Like many of the religious movements that originated in the early years of the American Republic, Mormonism experimented with a form of communal living. In the 1830s and 1840s, Mormons built headquarter cities, first in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and later in Utah, where the bulk of Mormons gathered. Around the larger cities, smaller Mormon villages also developed.
In the early 1830s, Joseph Smith introduced what he called the United Order of Enoch. Under this system, Mormons would donate, or "consecrate," all of their possessions to the local Mormon bishop. The bishop would then determine the needs of the individual or family and would return to them the amount of material goods necessary to live as a stewardship. The surplus would be placed in a storehouse and distributed to those members of the order who were in need. In contrast to most communal societies, however, the Mormons retained a capitalistic element. Each individual was expected to continue to work at whatever trade he (typically it was men who received stewardships) had previously been engaged in. Each year, the surplus was again consecrated to the bishop.
This attempt at communal organization never functioned satisfactorily, largely because of the difficulty of reaching an objective standard by which to judge the needs of an individual or family and the lack of resources among the generally poor participants. Although the United Order collapsed, Mormons tended to patronize Mormon-owned stores and farms whenever possible and cooperate in communal economic projects. In Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons set up a headquarters city from 1839-1846, the Church exercised control over political and judicial functions by virtue of their strong city charter. At elections Mormons voted as a bloc. After the Church moved to the American West in 1847, Mormon cities and towns were built along a line extending from Utah as far south as northern Mexico and as far north as western Canada.
Throughout most of the 19th century in most areas of the Mormon culture region, social structures were a composite of civil and ecclesiastical elements. Only in the smallest and most remote Mormon settlements, however, did Mormon dominance approach the levels that were evident in Nauvoo in the 1840s. In places like Salt Lake City, Mormons coexisted with "gentiles," as outsiders were called, from fairly early on in the city's history. Thus while 19th-century Mormon communities in the West were heavily influenced by the presence of the Church, there was no formal attempt to build and manage civil governments through strictly ecclesiastical power. The institutions of government conformed to American patterns with Mormons occupying most of the elected offices.
In modern Mormonism, although the communities being built are strictly ecclesiastical in nature, the pioneer heritage is still manifest in interesting ways. The basic Mormon congregation is the ward (although in more remote areas smaller units called branches may be organized). Wards meet weekly in chapels or rented spaces. In contrast to the way in which many other Christians choose a congregation to attend, individual Mormons are assigned a ward to attend based solely on the location of his or her home, a practice that stems from the 19th century.
The ward, which typically has about 250-600 members, is the center of Mormon religious life, but it also is the center of a variety of social and cultural activities designed to build a sense of community. The local ecclesiastical leader, known as a bishop, is often referred to as the "father of the ward"—a title that conveys the familial sense that ideally should attach to this faith community. Ward members not only worship together, but they also provide service for one another. Common service projects include the provision of meals to families who have just welcomed a new baby or are ailing, and assistance in moving offered to persons leaving the ward as well as to Mormons moving in. Mormons also frequently contact other members of the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church in areas where they may be moving in an effort to gather information about the area, quality of schools, and the relative advantages of certain neighborhoods. Welfare aid to the poor comes from regional Church "storehouses" where Church-produced goods are kept.
Mormonism is a hierarchical Church led by a group of full-time "General Authorities" who oversee the Church at the highest levels, but most Church leaders are lay members of the congregation who receive no payment for their services. The Church is presided over by a President, who is assisted by two counselors. Together, this group is called the First Presidency. These three men are responsible for everything that the Church does, and are the final authority in matters of Church doctrine and Church discipline.
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles forms the next level of hierarchy. These twelve men are also full-time Church employees and are called as "special witnesses of Jesus Christ." Each of these men oversees certain areas of Church work, such as the missionary program or the Church's temple work.
Below the Quorum of the Twelve are the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy. The Quorums of the Seventy are presided over by a presidency of seven men. Again, these bodies consist of men who work full time for the Church. These groups are split up into area presidencies—groups of three members of the Seventy that oversee the Church's work in a certain geographical area, such as the Utah South Area, or the Africa West Area.
