Top 10 Things You Thought You Knew (But Didn’t Really) About Mormons
Mormons or the followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are followers of America’s largest homegrown Christian faith. Mormons tend to like to keep themselves a little bit apart from others rather enjoying their status as a ‘peculiar people’ with a unique relationship with God. There are a lot of myths and beliefs about Mormonism that everyone thinks they know – but is what we think we know actually correct. Here we set out our top 10 things you thought you knew, but didn’t really, about Mormons.
10. Joseph Smith claimed to receive visions from God and practiced ‘scrying’, he made a living as a treasure hunter
Joseph Smith claimed to receive visions from God from as early as his teenage years. This is now known by Latter Day Saints as the First Vision. The exact details of what happened in the vision vary depending on who recounts it. Smith himself, in early accounts of the experience said that he saw a ‘pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at non day, the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee.’ A few years later he had amended his narrative of the vision to include the appearance of two divine people – usually understood to be God and Jesus.
Smith claimed to be an accomplished ‘scryer’. Scrying is a form of divination which involves the use of a special stone. Smith placed his special crystal at the bottom of a white stovepipe hat. He then put his face into the hat blocking out all light and then used the stone to gain special information. Locals even paid Smith to give them special information. By 1825 Smith’s fame as a scryer and treasure hunter was widespread. A wealthy farmer, Josiah Stowell asked him to help find a lost Spanish gold mine. The project was not successful –Smith claimed that as they got closer to their goal the treasure’s enchantment became so strong that he could no longer see it in his special stone. It was, however a successful mission in other ways as Smith met his future wife, the sister of one of his employers.
9. Joseph Smith translated the book of Mormon from Golden Plates hidden by the Angel Moroni
Smith claimed that the Angel Moroni visited him when he was aged about 17. Moroni told him about a collection of ancient texts engraved on golden plates and buried in the state of New York. The text was said to describe people led by God to the Americas 600 years before Jesus. Moroni was a prophet of this race of people and had buried the plates so they could be found in the ‘latter days’. Smith was told that he would be allowed to find the plates four years after his vision and would be given assistance in translating them. Eleven other people, in addition to Smith, claimed to have seen the plates.
It is not completely clear how the Book of Mormon was translated and dictated (the plates were said to be written in ‘reformed Egyptian’). Smith implied that he used special glasses made of two clear stones bound together with wire (called the interpreters in the Book of Mormon and known today as the Urim and Thummim) to help him read the text. It is also understood that he used his hat and scrying stone.
Smith did not always have the plates with him when he was translating; the power of God was, so he claimed, sufficient to show him the translation through the instruments even when they were buried in nearby woods for safekeeping. When the plates were in the room with him he erected a curtain between himself and his scribe to protect them from the presence of God.
8. Joseph Smith’s scribe stole the first translation of the Book of Mormon
Smith relied on a number of amanuenses, or literary assistants also known as scribes, (including his wife and his principal translator Oliver Cowdery) to assist him in transcribing the plates. He would translate using the seer stone or the interpreters while a scribe would copy his translation into English.
His first translator was his neighbor Martin Harris who was so invested in the project that he mortgaged his farm to fund the printing of the book. His wife, Lucy Harris, is said to have stolen the first 116 pages of the manuscript. Following this devastating loss Smith was claimed to have lost the ability to translate, the Angel Moroni took the plates back together with the Urim and Thummim.
Smith repented and Moroni returned the plates and interpreters to him enabling Smith to continue his work on the book together with Oliver Cowdery although by this stage Smith found the Urim and Thummim too difficult to use and decided to rely exclusively on his hat and stone. With Cowdery’s assistance the book was completed very quickly and published in March 1830. Following publication Smith returned the plates to Moroni which is why it is claimed they are not available to see today. While many people question the book’s authenticity and believe it to be a product of Smith’s imagination Mormons believe the book is an actual historical record of the lost tribe
7. The early years of the church are mired in controversy. Joseph Smith was an outlaw or was arrested in three states. His successor, Brigham Young was wild and dangerous
Shortly after the Book of Mormon was published Smith founded his first Church of Christ. Smith and his followers were unpopular, mainly because of his previous career as a treasure hunter and scryer. He was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct. New York became an increasingly hostile environment for the new church and Smith moved the church to Kirtland in Ohio where a key follower of his, Sidney Rigdon had converted a significant number of people to Mormonism.
The Church was growing rapidly by 1835 and was split between two key locations each dominated by one of Smith’s key followers, Rigdon in Ohio and Cowdery in Jackson County Missouri. The Mormons were particularly unpopular in Missouri and were set upon by locals, they ‘turned the other cheek’ but three people were killed and the Mormons were expelled from the county. Smith led a paramilitary expedition called ‘Zion’s Camp’ to come to the aid of the stricken Missouri Mormons. The expedition was an unmitigated failure. Back in Ohio Smith and the other church elders set up a company to act as a bank for the church – it issued its own currency but failed in a month. The authorities issued warrants for his arrest on charges of banking fraud and Smith subsequently left for Missouri in order to escape the warrant.
