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American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith

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An American Religion: the Mormons

The founding fathers of Mormonism, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young
Ok, admittedly, when I was fourteen years old (yikes! One whole decade ago! ), the most important questions I had on my mind were which New Kid on the Block was the cutest, Jordan or Donnie, and who was cooler on Beverly Hills, 90210: Dylan or Brandon. In 1820, 14-year-old Joseph Smith had other things on his mind, stuff like God and the meaning of life. Though I was shopping at the mall and dissecting the traits of cute boys at 14, young Joseph was laying down the roots for what would become the largest home-grown American religion: Mormonism.

Joseph spent his time praying to God to know which church he should join. Joseph was desperately confused by all the different Christian denominations and their conflicting interpretations of the same Bible passages. Who was he to trust? He was out in the woods praying when suddenly, a pillar of light burst forth and God and Jesus Christ appeared. They said that none of the sects were right; all were corrupt and he, Joseph Smith, would restore the Church to its proper foundation.

In 1830, Joseph translated some golden tablets found in New York shown to him by the angel Moroni. The writings became known as the "Book of Mormon" and detailed the lives of Israelites living with native tribes 4,000 years ago in America. Is that hard to swallow? Well, it was no crazier than what other people were saying back then.

The Mormons thought these handcarts were more practical and cheaper than wagons
In nineteenth century America, there were lots of religious preachers warning about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Yet Joseph Smith, with his remarkable good looks, charismatic ways and youthful age found a controversial religion that within 170 years, has grown to a following of 11 million members worldwide.

From the start, Mormons faced enemies and critics. From Missouri to Ohio to Illinois, wherever Joseph and his followers went, their houses were burned and they were chased out of town. They were criticized for their belief that property and possessions were to be communally shared. Outsiders, whom Mormons called "gentiles," felt threatened by the Mormons' exclusive nature and their mission to build the "New Jerusalem" on American soil. Others resented the Mormons' anti-slavery stance and growing political power. But the most scandalous aspect of the Mormons was their promotion of God-ordained polygamy (having more than one wife).

Fed up with all the hostile attitudes they were encountering, 70,000 Mormons from 1846-1869 made the arduous journey through the Rocky Mountains in the greatest organized mass migration to the West. They suffered many of the hardships that the Oregon Trail pioneers did, but managed to build a thriving settlement around the Great Salt Lake. Unlike some pioneers, the Mormons were not seeking riches or a better life. They simply wanted a place to practice their beliefs freely. One unique aspect of the migration was the use of handcarts instead of wagons pulled by animals. I think my lipstick collection alone would have taken up an entire cart.

An original cabin from the first settlement in Salt Lake City
When the Mormons tried to apply for statehood, the request was rejected due to their practice of polygamy. Republicans condemned it as being as evil as slavery, and Democrats viewed it as sinful. The Mormons defended their beliefs on the basis of the first Amendment's guarantee of "freedom of religion," but the Supreme Court shot that down. In 1890, after hundreds of Mormon men had been imprisoned, the Church repudiated its teachings on polygamy, but not before several clashes between the US Army and the Mormon militia. Many politicians (including the president! ) called for the eradication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Joseph's name for the Mormon church). To this day, many Mormons harbor a fear and distrust of the US government.

Neda in the opulent Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The Mormons some say are worth $30 billion.
Mormonism has been the center of so much argument that I was eager to see for myself just what these people were about. To some, Mormonism is a dangerous cult. To others, it is the one true and pure church. As Neda and I drove the long distance from California to Utah, I tried to brace myself for what I would find in Salt Lake City. I was going from the most ethnically diverse state in the country to a state where 75% of the population is Mormon. Aware of the more sensational aspects of Mormon history, I wondered if I could shed my own prejudice towards Mormons, a prejudice mostly based on my perception of Julie from MTV's The Real World as a clueless Mormon girl who had never talked to a black person in her life before the show. Come to think of it, when had I ever really spoken to any Mormons about their beliefs?


I was asked where my family was from by an elderly Mormon woman.

In Temple Square in the heart of Salt Lake City, I was surprised to be greeted by four young women from New Zealand, Korea, and Armenia, all Mormon missionaries. So much for thinking Mormonism was an exclusively white and American religion! Mormons perform two-year missions, men at age 19 and women at 21. The purpose of the mission is to convert others to Mormonism. There are now more Mormons outside the US than within and the number is rapidly increasing. I spoke with Kaitu'u, a New Zealander of Samoan/Tonga ethnicity whose name means "Stand up and eat." She drew the US for her missionary assignment and now leads tours and answers questions about Mormonism from pesky tourists like me.

The Temple they wouldn't let us into that took 40 years to build
When Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormons during their migration West, reached Salt Lake, he declared, "This is the place!" and pounded his cane into the dirt where the magnificent Mormon temple now stands. Only Mormons are allowed in the temple, so Neda and I couldn't go in. Our guide tried to compare it to having a big white house and not wanting to dirty it by bringing in lots of mud and dirt. Neda and I were a bit offended: was she equating us with dirt? Here's what I can tell you about the temple: only Mormons can attend Mormon weddings and baptisms, they usually wear white as a symbol of purity, and they must undergo lots of training and secret ceremonies in order to enter the temple.

Neda and I later watched a movie about the Book of Mormon, which included scenes of Indian tribes burning and plundering the villages of people who believed in the coming Messiah. The movie ended with Jesus' visit to America after his resurrection, an occurrence that most other churches do not recognize. The Book of Mormon has been accused of labeling dark-skinned people as heathens whose skin will gradually lighten if they accept the teachings of Jesus. Some people think this explains why black people were not allowed to hold leadership positions in the Church until 1978. Because Jesus and his apostles were all men, the Mormon Church does not allow women to be leaders. The women I spoke to had no problem with this, explaining to me that men and women, while equal, have different roles to play.

After comparing the official church literature with other sources, I discovered that certain parts of Mormon history had been omitted. Joseph Smith's 30-some wives (some as young as 14) are never mentioned, nor is the fact that his first wife, Emma, loathed the idea of sharing her husband. Any current member who practices polygamy is officially barred from the Church, but you can still find polygamous Mormons in isolated areas.

Joseph Smith has become a Mormon martyr ever since he was murdered in 1844 by angry mobs. Interestingly, these mobs contained many of his ex-followers who viewed Joseph as a dictator, disagreed with his views on polygamy, and felt that Mormonism blurred the lines between church and state.

Some of my stereotypes of Mormons have fallen away. I may not have been allowed in the temple, but the Mormons I met were the friendliest bunch of people you can imagine. During the movie, I heard many people weeping around me, and felt moved that they had such deep convictions. They have survived government invasions, the wagon trails, and the hatred of outsiders to become a great American success story. That's one fact that nobody, not even critics of the Mormon church, can disagree with.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - How Mr. Potato Head changed the face of America
Daphne - Know-Nothings without a clue
Kevin - Rock the vote by discovering Dorr!
Teddy - A 19th century Robin Hood saves the day
Kevin - Heck no! We won't go for a 16 hour work day!
Kevin - To Sarah With Love
MAD - Give nasty, old poverty a kick in the shin!