The success of The Book of Mormon on Broadway is undeniable. After winning a record breaking 9 Tony Awards, the show continues to play to packed houses and is one of the best selling shows in New York. A successful US touring version was established and the show has now started a second company in Chicago. With the show ready to open in London’s West End, we thought we should put together a handy guide to Mormonism for UK audiences coming to the show. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a worldwide membership of around 14 million people, under 200,000 of these are in the UK. When compared with the USA who at the last official count in a 2010 census had 6.1million followers of the church, making it the 6th most popular religion in the country, you may be right in wondering if the show will have the same meaning to an international audience.
The Mormon presence in the USA is now so strong across the whole country that people of all faiths are aware of the teachings of the Church as it continues to be featured in popular culture. Some Mormons may argue that a positive portrayal of Mormons within the media is still rare, but others would say that at any publicity is good publicity. ‘South Park’ writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always pushed the religion to the forefront, even before creating their musical, featuring the religion on the racy cartoon in a number of different ways. Despite the success of the show on Broadway, we wondered just how much the humour of the show comes from having an understanding of the faith – after all the very nature of parody requires a certain level of understanding about the subject in question, otherwise it is easy for that humour to be lost. With the apparent lack of knowledge about the faith from potential UK fans of the show, we put together a handy guide on Mormonism to help those planning on seeing the show when it opens on February 25th.
What is Mormonism?
The official name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who was believed to be the Prophet of Jesus. The Church’s headquarters is in Salt Lake City, Utah.
What do they believe?
Mormons believe in the Trinity: God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost. They believe he is immortal and once was a man, and does have a physical body. The prophets are humans who exist to spread the word of God, and the President of the Church is automatically a prophet, just as Joseph Smith was the first voice of God. Not everything they say however comes from God, and “a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such”.
Mormons believe that humans enjoy three stages of life; a pre-existence as spirits, a probation period on earth followed by eternal life with God. Their ultimate aim in life is to achieve exaltation, which is sought through both the grace of God and their own actions whilst on earth. They enter the world without sin and have to take responsibility for their actions by dealing with all of the sins in their life before they can live close to God.
Mormons have very strong, traditional family values. They believe that humans have the capability to become gods in the afterlife, if they follow the strict examples set by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the later Brigham Young who migrated the church to Salt Lake City. They are opposed to sex before marriage, homosexuality, abortion and pornography, as well as the use of substances such as tobacco, alcohol, tea and coffee. They are encouraged to follow the custom of ‘tithing’ which sees them giving one-tenth of their annual income to the Mormon church.
What is ‘The Book of Mormon’?
The Book of Mormon features at the centre of the Mormon faith and belief and was first published in 1830. It is used alongside The Bible to form much of the teaching of the church. Unlike the Bible, Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon was the correct translation and unaltered world of God, as they believe that the Bible has mistakes and has been deliberately changed.
What is a Mormon Missionary?
Just like Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, all young men who are deemed to be physically and mentally fit are encouraged to serve as missionaries for 2 years from the age of 18. They are sent to convert others to the church and have to face many hardships – the greatest one being remaining strong about their faith in the face of adversity.
A Mormon Perspective on ‘The Book of Mormon’
We recently spoke with Gerald Argetsinger, a Mormon who has seen the show in New York to find out what he thought about the show itself, and how it reflects the Mormon faith as a whole. He gave us an insight on the religion, and how the musical corresponds with the basic beliefs:
Trey Stone, Robert Lopez and Matt Parker succeed, NOT because they have created a “send up” of Mormonism, but because they have created a spot on satire of Mormon missionaries, those clean cut young men in white shirts and ties representing their church. They ask the question, what might happen to those sheltered American white boys, trained in the ways to approach urban peoples around the world, when they confront a population of third world, poverty-stricken individuals who face problems beyond the missionaries’ imaginations.
The Mormon Faith
In a nutshell: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian Religion. Some fundamentalist Protestants insist on labeling us a “cult,” but we answer by pointing out that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that the Holy Bible is the foundation of our faith. We also have added another volume of scripture, ‘The Book of Mormon’, which we accept as another witness that Jesus is the Christ.
We believe in a living prophet, the first and second of whom you will meet in the musical: Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon Church and Brigham Young the great colonizer of the American West. So Mormonism is neither Catholic nor Protestant in its origins. We believe that we are a “restoration” of the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We offer the world two things: Priesthood authority restored through prophets by heavenly messengers. With that authority we offer the world the “ordinances of salvation:” authorized baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and temple covenants made in Dedicated Houses of the Lord located around the world. The most significant doctrine that we offer is The Plan of Salvation, which we believe offers answer to the questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going after life? Interestingly, Mormons do not believe in a traditional Christian hell. We interpret Christ’s teaching that “In my house are many mansions” and that there will be a heavenly reward for everyone who lives on earth.
Based on the above, the show obviously presents Joseph Smith being called of God to be the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ‘The Book of Mormon’ being added to the Old and New Testaments as canonized scripture, in the sacraments of baptism and the need to “bring the Good Word” to the world. It also humorously points out some of our unique beliefs: that the priesthood of God was not extended to African Blacks until 1978; that God lives on his own world near a sun called Kolob; that greatest sin a missionary can commit is to disobey Mission Rules, and that we believe that the purpose of life is literally to become godlike and acquire the attributes of a loving god.
Response from the Church
Some members hate it and some members love it. Generally, Mormons in the Intermountain West have no idea what the show is really like. They just know it is not “orthodox” and so they complain loudly about it. In the eastern U.S., where I live, we are much more open to experiences outside of the traditional Mormon comfort zone. I can’t speak officially for the Church, but at first there seemed to be a nervous “wait and see” attitude. But the show in New York has proven to be an enormous boost for the visibility of the Church. Near Manhattan “name recognition” of the Church has skyrocketed. The distribution of copies of the Book of Mormon have tripled. People everywhere are much more willing to invite real missionaries into their homes. Now that the Church sees the positive impact, they have even begun advertising in the programs of the West coast productions and for the touring production.
Portrayal of Characters
The portrayal of the missionaries could not be better. They get it! The liberties taken with church history also break any stereotype for characters such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. And, to be honest, I’ve seen a few mission presidents a little too close for comfort to the one in the show. I even had a gay missionary companion on my own mission.
The best thing about Mormonism is its emphasis on the family. When you get down to the local congregation, the entire work of the church is to help the family to face life’s problems together and struggle to find solutions. We believe that the family is the basic unit of the church and that it is eternal. Mormonism is a family-centred religion that offers the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ including the restored priesthood of God and the ordinances of salvation.
So will the show be as successful in London as it was in New York? Absolutely! You don’t need to know anything about Mormonism. Nevertheless, the more you know, the more you will laugh.