Mormons are “Marginal Christians”

Dr. Todd Johnson of the Gordon-Conwell Seminary

Dr. Todd Johnson of the Gordon-Conwell Seminary

Just prior to General Conference, Utah Valley University hosted a Mormon Studies Conference titled “The Expanding Canon”.  I wish I could have attended more of the sessions, but enjoyed the sessions I attended.  I was surprised that the LDS Instituted of Religion hosted one of the sessions.  I attended Institute when I was in college, and I don’t ever remember being addressed by any non-Mormon scholars.  The session at the Institute of Religion was titled “Global Mormonism & Global Christianity” and consisted of a panel of mostly LDS scholars, but the first speaker was Dr. Todd M. Johnson of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Johnson is co-editor of the Atlas of Global Christianity published in 2010.  In the book, Mormons were classified as “Marginal Christians” based on the following criteria.

  1. Revelation:  “Christian deviations from mainline Christianity claiming a second or supplementary or ongoing source of divine revelation in addition to the Bible, either a new revelated Book or angelic visitations.”
  2. Diety:  “Differences over the nature of Jesus Christ and the existence of the Trinity…emphasis on divine nature of humans….Mormons affirm the divinity of Christ and human exaltation to a similar divine status.
  3. Temple:  “Salvation involved obedience to temple rituals that were borrowed in part from Joseph Smith’s experiences in the Masonic Lodge…Exaltation to the highest of three heavens, which is said to apply to Mormon Males, involves obedience to these ordinances.”
  4. Founder:  “Shaped by an authoritarianism and often narcissistic leader,” in this case Joseph Smith.

Mormons aren’t the only “Marginal Christians”: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, 7th Day Adventists, and the Unification Church get classified that way as well.  To his credit, Johnson said he understood Mormons didn’t appreciate being classified as “marginal”, and was here to listen to Mormons to see how we would prefer to be classified.  Perhaps a less pejorative term might be “other” rather than “marginal.  The following questions were posed.

  • Is the placement of LDS churches in the “marginal” category accurate? 
  • Is there a better and perhaps less pejorative terminology and definition than “marginal” in relation to the LDS church and its missionary efforts worldwide?
Dr David Knowlton, UVU

Dr David Knowlton, UVU

Dr David Knowlton, Professor at UVU in behavioral science, said that the volume seems to serve a political purpose to self-justify what they want to call mainstream Christianity.  Therefore “marginal” makes sense in propping up an idea of “mainstream” Christianity.  From a Mormon perspective, because we are a restoration church, by definition we would be mainstream Christians and the other groups would be apostate Christianity (the audience chuckles).  This is an argument among Christian denominations for legitimacy, and Birch said he is not sure that is the correct approach in an academic setting.  He felt there should be some re-thinking on this point.

Historically, there have been some major schisms in Christianity.  The first split was Western Christianity from Orthodox Christianity, then the Reformation.  There hasn’t been any other terms except to say “We’re Christian, you’re not.”  This seems to have been a way “othering”:  to classify Latter-day Saints as “others.”  When you are “on the ground” looking at how people categorize themselves, you see very different categorizations than come from the Vatican, or Assemblies of God in Missouri.  We need to figure out what makes a category become resonant with the people in it.  Part of this categorization is because these religions originated in the United States.  Robert Millet tries to categorize Mormons as “restorationist” Christians.  Yet Mormons really are marginal Christians:  between 1998-2002, every major Christian denomination in the United States either decided through their councils or other means decided that Mormonism stood outside of mainstream Christianity, and in some cases outside of Christianity altogether.  This is a multi-dimensional issue that requires a lot of thought.

Dr Brian Birch, Academic VP at UVU

Dr Brian Birch, Academic VP at UVU

Dr. Brian Birch, Academic President of UVU noted that non-Mormon scholar Jan Shipps has advocated that Mormonism is really an evolution of Christianity in the same way that Christianity is an evolution of Judaism. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called Mormonism a fourth Abrahamic religion alongside Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam.  One the one hand, he pays respect to Mormons by identifying them with these religions, but he doesn’t want to call them Christians.

Dr Johnson (who grew up Lutheran) runs a research center in Boston and studies Christianity in all forms.  His center has published a lot of books, atlases, a world Christianity database, and is actively researching Christians as well as other religions.  His center’s main focus is to count members of all religions including the Ba’hai faith, Muslims, etc and tries to categorize as he counts them.  The center’s 1982 book put all Christians together into a single book, despite the fact that many groups didn’t want to be put together.  He said there may be other reasons to build a taxonomy, but these are his group’s reasons.  He has worked on the 2nd edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, and wants to do a third edition of the book.  He is very concerned that it be accurate, kind, and helpful. 

