And Now For A Bunch Of Things I Just Learned About The Founding Of Mormonism...

hill cumorahCumorah Hill in upstate New York — the place where it all began.

Our next President may be a Mormon, so it seems a good time to learn some things about that particular religion.

For example:

  • Do Mormons have any weird beliefs or practices that might make a President do strange things?
  • Is there a Mormon “pope” or other boss that a President might feel some greater allegiance to?
  • Can Mormons truly separate “church” and “state”—or do they think that their “God’s law” is higher than American law?
  • And so on…

And how did Mormonism come to be, anyway? Wasn’t it founded only a relatively little while ago by some dude in upstate New York? (Upstate New York?!)

I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions.

So, I’ve begun searching for answers.

My first stop, which all the information below comes from, was John Krakauer’s 2003 book Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story Of Violent Faith.

Krakauer’s book is mainly about the horrific killing of a mother and her baby by two “Fundamentalist” Mormons in Utah, who believe that God ordered them to do it. These fundamentalists don’t have much to do with mainstream Mormonism, in the same way that fundamentalists in most religions don’t have much to do with the mainstream in those religions.

But Krakauer’s book also tells the story of Mormonism in general, with several chapters devoted to the founding of the religion, the “exodus” that took the early Mormons west, the current church, and one of the favourite Mormon topics of non-Mormons, polygamy (more on this soon, I promise).

Anyway, on the assumption that many of you might also be interested in Mormonism—and, importantly, with what the Mormonism of our President might mean for the rest of us non-Mormons—I’m going to tell you some of what I’ve learned.

As I do so, I’d love to hear from Mormons and other Mormon experts.

Krakauer is obviously only one source (albeit, I think, a neutral one). Does Krakauer get it right? Is there an important other side to these stories? What should people know about Mormons and Mormonism? Please share your thoughts in the comments below (or email me at [email protected]).

Joseph SmithJoseph Smith, the fellow who founded the Mormon church.

Photo: Wikipedia

In the meantime, I’ll start with some cool tidbits about the founding of Mormonism:

  • The fellow who founded Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was a 24-year self-professed psychic who lived in Palmyra, in upstate New York.
  • In 1826, Smith was accused of fraud for pretending he could use “seer” stones to figure out where a lost cache of silver was (he didn’t)
  • As Smith and his followers later described it, in 1823, when Smith was 17, a few years before the fraud charge, he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who had quite a story to tell.
  • Moroni told Smith that some gold plates containing a sacred 1,400 year-old text were buried on a hill nearby. The angel told Smith to go dig on the hill, which he did. Smith dug up a box that contained the gold plates. When he tried to take them, they disappeared.
  • WikipediaMoroni.Moroni demanding that Smith show up on the hill once a year to receive instruction…but without being allowed to touch the plates. Then, in 1826, Moroni told Smith that he would be given one chance to have the plates the following year—as long as he married a girl named Emma Hale.
  • Smith had alread met Hale (and, Krakauer implies, taken a liking to her). Smith asked Hale’s father repeatedly to let her marry him. The father refused—on account of Smith having been convicted of fraud. Smith persuaded Emma to elope with him.
  • Smith and his new wife, Emma Hale, went to the special hill on the appointed night. Emma turned her back on Smith. He unearthed a box. The angel, Moroni, allowed him to take the gold plates this time.
  • Several of Smith’s followers later said they saw and held the plates, which had “Egyptian” characters on them. The plates have since disappeared.
  • Cumorah Hill, where Joseph Smith dug up the gold platesSmith said the angel, Moroni, had also given him special glasses that allowed him to “read” the characters on the plates. Using these magic “interpreters,” he transcribed 116 pages of the story they told. Then, a neighbour whose wife was sceptical that Smith was actually “translating” anything borrowed the manuscript to persuade her. The manuscript disappeared. The prevailing theory is that the neighbour’s wife, furious that her husband was being taken in by a con man, destroyed it.
  • Smith prayed. The angel gave him another chance. The following year, 1828, Moroni gave him the plates back—but not the magic glasses. So, this time, Smith used one of his favourite “seer” stones.
  • “Day after day…Joseph would place the magic rock in an upturned hat, bury his face in it with the stack of gold plates sitting nearby, and dictate the lines of scripture that appeared to him out of the blackness. He worked at a feverish pace during this second phase of the translation, averaging some 30-five hundred words a day, and by the end of June 1829, the job was finished.”
  • The words that Joseph Smith dictated while staring at a rock in a hat became “The Book Of Mormon,” which Smith immediately self-published.
  • Smith was broke and couldn’t pay the $3,000 printing tab—so he told his neighbour that God ordered the neighbour to pay the bill. This neighbour was the one whose wife had freaked out about the original manuscript (she had since grown so exasperated that she had divorced him). Smith told the neighbour that God had threatened the neighbour with “misery,” including the “destruction of thyself and property” if the neighbour refused. The neighbour sold his farm and paid the bill.
  • The 588-page Book of Mormon rolled off the presses.
  • A week later, on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith incorporated his new religion.

Some thoughts:

First, although one’s first instinct is obviously to howl with laughter at the fact that an entire religion is based on a book written by a self-professed psychic staring into a hat, this “genesis” story probably isn’t all that much more ridiculous than the stories and texts involved in the founding of many other religions.

Book of MormonThe book that Joseph Smith dictated while staring into a hat.

Photo: flickr

Second, as far as religions go, Mormonism is strikingly new—less than 200 years old—so most people aren’t used to it yet. After another couple of millennia, Mormonism may well enjoy the same “establishment” position as Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and other major religions.Third, Joseph Smith would later be called a “religious genius,” and if the history of Mormonism reveals anything it’s that the religion would never have had a leg to stand on if it weren’t for his vast powers of persuasion and promotion.

Most entrepreneurs have to scratch and claw and wheel and deal to get their enterprises off the ground, and the power to persuade others to drop their scepticism and pick up the torch is often critical to success. Smith had that in spades, and his genius rubbed off on others. In the span of less than 200 years, Mormonism has become one of the world’s major religions.

So that’s how Mormonism began.

Next up: The Book Of Mormon…

UPDATE: Many readers have weighed in with thoughtful, smart comments below. I’ve featured several of them. (Thank you: This is exactly what I hoped would happen.)

UPDATE 2: One of the words above that many readers objected to was my use of the word “psychic” to describe Smith. Krakauer uses the word “seer,” which to me means much the same thing. The Wikipedia definition of “psychic” supports this view, I think, and it lists “seers and prophets” as a section. It’s possible that the word “psychic” has a negative connotation that “seer” did not have.

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