NO. 3

One of the more important reactions seen in the early 1800s is that of Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may be the fastest growing religious body in America. It deserves extensive treatment.

Mormonism drew heavily from primitivism. Even now it claims to be a "restoration movement." Mormonism demonstrates the American emphasis on the common man because it demonstrated that any individual could amass wealth and power. Mormonism illustrates the day's experimental climate because it too tried to establish a communal society and build unique social structures.

I. The Moneydigger

Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) was born in Vermont to a poor farmer. Vermont records show that Smith's father refused to pay honest debts. The Smith family moved to Palmyra, New York, in the "burned over district" in 1816 to escape a poor reputation.

Recurring financial problems plagued the Smith family even after they relocated to Palmyra. Joseph Jr. tried to help the family by treasure hunting. Numerous Indian ruins, complete with abandoned fortifications and burial mounds, dotted western New York. Area legends suggested these mounds and fortifications hid buried treasure just waiting to be found. Smith was just one of many who claimed they could locate such treasure. Using a "seer stone," which he placed into the bottom of a hat, Smith peered into the hat while trying to locate treasure. He then announced the location of the supposed treasure and digging began. Martin Harris, a neighboring farmer, fell for Smith's confidence scheme so completely that he reported a buried treasure which kept sinking deeper into the earth whenever the diggers neared it. Smith later acknowledged the fraud.

In 1827, Smith married Emma Hale. To persuade Emma's father to allow the marriage, Smith promised he would never again dig for money. A short time after the marriage, rumors circulated that Smith found some long lost treasure which would unlock the area's Indian history. Interest in the area's mounds ran high, so people hung on every word. Debates about the mounds' origin occurred with regularity throughout western New York. Instead of squelching the rumor, Smith let it be known he had indeed found something significant.

Mormon historians paint Smith entirely different. While admitting that Smith had little education, Mormon writers insist that at sometime between ages 14 and 16 he had a religious experience which changed him considerably. Religious confusion coming out of the revivals and denominational fervor in the district left Smith disillusioned by the "war of words and tumult of opinions." Mormons say Smith took the advice of the New Testament writer James to "ask for wisdom." He went to a woods near his home to pray. He then saw a pillar of light and two Personages. One personage spoke and identified the other as "the beloved son." Smith took this to be Jesus. The visitors told Smith not to join an established church but gave him assurance that his sins were forgiven. Mormons teach that an angel visited Smith in 1823 to reveal where Moroni and his father, Mormon,(1) buried golden plates containing a written abridged history. These plates lay buried on the Hill Cumorah outside Palmyra, New York. An angel visited Smith five times before he received permission to take the plates from their resting place. On September 22, 1827, Smith located the burial site and removed the plates.

II. The Book of Mormon

Mormons teach that during the angelic visits, Moroni told Smith the language on the plates was "Reformed Egyptian." The visitors also told Smith he would find two "peep stones," the Urim and Thummim, to aid in translation. Smith apparently spent much time between 1827 and 1829 translating these plates. Smith's wife, Emma, and Oliver Cowdery became his scribes. From behind a curtain Smith read the translation while the scribes wrote it down. No one ever saw the plates except for three carefully selected witnesses, all of whom owned questionable reputations. Even these witnesses did not see the plates. According to their own testimony, they hefted something covered with a blanket or cloth which Smith said were the plates.

Smith published the Book of Mormon's first version in March 1830. The book claims to tell the story of those who first inhabited New York and the American Continent up to A.D. 384. The book refers to the Jaredites, who immigrated to the new world after the Tower of Babel, the Lamanites, who were native American Indians, and the Nephites, "good guys" who were annihilated. Mormon and Moroni were the last two Nephites left from their battles with the Lamanites.

Honest critical studies would show the Book of Mormon could only originate in the 1820s and 1830s. It speaks to every social and religious problem present on America's western frontier. Readers find a discussion of baptism by immersion, free-masonry, and much more. Debates rage on the subject of the book's actual origin. A few former Mormons contend it came from the work of Solomon Spaulding, a retired Congregational minister and erstwhile writer of the period. Spaulding produced two manuscripts, Manuscript Lost and Manuscript Found, which told a romantic version of western New York's history. Evidence exists to suggest that Sidney Rigdon, a one-time Baptist who converted to Alexander Campbell's Restoration Movement, lifted one of the manuscripts from a Pittsburgh printer's shop. Rigdon then fed the manuscript to Smith who combined it with extensive quotes from the King James Version to produce the Book of Mormon. This theory dates back well into the 1800s but never had wide reception.

