Toward an LDS Theology of Religions

“Theology of religions” has been a particularly pressing concern in Christian thought since at least the middle of the twentieth century. The term refers to the effort to make theological sense of other religions. It involves questions like, from the perspective of a Christian, is God involved in other religions, or are they merely human constructions? Is Christianity the only true faith–and if so, why hasn’t God revealed it to everyone? As I’ve posted about before, theologians often speak of three general approaches to the problem: exclusivism (Christianity is the one true faith and there is no way to salvation outside of membership in it), inclusivism (only Christ can save, but explicit belief in or knowledge of Christ is not necessarily required for this to happen), and pluralism (there are multiple true paths and ways to salvation, and Christianity is only one of them.)

I’ve often thought about what an LDS theology of religions might look like. I see two general approaches to other faiths in LDS discourse. The first is the kind you find in the language of the First Vision, when the Lord informs Joseph Smith that “they were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (JS-H 1:19). In this approach, things are fairly clear-cut: the LDS church is right, and everyone else is wrong. This seemed to be the orientation of many early Church leaders. I wouldn’t say it has entirely disappeared–you still hear the occasional snarky comment or put-down of other faiths at church–but I don’t think it’s terribly common these days.

What is far more common now, I think, is the viewpoint that all religions have truth in them–but only the LDS faith has all the truth. I’ve heard this explained with the analogy of a piano. Other churches have various keys (and are therefore able to make at least some music), but we’re the only ones to possess the complete set. This perspective is reflected in statements encouraging those of other faiths not to abandon the truth they already possess, but to bring it with them and let us add to it.

I definitely think the second viewpoint is an improvement on the first; I doubt that most people who’ve spent any serious time involved with other religious traditions would argue that they lack any kind of value or truth. However, I’m not entirely comfortable even with what I might refer to as the “kinder, gentler exclusivism” reflected in this second approach. These are some of my concerns:

–To truly respect other religions, I think we need to view them on their own terms, rather than understanding them solely in relation to us. I’m wary of the notion that other faiths can be seen as, in essence, less developed versions of ourselves. Catholicism or Buddhism are rich religious traditions in their own right; to view them only as proto-Mormons who possess some but not all of our truths strikes me as a rather impoverished approach.

–I’m not entirely sure what the “only true Church” claim means. However, I suspect that it’s primarily a claim about authority. We believe that we have the exclusive authority to perform necessary ordinances; we assert a kind of monopoly on the rites of salvation. When it comes to eternal truths, on the other hand, I don’t see a clear basis for believing that we currently have all truth; things like the last clause in the Ninth Article of faith (“we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God”) would suggest otherwise. I think this opens up at least the possibility that we could find truths in other religions which we don’t yet have. But if we cling to the model in which others learn from us (but never vice versa), we might miss seeing them.

From the perspective of LDS teachings, I’m actually not sure that being a member of the LDS church in this life is really all that important, broadly speaking (though obviously it might be tremendously important in the lives of particular individuals). For one thing, we believe that everyone will have the chance at some point to accept the gospel. And if Church membership were a crucial part of our existence here in mortality, it’s hard to believe that the opportunity to join the Church would be limited to such a tiny fraction of all the humans who’ve ever lived. The vast majority of God’s children are apparently getting whatever experiences they need from mortality without membership in the Church–and I believe in a God who speaks to and is involved in the lives of all his children, a view I find supported in such scriptures as “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8).

With this framework in mind, I wonder whether it might be possible to construct an LDS theology of religions which combines exclusivist and pluralist elements. The exclusivism would lie in the claim that certain ordinances are required for salvation, and God has not authorized anyone else to perform them. Yet such an assertion need not translate into exclusivist claims regarding revelation, or possession of truth, or even the notion that one’s religious tradition has been established by God to play a particular role in furthering his purposes.

