Christianity is a monotheistic religion, but what is Mormonism? Mormonism has been called monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, tri-theistic, and more recently, monolatristic. I don’t know if there is a defined theistic category that fits Mormonism, but let’s look at what these five are, and see which seems best suited for the LDS belief system.
I checked three sources for definitions; they all said essentially the same thing. Provided below are the definitions as found in the Dictionary of -Ologies & -Isms at the Free Online Dictionary (also see The American Heritage Dictionary at the same url and the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry Dictionary of Theology). These definitions are simplistic, but they are adequate for our purpose here.
- Monotheism: the doctrine of or belief in only one God.
- Polytheism: a belief in, or worship of, many gods.
- Henotheism: a belief in one supreme or specially venerated god who is not the only god.
- Tri-theism: 1) the heretical belief that the Trinity consists of three distinct gods; 2) any polytheistic religion having three gods.
- Monolatry: the worship of one god without excluding belief in others.
In June of 1844 Joseph Smith preached a discourse that has been sub-titled “Plurality of Gods.” He said,
“I believe those Gods that God reveals as Gods to be sons of God, and all can cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ Sons of God who exalt themselves to be Gods, even from before the foundation of the world, and are the only Gods I have a reverence for” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 375).
Mr. Smith also said that humans must “learn how to be Gods…the same as all Gods have done before” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 346), and claimed that whenever he preached on the subject of Deity, “it has always been the plurality of Gods” (ibid, 370).
If we accept the definition of “polytheism” as “a belief in, or worship of, many gods,” according to the teachings of Joseph Smith, Mormonism is polytheistic. But polytheism is a broad classification comprised of narrower sub-categories, including (but not limited to) henotheism, tri-theism and monolatry.
Early LDS apostle Orson Hyde taught,
“There are Lords many, and Gods many, for they are called Gods to whom the word of God comes, and the word of God comes to all these kings and priests. But to our branch of the kingdom there is but one God, to whom we all owe the most perfect submission and loyalty; yet our God is just as subject to still higher intelligences, as we should be to him” (Orson Hyde, “A Diagram of the Kingdom of God.” Millennial Star 9 [15 January 1847]: 23, 24, as quoted in The Words of Joseph Smith, 299).
This does sound like the definition of “henotheism,” a belief in one supreme God who is venerated or worshiped above all other Gods. Yet we should also consider the teaching of a later LDS apostle:
“Three separate personages – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – comprise the Godhead. As each of these persons is a God, it is evident, from this standpoint alone, that a plurality of Gods exists. To us, speaking in the proper finite sense, these three are the only Gods we worship. But in addition there is an infinite number of holy personages, drawn from worlds without number, who have passed on to exaltation and are thus gods” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 576).
Perhaps Mr. McConkie’s statement quoted above would fit here as well. Tri-theism defines the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Gods. Joseph Smith’s teaching agreed with Mr. McConkie’s:
“I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370; emphasis mine).
Monolatry is defined as the worship of only one God, though there are others that exist. As we have seen above, Bruce McConkie taught that Mormons believe in untold numbers of true Gods, but they worship only the three Gods that pertain to this world. On another occasion Mr. McConkie said,
“We worship the Father and him only and no one else. We do not worship the Son and we do not worship the Holy Ghost. I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense–the sense of standing in awe and being reverentially grateful to Him who has redeemed us. Worship in the true and saving sense is reserved for God the first, the Creator” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 60).
Indeed, the Book of Mormon instructs people to worship Christ (e.g., see 2 Nephi 25:29 and 3 Nephi 11:17), and some LDS leaders have agreed (e.g., Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign 11/1998, 70). Nevertheless, sixth LDS Prophet and President Joseph F. Smith taught the contrary,
“And yet, while we give the honor and glory unto the Lord God Almighty for the accomplishment of his purposes, let us not altogether despise the instrument that he chooses to accomplish the work by. We do not worship him; we worship God, and we call upon his holy name, as we have been directed in the gospel, in the name of his Son. We call for mercy in the name of Jesus; we ask for blessings in the name of Jesus” (Gospel Doctrine, 139).
Where do we put Mormonism in this array of isms? LDS author Rodney Turner wrote, “Mormonism is simultaneously monotheistic, tri-theistic, and polytheistic. There is but one God, yet there is a Godhead of three, and beyond them, ‘gods many, and lords many’ (1 Cor. 8:5).” (Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., “The Doctrine of the Firstborn and Only Begotten”).
What do you think? Is it unreasonable to call Mormonism “polytheistic,” as Latter-day Saints often assert? Is the designation “monolatry” a better fit? Because of the lack of consistency in LDS teachings it may be impossible to figure out where Mormonism really belongs. We might, therefore, invent a new term: Mormontheism. But I rather like Aaron’s conclusion. He said, “Whatever they want to call it, it’s spelled i-d-o-l-a-t-r-y.”
Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.