Six other Quorums of the Seventy also exist, but the members of these groups are not considered "General Authorities" of the Church and they serve in the areas in which they reside. In addition to the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First and Second Quorums of Seventy, a final group of General Authorities is the Presiding Bishopric. The Presiding Bishop of the Church, with the assistance of his two counselors, oversees and administers temporal affairs, finance, real estate, construction, and welfare services.
Locally, Church units are organized into stakes. Stakes are presided over by a three-man stake presidency. The stake president and his counselors are men who live locally and who work in occupations separate and apart from their Church callings. Assisting the stake presidency in each stake is a High Council. This body consists of twelve lay members of the Church.
Stake presidencies oversee a number of smaller units called wards. Wards are the basic local unit of the Church and they consist of between 250-600 persons. Wards are presided over by a bishop and his two counselors, all of whom are chosen from the local membership of the Church. Bishops are responsible to staff their wards and to select individuals to give sermons in the weekly sacrament services. Bishops also collect tithes and offerings and distribute welfare in the form of money and/or goods to needy members of the ward.
Bishops and stake presidents also serve as "common judges" in the Church. They periodically interview members of their congregations to ensure that their congregants are adhering to Church principles. These leaders also hear confessions and, when necessary, impose discipline on Mormons who have committed serious violations of Church standards. All Church leaders at or below the stake level serve without pay and must continue to work at full-time jobs outside of the Church.
Within wards, other members of the congregation fill leadership roles. Most Mormon men hold the Melchizedek priesthood and are members of either the Elder's or High Priest's quorums in the ward. These quorums are led at the local level by presidencies made up of ward members. Women do not hold the priesthood, and are thus ineligible for many leadership positions. They do manage the Relief society, which is the Church's auxiliary for women. Each ward has a Relief Society president who, along with her two counselors, oversees the teaching and service components for adult female Mormons. The women likewise run the children's organization, known as Primary, and the Young Women's organization, known as Mutual.
Mormonism's morality is based in large measure on the broad Judeo-Christian foundation common to many western religious traditions. Like other Christian traditions, Mormons accept the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible as well as the expansion of those laws as described in the New Testament. For Mormons, the most serious moral offense is to deny the Holy Ghost. This sin consists of obtaining a sure knowledge of the existence of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the World and then rejecting that knowledge. This is largely a theoretical category, however, because the required level of testimony is so high. No Mormon has ever been accused of committing such a sin.
At the practical level, the most serious sin is that of shedding innocent blood (murder). Next in gravity to the sin of murder is the constellation of sins that involve sexuality. Mormons are expected to adhere to a strict code of chastity, which requires total abstinence from all sexual relations before marriage, and complete sexual fidelity within marriage. Adultery and fornication are grounds for excommunication from the Church. Likewise, sexual crimes are seen as extremely serious offenses against the moral order.
The Mormon emphasis on sexual laws stems in part from the Mormon belief that sex is a sacred power entrusted by God to men and women. In Mormon theology, God is embodied and continues to use his powers of procreation to create spirit children. Men and women must thus learn to control and channel sexual desires into divinely approved directions in order to live a godlike life.
These principles have also influenced recent Mormon forays into the realm of public policy. In an effort to defend what they view as "traditional marriage," leaders of the Church have mobilized campaigns to make maintain marriage as a sacred institution between man and woman. The sacred nature of embodiment also leads to adherence to the Mormon dietary code, known as the "Word of Wisdom." Mormons who follow this law abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, illegal drugs, and other harmful or addictive substances. The code also enjoins individuals to eat meat sparingly and to make every effort to care for the body
In addition to proscribed behaviors, such as sexual immorality, a heavy emphasis is also placed on the moral necessity of caring for the poor and needy, both within the faith and outside of it. Faithful Mormons fast for two consecutive meals per month and make a donation to the Church at least equal to the value of those meals. These "fast offerings" are then used by the ward bishop to care for members of the congregation who need money and food.
