Before I get into Mormons, or as it informally calls itself, the LDS Church, I better restate my “I used to be one of them critters” disclaimer.
Yes folks, I was a “saint”! A latter day saint, to be specific. That’s what the LDS stands for. The church’s full name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
However, I grew up and now I’m an ex-Saint. A practicing Mormon might call me a “Jack Mormon”, but I prefer to think of myself as a “fallen angel”.
The following is a history of the early Mormon Church (complete with snarks). Believe it or not, almost all my source material comes from them. However, this is not the stuff they taught me back in my 4 years in seminary. Some of this is stuff they didn’t want to talk about at all!
But to be fair (for a change) the rise of Mormonism needs to be placed in context. I highly recommend you read “The Religious Wrong (pt 3: The Great(?) Awakening)” first. Better yet, since the context needs context, start with pt 1 and work your way back here. They’re fun reads, unless of course, you’re a “fundy” or a “bagger”. Then…..not so much.
Also, this post is not a slam on some of my good Mormon brethren & sisteren. (Is that a word?) As with all “religions” there are members who earnestly try to make this a better world. Unfortunately, as with all “religions” this one has its share of bigots and assholes as well. Although, lately they’ve lightened up a bit on blacks and transferred their hate to the LGBT community. (However, they do LOVE American Indians!)
Any excuse for a little “Satchmo”!
Joseph Smith (1805-1844)
(12/23/1805) Joseph Smith Jr. is born in Sharon Vermont.
The Smith family is rather itinerant, due to various failed business and farming ventures. In the warm weather, Joe Sr. and the older brothers (Hyrum & Alvin) like to go treasure hunting. (Which just might be part of the reason for those failures.)
Unfortunately, they don’t have any maps with “X” marking the spot. However, they do have divination tools. Among those tools are seer stones. Now, in order to get that “special sight” the stones are supposed convey, they have to be viewed in the bottom of a hat. (I shit you not!)
After three crop failures in a row, the Smith family moves to Palmyra, New York. (1816) Palmyra is right in the middle of the “Burned-Over District“, a hotbed of evangelical fervor. (Or fever, if you prefer.)
The 1st Vision
Joe Jr. supposedly is confused with all the different religions with their conflicting “truths”, so he decides to take a walk in the woods to sort it out. Smith tells several different versions about when it happens. In one, he claims he was 14. (1819) Another time he was 16. (1821) Another time he split the difference. (1820)
According to the stories, he witnesses a pillar of light (a sunbeam?) descending from the sky and out pops Big Daddy and J.C.. (Hmmm, I wonder what kind of mushrooms were in season?)
They proceed to inform him that all the religions have drifted from “THE TRUTH”, and are essentially various piles of crap and stay away from them. Later, when he tells a local minister what Big Daddy said, for some reason the minister takes umbrage. (I can’t imagine why.)
(Fair warning: I may be an atheist, but I LOVE good gospel music.)
Now, here’s the part that floors me. To explain, I’ll resort to one of my infamous “Grouchy Scenarios”:
For this one, you’re Joe Jr.. You’ve just had a close encounter of the third kind with God and Jesus. Not only that, but they went out of their way to come down and talk to you personally. Do you: 1) drop everything and devote your life and all your energies to these guys; or 2) go on pretty much as if nothing had happened?
Jr. chooses door #2!
He tells his family, the minister and a few others (who basically laugh at him). Other than that, every thing goes on as normal. He continues farming with the family and going treasure hunting with daddy’s stones. In fact, he doesn’t come up with a detailed description of the event until 1838. (Kinda makes you wonder…..)
But, here’s the kicker: Not only did several family members subsequently join the Presbyterian Church, Joe Jr. applied with the Methodists in 1828.
(9/21/1823) Joe Jr. gets a night-time visit from an “angel” named Moroni. Btw, Mormon angels don’t have wings. I guess they teleport or something. (Maybe they borrow floo powder or a portkey from Harry.) Moroni tells him that there’s a book written on “Golden Plates” that are buried on Cumorah Hill, conveniently located just a short hike south.
The next day, Jr. digs up the plates. but Moroni tells him he can’t have them for four years. Not only that, but he has to show up every year on this date for further instructions.
A couple of years later (1825) Jr. & Sr. Smith go treasure hunting in Harmony PA. They never find any treasure, but Jr. finds Emma Hale.
(3/1826) The local fuzz bust Jr. for fraudulent use of seer stones.He’s arrested, jailed, and examined in court in Bainbridge, New York on the charge of being “a disorderly person and an impostor” (Can you say “scam artist”?) in connection with his use of a seer stone to search for buried treasure. The evidence indicates he’s found guilty but he’s apparently released on the condition that he leave the area. Quinn, pp. 44ff.; and H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), pp. 70ff.
