I've just been reading a really interesting post about Mormonism over on one of my favourite blogs, The Age Of Uncertainty. It's prompted me to put up something I wrote a few years ago about The Church Of The Latter Day Saints in my book The Joy Of Sects.
The Latter-day Saints, AKA Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, AKA Mormons
Country of origin: USA
Membership: 7,000,000 plus
Gods and guiding voices: ‘God’, Mormon, Moroni
Texts: The Bible, The Book Of Mormon
Famous associates: The Osmonds
Basic beliefs: America was originally settled by people from the Tower of Babel. After his death on the cross, Christ made an appearance in America where he again preached the gospel. Indulgence in caffeine and alcohol is not good for you. Hard work is. The highest heaven is open only to baptised Mormons. The official church does not believe in polygamy any more.
In 1820, Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was confused about which of the many contemporary Protestant sects he ought to join. He solved his problem by asking God directly. ‘None of them,’ He said, appearing before Smith as a pillar of light. It was the first of many visions Smith was to receive in his lifetime.
Just over three years later, in 1823, another divine personage, an angel called Moroni, appeared by Smith’s bedside. He was dressed in a white robe, ‘his feet did not touch the floor’, and he claimed to be the son of Mormon, the departed leader of an extinct American race called the Nephites. Moroni told Smith about a set of golden plates that contained a written history of the mysterious races that inhabited America before the time of Columbus. Then he disappeared to heaven in a shaft of light. A few minutes later Moroni reappeared at Smith’s bedside. He repeated everything that he had just said, and then vanished, just as he had done before. Then he came back again and repeated the same words a third time.
Smith said that he didn’t get much sleep that night. The next day he was understandably exhausted. He passed out when attempting to climb over a fence on his way out of a field – and the angel Moroni came to him yet again. This time he told him where to find the golden plates, buried in the side of a hill named Cumorah (near Palmyra in New York state). Smith went there right away and unearthed the famous plates. Buried alongside them was a pair of supernatural silver spectacles, the ‘Urim and Thummim’, which Smith was to use to translate the hieroglyphics on the plates. These were written in a language called ‘reformed Egyptian’. (Curiously, archaeologists and Egyptologists say that there is no evidence that any such language existed).
Smith spent the next four years preparing himself to do this great work of translation. Then he carried the golden plates home in a buggy (managing to get them there without anyone – not even his wife Emma – seeing them). He then set himself up behind a screen, so that the plates were still concealed, and got stuck into several years’ hard graft.
A great deal has been written about the flaws in the resultant tome, the Book Of Mormon (for more on this, see Appendix 3). It isn’t just the inaccuracies and alleged plagiarisms that have offended the Book Of Mormon’s detractors. Its literary qualities are said to leave something to be desired, too. ‘It is,’ said Mark Twain ‘chloroform in print.’ The celebrated author of Huckleberry Finn also laid into Smith’s habit of peppering his otherwise fairly contemporary nineteenth-century prose with biblical-sounding words and phrases like ‘exceeding sore’, ‘yea’, ‘exceedingly glad’, ‘unto’, ‘great joy’, ‘harkening’ and ‘smiting’. If, said Twain, Smith had left out his favourite phrase, ‘And it came to pass’, then his 500-page bible ‘would only have been a pamphlet’.
When the book was first published in 1830, it was savaged by the press. No reviewer seemed to have any doubt that Smith was a confidence trickster who had invented the whole story. Nor did Smith’s personal life escape criticism. In 1834 an investigative journalist published a series of affidavits from friends and neighbours who described him as a lazy, untruthful, religious con man. They characterised the rest of his family as ‘illiterate, whiskey-drinking, shiftless and irreligious’. They also suggested that it was no coincidence that Joseph’s father, Joe Senior, was a persistent treasure seeker and that the young Joseph Smith had often accompanied him on his expeditions, hoping to find the loot left by Captain Kidd and indulging their fondness for the occult and fortune-telling on the way.
In spite of – or perhaps even because of – the negative publicity he was receiving, Smith soon gathered a considerable following. They gradually moved towards the less inhabited west of the USA to avoid religious persecution – persecution that only increased in 1843 when Smith declared that God had ordained plural marriage. A firm believer in practising what he preached, Smith was said to have gathered 27 wives by the time he died (some estimates put the number as high as 60).