Unpopular in Jackson County the church organization moved to other parts of Missouri. Many of the original Ohio congregation joined the church in Missouri but there was a lot of tension between the leaders. Smith solved this problem by declaring several of his key lieutenants ‘dissenters’ and excommunicating them from the Church, they were expelled from the neighborhood by a group of violent Mormon militia called the Danites. By 1836 the Danites had become very aggressive even attacking the state militia. This resulted in an order from the Governor that Mormons be driven from the state. Smith was brought before a court on charges of treason, he escaped jail 1839 after an incarceration of four months.
The Mormons, now unwelcome in Missouri moved to Nauvoo Illinois where they formed their own militia, the Nauvoo Legion. Mormons were not able to rest for long, however as they continued to become even more unpopular. Smith was blamed for the shooting of the Missouri Governor (he predicted his death and it appears he was shot by Smith’s bodyguard). Attempts to extradite him to Missouri failed but the position of Smith and his church in Illinois looked increasingly tenuous.
While all this was going on Smith was becoming increasingly unpopular in the Church. After an argument in which he destroyed a printing press, Smith and his brother were arrested for rioting and, later charged with treason. A mob stormed the jail where the brothers were being held and both were killed in the violence.
Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith as leader of the Church brought the Mormons to Utah, a territory he founded and for which he served as the first governor. He founded Salt Lake City and was seen by many Mormons as a latter day Moses.
Young was a prominent polygamist – he married 51 wives and made the first official church statements on the practice of polygamy. Young was said to be complicit in the Mountain Meadows Massacre where a group of Mormons, acting on his orders, massacred a group of 120 people who were believed to be hostile to the teachings of the Church. Young had promised the Federal Government that all emigrants passing through Utah would be protected from molestation. All of the group other than children younger than seven were killed and left to rot where they lay. Their remains were later buried by a US Army detachment but two years later Young visited the site and destroyed the memorial.
6. Some Mormons believe that Adam is God
Brigham Young taught that Adam was God. Once a mortal, he was resurrected and came in the form of Michael to create the Earth. He brought Eve from another planet to be his wife. Once they had human children Adam and Eve returned to heaven where Adam became God. He returned to earth again to father Jesus.
This theory was never universally popular in the Church and after Young’s death many leaders declined to teach it or give it much weight. The doctrine was officially denounced in 1976 by then Church president Spencer Kimball and it has since been said to be a heresy promoted by the devil. However, many Mormon Fundamentalists continue to espouse this belief.
5. The early Mormons practiced polygamy. Although officially outlawed it is still practiced by many today
As early as the 1930s some leading Mormons started the practice of ‘spiritual wifery’ although it was often kept secret from the public at large and even from most church members.
In the 1840s the Mayor of Nauvoo, John Bennet used polygamy and spiritual wifery as an excuse for widespread sexual encounters. He told women that sex was permitted as long as it was kept secret and offered to abort any pregnancies that resulted from the congress. Extremely lurid and suggestive stories were leaked from Nauvoo which caused the Mormons to be looked on with suspicion.
Smith was always vocal in his condemnation of polygamy. He was, however, married to about thirty women, some of whom he may have coerced into ‘marriage’ with threats of eternal damnation if they refused. One of his colleagues, Cowdery, accused him of adultery but the charges were denied, presumably for the reason that the marriages were lawful in the eyes of the Church. This was one of the grounds on which Cowdery was named as a dissenter. Just before his death several high ranking Mormons accused Joseph Smith of proposing to their wives and published newspaper articles stating that he was using the Church and the doctrine of polygamy to seduce unwilling women.
In 1852, when the Mormon presence was established in Utah, Brigham Young made a public announcement condoning polygamy. This was to play a part in the Mormon War with the US Government (see below). By 1876 plural marriage was officially authorized in the Church’s Doctrine and Covenants.
By 1890 the Mormon position on plural marriage had become difficult to justify in light of several federal acts outlawing polygamy. It would prove a significant stumbling block to Utah becoming a fully-fledged state of the USA. The then President of the Church, Woodruff, had for some time, been refusing permission for Church members to contract polygamous marriages and in 1890 he claimed to receive a revelation from Jesus telling him that the Mormons should no longer practice polygamy. He put this manifesto to the Church and it was accepted as policy in October 1890.
This manifesto notwithstanding many within the Church continued to practice polygamy and in 1904 the Church issued a second declaration prohibiting the practice and stating that all who were found to be engaging in it would be punished.
