The First Fairy Tale
Dale K. Brown
One bright spring day in 1820, fourteen year old Joseph Smith had a vision, the first of many. He lived with his parents in rural New York State in an area known as "the burned over district." It was named that because it was home to Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists who, unwilling to wait for the Lord and his holy fires of hell to settle religious disputes, torched each other's homes, barns, and fields, with such zeal that the whole area truly had been burned over!
The young man reflected upon these happenings and began to wonder if divine arson really was the answer to interdenominational disputes and which, if any, of the competing faiths was the correct one. This was the first question he asked God the Father and Jesus Christ when they appeared to him in a vision. The Lord Jesus replied that all organized religions were an abomination in his sight. Joseph Smith would have to start one that was disorganized. But the lad was given no clear directions on how to go about his task and no advice was forthcoming.
The Show ended and it was three years later on September 21, 1823 before he had another vision. This time it was just a messenger from God however, and not the genuine article, He identified himself as the angel Moroni and told the teenager God had work for him to do. He was to journey to Mount Cumorah and dig up some golden plates which had been hidden there many years before by Mormon, the hitherto unknown prophet, of a hitherto unknown race called the Nephites.
It seems that 7,000 years before the birth of Christ, the Nephites had been, in the best of Christian traditions, engaged in perpetual warfare with a neighboring tribe called the Lamanites. Now while the reasons for their disputes remain as obscure as the tribes themselves, the upshot was that the Nephite prophet, Mormon, dismayed by the lack of brotherhood displayed by both sides, resigned his post as official seer and sought career opportunities elsewhere.
He buried the sacred plates in accordance with divine instructions and was about to embark as a freelance when he was ambushed and killed by the treacherous Lamanites. And these were the very plates Smitty was commanded to dig up.
He followed the angels instructions dutifully, uncovered the golden discs and was about to take possession of them when, at the last moment, Moroni appeared and told him he couldn't remove them for four years. He was instructed, however, to visit them once a year.
This he proceeded to do and finally, in the year 1827, he was given permission to remove the tablets from their cubby hole on Mount Cumorah and commanded to decipher them. But the plates were inscribed in the language of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians and were, therefore, indecipherable to the illiterate farm hand. Thankfully, the box containing the plates also contained the "Urim" and the "Thummim."
What the Urim and the Thummim were, or how they did what they did, is murky at best. They were alleged to be mystical objects of great antiquity which had once been attached to the vestments of the Israelite's high priest in ancient Jerusalem. How they ended up in Mount Cumorah remains a mystery but, with their help, Joseph Smith was able to begin the laborious process of translating the golden plates.
Even with their help, the enterprise was a rocky one, and more visions were required to help the process along. Moroni appeared several more times to assist in ironing out some of the more stubborn doctrinal wrinkles. Toward the end of it all, John the Baptist appeared from his heavenly abode, offered a few words of advice and comfort, and conferred upon the no doubt bashful prophet the order of the "Aaronic Priesthood." The Book of Mormon was completed in June 1879, and soon made available in devotional bookstores everywhere.
With the laborious process of translation completed, Joseph Smith called together the select group of individuals who, over the course of time, had been made privy to the secrets of his book. As the party progressed, a show of hands from all present was called for to determine the advisability of forming their own church. The vote was unanimous; the "Yea's" had it, so Mr. Smith and his trusty sidekick, Oliver Cowdery, promptly anointed each other elders, first and second class of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. An impromptu reception was immediately held for the newly christened pair, at which time holy bread and, quite out of keeping with sacred revelation, alcoholic spirits were served.
The fundamentalist message which was delivered to Mr. Smith of work, hope, and the possibility of at least a smidgen of earthly happiness for all God's creatures was a welcome change to many from the seemingly limitless expanse of hellfire and brimstone awaiting all but the select few in Protestant mythology. At least, with the Mormons you had a fighting chance. New converts were swiftly added and the church grew and prospered.
