In a year full of events marking Joseph Smith’s birth, experts and the faithful take stock of a religion that’s among the fastest-growing.
In 1820, a 14-year-old farm boy in upstate New York reportedly walked to the woods near his home and prayed to the Almighty, asking which church he should join.
Joseph Smith later wrote, “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.”
Smith reported that both God and Jesus floated down in that heavenly beam, and he was told by Jesus to join no church. Instead, the boy was to await further instructions on how to restore the Christian church to its authentic state.
Smith’s “first vision,” as Mormons called it, led to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a decade later, with six followers.
Today, this branch of Christianity has grown to more than 12 million members and is one of the fastest-growing faiths in the world, fueled by the work of 56,000 young missionaries.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Smith, known as a prophet within the Mormon Church and considered by its members as someone more important than Abraham, Moses or Isaiah of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“During the brief 38 1/2 years of [Smith’s] life, there came through him an incomparable outpouring of knowledge, gifts and doctrine,” said Gordon B. Hinckley, church president and prophet, at the church’s most recent General Assembly. “Looked at objectively, there is nothing to compare with it.”
To celebrate the Smith bicentennial, the Mormon Church and others are putting on a yearlong series of events that will wrap up Dec. 23 — the prophet’s birthday — with a major celebration in Salt Lake City, where the denomination is headquartered. Also that month, the church will unveil a one-hour movie, “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration.”
Other events have included a reunion of about 200 Smith descendants this month in Provo, Utah. Music and dance performances portraying Smith’s life drew more than 200,000 youths to sports venues throughout Utah this year. And a country CD featuring Nashville-produced songs inspired by Smith has been released.
That’s not all. Several new biographies about Smith will be published before year’s end. An exhibit titled “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration” — featuring his original documents, including some that have never been displayed — is running through Jan. 15 at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.
In Southern California, Claremont Graduate University will mark the Smith bicentennial beginning Oct. 20 with a two-day scholarly conference on Joseph Smith and others who were called prophets within a variety of faith traditions.
“The bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth has been a time for Mormons to take stock,” said Richard Bushman, a Mormon and professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, whose biography of Smith will be published next month. “They want to take the measure of the man themselves, but they are also interested in how he is regarded by the world at large.”
Many local stakes, or churches, are making plans for their own commemoration of Smith’s birthday.
“This is a great time for us to remember everything he has done,” said Carol Starr, a church member from Mission Viejo. “We honor him, but we don’t worship him. He’s the one who helped bring the church back to restoration for the whole world.”
To Mormons, he was a prophet and martyr who, through divine revelation, restored the one true Christian church in the “latter days” before Jesus’ second coming.
Smith said his newly created church allowed Mormons to escape the state of apostasy into which he believed other Christian denominations had fallen.
But to his critics, Smith was a clever charlatan who used the Bible, folk tales and powerful storytelling skills to create the Book of Mormon, which was subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
The Book of Mormon tells the story of a small tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the Americas in 600 B.C. Many Mormons believe those people were the principal ancestors of Native Americans.
Those Mormon Scriptures also describe a post-resurrection visit to America by Jesus about a year after his death. In that account, Jesus baptized the Hebrews, gave his Sermon on the Mount and organized his church, ushering in 200 years of peace.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon from “Reformed Egyptian” writings found on golden plates buried in a hillside near his New York home. An angel, Moroni, had led him to the divine plates, and he was given a pair of special glasses and seer stones to peer through to make the translation, the prophet said.
Detractors today cite apparent anachronisms contained in the Book of Mormon to prove it was the work of a 19th century man, not God. The Mormon Scriptures contain references to a seven-day week; domesticated horses, cows and sheep; silk; chariots; and steel. None had been introduced in the Americas at the time of Christ.
Smith’s rapid success aroused suspicion and hostility from Americans who felt threatened by his movement’s efforts to set up theocratic settlements and its new brand of Christianity. The clashes caused Smith and his followers to move several times, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois.
In 1844, after reaching Nauvoo, Ill., Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were shot to death when surrounded by a mob.
Despite his polarizing nature, admirers and detractors of Smith agree on this much: He was a charismatic leader, a master organizer and a man who changed forever the American religious landscape.
“Most scholars may not go as far as the distinguished literary critic, Harold Bloom, who found truly exceptional ‘religious genius’ in Smith’s theology and vision,” said O. Kendall White Jr., a sociology and anthropology professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, who has written about Mormonism. “But they do see a complex personality engaged in a profound religious struggle who articulated a quintessential American religion.”
More than 160 years after Smith’s death, the Mormon church is stronger than ever. Throughout the world, it has nearly 27,000 congregations, according to 2004 church statistics. The church’s extensive private welfare system helps needy members.
Given the church’s success, Columbia’s Bushman wondered whether the anniversary events would bring Smith a new level of respect from outsiders.
“It is hard for Mormons to understand why teachings that inspire them are so easily dismissed by non-Mormons,” he said. “Shouldn’t Joseph Smith at least be given the respect afforded to other religious leaders and Christian visionaries?”
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