Beginning with a handful of members in 1830, the story of the Mormons has been marked by steady growth and success. Today they number around 9 million (only about half in this country), rake in $10 million a day, and wield influence beyond their numbers, being disproportionately represented in corporate management and in America’s Intelligence apparatus. And their influence will continue to grow. Mormons are assiduous, if less than formidable, missionaries, and their emphasis on fecundity insures a constant growth in membership–after all, it’s easier to breed new members than to convert them.
Notorious for their squeaky-clean image, Mormons practice a religion born in controversy. The complete truth about their religion is not generally forthcoming–least of all from Mormons themselves–but is available from a number of sources. Exposes on the religion appeared early and often enough in the previous century, but tended to disappear for obvious reasons. Today their influence as well as a misguided form of tolerance, causes even some encyclopedias to shy away from unpleasant disclosures about the history of Mormonism. But the truth cannot be fully suppressed, and free from niceties, is presented below.
According to the official story from the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, Jr., received a series of supernatural visitations from 1820-29. Ultimately he was visited by the angel Moroni, a resurrected being, who revealed the location of the “golden plates,” written in “reformed Egyptian caractors” (sic). These plates contained the prophetic record and history of Ancient Israelite settlers in America, including the appearance of a resurrected Christ. With the help of magic specs that translated them for him, Joseph Smith presented the world with the Book of Mormon and established the One True Religion.
Now for the facts. It was a time of revivalism, millennial fever and evangelical zeal; a time when the common people still believed in folk superstitions and odd supernaturalistic ideas. The young “Jo Smith” was a fellow described by family, friends, and neighbors as a prankster and as a gifted storyteller who regaled them with stories of the original inhabitants of America. It prefigured what he’d later be telling the world. Smith also was known as an avid “money digger.” Sometimes for himself, sometimes for hire, he’d dig for the lost Spanish treasures and Indian riches that dreamers felt just had to be around. In this endeavor, he employed a “magic stone” in a hat that he claimed revealed the location of buried wealth (a form of scrying). He never found any, but always had a plausible excuse to account for the failure, such as evil spirits or ritualistic impropriety. In 1826 he was hauled into court, accused of being an impostor, and convicted of disorderly conduct, the records for which are sketchy.
An early influence on young Jo may have been an itinerant magician named Walters, who would utter gibberish and pretend to translate it, telling a story of former inhabitants of America who deposited treasure before their extinction. He also claimed to have unearthed an ancient lost book by Cicero. Smith, some speculate, may have taken over his act.
The dawn of Mormonism is traced to 1827, when Joseph Smith Jr. announced to his family that he had found the “Gold Bible.” Originally the tale had nothing to do with a new revelation, a new religion, or an angel. He told of a large man in ancient bloody clothes who appeared and told him of buried treasure. His family believed him, but when they asked to see the Gold Bible, he told them he’d been commanded not to. A friend of Smith named Peter Ingersoll later told an early investigator that Smith confided that he had no such book. “I’ve got the damn fools fixed and will carry out the fun.” To suggest his alleged treasure, he made a wooden chest, which he carried in a pillowcase. Another man named Willard Chase testified that Smith first asked him to make the chest, but he’d refused. Soon enough, the gold Bible became the golden plates, the “translation” of which Smith was dictating to his first scribe, Martin Harris. Smith’s use of scribes may have been to conceal his poor grammar and spelling, though the scribes weren’t all that much better. As he “translated,” he conveniently had a blanket between himself and his scribe, lest the latter catch an unauthorized glimpse of the plates. As part of the project, other key Smith followers reportedly spent much time thumbing through and copying portions of the Bible, which so happen to be contained in the Book of Mormon.
Martin Harris was a devoted follower and financial backer of Smith from the beginning, who would eventually sell his farm to finance the first edition of the Book of Mormon (early on referred to as Smith’s Gold Bible.) His wife Lucy felt he was being deceived and defrauded by Smith. and brought suit against the Prophet. The judge acceded to male authority and dismissed the case, in accordance with Martin’s wishes. One early debunker, Abner Cole, later alluded to one of the Three Witnesses (presumably Harris) beating his recalcitrant wife to persuade her to convert.
