Why do Mormons wear white? Why do they have temples? A Q&A on the faith

With about a quarter of Idaho’s population identifying as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormonism is hardly an exotic concept in Idaho. The church recently opened its fifth temple in Meridian. More than 58,000 people have toured it since Oct. 21. The church is building a sixth temple in Pocatello.

Still, much about Mormonism is unknown to non-Mormons. Some misconceptions — that mainstream Mormonism still embraces polygamy, for example — have fallen by the wayside, but questions remain.

Here are some questions and answers about the faith and its temples.

Q. Which matters more to Mormons, the Bible or the Book of Mormon?

A. “We believe that the Book of Mormon is a companion scripture to the Bible,” said Chad Ward, a Boise Mormon who has hosted temple tours for local religious leaders. “We believe the Bible is word of God. We adhere to principles and teach the Bible in our classes.”

Church members believe the Book of Mormon is founder Joseph Smith’s translation of scripture left by ancient prophets in North America. The two texts complement each other, Ward said: “One may shed light on the other.”

Mormons believe their president is a prophet to whom Christ reveals his will.

Q. Why do Mormons de-emphasize the cross?

A. Mormons believe the Roman cross on which Jesus was crucified symbolizes death and suffering. The church believes Christ’s suffering is an important part of the atonement, but it emphasizes his resurrection, so you won’t see a cross atop an LDS temple or meeting house.

Q. What symbols do they emphasize?

A. One is an angel named Moroni. Church members believe the angel guided church founder Joseph Smith to the golden tablets on which the Book of Mormon was written. Some temples, including Meridian’s, feature a statue of Moroni on top.

Another is the beehive. It represents hard work, thrift and cooperation. The hive was the symbol of the provisional LDS State of Deseret created by the church in 1849 to cover much of the West. It’s still a central image on Utah’s state seal. Deseret is a Book of Mormon word meaning honeybee.

Q. Why the emphasis on genealogy?

A. Latter-day Saints believe families can be together after life on earth has ended, including present, future and past family members. Mormons research family geneology to know their ancestors.

The Genealogical Society of Utah began compiling records in 1894. The church has since created the largest collection of family records in the world, with information on more than 3 billion deceased people. FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the church, now handles the massive database. Anyone, even non-church members, can find family information and create a family tree on the site.

Q. Why do Mormons baptize the dead?

A. “Proxy baptisms,” in which a living church member acts as a representative for someone who has died, take place in temples. Family members often stand in for their own ancestors’ baptisms. This kind of baptism, church members say, is intended only as an offer in the spiritual realm. In LDS belief, the dead have free will. They can accept or reject the services performed for them.

The practice has stirred controversy, especially after it came to light that the church had baptized Jews who died in the Holocaust and others who identify with other faiths. The church officially ended the practice of baptizing Jews in the mid-1990s. Still, according to sources including The Boston Globe and National Public Radio, baptism took place in 2011 in the Twin Falls temple for Daniel Pearl, the Jewish journalist who was killed in Pakistan.

Ward said church leaders meet regularly with representatives from other faiths to avoid adding names to baptismal rosters that should not be there.

Q. Do Mormons think they get their own planet when they die?

A. Song lyrics in the popular Broadway hit “Book of Mormon” helped perpetuate the idea that Mormons believe that the afterlife includes a private planet. The LDS Church’s website includes a statement — part of a longer essay, “Becoming Like God” — that rejects that.

“Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets ... while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.”

Ward said: “We are trying to become like God. If we’re trying to do that, we believe we will have all the blessings that he has. I suppose you could interpret that as ‘a world.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s more of a unity with God.”

Q. Why do Mormons have temples?

A. Temples are not regular meeting houses. They are spaces for ceremonies like the marriage of couples and the “sealing” of families for eternity, as well as baptisms for those who have died.

Church members regard temples as places sacred and apart from public, earthly life. When church members enter temples, they change into all-white clothing.

The most senior and the newest church members dress in a way that makes any kind of rank indistinguishable. There is no class or status inside the temple, Ward said.

“There’s a saying that I love,” he said. “Everyone is important and no one is important. That’s how I explain our faith.”

Q. What is a temple recommend?

A. After construction and before a temple is dedicated, the church holds an open house for the public. Even the most sacred spaces in the temple, including the baptistry and the room where marriages are performed, are open, church officials say.

But once the temple is dedicated, only members of the church in good standing can enter. Those members have what’s known as a temple recommend — a card signed by their bishop saying they comply with the values of the church. With a recommend, a member can visit any LDS temple in the world.

The Meridian temple will be dedicated Sunday, Nov. 19.

Q. Do Mormons wear special underwear?

A. There are no outer religious vestments in ordinary LDS worship services, but many members wear a simple, two-piece “garment” under their clothing.

“Some people make fun of it,” Ward said. “There is nothing magical about temple garments. They are a reminder of the promises we have made to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We just want to be treated with the same respect of other faiths who wear special clothing to signify their beliefs.”

Mormons try to take the insults in stride and with a sense of humor, he said.

Q. Are women subservient to men?

A. The priesthood is limited to males, although there is debate in the church about opening it to women. In Mormonism, any male members age 12 and older in good standing can join the priesthood. The church’s top leaders are all male.

But Ward said the church is run by a partnership of women and men.

“There is no higher calling in the church, including prophet, than mother,” he said. “And no higher calling for a man than father.”

He adds: “Just go ask the average Mormon woman if she feels subservient.”

Q. Are blacks now welcomed?

A. The church did not open the priesthood to black Mormon men until 1978. Perceptions of racism in the church have been hard to shake, Ward said.

He was a missionary in Australia in 1978 and still remembers waking up one morning to the news that the church president had received a revelation that blacks could hold the priesthood. “We knelt down and thanked God,” he said. “It was one of the great days in church history.”

The church, he said, believes in modern revelation, which means it can change.

Q. Do Mormons hoard food for the end times?

A. Mormon beliefs include storing enough food, water, money, and other supplies to be used in emergencies. They’re not preparing for a doomsday scenario but for unexpected crises that may come up, including unemployment.

Q. What about tithing?

A. The payment of a tithe, 10 percent of a church member’s income, is one of the requirements for entering a temple once it is dedicated. A church member may participate in all other aspects of the church without tithing, Ward said.

Q. What is the church’s stance on divorce?

A. “Divorce is a practice that is accommodated in our church,” Ward said.

A temple sealing can be reversed through a procedure with one’s bishop. A divorced person can be remarried in a temple.

“We have faith in an all-knowing God to make things right in all of these marriages that have difficulties,” Ward said. “A gracious father would look upon a son or daughter in a way that would give them hope.”

Anna Webb: 208-377-6431, @Anna_Webb_Boise

Have more questions?

Chad Ward recommends the main church website, lds.org, as a reliable source.

Want to see the new Meridian temple?

Public tours are available through Nov. 11. When church leaders dedicate the temple on Nov. 19, it will be closed to the public. All Friday and Saturday time slots for tours are filled. Slots are still available weekdays before noon and during early afternoons. Reserve a spot online at templeopenhouse.lds.org.