The Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was established on 6 April 1830, amid the religious fervor of the American Second Great Awakening. Founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844), it was from the beginning the target of suspicion and oppression. In 1820, Smith, a mystic, treasure seeker, and diviner, claimed to have received a visit from God the Father and Jesus Christ.

During this visitation Smith was told that all of the churches had turned aside from God and he had been commissioned to restore the “true church.” Seven years later Smith was contacted by the angel Moroni giving him instructions on where to find a set of gold plates inscribed with the Book of Mormon (written by and named after Moroni’s father).

The book was written in “reformed Egyptian” and had to be translated through the “Urim and Thummim,” two seer (or peep) stones that were set in a breast-plate worn over the shoulders. The translation took three years and the plates were “swept away” by Moroni after it was done. In 1830, Smith published the book and a new religion was born.

Attacks on Mormonism

Since publication, the Book of Mormon has been attacked as an elaborate fraud. Critics have claimed that if Smith did not plagiarize it from the Old Testament and other sources, he made it up entirely.

These charges have become harder to deflect in recent years, as evidence has emerged challenging the truthfulness of Joseph Smith on such matters as his conviction for treasure hunting and his use of folk magic. More damaging yet was the discovery of the actual scroll Smith allegedly used in his translation of the Book of Abraham.

From its inception, the cult faced suspicion and hostility from larger society. Anti-Mormon feeling fed on the more general nativist fear of internal subversion in the United States of the nineteenth century. Faced with a rapidly changing society, many felt the need for unity and closed ranks against the forces of anti-U.S. movements.

Any group thought too different was highly suspect and Americans suspected immigrants, Catholics, and Freemasons of plotting to overthrow the republic. Ultimately, nativists feared that these “un-American” groups wanted to control all of the United States. Mormons provided one more outlet for the mass paranoia.

Despite the heartfelt contention of most Mormons that they were Christians, the sect has never been accepted by Christian churches. They see the Mormon claim as an attempt to wrap their cultlike views in the respectable blanket of Christianity. This claim was perceived as another manifestation of the attempt to cover up the giant conspiracy.

Mormonism in Utah Cave of Despair

A major cause of suspicion was that the Latter-day Saints (LDS) exhibited several characteristics that were viewed as un-American. Because Mormon leaders ruled with an iron hand, they were seen as an unscrupulous, autocratic group of megalomaniacs plotting to overthrow the moral and social order. In addition, the secrecy of rituals fueled suspicion that the group was performing and plotting immoral and illegal acts.

Even the structure of the sect caused some to view it as un-American. The membership was looked upon as unwitting and docile dupes—more mindless machines than humans. The sect demanded total allegiance and dominated virtually all aspects of its adherent’s life. These traits were viewed as a threat to the very basis of American life—democracy, religion, and justice.

Of all the frightening rituals of the LDS, it was their belief in polygamy that brought forth the most outrage and disgust from their critics. Most Americans viewed the practice as a form of slavery.

Through polygamy women became mere concubines at the beck and call of their masters. Multiple wives also provided a setting for all forms of immorality and critics imagined all variety of sexual abominations taking place within the Mormon sanctuary.

Mormon History

In 1833, the LDS faced their first real attacks and were forced to leave Jackson County, Missouri. When less subtle methods failed (opponents had destroyed the Mormon printing press and tarred and feathered the local leader), anti-Mormons went on a rampage. They burned and pillaged the Mormon settlement, forcing the residents to flee for their lives.

In December 1840 Smith gathered the faithful in Illinois. He obtained a city charter from the state government and established the new community of Nauvoo. With the concomitant right to organize a government, including a militia, he felt that the sect was insulated from persecution.

The initial years at Nauvoo were good for Smith and the Mormons. He managed to fill in the structure of his rapidly growing sect and even ran for U.S. president. Although he lost his bid for the presidency, the prophet was elected both mayor and lieutenant-general of the militia of Nauvoo.

This intertwining of church and state offended many in Illinois, yet the Mormons might have weathered the storm had Smith not announced several additional heaven-sent proclamations.

At Nauvoo, Smith (with the official title of “Seer, a Translator, a Prophet, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and Elder of the Church through the will of God the Father, and the Grace of Your Lord Jesus Christ”) continued to have revelations regarding the mission and structure of the new denomination.

Several of these revelations were especially vexing for many people, including some of the higher-ranking faithful. Smith first sealed some rituals and parts of the temple off to outsiders, and this “secrecy” served to further raise the suspicions of the larger community.

In addition, Smith distanced his religion from traditional Christianity by proclaiming that humans, like God, were eternal and not created beings, and that the faithful could become gods themselves.

It was, however, Smith’s pronouncement on marriage that really served to outrage people both within and outside of the sect. In 1844, Smith called for his disciples to adopt the ways of the Old Testament patriarchs and take multiple wives.

Smith himself apparently had already been practicing polygamy for several years and had married at least forty-nine women. The call for a return to polygamy set off a firestorm. While some of the faithful reluctantly took on additional wives, several left the sect and founded an anti-Smith newspaper in Nauvoo.

The Nauvoo Expositor was founded to expose the immoral practices, megalomania, and delusions of grandeur of the prophet and called for a return to the original teachings of the church, but the newspaper was only able to publish one issue.

Smith ordered the paper’s printing press destroyed, the type scattered, and all recovered newspapers burned. The destruction of the opposition press resulted in the arrest of Smith and several of his confederates. While incarcerated, both Smith and his brother Hyram were murdered by a mob on 27 June 1844.

After the death of Joseph Smith his followers split into a multitude of factions, each claiming to be the true church. The bulk of the faithful chose to follow Brigham Young, one of the church’s senior apostles. In the wake of Smith’s murder, Young managed to rally the faithful and when faced with a possible government-sponsored eviction from Nauvoo, led them on a heroic trek to the Salt Lake area of Utah.

The migration west had been a goal of Joseph Smith. He felt that outside of U.S. territory the sect could practice their religion without interference. Unfortunately for Smith’s dream, only three years after Young led the faithful to Utah in 1847, it became a U.S. territory.

Initially, the religionists were left to their own devices. Within a few years, however, Young’s autocratic government, the entanglement of church and state, and the issue of polygamy raised the ire of the national government. In 1857, President James Buchanan ordered troops into the area to “restore order.”

The Mormons, while appearing ready to fight, acceded to the superior force and Young negotiated a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The only casualties in the “Mormon War” were a group of 120 California-bound settlers who were brutally murdered by a Mormon militia at Mountain Meadows.

Despite their attempts at isolation, the LDS continued to have to deal with the wider world. As Utah grew and the United States solidified its control over the West, the Mormons were forced to dismantle the church-controlled political party and officially abandon the practice of polygamy in order to pave the way for statehood. Some families, disgusted with this abandonment of the founder’s teachings, left for areas in Canada and Mexico where they could continue the practice of multiple marriages.

By the time of Utah statehood in 1898, the Latter-day Saints had moved from a radical millennialist sect to a prosperous and stable denomination. As their influence spread to surrounding states the Mormons became a major part of the religious landscape of the United States. Today, the Utah-based church boasts 11 million members, with 5.5 million in the United States. It still, however, has not gained acceptance as a mainstream denomination.