Mormonism 101—a brief History
History in the making—a black President sparring off with a Mormon for the position of President and Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest democracy and history’s most powerful military. This, only 60 years after blacks were not allowed even to use the same restroom as did whites, and only 160 years after the US military was engaged to ‘dismantle’ Mormonism.
With a Mormon nominee, Mitt Romney, challenging for the White House in 2012 the world viewers could perhaps use a little Mormonism 101. This viewpoint is from an Examiner who has served on both sides of the political and religious fence–as a Mormon and non-Mormon.
The official name for Mormons is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (distinguishing them from the “early day saints”). They are often simply referred to as the LDS Church.
Mormons take their name from the Book of Mormon—a Bible-type scripture translated in about 1830 by church founder—Joseph Smith. The translation was from ancient plates containing the religious history of a two groups of people living on the American continents between 2200 BC to 400 AD. Smith was led to these plates in hill in western New York (Palmyra) by an angel Moroni. Moroni was a former mortal on the Americas—the son of one “Mormon” from whom the book was named.
Moroni was perhaps the last of those believers of Jesus . For thousands of years the story of Jesus’ coming to the Jews in Palestine was prophesied and taught in the Americas. In fact, right after Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem he appeared to many here in the western hemisphere. The Book of Mormon contains much of Jesus’ words at this glorious event.
Wars and wickedness prevailed and the religion of Jesus was all but abandoned 400 years after His visit. Moroni, the last of the caretakers of the religious accounting kept record on metal plates regarding Jesus. Moroni then deposited the plated history in the hill called Cumorah about 400 A.D. where they remained until unearthed by Joseph Smith Jr., a farm boy still in his teenage years, in the 1820’s.
The very thought of Smith’s claim of “another Bible” or “Joe Smith’s gold plate bible” ignited heaps of persecution among traditional Christians (still the root of Mormon-criticisms today). Yet, the ‘new witness of Christ’ brought many curious minds out to the open daring to consider its validity. The whole 16th and 17th centuries were quite a renaissance of Christian awakening on the heels of the Protestant Reformation. “Many a new “ism” arose in Christian America during this time.
‘Missionaries’ of this new Book of Mormon were sent to many areas of the world—particularly our motherland of Great Britain. Within a few short years thousands of converts, seeking religious freedoms from the Christian oppressions of centuries, swarmed to America.
The rapid increase in Mormon momentum only fueled the fires of angst against the new Christian religion. Mormons became a ‘voting-block threat’ given their amassing numbers, no matter where they congregated.
Persecution drove Mormons from New York, to Ohio (Kirtland) where they built a holy temple to God—a practice that becomes a trademark of Mormonism. In fact, wherever Mormons set up camp they build a “holy temple” to God—the Father of Jesus Christ; and on each temple’s tallest spire, even today, is a gold statue of Moroni blowing his trumpet heralding the opening of the new dispensation of Christianity.
Persecution increased about the same rate as did the new converts. Mormons had no peaceful community among its Christian neighbors. The “saints” were in near continual moving in an attempt to find somewhere they could live in peace. From Ohio to Independence, Missouri (across the river from Kansas City), and then their exile to upper state Missouri (Far West). Each new hope of a “land of Zion” was to no avail however for as soon as their ‘holy temple’ was partially constructed the persecution became too overwhelming to finish, and further banishment ensued.
It was at this juncture of Mormonism on the stage of Christianity that the Governor of Missouri, Lilburn Boggs, on October 27th of 1838 issued his infamous “Extermination Order” against the Mormons—driving them out of Missouri “by force if necessary.” It was an ‘open-season’ on Mormons. Homes were burned, many were killed and their women violated.
The exhausted Mormons, now about 12,000 in number and with their leaders in jail on drummed up charges, fled to a swampy tract of land on the Mississippi River in mid-west Illinois— and called it Nauvoo. In the ensuing 6 years they drained the swamp and built an impressive city.
In Nauvoo, the gathered Saints were nearing the finishing touches of their new temple when disaster struck again – their “prophet” and leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum Smith were murdered by an angry mob while in the custody of Illinois authorities in Carthage, Illinois in 1844.
