Who Are the Mormons?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.
Joan K. Ostling, a freelance writer and editor, was formerly a writer and editor for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C., a reporter for the Press Publications newspaper chain in Chicago, and an English and journalism professor.
Sealed With Blood
Nauvoo, Illinois, today sits at a picturesque bend in the Mississippi River, a tourist attraction and state historical park with visitor centers operated by competing churches at opposite ends of the restored town. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) owns the imposing brick Heber C. Kimball house and the Masonic lodge. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) owns Joseph Smith's grave and his two homes. Relations are polite. The visitor can take the LDS tour in a cart pulled by Amish-raised draft horses and admire the cornfields and soybeans, the rushing creek, the restored shops, and the old Masonic building. There is no sign of the once mosquito-infested malarial swamps, and neither church has restored any of the cramped wooden hovels in which most of the Saints actually lived during Nauvoo's brief moment of glory.
Today as one breakfasts at Grandpa John's Cafe in the backwater country town perched on the high bluff above the river, it is hard to believe that in its day--five years of growth and fame before it became a ghost town--Nauvoo rivaled Chicago. Nothing like this theocratic principality inthe heart of America had been seen since Pilgrim and Puritan days. Here the prophet Joseph Smith maintained a militia of 3,000 to 4,000 men under arms, at a time when the full U.S. Army had only 8,500 soldiers. At its height the population of Nauvoo proper reached 12,000 citizens; several thousand more Saints tilled the ground in nearby Hancock County or across the river in Iowa. These were frontier days, and the white limestone temple rising 160 feet high on the crest of the hill was an imposing sight for miles around.
Praise for Nauvoo's impressive achievements appeared in the newspapers of Boston, New York, and elsewhere. A steady stream of visitors came in 1843 and 1844 to admire the town, visit the strange exhibit of Egyptian mummies in its little museum, and sample Smith's hospitality. They included Charles Francis Adams, son of former president John Quincy Adams, and Josiah Quincy Jr., son of Harvard's president and later the mayor of Boston. Quincy was impressed with Smith's charisma and how he "won human hearts and shaped human lives." But Quincy also sounded a somewhat ominous cautionary note when he observed that Joseph Smith was far more than the entrepreneurial mayor of a successful, if unique, frontier town: "His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent today, and the end is not yet."
That influence had begun in Palmyra, New York, fifteen years earlier with the translation of the golden plates that Smith testified had been lent him by the Angel Moroni. These latter-day scriptures described the migration of Israelites to the New World--where they became ancestors of Native Americans--and the risen Christ's ministry on American soil. Smith translated these writings into the Book of Mormon, a revelation that Mormons would place alongside the Bible. The influence continued as a band of six followers incorporated a new church and multiplied into a movement of thousands willing to follow their prophet anywhere. And it did not end when a mob left Joseph Smith's bullet-ridden body propped against a well outside the jail at Carthage, Illinois.
The assassination of their prophet left the Saints grief-stricken and dispirited. Nevertheless, as in Quincy's prediction that "the end is not yet," from that bloody atrocity there emerged the most successful faith ever born on American soil, a church regarded by some today as a major emerging world religion.
In the spring Of 1844 matters were spinning out of control for the prophet. He was charged as an accessory to attempted murder and faced an extradition warrant to Missouri, where a thug had pumped buckshot into the head of Governor Lilburn Boggs, who had cruelly mistreated the Saints. Amazingly, Boggs survived. It was rumored that the assailant, never caught, had operated at the behest of Smith. Despite vigorous denials by church officials, talk also abounded of something unthinkable--that the prophet and other top church officials were secretly taking multiple wives. Accusers also said Smith was profiting from land speculation over the miseries of poor Saints. Some of his closest colleagues were beginning to regard him as a fallen prophet.
Never passive, Smith responded with a frenzy of political activity. First he declared himself a candidate for president of the United States. Shortly thereafter he organized the secret Council of Fifty to plan an ambitious political future, and he had that body anoint him as "King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth." He petitioned Congress for authorization to raise and lead a 100,000-man army, personally loyal and answerable only to him, that would subdue the western territories from Texas to Oregon. He proposed that anyone who would "attempt to hinder or molest the said Joseph Smith" in this design was to be liable to two years' imprisonment. Congress did not oblige.
In the midst of all this, Smith preached the most important sermon of his career. The doctrines he presented in this discourse--multiplicity of gods, eternal progression, a heavenly Father who had a body and used to be a man, denial that God created the cosmos "out of nothing"--departed radically from Christian orthodoxy.
Joseph Smith once said, "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." The Saints' readiness to sacrifice all things had already been well tested. Just five years earlier the Mormons had arrived in Illinois, fleeing east across Missouri up into Iowa and across the frozen Mississippi. Missouri's Governor Boggs had thrown them a threat: get out or face extermination. Joseph Smith was in jail in Liberty, Missouri, that winter of 1838-39, under threat of execution for a trumped-up charge of treason. His loyal...
Excerpted from Mormon America - Revised and Updated Edition by Richard Ostling Copyright © 2007 by Richard Ostling. Excerpted by permission.
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The writers also include Frank discussions of church history and theology, including the emphasis on family, community, and missionary work. But according to the Ostlings, the church's self-told history contains troubling inconsistencies. The late church leader Brigham Young had more than 20 wives, for instance, yet official church documents characterize him as a monogamist.
Brill's ContentA thoroughly-researched, impartial treatment of that homegrown American religion so shrouded in mystery and myth: Mormonism. The Latter-Say Saints have been the subjects of a number of illuminating scholarly works, from Jan Shipps's Mormonism to D. Michael Quinn's The Mormon Hierarchy, but until now there has been no book of the same caliber for the general audience. An outgrowth of Richard Ostling and S.C. Gwynne's 1997 Time magazine cover story, Mormon America is an accessible, even-handed treatment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), which, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, will number well over 63 million faithful by 2080. Not themselves Mormons, the Ostlings bring a newcomer's curiosity and a healthy respect for the LDS to their project. After a brief summary of the history of Mormonism, which was born in the late 1820s, the Ostlings investigate a number of hot-button issues, from polygamy (officially banned, but still practiced by a few renegade "Mormon fundamentalists," who are excommunicated if church authorities discover their marital practices) to money ("If the LDS Church were a U.S. corporation, by revenues it would rank number 243 on the Fortune 500 list"), from LDS politicos (including presidential hopeful Orrin Hatch) to the Mormon doctrine of God (which is at odds with orthodox Christian teaching in matters such as deification, the LDS belief that a person can become a God). Mormon America deals with many topics that Americans have heard of but don't understand, explaining what Mormons mean when they talk about being "eternally sealed" in marriage, evaluating the Latter-Day Saints' famed system of tithing and welfare, explicating therelationship between Mormon ritual and Masonic rites, and investigating the special undergarments that some Mormons wear. For Protestants and other "Gentiles," Mormon America is an invaluable primer; Latter-Day Saints will find the book a useful refresher course. (8 pages b&w photos)