Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Prophet

Joseph Smith, Founder of Mormonism
Joseph Smith, Founder of Mormonism
Depending on who you ask, Joseph Smith was either a prophet of God or a charlatan. He was considered both a man chosen by Jehovah as a modern-day oracle who would lead humanity back to the One True Church and bring about Gods Kingdom on earth, and a philandering con man who abused the trust of his gullible followers by taking a second-rate novel and using it as the basis for his cult of personality. Either way, Joseph Smith was a charismatic leader who, in a few short years, managed to spread a new brand of Christianity around the world. Living in upstate New York, Smith was one of the youngest of nine children in a lazy, indolent, ignorant, and superstitious family. (That phrase, while widely reported by critics of Smith and his church, comes from Hubert Bancrofts History of Utah (1889), which was compiled with the assistance -- if not the approval -- of the Mormon church.) The Smith familys superstitions included belief in dowsing and money digging; they believed that large deposits of gold had been buried either by pirates or Spanish explorers in easily accessible troves. The family actively searched for these treasure troves and managed to convince others to invest in their digging schemes.

History of Utah
History of Utah
The superstition gave way to religious fervor, a common occurrence in the early 19th century in an area of the country that had been given the name the Burned-Over District because of the frequency of religious revivalism there. The Smiths did not belong to any particular sect, and Joseph Jr. was especially ambivalent about which of the many churches in the area represented Gods True Church.

Like many lower-class people of his time, Smith received little formal education, and his personal writings are nearly illegible due to a lack of punctuation and his spelling and grammatical errors. He did take the time to record his feelings about his emotional state when he received his first revelation in 1832:

My mind become excedingly distressed for I became convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mand [mankind] did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.

Lt. J.W. Gunnison, who spent a year among the Saints in Utah conducting a land survey for the federal government, and who would later write the first in-depth, neutral account of them, records Smiths visitation in a more straightforward manner:

In one of these times his feelings were so powerfully wrought upon that he gave himself up to continued prayer for some days -- and meditating still at night, he at length arose while all the family were hushed in sleep, and poured forth his soul, agonising to have made known to him the truth...among the conflicting opinions he heard by the various sects. The apartment became suddenly illuminated, and an angel appeared and conversed familiarly with him, and instructed him in the way of righteousness; informing him also that there was no true church upon the earth, Gunnison wrote in 1852.

Over the course of the next several years, Gods messengers continued to appear to Joseph, who was eventually led to recover a number of holy artifacts, including the Book of Mormon, two mystical stones by which he could translate the book (the stones Urim and Thummim), and a sword and armor belonging to the Angel Mormon. The Book of Mormon that was given to Smith was a book written on plates of gold, but he was forbidden to look at it until he had been deemed worthy by the Almighty.

Orson Pratt
Orson Pratt
Later, Smiths disciple Orson Pratt described the golden tablets as not far from seven by eight inches in width and length, being not quite as thick as common tin. They were filled on both sides with engravings in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book, and fastened at one edge with three rings running through the whole. This volume was about six inches in thickness, and a part of it was sealed. The characters or letters upon the unsealed part were small and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, as well as much skill in the art of engraving.

Finally, Smith was directed to use Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon. The Book revealed that two tribes of Israelites had been brought by God to North America thousands of years before the continent was discovered by Europeans. The tribes built a powerful and thriving civilization, but eventually turned away from God and over the eons lost the skills that their civilization gave them. The Saints believe one of the last of Gods prophets in North America was Mormon, who compiled the writings of the New World prophets and whose son, Moroni, buried them until Smith was chosen to reveal them to the world. The Saints believe that their faith is the re-emergence of the True Church, and that the Son of God had appeared in the New World after His resurrection, where he continued to teach the Word of God.

Ten years after his first exposure to the Golden Bible, Smith and five others incorporated what would eventually become The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They published the Book of Mormon, which included statements of eleven witnesses who claimed to have seen the golden plates and, in eight cases, to have actually hefted them. The plates themselves, however, were no longer available for examination: When Joseph had finished translating the plates, Moroni took them back to Heaven.

As with any new challenge to established faiths, the Saints (as they preferred to be called) were quickly vilified and viewed with derision and confusion. Although the Mormons were a Christian faith, their teachings were different enough from Catholicism and the Protestant denominations that their opponents considered them to be little more than a cult.

Fawn McKay Brodie
Fawn McKay Brodie
Much of the animosity that Smiths Mormons attracted was based on the self-professed ultimate goal of the Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smiths was no mere dissenting sect, apostate Mormon Fawn Brodie wrote in a study of the faith that led to her excommunication. It was a real religious creation, one intended to be to Christianity as Christianity was to Judaism.

No Man Knows My History
No Man Knows My History
Most Christian faiths believe that the   Bibles teachings about mankind and the future of humanity ended with the Book of Revelations in the New Testament. Smith taught, and the Mormons continue to believe, that God uses modern-day prophets to maintain an active role in guiding the human race. Equally startling to the faithful of the 19th century was the Mormon belief that humans can evolve into gods.

One of Mormonisms greatest strengths has always been its commitment to evangelism; this practice has led to a rapid increase in converts. The Saints believe that aboriginal Americans are the remnants of one of the two tribes of Israel that found their way to North America. One of the churchs strongest missions was to return the Indians -- Lamanites, according to the Book of Mormon -- to the True Church. Once this was accomplished, the creation of Paradise on Earth could begin.

Within a few years of the founding of the church in 1830 in upstate New York, the Mormons had at least 2,000 members and numerous missionaries preaching among the Indians on the frontier, which at the time did not extend much further west than Ohio. Smith and his fellow Saints were all charismatic speakers who were zealous in their evangelism and unmatched in their ability to convert entire congregations and communities. While this rapid growth was beneficial to the spread of the faith, it would have violent repercussions for the Saints and the Gentiles who lived in their midst.

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