Chapter Three

Beginnings

"I was given your book to read and it has really touched me. After much agonizing for several months, I have accepted the grace of Christ as totally sufficient for my relationship with my Heavenly Father….
"For a while I continued to be active in the LDS Ward and attended Protestant Bible classes. Now that I am saved I realize the hopeless irreconcilable differences between Christ’s grace and the total emphasis on self-perfection at the LDS Church. I value my new understanding so much I cannot jeopardize it by hearing the opposite anymore."—Delia

Mitch Belobaba leaned his chair against my file cabinets and sipped a glass of water. The small fan only stirred the July heat in my cramped office. He was wearing a khaki shirt and shorts. A floppy hat was folded and tucked into his belt.

Mitch, on furlough from his duties as an evangelical missionary to Africa, had just driven to our church from the family home in Vancouver, B.C. He was to speak to us that evening about the condition of missions in Africa and Europe. Mitch is intelligent, animated, and tireless. But this afternoon he looked fatigued and troubled.

"I’m perplexed, Jim, he said. "I need some info."

"Sure, Mitch, what is it?"

"Well, as you know, I’ve been on the road for the last three months, touring the United States."

"Yeah, it must get tiring…."

"It does, but that isn’t what’s bothering me. My problem began two weeks ago when I first came to this area. As you know, I drove from Omaha to a church in Pocatello, Idaho. Then I went home to Vancouver for ten days, and now I’m back, continuing my speaking schedule."

"You explained that in your letter."

"What I didn’t explain is what happened to me two weeks ago. It’s very strange… I need to talk to somebody about it."

I was flattered that he would think I could help him.

"I had been driving pretty hard for a couple of days when I arrived in Kemmerer, Wyoming," Mitch continued. "When I got to Kemmerer, I was suddenly overcome with the strangest feeling. It was eerie. I thought maybe God was trying to say something to me. The last time I experienced anything like it was when my daughter was seriously ill and I was away from home."

Mitch mopped the perspiration from his brow. "So I called home."

"And?"

"Nothing, everything was all right. So I wrote the feeling off as fatigue. But I was disturbed for two days. The feeling never left.

"When I finished my presentation in Pocatello, I drove home. The funny thing is that when I reached Twin Falls, just two hours west of Pocatello, the feeling lifted."

I felt the chill and the hair stood up on my arms. I knew what he was going to say next. I interrupted him. "Wait a minute, Mitch," I said slowly, "let me finish the story."

He stopped short and looked blankly at me.

"When you drove back here," I said evenly, "you felt it start again when you passed Twin Falls coming east."

Now it was Mitch’s turn to shudder. "That’s right! But, how did –"

"Lean forward, brother," I said. "I need to get into the file cabinet."

I placed a manila envelope on the desk in front of him. He looked at me for a few seconds, then opened it and inspected the acetate overhead projector sheet inside.

Mitch whistled softly. "Wow!"

What he saw on the overhead sheet was a map of the western United States. On the map I had delineated "Mormondom," the Latter-day Saint kingdom that spills over from Utah into Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and California. A marking pencil line passed through the town of Kemmerer, on the east, and just inside Twin Falls, on the west.

"Of course," Mitch said. "Mormonism! I should have known. I should have figured this out before. But I didn’t expect to see it here … in this country. This is the same oppressive spirit I encounter in Africa."

Mitch’s reaction was not new to me. Every evangelist seems to experience the same shock when first encountering Mormondom. One evangelist described landing at Idaho Falls airport as a "descent into darkness." Another, Lowell Lundstrom, who has traveled the western United States for 25 years, told me of his first trip to Mormondom. As his big Greyhound bus descended the Rockies from Montana into Eastern Idaho, he said, "We drove into some kind of dark spiritual soup."

What is the background of this strange religion?

 

Mormon Roots

Mormonism was born in western New York at the beginning of the nineteenth century – a time of excitement and vision following the Revolutionary War, when those of pioneer spirit drove the boundaries of the nation west. Pioneers and preachers, traders and opportunists, politicians, and dreamers rode riverboats and barges to points west along the Erie Canal, which flowed only a few hundred feet from young Joseph Smith’s hometown, Palmyra.

It was an era of adventure and experimentation – both political and religious. The frontier was referred to as "the psychic highway" and looked upon by orthodox churchmen as a hotbed of "ultraism" where settlers brought with them an experimental approach to religious and social ideas. The times produced, as well as Mormonism, such movements as Shakerism, spiritualism, and the sexual communism of the Oneida Community. Thomas Paine argued for skepticism and John Murray for Universal Salvation. It was an age of fervor and fanaticism. An age of religious innovators or "seekers," who in reaction to established religion drafted their faith from the pages of the Bible (and sometimes from other documents).

