August 2001: An e-publication of the New England Institute for Religious Research

Religion "Made in America"

The Paradox of Joseph Smith and Mormonism

Mormonism, known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah), was officially founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844). While living in Palmyra New York, Smith claimed at the age of 15 to have had a personal visit from God, who introduced him to Christ. Jesus supposedly told him not to join any church because they were

"all wrong ... all their creeds were an abomination in His sight, and that those professors (Christians) were all corrupt" (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith, 2:18-19).

Smith was allegedly told by God that he was chosen to restore the true church that the apostles had founded, and to bring to light "many plain and precious" truths of the scriptures that had been altered or expunged from the Scriptures.

Three years later, Smith claimed that he was visited by the angel "Moroni" who revealed to him the whereabouts of certain plates of gold which were alleged to be the scriptures and sacred writings of the inhabitants of the Americas. Smith unearthed the plates, and in 1827 began the process of translating them from a language he called "Reformed Egyptian" to English. Thus, from this, he produced the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830.

These simple beginnings are not without their controversies, however. Even Smith's own initial account with God and the subsequent announcement of the Golden Plates has been tainted by the fact that he had told wildly conflicting and contradictory aspects of the first vision to various individuals. Furthermore, when a handwritten copy of the "Reformed Egyptian" was put before a secular scholar, (Professor Anthon of Princeton), he declared it to be mere gibberish, and despite this, Smith attested that Professor Anthon had endorsed his work as a "translator".

Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. At once, loyal followers of Smith's began spreading the news and selling the Book of Mormon from town to town. In most cases, the Latter-Day Saints were met with ridicule and persecution. They did have their successes too, however. Sidney Rigdon, a popular preacher in Ohio, was won over by the testimony of several of the early missionaries and became a powerful mouthpiece for the Book of Mormon.

As Smith encountered growing opposition in his hometown area, he and the larger part of the church continued to move westward. In Kirtland, Ohio, the Mormon Church established it's first "Stake" and solidified it's governmental structure. Again, persecution followed them. In due time the church set up large Mormon settlements in Jackson County Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois.

Smith's Work as a Translator

From it's inception, the Book of Mormon has been challenged as to it's claim of being a translation of ancient plates. There have been myriads of books written on difficulties with the Book of Mormon, including an absolutely devastating piece of scholarship by one of their own general authorities, B.H. Roberts, who comes very close to concluding that the entire book was nothing more than a sloppy creation by Joseph Smith which plagarized from the King James Version and borrowed from Dr. Ethan Smith's Views of the Hebrews. Perhaps the most telling event, however, which answers the question as to Smith's ability to translate Egyptian, involves the publication of The Book of Abraham in 1842. In this case, Smith acquired some ancient Egyptian papyri and claimed to have translated the hieroglyphics, the translation of which was purported to be about Abraham in Egypt, and was later canonized into The Pearl of Great Price. Since Champollion had just unlocked the secrets of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian hieroglyphics were still a closed language to almost the entire world, and there was no Egyptologists who could tell Smith at that time that he was fabricating the whole translation. Today, however, we can see the actual papyrus that Smith "translated" and can clearly see it is merely a funerary text from the Book of the Dead.

No less devastating to the reputation of Smith as a translator is the Kinderhook fiasco. In this case, some detractors of Smith in 1843 created and then buried some brass plates with random figures scrawled on them. After staging a "discovery" akin to Smith's "discovery" of the Golden Plates, they then summoned Joseph Smith to translate them. Although Smith never published the alleged text (he was killed the next year), his own journal does testify that he had translated a part of them, and amazingly enough, they supported the Book of Mormon!.

The Evolution of Mormonism and the Death of Smith

Despite the fact that Joseph Smith was only at the helm of the Mormon church from 1830 to 1844, those years were rocked by drastic and fundamental changes in the church. In those years, almost all the individuals cited as "witnesses" who had held high positions in the church apostatized, and became enemies to the church. Theologically, Joseph Smith must have shocked everyone when he revealed publicly his ideas of Eternal Progression at the funeral of King Follet . Politically, the church had gone from a persecuted minority to having Joseph Smith as the Mayor of Nauvoo (1842-1844) who was able to wield political power for the good of the church. Meanwhile, it was no secret to those who knew Smith that polygamy was now an essential part, albeit, concealed aspect of Mormonism. Taken together, these factors all but assured that Smith would meet violent end in what was then a frontier town.

