Monday, February 19, 2007

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Right Across the Street from Lincoln Center

As the Holy Book says:

The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”

“The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.

The crowning event recorded in the Book of Mormon is the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ among the Nephites soon after his resurrection. It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.

After Mormon completed his writings, he delivered the account to his son Moroni, who added a few words of his own and hid up the plates in the hill Cumorah. On September 21, 1823, the same Moroni, then a glorified, resurrected being, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language.

In due course the plates were delivered to Joseph Smith, who translated them by the gift and power of God. The record is now published in many languages as a new and additional witness that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that all who will come unto him and obey the laws and ordinances of his gospel may be saved.
Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

In addition to Joseph Smith, the Lord provided for eleven others to see the gold plates for themselves and to be special witnesses of the truth and divinity of the Book of Mormon. Their written testimonies are included herewith as “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses.”

What I Knew Before Sunday

The one thing I knew about the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon Church, was that they believe in posthumous conversion.

My mother went through a serious genealogy kick wherein she spent many hours at our local Mormon church’s Family History Center. The ladies who worked there were lovely and helpful people who made their genealogy database freely available to her. It was then that we learned that the Mormon Church collects genealogical information because they believe that people can be baptized into the Mormon Church after they have died. Many Mormons, understandably, have felt the urge to baptize their ancestors. And guess what - a lot of their ancestors are your ancestors too! Thus, no matter what religion or form of atheism you and your family currently practice, odds are, many of your great-grandparents are now Mormons. So are most of our country's Founding Fathers and the deceased United States Presidents (Is this disturbing? I haven’t decided. On the one hand, it is not very nice of them to convert people without their permission. On the other hand, if you don’t believe that their conversion of your ancestors is valid, then why concern yourself about it?)

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, to give one perspective, has argued that baptizing deceased Holocaust victims destroys their dignity, seeing as to how they died more or less for their religion. In 2005, the Church issued the perplexing response, "It is important to stress that the freedom of choice remains a prevailing concept behind baptism for the dead... The freedom of the recipient to accept or reject the ordinance is an overarching principle ... " The Church now says if there are any objections to someone being baptized, you can ask them not to do it.

I went into this weekend’s religious experience without a guide because I do not know any actively practicing Mormons in New York (there are about 40,000, according to the Church). I do know, though, where they spend their time. The LDS church has a Temple in Manhattan, directly across the street from Lincoln Center. The building is only a few years old. It's built of classy, understated stone, and it really matches Lincoln Center very well. On the top of the building stands a statue of the angel Moroni (the one who gave the tablets to Joseph Smith).

I called the temple in the middle of last week to see if it allowed visitors. A nice lady by the name of Sister Ann Frost answered the phone. She seemed to be about 100 years old and she did not seem to know very much about the services. She did know that visitors were allowed in the chapel part of the building, where the regular worship services were held (there are three services each Sunday morning), but not in the Temple part of the building, where the more serious rites are performed (baptisms and such). This is a standard difference - there are LDS chapels all over the place, but there is only one Temple in New York. And unfortunately, only members of the Church who had been members “in good standing” for more than a year were able to go in it. This pretty much excluded me and my co-adventurer of the day, the Companionable Atheist.

Oh well. Fear Not The Gods is nothing if not devoted. The chapel would have to do.

On the bright side, Sister Ann Frost told me that one of the three Sunday morning services was at 12:30 PM. This meant that I could sleep until 11:30 and still pay my weekly homage to the gods.

Entering the Church

As I walked up toward the building, I saw people leaving from the last service. A mom in a floral print dress, a blond dad in a suit, and a little girl in a velvet dress and tights posed for a photograph in front of the doors.

Though the LDS building’s façade is impressive, the entrance and everything I saw was quite modest. Honestly, it looked like a small, modest hotel lobby, with a floral print couch (it looked like the one Hillary Clinton made her “I’m running for President” speech on), and a couple florid 19th-century-style paintings of Jesus doing various things.

A friendly receptionist greeted me the moment I walked in the door. (This rarely happens when you go into a synagogue). I told him about Sister Ann Frost and said the magic words, “We’re just visitors, we’re curious about the service,” and he just melted. “Great!” he said. “The service is on the third floor. I believe Colin is going up there right now. Want to go with him?”

We went over and introduced ourselves to Colin, a tall guy in his early 20s. Colin wore a nice suit, but he had a messy pile of hair and a sleepy stare that said to me, “In another life, I could potentially have been a huge stoner.” In this life, as far as I could tell, Colin was a devout Mormon, and he was definitely a friendly guy, totally comfortable with having a couple of total newcomers thrown his way. Recently returned from his two-year mission trip to Rio de Janeiro, Colin was finishing up a Construction Management major at Brigham Young University. Along with his sister Lucy, Lucy’s boyfriend, and a couple more related young people, Colin was visiting his brother in Brooklyn and scouting out a potential move to New York.