They soon began to experience growing pains, however. One of the problems was this business of divine revelation. It got totally out of hand. An apparently highly contagious condition, it had begun to afflict not only old hands, like prophet number one, but newly baptized babes in Christ, as well. Little documentation exists to confirm who was seeing and hearing what, but all involved at the time agreed; something had to be done.
As luck would have it, Moroni presented himself once more to the confused prophet and told him that, henceforth, only his visions were to be regarded as authentic. This simplified matters greatly and the torrent of contraband revelations slowed to a trickle. Other problems soon surfaced, however, because even though much of what the saints believed was in perfect accordance with the varying faiths of their protestant neighbors, some of it wasn't. Moreover, they were still undeniably newcomers to the Christian block and as such were viewed as upstarts.
Inter-denominational displeasure was not alleviated by the fact that many conventional parishioners, drawn in no small part by the sense of purpose and dedication evidenced by the saints, were defecting to their ranks in record numbers.
Because of this, various denominations who heretofore were not even on speaking terms with one another, banded together to combat the "Mormon enemy." Taking a page from their own history, the good Christians figuratively threw the saints to the lions. They did so, in many cases, with official sanction.
The "Mormons", as they were called, were presented as a sinister threat to the moral decency of the nation as a whole; and to the chastity of women in particular. Joseph Smith hadn't helped matters any by permitting the biblical practice of polygamy and God fearing Christians everywhere were soon made aware of this facet of the saints theology. Lurid descriptions of a pure American womanhood, violated and defiled by hordes of insatiable, lust filled Mormons were soon being preached via newspaper and pulpit to the shock and revulsion of decent Christians everywhere. An enraged citizenry, horrified by this nefarious threat to the national virtue, rose up against the saints in righteous wrath and began ejecting them from their communities.
They were driven from settlement to settlement, always heading west toward the frontier. They sojourned briefly in Missouri but, Southern Hospitality not being then what it allegedly is now, they were cordially invited to leave. After some intense misunderstandings, the governor of Missouri, the Right Honorable Lilburn W. Boggs, ordered the state militia to "exterminate" the sect or, failing that, to "drive them from the state for the public good." Not being ones to shrink from their civic duty, 3,000 or so heavily armed militiamen and federal troops attempted to carry out his honor's final solution. They attacked Mormon communities and shot inhabitants on sight. Finally, an elder, George M. Hinkle, affectionately known in Mormon lore as "Judas", arranged for the capture of Joseph Smith, his brother, and several others.
In those happier days, the American criminal justice system was largely unburdened by legal technicalities. Such niceties such as probable cause or unlawful search and seizure were unheard of. In spite of these deficiencies, however, one's right to a speedy trial was never questioned. It was just that, for many, the trial was a bit too speedy, and in this case the legalities were dispensed with altogether. The accused were considered convicted and General Samuel Lucas ordered their immediate execution by firing squad.
Fortunately for the condemned, the officer who received the order, Colonel Alexander Doniphan, had serious reservations about the propriety of the whole affair and refused to carry out the order. The prisoners were eventually released but the stories, exaggerations, and gossip with which the unbiased American press seems to delight, continued to fly thick and fast.
The prophet and his brother finally turned themselves in to answer a morass of charges which were now being leveled against them from all quarters. They were immediately incarcerated in the county jail in Carthage, Missouri on June 26, 1844. About 5:00 p.m. the following day, they were shot to death in their cell by members of the Carthage Militia. In death, Joseph Smith achieved what no human can in life; the status of a martyr.
The absence of the prophet created a short term power vacuum in the Mormon hierarchy but, within a month, the dust had settled and Brigham Young was recognized as Joseph Smith's successor. After many more trials and many dusty miles, a faithful core of believers encamped near the shores of the Great Salt Lake in present day Utah and set about building a well ordered town designed by design, rather than urban sprawl.
Hard work and self reliance allowed them to prosper surprisingly well in this "land no one wanted." To be sure, they eventually had to abide by incomprehensible governmental regulations as future waves of immigrants overtook and swept past them but, by that time, most men had come to the undeniable conclusion that the cons far outweighed the pros when dealing with multiple wives. Unlike the Shakers, they adapted to changing realities. Unlike them, they are here today.
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