The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830, shortly after The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ was published. The church was “restored” by the prophet Joseph Smith. At 14, Joseph, born in Vermont but living in Palmyra, New York, claimed to have had a vision, in which God informed him of his mission to restore the true religion.
At 17, Joseph reported that an angel named Moroni directed him to a hidden manuscript preserved on golden plates and written in an unknown language. Smith’s translation narrates the story of how Middle Eastern exiles, associated with the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, came to America in 600 b.c.e., how the resurrected Jesus later had preached to these now native American tribes, and how one tribe of Christian converts, the Nephites, were reduced by wars to only Mormon and his son, Moroni.
Before their deaths, they buried this narration in 384 c.e., to be recovered in a “latter day” when their spiritual descendants would restore the true faith. Smith’s community, identifying itself as the restoration of this ancient faith (authentic Christianity), was forced by harassment to leave New York and move first to Kirtland, Ohio (1832), and then to Independence, Missouri (1838).
They eventually settled in Illinois on the Mississippi and built the city of Nauvoo, which would become in the early 1840s the largest city in the state. Smith, who began taking many other wives in addition to his first wife Emma Hale, advanced the general practice of polygamy as an ordinance of the church.
Despite his enormous popularity and prosperity, such that he was able to mount a viable candidacy for the U.S. presidency, Smith’s practice of polygamy led disillusioned ex-members to establish a newspaper designed to expose him as a fraud and suppress his political ambitions. Eventually, a riot led to the burning of the newspaper office, and Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested. While detained in a Carthage jail, a lynch mob murdered both men.
After Smith’s death, the church split. The largest group, following their new leader Brigham Young, migrated in 1847 to Salt Lake City, Utah. This group withdrew support for polygamy in 1890. The second group, now known as the Community of Christ (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), followed Smith’s wife Emma back to its current home in Independence, Missouri. They rejected polygamy immediately and have attempted to maintain a theology closer to mainstream Christian thought.
The Book of Mormon, read by literary critics as an early American romance based on Bible stories, is for the Utah church merely the first of many revelations, which early on included Smith’s Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price.
The doctrines of progressive revelation (in which leaders are divinely inspired with teachings for a developing community) and progressive spirituality (in which believers are destined to become divine beings) form the framework of Mormon theology.
However, the most contentious point with critics is the secrecy of Mormon Temple practices. Clearly, church membership has not been hindered by such clandestine behavior. In 1947, the community reached the million mark and today it has risen to over 12 million. By the beginning of the 21st century, this aggressive missionary church could boast 200 million members worldwide.