Jim Robertson, a converted Mormon working in the South Sea Islands as a missionary for Concerned Christians, suggests a different theory. He says another romantic history of New York existed in print at the time. According to unverified comments by Robertson, the Palmyra library had a copy which Smith borrowed repeatedly. From that book and the King James Version Smith constructed his new scripture.

On October 30, 1830, Joseph Smith Jr. launched the "Church of Christ" in Fayette, New York. The new church began with six members most of whom were Smith's own family. Today Mormonism claims over 5 million members.

III. The "Restoration" Defector

It is widely accepted that Joseph Smith Jr. depended heavily on Sidney Rigdon (1793-1876) during Mormonism's early years. Rigdon entered the Campbellian(2) Restoration Movement when it swept through Ohio's western reserve in the early 1800s. Campbell and Rigdon enjoyed a close friendship for a time, but Campbell and Rigdon differed sharply on the question of "restoring" the early church's communal practices. Campbell blasted Rigdon in the pages of his publication, The Millennial Harbinger, for Rigdon's communal experiment at Kirtland, Ohio. Rigdon was understandably hurt by his friend's barbs and resented the public attacks in the pages of his paper.

Elders from the growing Mormon movement visited Rigdon in Kirtland and converted him. Rigdon then led his entire Disciple congregation near Kirtland into Mormonism. Mormons, who found themselves unwelcome in New York, followed Smith to Kirtland where Smith purchased land and resold it to other Mormons moving to the area. For a time Kirtland became Mormonism's national center. Mormons built their first temple in Kirtland. Mormon writers report miraculous manifestations accompanied that building's dedication.

Trouble soon hit the Kirtland church. Smith dissolved the communal experiment as uncontrollable even though he tried it again later using a series of "revelations"(3). The church lived on credit. The church bought land on credit and its economic experiments kept it broke. To solve their problems the church formed the Kirtland Safety Society Bank(4). The bank obtained a few investors and used land for collateral. The Ohio legislature refused to charter the bank but Smith pushed forward anyway. At Rigdon's suggestion, the bank overprinted its banknotes to read "The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-BANK-ing Co." In 1837, the nation hit one of its recurring Panics and the bank collapsed. Non-Mormons with money deposited in the bank lost everything and developed an intense hatred for their Mormon neighbors.

IV. Moving Around

Pressure from their Kirtland neighbors forced Mormons to leave the area. Smith reported a revelation that Mormons should move near Independence, Missouri, where Jesus would soon return and build the Temple. Missourians, however, did not like Mormons much better than the Buckeyes.

Mormons created distrust among Missouri whites when they began mission work among Indian tribes located near Kansas City. The white population rested uneasily because of the sheer number of Indians settled just across the Kansas border. Mormons, however, believed Indians were descended from Israel's "ten lost tribes." White settlers suspected these strange Mormons of subversive activity, particularly an effort to incite the Indians to attack white settlers. Furthermore, most Mormons came from "Yankee" roots. Missourians thought the Yankees came to keep Missouri a free state. Non-Mormon suspicions erupted in violence when they attacked and killed 17 Mormons near Far West, Missouri. This was an exception because most Mormon harassment proved harmless though nerve wracking.

Mormons retaliated through the Danites, a Mormon secret organization with the mission to "defend the faith." During the violence, authorities arrested Smith and Rigdon and jailed them at Liberty, Missouri(5). Rigdon suffered a nervous breakdown during his incarceration and became seriously ill. Authorities released him. Later, Smith, with a well placed bribe, escaped and went to Illinois.

Joseph Smith then established Nauvoo, Illinois, on a beautiful river bend on the Mississippi just above Keokuk, Iowa, in 1839. Smith said Nauvoo meant "Beautiful Place" in Hebrew. The original site rested near the river on swampy, marshy, malarial land. Before the settlers could drain the swamps many Mormons died. At its height, Nauvoo was Illinois' largest city with a population of 12,000.

