the church has spread, a subtle adaptation most Mormons may not notice.

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Sunday school lessons involve simply giving scriptures to read and having people discuss them in their local context, without theological takeaways. Borrowing from existing successes, the centralized structure for controlling doctrine resembles that of the Catholic Church. The Latter-day Saints do not have a seminary. At the local level, every one is a volunteer, and every person has a role to play. As the 19th century rolled on, the Mormons adapted their doctrines to ensure their survival multiple times after Brigham Young led them west into what was then Mexico.

He went seeking a place to create a new Israel, a heavenly kingdom on Earth, with its own laws, an idea that attracted Mormon converts looking to be part of something important. But Utah was not very hospitable, and Young would seek federal money for his struggling flock, creating ongoing tensions between the Mormons and the American government, especially after the Mexican-American War ceded territory including Utah to the U. The Mormons lived communally, until the railroad and non-Mormon settlers forced them out of isolation.

While a minority of Mormons practiced polygamy, the leadership fought to keep it, arguing it was protected as freedom of religion, until the U. Supreme Court ruled against the practice. While the church was under public fire, it steeled itself with capitalist enterprises. Young set up department stores and a co-op mercantile institution.

Religions stress continuity to avoid appearing expedient, Sosis says, and to preserve their connection to the sacred, to the things that made them important in the first place. Religions want to stay connected to the sacred aspects that infused their founding and development. Mormonism, then, has adapted in part by adopting a structure that allows for local flexibility and requires local involvement, which encourages members to be more involved.

This allows the religion to mesh with many different cultures. It has a prophet who declared new core truths to an existing religion and published the basis for those.


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It has always encouraged missionaries to go out and spread word of its beliefs, drawing in new people. They root it by observing the culture laws of that country. But the Mormon structure, like those of many religions, looks backward, not forward. It is not a structure that allows for quick responses to social currents. As Flake notes, two of the three major social movements in America and much of the world in the last years include equal status for women and gays and lesbians.

The Mormons are among many religions that do not give full equality to women, gays, and lesbians. Such stances make Mormonism seem regressive in the U. The real Mormon church has consistently bought ad space in cities where The Book of Mormon has appeared to promote itself. Social pressure will not change the church. The President of the Church, in accord with the two other members of the office of the First Presidency and the man Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, changes doctrine.

Flake says this creates incredible stability and immunity from outside influences or charismatic mavericks. You constrain or stabilize the system.

Special Report: Mormonism besieged by the modern age

It also makes them a very structurally conservative institution. They have to move by agreement.

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That need for concurrence makes Mormonism a religion that is not typically subject to disruptive innovations, to borrow a term from Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, an expert on innovation and a Mormon. In an interview, Christensen, 62, says the church is different than the church of his youth—it ordains blacks and sends more women on missions. He argues that other religions prefer to say they have all the answers.

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Practitioners of other faiths might dispute this, but new prophecies tend to be viewed with skepticism. That gives it a mechanism for doctrinal change, such as abandoning polygamy or opening the priesthood to non-whites. Christensen tells a story from the Book of Mormon about the brother of Jared, an ancient prophet, who talked to God in the clouds.

God instructed the brother of Jared to build a boat and when he did, the brother asked God to imbue a host of white stones with light so the brother could place them in the dark hull of the boat to see. Christensen says this process is similar to what the church is going through on some social issues. The church may catch up to society in its own time. Church members are satisfied with their lives, content with their communities, strongly see themselves as Christian and believe acceptance of Mormons is increasing, a recent Pew Research poll of people who describe themselves as Mormon found.

And the Web has intensified debate over the truth of the history the church teaches. Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church, Jensen said. Then he outlined how the church was using the technologies that had loosened its grip on the flock to reverse this trend.

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Over the years, church literature has largely glossed over some of the more controversial aspects of its history, such as the polygamy practiced by Smith and Brigham Young, who lead the Mormons to Utah. The church denied the higher priesthood to blacks until and still bars sexually active homosexuals from its temples.

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  5. Moreover, church leaders have taught that the Book of Mormon is a historical document — not a parable — so the faithful are startled to find articles on the internet using science to contradict it. For example, the book describes Israelites moving in BC to the Americas, where they had horses and other domesticated animals.

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    The church is particularly concerned, however, about its younger members — the ones who are asked to dedicate two years of their life to spreading the Mormon gospel. Certainly the church can change, as it did a generation ago in admitting blacks to the higher priesthood. And it has now reached out, quietly, to the gay community. LDS support of Prop 8 became a lightning rod both inside and outside the Church. In the wake of the Prop 8 battle, Brandie Balken, executive director of gay rights group Equality Utah, was one of five gay advocates who met with three LDS officials to ease tensions.

    What was supposed to be a half hour or hour meeting stretched to two hours. Participants took turns describing their background. Balken talked about her love of gardening — and the pain infusing the family of her wife, who was the only gay child in a big LDS family. There was no immediate agreement. But the Church did in support a job and housing anti-discrimination measure in Salt Lake City, saying that opposing discrimination was a separate issue from same-sex marriage. This crisis of faith in the LDS church remains largely offstage in the race for the presidency.