This is a question that a lot of people have, and one that is difficult to get a straight answer to. As a Mormon myself, here is an honest attempt to demystify the puzzle somewhat.
(By “Mormons”, I mean those who are baptized members of a church called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called the LDS church. While these titles are more official, I’ll be using them all interchangeably for convenience)
First of all, there are several places where the question “What do Mormons believe?” is clearly answered.
- The Articles of Faith. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, once created a document for a newspaper editor that included what Joseph considered to be the fundamental beliefs of Mormons. Over 150 years later, the “Articles of Faith” are still a great source for this information.
- Mormon.org. This website describes the beliefs of the LDS church through the voices of its members… thousands and thousands of them. The site features profiles of Mormons who post their beliefs and answer frequently asked questions about their religion (you can see mine here).
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Wikipedia). These days I am very impressed with the fair treatment of religions in general on Wikipedia. This link will give you a broad overview of the church, from it’s history to its current practices.
- The Book of Mormon. While this source is not as simple as the others (it uses the “scriptural language” common in the KJV bible and a full read could take you several weeks) it is the quintessential source. Mormons hold this book to be scripture, so you can rest assured that if it’s in there, we believe it. This brief explanation is helpful in describing who wrote the Book of Mormon. Anyone can read the Book of Mormon online, download the ebook, download the audio book, or request a free Book of Mormon hard copy.
I like these sources because they aren’t the sterilized byproduct of some official PR group within the church, nor are they the raging opinions of angry blogging conspiracy theorists. If you are looking for unbiased information, I’d consider these the best place to look.
In high school I was often approached by friends who had misunderstandings about my church (Don’t Mormon’s have to wear white shirts and ties and take a two year bicycle trip pilgrimage to Salt Lake City?). I’ve come to realize why Mormons are especially vulnerable to such misunderstandings.
Mormonism, like any other religion, believes in hundreds or even thousands of doctrines and principles, which stem from a variety of sources, including scriptural sources, interpretations of those sources, teachings of church leaders, and others. Also, like other religions, these doctrines are not all equal in significance. While some are considered fundamental foundations to the church, others are more trivial. For example, ask any Christian if they believe that a flood covered the whole earth and all animal life boarded a boat and floated to safety. Some will say yes, some will say maybe, and some will have personal interpretations of the biblical story, but in the end, it is a trivial detail in Christian doctrine. In this respect, Mormonism has its own “flood stories”, as well as the ones that it shares with Christianity.
In addition, everybody on the earth, including those of the LDS faith, develops their own personal beliefs over their lifetime which come from their religious interpretations, political beliefs, family, education and experience. It is important to remember that though these beliefs may be held by many in a church (especially Mormons who often form tight-knit communities of friendship), they do not constitute the beliefs of the whole church. For example, if you ask Mormons their beliefs regarding evolution, you’ll probably get mixed responses. My (Mormon) college biology professor loved the beauty and clarity of the principles of evolution. I know others who don’t. At the end of the day, while much has been said about evolution, there is no official church position on the topic.
So what do Mormons believe? The last source I failed to mention above are the church members themselves. Nobody is a better expert on what they believe than them. So don’t hesitate to ask me! I always enjoy a good conversation on religion.