As most everyone knows, America has always been a good place to come to if you want to practice your religious faith freely. Unlike most countries in Europe, where one religion or church has had legal recognition as the 'official' religious faith, America has had a 'free market' in religion for most of its history.
And once in a while, something brand new has come bubbling up out of this unusual American religious fermentation. And it's hard to think of a better example of this than Mormonism.
Mormonism (aka the Latter Day Saints) is a fairly new religious movement, compared to most. It was founded in 1830, in upstate New York (in Palmyra, near Rochester), by a young man (only 25 years old) by the name of Joseph Smith. And he did this by writing an original sacred text of scripture which he called The Book of Mormon (hence the religion's name).
Now most 'religions' in America were versions of Protestant Christianity, which from the beginning has had a somewhat disturbing tendency to splinter and subdivide. Methodism (my tradition) is a good example of that. Founded by Englishmen John Wesley, Methodism was simply an 'evangelical' or 'low-church' form of the Anglican Church. But for virtually all Protestant denominations, the Bible, with both the Old and New Testaments, was the scriptural anchor for belief and interpretation. Even Catholicism ultimately harked back to the traditional Christian Bible.
Not so Mormonism. The Book of Mormon was written solely by Joseph Smith and has always been believed by Mormons to be the very Word of God, more accurate and authoritative for purposes of theology and morals than the Bible itself. Latter Day Saints claim the 'King James Translation' of the Bible as scripture as well, but it seems quite clear that The Book of Mormon is the basic foundation of Mormonism, and it is a scripture that, to put it mildly, diverges widely (and wildly) from the traditional Bible of Christianity.
Of this divergence there can be no doubt, and it is the primary reason why I think it is incorrect, on a basic definitional level, to refer to Mormonism as a Christian religion. It is rather an interesting and provocative new American religion, that was almost miraculously successful in surviving its first few decades of life and is currently growing at a very fast pace around the world. Such growth can be seen by this quote from Wikipaedia: "The initial printing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 produced 5000 copies. The 50 millionth copy was printed in 1990, with the 100 millionth following in 2000 and reaching 150 million in 2011."
What does The Book of Mormon teach? Here's where it gets interesting (or weird, depending on your point of view). According to The Book of Mormon, ancient Jews living in the land of Canaan migrated from the Kingdom of Israel there on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, clear across the Atlantic Ocean to America. And they did this not once but several times from 2500 BC to around 600 BC, and in the process established a huge and thriving civilization in the New World. These ancient Jews were, according to Joseph Smith, the ancestors of the American Indians.
As the story goes, across the centuries these Jews/Indians lived and died, warred and peaced here in America, until finally Jesus himself came to pay them a visit sometime after his death, resurrection, and ascension in Judea, and shared his gospel with them. In the process, Jesus made it quite clear that America was to become the new center of his coming millenial Kingdom. In fact, that center would be in Jackson County, Missouri, of all places. That was where the Garden of Eden was, and that was where Jesus would land in his Second Coming.
Furthermore, an article in Wikipaedia says: "According to Smith's account, and also according to the book's narrative, The Book of Mormon was originally written in otherwise unknown characters referred to as 'reformed Egyptian' engraved on golden plates. Smith claimed that the last prophet to contribute to the book, a man named Moroni, buried it in a hill in present-day New York and then returned to earth in 1827 as an angel, revealing the location of the book to Smith and instructing him to translate and disseminate it as evidence of the restoration of Christ's true church in the latter days."
Well, that's quite a story, is it not! (And if you want the fuller story, go to the Wikipaedia article or any of the thousands of websites on Mormonism.) And so in 1830, with his new sacred book in hand, Joseph Smith gathered his new followers, those who believed in his story, and registered the new Mormon church as a new religious entity, with himself as the leader and prophet.
Now, my first thought is 'Why would anyone, Christian or non-Christian, believe that story?' And in my more charitable moments, I think to myself, 'Well, I suppose anything is possible, but what's the evidence for such a wild set of historical claims? And who is this Joseph Smith anyway, such that I should consider transforming my entire worldview and religious faith on the basis of what he alone wrote and said?'
Good questions, to be addressed soon.