Smith’s death came in extraordinary circumstances, when a mob broke into the jail he was being held in, shot him and threw him out of a window. It was left to his successor Brigham Young to lead his followers on the long arduous trek across the deserts of Utah until they finally settled in Salt Lake City. There, safe from too much outside interference, the faith prospered. Brigham Young (also said to be a prophet – as are all presidents of the Mormon church) was a shrewd administrator and by the time he died the city was thriving. He had collected 140,000 followers and no fewer than 25 wives (‘The only men who become gods are those who enter into polygamy,’ he declared).
Since Brigham Young’s time, the Mormon ideals of hard work and abstinence have paid off in abundance – as has the church’s levy of a tithe on all of its adherents’ incomes. Since officially abandoning the policy of polygamy in the 1890s (although several pockets of fundamentalists still exist who engage in plural marriages – outside the sanction of the church) the faith has become the apogee of American respectability. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns most of Utah, a large part of Hawaii and land in Canada, as well as the Marriott hotel chain, the Beneficial Life Assurance Company, and TV and radio stations. Its morally austere adherents have some of the lowest cancer rates in the US – and some of the best physical fitness. They promote the boy scouts, have short haircuts and the missionaries they send out around the world are scrupulously neat and remarkably polite.
Consequently, the religion is growing faster than any other in the US and spreading around the world at an incredible rate. What’s more, in order to give those unfortunate enough not to be baptised into the Mormon church a chance of attaining the ultimate Mormon goal of divinity (they believe the most devout will get to populate their own planets), the Church is posthumously baptising thousands and thousands of people. If expansion continues at its current rate, by the year 5000, the entire world will belong to the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints. Not bad, considering how it all began.
The Curse of Darkness
As recently as 1978, black males were banned from entering the Mormon priesthood.
Mormon writings had long pointed to a ‘curse’ God put on Cain for the murder of his brother Abel, as told in Genesis. ‘Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to the line of human beings,’ announced the prophet Brigham Young. ‘This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin.’ Dark skin was also the curse inflicted on the Lamanites in the Book Of Mormon and there are many passages extolling the splendour of ‘whiteness’.
‘Negroes’ are ‘not equal’ with other races, wrote Bruce McConkie, a church apostle, in his book Mormon Doctrine in 1966. The Latter-day Saints have since modified this doctrine, as they have the other embarrassing doctrine of polygamy, although this puts them in the embarrassing position of having to renounce the teachings of men they consider divinely inspired prophets.
The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints is not a secretive cult. It’s easy to get to talk to Mormons. In fact, I’d recommend it. If you’re ever lost in a strange city, need directions and you see a street preacher with a short haircut, smart suit and black plastic badge declaring him an ‘Elder’, ask him. Chances are he’ll speak excellent English, be scrupulously polite and he won’t steal your wallet. It’s a resource I’ve used on several occasions. Once, when I was in Basingstoke researching my book Crap Towns, an Elder was even kind enough to tell me that he would describe the town as being ‘like hell’.
There’s also a good chance that representatives of the church will come knocking on your door. The fiercely proselytising church sends thousands of young men and women out on missions all over the world each year. As luck would have it, a couple of them came to my house just as I was starting to research this book. I asked them in for a cup of tea – forgetting, of course, that Mormons generally avoid caffeine. They politely declined, settling instead for glasses of water, and started to tell me the incredible history of the Nephites and Lamanites. They knew that the book is true, they said, ‘through faith’. ‘But,’ they went on, ‘there is also scientific evidence. In the pyramids “scientists” found a picture of a white god descending from heaven and teaching people. Therefore the Book of Mormon must be true.’
I was interested to learn that Mormon communities usually ostracised people who left their church – and that people only generally left it because ‘they are lazy’. This started to make more sense when the young men described a typical day on their two-year ministry. They woke up at 6.30 a.m., exercised and studied until 10 a.m., knocked on doors for a few hours before having a one-hour lunch break, and then hit the streets again until 9 p.m. When they got home, they prepared for the next day. TV is strictly forbidden. ‘We don’t really know what’s going on in the outside world,’ they told me.
