What makes a Mormon a Mormon?

May 23, 2005    By: Guest @ 11:19 am   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

By Craig Atkinson

The more I study Mormonism, the more I am perplexed by the unity within such a diverse group of people. What has increased my perplexity (enough so to inspire me to write this post) is my participation in blogs like this one. Here people feel comfortable enough to share their unique positions with others, and as they do, it becomes clear that there is great diversity within Mormonism.

As I have thought about the question, what makes a Mormon a Mormon? I have considered three answers, (though this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should cover most sub-categories) doctrine, history/tradition, and practice. As I address each of these possible answers keep in mind that this is still a question for me, not something I have a strong opinion on, or even completely thought through, and I am hoping that the responses that I receive will shed more light on the subject for me.

Is it doctrine that unifies us as a church? If so, then to what degree?

For those who have never thought about the question of what unifies the church would probably immediately say that doctrine unifies us more than any other element, and before I began to wonder about this, it is probably what I would have thought as well. If you think about it though, doctrine doesn’t play as much of a role in unifying us as you might think. For those who have studied the Young/Pratt or the Smith/Roberts debates will realize how much disagreement there has been over doctrinal matters even among the leadership of the church. The same issue’s that these men have argued over, are the same ones we debate over on these blogs. Mormonism is different from Christianity in this way. Christianity has what you call Ecumenical creeds which unite them, if you don’t accept the Ecumenical Creeds, then your not a Christian (hence the belief that Mormons are not Christian), simple as that. Mormons on the other hand do not have creeds and therefore what is binding is a little trickier. I have heard it argued, and I agree, that the only doctrine that is binding upon members is that doctrine which you agree to in the temple recommend interview, and very little doctrine is discussed there. If that is so then all you have to believe to be a Mormon is that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the current prophet is one as well, and believe in Jesus Christ and his atonement. Your beliefs about God’s nature, soteriology, and the nature of the atonement are not questioned. Yet these same issues have divided Christianity for centuries. It seems, at least to me, that doctrine cannot be the answer. Doctrine within the church is vague and debatable; we can disagree and still be good Mormons.

Is it our history and tradition that unifies us? If so, then to what degree?

I think that in a big way (even if not completely so) our history and tradition do bind us, especially here in the West. Our pioneer heritage and our grand beginnings are one thing that many of us (including me) take pride in, and feel unity with those who also take pride in these things. But if tradition is all that unifies us then can we really call ourselves a religion, or just another culture? If I am born in Utah and raised by a Mormon family, and my ancestors were Pioneers, does that make me a Mormon? Maybe it does to an extent, but I think if we are speaking of a spiritual unity within a spiritual community, this will not cut it. Also if we accept this as the answer, how can Mormonism be a world religion among diverse cultures? I’m sure many other such issues can be brought up if we accept this answer.

Is it our practice that unifies us? If so, then to what degree?

This seems to be the answer that is the most popular right now. And it is probably the closest to the truth. As I have already pointed out, Mormonism does not put so much emphasis on orthodoxy as other Christian religions do. On the other hand, Mormonism places a great amount of attention on correct practice. By practice I first of all mean what is considered moral and correct behavior. Also included in practice are the ordinances such as temple worship, baptism, and the sacrament. To be truly a Mormon one must act like one, and if you don’t, then your not a (for a lack of a better word) complete Mormon. It’s more evident than ever in the church today that practice is important, sometimes even to an extreme. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m bagging on President Hinckley, because I love the guy, but his coming out against tattoo’s and earrings is a perfect example of our definition of what it is to be a Mormon. If you have no tattoos and earrings, or if you’re a girl only one pair, then there’s a good possibility that you’re a Mormon. My personal opinion is this may be taking it a little too far, but I’m not about ready to correct the prophet.

This post may seem a little disjointed, but that is because I am still process of thought on this one. I am curious though how you all would answer this question, or if is even as perplexing to you as it is to me.

Craig Atkinson is currently studying history and philosophy at BYU. He is originally from Emmett Idaho and is now happily married with one daughter.


  1. Craig,

    I think the primary thing that makes us Mormons is our baptism and confirmation into the church. There are officially 12 million+ Morons in the world based on that criteria.

