With the candidacy of Mitt Romney, many people have questions about his religion. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), often called “Mormons.” This is the first in a series of posts I will do on Mormonism.
HISTORY OF MORMONISM
Mormonism began with Joseph Smith, Jr., who was born in upstate New York in 1805. In 1823, while living in Palmyra, New York, he claimed to have visions of an angel named Moroni who told him all churches were false, and to join none of them, and instead to go to a hill and uncover some golden plates. Mormons believe that Smith found the plates, written in ancient Egyptian, and was able to translate them. The Book of Mormon tells stories of Jews fleeing the Babylonian conquest in a ship, settling in the Americas, and becoming the ancestors of the Native American Indians. The more godly Native Americans were killed off by the godless ones, and God cursed the godless Native Americans, changing their white skin to “a skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5:21, Book of Mormon).
In 1830, Smith published his “translation,” the Book of Mormon, and established his new church. Immediately, many of his neighbors considered him a fraud, although his church grew. In 1831 he relocated his church to Kirtland, Ohio, just north of Cleveland. In the 1830’s and early 1840’s, Mormonism grew rapidly, establishing large settlements in places like Far West, Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois. There was violent conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri and Mormons were greatly persecuted for what their neighbors considered a hoax. During this time, Joseph Smith began to secretly teach polygamy. He recorded in the Mormon scripture, Doctrine & Covenants, chapter 132, how God told his wife Emma to accept the idea of multiple wives, but she was resistant to the idea.
In 1844, a newspaper was published in the Mormon town of Nauvoo, Illinois, publicly exposing Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Smith had the newspaper shut down, and for this, Smith was arrested and put in jail in the nearby town of Carthage, Illinois. An anti-Mormon mob stormed the jail, and Smith was killed. Thus Joseph Smith became a Mormon martyr.
With the death of their leader, Mormons had to decide what to do. Some remained behind and established the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ, which has 250,000 members and headquarters in Independence, Missouri. But the majority followed Brigham Young in a trek west in 1846-1847, settling in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, and he became the new prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In Utah, Brigham Young began to openly practice polygamy. He himself was said to have had so many wives he could not remember them all.
In 1857, a wagon train of non-Mormons from Arkansas were passing through Mountain Meadows, Utah on their way to California. Apparently the Mormons felt threatened by the possibility that some of them might be from Missouri, which had a history of violent conflict with Mormons. Thus a group of Mormons and Native Americans massacred 120 men, women and children. Ironically, this attack culminated on September 11.
In 1890, the president of LDS church, Wilford Woodruff, added a new declaration to the Doctrine & Covenants, saying that polygamy was no longer required. Afterwards, Utah was admitted as a state into the Union. While the main group of Mormons no longer teaches polygamy, groups of fundamentalist Mormons have continued the practice, especially in some towns near the Utah-Arizona state line.
In the 1970’s, another revelation from the LDS prophet allowed dark-skinned people to be elders in the church, reversing a policy based on the Book of Mormon’s claim that American Indians were cursed with dark skin. The church also quietly changed a verse in 2 Nephi 30:6, which used to say that upon conversion they would become “white,” replacing the word “white” with “pure.”
The LDS church has grown rapidly through the years, especially by encouraging thousands of young people to go on a two-year mission before or during their college years. Today there are over 6 million Mormons in the United States, 1.2 million in Mexico, and over a million in Brazil.