As rumors of Smith's sexual peccadilloes started circulating, the anger of not only the non-Mormon townspeople, but even formerly loyal followers began to rise. A number of individuals who had previously been trusted confidants of Smith's began publishing "tell-all" exposes of Smith. Much of the accusations against Smith were published in the Nauvoo Expositor, a local paper. In order to stop the dessimination of accusations against him, Smith, acting as Mayor, declared the Expositor a "public nuisance" and ordered the printing presses to be destroyed. After the order was carried out, Smith was arrested by state officials for the act. While in custody, an angry mob stormed the jailhouse. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed.

Mormonism Today

After Smith's murder in 1844, Brigham Young took the group to Utah, where there is now a major University named after him, and the number of Mormons exceed one million. The Mormon Church currently claims about 9.7 million baptized members worldwide, up from about 2.5 million in 1970, and about equally divided between the U.S. (4.8 million) and all other countries. It is growing fastest in Latin America and Asia. The Mormon Church collects at least $4.5 billion a year from its members, and generates at least another $4 billion in sales from its various business enterprises. (At least 100 companies are controlled by the Mormon Church, and some estimate its total annual revenues in excess of $20 billion!) Part of the Church's income goes to operate an elaborate internal welfare system so its members avoid any governmental assistance. The Mormon Church also has a 50,000-plus missionary force working in 150 nations. (All boys, once they turn 19, are expected to dedicate two years of their lives to missionary service.) This $500 million per year effort reaps more than 500,000 new converts each year. Nevertheless, only about 46% of Mormons attend a church meeting at least once a month.

Ongoing Theological Dialogue

Mormonism in the last few years has presented itself, at least in the public eye, as more like a Christian denomination than a separatist, exclusive sect that they originally represented. A number of their theologians have published books designed to make the case that the beliefs of Latter-Day Saints are no less orthodox and biblical than any other denomination. Stephen Robinson, for example, in "Are Mormons Christian" attempts to prove that the Mormon idea of "deification" is theologically sound according to the earliest extra-biblical Christian writers. Likewise "How Wide the Divide" seems to promote the same idea that Mormons and Christians are essentially separated only by semantics. However, there are some fundamentals of Christianity that can't be so easily sacrificed in the quest for unity. Mormonism categorically rejects the classical axioms of monotheism, namely One God, who is Eternal, Omnipotent, Self-Subsisting, etc, and replaces this view of God with a finite, limited, evolving individual, whose only difference from us is a function of time. (Click Here for the At A Glance comparison of beliefs about the Godhead) .

Maintaining an optimistic viewpoint, it might be said that one of the Mormon Church's most unusual theological novelties may be the key for bringing the Mormon church back into realm of orthodoxy. That novelty is their belief that their current "prophets" teachings are inspired revelations that can supercede and even overthrow previous revelations. (For example, Mormon's don't seem to lose sleep over the fact that in the late 19th century, God revealed to their prophet that no one could partake of plural marraiges and still be a member of the church, however, fifty years earlier, God revealed to Joseph Smith that plural marraiges was an "everlasting" command, and no one could hope for exaltation unless they partook of it.). Therefore, it is entirely possible that a prophet could get a revelation that certain doctrines are to be revoked or erroneous, and the whole church would be obligated to go with the new revelation, and reject the old. Just such a scenario actually did play out with the World Wide Church of God, when the leaders nearly overnight abandoned their unorthodox teachings, rejecting their own ecclesiastical traditions, in favor of historic Christianity. It could happen again.

Until that day comes, we are left with the story of Joseph Smith, which is truly an "American" phenomenon. It's the story of a young, ambitious and clever man who used innovation and creativity to build what is now one of the wealthiest churches in the world. Although from an objective standpoint, we can't accept his claims as true, nor give creedance to Mormon belief as anything other than one man's fantasies, still one need to give credit where due. He did build a legacy which is still growing today. For those who are concerned about what is "true" however, his name is one more associated with infamy than anything else. (EWF)

For more detailed studies of the Mormon religion, we recommend the following site: