The Latter-Day Saints: A History of Mormonism | History Hit

The Latter-Day Saints: A History of Mormonism

An engraving of a Mormon baptism.
Image Credit: Alan King engraving / Alamy Stock Photo

The doctrine of Mormonism began in the early 19th century. With around 17 million adherents today, Mormonism has a particularly strong influence in America, particularly because Mormon theology suggests that America is the promised land of the Bible, and that the US Constitution was divinely inspired.

Emerging as part of a period of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, Mormonism has become relatively widely accepted in mainstream circles and has some close parallels with Christianity, although it diverges from many other mainstream versions because of its adherence to the Book of Mormon, which is viewed as God’s word, as well as some taking different stances on some key doctrinal issues.

Here’s the history of one of America’s most prominent Christian groups.

Religion in America

America has generated and welcomed fringe religious groups since at least the 1620s, when Protestant Puritans arrived in America fleeing persecution in Europe.

Since then, it’s said that the country has witnessed four ‘great awakenings’ of religious sentiment. These key periods in American Christian history are characterised by increased religiosity, the expansion of churches and the formation of new religious denominations and movements. Many see them as a response to periods of unrest or socio-political uncertainty.

Whilst many found comfort in religion during these periods, the growth in new denominations unnerved some. People increasingly began to find personal connections with God and religion rather than relying on a minister or organised religion.

The Second Great Awakening took place from around the 1790s to the 1840s and saw a revival of Protestant preaching across the United States. It favoured Romantic ideals, such as enthusiasm, emotion and mysticism, as opposed to the rationalism and scepticism of the Enlightenment. It was during this period of religious revival that Mormonism emerged.

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Joseph Smith

Mormonism sprang from the visions of a farmboy, Joseph Smith, in 1820. Praying to God for answers about which denomination he should join, he supposedly received a vision from both God and Christ who told him all of the existing churches were wrong. He was led by similar visions to find golden plates, which when translated, revealed the Book of Mormon.

Smith suffered persecution throughout his life and struggled to make ends meet. The golden plates from which he translated the book were, he alleged, removed by the angel who had given them to him once he had finished using them. However, slowly, he began to gather followers and supposed witnesses to this strange and miraculous turn of events.

In 1831, Smith and his followers moved westwards to Kirtland, Ohio, where they planned to build a new Zion and found their church. They also established an outpost in Missouri, which became the heart of the new movement. In 1838, he announced that he had had a revelation and the church should be known as ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’. Its followers are officially known as Latter-Day Saints, although they are commonly referred to as Mormons because of their adherence to the Book of Mormon.

Smith was eventually killed in 1844 after years of growing tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri. Smith’s polygamy and abuses of power were roundly criticised in the press. As a result, Smith had the printing press of a local paper, the Nauvoo Expositor, destroyed.

Whilst in jail in Carthage awaiting trial for polygamy, fornication and perjury, Smith was killed when a mob stormed the courthouse – precisely how deliberate his death was is debated. He is now revered as a prophet by many Mormons.

An undated portrait of Joseph Smith.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was finished by 1829, supposedly a chronicle of Israelites who left Jerusalem in 600 BC and arrived in America 11 years later, in 589 BC. These early Christians were said to believe in Christ centuries before his birth and were personally visited by him following the resurrection. The Book of Mormon was said to be a means to establish the correct, original doctrine for this newly restored ancient church.

The Book of Mormon was hotly debated and continues to face criticism. Treated as scripture by adherents, the majority of Mormons (also known as Latter-Day Saints) believe the book to be a historical record of events. Many others widely accept that Smith authored the book, drawing on a variety of sources, rather than translating it.

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Brigham Young

Smith’s death caused a power struggle within the burgeoning Church of Latter-Day Saints which was eventually filled by Brigham Young. Young led a pioneer movement of the Church, expanding in Salt Lake City and beyond, spreading the word far across the frontier regions of the United States.

It was under Young that the church became a legal entity, but also when tensions between the Latter-Day Saints and other Christian denominations began to increase. The Latter-Day Saints advocated polygamy (plural marriage), which proved to be particularly divisive. In the aftermath of the Civil War, polygamy proved to be a topic on which Americans united, condemning it unilaterally.

Congress made polygamy a federal offence in 1887: Mormons were attacked for their ‘sexual degeneracy’ and subjected to negative stereotyping. Congress also authorised the seizure of assets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, bringing church and state into direct conflict. In 1890, polygamy was officially no longer sanctioned by Mormons, but continued to be practiced for decades afterwards.

An undated photograph of Brigham Young, pioneer of the Latter-Day Saints movement.

Image Credit: Public Domain

20th-century Mormonism

After outlawing polygamy, the Church of Latter-Day Saints found itself able to command a more widespread appeal, dispatching missionaries across North and South America. Distancing itself from polygamy publicly, the church became an advocate of the nuclear family, sexual morality and monogamy.

An early champion of feminism, Mormonism saw many Mormon women become involved in female suffrage movements. And for at least a century, the church was also open to and supportive of aspects of socialism, putting it at odds with mainstream American society. Gradually, the Mormon church opened its arms to non-white communities and cultures, lifting its ban on black men joining the priesthood in 1978.

From the mid-20th century onwards, the church became increasingly media savvy, rebranding and redefining its public image to create a broader appeal. The Book of Mormon was reframed to be in line with the importance of the Old and New Testament rather than above it, centring it more within Christian doctrine than outside of it.

Sarah Roller