This is where I’m coming from: I live surrounded by devout people of other faiths, and I find it tremendously difficult to believe that all of them would be better off as Mormons. And so I find myself wondering–what if other faiths aren’t merely inferior glimpses of the truth that Latter-day Saints possess in full splendor, but instead are unique and valuable visions of that truth in their own right? What if God is using other faiths to further his work? And is it possible from an LDS perspective to believe that God does not actually intend for everyone to be a member of the LDS church, that he might call some people to follow other paths in this life?


  1. I tend to bristle at exclusivity claims. Even if they were true, they are not that helpful. Those claims encourage an “us vs them” viewpoint, which frequently results in less than Christlike treatment of “them.” I do wonder how that “us” can be expanded to include a much greater circle of humanity. There is a greater “we” who are seeking to commune with the divine in many different ways, and we can learn from each other. The thinking that says “I have the one right way” closes my mind and heart to truly loving other people and being willing to learn from their wisdom traditions.

    I personally haven’t been able to figure out how to reconcile my feelings about this topic with LDS theology. I’ll be interested to see if/how others have.

  2. One thing that bothers me about exclusivist claims is that it leads us to minimize or even deny the influence that other traditions have had upon Mormon doctrine and praxis. This causes me to suspect that many Mormons interpret ‘true Church’ to mean in part that Mormonism is ahistorical; our tradition is as eternal as God, Adam practiced Mormonism, and other faiths _are_, thus, degenerated version of our own.

    This has two results; first, of course, its tends to reverse causality. Since we commonly believe in a penal substitution theory of the atonement now, Calvin got that right five hundred years ago, rather than the theory leaking into Mormonism from our Reformed heritage.

    Secondly, it leads us to universalize the specific and temporary (as with the seminary teacher who told my class that Jesus will be clean shaven at the Second Coming, or our denominational musical tastes).

  3. Two scriptures to ponder-

    63 Again, verily I say unto you, I will show unto you wisdom in me concerning all the churches, inasmuch as they are willing to be guided in a right and proper way for their salvation,
    64 That the work of the gathering together of my saints may continue, that I may build them up unto my name upon holy places; for the time of harvest is come, and my word must needs be fulfilled.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 101:63 – 64)

    Also this verse-

    20 Contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 18:20)

    What also needs to be remebered is that the one and only churcht hat will endure through the eternities is the Church of the Firstborn. We as members of the LDS church are by auto default part of that church (same thing) as long as we remain true to our covenants. All those who are begotten through Christ (baptized) by proper authority are sons and daughters in the kingdom of God and are members of the church of the firstborn.

    All men will have to be baptized into the church of the firstborn by proper authority at some point in order to be saved. Currently, our church is the only one in authority to perform that ordinance.

    That said, sure, there are other denominations where God has placed individuals to further his work- and what is his work besides spiritual things? Temporal things! Is it no wonder that our church affiliates itself with other denominations to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and bring the message of the gospel to 2 and 3rd world countries?

  4. THe way I see it, God works with all of us, giving us truth as we are ready to recieve it. This works within the church as well as without it.

    Within the Church, It causes the millenial clean shaven messiah idea mentioned above, or the blacks were less valiant in the preexistence folk doctrine that once perneated the church. It leads to the belief that Christ made wine without alcohol. It leads to pharisaical creation of rules of the more orthodox and perfect way.

    Without the church stumbling blocks may be inablity to stomach the idea that God is a personage, inability to believe in a living conduit of revelation, inability to accept our divine potential, all because of creeds and traditions of our Fathers.

    As Amy B states, this definitely leads to an us and them mentality. Religion has historically deepened divisions of mankind. It has doubtless contributed much to wars and atrocities throughout our history. I personally think the declaration that “their creeds are an abomination in his sight.” statement has to be referring to. Not only does this reasoning and binding by tradition keep us from learning truths about God in a straightforward manner, it leads to hate and bloodshed. It keeps him from being able to reveal all things to us. We all are close minded in some way.