    Once we enter that gate we start asking ourselves: How do I now repent and become more like my exemplar, Jesus Christ. In that search (or lack thereof) is where we end up so much diversity. The thing I think God wants us feverishly working on, though is our personal relationship with him.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 23, 2005 @ 3:03 pm

  2. I hope that you saying there are “12 million+ Morons” in the church was more of a genuine accident than a Freudian slip. :)

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — May 23, 2005 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Geoff,
    Does baptism unite us as a group of people? If it does how so? Why does our search for fogiveness and a closer relationship with the savior bring diversity instead of unity. You would think that participating in such a journey together would be the one thing that would unite us.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — May 23, 2005 @ 5:25 pm

  4. Ha! That is too funny. Well that proves that there is at least one moron in this church…

    I suspect that more than half of the current member of the church are in fact converts. I think that explains much of the diversity we see in the church. The unity acheived by so many people with such vastly different backgrounds is also worthy of considering. Perhaps our journey together has united us far more than you have given it credit for here?

    Comment by Geoff J — May 23, 2005 @ 5:40 pm

  5. We also have to be cognisant of who others view as Mormons. Are Mormon Fundamentalists Mormon (read polygamists like Allred)? What about other Restorationists (e.g., Strangite, Community of Christ)?

    While I would prefer that Mormon be limited to our Church, it is inevitably linked to our current and our historic culture.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 23, 2005 @ 6:04 pm

  6. Geoff,
    That is exactly my point. There is unity among the members of the church, and I’m wondering what it is that unites us. You are the one who said that the way we approach our spiritual lives is what brings such diversity. But maybe this is the answer, the journey is what unites us.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — May 23, 2005 @ 6:39 pm

  7. Who’s asking the question?

    The Church counts my ‘do-not-contact’ home teachee as one of the 12+ million. He definitely doesn’t consider himself a Mormon.

    Is a lying/cheating wife’s ex-boss a Mormon? He claims he is.

    Was Adam/Noah/Moses/Nephi/etc. a ‘Mormon’?

    Comment by Daylan Darby — May 23, 2005 @ 7:47 pm

  8. John 13:35
    “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

    Could be that love for each other and our shared love for “all of the above” (doctrine, history, tradition, practice) is the “glue”.

    I know that my own love for the Lord’s gospel and my love and admiration of others that are also trying to love the Lord is what draws me to the church. And, when our love and concern isn’t reciprocated and/or other members are “difficult to love” it is still our love for the Lord (however strong or diluted that may be) that sends us to visit them.

    Comment by Brent — May 23, 2005 @ 8:48 pm

  9. Ephesians 4:5
    One Lord, one faith, one paprism.
    It seems to me that the thing which binds us is our disipleship, ifrst and foremost, and not simply in an abstract sense. The Lord is literally the head of the church. it is our Loyalty to the Lord, to the organization of the church, and to the teachings of the church that unites us. The temple rreccomend questions do ask us about these things. I realize this is different than the semantic question of the use of the word Mormon.
    A glance at the topical guide’s entries on “doctrine” does lead me to believe it is more important in this respect than it might seem from this post. We cannot be blown about by every wind of doctrine. For example:
    The father and the son have a body of flesh and bones.
    All people will be ressurected.
    Faith, repentence, baptism by immresion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the holy ghost is the proper way to enter the Lord’s kingdom, and these principles and ordinances are necessary for salvation.
    We can perform these ordinances in temples for those who have died without them, and those who have died without a knowledge of the gospel will have the chance to accept it in the world to come.
    I list these as examples of docrtines that it would be hard to question while still claiming any sort of unity with the church and it’s teachings. They are doctrines the world does not, as a whole accept, but that we do. I would say that anyone who would preach against such doctrines would be promoting disunity, rather than unity. this is not to say that we shouldn’t try and discover exactly what doctrines unite us, only that there are such doctrines, and the revelation of those doctrines, along with the reorganization of the church, is the reason for the restoration.

    Comment by Steve H — May 24, 2005 @ 12:21 pm

  10. Steve,
    You mentioned one of the indisputable doctrines of the church being “All people will be ressurected”. Personally I don’t have a strong opinion on this doctrine, but I have heard it convincingly argued that the Sons of Perdition will not be ressurected. On a more radical level I have heard it argued that our baptism is not absolutely necessary for salvation. Even though I do not agree with this, the people who argued so were Mormons, and still think of them as brothers and sisters in Mormondom.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — May 24, 2005 @ 12:35 pm

  11. Daylan: Yes, they were “mormon” in the sense that “mormon” is a term to describe members of the Kingdom of God. Maybe they had a funky name based on a holy book back then too. who knows?

    What unites us is baptism; by fire and water. By this process, we become members of God’s Kingdom and are adopted into his family through Christ. You can reject your previous ‘entrance’ if you would like; but the door to return is always available. In contrast, those that have not entered must do so through the proper door (baptism).

    What family doesn’t have some members that don’t get along with each other and/or don’t come out to family activities?

    Comment by lyle stamps — May 25, 2005 @ 8:28 am