The History of the LDS Church
Let’s begin with a capsule history of the Church. The founder, Joseph Smith, was born on a farm in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. That area later became known as The Burned-Over District, a nickname alluding to the many fire-and-brimstone preachers who roamed the area delivering jeremiads to the local residents in tent shows and so-called camp meetings, urging them to repent their sinful ways lest they burn eternally in Hell. In a time of great religious fervor, now called the Second Great Awakening, Smith allegedly searched for a system of religious belief that he could justify in his own mind as legitimate, and investigated a number of the Protestant denominations that existed in the region-Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so on. None satisfied him as being The True Religion. Then according to his account, in 1830, while walking in a grove of trees on the Hill Cumorah, near the town of Elmira, he had a vision, in which an angel named Moroni (pronounced “mo-rōn-eye”) allegedly appeared, informed Smith that he came as a direct emissary from God, confirmed Smith’s opinion that none of the extant denominations or sects was The True Religion, and pronounced that Jehovah Himself had selected him (Smith) to found a church that would deliver the True Word of God to those who elected to follow him.
Smith later reputedly reported that he, like Moses, protested that he was unworthy of such a lofty and arduous task, but the angel insisted that he was to be the Prophet and that it was futile to deny the commands of the Almighty. Smith eventually acquiesced to his destiny, and Moroni instructed him where in the Sacred Gove to dig, in order to recover the Golden Plates, on which Moroni’s father, Mormon, also an angel, had written, in an ancient and sacred tongue, the history of two of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Smith duly did Moroni’s bidding and then, using the sacred Urim and Thummin, ancient devices buried with the plates (which I’ve always fancied-though I can’t swear to this, because I don’t recall ever having seen depictions of them-are somewhat similar to the phylacteries that Jews wear on their foreheads and arms when they pray), translated the Plates into English. It was never completely clear to me how the Urim and Thummin worked. In any case, the story allegedly written on the Plates was published under the title The Book of Mormon and it, along with the Old and New Testaments, The Pearl of Great Price, and The Doctrine and Covenants, became the texts on which the new religion was based. (Incidentally, that last book is commonly referred to by members as the “D and C,” an abbreviation that some years later, when I’d learned a bit more about anatomy, human sexuality in general, and abortion techniques in particular, struck me as somewhat amusing. I submit that a similar thought has probably occurred to any number of Church members, but they thought it prudent not to mention it.)
The Book of Mormon became so closely associated with the religion that its adherents became known as Mormons, and are still widely referred to as such by those outside the Church, which prefers to call its members Latter-day Saints or simply Saints. The Church is “latter day” because it was founded some two-and-a-half millennia after the remaining Children of Israel, the original “saints,” had fled the Holy Land. (By the way, when I first heard this story as a child, I distinctly recall envisioning the Golden Plates as a stack of dinner plates, which were the only kind of plates I was familiar with. Some years later, I realized that the term referred to a sheaf of thin, flat plates of hammered gold, bound together by golden rings similar to those in a loose-leaf notebook!)
Unfortunately, the actual Golden Plates themselves, which would have constituted real-world evidence of authenticity, and which could have been examined by archaeological and linguistic experts-as opposed to the hearsay evidence that Smith offered regarding them-promptly disappeared. I don’t recall the official story on this lack of empirical evidence; it may have been that Moroni took them with him when he re-ascended into Heaven or that he directed Smith to rebury them in an undisclosed location. At any rate, no one has seen them since, and I believe Smith himself was the only one to claim to have ever seen them. A skeptic (such as, say, myself) might charge that they never existed, that the whole episode was a figment of Smith’s fevered imagination. But I digress; back to the story:
The Book of Mormon was purportedly a history of two of the Lost Tribes since they had fled the ancient Land of Israel sometime, if memory serves, around the seventh century B.C. and eventually made their way to America, where they became known as the Nephites and the Lamanites–descendants of Nephi and Laman, two of the twelve sons of Isaac, father of all the brothers whose progeny became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Nephites were the “righteous” people who attempted to follow the ancient, prescriptive Hebrew laws, even in this new and unforgiving wilderness, while the Lamanites eventually became the American Indians and reverted to a pagan, polytheistic belief system of many gods, headed by Manitou, the Great Spirit. As I recall, in the more than two millennia between the exodus of the Tribes from Israel, fleeing the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Hittites, who were doing their level best to conquer and enslave them at the time, and the arrival of the Europeans on the North American continent, The Book of Mormon relates that there were savage battles between the Nephites and the Lamanites. The latter eventually prevailed and the former were wiped out as a people, which is why no trace of the Nephites remains today, a convenient “fact” that fits in nicely with the alleged “history” related by the Golden Plates. To my knowledge, no archaeological dig has ever turned up a shred of evidence that such a tribe as the Nephites ever existed in North America.
