There's two ways to look at Joseph Smith, founder of the
Mormon Church. On the one hand you can view him as a fraud
-- a monomaniacal polygamist, an opportunist who shamelessly
exploited his religious followers, who was murdered by an
angry mob, infuriated by all his crap. On
the other hand, you could be a Mormon. In which case, he's
the greatest man who ever lived. Your call.
One morning in 1820, fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith, Jr.
had a problem: he needed to know which religion was right.
So he went into the woods and prayed for guidance. Then
Jesus and His Dad appeared and gave Smith some unbelievable
- Every church on earth was offensive to the Lord. All
of them had ignored His teachings and commandments... or
something like that. Therefore, Smith should join none
- Smith was instructed to institute a new religion,
restoring God's teachings. It would be the one true
Smith told no one about the vision, and nothing happened
for three years.
Then he received another visitation, this time from an
angel named Moroni. Sort of like the holographic schematics
of the Death Star shown to the Rebel pilots during their
briefing, Moroni showed Smith a cavity hidden inside a
mountain, conveniently located just outside his hometown.
(What a coincidence.) In the cave was a room with wooden
furnishings, with a bunch of gold tablets stacked up on the
table. Then the angel told him not to go near the site until
he received specific orders to do so. So Smith never told
anybody about that vision either.
Another four years passed, and then he finally got the
go-ahead to grab the gold tablets. He also picked up two
magical rocks which were made famous in the Old Testament:
the Urim and Thummim. With those stones -- and a lucky brown
rock he found at the bottom of a well -- he set out to
transcribe the mysterious markings on the plates.
The resulting divine scripture was the account of the
lost tribe of Israel, which had sailed from Canaan across
the seas to North America around 2250 B.C. They were met by
an exotic land, full of elephants and horses and other
things that don't make any sense.
Anyway, these transplanted Hebrews established a vast
civilization and were even visited by Jesus, who established
a ministry there. This work, a 275,000-word tome entitled The
Book of Mormon, provided the foundation for the LDS
faith. After the book was translated, the angel came and
repossessed the gold plates, which is why they haven't been
exhibited in a museum someplace.
The church grew rapidly. And why not? It contained the
perfect American theology. For one thing, it proved
that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was divinely-inspired.
America was the chosen land. And, of course, it was
represented as the church to supplant all others, the One
True Faith. So it was the new and improved
Best of all, its prophet was a U.S. citizen, embodying the entrepreneurial
spirit that made this country great. He wasn't
content to be the Prometheus who brought the world the one
true way. He had to claim credit and ownership. The first
edition of The Book of Mormon bore the following on
its title page:
BY JOSEPH SMITH, JUNIOR,
AUTHOR AND PROPRIETOR.
Of course, he wasn't just the day manager. Smith adopted
the official title of Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,
claiming he literally spoke for God. Just like the Pope,
except he was a U.S. citizen.
According to the church, God even endorsed the
cornerstone of American society, despite its controversial
status around the world. That being the centuries-old
institution of involuntary servitude. As Joseph Smith, God's
mouthpiece, wrote in April 1836:
The fact is inconvertible, that the first mention we
have of slavery, is found in the Holy Bible, pronounced by
a man who was perfect in his generation, and walked with
And so far from that prediction being averse from the
mind of God, it remains as a lasting monument to the
decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who
have cried out against the South, in consequence of their
holding the sons of Ham in servitude! "And he said,
Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto
his brethren. Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan
shall be his servant."
. . . The curse is not yet taken off from the sons of
Canaan . . . those who are determined to pursue a course,
which shows an opposition, and a feverish restlessness
against the designs of the Lord, will learn when perhaps
too late, for their own good, that God can do His own
work, without the aid of those who are not directed by His
The Scripture stands for itself; and I believe that
these men were better qualified to teach the will of God,
than all the Abolitionists in the world.
As prophet, Smith yielded an incessant stream of
revelations and divine judgments. God told the Mormons that
a man could enter Heaven only by way of plural marriage (aka
polygamy). Smith himself had at least 28 wives. But the
government hounded them over this, and they were forced to
deny it. God also told them to pool all their money and form
a Mormon bank. It failed shortly thereafter.
Years after William
Miller started predicting that Jesus would be back Real
Soon Now, Smith revealed a similar prophecy in February
1835. Except that Smith's was not exactly what you would
call specific. When Joseph nagged God about the timing of
Christ's return, the Creator answered with clear annoyance:
I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of
the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat
Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art
eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the
Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble Me
no more on this matter.
I was left thus, without being able to decide
whether this coming referred to the beginning of the
millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I
should die and thus see his face. I believe the
coming of the son of Man will not be any sooner than that
Surprisingly, God appeared to be uncertain whether Joseph
would live to be 85. You would think that if anyone
could predict when somebody is going to die, it would be the
Almighty. Of course, in the end God was correct to hedge His
It all ended nine years later in an Illinois jail. Before he
surrendered to custody in June 1844, Smith made a little
speech to his Mormon brethren:
"I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am
calm as a summer's morning; I have a conscience void of
offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die
innocent, and it shall be said of me -- he was murdered in
Or at least, that's what the Mormons say. It seems pretty
darn unlikely, when you consider Smith's long track record
of interstate flight from prosecution (not to mention
evading his creditors). And besides, if he was genuinely
acquiescing to his impending martyrdom, then why did he
bring the gun?
When the angry mob showed up, the lamb whipped out a
pistol and shot three guys, killing two of them. But the
crowd was too big and he ran out of bullets. Smith ran to
the second-story window and looked out -- more armed
vigilantes were outside. Smith climbed out on the
windowsill. He may or may not have given a Masonic distress
signal: "Is there no help for the widow's son?"
Then Smith either jumped or fell, breaking his shoulder.
One of the mob stabbed him several times with a bayonet,
then dragged Smith against a well. That's when the mob shot
him to pieces.
After Smith's death, the Mormons split in half. His wife
and son created the Reorganized LDS church (RLDS), and
Brigham Young led the remnants of the original group
westward to the Utah Territory. Young blamed the Masons for
Smith's murder, and forbade any Mormons from joining the
Freemasons. The Masons reciprocated in kind.
|5 Jan 1833
||Joseph Smith predicts
"And now I am prepared to say by the authority
of Jesus Christ, that not many years shall pass away
before the United States shall present such a scene
of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the
history of our nation; pestilence, hail, famine, and
earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation
from off the face of the land, to open and prepare
the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel
from the north country. [...] Repent ye, repent ye,
and embrace the everlasting covenant and flee to
Zion, before the overflowing scourge overtake you,
for there are those now living upon the earth whose
eyes shall not be closed in death until they see all
these things, which I have spoken, fulfilled."
|15 Mar 1842
||Joseph Smith is
initiated into the Freemasons. The very next night,
he will be promoted to the rank of Master Mason.
|6 May 1843
announces "I prophecy in the name of the Lord
God of Israel, unless the United States redress the
wrongs committed upon the Saints in the state of
Missouri and punish the crimes committed by her
officers that in a few years the government will be
utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be
so much as a potsherd left for their wickedness in
permitting the murder of men, women and children,
and the wholesale plunder and extermination of
thousands of her citizens to go unpunished."
|27 Jun 1844
||Joseph Smith pulled
out of a jail in Carthage, Illinois and murdered by
an angry mob.