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History of the Mormon Religion
The Mormon Church
Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church. Depending upon whom you ask, he was either "a prophet, a genius, a crackpot, or a conman." One historian described him as "a charismatic utopian and a hustler in the manner of P.T. Barnum."
Joseph Smith Jr. founded what none other than Leo Tolstoy called the "American religion." The Church of Latter Day Saints continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The history of the Mormon religion is dramatic, eerie, erotic, and violent—in other words: downright American.
In 1890, the Mormon Church renounced polygamy, which led to statehood for Utah in 1896. Brigham Young and his followers made Utah into the state with the most law-abiding, best-educated, wealthiest people in America of the 20th century. Today, there are over ten million adherents to the Mormon religion in the world, about half of which are Americans.
Joseph Smith Jr
Joseph Smith Jr. was born on a hardscrabble farm in Vermont. He was reared in Palmyra, New York, which was part of what was called the "burned-over district" because the fires of religious revival had swept over it for twenty years. The New York from which Smith hailed was full of new Christian cults and sects, as well as diviners, money diggers, crystal ball gazers, magic amulet sellers, counterfeiters, and necromancers.
By 1820, Joseph Smith Jr. was a handsome, mischievous, barely literate fourteen-year-old boy. One day, he went into the woods to pray and experienced a vision in which Jesus the Savior and God the Father appeared to him in brightness and glory beyond all description. They told him that all existing religious beliefs were false and he had been chosen to restore true Christianity.
Three years later Joseph Smith Jr. was visited in a vision by an angel named Moroni. Moroni revealed to him that the American Indians were the lost tribes of Israel; and that they had left Israel after the Tower of Babel and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on barges. Some of these Israelites rebelled against God and as punishment He turned their skin red.
Moroni told Joseph Smith Jr. that the history of these lost tribes of Israel was written in a secret language on gold plates by Moroni's father—Mormon—and buried in New York in 384 AD. Moroni also revealed that Jesus Christ had visited America after His resurrection. Mormon was the last prophet, and he had instructed his son Moroni to bury the golden tablets until God decided it was time for His latter-day saints to restore the true church.
In 1827, Moroni appeared again to Joseph Smith Jr., this time to reveal the location of the buried plates of gold. Smith dug up the plates and was able to read what he considered to be the Third Testament of the Bible with the aid of magic glasses and magic stones provided to him by Moroni. These seer-stones were called Urim and Thummim.
In 1830, the 500-page Book of Mormon, also called "the Golden Bible," was published and the gold plates disappeared. This was not the first book to claim the American Indians as a Lost Tribe of Israel. Seven years earlier a book appeared that made the same claim, written by Ethan Smith (no relation) and entitled View of the Hebrews.
Joseph Smith Jr. now claimed that he had also been visited by John the Baptist, who bestowed the "Aaronic priesthood" on him and on his first convert, a schoolteacher named Oliver Crowley. The Apostles Peter, James and John also came to see Smith to bless his priesthood, as did Jesus Christ Himself.
Joseph Smith Jr. started his own church in 1830 and soon attracted thousands of converts, whom he told to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, and meat.
Joseph Smith Jr. experienced further visions in which he learned that God is a human personage who literally sits on a throne with Christ by His side; and that the Atonement of Christ covers all men. God does not assign souls to heaven or hell for eternity, but heaven contains numerous levels to ensure that everyone gets just what they deserve. Depending upon their good works, nearly all persons will go to one of three levels of heaven: telestial for unbelievers; terrestrial for ignorant but good people; and celestial for good Mormons. The exception will be those Sons of Perdition who are banished to Outer Darkness. The Mormon religion teaches that all persons were pre-existent, all gods were once men, and all men can become gods.
In 1831, the Mormons moved to Ohio and resettled there. In 1836, Joseph Smith Jr. dedicated a temple at which he said Christ came down from heaven to consecrate, along with Moses and Elijah. Elijah commanded Smith to baptize the dead. Thus, the Mormons started proxy baptism—the immersion of live believers on behalf of dead persons, which they intend to continue until every person who ever lived has been so baptized. The recordkeeping involved in this eventually made the Mormon Church the world center of genealogy.
In 1838, a group of local men murdered 32 Mormon men and boys. Smith volunteered to go to jail if the slaughter was stopped. Five months later a bribe, and a promise that the Mormons would leave Ohio, got him released from his cell.
Joseph Smith Jr. moved the Mormons first to Missouri, and then in 1840 to Illinois. In Missouri, the Mormons attacked the state militia, leading to another four month incarceration of Smith, leading to another bribe and promise to leave the state that got him released from prison once again.
