ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–As Christians examine the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they inescapably must examine the life of its founder, Joseph Smith. It was his alleged supernatural experiences that resulted in the publication of the Book of Mormon, the founding of the church itself in 1830, and the continued revelations that by the time of his death in 1844 had reshaped the church’s theology.
Smith was born in Vermont the son of a tenant farmer, and his family moved several times before settling in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1816, according to a historical account published on the LDS Church’s official Internet site (www.mormons.org). In1820 Smith allegedly had his first supernatural encounter, which he later said was from God the Father and Jesus Christ. A series of revivals had swept the area, and he allegedly sought God in prayer regarding the truth. “Assuring him that his sins were forgiven, the Lord told him that none of the churches were right and that he should join none,” according to one LDS account.
Smith’s claims of his vision were rebuffed, the LDS account says, and it was in 1823 that he received another visitation. This time he said it was an angel, the now-deceased ancient North American prophet Moroni, who told him of the existence of the Book of Mormon inscribed on golden plates, buried in a nearby hill.
He allegedly was told he must wait four years to examine the plates, however, which the LDS historical account says was because he was not yet ready to appreciate the plates for only their spiritual worth. Smith’s father, it seems, had been involved in treasure-seeking in the area and the younger Smith was known to use a “seer stone” to determine the location of buried treasure.
But in 1827, after returning to the hill yearly for instructions, Smith claimed to have been shown the plates. He allegedly translated them over a period of about three years, dictating while others transcribed. By the time the completed volume was published in 1830, the LDS history notes there were about “three or four dozen people who believed in his divine mission and gifts.”
Those gifts were later extended to the role of prophet, which allowed him to continue to disclose new revelations. Those revelations, later published in the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, joined the Book of Mormon and King James edition of the Bible as Mormon scripture and heavily shaped the developing Mormon theology.
The Book of Mormon tells the story of a group of Israelites who migrated to the American continent, covering a span of history from 600 B.C. to A.D. 400. In the writings, Christ appears to the transplanted Israelites and establishes his church. It is this church that Mormons believe was restored as the one true Church of Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith.
The church grew rapidly after its founding, and in the ensuing years Smith led the believers on a journey in search of the “Zion” he had prophesied God was preparing for them. They traveled through Kirtland, Ohio, then Caldwell County, Mo., forced out by local residents in both cases. In Nauvoo, Ill., however, Mormons were the vast majority of the population. It was here that Smith introduced many of the unusual doctrines that became associated with the LDS Church — including temple ceremonies, the nature of God and man, and the secret practice of polygamy.
Opposition to the Mormons flared up again, however, prompting publication of an opposition newspaper — The Nauvoo Expositor — that sought to expose the church’s teachings. After the first issue, Smith — acting as Nauvoo’s mayor — ordered the destruction of the presses as “a threat to peace in the community,” according to the LDS account. He was later jailed in the county seat town of Carthage on charges of treason, along with his brother Hyrum. It was there that a mob succeeded in storming the jail and killing him.
Other details of Smith’s life are not always found in official sources, however. These discrepancies have consumed many volumes from both Christians seeking to refute the claims of Mormonism and Mormons attempting to encourage their own church to adopt a more honest approach in presenting its history.
A number of those problems are explored on the Internet site “Reasons: Dedicated to filling in the missing pieces of the Mormon history puzzle” (www.xmission.com/ ~country/reason/reason.htm). The site draws heavily from the writings of Christians Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministries.
Among the more significant problems:
— The official account of the “First Vision” in 1820 was not published until 1842, and at least one account written by Smith in 1832 presents an entirely different picture. In this account, Christ alone appeared, there was no mention of revival fervor, and Smith had already determined all existing religions were corrupt. In another account in his own writings from 1835, he described it as a visitation by angels. Smith also significantly changed other revelations in revised editions, casting doubt on which version was the truth, according to the Tanners.
— Smith was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of being a “glass looker” in 1826, placing the “seer stone” in a hat and placing his head in the hat to see in the stone the location of buried treasure. The Tanners write that Smith’s practices are particularly disturbing because they link him to occultic practices during a time he claimed he was receiving regular visitations from an angel. Later, two of the “three witnesses” to the Book of Mormon described a similar process used by Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Smith’s involvement in the occult also included a magic talisman that he used to help him find treasure. A strong interest by Smith in Freemasonry, which also borrowed from symbols of the occult, was reflected in the Mormon temple ceremony, written shortly after Smith became a Mason.
— Smith is widely believed to have practiced polygamy as early as the1830s, and counts of his plural wives have ranged from 27 to as many as 60 or more. Yet the 1835 edition of Doctrine and Covenants included a revelation by him that “one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband.” The condemnation of polygamy was removed in 1876, when another “secret” revelation setting forth the Mormon doctrine of polygamy, originally written in 1843, was added. The church reported a revelation that Mormons should stop practicing polygamy in 1890 because of the persecution they were facing, but the doctrine was never officially rescinded. The revelation remains in Section 132 of Doctrines and Covenants.
— Unlike the gentle and soft-spoken manner attributed to Joseph Smith in the LDS Church’s movie “The Legacy” (shown to Temple Square visitors), he was “without question a fighting prophet,” according to the Tanners. Numerous accounts exist of his tendency toward violence in personal relationships. And while some of the persecution the church faced cannot be excused, it was influenced by revelations from Smith that referred to “the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies.” In Nauvoo, elements of a theocracy emerged as local civil and church government became blended. Mormon militarism was manifested in the unsuccessful “Zion’s Camp” army and later the Nauvoo Legion. Another group known as the Danites was organized to ensure retribution against dissenters from within. Just before his death in the Carthage jail, often portrayed as martyrdom, Smith was able to shoot and wound three of his attackers.
Tal Davis, an associate on the North American Mission Board’s interfaith witness evangelism team, noted the contrast between the historical Joseph Smith and the image portrayed in LDS accounts and believed by most Mormons.
“We find, instead, a man whose character and moral integrity leave much to be desired from a Christian perspective,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, most Mormons have a difficult time letting go of what they have been taught, that Smith was a noble man of god who restored true Christianity to the world.”