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Religion Library: Mormonism

Founders

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The founder of Mormonism is Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844), a singular American religious figure who called himself a prophet and in 1830, amid the excitement of the Second Great Awakening, formally organized the Church of Christ (later changed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). He was murdered in 1844 by a mob while imprisoned at Carthage, Illinois.

Smith was born in Vermont in 1805 and in 1816 moved with his family to the town of Palmyra in western New York. Few details are known about his childhood. He showed little interest in reading while young, according to his mother, but seems to have been introspective. Like many of his time, he sought buried treasure using occult practices.

Living in a place and time of evangelical revivals, the "burned-over district" of western New York in the early 1800s, Joseph became concerned about the state of his soul and the possibility of finding truth given the conflicting claims of rival denominations. According to his autobiography, penned many years later, he decided to heed the words of James 1:5 and pray to God for answers.

The result was a vision, around 1820, of God the Father and Jesus Christ, who, Smith wrote, instructed him to join none of the existing churches. Three years later Smith said he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who showed him a vision of buried gold plates that recorded an account of ancient America peoples.

In 1827 Joseph obtained the plates, along with several ancient objects buried alongside them, and set about translating them into English under divine inspiration. The record was published in 1830 as The Book of Mormon. Two sets of witnesses declared that they had seen the plates. Weeks after the new scripture was offered for sale, Joseph and his early followers convened to formally organize a church.

A year after the Church was formed, Joseph and his family moved to Kirtland, Ohio, along with about 200 converts. Kirtland would remain Church headquarters until 1838. The doctrine of gathering as Saints (i.e., followers of Christ) played a central role in Mormon theology, combining notions of sacred time (belief in the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of his thousand-year reign) with notions of sacred space (the building of a ritual worship center called a temple).

New converts journeyed to Kirtland to join the Latter-day Saints. A distinct Mormon culture began to emerge as converts accepted The Book of Mormon and other doctrines and lived in a communal setting. The effort, however, failed dramatically when a financial crisis led to widespread dissent among Smith's followers. The high concentration of Mormons (and their political power) had inspired mistrust among non-Mormons, and soon Kirtland was no longer a safe haven.

Simultaneously with the gathering in Kirtland, another gathering place was designated in Independence, Missouri, where the Saints were directed to construct a city. Here, too, friction with settlers quickly escalated and in 1833 the Saints fled their homes, eventually settling in Caldwell, another Missouri county especially created for them by the state legislature. As converts continued to gather and swell the ranks of the Mormons, that solution proved insufficient too. War broke out between the parties, and the governor ordered the Mormons expelled or exterminated.

Now refugees, the Mormons found a new gathering place, a swampy area along the Mississippi that Smith purchased and named Nauvoo (after the Hebrew word for beautiful, he claimed). In Nauvoo, Smith aimed to create a semi-independent Mormon kingdom where the Mormons could defend themselves against their persecutors.  The city possessed its own militia and soon began construction of a temple. Conflation of temporal and spiritual affairs under Smith's expanding authority, however, along with rumors of polygamy, led to internal dissent and external opposition.

Following the destruction of an anti-Mormon press in 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith were arrested and jailed. They were both shot and killed by a mob. Smith's death was followed by a period of uncertainty, as over two dozen men claimed the authority to assume Church leadership. The struggle was won by Brigham Young (1801-1877), who became the second president of the Church. With prospects in Illinois increasingly dim, Young led the Saints across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, arriving there in 1847.


Study Questions:
1.     Why could it be argued that Joseph Smith's childhood was influential for his founding of Mormonism?
2.     Why did Smith consider himself to be a prophet?
3.     What is The Book of Mormon? How was it inspired?
4.     Why did the geographical headquarters of Mormonism change over time?

 

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