Of course, given that the predominant current archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans are descended from ancient Asian peoples who walked across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, as the glaciers that had covered what is now Canada and Alaska during the preceding Ice Age receded-tens of thousands of years before the founding of Judaism by Abraham, as the Old Testament relates-the story of the Nephites and Lamanites might be complete fantasy! You decide. Further, keep in mind that The Book of Mormon, though allegedly written many centuries earlier and buried for additional centuries, was at least translated at a time when the West was just beginning to open up for settlement. There were many tales of hostile savages capturing, torturing, scalping, and killing innocent European settlers who were merely attempting to colonize what they viewed as an empty continent, inhabited only by native peoples regarded as little better than savages (the Indians didn’t possess modern technology or even a written language and lived in relative harmony with nature). It’s not surprising, then, that in an era when the aggressive territorial imperative of Manifest Destiny was sweeping the county, the Indians were cast in the role of villains, by Smith and other writers, which helped to justify their conquest and decimation by the “civilized” Europeans.
In any case, Smith duly did as he was instructed and founded the new religion. He quickly attracted followers, at first from his immediate vicinity and later from further afield, and set himself up as the Prophet, the acknowledged and uncontested leader of the Church. Presidents of the Church are still referred to as Prophets to this day; I don’t know the name of the current president, but fifty years ago when I was learning about LDS beliefs, the officially sanctioned phrase for referring to the head of the Church was “the Prophet David O. McKay.” Following the example of Jesus, Smith appointed twelve men as Apostles to serve as his council of advisors. The Church grew quickly, which naturally threatened established Protestant denominations in the region, and the Community of Saints was vilified as un-Christian, harassed mercilessly, and hounded from one place to another-from upstate New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to Nauvoo, Illinois. There, in 1844 a mob of rabidly anti-Mormon townspeople stormed the local jail where Smith had been incarcerated (either for violating some local ordinance or to supposedly safeguard him from mob violence; I don’t recall which) dragged him out and, in a fit of vigilante rage, murdered him.
The mantle of Prophet then fell on his leading Apostle, Brigham Young, who three years later marched the Saints on a grueling, 1500-mile westward trek. Most made the journey on foot and pulled handcarts (though some men had horses and oxen) from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Salt Lake Valley, where they arrived on July 24, 1847. When Young first saw that desolate valley, with the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats-a salty, evaporated residue of what millions of years earlier had been the much-larger Lake Bonneville-shimmering in the distance, he reasoned that no other potential settlers would want this hostile, forbidding, sagebrush-and-sand desert. This meant that the Saints would most likely be safe, at least temporarily, during which time they could multiply fast enough to grow into a force formidable enough to deter anyone who might threaten them.
At the mouth of the pass through the mountains, Young held out his arms toward the valley and proclaimed to his followers, “This is the place!” July 24 is still celebrated every year in Mormon communities throughout Utah, southern Idaho, and possibly in parts of Colorado and other surrounding states. In my town, the celebration was called Frontier Days and included a pancake breakfast, two nights of rodeo, and a parade, complete with floats. Men, women, boys, and girls rode on horseback; there was also the requisite high school band, of which I was a proud member, playing Sousa marches off-key and keeping one eye on the music holder and one on the pavement, lest I step in the fresh, steaming “meadow biscuits” deposited by the horses, which invariably preceded the band. (I never understood why the horses always had to go at the front of the parade, which required everyone following them on foot to avoid, if possible, the “deposits” they left behind them! Horses seem to have no respect whatsoever for solemn celebrations, or even minimal politeness, and will “let ‘er rip,” as my dad was fond of saying, whenever and wherever they feel the urge, and furthermore exhibit no embarrassment, much less contrition!)
