Mormonism: Joseph Smith Start of a New Cult

by Kelsey Arkills

In the nineteenth century, many new religions started to form after the Second Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney. These religions differed greatly from Christian religions so much so that they were defined as new religions. Many of these stemmed from the people from the “Burned Out District” in New York, where there were so many revivals that people were burnt out and worn down from the overflow of the new preaching. One of these religions was Mormonism, started by a young Joseph smith in the early 1800s. This group of people eventually came to be one of the most popular religions in today’s society, with “5.5 million American members in 2003, are the fifth largest church in the United States.”[1] Furthermore, “Mormonism is growing even more rapidly abroad…Mormon membership distribution by 2003 was remarkably international.”[2] Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, grew up in a Christian household and held Christian beliefs, had three visions that led him to believe in creating the religion of Mormonism, and saw an Angel Moroni who gave him gold plates to translate into what is known as today’s Book of Mormon.

To begin, Joseph Smith’s biography started in a Christian setting. Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. His mother and father had six sons and three daughters. Joseph grew up on a farm and performed the regular duties on the farm alongside his brothers. Throughout his life, Joseph moved many times with his family from farm to farm. On the other hand, his mother was Presbyterian, “Lucy Mack Smith found her solace in religion. She joined the local Presbyterian congregation and encouraged her family to seek comfort and guidance in faith”[3], resulting in Joseph Smith growing up in a traditional Presbyterian household. Joseph read his bible regularly and attended a Methodist church in New York. When they ended up in New York, this was during the time of the Social Gospel when evangelists were spreading the gospel rapidly around the city. In 1808 there was a Baptist revival, resulting in the conversion of almost one hundred people from the small town of Palmyra where the Smiths lived. In Joseph Smith’s life, “the young Joseph experienced his own highly personal encounter with God at the age of fourteen…Joseph had begun to read his Bible regularly at the age of twelve and even joined the probationary class at the local Methodist church, hoping for his own heartfelt experience of religion”[4], which would eventually contribute to his “first vision” and the rise of Mormonism. The rise of Mormonism in the 19th century was a contrast to the Christian Evangelical movement that was happening at the same time, invited many new followers, and has many differing beliefs from Christianity and Protestantism.

The spark of Mormonism was started when Joseph Smith started experiencing his first visions. The first vision happened when he was very young. He had read in the book of James that if he lacked wisdom, he should ask God. He journeyed to the woods and prayed, which is why prayer is so foundational for Mormons today[5]. He recalled that when he was alone, God the father and Jesus Christ came to him and told him not to join any new religious bodies in the region. New York was known for being a center of evangelism with religions spreading across the East and West. God told him to wait for an angel to visit him and to lead him to true faith[6]. Three years after this, Joseph Smith had his second vision. An angel named Moroni came to him in his room one night and told him about a book that was written on gold plates. This book supposedly talked about the gospel and how it was the true gospel in opposition to the bible. It told about the people who had inhabited America before those who lived there during Joseph Smith’s time, and taught the true Gospel as Jesus had taught it to his followers at the same time. Joseph could see these gold plates the day that Moroni came to him, but could not take them, because they were buried in “Cumorah” (a location named in the Book of Mormon), underground. 4 years later, Joseph was allowed to take the gold plates from Cumorah and read them on his own. These were only allowed to be dug up once the Lord found people who were prepared and seen as worthy.

In a later instance, the public was starting to find out about the gold plates and was interested in what they were mainly because of the conflict with Christian beliefs during that time. The gold plates were called the “Old Testament” as well as the “Gold Bible”, which invited treasure hunters to want it more. Joseph Smith told his friend Martin Harris about these gold plates that Moroni had hidden from the people in the ground, “Cumorah”, and was not able to see until he was worthy to translate them. Eventually, Joseph Smith moved to Harmony and translated the books, using a seer stone that he had found while digging in 1822. Because Harris was trusted, Joseph let him see the gold plates and told him not to show him to anyone besides his immediate family. However, Harris defied these instructions and revealed the plates to people that were not a part of his immediate family. The manuscript was lost, and Moroni came to Joseph and asked for the plates back, but he was not able to give them back because of Harris’s actions. The translation of the books was a long process for joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who he asked to help with the translation. Cowdery was a schoolteacher, religious enthusiast, and had heard about the plates and wanted to know more. Joseph Smith read him the translation and in 1829, Cowdery copied down almost 4,000 words a day. Many sources think this is questionable because of the amount of word in the Book of Mormon and lack of words in the gold plates, “even if critics do not believe in tales of angels and gold plates, they still have to reckon with the fact that Joseph Smith produced a rather unlikely 270,000-word book, especially given his limited education and minor social standing.”[7] Joseph jealously guarded the plates, for he was the only one who had seen them in person. The Book of Mormon was a complex book with many different books embedded in it. It included 15 different books, and in 1830, Joseph Smith organized the first church of the Latter Day Saints, the same year that the Book of Mormon was published. Smith was the first elder and president for fourteen years, and he ordained every male convert as a missionary.[8]

To conclude, many scholars and theologians question the reality of the Book of Mormon and the validity of it. The main fact that they point to is the one where they realize that there are more than 250,000 words in the book of Mormon but not even a comparable number on the golden plates that Joseph Smith was given in his vision. This is questionable to say the least, but many Mormons still believe the religion. The background of this religion is important to study in order to understand where even the most fundamental ideas and beliefs come from in the Mormon religion.



[1] Stark, Rodney, and Reid Larkin Neilson. 2005. The Rise of Mormonism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 17, 2018).
[2] Stark, Rodney, and Reid Larkin Neilson. 2005. The Rise of Mormonism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 17, 2018).
[3] Gutjahr, Paul C.. 2012. The Book of Mormon : A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Accessed April 17, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.
[4] Gutjahr, Paul C.. 2012. The Book of Mormon : A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Accessed April 17, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.
[5] Davies, Douglas James. 2003. An Introduction to Mormonism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2018).
[6] Smith, Joseph. Book of Mormon. 3 Nephi 11-27. 1981.
[7] Mason, Patrick Q. What Is Mormonism? : A Student’s Introduction. London: Routledge, 2017.
[8] Gutjahr, Paul C.. 2012. The Book of Mormon : A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Accessed April 17, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.