Opposition to Mormonism grew in Illinois, too. Tom Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, an Illinois newspaper, attacked Mormon leaders as unprincipled and immoral. Historians suggest Smith's refusal to purchase land from Sharp led to his attack. Gentiles(6) viewed Mormons with suspicion because Smith encouraged Mormons to vote as a bloc, a bloc he controlled. Illinois granted Nauvoo such a liberal charter that it had its own courts, its own militia complete with state supplied weapons. Foreigners flooded the town because of successful Mormon European missions. Non-Mormons finally had enough when Smith declared himself a presidential candidate in 1844 with Sidney Rigdon as a running mate.

Rumors started circulating in 1844 that Mormons practiced polygamy. Fawn Brodie suggests she had information that Mormon leaders, particularly Smith, practiced polygamy as early as 1832. She reported an adulterous relationship with a young woman living in the Smith home. Today The Doctrine and Covenants includes a revelation about polygamy received in 1844.

Some Mormon leaders became disenchanted with Smith's teaching on polygamy by late spring 1844. These leaders, men of substance and close to Smith's inner circles, established a rival newspaper which attacked Smith as a fallen prophet. Using the Nauvoo courts and his status as Mayor, Smith had the press condemned as a public nuisance and destroyed. Non-Mormons interpreted this as a disregard for basic Constitutional Rights. Gentiles and rebellious Mormons called for investigation. When the situation grew tense, Smith headed for Iowa to hide out until things cooled off. He soon returned saying he should not flee persecution. He headed for Carthage, Illinois, where he gave himself up to the law.

The County Sheriff locked up Smith, his brother Hyrum, and John Taylor in the jailer's quarters. The jailer considered moving the three men to the "dungeon" to assure their safety but decided to wait until after supper. By 5 p.m. on June 27, 1844, 200 members of the Illinois militia began filtering into town. These men blackened their faces with wet gunpowder and attacked the jail. They hit the front door and charged up the stairs. The prisoners braced themselves against the door. One shot destroyed the lock and a second shot hit Hyrum in the temple. Hyrum fell back and exclaimed, "I am a dead man." Shots poured into the room. Five hit John Taylor but the only one that could have killed him hit his pocket watch and ricocheted. Willard Richards, a visitor, hid behind the door where a rifle ball slightly grazed his ear. Someone had secretly brought Joseph Smith a pistol which he fired into the crowd until he emptied it. He then threw it at the mob and ran across the room to the window. Someone fired from the door and Smith flew out of the window falling near the well outside. The militia dragged him to the well curb and shot him four times.

After Smith's death, a power struggle ensued between Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young. Rigdon lost out to the powerful Young and led a small group back to Pennsylvania. Mormons splintered into several groups. One group headed for Wisconsin, another went south. Emma Smith and her young son, Joseph III, moved back to Missouri and joined the Methodist Church. When Joseph III reached adulthood he started the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Emma Smith died denying her husband ever practiced polygamy. The Reorganized Church still denies polygamy to this day.

Led by Brigham Young, the main group moved west in 1845 as soon as they could cross the Mississippi. When they arrived at the Great Salt Lake Valley, Young said, "This is the Place." In 1846, when the United States and Mexico were at war, the army recruited Mormons and sent them west under military orders with pay since Utah was Mexican territory.

Polygamy continued in Utah under Brigham Young. When Utah petitioned for statehood, however, the Federal Government refused to recognize their petitions as long as polygamy remained Mormon policy. Mormons officially gave up polygamy in 1893 and Utah became a state.


1. Mormon and Moroni were supposedly the last remnants of a great North American civilization. According to Mormon teaching, Israel's "ten lost tribes" migrated to North America to begin this civilization.

2. Alexander Campbell and his father, Thomas, left or were excused from Presbyterianism because of their views on the harmful nature of creeds and confessions. They held that Christian unity could come only through a return to pure New Testament Christianity. See the previous material.

3. Revelations now published in Doctrine and Covenants.

4. In the absence of a Federally supervised banking system, many independent and unchartered banks began. These banks regularly issued their own money.

5. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now operates the Liberty jail as a historical site.

6. Mormons refer to non-Mormons as Gentiles.

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