India’s Own Mormons

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American presidential candidate Mitt Romney might have suddenly made this religious sect famous, but its members have been around in India since 1851

In 2007, ex-Air Force Sergeant Suku Thankappam found himself re-evaluating his life. He was drinking too much. He couldn’t control his temper and got into frequent fights. His marriage was in trouble, for which he had mostly himself to blame. He had been married six years and just couldn’t get along with his wife. He was constantly finding fault with her. “I used to find reasons to shout at her, even for something as simple as the table not being laid the right way, or actually, the way I wanted it done. But even though I was a bad husband, I knew deep down that I wanted to change.”

Thankappam knew his problem, but just couldn’t change himself. So he started asking himself tough questions. ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why don’t I have very many friends?’, ‘Why do I drink so much?’ and ‘Why am I not content with my life?’

It was on the streets of Delhi that he met Mormon missionaries for the first time—preachers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), as it is formally known. They stopped him and asked him to drop by their church if he wanted to find his “faith”. “I was a Hindu, and had been to many temples to find a way out, to let God help me, but nothing worked. But when I met the Mormon missionaries, something clicked,” he says. He soon found himself attending church every week.

The Air-Force sergeant looks quite at ease with himself when we meet him at an LDS church in Vasant Vihar, where he smiles after each sentence as he tells his story. As his church visits increased, he was first asked to give up smoking, then drinking tea, and finally, alcohol. “It was hard, but I knew peace was better than a drink,” he says, “I had been looking for an alternative. I always wondered who my real god was—Brahma, Vishnu? Here I learnt that there is only one Almighty. The Book of Mormon changed my outlook. I have learned to love people and that’s a big thing for the man I used to be. My wife and I are so happy now.”

Of late, Mormonism has been a talking point across the world thanks to Mitt Romney, the leading presidential candidate of America’s Republican party, a man often described as the ‘archetypal Mormon male’ by publications. Last fortnight, it made news in India when reports appeared that the Church of LDS had baptised Mahatma Gandhi in absentia in 1996, and confirmed as much in 2007 at a Mormon temple (distinct from a church) in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Mormonism is a religious movement that owes its origin to the 1823 visions in New York of Joseph Smith: an angel, he said, had directed him to a buried book written on golden plates, a book of the religious history of an ancient people compiled by a prophet-historian called Mormon. In March 1830, Smith published what he said was a translation of these plates as the Book of Mormon. On 6 April 1830, he founded the Church of Christ.

Mormons identify themselves as Christians, but many of their practices differ. They believe that Smith restored Jesus Christ’s church, which they say is still guided by living prophets and apostles. Robert William, country director of the Church of LDS in India, explains the main differences: “First and foremost, we are Christians. We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In my personal view, I see the big differences as, firstly, [our] Church… is a restored church, meaning that this was established on the pattern that Jesus Christ organised his church while he was on earth. Secondly, as part of the restoration, the authority of the priesthood was restored. And lastly, the Book of Mormon, which was translated by Joseph Smith, the prophet of restoration, is another testament of Jesus Christ.” Today, the Church of LDS has its headquarters in Utah, the only state of the US with a Mormon majority, and has spread across the world—the work of young members who are required to convince and convert others to their faith. By one count, just 5.5 million of the estimated 14.1 million Mormons across the world are US residents.

The movement was introduced to India by a Mormon missionary called Joseph Richards, who arrived in Calcutta in mid-1851. However, it was only as late as 1985 that young Indian converts began active evangelism work. Baptisms have risen since. January 1993 saw the setting up of the India Bangalore Mission, aimed at gaining followers. But Mormonism remains a fledgling faith in the country, with only 8,289 churchgoers at last count, most of them in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, though Delhi with its seven branches is getting more and more members too. 

“When I joined the Church in 1994 in Coimbatore,” says William, “there were only 50-70 branch members. Almost 18 years down the road, today we have five branches and a membership of close to 900 [in the district of Coimbatore]. I believe the Mormon faith will grow rapidly. The first thing that attracts people… is God’s Plan of Happiness, which holds answers to life’s purpose and [adhering to] which will lead to resurrection after death. It’s what attracted me as well. The emphasis the Church places on the family is very important. We believe that families can be together forever and this gives us hope of eternal life and exaltation.”

‘Family values’ are central to Mormon beliefs. Abortion and divorce are frowned upon. The family unit is sacred. In a profile on Mitt Romney, the February issue of Vanity Fair cites an anecdote that may be illustrative of this. When Peggie Hayes, a babysitter for the Romneys, became a single mom to a 3-year old after her divorce, Mitt Romney, who was also her church leader then, urged her to give up her child for adoption. The Church, he reportedly told her, encourages adoption in cases where “a successful marriage is unlikely”. In Hayes’ account, Romney even threatened her with excommunication; “Give up your son or give up your God,” was his message.