Many have asserted that the killing of the two Smith brothers was politically motivated—an assassination. Joseph Smith himself, in 1844, had tossed his hat in the ring as a candidate for President of the United States and the large amass of gathered converts in Nauvoo became quite a political threat to Illinois’ contending Christian politicians. The populace of Nauvoo had rivaled even that of Chicago.
Before his death, Smith, knowing there was no peace to be had living with traditional Christianity, had begun making arrangements to move his followers to the territories of the Rocky Mountains. This task was all too soon completed by one, Brigham Young, when the Christian and political community—in the dead of winter of 1844—mounted against the Mormons of Nauvoo and forced them to once again, flee.
The nearly finished Nauvoo temple was burned to the ground. Thankfully, the Mississippi was frozen over that year so that most could cross on the ice. The saints took temporary refuge in Iowa until Brigham Young mounted a campaign for a mass exodus to the Rocky Mountains–arriving in the valley of the Salt Lake on July 24th of 1847.
During the 1840’s the ratio of women-to-men in Mormonism was somewhat lopsided. Whether it was that women were the majority of the converts, or that men were the more killed in the 15 years of persecutions — nonetheless, the Mormons easily adapted to “plural wives” practices.
This practice of “plurality of wives” was an easy justification for Mormons conceding that – since Abraham and other biblical men of God had many wives, so could they. And besides, it was very convenient for husbandless mothers to have male assistance in child-raising in a day when there was just not any other assistance–especially from their Christian foes.
From the time Brigham Young and his fellow saints entered the Salt Lake valley, Mormonism became synonymous with polygamy. And, it was this very “polygamy” issue which almost brought about Young and and Mormonism’s ultimate demise in the newly settled Utah Territory.
Many political figureheads took the sides of Mormons on the floor of the US Congress seeking redress for the wrongs done Mormons in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, arguing they should have had the protection of government — given the US Constitution’s guarantee of “religious freedom.”
The argument ‘against’ Mormons on the congressional floor was a futile one—that they believed in “another Bible.” Therefore it was quite convenient that the issue of “polygamy” became the new reason for further persecution.
Brigham Young’s representation in Washington DC argued for “religious rights” — a guarantee of the US Constitution. But now, since the Mormons had moved out of US-proper, were they really under US protection and its very constitutional premise? Apparently not! In 1857, US President James Buchannan sent an army on a 2200 mile trek to “dismantle” Mormonism and replace Young as their secular leader.
It was Buchannan’s aim that Brigham Young be replaced as governor of the territory and also a full pardon for charges of sedition and treason issued to the citizens of Utah Territory on condition that they accept U.S. Federal authority. This “Utah War” became known on the pages of US History as “Buchannan’s Blunder.”
The long trek across rugged terrain to the west was not so easy for Buchannan’s army. The Mormons, in trying to avoid eradication, sabotaged the army’s route by burning the prairie grass, running off the wild game and teaming up with the Indians against the oncoming army.
By the time the US army did get to Utah, they were near begging for mercy for their very survival. Rather than submission, the Mormons were in position to negotiate with Washington DC.
Since those days of 1850’s there has always been a somewhat harmonious relationship between Mormons and the US Congress—yet, the polygamy issue kept festering clear through to the turn of the 20th century. Mormon representatives argued that being married to more than one wife was surely more virtuous and Christ-like than the many politicians who lived in deceit cheating on their wives.
Regardless, polygamy became a political football in much the same way as is abortion today. By 1890 the whole issue of ‘statehood’ for Utah became hinged upon the Mormons agreement to abandon polygamy; and abandon they did. Brigham Young’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, signed the “Woodruff Manifesto” denouncing polygamy in 1890 and 6 years later the State of Utah was born.
This new truce over polygamy and statehood brought about a budding relationship between Mormons and the US government which grew and grew to today’s political environment — with many influential Mormons serving in every facet of American politics.
See Part 2 of Mormonism 101—comparative beliefs