|Seer Stone Used by Joseph Smith|
Why that rather unusual location? Because that was the original Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were created. So really, you can forget about the Holy Land and Jerusalem over there in the Middle East, because actually the real Holy Land IS RIGHT HERE IN AMERICA. The New Jerusalem is going to be in Missouri. (And this is one item that could have political ramifications, when you think about it.)
I'm not making this up. This is what Joseph Smith, that creatively brilliant young fortune-hunter and occultist, put down in his personal translation of the golden plates that he allegedly found buried in a hillside outside of Palmyra, NY. Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni (whose golden statue adorns the top of all Mormon temples) directed him to the place. Of course, no one else ever saw the golden plates, but hey, c'mon on. If we can't trust Joseph Smith, who can we trust?
In my opinion, there's actually very little reason to believe Joseph Smith, when he's asking us to set aside 4,000 years of established Judea-Christian history, theology, and ethics and to believe instead this new, rather fantastical religious system that he single-handedly created 180 years ago in 1830 in upstate New York (about an hour from where my wife grew up, in fact).
If you ask Mormons, of course, they will tell you (because that's what they're taught from birth or, like Glenn Beck, have accepted through conversion to be the Truth) that Joseph Smith was indeed an inspired prophet who provided authoritative and reliable revelation from God (and not just once in The Book of Mormon, but in numerous revelations over the next 14 years, all of which are accepted as scripture as well).
But historians researching this have, on the other hand, found that, prior to 1830, Joseph Smith and his family were involved in folk magic and the occult, that Joseph Smith was involved in 'money-digging', which was a form of treasure hunting by digging in the ground for buried gold and silver. He claimed to have the power of seeing supernatural visions in what they called a 'seer stone' or 'peep stone' (what we would call a crystal ball), and so he hired himself out to direct the search for buried treasure in the tri-state area. (A rather nice living, if you can get some gullible fool to pay for it.)
Indeed, Joseph Smith said (as did other witnesses to this) that he 'translated' the golden tablets, originally written in what he called 'Reformed Egyptian', into King James English, using that very same 'seer stone'. He would put his magic stone in a tall hat, put his face down into the hat so that all light was blocked out, and then dictate what he was seeing. Or so he and others said.
It's no wonder that, as he gathered his original 'church' there in Palmyra, NY, he became increasingly controversial, to the point where he kept having to move to new places to practice this strange new religion. (Palmyra, NY--Kirtland, Ohio--Jackson County, Missouri--Clay County, Missouri--Nauvoo, Illinois, all in just over 14 years.) In each place, the new Mormon faith and practice upset the local population to the point where violence would begin to break out, and the Mormons had to move again.
Finally, in 1844, Joseph Smith himself was killed, after being arrested and held in prison, by an enraged mob in Illinois. At that point, the majority of the remaining Mormons chose Brigham Young as their new leader and eventually followed him to a refuge that was then in Mexico by the Great Salt Lake. But we know it now as the state of Utah, because Mexico gave it to the US shortly thereafter (perhaps they didn't want the Mormons either). But it became the place where they could live in peace, without anyone around to bother them.
I haven't mentioned that Mormons were known for their theocratic doctrines, where the church controlled the state. I haven't mentioned that Brigham Young and his associates ran for close to four decades in the Utah Territory what some consider to have been an oppressive and at times even brutal theocratic dictatorship, where to be a Mormon apostate could be lethal (a radically different meaning of 'blood atonement' than most Christians believe), and some say you were not free to leave, particularly if you were one of the 'plural wives'.
I haven't mentioned that their Mormon theology was from its inception clearly racist, in considering blacks to be an inferior people, and therefore ineligible for Mormon priesthood, until as late as 1978. (Of course, most 19th Americans were racist in a similar way.)
I have only scratched the surface of this new American religion called 'Latter Day Saints'. If you want to read more, there are plenty of books available. One of the more comprehensive sources is One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes. Or you can read the online resources at a website maintained by the great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young himself, Sandra Tanner, at http://www.utlm.org/, who left (or was excommunicated) the Mormon Church in 1960, and spent the rest of her life pointing out all the problems of what she left behind. And another interesting website by Mormons for Mormons is called MormonThink.
Now, having written all the above, it remains the fact that, for most of us, the Mormons we see around us are a respectable, even admirable, group of people. They are friendly, devout, generous, family-oriented, ethical, hard-working, and successful people. Compared to many other Americans these days, we want to like, and possibly even imitate, the Latter Day Saints. So it's quite a shock when we look into the background of the Mormon faith and glimpsed the reality of their history.
But then again, you can find good people in every religion, every race, every nation on earth.
So, are the Mormons, as Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress said recently, a 'cult'? That is clearly a loaded term for Christians, full of opprobium. I think it's probably the wrong word. I would rather say that the Mormon faith is a 'sui generis' religion, one completely unique and original. Sure, it has some roots in 19th century apocalyptic American Protestantism, but over the years it became something so different and unusual that it is not helpful to say that it is a 'Christian' religion. If you can be excommunicated for apostasy for not believing that Joseph Smith is a prophet or that The Book of Mormon is not Holy Scripture, then 'Christian' just doesn't seem the right descriptive word here.
Clearly, the Mormon faith needs to be judged on its own merits and not simply compared with Christianity. Most people will probably find it to be unacceptable, any more than they would consider becoming a Muslim or a Hindu. Some people will be so shocked by it that they will refuse to even consider voting for a Mormon Presidential candidate.
However, it should be noted in closing that over the last 20 to 30 years, Mormons have made a huge effort to try and enter the mainstream of Christianity, by deemphasizing (at least in public) all the things that have made them seem so different and focusing instead on those things they have in common with Christianity. Mitt Romney is a great example of that. It remains to be seen whether this change is real or just superficial.