4.2. JOSEPH SMITH JR. AND MORMONISM
The most complex and aberrant apocalyptic scenario of the Second Great Awakening was conceived within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism). It is no secret that religious fanaticism is a relative of idiocy. But Mormon theology – based on the life, the experience and the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr. – simply defies history and insults common sense; nobody has ever succeeded to form a cult based on historical and religious fabrications of such magnitude.
Smith spent his adolescence at Palmyra, in a poor family of farmers in the west of the “burned-over district.” The young Smith did not join any religious community, but he intensely studied the Bible and he was influenced by the folk religion (local ethnic) practiced by his parents. In 1820 this 14-year-old boy became obsessed with the issue of spiritual salvation. Confused, he decided that it was best to seek divine help. One day he went in one of the nearby forests and began to pray passionately. According to his own account, there he experienced what it is now known as the “First Vision”: he felt that he was overwhelmed by an invisible malefic force, but at the last moment two radiant beings appeared in front of him. One of these beings told Smith not to join any of the existing churches because all of them had faulty doctrines and he was to wait until further instructions would be given to him.1060
This was the first in a long line of dubious epiphanies that made Smith a colossus of American religiosity. There are several versions about this experience and the First Vision was not made public until the 1840s, being practically unknown to the first Mormons. Theophanies such as Smith’s and false prophecies were common during the awakening. So, there is no telling what the First Vision really was: a childish dream, a satanic vision or one of his first egomaniacal lies. It is certain, though, that this story helped Smith become the prophet and founder of the Mormon movement.1061
After the First Vision the young Smith was involved in treasure hunting, being paid to act as a seer. He used “prophetic stones” in unsuccessful attempts to locate lost things or buried treasures.1062 The colonists saw America in the same way the crusaders had seen Palestine: a land full of miracles, artifacts and riches. It was an image that triggered a veritable frenzy; many colonists believed that in America they are closer to God and they searched for material and spiritual evidence to confirm their feelings. This was the climate on December 21, 1823, when Smith, yet again according only to his own account, was visited by the angel Moroni.1063 Moroni directed Smith on a hill close to his house and told him to unearth a golden manuscript (plates) which contained a detailed recording of the first inhabitants of America, the ancient Israelites. Near the golden manuscript there were also a breastplate and two prophetic stones (Smith named them “Urim” and “Thummim”).1064 Allegedly, only four years later, on September 22, 1827, the angel allowed him to take the artifacts into possession.
At the beginning of 1827 treasure hunting brought Smith in Harmony, the former location of the Rappists. Here he met Emma, whom he married.1065 Initially, Smith told only a few family members and close friends that he had received the unusual artifacts. His friend Martin Harris, a delirious pseudo-prophet, became immediately convinced that the golden plates were real. He offered himself to be Smith’s scribe, while the latter was translating them through a strange (in fact inexplicable) procedure of examining the prophetic stones Urim and Thummim. From April 1828 until June Smith and Harris constantly worked at the translation of the golden plates. From September 1828 the work was continued with Emma, and from April 1829 until June with Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher whose family had also been engaged in treasure hunting and magical practices. Later, both Cowdery and Smith swore that during the work of translation they had been personally ordained by the ghost of John the Baptist and after that they baptized each other in the Susquehanna River.1066
According to Smith, the manuscript received from the angel Moroni was formed of very thin, engraved golden plates which, taken as a whole, formed a book of approximately six inches long (15 cm) by six inches wide by six inches thick, tied together with rings. The characters engraved on the plates were written in a language that resembled Egyptian (Smith named it “reformed Egyptian”). The complete translation of the golden plates resulted in a work of 116 pages that was supposed to revolutionize Christianity. According to the information from the plates, when the languages were confounded by God at the Tower of Babel, a group of people known as “Jaredites” migrated on the American continent. Although they managed to build a flourishing empire, centuries later the Jaredites self-destructed in a massive civil war. Almost two million people died in a single battle on the hill Cumorah. While the Jaredites exterminated themselves, in the year 600 BC, just before the Babylonian captivity, a family of Jews from Jerusalem migrated to America. The father of this family was called “Lehi.” Lehi had a wife and several sons and daughters. Nephi, an obedient son of Lehi, was the father of a race of white people known as “Nephites,” while Laman, a rebel son of Lehi, was the father of the “Lamanites,” cursed with dark sin due to their rebellious nature. The two nations (races) were in constant conflict with each other. But in the year 34 AD Jesus Christ descended from heaven (right after his ascension in Jerusalem) in America, visiting the Nephites and the Lamanites. This event brought a total Christianization of the two nations and centuries of peace. Nevertheless, the conflict was reignited, and the hill Cumorah was once again the witness of a huge massacre. The Lamanites destroyed the Nephites, until there was only one left, Moroni. So, the native people of America are in fact the descendants of the Lamanite people, and the stone ruins that are spread across the continent are former cities of the civilizations described in the golden plates. Fourteen centuries after the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites, the Nephite prophet Moroni appeared in the form of an angel to the young Smith and guided him to find the golden plates. Moroni was a Nephite prophet in his mortal life, the son of the prophet Mormon, the compiler of the buried text. From the author of the golden plates, Mormon, Smith named the translation of the texts as the Book of Mormon, and those who adhered to this doctrine have been called “Mormons.”
Joseph Smith Jr. and all those who have succeeded him to the leadership of the Mormon group, presidents and prophets alike, have claimed that the Book of Mormon is a true description of the history of America. While the Bible is considered to be a historical description of the Old World and of the former Christian Covenant, the Book of Mormon is a historical description of the New World and of the new Millennial Covenant. In this context, Columbus, for example, is seen as a man guided by the Holy Spirit to discover America and to fulfill the prophecy of the Book of Mormon.1067 The introductory line of the Book of Mormon says that it “is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”1068 And, as the Bible, the Book of Mormon declares itself to be a historical ancient text, a body of rules of faith and the true Word of God.
Smith’s strategy was simple: he presented a version of the past in order to support a certain scenario of the future. Thus, starting from the sacred history of America contained in the Book of Mormon, together with the subsequent visions and signs, Smith built an apocalyptic scenario that has at its core the glorious destiny of the United States and the Mormon group. According to the Mormon doctrine, between the ascension of Christ and the revelation of Moroni there was the great apostasy – a long period populated by false prophets and false doctrines. The pure Christian teaching was corrupted immediately after the death of the apostles. But God began to restore the truth before Parousia; first through the discovery and the colonization of America, and then through the restoration of the true Church. Jesus’s sermon in America gives hope to the Mormons that the Zion of the latter days would be established in the New World. Smith is (self-proclaimed) the one and true prophet of God after the apostles, while the Book of Mormon is the everlasting gospel revealed to the people in the last days and preached in the entire world according to Revelation 14:6-7.
In June 1829 Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York, where they began the first actions of proselytism. But, without a solid proof, the two had a problem of credibility; their story was hard to believe. Smith’s immediate solution was to name the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses – close friends and relatives who testified and swore that they saw and touched the golden plates.
The Three Witnesses were early Mormon leaders: …
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