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Your quick A-to-Z guide to Mormonism


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Liahona• In the Book of Mormon, this compass helped a principal prophet and his family find their way in the wilderness. This instrument worked according to the faith and faithfulness of its holders. In LDS lore, it rested with the gold plates — from which Joseph Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon. The plates and Lehi’s Liahona, according to church history, were returned to Angel Moroni, the last prophet in the Book of Mormon. Today, the church publishes an international magazine called the Liahona.

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Missionaries• Surely you’ve seen them. They travel two by two — the younger-than-ever men in white shirts and ties and the younger-than-ever women in dresses or skirts — with scriptures in hand, planners in pockets and high hopes in their hearts. They walk, bike, bus and drive. They wake at 6:30 a.m. and go to sleep at 10:30 p.m. In between, there are hours of studying, prayer and proselytizing. They get no salary. In fact, they (and/or their families) usually pay about $400 a month. Full-time Mormon missionaries number 75,000, serving in 405 missions around the world. That’s up nearly 30 percent since last October, when LDS leaders lowered the minimum age to 18 (down from 19) for men and 19 (down from 21) for women. The men go out for two years; the women for 18 months. Retired couples also don missionary name badges and serve for varying lengths of time.

Nauvoo• This western Illinois city on the banks of the Mississippi River blossomed into the LDS Church’s headquarters from 1839 to 1846. There, the Mormons built a fast-growing community that almost rivaled Chicago. There, they established a militia with Joseph Smith as commander. There, they built their second temple, before abandoning it for the trek to Utah. (It was torched in 1848 and rebuilt in 2002.) And there, they buried their beloved prophet, Joseph, and his brother, Hyrum, after they were murdered in nearby Carthage.

Oil• Mormon men ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood use olive oil, which they have consecrated with a special prayer, to bless the sick. They often carry small vials of this oil in their pockets or on their key chains.

Polygamy• At one time, polygamy played a central role in Mormonism. Now, any members participating in it are excommunicated. The Utah-based faith officially swore off plural marriage in 1890, when then-President Wilford Woodruff issued his "Manifesto." Some splinter groups still practice polygamy. And even mainstream Mormon scriptures describe and defend it. In fact, Mormon men can be "sealed," or married for eternity, in temples to multiple women, but a woman can be sealed to only one man.


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Quorum of the Twelve Apostles • Together, these men, each one ordained as "prophets, seers and revelators," rank as the second-highest governing body (after the First Presidency) in the LDS Church. Members of the Twelve serve for life and are seen as "special witnesses" of Christ. When a Mormon president dies, the governing First Presidency is dissolved and the longest-tenured apostle becomes the global church’s next leader.

Relief Society• All adult women in the LDS Church belong to this organization, which Joseph Smith began 171 years ago. Each Mormon ward, or congregation, has a Relief Society, which provides, among other offerings, compassionate service to members such as meals to the grieving, homebound and heartbroken. Each ward also has a Relief Society president and she, in turn, has two female counselors. Same goes for LDS stakes, which oversee clusters of congregations. Churchwide, the general Relief Society president is Linda K. Burton. Her counselors are Carole M. Stephens and Linda S. Reeves.

Saints• No St. Peter. No St. Francis. No St. Catherine. You won’t find any patron saints in LDS theology. But you’ll find plenty of saints in Mormonism. In fact, every member is seen as one — thus the name Latter-day Saint. It is a title earned not through saintly deeds, but rather through a singular act: joining the LDS Church.

Tithing• Devout Mormons donate a tenth of their income to the church as tithing. This money helps pay for the chapels, temples, universities, welfare operations and more. The faith’s ruling councils — the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Presiding Bishopric — oversee how the funds are spent. How much money are we talking about? That information is not publicly available. However, an investigation by Reuters and a University of Tampa sociologist, reported in a Businessweek article last year, estimated that the LDS Church amasses up to $8 billion a year in tithing.

Urim and Thummim• Huh? These instruments are mentioned in Hebrew and Mormon scriptures. Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith, following in the footsteps of ancient prophets, used the Urim and Thummim to translate much of the Book of Mormon. At one point, the LDS founder described them as "two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate."

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