How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mitt and the Mormons: Part II – The Curious Life of Joseph Smith Jr. and the Birth of a Modern Religion

Joseph Smith Jr. was born into a family of poor sharecroppers on December 23, 1805. While the family were originally land owners, purchasing a farm with money from Smith’s mother’s side of the family, they soon fell onto hard times due to some bad investments and poor financial management. To supplement a meager income earned by farming, Smith Sr. also worked as a teacher. The Smith family also made a questionable living by divination and treasure seeking. Wealthy patrons were secured to fund treasure hunting expeditions with the promise of exponential returns on their investments. As far as can be determined, the Smiths never actually found any treasure.

Then, during a period of time in the 1820s, in Upstate New York, Joseph Smith Jr. began to receive visions from divine sources. Smith was not alone in his revelations. The areas of Upstate New York at that time were known as the “Burned-over District,” a nickname attributable to the inordinate number of charismatic revivals that took place there.

The charismatic movement, alternatively known as “the Second Great Awakening,” was gaining momentum throughout the fledgling United States, as pioneering spirits challenged traditional Christian beliefs that divine revelation and prophecy ended in Biblical times. In revival tents across the frontier, Americans were overcome with ecstatic frenzy, receiving prophecy and visions directly from God.  Revelation told them that Jesus would soon return to establish his 1,000-year rule of a New Jerusalem in this Promised Land.

Smith was well-versed in the art and craft of charismatic revelation. His father and grandfather before him both professed to having received divine visions. Moreover, young Joseph’s informal education was based primarily on Bible and religious studies and what was then known about North American history. In Smith’s first vision, two divine beings with blonde hair and blue eyes (now interpreted as Jesus and Heavenly Father) appear to Smith and tell him that all of the churches on earth are teaching a great apostasy and that the Second Coming would transpire soon.

The exact time and content of the first vision are somewhat dubious, as Smith relayed several versions of the vision, differing as to when the vision occurred, who delivered it and what its content was. In spite of the apparent profound revelations of the first vision, it was not even discussed by Joseph Smith or his closest family members until the mid to late 1830s and didn’t become a significant aspect of Mormon doctrine until the 20th Century.

After the first vision, Smith was visited by several other visions and entities, most notably an angel named Moroni, who revealed to Smith the location of a set of golden plates upon which the Book of Mormon was said to be inscribed. The plates were translated by Smith using two magical divining stones that he named Urim and Thummim. Purportedly viewing the plates by looking at them in his hat, Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to scribes on the other side of a curtain. Transcriptionists included first his wife and then a few other associates. The largest portion of the book was transcribed by an early convert Oliver Cowdery.

Among other things, the golden plates tell a fantastic tale of the Lost Tribe of Israel being led to the Americas by Jesus and establishing a holy kingdom in the New World. The New World tribes eventually fell into apostasy, and God punished them by darkening their skin and condemning them to live in savagery, thus explaining the origins of Native Americans. Cowdery and Smith then claim to have been baptized into the priesthood by none other than John the Baptist himself, and the Mormon religion began.

If one is inclined to scoff at the seemingly incredible history of events central to the creation of the Mormon religion, to dismiss the entire faith as a hoax due to incompatibility with scientific facts or to be skeptical based on contradictory doctrinal details espoused throughout the church’s history, I would submit that the above agents of disproval are characteristics of all religions. Visitations by angels and God, supernatural events that defy and are disproven by the laws of science and nature and contradictory doctrine are hallmarks of the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon. Believing the unbelievable and scientifically untenable is the very essence of religious faith.


  1. In the 70s or early 80s there was a book called "America BC" which described that area of upstate NY as being littered with ancient stone 'barrows', menhirs, megalithic structures, linguistic inscriptions (different from native petroglyphs), and various anomalous objects that later were thought to be 'root cellars' and artifacts from the new immigrants' recent ancestors. Natives claimed not to have made them.
    Don't know if there's any connection to the Smith story, but it has always seemed possibly related or relevant, that area having a strange unexplained history.

    1. bholanath, I will try and source the book you speak of. I know there was a period of time when various "artifacts" were being discovered in that area, but from what I understand, most of them turned out to be a hoax. This is an interesting research topic that I will look into. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Interesting reading. You tell of the life of Smith, but not of his death. Murdered by an armed mob while being held in jail. Religious persecution existed in 1844 and continues today.

    I have never understood prejudice or bigotry in any form. Color, gender, race , sexual preference, whatever. Surely, the most senseless reason to hate or even show bias against someone is because of how they worship God.

    1. Concernicus, thank you for the important addendum. Yes, Smith was murdered while being held in jail. Religious persecution was definitely part of the mob mentality, and there were other motivating factors, such as bad debts, the polygamy thing, and a political ambition to convert the local government into a theocracy, among other things. But you are correct, bias against someone because of their religious beliefs is perhaps the most ludicrous, with each mud slinger insisting that their own collection of superstitions and unprovable dogma is the only "real" truth. It would be laughable if it didn't usually have such tragic results.

  3. Killing Mother-

    Really enjoying the series, particularly you doing the research and me doing the reading!

    A couple of things occurred to me reading this installment.

    Joseph Smith Jr. was the third generation of male Smiths to have 'divine visions', but the first to create a new religion. It seems if his visions and translations were accurate and Jesus had led the lost tribes of Israel to America (land bridge??)Jesus and God may have had a little more urgency in getting their word out. I mean the holy duo had time to turn the Jews brown and condemn them to savagery one would think they may have been a little less patient (and arcane) in getting 'the word' out and starting the LDS Church. Perhaps the alternative explanation could be that the Smith's were passing along faulty wiring to each generation.

    Finally, as far as religious persecution goes, the Mormons were no 'angels'. You will probably get to it but the Mountain Meadows Massacre is perhaps the most well known incident.

    Great work on an important subject as we seem to slide relentlessly into a fascist theocracy. Keep after 'em.

    Secondly, what happened to the golden plates?

  4. Just realized that you had already posted parts II and III before I posted my response to part I. I feel these last two parts are better researched and overall less biased.

    With that said, I just wanted to point out a couple inaccuracies. The statement “two divine beings with blonde hair and blue eyes” is inaccurate. I do not know of any accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision that reference hair color, and only one second-hand account that mentions blue eyes. In a later vision and more credible first-hand account, Joseph described Christ saying, “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun.”

    Also the statement “God punished them by darkening their skin and condemning them to live in savagery, thus explaining the origins of Native Americans” is likewise inaccurate. First off, this group of people referred to as the “Lamanites” in the Book of Mormon were not condemned by God to live in savagery, but rather went through several cycles throughout the recorded history of repenting, living righteously and being favored of God, and then later turning away from God and falling into wickedness and “savagery” (I don’t recall that actual word being used in the Book of Mormon.) Second, while many people in the early church assumed from the narrative of the Book of Mormon that the small group of Israelites that came to the Americas was in fact the founding population for all native populations found in the Americas today, the narrative itself does not make such claims. Most educated Mormons in lieu of DNA evidence and simple reasoning accept that the native populations of the Americas are primarily Asiatic in origin. The small group of Israelites at the beginning of the BofM arrived around 600 B.C. and overtime mixed in with a much larger pre-established population. The Book of Mormon narrative itself gives a lot of evidence for such an interpretation. And third, people who accept this interpretation also generally accept that the dark skin of the Lamanites was simply the result of intermarriage with the native population—usually a sign that they had disaffected and left the more often than not, God-believing Nephite population .