Baptist Meeting in Mormon Utah Leads to 'Battle of the Bibles'

Two of the most evangelical Protestant faiths compete for conservative converts.

Here in the heart of Mormon country, in a land once called Zion, Southern Baptists came this week to preach the gospel, save souls, and, perhaps, out-missionary the missionaries.

People here are calling it the Battle of the Bibles - a matchup between two of the most evangelical churches in the nation.

The meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) here drew 12,000 members to Utah - along with a barrage of radio and TV ads, door-to-door visits, and opportunities to draw sharp theological distinctions between the two religions. All the activity was enough for the Rev. Jerry Falwell to call it "open game for the souls of man."

Many Salt Lake residents, long accustomed to the family-values messages put out by the Mormons, paid little heed to a strikingly similar ad campaign offered by the Southern Baptists. That $600,000 effort featured families picnicking and former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton talking about Jesus as the only perfect 10.

Mormons here also may well have shrugged over the Southern Baptists' decision to formally embrace a declaration that women should "submit graciously" to their husbands, and that husbands should "provide for, protect, and lead" their families. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long defended what it sees as the traditional family structure.

While there was some talk among adherents about similarities between the two faiths, more was said about distinctions.

"There are so many things we could join hands on in spite of theological differences - but [the differences] are big ones, like our feelings about God," says Robert Millet, dean of religious education at the Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University.

Some distinctions are subtle, others profound. For instance, Southern Baptists and Mormons both believe in salvation by God's grace, but the Mormons also believe good works are required.

TO some degree, Utah posed a challenge for Southern Baptist missionaries who resolved to meet Mormons face to face on their own turf. Religiously solid, the state is 70 percent Mormon. In Salt Lake City, half identify themselves as strong Mormons.

In its extensive preparation for the meeting here, the SBC produced a video called "The Mormon Puzzle," with its annoying question to Mormons of whether they are true Christians.

"Mormon church leaders were quite concerned about the Southern Baptists coming," says Sandra Tanner, a former Mormon and longtime detractor of the Latter-day Saints who helped produce the video. The April LDS Conference, for instance, hit upon what it means to be saved and how to talk about being a Christian. "They saw it as a direct onslaught to their people, and while they kept reemphasizing, be nice and courteous, they also said, 'Don't listen to them.' "

Ironically, "The Mormon Puzzle" shows a Southern Baptist convert similarly warning people of the perils of debate with the persuasive Mormon missionaries. In fact, the LDS church has 58,000 volunteer missionaries around the world, compared with 20,000 volunteers and 5,000 professional missionaries for the Southern Baptists. The Mormons also claim to be converting more than 300,000 a year into their fold, now 11 million strong.

In just a few days in Utah, the Southern Baptists said they saved 800 people - although most weren't Mormon.

To these two churches, the face-off here is nothing less than an exercise in spirituality. "It's about an interest and openness in other people's beliefs," says Dr. Millet. "People ask questions like, what do Southern Baptists believe? What are their notions? What do I believe? We ought to be able to talk and listen in a Christian manner."

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