In 1828 came a major crisis for Smith. Martin Harris asked and received permission to take the first 116 pages of the text recently “translated” to show his family, in an attempt to justify his sponsorship. The manuscript disappeared and was never seen again. (Lucy Harris is the likely culprit.) This created a sticky problem. If Smith tried to rewrite it from the start, it could not possibly be identical to the original, which would be embarrassing should it ever resurface. If it had been in fact a Divine translation, it could simply be retranslated the same as before. But differences in “translation” would point to human fabrication.
At first Smith was lost, and claimed the gift of translation had been taken away from him for the sin of not protecting the manuscript. But he eventually resolved the problem as best he could. He claimed, in another one of his frequent “revelations,” that he’d been instructed not to retranslate the plates he’d already worked on. These were the plates of Lehi. Some of the yet untranslated plates had an account of the same history by Nephi. Thus he could retell the story without worrying about it being identical. Smith suggested that the “stolen” manuscript, should it ever turn up, would prove to be altered rather than being actually divergent, in an attempt to make him look like a fraud. Smith switched scribes (new man, Oliver Cowdery), and continued. Meanwhile, Martin Harris obtained a handwritten copy of text written in the “reformed Egyptian caractors” and took it to one of America’s leading experts in antiquities, Charles Anthon of Columbia University. It was a “singular medley” of Greek and Hebrew characters copied from a dictionary. along with inverted Roman letters, stars, and half moons. Anthon told him the text contained “anything else but Egyptian characters,” and that he thought someone was trying to perpetrate a hoax. Harris, however, concluded that this only proved Smith was a better translator than the noted academic, and must be working under Divine impulse. He returned claiming that Anthon had originally certified the translation, but withdrew it when informed it was for religious purposes. Anthon vehemently denied approving the translation, and is considered a liar by Mormons to this day.
In 1970 what is believed to be the actual transcript sample was found in an old Smith family Bible. It confirms Anthon’s public statements, and refutes Harris’ account of his meeting with him. Also helpful is a public statement by the Smithsonian institution in the 1840’s denying that any example of Hebrew or Egyptian writing had ever been found anywhere in the Americas. (As recently as 1988 the Smithsonian still had the courage to publish material asserting that the Book of Mormon is not a reliable guide for archaeological understanding of early American habitation.)
As the book of Mormon was being finished, Smith realized that someone else besides him had to see the plates or there would be a credibility problem. He had a “revelation” in which God said he would grant a vision of the plates to three and no more. Smith told Martin Harris that the Lord had said, “Martin Harris shall say, ‘I have seen them, shown unto me by the power of God”,’ and if he doesn’t, “he is condemned.” In intensive prayer sessions with Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer all three were eventually bullied into “seeing” the plates by the power of suggestion. Cowdery and Whitmer claimed they’d seen the plates in a vision “revealed by the power of God,” the same circumstances in which Harris was told he’d see them. All three witnesses, though, told different versions of their visions at different times, versions not consistent with each other or with themselves. But the most important thing to notice is that no one actually saw the plates in the normal physical sense. They were seen with “the eye of faith,” another term for “vain imaginings.”
Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated in 1838 after accusing Joseph Smith of adultery. He’d also come to believe that the translation was entirely Joseph Smith’s work, and not God’s. (Furthermore, the angelic voice he’d heard at his baptism, on retrospect, sounded a lot like a certain Sidney Rigdon.) David Whitmer was also excommunicated and Martin Harris left the faith. But the testimony of all three men is still reprinted in every Book of Mormon it attesting to the existence of the golden plates they’d never actually seen. And despite Smith’s “revelation” that the vision would be granted to “three and no more,” eight witnesses were later added, and their testimony is printed below that of the original three.
It must be pointed out here that the fabled “Hill of Cumorah,” where the plates were allegedly unearthed, has produced no physical evidence of anything along the lines claimed by Mormonism. Not only the plates, but no weapons,, bones, or artifacts of any kind were ever found at the site, despite it being–as Mormonism asserts–a veritable Armageddon.
