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What are Mormons? - History & Beliefs

Instructor: Jason McCollom
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, is the largest homegrown American religion. Learn about the history and beliefs of the Mormons, and check yourself with a quiz.

The Founder of Mormonism: Joseph Smith

Have you ever encountered someone who spoke with such conviction that you were drawn to them? Do you know someone who is charismatic, a natural leader, and a powerful believer in a higher being? Joseph Smith was this type of person, and after founding the Mormon Church he used his talents to attract many thousands of people to this new religion.

The son of a very religious farm family in western New York, in 1823 eighteen-year-old Joseph Smith claimed to be visited by the angel Moroni. The angel, Smith explained, led him to a hill on his father's farm. There, Smith was shown several gold tablets. After deciphering the information on the tablets, Smith eventually wrote The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi to explain what was revealed to him. The book discussed ancient revelations of God that showed the end of times, and made Mormons into saints who would help usher in the new millennium. For this reason, Mormons call themselves Latter-day Saints and their church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Joseph Smith receives the golden plates
joe smith

No one but Smith saw the gold tablets, because he returned them to Moroni. But the 500-page Book of Mormon (published in 1830) tells the remarkable story of an ancient Hebrew civilization in the Americas, over 2,000 years before the arrival of Columbus. The text predicts an American prophet who would lead to the reestablishment of Christ's kingdom. Smith said he was that prophet.

Throughout the 1830s Mormonism attracted farmers from across western New York. Smith preached a direct connection with God and universal salvation, while railing against other Christian denominations and the sins of materialism, drink, and tobacco. He promised that Christ's Second Coming was near. More and more people believed Smith's revelations, and they saw in Mormonism a solution to the problems of a rapidly growing America. 'The people fairly adored him,' said a Mormon woman.

The Mormons Flee Persecution

As a closeted and isolated group, many Christians viewed Mormons unfavorably. Mormons also practiced ways of life outside the mainstream, especially polygamy, which is the practice of taking more than one spouse. Smith himself was said to have had over thirty wives. Mormons' association with polygamy contributed significantly to the group's outsider status among many Americans.

Mormon ways led to conflict with surrounding communities. Smith led his followers from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and in 1838 to Illinois. They named their Illinois settlement Nauvoo, a rough translation of a Hebrew word meaning 'beautiful land.' The Mormons prospered in Nauvoo, until 1844 when the issue of polygamy ignited a firestorm of opposition. After a damning expose in a local newspaper, non-Mormon townspeople burned Mormon buildings and arrested and killed Joseph Smith. Though a New York newspaper said this would be the end of Mormonism--'They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins.'--a new leader emerged.

Brigham Young and the Trek to Utah

An early convert to Mormonism named Brigham Young took the helm of the Latter-day Saints and searched for a new home for his people. Young sought a region for settlement that would be far enough from other Americans so that the church could practice its religion without interference. In 1845 he sent Mormon scouts to the region of the Great Salt Lake, then part of Mexico. After visiting 'the paradise of the lizard, the cricket and the rattlesnake,' as he called the Great Salt Lake basin, Young announced he had found the Mormons' Promised Land.

Brigham Young
young

Thousands of Mormons headed west to Utah. They created a vibrant community around the Great Salt Lake and made the desert bloom with a creative irrigation system. In this remote region of Mexico, life seemed good.

Mountain range outside of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah
great salt lake

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