The Church also maintains large storehouses filled with food, clothing, and other items. From these stores, the Church helps needy Mormons and also ships large amounts of goods to sites of natural disasters around the world. Mormons also pay 10 percent of their annual "increase" as tithing to the Church. This money is sent to Church headquarters in Utah, where it is used to finance Church operations. For Mormons, tithing is grounded in the moral ideal of sacrifice and is designed to weaken the attachment that individuals feel for material things.
One indicator of the most important moral ideals in Mormonism is the list of questions that Mormons are asked, and must satisfactorily answer, before they may be admitted to the Church's holy temples. Currently, Church members must pass these interviews once every two years in order to obtain a "temple recommend." All of the major moral issues and imperatives mentioned above are covered during this process. During this interview, individuals are asked about their doctrinal beliefs as well as if they live the law of chastity, are honest in their dealings, pay child support (if divorced), pay a full tithe of 10 percent, and obey the Word of Wisdom. Church leaders occasionally make changes to the temple recommend interview questions, and those interested in observing any shift in moral emphasis may monitor how the questions change over time.
Early Mormons held firmly to the belief that the end of the world was imminent, which led to their emphasis on "gathering." Those who wanted to avoid the perilous calamities that would accompany the end times were invited to join the Church and gather with other Mormons in one of the various cities in which Mormons settled. They believed that Christ would very soon return to the earth, destroy the wicked, and reign over the righteous on earth for a period of 1,000 years. In these early years, Mormons sought to erect an independent society called Zion that governed itself. By the 1840s, the millenarian fervor had subsided slightly, and from that point on, Mormons tended to work through the democratic process to effect change that comported with their moral beliefs.
In 1844, Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States, but his campaign was cut short by his murder in June of that year. Smith espoused a "theodemocracy" in which he would lead the nation according to the will of God, which he would know through revelation, while maintaining most of the rights that then existed for American citizens. After the Mormons moved to Utah in 1847, Brigham Young served as territorial governor, but was eventually replaced because the federal government suspected that a Mormon "rebellion" was in the offing. While Mormons dominated Utah politics and society, they were unable to control it completely.
For most of its history, the Church has had to reconcile its own beliefs and moral standards with the reality that these beliefs were not shared by the majority of persons around them. As a result, the Church developed an approach to social issues that focused on living as examples to those around them in their individual communities and on selective social action in regard to morally informed issues such as pornography, alcohol, and marriage. In addition Mormons are regularly enjoined to vote and encouraged to participate in politics as candidates and activists.
Individual Mormons have played an active role in American politics since the early 20th century. Apostle Ezra Taft Benson served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, and many Mormons have served as U.S. Senators and members of Congress, including the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Although Reid is a Democrat, the vast majority of Mormons who have served as nationally-elected representatives have been Republicans and have shaped public policy in accordance with the Church's socially conservative teachings.
Each fall in the United States the Church issues a statement to be read in all Mormon congregations that affirms the Church's position of political neutrality and encourages Mormons to become informed citizens and to exercise their voting rights. Despite the Church's generally neutral stance in politics, Mormons typically are very conservative socially, and the Church has reserved the right to speak openly about what leaders call "moral issues." Laws limiting gambling, legislation involving the operation of bars, and political campaigns against same-sex marriages have all drawn considerable attention and financial backing from Church leaders in recent years.
While the Church makes practical efforts to preserve what it views as traditional moral values in society, Mormon theological discourse maintains a millenarian strain and holds that the "world" will continue in moral decline. Christ's Second Coming, which is currently thought to be near but not immediately at hand, will be the only force powerful enough to cleanse the world of wickedness and establish the laws of God as a legal and political standard.
The Mormon Church has always held that men and women bear different responsibilities in ecclesiastical, social, and home life. In 1995, the Church issued a proclamation stating that gender is an essential, eternal part of individual identity.
