How did a young man from a poor farm family - who as a boy
received minimal education and had little religious background -
come to found a church that today boasts millions of members
A religious leader for only 14 years until his assassination in
1844, Joseph Smith drew thousands during his lifetime to his vision
of a theocratic New Jerusalem in the American heartland. Possessing
what one critic called a genius for "religion making," Smith wrote
new scriptures and created a complex institution that has long
survived his death.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrates its
175th anniversary this year, and on December 23, the 200th
anniversary of Smith's birth.
In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, historian Richard Bushman,
professor emeritus at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon,
fashions a fascinating, definitive biography of the rough-hewn
Yankee who stirred controversy from the start.
Bushman's intimate, 740-page portrait explores all the corners of
controversy but does not resolve them, suggesting that - given the
nature of the man and his story - such resolution is never likely to
occur. An honest yet sympathetic portrayal, the book is rich in its
depiction of developing Mormonism.
During an era of revivals and religious ferment, Smith saw
himself as a major prophet and revelator - a restorer of the one
true church. Despite a story that appeared fantastical to many,
Smith's teaching caught the interest of others in search of a faith
different from that offered by the churches of the time.
As a youth, Smith engaged with family and friends in magic and
treasure-digging. He also prayed to know which church to attend. He
said later that he was then told by God and Jesus that the existing
churches were in apostasy.
In a second vision, Smith said, an angel named Moroni directed
him to buried golden plates that were to become the source for his
Book of Mormon, which he translated from hieroglyphs through the use
of a seer stone and spectacles that he called the Urim and Thummim.
(The angel later retrieved the plates.)
The Book of Mormon is understood by Latter-day Saints to be the
history of Jews who traveled to the Western hemisphere around 600
BCE, and of Jesus' visit to them after his resurrection. (The
assumption that the Indians of the Americas are the descendants of
the people in the book has been upset recently by DNA studies - done
by Mormons - which show no connection to the ancient Hebrews.)
Smith - called simply "Joseph" by Mormons - published the book in
1830, and later published others ("The Book of Abraham" and "The
Book of Moses") purporting to provide true histories that go far
beyond the Bible.
It was not preaching, but his ongoing "revelations" that shaped
the developing religion and its practices. They were full of
biblical phrasings, and many practices derived from Old Testament
teachings (such as restoration of Aaron's priesthood). …