Portions of this text were published previously in “Thirty Years After the Long-Promised Day: Reflections and Expectations” (BYU Studies) and “Mormon Beliefs Not Peculiar” (Honolulu Advertiser)
Religion was an ever-present and powerful force in Brazilian society during my childhood, and the deep religiosity of my grandmothers, who both came from diverse religious backgrounds, had a deep impact on me. Even though they both passed away while I was still a child in the 1960s, their legacy for me was one of enduring faith and reverence for God and sacred things.
Then, in mid-1972, the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to my home and started teaching my family. I immediately identified with Joseph Smith. He had been a teenager when he received his First Vision, and since, in 1972, I was almost the same age as Joseph was in 1820, somehow I felt that someone that young would not have lied to the whole world about something so serious and extraordinary. As I studied the materials the missionaries brought to my family, especially the Book of Mormon, my conviction grew and eventually we were baptized into the Church.
After almost four decades, I still feel a deep appreciation for the religion I embraced in my youth. But, having researched and pondered much over the years, I would say that my conviction has been replaced by a high level of assurance concerning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its beliefs.
As I survey how the Church is regarded in society, many articles and newscasts report that members of other religious denominations label Mormon beliefs as atypical, peculiar, or even “strange.” But how strange are they?
One of the central beliefs is that God is a real being, a literal Heavenly Father to humankind, possessing a tangible, perfect body of flesh and bones. Another is that Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead was a literal one, and that through him all humankind is guaranteed a future resurrection with tangible, perfect bodies, free of diseases or death. I recall one gentleman who asked me, “Why in the world would God want to have a body?” As a senior citizen suffering the ravages of age, he had a hard time understanding that. In my reply I asked him what he would feel like if he could have a perfect body—free of diseases, disabilities, pains, aging, and death. Envision this resurrected body being able to enjoy the warmth of the sun, the softness of the wind, the warm embrace of a loved one, and all other joys of a righteous life … forever. To me, that sounds like a wonderful prospect, not a “strange” one.
Another area often mentioned in articles is the Latter-day Saint belief in temples, and the fact that whatever happens inside those majestic buildings is not disclosed to the general public. The influence of these temples in Mormon life can be evaluated using Jesus’ own standard, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (St. Matthew 7:20). Through those sacred religious ceremonies each Latter-day Saint, young or old, male or female, is encouraged to live a good life improved by faith in God, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreation. They are also taught to be honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and to do good to all people. Even not knowing what happens inside those Mormon temples, any reasonable person can look at these effects and conclude that something good comes out of this belief.
Combine these two beliefs—a future literal resurrection and a covenant-based, principles-centered life—and the result is a theology that raises humankind to a higher, nobler status of existence. Rather than the traditional scientific view that human beings are a higher form of animal life, the theology restored through Joseph Smith introduces to the world the view that while in this mortal stage humans are a lower, ready-to-be-perfected form of divine life, possessing by nature latent divine attributes that can emerge and develop through conformity to the laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I love this idea, and I see in it the mind and works of a real, tangible Supreme Being, in whose image humankind has been created, who feels for and loves his children with a perfect love and paternal care.
In Joseph Smith’s own words:
The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them … This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to me by the revelations of Jesus Christ; and I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life as they are given to me, you taste them, and I know that you believe them … [and] you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 354-355)
Mormonism indeed introduces to the world extraordinary claims and beliefs. After all these years of membership I still find myself amazed at how these beliefs are intellectually stimulating, spiritually uplifting, filling one with a generally positive outlook and desire for personal development, family unity, and wholesome engagement with the world—not a mere preparation for a heaven in the hereafter, but a continual effort to make our current environment more heavenly here and now.
Perhaps my personal history as a Latter-day Saint will forever be linked to a broader discussion of the interaction between race and religion. Until June of 1978, no male member of the Church with Black African ancestry could be ordained to the church’s priesthood, a practice that started in the mid-1800s. The American society of the nineteenth century was at best ambivalent about the application of its constitutional values to race relations, and the priesthood ban practiced by Mormons can be seen as a reflection of that uncertainty. Other religious denominations of that time also responded to that uncertainty in ways that, by today’s standards, are no less problematic. Denominations opened their priesthoods to people of different races, but generally they did so in strictly segregated congregations. The top Mormon leadership of the nineteenth century did not segregate their congregations, and clearly pointed out that future divine direction would clear the matter up. We believe that such direction finally came in 1978. In the meantime, members and lay leaders attempted on their own to find possible reasons for the existence of the ban. Those attempts led to the unofficial adoption of pre-existing ideas about the Black race well known in other religious traditions for centuries.
But religions are not necessarily racist. People carry in their minds cultural traits and shared beliefs of their larger societies. Unfortunately, instead of using their religious beliefs to refine their cultural beliefs, religious denominations have historically used some interpretation of their religious beliefs to validate cultural traits. That’s how African slavery was supported for centuries by most of the religious establishment.
As a sociologist, I see as almost unavoidable the influence of cultural traits and social norms on religious life. Even the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr., acknowledged that possibility by stating in 1835 that “many, having a zeal not according to knowledge, and not understanding the pure principles of the doctrine of the Church, have, no doubt, in the heat of enthusiasm, taught and said many things which are derogatory to the genuine character and principles of the Church; and for these things we are heartily sorry, and would apologize, if apology would do any good.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 80)
I often receive a lot of questions about my experiences. I love my religion and I have never found in its official doctrine any evidence of racism. Instead, I found words such as these: “[God] doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. . . . Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation. . . . and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, 2 Nephi 26:24, 33)
I lived through the last six years of the priesthood ban, and after its lifting I was the first member of my race to serve as a full-time missionary. Now, almost thirty years later I am a high priest and an ordained bishop, and my two sons are also priesthood holders—one also an ordained bishop and the other an elder. My late father, Helvécio Martins, served as a general authority of the Church between 1990 and 1996, being a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy.
Many of the extraordinary blessings, privileges, and promises contained in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ can be enjoyed right here, right now. These extraordinary beliefs have strengthened my faith and led me forward all these years. I still have many unanswered questions, but I have no doubts.
There are many good churches in the world, many great philosophies that provide varying measures of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction to billions of people. But in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have found the power of the priesthood, the oracles of God, his living prophets, and the ordinances that can prepare all who so desire to once again enter the presence of God, clothed in immortality and eternal life, to enjoy the supernal benefits of that environment with their families.
Dr. Marcus Helvécio T. A. Martins is the former chair of the Department of Religious Education at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, where he has taught church organization, marriage, and leadership. He was elected “Teacher of the Year” by BYU-Hawaii’s President’s Council in 2002.
A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he worked for the Brazilian government as a systems analyst before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Business Management, a master’s in Organizational Behavior, and a Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion, Race, and Ethnic Relations, all from Brigham Young University.
Professor Martins previously taught at BYU (Provo) and Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), having also spoken in conferences and other engagements throughout the U.S., Brazil, China, Japan, Malaysia, Qatar, and Singapore. He is the author of the book Setting the Record Straight: Blacks and the Mormon Priesthood (Millennial Press, 2007) and is currently finishing The Bishop: Steward of God, Agent of Salvation.
In the Church, Brother Martins has served twice as bishop and six times as stake high councilor, as well as temple officiator, translator of the Book of Mormon, and Sunday School and Institute teacher. He is married to Mirian Abelin Barbosa, and they have four children and two granddaughters.
Posted December 2009