As a faith, it has alternately fascinated and worried Americans since it first arose in a New York time more than a century earlier.
It’s been denounced as a cult even as it is embraced by millions. It’s been the butt of jokes and parodies, been the ironic source of an entire Broadway musical and, with the candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney for the presidency, been in the news for months.
Mormonism — the faith of Mormons, often called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — has been scrutinized and analyzed for decades, but still many have no idea what the Christian offshoot believes or practices.
But for local Mormons, the answer is fairly simple. They say they believe what most Christians believe and just want to share that with others in the community.
“It’s not that different,” said Matt Allred, of Loganville, who attends the Mormon church in Walton County. “I have a good friend who’s a Baptist deacon and it’s amazing how much they’re alike.”
There is a lot of confusing and sometimes conflicting information about what the Mormon faith believes, but both Allred and Bishop Keith Bell, leader of the Walton congregation of Mormons, continually used the phrase “Christ-centered” to describe their approach to Christianity.
“We believe in Jesus Christ,” Bell said. “It’s about acknowledging Christ in everything you do. It’s something we all try to emulate.”
The Mormon faith also emphasizes the importance of family. Allred and his wife, Maree, have four children and many other Mormons encourage large families as well.
It’s all part of a consistent approach to their faith, said David W. Bradley, president of the Athens Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As a faith we believe that we have answers to life’s great questions about where we came from, why we are here on earth and what happens after this life,” Bradley said. “We also teach principles associated with happy, successful families and we support strong family relationships. We encourage and teach people how to have a personal relationship with Christ. It is a demanding faith — it requires effort and has many promised blessings associated with it.”
There are differences in practice — Bell, like all Mormon bishops, occupies an unpaid position, as do the rest of the workers at the local church level. Most bishops serve for five years before the state president selects a new leader for the regional stake.
Bell doesn’t preach often, either. With the bishop serving more as an administrative head for the church, Sunday preaching is done by individual parishioners on a weekly basis, most of them volunteers. Bell said it encourages every member of the congregation to read and study the scripture and be able to share it with others.
But while a Mormon church service may not look very dissimilar from a Baptist or Methodist, there are some differences that draw scrutiny.
The biggest difference from older Protestant denominations is the Book of Mormon, a religious text unique to the newer faith.
“It’s another testament of Jesus Christ,” Bell said. “We also believe it’s the word of God.”
The Mormon scripture contains not only the Bible used by all Christian faiths, but also the Book of Mormon and two other texts passed down by Mormonism founder Joseph Smith — Doctrines and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price.
But it’s the Book of Mormon, usually clothed in blue, which Mormon missionaries take with them door-to-door, the usual way those outside the faith encounter the denomination. Mormons are encouraged to take a two-year mission at the age of 19 — or 21 for women — to travel to another community, or even country, to spread the word of the faith. It’s a contributing factor to Mormonism’s spread as the fastest-growing religion on the planet.
That growth is part of the increasing focus on the faith, leading to the various jokes and parodies of the American-born denomination, but the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney has also meant new exposure to the media and the average citizen.
Romney is a Mormon, which drew criticism from some Republicans during the primaries, though that has died down since he took the reins as front-runner to be the eventual nominee against Democrat President Barack Obama.
Bell said all the jokes and parodies actually work to the advantage of Mormons.
“I think it’s great,” Bell said of the pop culture attention. “It gives us a reason to define who we are.”
The Allreds agree.
“It seems to be in the news a lot more often,” Matt Allred said. “It’s an easy topic to talk about now. Rather than dismiss it, they have to take a more honest look.”
And it’s bringing some to Allred’s point of view.
“We’re more alike than we are different,” Allred said. “Once people get to know us, they’re more comfortable with us. Our kids play with their kids and we do the same things.”
In fact, the socially conservative Mormons — who abstain from alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and even caffeine — often fit right in with Walton mores. When the Allreds moved to Georgia a few years ago from Utah, they immediately felt at home.
“There’s great people here,” Maree Allred said. “We’re not different in any sort of weird way. If people wonder about it, they’re certainly welcome to ask. More people are looking at it now, period, and that’s good.”
People can debate the theology of Mormons, though Mormons hold they fall in line with Christianity, but the faith is folding itself more into the mainstream, with Romney’s candidacy and pop culture shout outs making being a Mormon relatively average now.
Matt Allred put it simply.
“We’re just normal people,” Allred said.