The hot pursuit of religious experience in brush arbors and revivals occurred with such frequency that the Presbyterian evangelist Charles Finney referred to the area as the "burnt-over district." It was a time when a charismatic preacher could gather followers to new and revolutionary ideas. On the frontier, a man’s education was not as important as his persuasiveness.

This then was the mood of the area where the Smith family settled. The surge of pioneer activity had carried the Smiths to western New York with the hope of acquiring farmland. The Smith family was a product of its environment. They moved to Palmyra, New York, in 1816 from Vermont, when Joseph was eleven years old. Joseph’s paternal grandfather was a Universalist and his Maternal grandfather "had no religion" until the age of seventy-five. Joseph’s mother and father had started married life with a "handsome" four-year-old farm and $1,000, but bad business decisions had reduced them to poverty by the time they reached Palmyra in 1816. They arrived in town with "a small wagon-load of possessions and 9 cents in cash." (1)

Joseph Smith was, without doubt, most influenced by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Lucy was a strong-willed woman born on the eighth of July 1775. In her biography of her son, published after his death, she said she mainly remembered "illness and death" in her own childhood. Lucy was opinionated, vindictive, and given to a morose spirit.

Lucy spent a lifetime seeking but never finding peace with God. Preacher after preacher explained the way of salvation, but she could not accept the explanations. She was openly critical of those men of God she encountered. One preacher she rejected because he "neither understood nor appreciated the subject upon which he spoke." Likewise, her husband, although often attracted to the evangelical message, concluded that religionists generally "knew nothing about the Kingdom of God." Lucy eventually decided "there was not, upon the face of the earth, the religion she sought."

Like his parents, young Joseph could not find peace with God. His mother wrote that he said he "wanted to get religion too, to feel and shout like the rest, but he could feel nothing."

Joseph was inquisitive, good-natured, and uneducated. Because of the extreme poverty of the Smith family, father and son together hired out to various farmers to mend fences, dig wells, and help cultivate their neighbor’s land.

The Smiths were gullible. Without inoculation against the superstitions of frontier life, it is not surprising that they began to dabble in the world of the occult. Water witching and treasure-seeking by way of mysterious "seer-stones" were practiced by uneducated residents of the frontier. Rumors circulated that pirates and "Spaniards" had hidden gold and silver in the hills around Palmyra. The whole Smith clan spent hours-seeking treasure to end their impoverishment.

It is historical fact that Joseph Smith hired out to dig for treasure. March 20, 1826, when Joseph was twenty years old, he was convicted for being a "disorderly person" and "an impostor," the charges stemming from his apparently illegal practice of divining with a "seer-stone." An original court document, found in 1971, states that Joseph was convicted of the still-illegal practice of witchcraft as a "glass-looker." Testimony in the trial relates that Joseph professed that by looking through a "peep-stone," he could divine the location of buried treasure, gold mines, and kettles of coined gold and silver.

It was in the context of treasure-seeking that Joseph Smith first began to speak of finding "gold plates." Shortly after he published the Book of Mormon in 1830, his hometown newspaper, The Palmyra Reflector, published this account:

It is well known that Jo Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until long after the PRETENDED finding of his book… and it is equally well known that a vagabond fortune-teller by the name of Walters… was the constant companion and bosom friend of these money digging impostors…. There remains little doubt … that Walters … suggested to Smith the idea of finding a book. Walters … had procured an old copy of Cicero’s Orations, in the Latin language, out of which he would read long and loud to his credulous hearers, uttering at the same time unintelligible jargon, which he would afterwards pretend to interpret and explain, as a record of the former inhabitants of America, and a particular account of the numerous situations where they deposited their treasures. (2)

Joseph Smith himself gained a reputation as a first-rate storyteller. His mother, in her biography of Joseph, told how he would entertain the family for hours, describing the lifestyle of the ancient Indian inhabitants of western New York: their government, wars, dress, all in painstaking detail. And this was long before he ever suggested getting such details from a visitation of angels.

As Joseph continued his practice of divination and storytelling, he befriended others equally anxious to find treasure. The family gave itself more and more to treasure-seeking to such an extent that Lucy defends the family’s preoccupation with magic. She wrote:

… Let not the reader suppose that … we stopt our labor and went about trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circle, or sooth saying, to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. (3)

However, as time went on, the Smith’s excursions into the occult became more eccentric. The classic work, Mormonism Unveiled, published in 1834, contains an affidavit by a Peter Ingersoll who related how Joseph Smith, Sr., told him he had divined chests of gold and silver with a seer-stone. On one occasion, Ingersoll said, the elder Smith

