INDEPENDENCE, MO. - With a stark white statue of Jesus - his arms
stretched out before him, palms up in invitation - four missionaries
sing hymns to carry a message Mormons have been trying to get across
They work six days a week at the visitors center of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declaring to all who will stop
and listen that they worship Jesus Christ.
And yet the missionaries work against a backdrop far bigger than
an 8-foot-tall likeness of Christ.
The young women are on peculiar soil, just feet from a small,
scrubby plot of land sacred only within Mormonism. It's a setting
that in some ways distracts from their effort to draw ties between
Mormons and other Christians.
In 1831, founder Joseph Smith declared that the righteous would
gather in Independence to greet the second coming of Jesus Christ -
yet another of his prophecies that estranged the faith from
"I feel so humble knowing what will happen here," said Camille
Cashmore, 21, who is on an 18-month mission from California. "This
is where God called me to be, to help build up Zion."
Few places have greater historic and religious significance to
Mormons than western Missouri. Likewise few places have been the
site of greater Mormon conflict.
In the 1830s, Smith's prophecies sent thousands of the converted
west from Ohio and upstate New York to claim their New Jerusalem.
Disputes with Missourians led to a bloody Mormon War that ended only
when the state's governor issued an "extermination order" to expel
Today, few places are better to contemplate the evolving - but
still uncertain - relationship between Mormonism and the country
where it was founded.
On the one hand, Missouri symbolizes how far Mormons have come.
At least 66,000 Mormons now live in the state, more than triple the
number of just three decades ago. Most recently, the LDS church has
built a temple in Kansas City, near the epicenter of the Mormon War.
But Missouri also serves to highlight the intractable differences
between mainstream Christianity and Mormon theology.
Independence and other nearby sites in western Missouri -
including a pasture 70 miles north that Smith tied to the Garden of
Eden - serve to emphasize distinctive Mormon beliefs. Those
differences are amplified by Mormons' new scriptures, peculiar
doctrines and the abandoned practice of polygamy.
A November poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found
that half of non-Mormons do not consider Mormons Christian and when
asked to describe the faith in one word, the most common response
That tension of a faith still on the edges of acceptance and yet
growing in popularity has surfaced with the nomination of Mitt
Romney as the Republican candidate for president. It has been
highlighted further by the popularity of the Broadway musical "The
Book of Mormon," which pokes fun at elements of the faith.
All the attention has added up to what has been dubbed the
"Mormon moment." And many Mormons have greeted it with a measure of
ambivalence. A January Pew poll reinforces that anxiety, with two-
thirds of Mormons saying they don't believe they are accepted as
part of mainstream society.
"I think some people have a sense of anxiety, and maybe a little
hesitancy to speak up and share right now," said Ben Munson, a Lake
Saint Louis resident who serves on the church's regional public
affairs council. "But there are others who look at this moment as a
huge opportunity to share the gospel with a co-worker or a friend."
A NEW JERUSALEM
Long before this Mormon moment, Americans were fixated by a new
and strange Christian movement - one that triggered conflict
wherever it was practiced.
Smith burst onto the young nation's religious landscape during
the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and '30s, a period of
religious revival that included widespread belief across American
Christianity that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent. …