Understanding Latter-Day Saints—Where Did the Mormon Church Originate?

From a lecture series presented by Professor Molly Whorthen. Ph.D.

With TV shows, hit Broadway plays, and Presidential candidates, Mormons have recently and suddenly returned to the national spotlight. How did Mormonism begin and what makes it so influential to pop culture today?

Replica of Christus by Bertel Thorvaldsen; this replica is located in the Temple Square North Visitors Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Replica of Christus by Bertel Thorvaldsen; this replica is located in the Temple Square North Visitors Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

During the first fifteen years of the 21st century, Mormons were suddenly everywhere in pop culture. They were on cable television in shows like Big Love and Sister Wives; their stories played on Broadway in the hit show The Book of Mormon; and the church ended up in the political spotlight in 2012, when the devout Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. But even if Mormons were fairly-high profile in the media, to those outside the religion, they remained a little bit mysterious.

A Great World Religion?

The Mormon Church is more formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the LDS Church. As the name indicates, Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but some other Christians and scholars argue that Mormonism is not a kind of Christianity, but a brand new religion. Moreover, some observers suggest that the Mormon church is growing so fast that in a couple generations it will be counted alongside Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism as a “great world religion.” If that’s true, it’s the youngest world religion, founded less than 200 year ago.

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Portrait of Joseph Smith Jr.

The Mormon faith emerged from that spiritual hothouse of the 19th century—the Second Great Awakening. Its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was born in 1805 in Vermont to a poor farming family. They moved all over but ended up living in Palmyra, NY, smack in the heart of a region so hot with the flames of religious revival that it was nicknamed “the Burned-Over District.”

Joseph’s parents were religious, but not “church people.” They were interested in dreams, folk magic, always searching for a religion that felt right and not finding it.

Joseph Smith Jr. carried on this tradition. He claimed he could use seer stones, magical stones that some believed worked a bit like crystal balls, to find buried treasure. He also used a divining rod, another popular treasure-hunting tool of this time. So, this was a young man who was always on the make, and he believed that the supernatural world would help him in his mission. And we’ll see that a very unusual kind of buried treasure would play an important role in how he came to found the Mormon church.

Learn more: The Mormons: A True American Faith

A Vision

In the spring of 1820, when he was 14, Smith went into the woods where he could be alone, and there he had a vision. He saw a pillar of light, and God and Jesus spoke to him, mourning the state of the world and religious disagreement.

Smith didn’t immediately tell his family about his vision. He did tell a Methodist minister, who was aghast and told him there was no such thing as visions (after all, the vision had asserted that all churches are corrupt, so no wonder the minister called it a fraud). In 1823, when he was 17, he went to his room and prayed that God would forgive his sins. Suddenly his room was filled with a bright light, and beside his bed stood an angel dressed in a white robe. This was the angel Moroni, who told Smith that God had “a work” for him to do.

The Treasure

An engraving of the Angel Moroni delivering the Golden Plates to Joseph Smith in 1827.

Now we get to the treasure: Moroni led him to uncover a book of golden plates buried in a hill near his home. Deposited with the plates were two stones fastened to a breastplate, called Urim and Thummim, described as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows.” Imagine them as a pair spectacles fastened to a knight’s chest armour. These served as seer stones that God had prepared to aid Joseph in his translation of the book.

Moroni didn’t actually allow Smith to remove the plates, and made him keep coming back to the same spot once a year every year for more teaching until finally 4 years later, when he was allowed to borrow them.

According to Smith, the text on the plates was written in a strange language, which he called “Reformed Egyptian.” And even though Smith had little education, he claimed to read this language partly through his magic glasses and partly by using another seer stone, which he placed at the bottom of a hat. Smith didn’t let many people see the plates. He made a friend taking dictation sit behind a curtain. He had to be careful because his friends were all treasure hunters too.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of Christianity. It’s available for audio and video download here.

But he did lead three of his early followers into the woods, where he told them that if it was God’s will, the plates would be revealed to them—and indeed an angel appeared, holding the plates. They later signed a statement that they had witnessed this, as did a group of 8 witnesses later who said Smith showed them the plates (after which time an angel appeared and demanded them back).

Mormons accept this account; non-Mormons say that either Smith was really good at mesmerizing these men, or they were in on the fraud.

The Book of Mormon

Photo of The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon

In any case, Smith’s translation of the golden plates is known as the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. It was first published in March 1830, just one month before Smith formally founded the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Now, during the years he was working on the Book of Mormon, Smith had several visions that dictated to him the structure of this new church. He taught that the authority of the Christian church was lost because of corruption from the 2nd century to the 1820s. But now this authority had been restored, thanks to his “latter-day” revelations. Smith ordained elders to help lead the church and received a revelation that he himself was not just the founder of the church, but a prophet who would continue to receive revelations from
God.

From the Lecture Series: The History of Christianity II: From the Reformation to the Modern Megachurch
Taught by Professor Molly Whorten, Ph.D.