When the project was finished, the prophet’s loyal brother Hyrum thought to copyright the “holy book” and suggested that the copyright could be sold for money. Joseph consulted his holy oracles and OK’d the venture, but no buyer was found. David Whitmer wondered how Smith could receive a revelation on it, yet still see the effort fail. Smith sought a new revelation, and informed his followers that some revelations were from God, some from the devil and some from man. (Thus discrediting the reliability of the entire revelation process!) Lacking money, he simultaneously came up with a revelation for Harris: Be more generous in supporting the Book! (Which source for that one?)
Even before publication, the prospect to a purported new “holy book” met with public hostility which only increased afterward. But from an idle tale of buried treasure, Joseph Smith had created a new religion and enjoyed the power and prestige it conferred from the gullible. Others, meanwhile, were claiming to be receiving revelations and gaining a following; and Cowdery and Whitmer were falling for it in the case of a Hiram Page,, who employed a “sacred stone.” Smith produced a “revelation” calling him Satan-deceived, and asserting that only he was appointed to receive commandments and revelations. It worked.
Smith and 70 followers moved from New York to Ohio in 1831. There Smith tried his hand at healing. He had dazzling success with one woman’s bum arm (a likely hysterical symptom), but failed at other healings, also at an attempt to raise the dead. Clearly, his ego had gotten out of control. Just a few months lateral a revelation instructed him and most of his flock to move to Jackson County, Missouri, which was purportedly the site of the original Garden of Eden. Paranoid, clannish, and with an attitude of superiority (not to mention the beginnings of polygamy), they incurred the hostility of their rough-hewn rustic neighbors, who were afraid of being squeezed out by a bogus Divine provision. There were numerous clashes, killings, and house burnings on both sides. Joseph Smith himself was tarred and feathered, regrettably a lost art these days.
Meanwhile, back in Ohio, a church-run bank (of which Smith was treasurer) had failed. Originally denied a charter, it had opened as an “anti-Bank,” and its operations, illegal from the start, included printing their own currency. This created a false prosperity early on, but ultimately collapsed the local economy. This did not do much for their image. Neither did the mysterious fire at the local press building, which many blamed on Smith’s instigation.
In Missouri, the Mormon community was finally expelled front the state. The governor who issued the order of expulsion was later shot and nearly killed. By an amazing coincidence (ha!) Smith had earlier “prophesied” his death by violent means, and was very nearly on target. (Or someone was …. ) All along, Smith kept at his task of spurious translation. Papyrus scrolls from Egypt had found their way to America, and they were shown to Smith as an alleged authority. He pretended to translate them, producing a paraphrase of Genesis along with some imaginative embellishment and called it the Book of Abraham. (It was included in a later Mormon text.) These papyri were rediscovered in 1967, matching portions made in Smith’s own hand. Legitimate Egyptologists could thereby determine that the actual translation had nothing whatsoever to do with what Smith claimed it said. Smith was also taken in by a hoax by three men who pretended to discover brass plates in the ground, which they’d etched with strange letters and artificially aged before burying. Smith, of course, claimed he could read it, but years later one of the participants revealed it to have been a prank.
After being run out of Missouri, the Mormons moved on to Illinois, where they likewise ran into hostility. 62 neighbors signed a petition stating that Joseph Smith and his father were “entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits.” Smith was eventually arrested for forging bank notes and for aiding and abetting fugitives from justice. He is also believed to have ordered the destruction of the presses of the Nauvoo Expositor, which had been critical of him. But unfortunately for us all, a mob stormed the jail and shot him and his brother, thus creating martyrs to give impetus to the new religion. Brigham Young, an effective but sometimes ruthless leader, took over and led the long march to Utah, where they would have no neighbors to bother them, other than the remnants of the “Lamanites” who could be displaced without protest by the Federal government. There they went on to the success they enjoy today, so much so that they are almost never referred to as a cult.