I explained myself and my background. I have this shtick totally down by now (that I’m Jewish, that I’m visiting different religious communities and looking at their approaches to involving their young people). Young religious people tend to respond very well to this shtick – as minorities within the broader American culture, they often feel like visitors. Older religious people tend to respond to it well because they’re thrilled when young people do anything religious. Even though my intro lines are completely true, I still feel like I’m putting something over on my hosts when I give them. I think this is basically because most people who come into worship services for the first time are spiritual seekers looking for homes, and while I’m a spiritual seeker in some sense, I’m honestly more like a spy.

Colin visibly brightened when I explained my background. “Oh, that’s so interesting. Yeah, that’s cool. My dad lives here in New York. He’s a lawyer. He has a partner of the, um, the Jewish faith, Ira.” Colin was clearly not sure whether it was okay to call someone a Jew. I thought that was kind of cute.

We went up to the third floor in a wood-paneled elevator, which was decorated with wood engravings of beehives. Colin, taking his job as emissary very seriously, explained that Brigham Young adopted the symbol of the beehive to represent his group’s hard working spirit (Utah is now known as the Beehive State). The Companionable Atheist noted that this is an image from the Aeneid.

The Sacrament Meeting

We entered the chapel. Spoiled as I have become from my tour of New York religious institutions, I was slightly disappointed by the chapel. I could not have imagined a simpler, plainer room. The back half of it, in fact, was a basketball court. A movable room divider divided the chapel from the basketball court. The divider was noisily closed at the beginning of the service, and then noisily reopened about half way through, when so many latecomers had showed up that the pews were all filled up.

The front half of the chapel was just a room – a nice room, with bare walls and polished wooden pews. (“Mormon temples are all built with the finest materials,” Colin explained.) There was not so much as a cross in sight. A podium stood at the front of the room, on a raised stage. A blue Kleenex box sat prominently next to the podium. A plain wooden organ stood behind the stage.

The hundred-plus churchgoers all seemed to be under 30, which struck me as peculiar until Colin explained that I had wandered into the “singles’ service.” (I am sure it is not a coincidence that the singles’ service took place at 12:30 PM. What a great idea. Episcopalians and Jews: Take note!

I found these churchgoers to be a strikingly homogeneous group. They were all under 30, nice-looking, well-groomed people. The vast majority were white, though I did see a few blacks, Asians and Hispanics.

Mormon scripture says the following:
And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities." (2 Nephi 5:21)
2 Nephi also forbids miscegenation between the races, and describes Native Americans as being idle and "full of mischief and subtlety" (2 Nephi 5:24).
However, the LDS church has altered its approach to non-whites in recent years, and since 1978, African-Americans have been allowed to become priests in the Mormon church.

The men looked earnest and well-groomed. The women wore skirts or dresses (not one pair of pants in the place) and were perfectly put together – not a hair out of place, not an ear without an earring, not an eyelash without mascara, not a foot without a dainty high heel. I felt, and I’m somewhat ashamed to say this, as if there were a big flashing sign with a flashing arrow pointing at my head, that said “BIG JEW.” My hair was frizzy. My boots were dirty, and my skirt was totally wrong.

But whatever, they couldn’t have been nicer to me. I was just prejudiced. And nervous.

The weird thing was that they seemed to be nervous too. All the people who went up to give prayers were so nervous they could barely get the words out. Many of the women continued to seem nervous in the Sunday School that followed the service. They generally answered questions tentatively, or vaguely, and many spoke in high registers that were clearly not their normal tones of voice. Clearly, these were some really, really good girls.

The service was entirely lay led. A couple Brothers (official church members) were in charge of the whole thing. After everyone shuffled in and the organist stopped playing, one of the Brothers read the announcements (a brilliant approach to the ever-problematic announcements, because nobody is bored of being there yet). Colin’s sister Lucy sat in front of us during the service, and cuddled and smooched her boyfriend a fair number of times throughout. However, her boyfriend too was so clean cut and friendly looking that it was hard to see how Colin or even a Brother would have been able to object.

They sang two hymns. The singing quality was excellent – everybody actually sang in four part harmony like the hymnals say you’re supposed to.

Next, a solemn cohort of about eight guys went up to the front of the room and began to pass around the sacrament – the Mormon equivalent of the Communion, representing the body and blood of Christ. However, since Mormons don’t drink alcohol, they passed out tiny individual plastic cups of water instead of wine. Instead of communion wafers, they passed around silver trays with torn up pieces of what looked like Wonderbread on them. Colin told me I could partake of the sacrament if I wanted to, but I passed it along.

