Next week marks the bicentennial anniversary of one of America’s
most influential religious leaders.
On Dec. 23, 1805, Joseph Smith Jr. was born in Sharon, Vt.,
the fifth of 11 children in his family.
Next week marks the bicentennial anniversary of one of America’s most influential religious leaders. On Dec. 23, 1805, Joseph Smith Jr. was born in Sharon, Vt., the fifth of 11 children in his family. From a modest beginning, he went on to found a church that is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the United States: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1820, as a teenager living in the farming community of Palmyra, N.Y., Smith went into a grove of trees near his family’s farm and prayed that God would guide him to decide which of the contending Christian churches of his day he should join.
He reported that his prayer was answered by a vision of both God and Jesus Christ appearing to him. He was told that he should join none of them. Instead, they would bring him instructions on how he should help restore the true Christian church.
Three years later, he was visited by an angel named Moroni who showed Smith some golden plates. He took the plates, translated them into English from their “Reformed Egyptian original language” and published “The Book of Mormon. (The book provided the nickname the church came to be referred to, “Mormons.”)
This book, available for free from any Latter-day Saint church or missionary, tells the story of a tribe of Jews who settled on the American continent in the seventh century B.C. This scripture also describes a visit to America by Jesus after his resurrection.
In 1830, Smith gathered a handful of followers and established the “restored church” he felt God had called him to build. Despite the freedom of religion the United States was founded to preserve, Smith immediately became subject to persecution.
The early story of the Mormons is one of frequent moves to escape hostility: from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. It was in Carthage, Ill., where Joseph and his brother Hyrum were jailed. On June 27, 1844, an angry mob stormed this jail and killed them both.
Although Smith died when he was 38, the church he founded survived. In 1846 Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith as president of the Church, led a party of Mormons over the Rocky Mountains to safety in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
In following years thousands of church members made the difficult journey, settling the inhospitable wilderness, building farms and towns, and leading it to statehood.
Today the church that Joseph Smith founded has become successful far beyond what most of his original followers could have imagined. Its vigorous missionary activity has spread the faith to 160 countries and territories, and worldwide membership is estimated at 12 million (with thriving congregations in Morgan Hill and Gilroy).
Its financial resources include factories, farms, radio and television stations, colleges, and other businesses in addition to the constantly expanding network of chapels and temples. The Church is widely respected for fostering strict morality and strong families.
Just as its founder was controversial in his day (called a “charlatan” by his critics), the Latter-day Saint Church today is often criticized by other Christian churches for some distinctive doctrines, such as “proxy baptisms” of ancestors.
But as current Church President Gordon Hinckley told news magazine Newsweek in a recent interview: “Of course we are Christians. He’s the whole cornerstone of our faith. His name is in the name of the church. And the Book of Mormon is another testament of him.”
For more information about this important figure in American history, go to www.josephsmith.net, an official Web site that provides stories, research articles, quotes and other historical information.