    I see the truth in other religions being God giving everyone that which they can bear. I believe he is leading us all to the same place without compromising agency and hence yes, there is truth in all religions, from the same source, and yes, our minds can be openned to new truth by learning the point of view of others and broadening things. We are told that new scriptures will be shown us by Christ’s other sheep. How would this not come from the other traditions and cultures in the World? If we are too exclusivist, we may just miss the boat on revelation God wants to restore to us.

  5. This reminds me of a paper presented at the MHA conference in 2003:

    The Politics of “Welding”:
    Joseph Smith, Pragmatism, and the Dilemmas of Pluralism

    In my reading of the paper, he argues that Joseph’s rejection of other churches was not meant to build a case for exclusivism. It was more a rejection of creeds in and of themselves.

    Here is a excerpt from the paper (concluding paragraph):

    The politics of “welding,” then, are pluralistic but illiberal. They represent the essence of the pragmatic tradition. They emerge from not only a recognition but a respect for difference, an understanding that in some sense the Other always constitutes the Self. As such, they are not content merely to tolerate difference. They are far too curious, so they seek to engage it, to fuse with it, to incorporate it and be incorporated by it in ways that transgress boundaries and upset taxonomies. In many instances, the seeming imperialism of early Mormonism might be better construed as an exuberant cosmopolitanism that sought to enlist discourses as disparate as folk magic, science, freemasonry, republicanism, Christianity, Kabbalah, jurisprudence, and American popular humor, to name only a few, in the making of a millennium always in the making. “True” Mormonism, according to Joseph Smith, we cannot forget, was defined by hospitality to all that was non-Mormon. In such radical articulations at least, Mormonism becomes a space for the creative convergence of different people and ideas, a laboratory in which ever richer resources can be developed and deployed to face the always new challenges of an utterly dynamic universe. For Joseph Smith, such improvisations of meaning in the quest to bind as many living souls as closely together as possible were the rightful calling not only of men and women, but of Gods as well.

  6. The scriptural basis of the curch’s exclusivity claims boil down to D&C 1:30–

    And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually,

    My understanding is that the revelations in the D&C were dictated to scribes who were largely responsible for the punctuation. now punctuating this verse must have been quite a challenge, and at least one comma–the first one–strikes me as being gramatically incorrect. But what if there is one more superfluous comma–the one between “earth” and “with”? Eliminating that comma would change the meaning completely. It would implicitly acknowledge that there are other “true and living” churches, but none–except the LDS church–with which the Lord is well pleased.

    Having made the suggestion, I should probably follow up a bit more. What would “true” and/or “living” church with which the Lord is not well pleased look like? By “true,” I infer that the church can deliver what it promises. The version of heaven that most Christian churches preach bears a remarkable resemblance to the Terrestial Kingdom. And indeed members of those churches can obtain the Terrestial Kingdom with becoming Mormons, so those church could be counted as “true.” As for “living,” lots of churches are “living” in that they adapt to changing circumstances.

    So why would the Lord not be well pleased with those churches? Because he wants his children to become like him, and no other church even has that as an objective, much less has the ability to deliver it. So it comes down to whether somebody wants to become like their heavenly father or mother. If they do not–and we know that many people find the whole idea blasphemous–then their current churches may be as true as they need to be.

  7. For all my concern about punctuation, I fall way short in spelling and capitalization. I think you can decipher most of my errors, but one requires formal clarification:

    And indeed members of those churches can obtain the Terrestial Kingdom without becoming Mormons

  8. Lynnette, maybe this helps. It is from the FP message in the Ensign, March 2002.

    However, we claim that God’s inspiration is not limited to the Latter-day Saints. The First Presidency has stated: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals. . . . We believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation” (“Statement of the First Presidency regarding God’s Love for All Mankind,” 15 Feb. 1978).

    I find it interesting that the Statement quoted was issued in February 1978, just a few months before the statement on the priesthood.

