Joseph Smith Jr. (1805 1844) founded the religion that became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) on April 6, 1830, in the area of western New York referred to as the Burned-Over District, from the fires of revivalist enthusiasm that had swept through the region in the previous decades. Following a vision of God and Jesus Christ, according to Smith an angel directed him to translate Golden Plates, an ancient religious history explaining the Hebraic origins of the American Indians and their important role in the Second Coming. Published as the Book of Mormon, the scripture gave Smith s religion its popular name of Mormonism and established him as a prophet, seer and revelator to his followers. In order to escape persecution and his reputation as a money digger, Smith moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where missionaries achieved great success recruiting followers from what later became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), founded by Alexander Campbell. Smith s new and eternal covenant made his followers the modern Israel, God s chosen people. He laid plans to build a communal society and temple to welcome Christ s return in Independence, Missouri, site of the Garden of Eden. Financial reverses encouraged Smith s departure from Ohio, and political conflict and persecutions in Missouri ultimately resulted in the expulsion of all Mormons from the state in 1839.
Smith rallied to a new gathering place at Nauvoo on the Mississippi River and implemented revolutionary extensions of his theology. He developed the doctrine of eternal progression based on a multiplicity of gods and an evolving deity. Revelations directed Smith to do the works of Abraham, and polygamy became required of those who sought the highest levels of salvation. The Mormon prophet in 1844 was ordained king of the Kingdom of God, the political organization he created to rule the earth following Christ s return. Smith was running for president of the United States when he was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844. His enemies accused him of being an imposter, but his followers claimed that Smith had done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world than any other man. Today Smith is widely viewed as a genius who some believe defined a religious tradition as different from Christianity as Christianity was different from Judaism.
Several candidates contested for Smith s legacy, but Brigham Young (1801 1877) consolidated his power as head of the Twelve Apostles and assumed control of the main LDS church shortly after Smith s murder. Although several dozen Restoration churches claim Smith as their founder, the branch led by Young became today s largest LDS Church. Young directed the completion of the Nauvoo temple, where thousands of members received Masonic-style endowments which had been revealed by Smith before his death prior to the movement west. Young personally directed the initial migration and established a new gathering place at Great Salt Lake City (as Salt Lake City was first called) in the Great Basin. For two decades Young was one of the most powerful men in the western United States and insisted that polygamy which Smith had initiated but had kept secret be acknowledged.
Extract from Michael Homer and Will Bagley, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” STJ Encyclopedia of New Religions. Read the remainder of the encyclopedia entry when you sign up for a free subscription to Sacred Tribes Journal.