Over the next several decades, the Community of Saints thrived, partly because of a continual stream of new converts from the rest of the country and immigrants from Europe. Some of the settlers on their way to the new Oregon Territory stopped in Salt Lake to rest and replenish their supplies, heard the missionaries speak, became interested in the new religion, and decided to convert and make the new community their home. (The Oregon Trail passed through the mountains a few miles southeast of my hometown, and the deep ruts cut by the wheels of innumerable ox-drawn wagons are still visible there today.) Similarly, gold having been discovered at Sutter’s Mill near present-day Sacramento in 1848, the year after the Saints arrived at their desert paradise, some of the prospectors on their way to California decided that the likelihood of actually finding gold and becoming rich was a long shot, and they too decided to settle among the Saints.
The settlement quickly grew into a town and then a city, also partly fueled by the practice of polygamy, which God had “revealed” to Joseph Smith early on. He had several wives and his successor, Brigham Young, accumulated a total of twenty-seven! God had told both Prophets, just as he had reputedly told Adam, that it was necessary for them to “multiply and replenish the Earth,” and it was thus imperative that the Saints increase their numbers post-haste, in order to defend themselves against both hostile Indians in the region and potential white settlers who might covet their land and possessions or, at the very least find their budding religion anathema to older, more established sects and “good social order.”
Polygamy was eventually banned by the Church authorities and the Utah legislature in 1890, but by then forty years of the practice had so deeply ingrained it in the psyches of the Saints that some found it necessary to break away from the mother church and found their own communities and church, known, predictably, as the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They settled mostly in far southern Utah near the Arizona border, where many of them still practice polygamy today. “Besides,” the polygamists claim, “it says right in the Old Testament that Solomon had 1,000 wives and 700 concubines, so what’s the problem with me having 4?!” Hmmm, good point!
In any case, the “field work” required to do the aforementioned “multiplying and replenishing” is not an unpleasant task, particularly in that it requires “sowing seeds” in several different “fields” and, judging from the size of their families, the Saints warmed to it with enthusiasm! Despite its being technically illegal, Utah state authorities apparently haven’t even attempted very vigorously to prosecute these apostate Mormon scofflaws (Warren Jeffs being an exception), simply because (a) it would be surpassingly difficult to find people to give evidence against them and (b) if all the men engaging in it were found guilty, there wouldn’t be enough prison space in the entire state to hold them all! By the way, to my knowledge none of my ancestors ever engaged in polygamy, but given that it’s now not only politically incorrect, illegal, and taboo, I’m not confident that I would have learned the absolute truth even if I had inquired about it, which I didn’t!
My great-great grandfather heard the Gospel presented by Mormon missionaries in England, where he was born. He joined the Church, and later immigrated to the United States on a sailing ship in 1851, disembarked in New Orleans, and took a riverboat from there upriver to St. Louis. I’ve fantasized that he might have noticed a sixteen-year old cabin boy named Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who later became a fair-to-middling writer known as Mark Twain) hanging around the wheelhouse trying to learn the intricacies of navigating the notorious, constantly shifting currents and sandbars of The Big Muddy. My ancestor joined a wagon train to Salt Lake and moved around the West several times, experimenting with different occupations (merchant, miner, and so on). He married and settled down to farm, and raised his family in the small town of Lehi. (By the way, if you look at a map of Utah, you’ll discover that many of the names of towns and natural features-mountains, rivers, lakes, and so on-have a vaguely biblical ring to them. That’s no accident; the early Mormon settlers considered themselves the legitimate, philosophical, and spiritual, if not genetic, descendents of both the biblical Israelites and the early adherents to the Christian Church, who were similarly harassed, persecuted, and hounded from one place to another by more established peoples.) Two generations later, his grandson married a Lehi girl but eventually moved north into southern Idaho, where he bought a farm and proceeded to father a dozen children, of whom my dad was the youngest.
This certainly doesn’t constitute a definitive or complete history of the Church by any standard, but it does sketch out–reasonably accurately, I believe–the basics of the Mormon experience in the United States.