Q: Give me the history of the Mormons
Our first question came in today, and I have to admit…
It kind of felt like Christmas morning…seriously.
Is it weird I was that excited about it???
So a history of the Mormons–what a perfect place to start.
I could write a novel (or a dozen) about Mormon history, but I’ll try to touch on some of the highlights, k? At least from the beginning until the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake.
If you want more information on a specific part/period/event in Mormon history, follow-up with me and we’ll re-attack it.
How (And Why) The Mormon Church Started
The Mormon Church (officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is considered by many to be a “modern” religion, considering it was organized on April 6, 1830.
I intentionally said “organized” and not “created,” because a fundamental belief in the Mormon faith is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is literally a restoration of Christ’s original Church–as in, the exact Church established by Christ himself during His mortal ministry two millennia ago, reestablished by Christ Himself in our time.
So to us, it’s anything but modern…
But in order to understand how the Mormon Church started, you have to go alllllllllllllllllll the way back to the time of Christ to gain an understanding of why its creation was necessary (hang with me, I swear we’re going somewhere…).
The Loss of Christ’s Church
I think it’s safe to assume that when Christ established His Church during mortality, there were NOT dozens of different denominations with differing opinions on doctrine–He would have established His Church the way He wanted it organized, and His apostles were then charged with maintaining the order and integrity of His gospel.
After all, Ephesians 4:5 states
“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
Here’s a super brief history of the events following Christ’s mortal ministry:
- Christ was crucified and resurrected
- The apostles were slaughtered
I told you it would be brief!
But with that understanding, it becomes easy to see how following the death of Christ and the martyrdom of his apostles, the order and doctrine Christ had established slowly gave way to doubt, confusion and corruption. Where there had once been revelation from God, church leaders now had to rely on assumption, human interpretation, and–in some cases–political pressure to govern the church.
Mormons view this time in which Christ’s order and authority were taken from the earth as the Great Apostasy (aka The Dark Ages). Eventually, many well-meaning and enlightened individuals attempted to reform altered and/or corrupted practices within the Christian church, and the Protestant Reformation resulted in the many many Christian denominations we see today.
But without divine revelation, as God had given through prophets all throughout history, Christ’s original Church could not be duplicated.
And while many of these denominations placed great emphasis on adhering as closely as possible to Christ’s teachings in the New Testament, none claimed to be an actual restoration of Christ’s original Church, under divine commission by God Himself, created under His direction and authority.
Except the Mormons.
And it started with Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith And The Start of the Mormon Church
Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in Vermont. His family was hardworking but had serious financial trouble, and eventually they ended up in Manchester, New York. In his own words, Joseph stated that not long after they arrived “there was in the place where [they] lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion,” in which a number of different denominations were aggressively vying for new members.
As a 14 year old, and with his family dividing themselves up amongst different denominations, Joseph was unsure of which church to join and felt serious anxiety about it, admitting:
“So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong…I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”
And then one day, while reading the Bible, he read James 1:5:
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
Feeling inspired, he decided to do that (again, a 14 year old boy). He found a grove of trees near his home. And he prayed. And he testified that he had a miraculous experience:
He saw God and Jesus Christ.
In this vision, he was told not to join any of the churches, that none had complete truth.
He told a Methodist minister of the vision he had, and you can imagine the field day people had once word got out. Even as a teenager, Joseph Smith was ridiculed and suffered a great deal of persecution because of what he claimed to have seen.
Finding the Book of Mormon
Several years later, in 1823 and at the age of 18, again after prayer, Joseph Smith witnessed another divine manifestation. In his own words, he explained being visited by a “personage”:
“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations…He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.”
He was then shown by vision where the book of gold plates was located, buried under a stone on a nearby hill. After telling his dad about the experiences he’d had, he went to the hill and found the plates as he’d been told he would.
In 1827, he was given the plates and a means by which to interpret them, and was told to translate the book. This book is The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and contains the writings of ancient prophets from the Americas, similar to how the Bible contains the writings of ancient prophets in and around the Holy Land and surrounding areas.
The translation was completed in 1829 and published 26 March 1830.
Yes, this all sounds crazy and slightly fantastical (it did to me the first time I heard it), but what in the Bible isn’t??? Miracle manna and burning bushes and water into wine and raising people from the dead…
Exactly my point.
Cool thing is, The Book of Mormon is something tangible that anyone can actually hold and read to decide for themselves if it’s true or hogwash–if they feel so inclined. You can also find Joseph Smith’s own account of these events here.
The Early Mormon Church
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was officially organized on 6 April 1830 in Fayette Township, New York, with Joseph Smith declared as “a seer, a translator, a prophet, and apostle of Jesus Christ.”
It had six members.
In 1835, 12 apostles were called to be special witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Even in the early church, missionary work was incredibly important, and missionaries were eventually drawn west as they proselyted to the Native Americans on the edge of Missouri and what was then Indian Territory. Eventually, there were more church members in Ohio than New York, and in December 1830 church members were instructed to gather in Ohio. Soon after, Joseph Smith received revelation that they were to settle in Jackson County, Missouri.
Fleeing rampant persecution and in search of Zion, a safe place in which they would be able to settle, early Mormons often faced mob violence so constant and so severe they often found themselves displaced from their homes. By 1838, violence forced most Mormons out of Kirtland, Ohio.
Things weren’t much better in Missouri (the state militia issued an “extermination order” against all Mormons), and later in 1838 most fled to Illinois; they went on to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois.
The Death of Joseph Smith And The Trek to Utah
After having been imprisoned on multiple occasions for causing “civil disturbance,” Joseph Smith was again arrested in 1844, despite not having committed any crimes; still, many called for his death. On 27 June 1844, a mob of 200 men stormed the jail where Joseph and his brother were being held, and shot and killed them both.
Brigham Young was sustained as the new President of the Church in August 1844.
In February of 1846, groups began migrating further west to escape persecution, setting up camps in Iowa and Nebraska.
In July of 1847, Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, and finally declared that the Mormons had found a permanent place to settle. As Mormons traveled west over the next several years (most carrying all of their possessions by handcart), these pioneers suffered A LOT, experiencing outbreaks of cholera and malarial fever, starvation, and freezing winters; many many many of them died, including women and children. From Salt Lake, Mormon settlements continued to expand outward, even into Mexico and Canada.
Like I said, I could go on and on–there are so many details that could be filled in; so many pivotal events that give shape and narrative to the history, but that’ll do for now. Here’s just a quick look at some of the dates that may be of interest to those who are somewhat familiar with the Mormon Church.