Here’s the nature of the problem: there are 2.3 billion Christians in to 5 million congregations and 41,000 denominations.  With that, his group created 300 groupings: Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, etc. and then boiled that down to 6 designations:

  1. Anglican  (some argue that Anglicans are really protestant, but the guy editing the book was Anglican.  The Church of England dates itself back to the year 67.)
  2. Roman Catholic
  3. Orthodox
  4. Protestants, 
  5. Independent Christians,
  6. Marginal Christians

He said that final group was troubling to him as well.  He showed a map of the world and you can see the outline of Utah and Idaho show that the majority of the Christians are Mormons.  There are some islands of other marginal groups as well.  Over the past 100 years, marginal Christians have increased numbers in North America and Latin America.  (This includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the two largest marginal groups).  Johnson was here to make sure the statistics are accurate.  Mormons collect great stats and publish them.  More problematic are the definitions that he has inherited, but is responsible for.  He said that current definitions talk about doctrines “deviant from” mainstream Christianity.  He noted that’s not a very nice word, and “different” might be a better choice).  He notes that these groups are not very similar.  There is no “Marginal Christian World Conference.”  No one would come.  So it’s clearly not consistent with rest of the book.  He wants to hear from the church to hear the advice they want to give him.  He is interested in how Mormons also relate to other parts of Christianity.  Why wouldn’t there be Mormon participation in the World Conferences?  (None of these conferences include all Christians.)


Dr. Reid Neilson, managing Director of the LDS Church History Department

Dr. Reid Neilson, managing Director of the LDS Church History Department said that he  appreciated the opportunity to hear Johnson’s ideas.  Current statistical models show that in 2080, the LDS will have 267 million members in church.  Today in 2013, that’s remarkable.  We have 15 million members.  If growth rates continue at 5%/year, that’s a possibility.  We may look at these numbers and say we will no longer be marginal because we are going to become big.  However, when we look at the United Nations projected growth rates for world, even if the LDS Church hits projections of 267 million, we will still be less than 1% of world population.  The LDS Church will never be a large religion in terms of global growth.   In 1 Nephi 12:14, Nephi has a vision of the church in last days fighting against church of devil.  Nephi says that the Church was small.  We will always be small, but verse 14 says we will be armed with righteousness and power and glory.  He is not nearly concerned about size, but it is important to get past 2nd class status.

Matt Heiss, a senior Archivist at the LDS Church History Department said he met 3 weeks ago with the West Africa Presidency in Ghana.  For all vast wealth, churches have far less interest in missionary efforts than they once had, but the LDS church continues in proselyting activities.  In Africa, the church is expanding greatly, averaging 5-6 new stakes per year.  Finding places to meet is a large challenge.  We are currently building 7-10 churches/year, but need 70-80 to house converts.

Elder Jay Jensen, Emeritus Quorum of 70

Elder Jay Jensen, Emeritus Quorum of 70

Elder Jensen appreciate opportunity to be here and enjoyed the meetings he’s had with the group   He said he speaks Portuguese and Spanish, but this is new vocabulary for him.  He doesn’t know how big the Church will get, but the driving cause should be theologically and doctrinally driven.  He said missionary work involved the gathering of Israel.  Lowering the missionary age helps us get more fishers and hunters of men.

Lynn England

Dr Lynn England, History and Sociology Professor at UVU

Dr Lynn England, History and Sociology Professor at UVU said the marginal category is interesting.  It would be more politically correct and have an “other” rather than marginal” category.  Catholics had a voice in their category, but the groups in the marginal category weren’t asked.  In sociology we have learned to listen and have people tell us what they think they are.  It would be nice for Unitarians and Mormons to have a voice where they belong, or acknowledge this is a meaningless category.

He has been to Cuba many times.  In Cuba, there are 2 LDS congregations, and 1 branch in Havana.  The branch is presided over by branch president, and the 2 counselors are Cuban.  Cuba has a program in country where they offer free training in medical school to students who qualify, but you don’t have to be Cuban.  The government brings promising students from Paraguay Uraguay, Latin America, and other parts of world.  Half of the congregation consists of medical school students, some are returned missionaries.  It is a fascinating blending  program to open opportunities for the poor and bring the LDS church into Havana. Six people were investigators interested in joining.

Dr. Blair Van Dyke, UVU Institute of Religion

Dr. Blair Van Dyke, UVU Institute of Religion

Dr Blair Van Dyke of the LDS Institute of Religion said that the Middle East is important to Mormonism.  Joseph Smith received a revelation to send Orson Hyde to dedicates the land of Palestine.  The Holy Land has been dedicated over 190 times, 1841-1933, though current agreements with the Israeli government prohibit us from proselyting.  At this point, I had to leave, but wanted to hear what they had to say about Mormon Schismatic groups.  Was anyone there and can give a synopsis

Here are some questions.  On the one hand, being a “marginal” Christian is better than being completely excluded.  What do you think of the marginal designation?  Were you surprised that the Institute of Religion would host a non-Mormon discussion such as this?  Is this a sign of openness?