Joseph Smith Jr. founded a Mormon city in Illinois that he named Nauvoo—Hebrew for beautiful. For five years the community thrived. The Mormons drained the fens, planted orchards and fields, laid out streets, erected brick houses and schools, and raised a temple that was the most elegant building in Illinois. Converts poured in from as far away as Canada and Britain. Nauvoo grew to include 20,000 inhabitants. Visitors said the city was a model of love, industry, and energy. But competing cities resented Nauvoo's sudden prosperity.
Joseph Smith Jr. embraced Freemasonry, and established a Masonic Temple in Nauvoo with himself as Grand Master. He also revamped Mormon liturgy to include Masonic rites and symbols such as the "all-seeing eye" and the "beehive." Smith declared Nauvoo a province of God immune from the laws of Illinois.
In 1844, the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper published its only issue, which was an expose of the Mormon doctrine of polygamy, best practiced by Joseph Smith Jr., who had perhaps fifty "wives," many of whom were already married to other men, and perhaps a dozen of them were teenagers including two 14 year olds. The men who set up the newspaper were Mormon dissidents who were angry because Smith tried to seduce their wives.
Non-Mormons from the surrounding area read the newspaper and arrested Smith and his brother Hyrum on charges of treason, and of inciting the riot that destroyed the newspaper's printing press. A lynch mob stormed the jail, which was not defended, and the Smith brothers were shot and killed.
In his last sermon, Joseph Smith Jr. revealed that God was once as we are now, and is an exalted man. He did not create the world; he became divine in the process of bringing order out of chaos. Men have it in their power to climb the same ladder to godhood. The members of the Church of Latter Day Saints are all considered to be clergy—there is no laity—a true priesthood of believers. God was a man, Jesus an American, America heaven on earth, and his followers are immortal gods.
Brigham Young (1801-1877) took over leadership of the Mormons after the murder of Joseph Smith Jr. Brigham Young's grandfather was a surgeon and his father a devout Methodist. Three of his brothers became Methodist preachers.
Brigham Young was strong, decisive, and intelligent; an ingenious organizer and a man of enormous determination—and appetites. He made peace with the neighbors of Nauvoo, Illinois, on the condition that the Mormons would leave town as soon as possible. Brigham Young selected an uninhabited valley near the Great Salt Lake in Utah as the new home of the Mormon Church. It was guarded by mountain ranges north and east, and fed by mountain streams. The valley was twenty miles by thirty miles, south of the saline inland sea.
Brigham Young led his 10,000 followers across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, deep into the American wilderness. They sought a refuge where they could practice their faith undisturbed. The first winter, 800 died while encamped in Iowa.
The Mormons began arriving in Utah in 1847. Within one week, they had dammed streams to irrigate fields of corn and potatoes; and platted an instant city with large lots and broad avenues that surrounded the site of the temple square. By the following year, they had already built an efficient irrigation system. Within three years, the land grew enough food to feed the 11,534 Mormons. Within a decade they had turned the desert green.
The Mormons also planted dozens of settlements in Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Samuel Brannan took 200 Mormons to the poor Mexican port of Yerba Buena in 1846, which tripled its population overnight. Brannan changed the name to San Francisco and went on to become the first millionaire in California.
Samuel Brannan built a general store at Sutter's Fort just in time for the Gold Rush. When gold was discovered in 1848, Brannan bought up every pick, shovel, pot, pan, and bag of flour in the area before he rode into San Francisco to proclaim "Gold from the American River!"
In 1850, the U.S. government named Brigham Young the governor of Utah. But two years later Young was removed from office by President James Buchanan after he became aware that Young had 55 wives (and 56 children). Three corrupt judges were named to impose federal authority over Utah. One of them, along with eight federal surveyors, mysteriously ended up dead. The Mormons vowed to accept no authority other than Brigham Young.
Death came to 137 innocent pioneers in 1857. They were massacred by Mormons as they passed through on their way to California from Arkansas. This became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Americans back east were outraged by all this, and President Buchanan ordered the army to march on Salt Lake City. The Mormons responded by burning down their own homes and fields, as their guerrillas attacked the army's supply trains.
Thomas Kane was in charge of the first soldiers to reach Utah, and he brokered a peace agreement whereby federal soldiers promised to stay 36 miles away from Salt Lake City in exchange for the Mormons recognizing federal authority in all matters except religion.
Sources and Other Hubs
My Primary sources for this article include: A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson; A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins; and Throes of Democracy by Walter McDougall.