This event goes on right in the middle of the time Jr. is receiving “heavenly instructions” on how to
con, excuse me, “save” the world.
The church used to deny this ever happened. Even going so far as to say: “if this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.” Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961), p. 142.
In 1971, the original court records were found. And, they were authentic!
(1/18/1827) Two years after they meet, Jr. & Emma elope to get married. (Emma’s daddy doesn’t much care for Jr. and Big Daddy must be a mite pissed at Jr. as well, their first three children die on the day they are born.) Emma is to play a major role in the early church, and another role after her husband dies. More on those down the timeline.
(10/22/1827) Joe finally gets his hands on the “golden plates”, (Now that he’s married, I’ll drop the Jr. but I think I know him well enough to call him Joe.) but is told he can’t show them to anyone. (Always a convenient excuse.) He does show his mother a pair of specs with gemstones for lenses. The stones are to be used to translate the plates, since the plates are written in “Reformed Egyptian”. Unfortunately, no other examples of this language have ever been found (or even heard of).
The gemstones, believe it or not, (and, I don’t) are the Urim & Thummim of Old Testament fame. They pop up several times: Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65 & Deuteronomy 33:8 with Urim doing a solo in Numbers 27:21 & 1 Samuel 28:6. They were usually associated with the High Priest’s breastplate.
(12/1827) Rumors of a Golden Bible started getting around the neighborhood and Joe & Emma decide to split before someone comes looking for it. A neighbor (Martin Harris) gives them some money and they hightail it back to Harmony with the plates, as the story goes, hidden in a barrel of beans. (I’ll refrain from any “spill the beans” jokes, although it’s extremely tempting.)
The Magic Translation
Safely ensconced in a small house on Emma’s daddy’s property, the work commences. Joe “translates” the plates, with Emma writing down his translation.
And, this is where it gets a smidgin confusing to yours truly. Allow me to elucidate:
Joe has the plates and the U&T specs. Logically, one would assume that Joe would put on the specs, look through the U&T lenses at the plates and commence to translate.
Remember back early in this saga, when I mentioned the use of a hat to get that “special sight”? Well, that’s the way he translates the plates. Instead of looking at them, he translates them by looking into his hat.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how Emma describes the scene to one of her sons (Joe III): “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” History of the RLDS Church, 8 vols. Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1951. Last Testimony of Sister Emma, 3:356(In other words, he pulls “The Book of Mormon” out of his hat!)
Also, in a bit of foreshadowing, you might notice something interesting about that reference source. R you up to figuring it out? If not, we’ll get reorganized in a few episodes.
As for the plates themselves, they weren’t even in the room. According to Emma’s daddy, “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods.”. Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), pp. 126-128.
You’ll notice in both accounts, there’s no mention of the “gemstone specs”. They both refer to a singular stone in the bottom of his hat. I wonder if this the same stone, or its brother, that got him busted back in ’26?
The Lost “Book of Lehi”
Martin Harris (1783-1875)
(4/1828) Martin Harris travels to Harmony and takes over writing Joe’s translation dictation. Marty is ……….oh …… what’s the polite word?……oh yeah. “Interesting”. An impolite description would sound something like “A bit of a loon.” (Multiple examples forthcoming.)
Marty sort of cleans up the single stone/U&T specs confusion by saying that the stone isn’t the Urim or the Thummin, It’s just Joe’s old “seer stone”.
Over the next couple of months they write “The Book of Lehi”, 116 pages in total. This is to be the first book in the BoM. At this point, Marty takes the 116 pages back to Palmyra to show his wife what he’s up to.
Two month’s translation effort of holy(?) words, and they’re not important enough to keep track of? Or even to make a back-up copy????
After a couple of months, Joe wonders what the hell happened to Marty. He heads back to Palmyra to find out.
He finds out!
He also finds out Big Daddy ain’t too tickled with the situation. BD teleports one of his angels to take back the plates. (Not to worry, fairy tale fans, it’s only temporary.)
(10/22/1828) Joe gets the plates back.
So at this point it should be a simple matter just to retranslate the missing pages and press on with the rest of the translation.
Evidently not! There are a couple of problems here: One’s real and one’s not-so-real. And, of course, the not-so-real problem is the one the church hides behind.
Before I tackle those, let me step out of the narrative for a moment.
This situation exposes one aspect of a much larger question: Where did the BoM really come from? In researching these posts, I’ve run across some solid arguments, with some rather persuasive evidence, that it has a less than holy origin.