While the faith is often associated with polygamy (thanks perhaps to TV shows such as Big Love), which was permitted in its early decades, Mormon missionaries say the practice was renounced by the Church of LDS in 1890 and has all but disappeared since. And in most ways, Mormons are expected to lead lives of extraordinary discipline. They are not allowed to smoke or drink, for example, or even have tea or coffee. They are required to give 10 per cent of their salary to the Church. Young adults have to work for it too. On turning 18, they are usually asked to serve as missionaries—boys for two years and girls for 18 months at least. “All this is encouraged but never forced,” says Sathiyanathan Joseph, who has been a member for 40 years and is now branch president of the Vasant Vihar church, “It is all voluntary… LDS churches have very high standards. Just believing is not enough. You need to serve the Lord. Basically, this life is a journey, a preparation to meet God.”

Located in a basement, the church Sathiyanathan Joseph is in charge of has no cross, nor idol of Jesus. “We don’t have an idol on the cross as we know that Jesus was resurrected,” he explains, “If you do the service, we can all be resurrected.”

By now, a few youngsters from Andhra Pradesh who are in Delhi on their two-year mission to spread the word of Mormon in the city have returned to the basement church. They have spent their day stopping people on Delhi’s streets and trying to talk to them about their faith. Sometimes people listen, sometimes they turn away—or get violent. Once in a while, they do get beaten up, admits Emandi, a 26-year-old Mormon. “People don’t understand what we are doing. And they get angry that we are trying to talk to them. No one has patience anymore, so sometimes they get physical,” he says with an air of resignation. To him, it is just another part of his work, which he clearly loves. “It doesn’t matter. I just want to spread the message of the Book of Mormon. We don’t force anyone to convert. We just want them to know. I was a Hindu too, but the Book made me realise who I was, and that’s what’s important.”

Ravi Gupta converted to Mormonism in 2002. His father was a Hindu while his mother had always been Christian. The 26-year-old says he was lost and confused when he joined the church on his mother’s insistence. At first, since he was somewhat cold to religion, he didn’t ask any questions. But one day, while attending a talk on the faith, he felt strangely comforted. “It was such a different experience. I hadn’t thought of religion as fun—where people laughed.”

It took a trip to Bangalore for missionary training for Gupta to be fully convinced. Mormonism not only gave him his real aim in life, he says, it helped him develop a confidence he never knew he had. “I had no friends and was lonely. I studied in a government school, didn’t know English, and was not interested in studies,” he says, “Now I am a BA pass and work with an immigration company. It gave me direction. It gave me focus. I don’t care about the restrictions. By following the commandments, I am free of all bondages of the world. I have no addictions and I don’t miss them.” 

For all that, Mormonism often attracts controversy, and not just for its alleged allowance of polygamy. This is particularly so in the US. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted last November, about half of all White Evangelical Christians polled said they did not consider Mormonism a Christian religion. In their view, since Mormons believe in ‘the restoration of the primitive church, the church that existed in the days of the first Christians’, they ‘by self-definition, do not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of Christian faith’.

Mormons also stand out for their tradition of living apostles. The Church of LDS has a Quorum of Twelve Apostles—righteous men who serve as high priests. The twelve also serve as role models for the faithful.

Consider the case of Robert Antony, a 39-year-old software professional who was once a staunch Catholic and converted to Mormonism 21 years ago. At the time, he didn’t know if he’d done the right thing, but all his doubts disappeared when he met two apostles from Salt Lake City—Neal A Maxwell and Russel M Nelson—on a visit they made to Bangalore. “I was struck by how great people like Apostle Nelson, who was a famous surgeon, would voluntarily give [their] time to the Church. Also, almost 5,000 young missionaries give up two years of their life to spread the message. I wanted to know what the big deal was. So I read the Book of Mormon late into the night. It was very cold in Bangalore that year, but I found myself sweaty, I felt a warmth take me over.”

That is when Antony committed himself to the cause. “My greatest achievement is the knowledge of myself that I gain every day. Who am I? Why should I do this or that? I am guided by Him daily, and we have a living prophet, and that matters a lot.” The biggest change that his faith has brought in him, he feels, is that he now looks at everyone as a “son or daughter of God”. And he is a calmer person too. “I don’t get angry with anyone now. I love everyone because they are all my brothers. I look at my wife as an equal partner, and I know I am a better father and husband because of this.” He pauses. “As a Mormon,” he sums up, “I am indeed a better man.”