The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church, was founded in upstate New York in 1830 by local con man Joseph Smith, Jr.
Smith founded the church on popular Protestant thought of the time (this was the time of the Second Great Awakening in America, an age of extreme religious fervor), along with his own crazy ideas as encapsulated in his fake “ancient” scripture, the Book of Mormon, supposedly detailing the history of the Hebrew migrants to the Americas who were the ancestors of the Native Americans.
Many people flocked to the new church, with its charismatic leader and new teachings, but unsurprisingly it was rather unpopular with the society at large. The first decade of the church’s history found itself moving from place to place – Ohio, Missouri and later Illinois. In Illinois they developed the seemingly sensible idea that if they built their own town, there would be no locals to drive them out – unfortunately this did not work as planned.
The unpopularity of the early Mormons stemmed from a few things. First their somewhat strange beliefs, growing stranger all the time. Second their propensity for block voting, wherein they would attempt to take over a town’s politics by their sheer numbers. Locals did not enjoy these outsiders trying to take over their towns. Lastly, the rumors of polygamy in the group, primarily being practiced by the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, did not cause outsiders to look favorably upon the group.
Polygamy was a cause of controversy within the church itself. Originally the Book of Mormon called the practice an abomination, however these references were later edited out of the book by Smith. Smith never publicly admitted to practicing polygamy, although he did privately admit it to select followers he felt he could trust. Many of the early leaders of the church ended up leaving and starting their own splinter groups when they learned of Smith’s many wives.
It was the controversy over polygamy that would ultimately end up in Joseph Smith’s murder in an Illinois jail house by an unruly mob in 1844. The Nauvoo Expositor, local paper of the town that Joseph Smith founded in Illinois, began running stories regarding his multiple wives. Smith led a number of Mormons to the offices of the Expositor and destroyed the printing press in retribution. Smith was arrested for the violent action, put in jail and murdered by a mob of anti-Mormons.
Brigham Young, of BYU fame, took over the Church upon Smith’s death and led the Mormons to the largely unpopulated territory of Utah, where the vast majority of Mormons remain. Young set himself up as essentially the theocratic dictator of the territory, constantly fighting the federal government in Washington for control (going so far as to almost start a war with Washington under the presidency of James Buchanan).
Polygamy was officially abolished by the Church at the turn of the century, many years after Young’s death, as the Church was trying to become more accepted by the rest of the nation. Many faithful Mormons refused to accept this, however, and fled to Mexico to remain in their polygamous marriages.
Mormons often refer to themselves as “a peculiar people,” a people set apart from the rest of society due to their strong morals, sense of family values and of course unique theology and cosmology. The history of the Mormon church over the past century, however, has been one of slowly but surely trying to become less peculiar and more acceptable to popular taste.
Starting with the doctrine of polygamy, many Mormon doctrines have been shed by the Church or marginalized, at least when discussing the faith with outsiders. Brigham Young, for example, taught the Adam-God doctrine – the doctrine that the first man, Adam, as described in the Book of Genesis was actually God of this Earth, God the Father with Jesus as his Son. (Mormons believe in many Gods, who are in fact actually just exalted men who have proven themselves worthy of achieving deity and their own worlds to rule over.
We, the people of the world, are actually the spiritual children of these exalted men, given our own chance at life to become exalted ourselves and receive our own planet in return). This doctrine was quickly dropped after his death, however, and most Mormons today will deny that it was ever taught by the Church.
The Church has also attempted to downplay the racism rampant throughout their theology. Darkness of skin, according to the Book of Mormon, was a punishment by God for lack of belief in him, which is why the Native Americans have dark skin even though their Jewish ancestors, as everyone knows, were white-skinned.
Those with black skin, in fact, were considered to be so unworthy in the sight of God that, in the words of Brigham Young, the last white man would become saved before the first black man could enter the Kingdom. They were not damned, per se, they were just put in the back of the line of salvation. The priesthood, a rite all Mormon men are expected to go through, was denied to blacks for this very reason. That is, it was denied them until 1978 when it was revealed that blacks could in fact achieve the priesthood, and God had just been joking when he said they couldn’t for the previous 150 years.
That 1978 revelation regarding the priesthood is in fact the last time that the world has heard from God through his appointed spokesman, the Prophet of the LDS Church. (The current Prophet is Thomas S. Monson). While theoretically this post allows them to reveal new Revelation and Scripture, God has been very quiet over the last forty years.
Most of us know of the Mormons primarily through their missionaries – fresh-faced 19-year-old boys riding around on bicycles wearing black slacks, white button up shirts with black ties, asking you if you have read the Book of Mormon. This is the primary rite of passage for young Mormon men – those who do not go on a mission are looked down upon by the community, while those who undertake successful missions are considered heroes. (It is a common urban legend among Mormon youths that the attractiveness of one’s wife is directly proportional to the number of souls one saves on one’s mission).
Young females often also occasionally take up the mantle of mission, however this is much less common. The proper role for a young Mormon female is to find themselves a good return missionary to marry – only spinsters who find themselves in their early twenties still unmarried will go out on mission, hoping it will build up some spiritual capital to aid in finding themselves a man.
Most recently, the Church has found itself in the popular spotlight with the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, himself a lifelong Mormon. (In fact his ancestors were among those polygamists who fled to Mexico, although his own family returned to the States during the Mexican Revolution in the 1910’s). Like most Mormons, though, he spends most of his time not talking about his faith, as he knows it will only make himself look crazy if he does.
The modus operandi of the Mormon Church these days is to recruit new members by trying as hard as possible make themselves appear to not be Mormon. Unfortunately this tactic appears to be working, as currently the LDS are the fastest growing religious movement in America.