A divine sanction is understood also to apply to gender roles. Only men hold the Church's priesthood, which means that the Church's hierarchy is exclusively male. On a practical level, however, women play a large role in Mormon congregations as part of the work done by the Church's auxiliary for women, called the Relief Society, the children's Primary organization, and in various teaching roles.
Mormonism holds that men bear the responsibility of providing for the family while the wife stays in the home and cares for the children. While Church leaders have acknowledged that some circumstances may render the ideal arrangement impossible, they also emphasize that in cases where men are physically able to work, women should not seek employment outside of the home. This commitment to clearly defined gender roles informed the Church's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970s. In several states, the Church organized meetings and took other steps to help defeat the amendment, which Church leaders believed would encourage women to explore options beyond stay-at-home motherhood and thus erode the structure of the family. Modern Mormon women are encouraged to obtain as much education as they can before they are married, but the admonition to be educated is often couched in terms of preparation to provide for a family in case a woman never marries or her husband is physically unable to work.
Sexual morality is a major area of emphasis for Mormons. The Church requires that individuals abstain from all sexual activity, including the use of pornography, before marriage and that once wed they remain completely faithful to the marriage covenant. For Mormons, sins against the law of chastity are second to murder in moral gravity. During the 1970s, Church leaders made statements suggesting that certain sexual practices, such as oral sex, between married persons were considered "impure" and that bishops and stake presidents should refuse admittance to the Church's temples if applicants were guilty of such activity. In recent years, however, the Church has made it a matter of policy to preclude local leaders from asking married persons anything about their private sexual lives beyond the general question about fidelity to a spouse.
A similar shift has occurred in the case of birth control. Until the 1980s, Church leaders actively condemned any practice that limited family size, including the use of artificial birth control. Today, the Church remains silent on the issue, except to say that the number of children a family has is an intimate matter to be decided between the wife, the husband, and God. Accompanying this shift is a redefinition of the purpose of sex between married persons, which is now seen not only as a means of conceiving children, but also as an important element in the emotional life of a couple.
Like other conservative Christian groups, Mormons condemn homosexual activity as unnatural and sinful. Mormon theology holds that a marriage between a man and a woman, when performed in a Mormon temple, is an organization that will continue after death. These "sealings" of husbands to wives and children to parents form one of the core elements of Mormon life. Thus, homosexuality and gay marriage are at odds with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Mormon practice.
With regard to the cause of homosexuality, however, Church leaders have, over the past decade, made a shift. Before the 1990s, most Church leaders taught that homosexuality either was chosen or was the result of some sort of perverse experimentation or abuse. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Church encouraged Mormon men who had homosexual feelings to enter into heterosexual marriages, with the belief that sufficient exposure to heterosexual sex would eliminate homosexual feelings. Partly due to the many shattered marriages and families that resulted from such a policy, the Church now explicitly teaches that marriage should not be used as a "cure" for homosexuality. The Church now holds that the origins and causes of homosexual feelings are ambiguous and may be genetic in nature, and they maintain that homosexual feelings are not sinful, although any behavior following from such desires is. In the fall of 2008, the Church actively supported a proposition in California that would effectively make illegal any sort of marriage except that between one man and one woman. The proposition passed, but the Church faced a considerable backlash from the gay community that included peaceful demonstrations at the Church's temple in Los Angeles, as well as isolated incidents of vandalism to Mormon Churches.
Complicating the Church's involvement with the "traditional" marriage movement is the history of Mormon polygamy. Many of the same arguments offered by opponents of gay marriage were deployed in the 19th century in the effort to abolish the Mormon practice of plural marriage. The LDS Church openly practiced polygamy from 1852 until 1890, but Church-approved plural marriages continued until the second decade of the 20th century. Since that time, persons entering into or performing plural marriages are excommunicated from the Church, a practice that has led to the formation of a number of schismatic sects, typically called "Fundamentalist Mormons," that continue to engage in the practice.