Latter-Day Saints in Knox County
by Darleen Feldman and Abby Kennedy

Non-Christians. Polygamists. Cultists. Sexists. Racists. Mormons. These are a few of the labels that are wrongly associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While they are the fastest growing religion in the world, many non-members have a limited understanding and sometime harbor misconceptions about the Church and its ideals. Jim Murray, Branch President of the Mount Vernon Church notes that "historically, perceptions have not always been very fair to Latter-Day Saints." In Knox County, the Church faced some hostility when it was founded in 1976. "The Church kind of limped along for several years after it was founded," says Dewey Day, one of the earliest members of the Church in Knox County. "There was this one minister who was always writing things in the newspaper along the lines of: ‘Beware of the Mormons!' He was always bringing these outlandish lies and distorted facts to the newspaper."

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has a membership of nearly eleven million people, most of whom live outside the United States. The label "Mormons," comes from the Book of Mormon, one of the Church's central texts. Despite this name, Church members are followers of Jesus Christ and therefore dislike being called "Mormon."

"The central part of the religion? Probably the fact that we believe in a living prophet," Linda Pisano, a Knox County Church member explains. "While we believe that universal truths don't change according to people's whims, we have someone on this earth, at this time, who is leading and guiding us." Having a living prophet helps the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints adapt to changing times. Such adaptations include the Church's ban of polygamy and admission of Blacks into the priesthood. This belief, among others, makes the Church more open to issues of diversity.

"The Church has always been a very culturally diverse group," explains Jim Murray. "Even from the very first. The majority of the Ladder-Day Saints that helped the church grow up in Utah were from Europe--England, Scandinavia--very much an artisan class. And then that was replaced by large numbers of new members coming into the church in the Pacific. Then from South America, Continental Europe, and in the latter part of this century, Asia and Africa." When asked about diversity within the church, members cite its worldwide multiculturalism rather than the diversity of the Church's local branch. (In general, members of the Church tend to apply the term "community" to the entire Latter-Day Saint population, instead of limiting it to Church members in Knox County.)

Members admit that there's not a lot of ethnic diversity within the Church in Knox County. Differences have more to do with financial status. "I think that we have a pretty broad spectrum of economic backgrounds," Jim Murray states. "We have a good chunk that are professionals. I can name probably three or four Ph.D.s. We have one gentleman who is a mayor of one of the communities here in Knox County. Some middle-class members. And we have folks who are really struggling. So it's all over the board, from an economic standpoint." All the members stress that their socioeconomic differences do not affect the way they interact.

The local branch of the Church does its best to provide for those who are struggling. Poorer members are encouraged to receive church welfare instead of government welfare. Members who can help out do so by cleaning, cooking, providing transportation, and spiritual support.

The Church does not just care for its own members, but also is largely concerned with actively helping the larger community. Jim Murray believes that members "have a duty and responsibility to help the community we're in. Here there's probably 50,000 people in Knox County but we only have about 250 that are actually Ladder-Day Saints. And so when things happen to the community we feel it's part of our responsibility to help out where we can." Members are involved with Habitat for Humanity, sponsor a yearly blood drive and volunteer at local service organizations such as soup kitchens and women's shelters. These activities strengthen the Church's relationship to the larger community.

"Sometimes we put together things on a worldwide scale, for instance, if there's a national disaster somewhere like South America," Linda Pisano says. Linda's husband, Paul Pisano further explains: "They've had a few projects out in Africa and raised money for the big earthquake in Armenia a few years ago; they've raised money to build a concrete plant and rebuild houses and things like that."

Jim Murray believes these ideals of giving to others are why people are drawn to the church. "They see the things that we do. The commercials. I can remember all the little commercials I saw when I was growing up. They seemed to always get to the heart of the matter about some truism or another. Almost to the point of being innocent about the ways of the world. We look at the way the world should be. And I think that attracts people. That draws them to us."

An astronomical number of people are drawn to the Church, for one reason or another. As many as 300,000 people convert annually. One reason for the large number of converts is the Church's emphasis on missionary efforts. Young men and women of the Church of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are strongly encouraged to spend two years serving the church as missionaries. Linda Pisano comments on the lifestyle of the missionaries: "I think it's pretty amazing oftentimes for people to see 19-year-old guys who quit college, sell everything they have in order to raise enough money to go somewhere for two years. Sometimes they go to third-world countries, sometimes they go to Chicago or L.A. or whatever. And they learn a language, which they might or might not already know."

Elder Kinney (missionaries are called Elders), a missionary currently serving in Knox County's branch, describes how locations are assigned: "We submit our applications to the prophet. Then the Church authorities look at only our names and pictures. Through prayer they decide on a location for us--it could be Italy, South Africa, China, anywhere. I was really excited; all my friends asked me if I was going to Italy or something. And then I opened my envelope and found out I was going to rural Ohio."

"Yeah, I was surprised, too," adds Elder Chapman. "But I've after being here I've realized that I was sent here for a reason. The calling was inspired."

The main task of the missionaries is to spread the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to both members and non-members. They go door-to-door and talk to people about the Church, respond to telephone calls by interested non-members, do community service work, and serve in the church.

The missionaries compare Knox County to other more urban areas. "It's a little harder here because everything is so spread out," admits Elder Kinney. "In the city, we can visit with a lot more people in a day than we can out here in the country. But they also don't want to be bothered. You see all those signs that say: ‘No Soliciting.' Here, in Knox County, people are friendly. Sometimes when non-members find out that we don't have any money, they'll go ahead and invite us into their homes for dinner."

Many of the conversions are due to the efforts of the missionaries. But there are many other reasons why people convert. Jim Murray, for instance, remembers being impressed as a child by the Church's national relief efforts, but did not think seriously about joining the Church until he met his future wife. "I literally had to ask to go to church with her, because she didn't want to push me at all. So we went to church and the very first meeting I went to was a fast and testimony meeting. And I was really taken with how honest people were being about some things, but not the weeping and wailing kind of stuff that you associate with someone bearing a testimony. And that really intrigued me; I just felt something there."

He also sees the Church's emphasis on family values as one of its strongest attractions. "We place such a premium on families," he says. "Right now, there are so many social forces that are really kind of tearing families apart. So I think a lot of people look at the reputation and historical view that the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-Day Saints has about families and I think that interests people."

"The church sets everything out," Linda Pisano comments. "And everyone who teaches, teaches the same lesson on the same day everywhere in the world. We have a certain schedule and structure that's set out. And that way the doctrine, even though we all interpret the doctrine in certain ways, no one is interpreting it differently." Paul adds that: "This is not to say that the leader of the Church does all the members thinking for them, but the essential things are not left to a matter of opinion." Some members feel that the Church's consistency (and stability) is one of its strongest draws.

Church members feel that their service work keeps them connected to the community just as the organization of the church keeps them connected to the Church. Members feel that any isolation is probably a result of their lifestyles. Linda believes that "there are challenges because there are differences in the way we live our lives. It is not always acceptable when someone says do you want coffee and you say no. Tea? No. Pop? No. Cigarette? No. Alcohol? No. I mean, and they're wondering, well, what's wrong with you?"

Most people believe that any isolation of the Church from the greater community in Knox County is decreasing. Jim Murray is optimistic about the relationship of the Church in the greater community: "I think as time has gone by, people have gotten away from those very negative stereotypes. And again, that's happened by us living our lives and people getting used to us within the community. Here we are, these are Latter-Day Saints, this is what we do. No, we're not two-headed; we're not walking around with seven wives and thirty-three kids and whatnot. We're the same as everybody else, really."

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