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.