Mormonism, Origins of

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Although the Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was not founded until 6 April 1830, many of its formative events occurred in the 1820s, a decade that saw major social, economic, political, and religious changes in the new nation. Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the new religion, experienced many of these as an impressionable youth. Born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, young Joseph joined his family in their move to a farm near Palmyra, New York, in 1816 in search of economic opportunity. This region of western New York, soon to be traversed by the Erie Canal, came to be known as the "Burned-over District" because of its intense religious revivals. The Smith family experienced these enthusiasms, which touched the village of Palmyra in the early 1820s, with the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and the Society of Friends (Quakers) competing for the allegiance of the residents. Young Joseph, in his early teens, found the conflicting claims of the various denominations confusing. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, attended Presbyterian services, while his father, Joseph Sr., avoided all religious affiliation. Unable to make up his mind, the boy retreated to a grove on his father's farm, and in a simple prayer asked God for help. In his report to his parents of what transpired in the grove, he said that he was astonished by a pillar of light in which he beheld a divine personage, of whom he inquired what church he should join. Joseph Jr. received the answer that he should not affiliate with any, all of them having turned away from the gospel and having failed to keep the commandments of the Lord. Several years passed before young Smith had another revelation. In 1823, when he was seventeen, an "angel" who called himself Moroni told Joseph about a record on plates of gold containing the history of ancient inhabitants of North America. Although the plates, Joseph was told, were buried in a hill near his father's farm, it was not until four years later, on the night of 22 September 1827, that he was allowed to remove them along with instructions for their translation. With divine aid he dictated the translation, first some short passages to his wife, Emma, thereafter the major portion to a young schoolteacher, Oliver Cowdery. In March 1830 the Palmyra newspaper announced the publication of the Book of Mormon. The founding of the church followed shortly thereafter.


Virtually from the day of its publication, the authorship and sources of the Book of Mormon became issues of controversy. Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), a founder of the Disciples of Christ, charged that the book was a figment of Joseph Smith's imagination, comprising within a fanciful story a pastiche of many of the religious opinions of his time—an interpretation supported by prominent biographer Fawn M. Brodie in No Man Knows My History (1945). Others charged that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized—either from an unpublished work by Solomon Spaulding dealing with the Israelite origins of the American Indians or from a story by Ethan Smith, Views of the Hebrews; or, The Ten Tribes of Israel in America (1823). Modern scholars have rejected the charge of plagiarism, concluding that Smith was indeed the author of the Book of Mormon.

Those unable or unwilling to believe in its divine origins have advanced a number of theories regarding the sources Smith might have used to produce the book—virtually all of them conceding the author's fertile imagination. Brodie suggested that the work was a kind of veiled autobiography, an idea pursued by a number of scholars near the turn of the twenty-first century. In The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (1994), Joseph L. Brooke has documented occult and hermetic influences that can be traced to the New England ancestry of the Smith family, while Clyde R. Forsberg Jr.'s Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture (2004) has argued that the Book of Mormon can be read as a Masonic monitor of the Templar persuasion. An interpretation by a non-Mormon scholar that has been embraced by many Mormons is that of Jan Shipps in Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (1985). Shipps has shifted the focus from the "prophet or fraud" debate to the way the Book of Mormons is understood by believers, who see in it the replication of the biblical story, which was part of nineteenth-century American culture.

Klaus J. Hansen

The essential message of the Book of Mormon was that God had revealed himself to the inhabitants of the New World as well as those of the Old. Analogous to the Bible in style and message, the book appealed to a people familiar with a biblical culture, while bringing certainty to an age in which religious pluralism caused confusion and insecurity to many, such as the Smith family. According to the Book of Mormon, Christ appeared to the inhabitants of the American continent after his crucifixion, teaching the Gospel to the ancestors of the modern Indians. The German church historian Peter Meinhold has suggested that the Book of Mormon was the folk expression of an American historical consciousness. Historian Mario DePillis has argued that Mormonism represented a search for religious authority. In the opinion of some leading scholars, evangelical religion—by encouraging religious pluralism—was the logical expression of a democratic culture and compatible with an emerging "market revolution." However, many people found such changes disorienting and threatening. Some may have sought refuge in the certainties of Mormonism. These may have been among the reasons why Mormonism became the most successful new religion originating in early nineteenth-century America.

See alsoReligion: Overview .


Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1984.

Hansen, Klaus J. Mormonism and the American Experience. Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1981.

Shipps, Jan. Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1985.

Klaus J. Hansen

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Mormonism, Origins of

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