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People & Ideas: Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

Source: Library of Congress

In the early 19th century, competition in the American spiritual marketplace heated up. In upstate New York, new sects, cults and revivals swept through the so-called Burned-Over District, an area named for the staggering number of revivals experienced there. Here, a 14-year-old farm boy named Joseph Smith, bewildered by the myriad religious choices available to him, retreated to the woods to seek divine guidance. Which religion, he asked, was true?

The answer came to him in the form of a resplendent vision. Smith later reported that he saw "two glorious personages" -- later identified as God the Father and Jesus Christ -- who told him that all Christian churches were teaching false doctrine. Smith believed that God was calling him to become the prophet who would banish false teaching and restore the church to its true foundations. This epiphany marked the beginning of a faith tradition called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism.

Smith's 1820 revelation continued in the coming years, providing Mormonism with a set of highly distinctive and unorthodox tenets that effectively rewrote Christian history. Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni directed him to the discovery of golden plates buried in a hill. With the aid of interpretative devices, Smith translated these tablets and eventually published his work as the Book of Mormon, which created an immediate sensation and has remained controversial ever since.

In 1830, Smith established a community in Ontario County, N.Y. Non-Mormons were hostile, aggravated by the Mormon Bible and Smith's unusual teachings: that God has a physical body and God and Jesus Christ are two separate beings. As historian Stephen Prothero explains: "If Buddhists had come over, I think there would have been worry about them, but Buddhism is so different from Protestant Christianity that it wouldn't have been such a huge threat. ... [Mormonism] was a religion that accepted the Bible as Scripture, and it seemed dangerous because it was so close, and in that sense sort of semi-plausible, or more plausible than other forms of religion might have been."

Driven out of a number of towns, the sect moved repeatedly and finally established a thriving community in Nauvoo, Ill. Hostility persisted, intensified by the institution of plural marriage, or polygamy, in 1842. There were also internal tensions within the church, as Smith's former associates made claims of financial and sexual impropriety. Smith was arrested and jailed. Awaiting trial in 1844, he was killed by a party of non-Mormon gunmen.

Smith's successor, Brigham Young, led the community on a harrowing journey to the Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains, where it established a new community with Salt Lake City at its center. Even there, the Mormons' attempt to build a distinct religious and political kingdom within the United States brought them into continued conflict with federal authorities.

In some respects, Mormonism represented a radical departure from American religious traditions, but in other ways it shared characteristics common to 19th-century American religion, such as the desire to restore the church of the apostolic age and the conviction that God had a special purpose for America.

Just as the Puritans had left the corruption of England to found a new Israel in the New World, the Mormons understood themselves as embarking on an exodus from the corrupt United States to build a new Zion in the promised land. The idea of the United States as the new Zion continues to resonate in the American political imagination.

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Published October 11, 2010

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