7 comments on “Mormons are “Marginal Christians”

  1. How about “non-traditional Christian”?

    “Marginal” isn’t politically correct–but I heard a couple of times this past weekend about the evils of political correctness, so I guess “marginal” is perfectly fine too.

  2. My idea is that members of the LDS church can and should self-identify as Christians if they so desire. I have not found anyhwere in the scriptures where any so called Christian denomination has been given the authority to define what is and what is not Chriatian.

    The term “Christian” was coined outsiders first in Corinth applying it to the disciples of Christ. I do not believe that a man or woman has to subscribe to any denomination at all in order to qualify as a Christian.

    God is the ultimate judge of who is and is not a Christian.


  3. Whether or not you agree or disagree to the ‘degree’ of the Mormon church’s doctrines in regards to its Christianity, the premise of the Mormon church proper, i.e., from their point of view, is Christian. That cannot be argued. *They* say they are Christians regardless of what anyone thinks or postulates. It’s not as if the name of their church is “The Church of Joseph Smith of Latter-day Saints’ or something similar. Its official name is: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sounds pretty ‘Christian’ to me.

    I would ask: Is the Roman Catholic church *really* Christian in consideration of much of its abhorrent non-Christ-like history (the Inquisition, etc)? How about the Westboro Baptist church, for crying out loud! I think it’s ludicrous that an academic will say, “Yeah, well I don’t agree with the way in which the Westboro church practices its brand of Christianity, but its still a ‘Christian’ denomination.” Yet they will question whether the LDS church is ‘Christian’ notwithstanding its official name and a lot of the good ‘Christian’ acts it attempts to enact, as well as the display of it’s ubiquitous propaganda (for the lack of a better term) graphical artwork depicting the Christ (although they depict Him as looking more like a Swede than a Semite!).

    As an ‘inactive’ or perhaps I suppose ‘apostate’ Mormon (because I take exception with a lot of issues of said church), I still consider it to be a Christian denomination–a ‘restoration’ Christian denomination, although I can only hope that it becomes more Christ-like in its policies, doctrines, and practices in the future. But I am sure that holds true for a lot of so-called ‘official’ Christian denominations as well.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. It irks me that we continue to try to placate Western Christianity. I agree with the analogy that we are becoming the 4th Abrahamic religion. That we have moved beyond traditional Christianity the way that Christianity moved beyond Judaism.

    We should be our own category. Maybe we should be Heretical Christianity.

  5. I used to be bothered by Christians trying to marginalize or dismiss Mormon claims of Christianity, because, duh, we believe in Jesus and all that. Then I learned enough about sociology and the way groups of all stripes define themselves against others and use those definitions to create and reinforce boundaries, including Mormons via our fundamentalist offshoots. Now, I don’t really care how someone else labels me. I can be Christian or not; whatever. Doesn’t change my perceptions or beliefs on how I ought to live my life. I’ve also known enough self-proclaimed Christians (Mormon and not) who’ve behaved in ways I don’t want to be associated with that the label seems fairly meaningless anyway.

  6. I have been working around the country and the world during the last 3 years. Everyone I work with (none of them are religious scholars) considers me a Christian. One of my close friends is an associate professor at a major dental school in the United States. He is from Europe and the first of his family to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism. I am one of a dozen Mormons that he has come to know in the last 8 years after coming to teach in the USA. He has had to change congregations three times because he felt Christianity was too institutional from his interpretation of the Bible. He wanted a more primitive and simplistic approach. He said he does not like to call himself a “Christian” but “a humble follower of Christ”. Hopefully religious scholars would recognize the irony of this story. My friend has never read the Book of Mormon.

  7. As I study different Christian Churches and the way they worship, The scripture that enters my mind the most is, “In my kingdom there are many mansions.” All the different ways to understand scripture as far as I`m able to see so far, Of corse there are going to be a lot of different congregations of Christianity forming over the years of time. I have come to the conclusion to look for the founding principles of a Church and study why the Church was formed in the first place. I do believe God is working in his own way today throughout the world and he gives each and every one of us a choice of how we want to live out our lives on this earth. The question for my own life is what would God name his own hidden true church on this earth? To conclude the understanding in my own search today in the last days on this earth, As long as we are involved in studying the concepts of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ and living what we think a life he would want us all to live, When the millennial years get here all of our confusion on this matter will be answered in full. The life and work we do now in todays life to help other people and our own life toward a loving and charitable life for and in the name of our Lord will not be forgotten in the end!

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