… Put the stone… into his hat, and stooping forward, he bowed and made sundry movements, quite similar to those of a stool pigeon. At length he took down his hat, and being very much exhausted, said, in a faint voice, "If you knew what I had seen, you would believe.’… His son Alvin (Joseph Smith, Jr.’s, oldest brother) then went through with the same performance, which was equally disgusting. (4)

Young Joseph soon became the center of spiritual power in the family. He was the "gifted one." More and more he became the "prophet." And his activities became darker in their nature. A man named Joseph Capron testified to the occult nature of the Smith’s activities. He said young Joseph used stakes to form a circle around treasure, which he divined, was buried on Capron’s property. Evil spirits, Joseph claimed, had taken possession of a chest of gold watches buried northwest of Capron’s house. Joseph ordered stakes to be driven in the ground around he spot where the treasure supposedly lay. He then sent a messenger to Palmyra to obtain a polished sword. While the treasure-seekers dug for the gold, another seer marched around the circle brandishing the sword. Alas, Capron reported, "in spite of their brave defense… the devil came off victorious, and carried away the watches." (5)

Under cover of darkness, swords and incantations and occult manipulation grew more radical and gruesome. William Stafford swore in an affidavit that Joseph used one of Stafford’s black sheep as a blood sacrifice. After cutting the throat of the sheep, "it [was] led around a circle while bleeding" to appease "the wrath of the evil spirit… [So that] treasures could then be obtained." Cynically, Stafford concluded that while they didn’t get the treasure, they probably ate the sheep. "This, I believe," he said "is the only time they ever made money-digging a profitable business." (6)

Others testified that Joseph sacrificed lambs, roosters, and even a pet dog in his efforts to obtain treasure. He even viewed the murder of one of their company as a "providential occurrence." (7)

Joseph’s necromancy mixed Bible reading and prophesy with occult manipulations. In fact, his Christian philosophy was being formulated at the same time his occult skills were being sharpened. He became convinced that mankind had missed its chance for salvation. That "there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament." (8)

His conversations with clergymen and others led him to the same dead end his mother faced. They had no answers for him. Neither would the Bible be sufficient to answer his questions. He said, in his own History of the Church, that there was no way of settling religious questions "by an appeal to the Bible." (9) If he were to learn anything about God, it would have to come from his own personal revelation. He wanted a manifestation that would lead him to ultimate truth. More and more he began to see his own spiritual gift as the only hope for finding that truth. Gradually, his family and a few others began to believe in him.

During this time Joseph received regular visitations from the spirit world. And though he would rewrite the official versions many times, eventually he would see his series of visions as the foundation for a new and radical religion. He would be the founder of the One True Church. All others were "wrong… all their creeds were an abomination in [God’s] sight… [And all the professors of those creeds] were corrupt…." (10) The Truth had been taken from the earth and it was up to Joseph to restore it.

The visitations of the being who has come to be called "the angel Moroni" occurred over three successive years, always on or about the autumnal equinox. This "angelic being" was going to show Joseph buried gold plates, which would be translated for the Book of Mormon.
Joseph’s visitations continued throughout his life and they form the basis of his claim to be "The Prophet." Ultimately Joseph would rewrite the Christian doctrine, including the Bible, calling his own "The Inspired Version." He would lead his people into polytheism and polygamy. He would establish a communal kingdom at war with its neighbors. He would become wealthy, found a bank (which failed), and become a mayor, a general, and, finally, a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Joseph met his death in an Illinois jail at the hands of an angry mob. As he died, he emptied a smuggled revolver into a crowd, killing two men. (11)

Of his own career, Joseph said, "No man ever did such a work as I." (12) Not Paul, John, Peter, or even Jesus!

"I combat the errors of ages," Joseph said. "I cut the Gordian knot of powers, and I solve the mathematical problems of universities, with truth – diamond truth; and God is my ‘right hand man.’" (13)

 

  1. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1984, p.42.
  2. Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 28, 1831, as cited in Jerald and Sandra Tanner, "Mormonism Magic and Masonry," Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, 1983, pp1-2.
  3. Joseph Smith’s Bainbrigde, New York, Court Trials, Wesley Walters, Part 2, pp. 126-127, as cited in Tanner, Mormonism, Magic and Masonry, p. 20.
  4. E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled, Painesvile, Ohio, 1834, pp. 232-233.
  5. Howe, pp. 259-260.
  6. Howe, pp. 237-239.
  7. Tanner, Mormonism, Magic and Masonry, pp. 32-35.
  8. Bushman, p. 55.
  9. History of the Church, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1978, Vol. 1, pp. 3-4.
  10. Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith 2:19.
  11. History of the Church, Vol. 7, pp. 101-103 and Vol. 6, p. XLI.
  12. History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 408-409.
  13. History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 78.