My problem as a blogger, is that I am a blogger, and not a book writer. And, to really explore this particular question in-depth is going to take something more book length than blog length. Characters like Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery (whom you’re about to meet) figure into it along with some published and non-published books that were written prior to 1828. And then there’s related issues like “The Book of Abraham”. “The Kinderhook Plates” and the “Greek Psalter Incident”.
So, instead of exploring all of these in depth as I’d like to, I’m going to provide links to my information sources as I go along, and you can investigate at your pleasure.
Ok, back to the narrative!
First, let’s tackle the “not-so-real” problem that the church likes so much:
According to the church, this episode is Satan’s plan to trap Joe and destroy the church before it even gets started. They know this, because that’s what Big Daddy told Joe. (Or, at least that’s what Joe says BD told him.)
BD said that wicked men had altered the manuscript . So, if Joe retranslates the lost pages, they will claim he’s a phony because he can’t duplicate the original.
There’s one HUGE problem with this cop-out: Martin Harris wrote down the translation in ink on foolscap. Any changes would be immediately noticeable, and if they rewrote the 116 pages, it would be pretty easy to spot as a forgery since it wouldn’t have been in Marty’s handwriting.
Now, the real problem:
Lucy Harris (1792-1836)
Marty probably didn’t really lose the 116 pages. The evidence seems to suggest that his wife Lucy purloined them. (For you baggers reading this, purloined means stole.) Most researchers agree that she probably promptly burns them.
But Joe just can’t take the chance of them being gone forever. In Joe’s mind, the “wicked men” are Lucy. Lucy can’t stand her husband’s “Mormonite” friends, as she calls them. She thinks they’re frauds and phonies. And, it’s Lucy that’s setting a trap.
However, keep in mind that it’s only a trap if the whole thing is a scam, since any alteration or rewriting of the original would be immediately noticed.
Fortunately, BD knew thousands of years ago that this was going to happen. He had one of his
profits prophets write a whole second book that covered the same things the “Book of Lehi” covered, only in different words and not quite the detail.
Viola! Problem solved. No way to compare texts. No way to prove Joe lied through his hat.
Oliver Cowdery (1806-1850)
(4/5/1829) Oliver Cowdery comes to Harmony and takes up Harris’ old job as secretary. Ollie tells Joe that he’s already seen the plates in a “vision” aka “state of altered consciousness”. (Carlos Castaneda would be so proud.) And, it turns out that Ollie, like his cousin Joe, is a treasure hunter. Ollie even has his own divining rod.
Ollie’s description of the translation process doesn’t mention the hat, but the U&T is back and being used. (Probably just needed a little “spiritual refurbishment”.)
To further confuse the confusion, after 1833 the gemstones (the U&T) are somehow integrated into the hat stone, so that now, there’s just the one stone. Which, the church says, is safely tucked away. In other words, if they really, really wanted to prove the authenticity of the magic stone’s translation ability, they could do it? (Hmmmm.)
The Return of the Holy Ghosts
(5/15/1829) Joe & Ollie head out to the woods to pray and John the Baptist shows up. (Must be mushroom season again.) Big John confers the Aaronic priesthood on them. He tells them that the Melchizedek priesthood will also be making a comeback, but not quite yet.
In fact, no one knows when the Melchizedek priesthood comes back. Joe never tells anyone how or when it happens.
LDS theologians think it happened sometime before the church was established a few months later, since part of the initial church organization included “Elders”, and Elder is the lowest rank of the Melchizedek. Other than that tidbit, they don’t have a clue.
The Melchizedek is considered the senior priesthood, with the Aaronic being the junior. Nowadays, the Aaronic is primarily for male teenagers. (Went up through the ranks myself.) Back when I was a Mormon, it was for WHITE male teenagers. At 19, you graduate to Elder.
Big John also tells them that Joe will be the 1st Elder of the Church and Ollie the 2nd. Joe & Ollie then proceed to baptize each other in the Susquehanna. (I’m not quite sure why Big John doesn’t do the honors. After all, he’s the pro.)
A bit later, Joe & Ollie are praying in the woods, and who drops by to chat?
Peter, Paul & Mary! (Oops, sorry ’bout that!) I mean Peter, James & John. Still, all-in-all, some pretty heavy hitters. (Damn! I have got to find out what type of mushrooms are native to the area.)
(6/1829) The translation’s finished, and Joe gets a copyright for The Book of Mormon.
Next episode, things start rolling. There’s some “witnessing”. We meet most of the early players. The book is printed. The church is organized. The fun begins.
Until then, take care.
p.s. There are 14 varieties of “magic mushrooms” that grow in New York state.