By Diane Haag
In the 26 years Brent Merrill has lived in Shreveport, he's heard a
range of reactions to his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints from curious to condemning to "how many wives do you
(Answer: one, and more would get him excommunicated.)
Next week Merrill, the president of the Shreveport Stake or region,
hopes many of the old myths and stereotypes can be corrected through a
lecture/film series at Centenary College.
The event, marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the founder
of the church, Joseph Smith, is sponsored by the church and the
religious studies department at the college. It will bring in some of
the premier scholars of the Latter-day Saints.
"We're thrilled," Merrill said. "We don't have as strong of a foothold
in the South. We're hoping to help understanding of him and his
influence in religious culture."
Peter Huff, chair of the religious studies department, organized the
event and invited the scholars. They include Jan Shipps, a Methodist
and the "foremost non-Mormon, Mormon scholar"; Richard Bushman, a
Latter-day Saint and biographer of Smith; and a dialogue between a
Baptist minister and a professor at Brigham Young University, which is
supported by the church.
"It's extraordinary -- we were able to organize things our way and the
church not only funded it, but opened itself up for public scrutiny,"
Music professor Ross Smith, who is a member of the church and helped
with the event, said the Mormon community is thrilled at the prospects
of the event.
"These are really top scholars in the field," he said. "This is the
first event of its kind in Shreveport."
Merrill hopes church members attending the event become more
comfortable with their religious identity.
"I hope they recognize we have something very precious," he said.
Joseph Smith's story begins in Vermont, where he was born to a poor
farmer. He grew up in upstate New York under the influence of great
religious fervor sweeping the Northeast.
All of the revivals, fiery preaching and new worship styles only
confused the teenage Smith. So he asked God which church to join.
According to Mormon tradition, God appeared to him with an answer: none.
That was the first of several visions which eventually led to his
writing the Book of Mormon (where the nickname for the church comes
from) and founding the church, now headquartered in Salt Lake City.
Nearly 200 years later, Smith is celebrated as prophet by some and
derided as cult leader by others. And academics like Huff are
"He produces a book I can't explain," he said. "I don't accept it as
revelation but it's not plagiarism. For me, he's one of the creative
geniuses that America has produced."
Meanwhile the church is one of the fastest growing in the world and
also gaining more acceptance in the religious community, including a
recent Newsweek cover story.
The local stake includes 3,200 believers in northwest Louisiana,
southern Arkansas and some of east Texas.
Nationally, the religion has grown by more than 400,000 people -- or 7
percent -- from 1999 to 2004. The religion has more than 12 million
"We're growing and being recognized as part of the mainstream,"
Merrill said. "People are finding out we are just like everyone else.
We pray, study scripture and do all those things Baptists and
Methodists and others do."
Over the years, there has been much debate about whether or not the
church is Christian. They say they are Christian, having a belief in
Jesus as the son of God, but they are a "restoration" of the original
church -- so they are not part of either the Catholic or Protestant
One of the scholars, Shipps, will put them in context Tuesday night.
Huff said part of the confusion about classifying LDS comes from
within the church.
"Some see it as a new religion," he said. "Others see it as a restored
Christianity. Latter-day Saints in the second category are interested
in mainstreaming their faith in American culture, developing positive
relations with traditional Christians, especially Evangelicals."(Smith
was) not starting a new denomination," Huff said. "He's not a Baptist
moving away from Calvin. He's claiming direct contact with God."
On social and moral issues, Latter-day Saints resemble other
conservative Christian churches, strongly supporting the family, and
opposing alcohol, pre-marital sex and gambling.
The biggest points of contention between them and other Christians are
the Mormon beliefs in a prophet and in scripture that came after Jesus
and the New Testament.
"We believe (God) leads the church through prophets just like he did
in ancient times," Merrill said.
Merrill and Huff both credit the current growth of the church not to
Smith himself, but to the idea of ongoing revelation and to the fact
that it is a religion that places much demand on followers.
"It's not for the faint of heart. It requires pain and sacrifice,"
Merrill said. "This is not a church where you can just sit back and
ride. We expect everyone to pull."
Courtney Lacy, a religious studies major who attended Centenary's
Mormon study tour this summer, said the believers themselves make the
"They're just really dedicated to what they believe and really
compassionate, generous people," she said. "You know there's something
behind all this."