It’s a tough routine, especially since most people just slam the door in their faces. The travelling Elders often also face violence. The young men told me about a friend of theirs who was chased through Crystal Palace with a blowtorch. Conversion rates can be depressingly low. Although a minister in the poorer, less literate regions of Africa can expect to perform up to 75 baptisms a year, most missionaries in Europe would consider themselves lucky to bring about a single conversion. Still, with 60,000 missionaries out and about every year, even this paltry success rate begins to be significant. Small wonder that the church is growing so fast.
Earnest and serious as the pale men sitting across from me at the table were, we never really reached an understanding. In fact, I got the impression that my persistent questioning began to freak them out. However, they left as politely as they came, giving me a copy of the Book of Mormon as they did. In it one wrote the instructions, ‘Read. Ponder. Pray.’ They certainly weren’t your average twenty-year-olds.
[And here are those appendices... Sorry... The book layout doesn't lend itself well to blogs. Doesn't lend itself particularly well to books either. But that's another story...]
The Mountain Meadows Massacre
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognise their leaders as divinely inspired prophets and their teachings as sacred. Sometimes, this can be tricky to deal with politically. One of the less well-known Mormon policies is that of blood atonement. The prophet Brigham Young taught that certain sins could only be amended for with a man’s own blood. Killing can be a righteous act. ‘Loving our neighbours as ourselves … if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood … spill it,’ he said. This policy found its most chilling fulfilment in the Mountain Meadows Massacre when Brigham Young ordered his co-religionists to attack a party of emigrants who were crossing Mormon land on the way to California in 1857. One hundred and twenty men, women and children were massacred.
Some modern adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints have denied that the policy ever existed. However, many still put forward the idea that certain ‘grievous sins’ place the sinner ‘beyond the reach of Christ’s atoning blood’ as a justification for capital punishment.
The Book of Mormon
While Joseph Smith slaved away behind his screen producing the Book of Mormon he was largely left in peace. At some point during the process, however, an acquaintance of the prophet, one Martin Harris, called round and Smith despatched him to New York carrying a piece of paper with some of the ‘reformed Egyptian’ hieroglyphs on it. Harris took the paper to a professor named Anton, who issued him a certificate saying they were genuine – but then ripped it up on discovering that the characters were supposed to have been sent by an angel. So, tragically, the only piece of impartial evidence for the existence of the plates – and reformed Egyptian – was destroyed. (Smith returned the original plates to Moroni as soon as he had finished the translation. The book does contain several testimonies of other people who claim to have seen the plates – but they were all church leaders, or the relatives of church leaders.)
The work Smith eventually produced, the Book Of Mormon, is the cornerstone of the Mormon faith. Among a lot of moralistic preaching, it explains that America had originally been settled by people from the Tower of Babel, but that these inhabitants had degenerated and perished as a result of their own immorality. A later group of Jews then ended up in South America after fleeing Babylonian captivity. They divided into warring factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites. After his death on the cross, Jesus Christ appeared among these peoples and preached again. But the factions continued fighting and the Lamanites nearly wiped out the Nephites (the price of their victory was a curse – dark skin). After the final defeat, the prophet of the Nephites, Mormon, wrote up the history on gold plates and buried them on the hill – where Smith was to find them more than a thousand years later.
Critics have found it strange that, although it was supposedly written many centuries before the 1611 King James Bible, many passages appear to have been lifted verbatim from that book, complete with its translation errors. They also point out anachronisms like references to the ancient Hebrew use of steel and to domestic animals that weren’t around at the time. Similarly, the book describes American Indians using weapons for which there is no archaeological evidence. Oddest of all, Mormon described elephants roaming around in places where there is no evidence elephants ever roamed.
Other investigators have found an earlier novel by the Reverend Simon Spalding that bears a marked similarity to much of the Book Of Mormon. There’s also another book, The View Of The Hebrews, by the Rev. Ethan Smith (written in 1824, three years before Joseph Smith started work), which also contains many passages echoed in the Latter-day Saints’ holy book.