The term "Mormon", as used in modern popular speech, refers to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This term was intended as a derogatory designation by early enemies of the Church during the New York period (1830-31) but was not perceived as offensive by Church members and quickly adopted for neutral use by them. The term is actually the name of a Native American prophet/historian who (according to LDS religious tradition) compiled the records of his nearly extinct people (the Nephites) into one volume called the Book of Mormon. The founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, received this volume from an angelic messenger named Moroni, the son of Mormon, and translated it by the "gift and power of God." These events are fundamental to the beliefs of the LDS Church.
The term "Mormon" is also used in a broader sense to designate all members of groups resulting from Joseph Smith's restorative movement of the 1830's and 40's, not just members of the largest branch, the LDS Church. The term is also used as an adjective to describe cultural or religious practices (Mormon meetings, Mormon theology, etc.) The term "Mormonism" as a designation for the theology and world-view of Joseph Smith and the resulting religion(s) is used in this connection, and can be properly used to designate traditions and churches other than the mainstream LDS Church. The Chicago Dictionary of Style notes that it is not appropriate to use the term Mormon to designate members of groups other than the LDS Church. This leaves a gap in simple terminology which is not easily filled, leading most researchers to use the term "Mormon" in a sense that is not denomination-specific. Names such as "Mormon polygamists" and "Mormon fundamentalists" use the adjective form of the term in this looser sense, referring to groups or people with historical and thelogical ties to Joseph Smith and the Restoration, but who are outside the normal chain of succession established after his death. (See Quinn, "Mormon Succession".)
The basics of Mormon theology center around the need for a Restoration of the primitive church, the original religion that Jesus Christ established during his life on Earth. According to Mormon belief, Christ is the literal Son of God and accomplished on Earth his atoning sacrifice in behalf of mankind. However, through corruption and carelessness the true teachings of Christ were lost or altered by men after the death of the Apostles and the world entered a state of apostasy from the truth. The priesthood, or authority to administer in God's name, was taken from the Earth and man was left in darkness. In 1820 God called a boy named Joseph Smith to be a prophet, and following angelic administrations from 1823 to 1830 Smith (then 24) established the Church of Jesus Christ, which later received its current name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
All doctrine and theology of Mormonism rests upon the truth of these events and the Restoration that Joseph and others claimed had taken place. On this foundation of new revelation the Mormon tradition is independent of all other Christian traditions and rejects the councils and decrees of ancient and modern Christendom, accepting only the New Testament as binding, and that only as far as it is translated correctly. Furthermore, Mormons believe that the priesthood authority given to Joseph Smith was passed on and that the current president of the Church holds the same keys and authority given to the young prophet. This is an exclusive claim--Mormonism recognizes that all religions and traditions have truth and seeks to find truth whereever it can, but affirms simultaneously the divine mandate and authorization of Joseph Smith and his successors.
A number of other theological principles are essential to Mormonism and are clearly defined in the Book of Mormon, the Prophet's expositions of the Bible, and the early revelations received by Smith (as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants and elsewhere.) We will cover the most important briefly.
The divine sonship of and vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ
According to Mormon thought, Jesus Christ was the spiritual firstborn of God the Father and the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. He came to Earth and by suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and dying on the cross paid the debt of all human suffering and sin.
The need for divine authority and direct, modern revelation from God
Discussed above also, Mormonism requires that humans be authorized by God to exercise divine power, that this authority was lost with the death of the original Apostles and restored to Joseph Smith, and that such authority is essential to Christ's church. The prophet, the senior priesthood holder on Earth, speaks for God on all subjects and receives revelation for the whole Church and for the world.
The need for religious ordinances or sacraments and accompanying gifts
Mormonism affirms the need for holy ordinances (as in the Catholic or Orthodox belief systems) and also emphasizes the gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, prophecy, knowledge, discernment, and so forth. These are all fundamentals of the true church.
The gathering of Israel and missionary work
Mormons believe that God has begun to gather the House of Israel (his covenant people) for the last time. This occurs through the physical gathering of the Jews and other tribes to their inheritance places and the spiritual gathering of the faithful into the true Church. The new dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith is to be preached to the whole world to give each person the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel for themselves.
The importance of the commandments of God and living a Christian lifestyle
Mormon theology stresses the commandments of God as a divine system intended to produce happiness in this life and the hereafter. Disobedience to God's laws bring suffering and unhappiness through the natural consequences of action and feelings of guilt. Kindness, charity, moral and sexual purity, healthful living, and regular worship are all essential to a Mormon lifestyle.