Since then the official line of the Church is that polygamy is banned. However, many sects of what are, today, called Mormon Fundamentalists still practice ‘the principle’ of plural marriage. While the Church does not formally approve of polygamy it does state that it may allow it at some point in the future.
There are also circumstances in which a man (and these days a woman) can be ‘sealed’ to more than one person. Sometimes this ‘sealing’ will take place vicariously after death. Often it happens if a man is widowed and wants to marry again. Church teaching states that he will, in heaven, be in a polygamous marriage with all his sealed spouses (see 3 below).
4. Mormons believe they can baptize the dead
Mormons believe that only the baptized can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason they allow those who died before they could be baptized to be baptized after death with a willing living person serving as their proxy. Baptism of the dead is not practiced in any other mainstream branch of Christianity. The Church believes that, once a person has been baptized by proxy are free in the afterlife to accept or reject the baptism. While anyone aged 12 or older may act as a proxy in a baptism of the dead, the ceremony can only be performed by priests who have attained a certain level of priesthood and only in certain temples. The Church has, in the past, baptized many prominent people including Hitler and Ghengis Khan. This practice has caused offence (particularly to relatives of holocaust victims who were vicariously baptized) and these days Mormons are encouraged only to perform a proxy baptism on the ancestors of Mormons.
3. Mormons belief that men will become gods on their own planet with multiple wives
Mormons believe that Jesus (before he became mortal) created the Earth at the request of God for the specific purpose of testing humanity. When the resurrection occurs all spirits (except the damned) will be assigned one of three degrees of glory.
A former Church Leader Lorenzo Snow summarized the belief as ‘As man now is, God once was; As God is now, man may be’. Mormons say that this couplet sets out the Mormon belief in progression whereby those spirits assigned to the highest degree of glory will exalted. They will be as gods and goddesses and live the life God lives with their sealed family members. In order to be exalted a man must be in a celestial marriage with a member of the opposite sex.
In the official Church a celestial marriage can (these days) only take place with one partner at a time. When this happens a man and a woman are said to be ‘sealed’. Any children of the marriage are ‘sealed’ to the family. If the wife dies the man can enter into a subsequent ‘sealed’ marriage with another woman, all sealed wives will live with this man in the afterlife. Marriages can also be sealed posthumously. While a man can enter as man sealed marriages as he wishes during his lifetime (as long as his wives pre-decease him and the new wife) a woman can only be sealed to one man in her lifetime. She can be sealed to other after her death.
Mormons believe that the Earth is only one of many inhabited worlds each designed as a testing ground for the exaltation of humanity. It is not clear whether these worlds exist in our universe or in a ‘multiverse’. Mormons further believe that our earth was created by a pre-mortal Jesus at the request God but that God himself lived on another Earth for a time as a mortal. Joseph Smith referred to Jesus as the creator of many worlds and his translation of the Bible states that there are ‘millions of earths’.
2. The Mormon Church was institutionally racist from its founding through to more modern times
From its earliest years the Mormon Church allowed black people to worship but forbade black men from entering the priesthood. In the Mormon Church almost all men over the age of about 12 are admitted into the priesthood so this ban was a practical refusal to allow black worshippers. The early justification for the ban was that black people were descended from Cain, the black skin being a mark of his sin in killing his brother. Other excuses included that the souls of black people had sided with Lucifer against God. While this racist stance was not out of the ordinary or unusual at the time the Church was founded it became seen to be increasingly out of touch. In 1978 the Church leader President Kimball said that God had told him all males may become priests regardless of their race or color.
1. Mormons fought a war with the US Government
In 1852 the Mormons announced that polygamy was a basic tenant of the Mormon church. This statement combined with the success of settlement in Utah led the US Government to worry that the Utah would secede and become a theocracy. President Buchanan, keen to appear assertive and to protect Federal right sent an army to Utah. Brigham Young ordered the Mormon Militia to wage a guerilla war of attrition on the invading force by cutting their supply lines. Young was willing to employ scorched earth tactics even going so far as to make plans to burn Salt Lake City and move the Mormon population to Mexico. The war was only resolved when Young agreed to step down as governor.
From a belief in divine revelations received through a special stone in the bottom of a hat to polygamous marriage. From a belief that those who will be exalted after death will live as gods to an acceptance of the baptism of the dead. Mormons believe many things which others from outside the faith think of as strange. Many myths have developed around these beliefs, in some ways encouraged by the Mormons’ desire to be seen as a ‘peculiar people’ who have a special and unique relationship with God.
Was the founder, Joseph Smith, an eccentric confidence trickster and outlaw or a prophet who received divine inspiration? Was Brigham Young a charismatic leader who helped pioneer the wild west or was he a wild and dangerous man responsible for the cold blooded massacre of those who did not agree with him. Perhaps we shall never know the truth!