Mormonism came into being as an officially organized church in April 1830, when 24-year-old Joseph Smith and five others gathered in upstate New York to form what was initially called the Church of Christ. Emerging in an atmosphere of intense religious activity (later referred to as the Second Great Awakening), there was little indication at the time that Mormonism would eventually become the largest church to originate on American soil. Nor did Smith's fairly typical background and upbringing suggest he would become the most important innovator in American religious history.
Smith's paternal and maternal ancestors lived in a number of New England towns and participated in civic and religious life. His parents (Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith) married in 1796. Many years of hardship followed. After many attempts to settle in five different communities, the family moved, along with thousands of other poor farmers, to western New York in search of better soil and a brighter future. They arrived in the small village of Palmyra in 1816, with eight children. Joseph Jr. was ten years old.
Like many around them, the Smiths were Christians but did not feel compelled either to attend church with any frequency or to join a particular denomination. The move to New York distanced the family not only from its New England roots but also from its lingering Calvinist heritage. On moving to Palmyra, the Smiths found Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, and Methodist churches. Some family members were for a time associated with the Presbyterian church, while Joseph Jr. seemed interested in Methodism. But he found the array of Christian faiths and the heated disagreements between them confusing and troublesome.
Joseph's confusion over which church to join, and how to be saved, was intensified by the heightened emotional atmosphere characteristic of camp meetings and other features of the evangelical revivalism that washed over the region in waves. In 1820, at age 14, his prayer for guidance led to an experience that became the founding event of Mormonism and gave rise to his career as a prophet. In his accounts of this event, recorded many years later, Joseph wrote of being nearly overwhelmed by darkness and then seeing a pillar of light encircling two beings, God the Father and Jesus. He was told that he was forgiven of his sins and that he was not to join any church, since none embodied the true faith; all had gone astray.
This experience, later called the First Vision, was followed three years later by a more specific prophetic call. Again a divine messenger appeared. An angel named Moroni told Joseph about an ancient book, made of gold plates, that was buried in a hill near his home. The book contained a history of an ancient American civilization. Joseph was to retrieve the plates and translate them. He soon found the plates as described in the vision but was forbidden by Moroni from taking possession of them until 1827.
After being hired to dig for purportedly buried Spanish treasure in Pennsylvania, Joseph was arrested in 1826 for disorderly conduct, a charge that included telling the whereabouts of lost or stolen goods. While in Pennsylvania, Joseph also met and fell in love with Emma Hale. Although her father disapproved of Joseph, the couple eloped and were married in 1827.
The years from 1828 to 1830 marked an important period of transition for Joseph Smith. He found his prophetic voice and began to grow into his roles of church elder, prophet, and translator. Gradually, a distinct theology began to emerge, centering around the restoration of ancient beliefs, rituals, texts, and powers. Underpinning this theology was the core belief that God had spoken, and would continue to speak, through Joseph Smith and other designated leaders. Ongoing revelation thus formed the basis for all aspects of the new faith.
With Emma and others serving as scribes, Joseph dictated the text of The Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830. As a new American scripture, the book instantly set Mormonism apart from all other sects. It also contributed to the development of early Mormon theology. (The unofficial name "Mormons" derived from The Book of Mormon. In 1834, the official name was changed from Church of Christ to Church of the Latter-day Saints, and in 1838 it was changed to the present name, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)
Smith soon dispatched missionaries to spread the message that a new dispensation was at hand, that God had called a prophet as in ancient times, and that the fullness of the Christian gospel was contained in a new book of scripture. By the end of 1830, around a hundred individuals had been baptized in New York, and a similar number in Ohio. Converts were grouped into formal church units in three locations.
This formative period of Mormonism came to a close when a revelation directed church leaders to gather the entire body of converts in Kirtland, Ohio. By May 1831 nearly all Mormons had left New York.
1. When, where, and how did Mormonism originate?
2. What was the role of Christian denominations in the creation of Mormonism?
3. Who was Joseph Smith? Why was his status as a prophet important to the beginning of Mormonism?
4. What was the First Vision?
5. Where did the name Mormonism come from? What is the church now called?