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In the beginning

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose members are popularly known as Mormons, was founded in 1830 in Seneca County, New York, by Joseph Smith, who said that an angel had revealed to him golden plates inscribed with the story of a resurrected Jesus coming to America and re-establishimg his church. These events were recorded by a prophet named Mormon. Members of the church now read the Book of Mormon alongside the King James Version of the Bible. Sometimes they point out that unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon has only one translation. No one but Smith ever saw the golden plates.

Smith, of course, became the leader of the new church. “We believe that priesthood authority was taken away after the crucifixion,” Gary Batchelor, a Mormon official in Arkansas, said. “Priesthood authority was restored in 1830 by the prophet Joseph Smith.” The priesthood authority was needed so that certain rites, or “ordinances,” could be performed, including baptism of the dead. A living person stands in as proxy for a dead one, and in this way the dead person gets an opportunity to accept Mormon teachings. “It's something you might do if your great-great-grandfather was unbaptized.”

Smith was murdered in 1844 by an Illinois mob, angry about the new church's preachings and practices, especially that of allowing a man to take multiple wives. The Mormons were chased out of more than one state before settling in Utah. The church allowed polygamy until 1890, after it was made clear to church leaders that a polygamous Utah would never be admitted to the United States of America.

Today, the Mormon Church has 13 million members worldwide, about half of them in the U.S. Despite the church's widespread missions, the majority of American Mormons still live in the area where they settled in the first half of the 19th century – Utah, Nevada, Idaho. Mormons subscribe to a health code called “the word of wisdom.” “We believe the body is a temple,” Batchelor said. “Members are asked to refrain from alcohol, drugs, coffee, tea and tobacco. Sex is only between husband and wife.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has a fair chance of becoming the first Mormon president. Another Mormon, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate and a frequent spokesman for his party. Mormons often are perceived as ultra-conservative politically. Reid is far from that, lending credence to the church's claim of political neutrality.

Incidentally, former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker grew up as a member of the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which split from the larger church in the early years and didn't go west. Tucker said the reformed church, based in Missouri, “was not involved in some of the more controversial activities.” Such as Mountain Meadows. Tucker is a Presbyterian now.


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