We then got to the core of the service, which was two “testimonies” given by two relatively new members of the congregation. These two, a man and a woman, both about 25 years of age, had been tapped by leadership to give their personal testimonies on the theme of “Faith and Jesus Christ.”

Wow. These were the most gaspingly emotional and sincere, as well as the least coherent sermons I have ever heard. The man tried to give a straight ahead lecture on the meanings of the word faith. The woman read from her conversion journal. Apparently she had found the faith beginning around the age of sixteen, when she started going to LDS services with a cousin. The community welcomed her, she said, and she embraced the faith fully. However, this did not in any way shake her relationship with her father, a lapsed Catholic. She interpreted her father’s dramatic recovery from a heart condition (after a successful surgery) as a miracle, a sign from God that the religion was true and that Jesus loved her. She spoke lovingly of her father, even though he didn’t understand her faith. She said she knew he’d join her in heaven. Both speakers ended with what must have been the ritual closing words, which were something like, “I testify that these books [gesturing to the Bible and the Book of Mormon] are true and that Jesus Christ is our lord and Gordon Hinckley is our modern day prophet.”

Gordon Hinckley is the current (fifteenth) Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Then another young congregation member sang a Christian pop song, accompanied by a pianist.

Then another volunteer came up to give a closing prayer for the service. Like the opening prayer, this seemed to be spontaneous, or at least to have no specific form.

The Sunday School
At the end of the service, which lasted a little bit more than an hour, almost all the churchgoers split up into groups to go to Sunday School. Everyone, of every age, goes to Sunday School in a Mormon church – each week, the topic of discussion is assigned by headquarters in Salt Lake City.

We went up to a classroom on the fourth floor. Another earnest young man – maybe early thirties – led the discussion, which was on miracles. Forty or fifty young people crowded into the room to join the discussion.

Like the service, the class began with a member of the rank and file giving a prayer, “that we’ll understand and use what we learn today, and that we’re thankful for everything we have.”

Then class began. “Can anyone tell me what a miracle is?” he asked. People raised their hands and gave the standard definitions – something you can’t explain, something out of the ordinary. “Do miracles happen today?” he asked. A girl raised her hand, and answered, “Maybe we don’t notice them because The Adversary is so much stronger these days and with all the technology we don’t really know what a miracle is.”

The point about the Adversary got my attention but nobody really pursued this line of thinking. It is difficult for me to recap the thread of the conversation, because, quite frankly, the participants seemed totally confused. No elements of Mormon theology were made clear to me. There was almost no teaching; almost no reference to any text. The one text they did use was the story in the New Testament, I think in Mark, where a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s robe and is cured. All agreed that this was a miracle. Comments were something like the following:

“It was a miracle that he knew who she was, when he turned around and picked her out of the crowd.”

“It was a miracle because he didn’t set out to cure her, she was cured just by touching his robe.”

The Sunday school teacher let participants lead the discussion, which wandered away from the theme of miracles as God does them, and toward, if you give a homeless person something to eat, is that maybe a miracle? The teacher didn’t seem to have an answer in mind, so people just kept bringing up things they thought might be miracles.

The one theological element they did agree on was that miracles shouldn’t be used to prove to unbelievers that God existed. “Miracles are a magnifying glass,” one girl said. “It’s like your faith is written on a piece of paper, small, and a miracle just allows you to see it better, but it doesn’t create faith.” She said that someone had taught her this in seminary, and it was the closest thing to a coherent point about faith anyone made in the 45-minute class.

After class we said goodbye to Colin, Lucy and their friends. “Does one of you have an address?” asked Colin. “So we can send you a Book of Mormon, maybe?”

I happily gave him my card – it’s my work address, so I’m not worried about anyone showing up on my doorstep - and I escaped into the cold air.

When I got home, I Wikipedia’ed until my eyes burned. The story of Mormonism – both the founding story, and the subsequent travels of the LDS church’s followers, are truly astounding. I bought a book about Joseph Smith’s life and I’m going to post excerpts here over the next few days if at all possible.

And one last note - on the way home, the Companionable Atheist and I passed the Society for Ethical Culture (basically an Atheist Club), and the Companionable Atheist said, “You should go there next!” I rolled my eyes. “Come on! Those guys? But, ugh, they’re so self-righteous. So set in their ways, so uninterested in anyone else’s point of view…. Um….”

The Companionable Atheist raised an eyebrow. And yea, Hannah was thereupon shown to be a hypocrite. So we’ll probably go at some point. But what I really mean is that it’s probably a whole bunch of nonpracticing Jews, who sit around, talking about how they’re the ones who have the right answers about how a person should live her life….

