An Evangelical Service with a Mormon Twist: Naperville First Ward, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, Naperville, Illinois, 9 December 2001

Article excerpt

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world, most nonmembers know only nonmembers' rumors about what the church and its memberspopularly known as Mormons-do and believe. These rumors kicked into overdrive when a son of the church, Mitt Romney, started his campaign for president of the United States in February 2007. Some of these rumors have a basis in fact; the church does practice baptism for the dead, for instance, and during its early history it did encourage polygamy. And many non-members are also put off by the clandestine ethos of the faith. Its temples, located in many large cities, are open only to church members in good standing, and the rituals performed there are secret. When Romney withdrew from the presidential campaign in February 2008, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story under the headline "Hang-ups over Mormonism proved Romney's undoing."

But a suspicious non-member wandering into a local Mormon parish (called a ward) for the standard Sunday service (called a sacrament meeting) would likely find most of it surprisingly similar to an ordinary American evangelical Protestant service. Only occasionally would the non-member notice something a litde different.

A common assumption about the Latter-day Saints is that all Mormons are white, conservative, and family focused. Like most stereotypes, that is fairly true, although the church is growing fastest among nonwhite peoples outside the United States. And the stereotype fits Naperville, Illinois, like a glove. A far-western suburb of Chicago, the city is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and politically conservative. With its safe streets and good schools, Naperville, a city of 120,000, was recently voted the most family-friendly city in the country. As an observer might expect in such a community, the Naperville First Ward of the Latter-day Saints is a thriving congregation.

Its building dates to the late 1960s, the first years of Naperville's suburbanization. The white brick building is modern, with an exterior dominated by an aluminum spire. It sits in the middle of a large parking lot on a prominent intersection, near an interstate highway and far from the town's nineteenth-century center. The complex includes class and meeting rooms, as well as the worship space, called the chapel. The ward shares the building with the wards of several nearby towns, which use the chapel and classrooms in rotation during each Sunday.

The chapel is comfortable but plain; rows of padded pews for about 160 people face a stage with a pulpit, theatre-style choir seats, an organ, and a piano. Off to the side is a table for the serving of the sacrament. The room is bright, with translucent windows but no stained glass. There is no cross or other religious decoration, but the stage is backed with a profusion of plants.

It is a comfortable place to worship, and a visitor for the 11 a.m. service on 9 December 2001, finds little to confuse or alienate him. The greeters and ushers are friendly but not intrusive. As the service begins, the pews are almost all full. The congregants are all white, and for the most part sit together as families. The children range in age up to the high school years, and they remain for the entire service. Members greet each other as they take their seats, making sure to introduce themselves to nearby visitors. They dress more formally than most churches in the suburb, with most men in jacket and tie, but the congregation still feels relaxed.

While liturgical churches are still observing Advent, the First Ward is well into its Christmas celebration. Wreaths and poinsettias join the potted plants in the front of the chapel, and the organist play Christmas tunes as the congregation gathers. As they chat, four middle-aged men-the bishop and his counselors-take their places on stage, along with five or six teen-aged and young adult men and women. (The Latterday Saints Church has no paid clergy; all leaders are volunteers. …