Mormon history in a nutshell. Was Joseph Smith a prophet of God or an opportunist con man?
Joseph Smith Jr. was raised in a time, place and family where disillusionment with established religion was widespread, and homegrown religious offshoots were in style. Dozens of groups can trace their origins back to this movement, including Mormonism.
Smith was well known as a glass looker, someone who claimed to be able to find buried gold using his hat and seer stone. Court charges still exist from his swindled customers. But Smith also joined in the new religion craze claiming God told him that all the other ones were abominable and corrupt. His new church was allegedly restored original Christianity, but turned out to be very novel.
His first step was to find a buried gold book and translated it, with the help of his hat and seer stone. He wasn’t allowed to show these gold plates around, but he got three friends to swear that they had seen them in a vision.
The wife of one witness, Martin Harris, wanted to see if Smith‘s story was verifiable, so she made 116 pages of his manuscript disappear. Smith was unable to reproduce them from his source, but claimed it was because God wouldn‘t let him. Later, Smith was twice demonstrated a fraud when he claimed to translate an Egyptian papyrus and a set of hoax plates, both of which still exist and do not say what he claimed they did.
Finally, the Book of Mormon was finished, telling the tale of a vast civilization of ancient Jews who lived in South America, for which we now know there is not a single shred of evidence.
It looks even less authentic and more like he wrote it as its filled with anachronisms, mentioning animals, plants, technology, language, and quoting books that didn’t exist in that time or place. And several major plot points appear to have been lifted from modern books that Smith plausibly had access to.
When it came time to publish, Smith didn’t have the money, so he claimed God told him Martin Harris was to pay for it, or else be destroyed.
The new Mormon church moved to Ohio, and started a system where everyone’s land and money was owned by the church. Smith also opened an illegal bank and started printing his own money. When this scam came crashing down, Smith was arrested, but he posted bail and skipped town on his creditors.
He also prophesied that the Mormons would take over Jackson County Missouri to await the doomsday of all non-Mormons. The Missouri locals did not appreciate the incursion of this apocalyptic voting block, and the Mormons were forced back out.
So Smith, on God’s command, sent an army to take Jackson County, which never made it. But the violence continued to escalate, and a Mormon army actually attacked a state militia. The conflict finally ended with Smith being arrested for murder and treason. But he bribed his way out of jail and met up with the Mormons who had moved into Illinois.
Smith ran Nauvoo like a police state, and advanced from general of his own army, to presidential candidate, and finally being proclaimed king by his secret council of fifty.
He was also practicing polygamy, taking perhaps as many as 40 wives including married women, mother daughter sets, sisters, and girls as young as 14. He even received revelations from God telling women that they would be damned if they didn’t marry him and that his first wife would be destroyed if she didn’t accept it. But publicly, he denied and condemned polygamy his entire life.
When a newspaper threatened to print proof of his lascivious lifestyle, he sent his army and destroyed it, and was arrested again. A mob attacked his jail cell, and Smith, who was armed, went down in a gunfight.
Mormonism stands or falls on the reliability of Joseph Smith’s word, so was he a godly prophet of a great and marvelous work who, in his own words, had more to boast about than Jesus? Or an egomaniacal, manipulative con man who spotted opportunity in the religious climate of the day?
The contenders to take over the church experienced a rash of revelations, angel visitations, more buried scripture, and even a mysterious murder, but Brigham Young won the biggest slice of the congregation.
An arrest warrant for counterfeiting hastened Young to relocate the Mormons to what at the time was Mexico, where Mormon violence and dictatorial government continued for years. Throughout the 20th century, Mormonism shifted to a more mainstream image with advertising and repealing its polygamy and whites-only priesthood policy. It became a multibillion dollar corporation, and the second largest group that sprouted from that rural 19th century religious zeitgeist.
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