  9. AmyB, I share your concerns about the effects of exclusivity claims. I suppose that in theory it’s possible to believe that one has the truth which all others are lacking without that leading to self-righteousness and feelings of superiority, but in practice, it seems like a hard thing to pull off. I note that those who’ve ended up taking a pluralist position frequently cite ethical concerns as their primary motivation for doing so, as they’ve found that claiming exclusivity has not been particularly helpful or positive in their relationships with other human beings. If charity is indeed central to our faith, I think that’s a critique we have to take seriously. (Here’s a question: if we are in fact the “One True Church,” to what extent is it spiritually healthy for us to be aware of that fact?)

    Matt B, thanks for your comment; I’m in complete agreement. Along similar lines, I’m uneasy with the way that Mormonism sometimes gets projected into the next life–where, I’ve been told, all who acheive the highest level of heaven will become Mormons. (Speaking as someone who grew up in Utah, I had to question whether that was in fact a description of heaven or of hell. ;)) Your comment reminded me of a question once posed to me by a Catholic friend about whether Mormons would say that Jesus was, in essence, a Mormon. It really got me thinking.

    Rob, thanks for mentioning those scriputres. And I like your point about the work of God also involving temporal things, and that being an area where other churches are clearly furthering his work.

    Doc, I like your observation that all of us struggle with stumbling blocks, whether we’re in the Church or out of it. My understanding of faith is that it involves a kind of openness to possibility, a willingness to question whatever certainty we might have that we have it all figured out, and I think that goes along with what you’re saying.

    aws, thanks for that reference. I hadn’t thought of creeds per se as perhaps being the issue, as opposed to the particular contents of those creeds. And I love that excerpt you quoted describing Mormonism as an “exuberant cosmopolitanism.”

  10. Last Lemming, I had a bishop who also proposed that interpretation of D&C 1:30, that it actually suggests the existence of other “true and living” churches. It’s an intriguing possibility.

    Still, I’m not sure what I think of the idea that other churches are basically getting people to the Terrestrial Kingdom. It kind of goes back to my question about whether the truths that others have are just pieces of our more complete truth; my concern, as I said earlier, is that such an approach seems to involve viewing other faiths as essentially less-developed versions of ourselves.

    Mark IV, thanks for quoting that statement. I had a vague memory of it, but I was too lazy to hunt it down myself. And I’d never noticed that connection, that it came just before the priesthood revelation.

    Doc, I think the article you linked is a good illustration of the second approach I mentioned above, what I might call a sort of “kinder, gentler exclusivism.” It’s a point of view that in many ways I appreciate. But I have to admit that quotes like these:

    I believe that we owe respect to all churches and organisations that lead men to act more righteously than they otherwise might, even if they don’t hold the keys of salvation and even if there is much error in their teachings. Latter-day Saints should not look on other churches as totally false.

    make me cringe a little.

    I’m also curious about how we see ourselves. Do we believe that unlike other faiths, we have pure truth with no taint of error? I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question; I’m really not sure.

    HP, I appreciate that. Thanks for coming by.

  11. On the practical side, the Church is much more open to ecumenical feelers and initiatives with other denominations and faiths than it used to be — this can only have positive results on the Church’s embedded institutional perspective on other religions over time.

    For example, the term “the great apostasy” (or even “the Great Apostasy”) is rarely encountered in LDS discourse anymore. M. Russell Ballard’s book Our Search For Happiness (included in the current missionary library) touches on the topic as follows: “The light of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ … was gone” (italics in original). And he makes the distinction you hint at between doctrine and authority: “Because of the Apostasy, the priesthood and power and authority to act in the name of God had to be restored to the earth.”

    Not all LDS material takes that softer approach: the True to the Faith entry is rather harsh and the Preach My Gospel discussion is somewhere in between. But it is getting better.

  12. Dave, that’s a good point about the Church engaging in cooperative ventures with other faiths; I agree about the positive effects of such projects. I would imagine that you’re rather less likely to view someone as The Great and Abominable Church if you’re working with them on humanitarian aid.


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