Oh. There I go again. Oops.


Mark said...

Sounds like quite the experience. For the readers, I'd like to share my own close encounter of the Mormon kind, this one while I was in Seoul, Korea during the summer of 2004:

Read it here on my archived Seoul Blog
--scroll down to July 22.

Companionable Atheist said...

Good and funny account. Mostly correct. Remember I suggested that they distorted the story in Mark immediately after reading it? I was right:

"Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction. 30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My clothes?”
31 But His disciples said to Him, “You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’”
32 And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. 33 But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. 34 And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” "

Notice how the only thing Jesus knows is that "a power has gone out of him." He does not know who touched him. That part the Mormons made up out of whole cloth. Well that and Mormonism.

Hannah said...

CA, you're absolutely correct. Their reading was way off. But as we established, they didn't care.

melinama said...

As I recall you knew a, uh, lapsed Mormon in high school, didn't you have a book of Mormon back then?

Hannah said...

yup. In fact - it might still be at your house, ma...

Mark said...

I wish I still had my copy of the Book of Mormon, if for no other reason than for the illustrations I mentioned in my little writeup. Here's a similar pic I found via Google.

Anonymous said...

It does depend on what bible you are reading from. The LDS faith uses the New King James version of the bible.

I have to wonder just how fruitful all of this "spying" on religion really is. If ones heart isn't open to hearing some truth that they hadn't previously known, then your adventures are nothing more than a sight-seeing tour of religion. The very essence of religion is to FEEL not to no religion can be proven. How can you ever really know how religion impacts a person unless you try to have the experiences that they are trying to have? The experiences they are having are being FELT--not observed. It seems that what you are doing is a great idea in theory, but in order to really work, in order to really understand how religion affects people, you need to open your heart. Maybe you are a little afraid of what you might feel.

The real challenge may be to go back to that beautiful LDS temple, by yourself...perhaps the atheist peer pressure was a bit much...and open your heart and see what you feel. Then you may have an experience worthy of sharing with others. Good luck in your endeavors!

Anonymous said...

If you want a real experience, come up to my Mormon ward in the Bronx. It's even less organized and even more crazy. Plus, it's about the most ethnically diverse group you could think of.

Thanks for the write-up, though. You were incredibly honest and seemed to come to the conclusion most of my non-LDS friends come to: we're strange but generally nice and relatively harmless

Anonymous said...

Hey, i just wanted to leave a comment really quick, I'm sorry i actually didn't read the whole thing, cause i'm actually in a bit of a hurry and just found this while i was looking for something else. I did read the part about Mormons baptizing the Dead, and that now everyones ancestors are mormons. While, it's true that we do geneology to better know our heritage, and to also have them baptized, the mormon church is VERY "pro choice," They are baptized inbehalf of those who have died, but it doesn't automatically mean that they are mormon. We believe that we are just giving them a choice. They can accept or reject it. We do it so that they have the opportunity.

becca said...

I found your blog while googling for a picture of the new york temple.

I'm a 22-year-old Mormon living in New York City, and I'm actually a current member the ward that you visited. I think it's great that you're investigating different religions.

I also saw a post with a quote from the Joseph Smith book you bought. I sounds like that's some anti-Mormon literature you've gotten your hands on. Pretty biased. And many un-truths.

If you have any other questions about Mormonism you're welcome to visit or email me at

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your post (you're quite witty) about your experiance as a visitor in an LDS Sunday meeting. I happened on your site looking for the picture "Mark" gave reference to. As I started to read, I couldn't stop. Pretty typical of a singles (esp. a young singles ward) ward, you should try a family ward service some time (it's more satisfying to me anyway).

What I wanted to say was that after a temple is completed, there will be an organized open house (typically multiday) for the general public. During the open house, information will be provided to explain the different functions and ceremonies performed in the temple and answer questions. After the open house, the temple will be dedicated to the Lord and open only to worthy Church members. You can find what Temples are going to have open houses and when on this site:,11206,1900-1,00.html
(just click on the Temple "under construction" at the bottom for an open house date.)

Here is an excellent site to learn more about Temples, if you are interrested:

Here is also an incredible video:,11206,1900-1,00.html

sorry to bombard. :)

Have a fun investigation, you are welcoma ANY time!
~MJ ~ Utah

(sorry I don't know how to do links)

Anonymous said...

If you wish to learn about Joseph (not Joe, Joseph) Smith, you would well advised to read a book written about him by those who knew him. ['The History of Joseph Smith' by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, 'The Life and Times of Joseph Smith' by Richard L. Bushman & 'Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling' by Richard L. Bushman also.] The best sources to find these are to go to or