Belief in an afterlife and eternal reward
Mormons do not believe in a hell of fire and brimstone, but believe that each person will be rewarded according to their works and inherit as much of God's glory as they are prepared for in the next life. Punishment is personal and based on feelings of guilt and natural consequences of poor choices. It is Mormon doctrine that each man or woman can prepare himself or herself to such an extent that they will be able to inherit a fullness of God's power and become Gods themselves (not equal to the Father in rank but in perfection and attributes.)
The Church of Jesus Christ was established in New York by Joseph Smith on April 6, 1830. The Church moved several times during Joseph Smith's lifetime. Each time the members of the Church (also called the Latter-day Saints or the Saints) were forced to flee their property because of illegal persecutions by mobs and the state. Initially the Church had two centers of operations in Kirtland, Ohio and Independence, Missouri. The Missouri Saints were forced to go to Far West, Missouri, where the Saints from Kirtland joined them in 1837 after persecution there became intense also. In 1839 the problems in Missouri escalated again and the governor, Lilburn W. Boggs, issued an illegal extermination order directing that all Mormons be killed or driven from the state.
The Saints moved to the west border of Illinois and founded a city called Nauvoo, which grew to become larger than Chicago. Here the Prophet Joseph Smith solidified much of the Church's doctrine and trained the Apostles extensively. Later persecutions increased again and the Prophet was jailed at Carthage in June, 1844. The jail was attacked by an armed mob and the Prophet and his brother Hyrum were assasinated on June 26th. This caused a succession crisis which was resolved (for the most part) as Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles took the lead of the Church, as Joseph had instructed prior to his death. At this time other splinters broke off from the Church, but no significant faction was formed until after the main group of Saints had left Nauvoo for the Rocky Mountains. At this point the history of Mormonism becomes divided into the history of the LDS Church and the other movements and is better treated under those headings.
Today Mormonism is represented in mainstream society almost exclusively by the LDS Church. Other groups are either dwindling in size and influence (the Community of Christ) or are radical-fundamentalist groups (the FLDS Church led by Warren Jeffs) that find themselves at odds with the law. The LDS Church has over 12 million members worldwide, with more members outside of America than in and about 300,000 new members joining the Church per year. Mormons are active in their community and well known for the humanitarian aid and service the Church and individual members provide. The LDS Church's missionary program is one of the most well-known aspects in the free world. The Church has over 50,000 full-time missionaries preaching the gospel in various countries. Most of these men and women are between the ages of 19 and 25 and sponsor themselves with help from their families. They serve for 18 or 24 months and many learn new languages to preach the gospel to people in their native tongue.
Scientific research on Mormons comes from a variety of sources, including private think tanks and journals and the Church's Brigham Young University. A large number of evangelical Christian groups are dedicated to working against Mormonism for theological reasons and publish large amounts of anti-Mormon literature, some of higher quality than others. This forms a polarized playing field when discussing Mormon history or thelogy, as most research and arguments can then be used to either defend or attack Joseph Smith's prophetic claims. Reasoned discourse is theoretically possible in this setting, but almost all research is tinged with the attitudes of those involved and has a tendency to erupt occasionally into heated argument.
Mormonism and the LDS Church are not going away any time soon, and trends indicate that the Church will continue to grow, especially in Eastern Europe and South America. The moral values the Mormons promote put them increasingly at odds with most of society, but this is attractive to many adults who long for the safe and conservative days of their youth. Intellectually the Church is much more liberal than average Christian groups and willing to embrace new science and research, which gives it an advantaged stance for the 21st century in the technical and scientific fields. The spread of free information contributes to the Church's efforts for good public relations and helps Mormons defeat the false rumors and histories that have plagued them for over 100 years.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- http://www.lds.org
An Introduction to the LDS Church -- http://www.mormon.org
Brigham Young University -- http://www.byu.edu
JosephSmith.net (Prophet's Life and History) -- http://josephsmith.net/portal/site
Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church) -- http://www.cofchrist.org/
Wikipedia on Mormons -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon
BBC on Mormonism -- http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/mormon/index.shtml
Mormon Scriptures (text format) -- http://www.sacred-texts.com/mor/
Opposing Websites (Vitriol Warning!)
Recovery from Mormonism -- http://www.exmormon.org/
Mormonism Examined and Documented -- http://www.carm.org/mormon.htm
Mormonism Research Ministry -- http://www.mrm.org/
Apologetics Index : Mormon Church -- http://www.apologeticsindex.org/m04.html
Author's personal knowledge.
Quinn, D. Michael. "The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844." BYU Studies. 1976: Vol. 16, Iss. 2, Page 187.