Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.
Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.
“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”
The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.
A few books about Joseph Smith
Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.
The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†
By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡
But in this case, the law did not take its course.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”
Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.
* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.
** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his spuriously “ancient” book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.
† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.
‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.