This is a sub-division of a series on the religions of the world. The sub-title, “Western Religions,” does not mean that these religions are confined to the West. It indicates that they originated in the West.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is, by far, the largest branch of Mormonism. There are more than 16 million members world-wide. There are more than 6.5 million members in the U.S.A., almost a third of these live in Utah (Mormon Population by State, worldatlas.com). There are many other branches of Mormonism. Some of these will be mentioned later. However, the bulk of this study will concern the largest branch.
1. Joseph Smith Jr. (b.1805-d.1844) and the Beginning
He was born in Sharon, Vermont on December 23, 1805. He was the fourth of nine children born to Joseph and Lucy (Mack) Smith.
In 1816 or 1817, the family moved, and settled in western New York. They first lived in Palmyra, and then in nearby Manchester.
His first vision or divine appearance supposedly occurred in the spring of 1820. He was confused by religious division. He explicitly mentioned the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Methodists. He went into the woods near Palmyra and prayed for wisdom. Two personages, he claimed, appeared to him. These two were the Father and the Son. Smith asked which sect he should join. He was told to join none of them, for they were all wrong (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph 2).
His second visitation supposedly occurred on the night of September 21, 1823. He was, by his account, in his room in prayer. He claimed to have been visited multiple times on this night by an angel named Moroni. He was told that God had work for him to do, and of a book which was written on gold plates. This book was said to contain “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from which they sprang.” Moreover, this book was said to contain, “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel… as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.” However, it was not yet the time for this book to be brought forth. Such would occur four years in the future. He was to go each year to the site of the book (Hill Cumorah, Manchester, New York) and the angel would meet him there, and instruct him (The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph 2).
The third visitation, that we will consider, supposedly occurred on September 22, 1827. The book was entrusted to him. He moved, due to opposition, to his father-in-law’s house in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and began to translate the book (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph 2). It was reportedly written in “reformed Egyptian” and other languages (Book of Mormon, Mormon 9:32-33; B.O.M., 1 Nephi 1:2; Pearl of Great Price, Joseph 2:64).
The Book of Mormon, it’s claimed, was the result. It was published in March, 1830. The place was Palmyra, New York.
The church was organized on April 6, 1830 (Doctrine and Coventants, 20-21). It had six members. The place was the house of Peter Whitmer in Fayette, New York. It was originally called The Church of Christ. The name was later changed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1834.
2. Growth and Opposition
In 1831, Smith fled a mob in New York, relocating in Kirkland, Ohio. Twenty-seven people, mostly friends and family, relocated with him. They joined Sidney Rigdon, an early follower, who had established a church there. Communal living was practiced for a while.
Missionaries were sent out. Mormon settlements were established in northwest Missouri.
Smith fled from Ohio on January 12, 1838. There was a warrant for his arrest on charges of bank fraud for his role as cashier at the failed bank, Kirkland Safety Society. He fled to Missouri.
Things were not good in Missouri. Tension between non-Mormons and Mormons (which now numbered 3,000) had escalated to bloodshed and war. Following the battle of Crooked Creek, between the Mormons and the state militia, Governor Boggs issued Executive Order 44 which said that the Mormons, “Must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” This was issued October 27, 1838. Then, Smith (and some other Mormons) surrendered and were arrested for treason on November 2, 1838.
While being transported in April 1839, Smith bribed his way to escape, fleeing to Commerce, Illinois. The small town soon grew from less than 3,000 in 1840 to nearly 12,000 by 1844, rivaling Chicago as the largest city in the state. Smith renamed it Nauvoo (Beautiful). He organized the Nauvoo Legion, a militia force, with himself as head. Many followers flowed into this town. Some area residents believed that it was a safe-haven for thieves and robbers.
It is alleged that in late 1843 Joseph Smith propositioned Jane Law to become his polyandrous wife, while married to her husband William. Smith had the Laws excommunicated for slander.
William Law responded. He formed a rival L.D.S. church called the True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He also created a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor which criticized Smith for polygamy and other things in its first edition June 7, 1844.
Smith responded. He ordered the printing press of the paper destroyed. He then instituted martial law.
Governor Ford sent a letter demanding Smith’s surrender. If he did not surrender, then the state militia would be sent to enforce the warrant.
Smith and his brother, Hyrum, crossed into Iowa planning to flee across the Rockies. Smith’s wife sent him a note urging him to surrender. The militia might harass Nauvoo, if he did not.
He and his brother surrendered on June 25, 1844. He was detained in the Carthage, Illinois jail.
Smith was killed by a mob of 200 men who attacked the jail. His brother was also killed. Smith did not go down without a fight.
On September 1845 delegates from nine counties met in Quincy, Illinois. They adopted a resolution requesting that the Mormons leave the state (for much of their history, I am indebted to Brandon G. Kinney’s book, The Mormon War).
3. Brigham Young (b.1801-d.1877) and Utah
He was an early follower. He became a Mormon, leaving the Methodist church, in 1832. He directed the relocation of Mormons from Missouri to Illinois in 1838-1839. He served as a missionary in Great Britain in 1840-1841. (Brigham Young, history.com).
Beginning February 4, 1846 Brigham Young led 148 Mormon pioneers to the Great Salt Lake. Most arrived on July 22, 1847. Young arrived July 24, 1847. By 1852, 16,000 had settled there. By 1869, 80,000 had settled there (Mormons Settle Salt Lake Valley, history.com). Much of the growth came from mission work. Between 1852 – 1877 approximately 80,000 migrated to Utah from Great Britain, Scandinavia, and continental Europe (Brigham Young, history.com).
Brigham Young was a powerful leader. He served as President of the church nearly 30 years 1847 – 1877. He served as the first Governor of Utah territory 1851-1858. He was removed by President James Buchanan for disregarding federal laws and sanctioning polygamy (ibid).
There were tensions for some time with outsiders. On September 11, 1857 a group of California-bound settlers were killed in what is known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Between 120 and 140 people were killed. In October, 1857 six Californians were arrested for being U.S. spies. They were released, but latter robbed and murdered. This is known as the Aiken Party Massacre (Kinney, The Mormon War, p. 201; Utah War, Wikipedia.org).
The situation improved over time. In 1890, Church President Wilford Woodruff disavowed polygamy. Utah became a state in 1896. (Utah’s Very Interesting path to Statehood, constitutioncenter.org). Today, Mormons are known to be good citizens and good neighbors.